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Kung v. Brown

United States District Court, Ninth Circuit

May 3, 2013

KIN WAH KUNG, Plaintiff,
EDMUND G. BROWN, in his official capacity as Governor of the State of California, and TANI G. CANTIL-SAKAUYE, in her official capacity as Chief Justice of the State of California and Chair of Judicial Council of the State of California, Defendants.



Plaintiff Kin Wah Kung ("Kung" or "Plaintiff") brings this civil rights action against the Governor and Chief Justice of the State of California alleging that a traffic fine he received violates the excessive bail and fines clauses of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Plaintiff's First Amended Complaint ("FAC") alleges one claim for violation of the Eighth Amendment pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 seeking a declaration that California's Uniform Bail and Penalty Schedules for Vehicle Code violations is unconstitutional.

Defendants have filed a motion to dismiss on the sole basis that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine bars the district courts from exercising subject-matter jurisdiction to review final state court judgments. On this basis, Defendants argue that the Amended Complaint should be dismissed either for lack of jurisdiction or for failure to state a claim.

Having carefully considered the papers submitted and the Amended Complaint, for the reasons set forth below, the Court hereby DENIES the Motion to Dismiss.[1] Kung is challenging the constitutionality of California's Uniform Bail and Penalty Schedules and is not seeking appellate review of the state court judgment in which his conviction was reversed. Therefore, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine does not preclude this Court from exercising subject-matter jurisdiction over his Eighth Amendment claim.


In 2010, Plaintiff Kin Wah Kung was convicted of violating California Vehicle Code § 21453 by failing to stop at a red light. Kung entered a not guilty plea and posted bail in the amount of $446. (FAC § 10.) The $446 he posted as bail was applied to satisfy the fine imposed after his conviction. ( Id. § 11.) In addition, Kung was assessed a $54 fee to attend traffic violator school. ( Id. )

Kung successfully had his conviction reversed on appeal. On June 11, 2011, after having initially affirmed the Superior Court judgment, on rehearing the Appellate Division of the Superior Court reversed his conviction. ( Id. § 24.) On January 12, 2012, Kung was refunded the fine imposed for his conviction. ( Id. § 23.)

Although Kung prevailed in the state court action-his conviction was reversed-the state courts did not consider Kung's constitutional challenge to California's Uniform Bail and Penalty Schedules.[2] He brings this action to declare pertinent portions of California's Uniform Bail and Penalty Schedules unconstitutional. In response, Defendants submitted a four-page brief contending that this lawsuit presents an improper appeal of a state court judgment over which this Court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction.


Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, possessing the power to adjudicate only those cases that the Constitution or Congress authorize them to adjudicate. See Bender v. Williamsport Area Sch. Dist., 475 U.S. 534, 541 (1986). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331, Congress has vested federal district courts with the power to exercise original, not appellate, jurisdiction over civil actions arising under the Constitution. See Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Industries Corp., 544 U.S. 280, 284 (2005). Appellate jurisdiction over state court judgments is vested exclusively in the United States Supreme Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1257. Id. at 283.

The Rooker-Feldman doctrine "precludes a United States district court from exercising subject-matter jurisdiction in an action it would otherwise be empowered to adjudicate under a congressional grant of authority" if the lawsuit presents a de facto appeal of a state court judgment. Id. at 291. Determining whether the Rooker-Feldman doctrine applies requires a district court first determine "whether the action contains a forbidden de facto appeal of a state court decision." Bell v. City of Boise, 709 F.3d 890, 897 (9th Cir. 2013) (citing Noel v. Hall, 341 F.3d 1148, 1158 (9th Cir. 2003)). A de facto appeal exists where a plaintiff both asserts as his injury an allegedly erroneous decision by a state court, and seeks as his remedy relief from that decision. Noel, supra, 341 F.3d at 1164; Kougasian v. TMSL, Inc., 359 F.3d 1136, 1140 (9th Cir. 2004) (" Rooker-Feldman thus applies only when the federal plaintiff both asserts as her injury legal error or errors by the state court and seeks as her remedy relief from the state court judgment."). If the action presents a forbidden de facto appeal, then the plaintiff is prohibited in that action from litigating claims "inextricably intertwined" with the issues presented in the de facto appeal. Id. at 1142. Claims are "inextricably intertwined" with the state court's decision if "the relief requested in the federal action would effectively reverse the state court decision or void its ruling.'" Cooper v. Ramos, 704 F.3d 772, 779 (9th Cir. 2012) (quoting Fontana Empire Ctr., LLC v. City of Fontana, 307 F.3d 987, 992 (9th Cir. 2002)).

Application of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine is confined to those "cases brought by state-court losers... inviting district court review and rejection of [the state court's] judgments." Exxon, supra, 544 U.S. at 284.[3] If the case does not present a forbidden de facto appeal, then Rooker-Feldman does not preclude a plaintiff from bringing an "independent claim" that, though similar or even identical to issues raised in state court, was not the subject of a previous judgment by the state court. Cooper, supra, 704 F.3d at 778 (citing Skinner, supra, 131 S.Ct. at 1297); see Kougasian, supra, 359 F.3d at 1143 ("Because she is not bringing a forbidden de facto appeal, , there are no issues with which the issues in her federal claims are inextricably intertwined' within the meaning of Rooker-Feldman. "). Rooker-Feldman also does not prohibit a plaintiff from presenting a generally applicable legal challenge to a state statute in federal court, even if the statute has previously been applied against him in a state court litigation. Mothershed v. Justices, 410 F.3d 602, 606 (9th Cir. 2005); see Wolfe v. Strankman, 392 F.3d 358, 364 (9th Cir. 2004) (plaintiff's reference to prior judicial actions taken against him pursuant to the statute not de facto appeal, but rather attempt to demonstrate that plaintiff has standing to present constitutional challenge to the statute).


Defendants argue that Kung's entire amended complaint "rests upon, and is inextricably intertwined with, the State court proceedings." (Motion at 3.) According to Defendants, Plaintiff "lost his bid to have California courts declare California's Uniform Bail and Penalty Schedules unconstitutional." ( Id. at 4.) Defendants further argue that "Plaintiff affirmatively raised the constitutional issue below that he seeks to have this court ...

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