United States District Court, S.D. California
March 27, 2015
DIANNE BROWN, Plaintiff,
DEUTSCHE BANK NATIONAL TRUST COMPANY as Trustee for Morgan Stanley ABS Capital I Inc., Trust 2007-NC4, Defendant.
ORDER: GRANTING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR LEAVE TO PROCEED IN FORMA PAUPERIS SOLELY FOR PURPOSES OF SCREENING [Doc. No. 2] SUA SPONTE DISMISSING ACTION FOR LACK OF SUBJECT MATTER JURISDICTION [Doc. No. 1]
MICHAEL M. ANELLO, District Judge.
On March 3, 2015, Dianne Brown, proceeding pro se, filed a notice of removal from the State of California, Superior Court for the County of San Diego and concurrently filed a motion to proceed informa pauperis ("IFP"). See Civil Case No. 15cv474-MMA (BLM) Doc. Nos. 1, 2. In the state court complaint, Plaintiff Deutsche Bank National Trust Company, as Trustee for Morgan Stanley ABS Capital I Inc. ("Deutsche") alleges a single claim against Ms. Brown and Does 1 to 5 for unlawful detainer for possession under $10, 000. See Doc. No. 1. According to the state court complaint, Deutsche is the owner of the real property located at 1767 Fernwood Road, Chula Vista, California 91913 ("the subject property"), which it purchased at a trustee's sale on or about August 26, 2010. Deutsche further seeks immediate possession of the subject property, which Ms. Brown has purportedly occupied without Deutsche's consent, title to, and/or right to possess since the trustee's sale. In the documents accompanying Ms. Brown's notice of removal, Ms. Brown indicates that the state court entered default judgment against her on or about February 5 or 6, 2015, and Ms. Brown requests that this Court set aside what she claims is an "erroneous default judgment" because she did not receive proper service. See Deutsche Bank National Trust Co. v. Brown, Case No. 15cv474-MMA (BLM), Doc. No. 1-3 at 3-5, 9-10.
After carefully reviewing the notice of removal and the accompanying documents, the Court found that it did not have subject matter jurisdiction over the action. Specifically, the Court found that although Ms. Brown indicated on the civil cover sheet upon removal that jurisdiction was based on a federal question, the Court found that because the state court complaint presented no question "arising under" federal law, it did not have federal question jurisdiction. The state court complaint set forth a single cause of action for unlawful detainer-a claim that arises exclusively under state law. Further, although Ms. Brown asserted various constitutional claims and federal statutes, the Court noted that her anticipated defenses or counterclaims could not establish federal jurisdiction. See Takeda v. Nw. Nat'l Life Ins. Co., 765 F.2d 815, 822 (9th Cir. 1985) (holding a defendant's counterclaim presenting a federal question does not make a case removable). The Court also found that it did not have subject matter jurisdiction based on diversity jurisdiction. The Court reasoned that even if the parties are citizens of different states as Ms. Brown indicated on the civil cover sheet, the state court complaint states that the amount demanded is under $10, 000, which clearly does not exceed the $75, 000 amount in controversy requirement. Because the Court had neither federal question nor diversity jurisdiction, it concluded that it lacked federal subject matter jurisdiction over the complaint and remanded the action to state court.
On May 24, 2015, Ms. Brown initiated the instant action by filing a document entitled "Emergency Ex Parte Application for TRO, Order to Show Cause Why Preliminary Injunction Should Not Issue." See Doc. No. 1. Ms. Brown concurrently filed a motion to proceed IFP. See Doc. No. 2. Ms. Brown now seeks to enjoin Deutsche from all attempts to take possession of the subject property. Although it is not clear from the complaint and other filings,  Ms. Brown appears to allege that she has acquired title to the subject property through adverse possession. Ms. Brown also appears to allege that Deustche's attempts to take possession of the subject property violate the Federal Debt Collection Practices Act ("FDCPA") and California's Rosenthal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.
MOTION TO PROCEED IFP
All parties instituting any civil action, suit or proceeding in a district court of the United States, except an application for writ of habeas corpus, must pay a filing fee of $350. See 28 U.S.C. § 1914(a). An action may proceed despite a plaintiff's failure to prepay the entire fee only if he is granted leave to proceed IFP pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a). See Rodriguez v. Cook, 169 F.3d 1176, 1177 (9th Cir. 1999). "To proceed in forma pauperis is a privilege not a right." Smart v. Heinze, 347 F.2d 114, 116 (9th Cir. 1965).
A party need not be completely destitute to proceed in forma pauperis. Adkins v. E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co., 335 U.S. 331, 339-40 (1948). But "the same even-handed care must be employed to assure that federal funds are not squandered to underwrite, at public expense, either frivolous claims or the remonstrances of a suitor who is financially able, in whole or in material part, to pull his own oar." Temple v. Ellerthorpe, 586 F.Supp. 848, 850 (D.R.I. 1984).
Based on the information provided by Plaintiff in her IFP motion, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a), the Court GRANTS Plaintiff's IFP motion solely for the purpose of screening the pro se complaint and adjudicating the motions currently before the Court.
SCREENING PURSUANT TO 28 U.S.C. § 1915 (E)(2)(B)
When a plaintiff proceeds IFP, the complaint is subject to mandatory screening and the Court must order the sua sponte dismissal of any case it finds "frivolous, malicious, failing to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or seeking monetary relief from a defendant immune from such relief." 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B); Calhoun v. Stahl, 254 F.3d 845, 845 (9th Cir. 2001) ("[T]he provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B) are not limited to prisoners.").Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(h)(3) permits a district court to dismiss a complaint sua sponte for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(h)(3).
"[S]ubject-matter jurisdiction concerns the courts' statutory or constitutional power to adjudicate cases." Leeson v. Transamerica Disability Income Plan, 671 F.3d 969, 975 (9th Cir. 2012) (quoting Steel Co. v. Citizens for a Better Environment, 523 U.S. 83, 89 (1998) (internal quotations omitted)). Thus, without subject-matter jurisdiction, a federal court is without "power" to hear or adjudicate a claim. See Steel Co., 523 U.S. at 89; Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994). For this reason, "[w]hen a federal court concludes that it lacks subject-matter jurisdiction, the court must dismiss the complaint in its entirety." Arbaugh v. Y&H Corp., 546 U.S. 500, 514 (2006).
"Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction without general subject matter jurisdiction." Li v. Chertoff, 482 F.Supp.2d 1172, 1174-75 (S.D. Cal. 2007) (citing Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of America, 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994)). Thus, federal courts "possess only that power authorized by Constitution and statute." Kokkonen, 511 U.S. at 377. For example, federal courts have original subject-matter jurisdiction over cases that present a federal question pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331 or that involve citizens of different states and the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000 pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332. Because of the federal court's limited jurisdiction, a federal court is presumed to lack subject matter jurisdiction unless the contrary is affirmatively established. See Stock West, Inc. v. Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, 873 F.2d 1221, 1225 (9th Cir. 1989). The party asserting jurisdiction, here Ms. Brown, has the burden of establishing federal jurisdiction. See Kokkonen, 511 U.S. at 377 (internal citations omitted).
Ms. Brown indicates on the civil cover sheet that jurisdiction in this Court is based on diversity jurisdiction. See Doc. No. 1-1. However, Ms. Brown does not allege any amount in controversy, and therefore does not meet her burden of satisfying the amount-in-controversy requirement. Moreover, although she claims that the parties are citizens of different states, she simultaneously indicates that she is a resident of San Diego County, and Deutsche is a resident of Orange County, specifically of Irvine, California. See id. Thus, Ms. Brown's own allegations establish that both she and Deutsche are citizens of California, and therefore there is no diversity of citizenship. See Morris v. Princess Cruises, Inc., 236 F.3d 1061, 1067 (9th Cir. 2001) ("Section 1332 requires complete diversity of citizenship; each of the plaintiffs must be a citizen of a different state than each of the defendants."). Accordingly, the Court finds that it lacks subject matter jurisdiction based on diversity jurisdiction.
This leaves federal question as the only available basis of jurisdiction in this Court. Ms. Brown appears to bring a claim for violations of the FDCPA, which as a federal statute would ordinarily provide the basis for federal question jurisdiction. However, her FDCPA claim against Deutsche is not cognizable because Deutsche is not a debt collector within the meaning of the FDCPA. See, e.g., Hidalgo v. Aurora Loan Servs. LLC, No. 13-CV-1341-H JMA, 2013 WL 4647550, at *4 (S.D. Cal. Aug. 29, 2013) ("However, an unlawful detainer action regarding holdover occupants after foreclosure does not qualify as the collection of a debt within the meaning of the FDCPA."); Duenas v. Freitas, No. 13cv0836 SBA, 2013 WL 3298249, at *4 (N.D. Cal. June 28, 2013) ("Moreover, a FDCPA claim cannot be predicated on actions relating to the filing and prosecution of an unlawful detainer action."); Brambila v. Reo Bay Area, LP, No. 11cv03202 SI, 2011 WL 4031142, at *5 (N.D. Cal. Sept. 8, 2011) (holding the defendants did not fit the definition of "debt collector" under the FDCPA where "they simply commenced-and successfully litigated-an unlawful detainer action against plaintiffs with respect to possession of the premises"). All of Ms. Brown's remaining claims, including her purported right to possess the property based on adverse possession, arise exclusively under state law. Accordingly, the Court finds that it does not have subject matter jurisdiction on the basis of federal question.
Finally, even where federal courts otherwise have subject matter jurisdiction, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine prohibits federal courts "from exercising subject matter jurisdiction over a suit that is a de facto appeal from a state court judgment." Kougasian v. TMSL, Inc., 359 F.3d 1136, 1139 (9th Cir. 2004) (citing Bianchi v. Rylaarsdam, 334 F.3d 895, 898 (9th Cir. 2003)); see also Maldonado v. Harris, 370 F.3d 945, 949 (9th Cir. 2004). The rationale underlying this doctrine is that the United States Supreme Court is the only federal court with jurisdiction to hear an appeal from a state court judgment. See Kougasian, 359 F.3d at 1139; see also Maldonado, 370 F.3d at 949 ("Rooker-Feldman recognizes the implicit statutory structure established by Congress, which has determined that the United States Supreme Court is the only federal court with jurisdiction to hear appeals from state courts."). In applying this doctrine, the Ninth Circuit has noted that the "clearest case for dismissal based on the Rooker-Feldman doctrine occurs when a federal plaintiff asserts as a legal wrong an allegedly erroneous decision by a state court, and seeks relief from a state court judgment based on that decision." Reusser v. Wachovia Bank, 525 F.3d 855, 859 (9th Cir. 2008) (internal citation omitted). The doctrine also applies "where the parties do not directly contest the merits of a state court decision, " but the federal suit necessarily functions as a " de facto appeal from a state court judgment." Reusser, 525 F.3d at 859 (citing Kougasian, 359 F.3d at 1139).
Here, even if the Court otherwise had subject matter jurisdiction based on diversity or federal-question, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine bars this Court from exercising subject matter jurisdiction over this matter because it is a de facto appeal from the state court's default judgment entered against Ms. Brown. Ms. Brown removed the related case Deutsche Bank National Trust Co. v. Brown, Case No. 15cv474-MMA (BLM) shortly after the state court entered default judgment against her on or around February 5, 2015. Ms. Brown concurrently filed a document entitled "Notice Automatic Stay of Execution of Judgement" in which she requests that this Court set aside what she claims is an "an erroneous default judgment" entered against her based on alleged improper service. See Deutsche Bank National Trust Co. v. Brown, Case No. 15cv474-MMA (BLM), Doc. No. 1-3 at 2, 5. In the instant case, Ms. Brown similarly seeks to have this Court determine that is she entitled to possession of the subject property and to enjoin Deutsche from enforcing its right to possess the property, which would necessarily require this Court to reverse and/or vacate the state court's judgment. Accordingly, this action is a de facto appeal of a state court judgment, and the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over this matter.
For the reasons set forth above, the Court finds that it lacks subject matter jurisdiction over this action. Accordingly, the Court ORDERS as follows:
1. The Court GRANTS Plaintiff's Motion to Proceed IFP [Doc. No. 2]
2. The Court DISMISSES with prejudice this action sua sponte under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B) for lack of federal subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(h)(3).
3. In light of the Court's finding that it lacks subject matter jurisdiction, the Court DENIES AS MOOT Plaintiff's ex parte motion for a temporary restraining order [Doc. No. 1] and request for issuance of writ of execution [Doc. No. 5].
4. The Clerk of Court shall enter judgment accordingly and terminate this case.
IT IS SO ORDERED.