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Knowles v. Finley

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Columbia Division

November 15, 2019


          Honorable William L, Campbell, Jr., District Judge


          Barbara D. Holmes United States Magistrate Judge

         By Order entered August 26, 2019 (Docket Entry No. 12), the Court referred this pro se civil action to the Magistrate Judge for pretrial proceedings under 28 U.S.C. §§ 636(b)(1) and Rule 72 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

         Presently pending before the Court is a show cause order (Docket Entry No. 14), to which Plaintiff has not responded, and a motion to dismiss (Docket Entry No. 20), to which Plaintiff has also not responded. For the reasons set out below, the undersigned Magistrate Judge respectfully recommends that this action be dismissed.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Ronald Paul Knowles (“Plaintiff”) is a resident of Waynesboro, Tennessee. On August 23, 2019, he filed this pro se lawsuit. See Complaint (Docket Entry No. 1). Since sometime in 2018, Plaintiff has been involved in a divorce proceeding with Robyn Dell (Finley) Knowles (“Finley”) in the Chancery Court for Maury County, Tennessee (“Chancery Court”), and this lawsuit arises out of his displeasure with the outcome of the divorce proceeding. Plaintiff alleges that he was not married to Finley and that he testified as such in the Chancery Court but that Finley, in conjunction with her divorce attorney, Michael D. Cox (“Cox”), presented the state judge with a forged or fraudulent marriage certificate.[1] Plaintiff's theory of not being married to Finley was apparently rejected by the Chancery Court because a Final Decree of Divorce, which is not a part of the record, was entered at some point by Judge Stella L. Hargrove (“Judge Hargrove”), and on August 16, 2019, Judge Hargrove issued an order (“the August 16, 2019 Order”) that amended the divorce decree by: (1) finding that Plaintiff and Finley owned real property located at 665 Deer Ridge Road, Waynesboro, Tennessee (“the Property”); (2) appointing a special master to conduct a sale of the Property within thirty days of entry of the order; and, (3) directing that proceeds of the sale should be split equally between Plaintiff and Finley.[2]

         It is unclear from the record whether Plaintiff sought an appeal or other remedy in the state courts from either the final divorce decree or the August 16, 2019 Order. However, Plaintiff initiated the instant federal lawsuit in an effort to reverse the course of the divorce proceeding and the implementation of the August 16, 2019 Order. His original, handwritten complaint names Finley, Cox, and Judge Hargrove as defendants. See Complaint at 2-3. The entirety of the factual allegations set out in the original complaint is minimal and states:

I Ronald P Knowles made statement on August 16, 2019, on who owns real property at 665 Deer Ridge Road, Waynesboro, TN in Maury Co Court. Judge denied my case. House up for sale that day in Wayne Co. Clerk's Office. There not giving me 30 days the real property is to be sold Saturday 24 of Aug. 2019.

Id. at 4. Accompanying the original complaint was an emergency motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction, in which Plaintiff sought to enjoin Defendants from “engaging in, and or, perpetuating further ‘Corrupt Racketeering Activities.'” See Docket Entry No. 2 at 1.[3] The Court denied this motion, finding that “Plaintiff has not demonstrated a strong or substantial likelihood of success at this stage of the proceedings because the material facts relating to Plaintiff's claims have not been established.” See Order entered August 23, 2019 (Docket Entry No. 7) at 2.

         Plaintiff subsequently filed an Amended Verified Complaint, removing Judge Hargrove as a defendant but reiterating his allegations that (1) he was never married to Finley and that she and Cox falsified a marriage certificate and (2) he has been wrongfully deprived of his property by virtue of the August 16, 2019 Order. Plaintiff sets forth claims against Finley and Cox (referred to hereinafter as “Defendants”) under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985(3), alleging that “through fraud upon the court of falsified evidence, [Defendants] have deprived Plaintiff of his right to due process and equal protection of the laws. Through fraud upon the court, [ Defendants] are in de facto conspiracy with the court and are acting as “state actors.” See Amended Verified Complaint at 5.[4]He seeks unspecific equitable relief, as well as “his costs of relocating and or replacing his property.” Id. at 5-6. In conjunction with his amended complaint, Plaintiff filed a second motion for a temporary restraining order, seeking to prohibit Finley, Cox, and the appointed special master from “the continued auction and sale of his home and property.” By Order entered September 17, 2019 (Docket Entry No. 17), the Court denied this motion.


         Because the Court's initial review of Plaintiff's filings revealed substantial questions about whether subject matter jurisdiction over the lawsuit exists, the Court issued an order on August 29, 2019 (Docket Entry No. 14) (“Show Cause Order”), directing Plaintiff to show cause why his lawsuit should not be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Plaintiff was specifically alerted in the Show Cause Order that: (1) the Rooker/Feldman abstention doctrine set out in District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 (1983) and Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413 (1923), appears to apply to this case and would preclude the Court from hearing Plaintiff's claims; (2) the “domestic relations exception” appears to preclude this Court from becoming involved in what is essentially a state law divorce matter; and, (3) this Court appears to have no subject matter jurisdiction to hear what is essentially a challenge that seeks to reverse the Chancery Court decisions. Although Plaintiff was given a deadline of September 13, 2019, to respond to the Show Cause Order, he has not responded in any manner.

         Defendants then filed the pending motion to dismiss (Docket Entry No. 20) in lieu of an answer. Defendants argue that both the Rooker/Feldman abstention doctrine and the domestic relations exception apply and preclude the Court from adjudicating the case. They further argue that they are not state actors for the purposes of Plaintiff's 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim and that Plaintiff is not a member of a discrete and insular minority for the purposes of his 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3) claim, two shortcomings which they assert require dismissal of the claims. Although Plaintiff was notified of the motion and given a deadline of October 9, 2019, to file a response, see Order entered September 24, 2019 (Docket Entry No. 22), he has not responded in any manner to the motion.

         Although Defendants do not bring their motion under Rule 12(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, they seek dismissal, in part, for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction based on the allegations set out in Plaintiff's pleadings. Such a facial attack “questions merely the sufficiency of the pleadings.” Gentek Bldg. Prods., Inc. v. Sherwin-Williams Co., 491 F.3d 320, 330 (6th Cir. 2007). In reviewing such a challenge, the Court will accept the factual allegations in the complaint as true. Id. With respect to Defendants' request for dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court likewise accepts as true all of the well-pleaded allegations in the complaint, resolves all doubts in Plaintiff's favor, and construes the complaint liberally in favor of the pro se Plaintiff. See Kottmyer v. Maas, 436 F.3d 684 (6th Cir. 2006); Boswell v. Mayer, 169 F.3d 384, 387 (6th Cir. 1999); Morgan v. Church's Fried Chicken, 829 F.2d 10, 11-12 (6th Cir. 1987). ...

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