Maureen Van Hoven, for herself and class members, Plaintiff-Appellee,
Buckles & Buckles, P.L.C.; Geraldine C. Buckles; Michael H.R. Buckles, Defendants-Appellants.
Argued: October 23, 2019
from the United States District Court for the Western
District of Michigan at Grand Rapids. No.
1:14-cv-00060-Robert J. Jonker, District Judge.
L. Premo, Farmington Hills, Michigan, for Appellants.
Michael O. Nelson, Grand Rapids, Michigan, for Appellee.
L. Premo, Farmington Hills, Michigan, for Appellants.
Michael O. Nelson, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Kevin J. Rogers,
Phillip C. Rogers, Grand Rapids, Michigan, for Appellee.
Jeffrey A. Topor, SIMMONDS & NARITA LLP, San Francisco,
California, for Amicus Curiae in 18-2399.
Before: SUTTON, KETHLEDGE, and STRANCH, Circuit Judges.
SUTTON, CIRCUIT JUDGE.
lawyer sued two lawyers, and each side hired more lawyers.
Five years later, after "Stalingrad litigation"
tactics, discovery sanctions, and dueling allegations of
professional misconduct, we are left with $3, 662 in damages
and roughly $180, 000 in attorney's fees. We vacate and
Van Hoven, a Michigan attorney, defaulted on a credit card
debt with Discover several years ago. Discover hired Buckles
& Buckles, a law firm, to collect the debt. The law firm
filed a debt collection lawsuit in state court and won. Van
Hoven didn't pay.
with a recalcitrant debtor, a creditor may use garnishment to
intercept the debtor's income at its source (say from the
debtor's employer) rather than trying to collect from the
debtor herself. Post-judgment garnishment usually comes
easily because the debtor already had her day in court and
lost. That's true in Michigan, where the Michigan Court
Rules offer a simplified post-judgment garnishment procedure.
To collect, the creditor gives the court clerk a verified
statement that describes the debt and the parties. MCR
3.101(D). If everything "appears to be correct,"
the clerk issues a writ of garnishment and the creditor
serves it on the third party, the garnishee. MCR
3.101(D)-(E). Unless the garnishee or debtor objects,
that's usually it: The garnishee gives the money to the
creditor rather than the debtor. MCR 3.101(J)(1).
& Buckles invoked the procedure to collect this debt,
filing four requests for a writ of garnishment over the
course of a year. Van Hoven says those requests violated the
Michigan Court Rules in two ways. In each request, Buckles
tacked on the costs of the request (a $15 filing fee) to the
amount due. And in later garnishment requests, Buckles added
the costs of prior failed garnishments, those that didn't
result in any money changing hands.
Hoven didn't object to the law firm's garnishment
requests in Michigan state court, as the Rules permit. MCR
3.101(K). She instead filed a class action lawsuit in federal
court under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which
prohibits debt collectors from making false statements in
their dunning demands. 15 U.S.C. § 1692e.
twists and turns later, Van Hoven won her class action. The
court found that Buckles & Buckles owed 168 class members
$3, 662 in damages-$22 per person on average. Her attorneys
sought $186, 680 in attorney's fees, and the court
granted their request in full.
& Buckles appealed the merits ruling and the
attorney's fee award.
& Buckles challenges the district court's
jurisdiction to hear the case under the
Rooker-Feldman doctrine. Rooker v. Fid. Tr.
Co., 263 U.S. 413 (1923); D.C. Court of Appeals v.
Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 (1983). Section 1257 of Title 28
gives the United States Supreme Court exclusive jurisdiction
to review appeals from state court decisions. By implication,
§ 1257 prohibits lower federal courts from hearing
appeals from state court judgments. Exxon Mobil Corp. v.
Saudi Basic Indus., 544 U.S. 280, 291-92 (2005). The
Rooker-Feldman doctrine, one might say, thus bars
federal lawsuits that amount to covert appeals of state court
limitation, says the Court, applies to "cases brought by
state-court losers complaining of injuries caused by
state-court judgments rendered before the district court
proceedings commenced and inviting district court review and
rejection of those judgments." Id. at 284. That
is a "narrow" situation, id., so narrow
the Supreme Court has applied the doctrine just twice in
nearly a century, making it applicable so far just to people
named Rooker or Feldman. See Skinner v. Switzer, 562
U.S. 521, 531 (2011). The Court repeatedly has chastised
lower federal courts for extending the doctrine "far
beyond" its proper scope. Id. at 532 (quotation
re Smith illustrates the point. 349 Fed.Appx. 12 (6th
Cir. 2009). A state inmate filed a petition in state court
against state officials, seeking DNA testing of the evidence
underlying his conviction. Id. at 13. After the
state court denied his petition, he filed a federal lawsuit
alleging that he had a federal constitutional right to
exonerating evidence and that the state officials had
deprived him of that right. Id. at 15-16.
Rooker-Feldman does not apply in those
circumstances, we held, because the plaintiff's injury
was caused by state officials, not the state court judgment
denying his petition. See Skinner, 562 U.S. at 529,
532 (citing Smith, 349 Fed.Appx. at 18 (Sutton, J.,
concurring in part and dissenting in part)). The state court
merely "ratified, acquiesced in, or left
unpunished" the actions of those state officials.
Smith, 349 Fed.Appx. at 18 (quotation omitted).
Those actions, not the state court judgment, caused the
case is not the rare one that threads the
Rooker-Feldman needle. That's true, first of
all, because the rule applies only when a state court renders
a judgment-when the court "investigate[s],
declare[s], and enforce[s] liabilities" based on
application of law to fact. Feldman, 460 U.S. at 479
(quotation omitted). A writ of garnishment does not fit that
description. A creditor may obtain one simply by filing a
form with the court clerk, who then issues the writ as long
as the request "appears to be correct." MCR
3.101(D). The writ that comes out of this ministerial process
is not a state court judgment any more than a summons or
complaint is a state court judgment. Cf. MCR
3.101(M)(2). Rooker-Feldman does not apply to
"ministerial" actions by court clerks.
Feldman, 460 U.S. at 479-80; see, e.g.,
Snyder v. Nolen, 380 F.3d 279, 289 n.10 (7th Cir.
Hoven's injuries also did not arise from the writs of
garnishment by themselves. They arose from costs included in
them, which (she says) violated the Fair Debt Collection
Practices Act. Her lawsuit targets Buckles & Buckles'
actions in tallying the amount of relief requested, not the
writs of garnishment themselves. See Alexander v.
Rosen, 804 F.3d 1203, 1206-07 (6th Cir. 2015). Once
before, we declined to apply Rooker-Feldman in
similar circumstances: a lawsuit under the Act alleging that
a creditor made a false statement to obtain a garnishment
order in state court. Todd v. Weltman, Weinberg &
Reis Co., LPA, 434 F.3d 432, 435-37 (6th Cir. 2006). In
rejecting the Rooker-Feldman defense, we explained
that the plaintiff's injuries were caused by the
defendant, not the state court judgment. Id. at 437.
The plaintiff had "filed an independent federal claim
that [he] was injured by [the defendant] when [the defendant]
filed a false affidavit." Id. The same is true
& Buckles pushes back, invoking Harold v. Steel,
773 F.3d 884, 885-86 (7th Cir. 2014). But the case
distinguishes itself. A claimant alleged that a debt
collector had made a false statement in litigation to obtain
a default judgment against him. Id. at 885. The
plaintiff's injury was caused by the state court
judgment, not the defendant's actions. That's because
the plaintiff had already raised the same objections in state
court and lost. Id. The resulting state court
judgment prompted the plaintiff's wages to be garnished.
That made the plaintiff a "state-court loser"
complaining of an injury "caused by [a] state-court
judgment" against him, seeking "review and
rejection" of a factual determination the ...