United States District Court, E.D. California
GEORGE M. WILLIAMS, Plaintiff,
KATHRYN A. WILLIAMS, ESTATE OF ERIC WILLIAMS, STOMA VENTURES, LLC, Defendants.
ORDER AND FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
F. BRENNAN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
seeks leave to proceed in forma pauperis pursuant to
28 U.S.C. 1915. His declaration makes the showing required
by 28 U.S.C. §1915(a)(1) and (2). See ECF No.
2. Accordingly, the request to proceed in forma
pauperis is granted. 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a).
that plaintiff may proceed in forma pauperis does
not complete the required inquiry. Pursuant to §
1915(e)(2), the court must dismiss the case at any time if it
determines the allegation of poverty is untrue, or if the
action is frivolous or malicious, fails to state a claim on
which relief may be granted, or seeks monetary relief against
an immune defendant. As discussed below, plaintiff's
complaint must be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.
pro se pleadings are liberally construed, see Haines v.
Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520-21 (1972), a complaint, or
portion thereof, should be dismissed for failure to state a
claim if it fails to set forth “enough facts to state a
claim to relief that is plausible on its face.”
Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 554,
562-563 (2007) (citing Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41
(1957)); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6).
“[A] plaintiff's obligation to provide the
‘grounds' of his ‘entitlement to relief'
requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic
recitation of a cause of action's elements will not do.
Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief
above the speculative level on the assumption that all of the
complaint's allegations are true.” Id.
(citations omitted). Dismissal is appropriate based either on
the lack of cognizable legal theories or the lack of pleading
sufficient facts to support cognizable legal theories.
Balistreri v. Pacifica Police Dep't, 901 F.2d
696, 699 (9th Cir. 1990).
reviewing a complaint under this standard, the court must
accept as true the allegations of the complaint in question,
Hospital Bldg. Co. v. Rex Hosp. Trustees, 425 U.S.
738, 740 (1976), construe the pleading in the light most
favorable to the plaintiff, and resolve all doubts in the
plaintiff's favor, Jenkins v. McKeithen, 395
U.S. 411, 421 (1969). A pro se plaintiff must satisfy the
pleading requirements of Rule 8(a) of the Federal Rules of
Civil Procedure. Rule 8(a)(2) requires a complaint to include
“a short and plain statement of the claim showing that
the pleader is entitled to relief, in order to give the
defendant fair notice of what the claim is and the grounds
upon which it rests.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555
(citing Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41 (1957)).
a federal court is a court of limited jurisdiction, and may
adjudicate only those cases authorized by the Constitution
and by Congress. Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co.,
511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994). The basic federal jurisdiction
statutes, 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 & 1332, confer
“federal question” and “diversity”
jurisdiction, respectively. Federal question jurisdiction
requires that the complaint (1) arise under a federal law or
the U.S. Constitution, (2) allege a “case or
controversy” within the meaning of Article III, §
2 of the U.S. Constitution, or (3) be authorized by a federal
statute that both regulates a specific subject matter and
confers federal jurisdiction. Baker v. Carr, 369
U.S. 186, 198 (1962). To invoke the court's diversity
jurisdiction, a plaintiff must specifically allege the
diverse citizenship of all parties, and that the matter in
controversy exceeds $75, 000. 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a);
Bautista v. Pan American World Airlines, Inc., 828
F.2d 546, 552 (9th Cir. 1987). A case presumably lies outside
the jurisdiction of the federal courts unless demonstrated
otherwise. Kokkonen, 511 U.S. at 376-78. Lack of
subject matter jurisdiction may be raised at any time by
either party or by the court. Attorneys Trust v.
Videotape Computer Products, Inc., 93 F.3d 593, 594-95
(9th Cir. 1996).
complaint alleges that in early 2013, plaintiff's brother
Eric Williams (the decedent) invented a revolutionary dental
device. ECF No. 1 at 8. Prior to the creation of the dental
device, the decedent “entered into oral and written
agreements with his five brothers (including plaintiff) and
adult niece promising to compensate them in exchange for
investing in his dental invention by providing the start-up
capital for” Stoma Ventures, LLC (“Stoma”),
the company under which the decedent created the dental
device. Id. at 15.
2014, the decedent died intestate. Id. at 9. At the
time of the decedent's death, his assets included a
purchase order (presumably of dental devices) from the United
States Veterans Administration totaling $4.2 million.
Id. Two months after the decedent's death,
defendant Kathryn Williams, the decedent's wife, filed a
Spousal Property Petition in the San Joaquin County Superior
Court, requesting a transmutation of incorporated business
assets to community property. The petition was granted and
all of the defendant's property, as well as the money
plaintiff invested in Stoma, were transferred to Kathryn
alleges that he “unsuccessfully appealed the San
Joaquin Superior court's granting of the spousal property
order on the grounds that defendant Kathryn Williams sought
to evade formal probate proceedings by fraudulently
representing to the court that the estate of the decedent did
not exceed $150, 000 in clear violation of Probate Code
Section 13100.” Id. at 10. Plaintiff contends
that the petition should not have been granted, as the
estate's interest in Stoma exceeded a million dollars.
Id. Plaintiff made several attempts to inform the
probate court that its “order had the unintended
consequence of inadvertently depriving [him and the rest of
the decedent's family] of substantial investment profits,
” but he was unsuccessful. Id. at 11-12.
now alleges two breach of contract claims against defendants
Kathryn Williams, Robert Vanderselt, a managing partner for
Stoma, and the estate of Eric Williams, claiming that these
defendants deprived him of the profits he would have received
for the sale of the dental device. Id. at 16-17.
complaint fail to establish subject matter jurisdiction.
Plaintiff alleges only state law claims for breach of
contract and, contrary to plaintiff's contention, there
is no diversity of the parties. Rather, the complaint alleges
that plaintiff is a citizen of California, id. at 1,
and as discussed below, the estate is also a citizen of
California. Although plaintiff claims that the estate of Eric
Williams is a citizen of Virginia because Kathryn Williams,
the representative of the estate, resides in that state, for
purposes of diversity jurisdiction “the legal
representative of the estate of a decedent shall be deemed to
be a citizen only of the same State as the decedent . . .
.” 28 U.S.C. § 1332(c)(2). Documents attached to
the complaint, including a declaration plaintiff submitted to
the probate court, show that the decedent was a resident of
California at the time of his death. Thus, both plaintiff and
the estate of Eric Williams are citizens of California, and
therefore diversity jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §
1332 is defeated.
significantly, the complaint indicates that plaintiff's
claims are barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.
The Rooker-Feldman doctrine bars jurisdiction in
federal district court if the exact claims raised in a state
court case are raised in the subsequent federal case, or if
the constitutional claims presented to the district court are
“inextricably intertwined” with the state
court's denial of relief. Bianchi v. Rylaarsdam,
334 F.3d 895, 898-99 (9th Cir. 2003) (quoting
Feldman, 460 U.S. at 483 n. 16).
Rooker-Feldman thus bars federal adjudication of any
suit where a plaintiff alleges an injury based on a state
court judgment or directly appeals a state court's
decision. Id. at 900 n. 4.
district court lacks subject matter jurisdiction either to
conduct a direct review of a state court judgment or to
scrutinize the state court's application of various rules
and procedures pertaining to the state case. Samuel v.
Michaud, 980 F.Supp. 1381, 1411-12 (D. Idaho 1996),
aff'd, 129 F.3d 127 (9th Cir. 1997); see
also Branson v. Nott, 62 F.3d 287, 291-92 (9th Cir.
1995) (finding no subject matter jurisdiction over section
1983 claim seeking, inter alia, implicit reversal of state
trial court action). “That the federal district court
action alleges the state court's action was
unconstitutional does not change the rule.”
Feldman, 460 U.S. at 486. In sum, “a state
court's application of its rules and procedures is
unreviewable by a federal district court. The federal
district court only has jurisdiction to hear general
challenges to state rules or claims that are based on the
investigation of a new case arising upon new facts.”
Samuel, 980 F.Supp. at 1412-13.
crux of plaintiff's complaint is that the state probate
court wrongfully awarded his interest in Stoma to defendant
Kathryn Williams based on her misrepresentation of the value
of the estate. Under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine,
plaintiff is precluded from challenging the probate