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Howell v. Adler

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

March 21, 2017


         SECTION I



         Before the Court are two motions[1] to dismiss. After obtaining additional briefing from the parties to address an issue which was not raised in the original motions, the Court grants both motions and dismisses all claims.


         The background of this litigation is somewhat confusing. After reviewing the complaint, the briefs, and the records of prior court proceedings, however, the Court gleans the following facts. The plaintiff is John LaMartina Howell (“Howell”). The saga began when Howell's mother, Elise LaMartina, repeatedly failed to pay condominium assessments and homeowners' association dues for a condo unit she owns in Mandeville, Louisiana. As a result, one of the defendants, Lake Villas No. 2 Homeowners Association, Inc. (“Lake Villas”), obtained money judgments against Howell's mother in state court and then initiated proceedings to seize and sell the unit.

         During that state court action, it became clear that the judicial mortgage belonging to Lake Villas was not the only mortgage burdening the condo. In fact, Lake Villas learned that its judicial mortgage was likely outranked by a conventional mortgage on the property. It is the dispute over the ownership of that conventional mortgage which gives rise to the controversy before the Court.

         Without going into unnecessary detail, several conflicting narratives emerged during the state court litigation. At various times it appeared the mortgage belonged to Jane LaMartina-Howell's grandmother, to Donald Grodsky-a friend of Howell's family, to Timothy Howell-Howell's father, to Casa Pita, LLC-a limited liability company of which Grodsky was the only member, and to Howell himself. The state court ultimately decided that defendant Donald Grodsky was the owner of the conventional mortgage. Because Grodsky had declared bankruptcy prior to the initiation of the state court action, defendant David Adler, the bankruptcy trustee, intervened in the proceedings on behalf of the bankruptcy estate. Further, prior to the state court's decision regarding the ownership of the mortgage, Adler and Lake Villas reached an agreement whereby both would share in the proceeds of any judicial sale of the condo unit. The agreement was approved by the bankruptcy court and affirmed by this Court on appeal. See In re: Donald H. Grodsky, Civil Action No. 14-1341, at R. Doc. No. 19 (E.D. La. 2014) (Africk, J.).

         Howell appealed the state court decision regarding ownership of the mortgage. The Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal, and the Louisiana Supreme Court denied his application for writs. See Lake Villas No. II Homeowners' Ass'n, Inc. v. LaMartina, 2015-0244 (La.App. 1 Cir. 12/23/15), writ denied, 2016-0149 (La. 3/14/16), 189 So.3d 1070. Howell then filed this lawsuit against Grodsky, Lake Villas, Adler, and the attorneys and law firms which represented them in the state court and bankruptcy proceedings. Howell asserts a litany of state law claims such as civil conspiracy, abuse of process, defamation, and tortious interference with business relations. The complaint states that this Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331, but the only federal claim identified in the complaint is Howell's allegation that the defendants “violated the federal RICO statute.” See R. Doc. No. 1, at 16.


         A quick word on the applicability of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine is appropriate even though the parties do not raise it. “[T]he Rooker-Feldman doctrine holds that inferior federal courts do not have the power to modify or reverse state court judgments except when authorized by Congress.” Truong v. Bank of Am., N.A., 717 F.3d 377, 382 (5th Cir. 2013) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). However, “the doctrine is a narrow one and ‘is confined 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. (quoting Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Indus. Corp., 544 U.S. 280, 284 (2005)). Because the doctrine is jurisdictional, it must be addressed at the outset of the litigation. Id.

         Although the complaint is less than clear about the relief Howell is seeking, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine bars at least some of Howell's claims. The complaint alleges, among other things, that “[a]fter denying every motion, exception, and objection raised during the January 8, 2013 proceeding, the trial court proceeded to erroneously, and against all law and evidence, conclude Grodsky was the owner of your Plaintiff's note.” R. Doc. No. 1, at 12 ¶ 39 (emphasis in original). To the extent Howell asks this Court to overturn the state court judgment, Rooker-Feldman precludes the Court from doing so. See Truong, 717 F.3d at 382; Morris v. Am. Home Mortg. Servicing, Inc., 443 Fed. App'x. 22, 24 (5th Cir. 2011) (federal plaintiff's claim that a foreclosure judgment should be overturned as unlawful was barred “because he is complaining of injuries caused by the state court judgments”).

         However, the bulk of the complaint's allegations center not on the impropriety of the state court judgment itself, but rather on the alleged unlawful behavior of the parties and their attorneys in obtaining that judgment. See, e.g., R. Doc. No. 1, at 13 ¶ 43 (“When the opportunity presented itself, these Defendants entered into a scheme and engaged in a pattern of behavior and misconduct intended to defraud John and Jane of their property through threats, intimidation, bribery, and abuse of the legal system.”). Such claims do not fall within the scope of Rooker-Feldman. The doctrine does not apply to claims that the plaintiff was damaged by way of illegal acts or omissions made by adverse parties during the state court proceedings. See Truong, 717 F.3d at 382-84; Ill. Cent. R.R. Co. v. Guy, 682 F.3d 381, 391 (5th Cir. 2012) (Rooker-Feldman does not bar a claim that the state-court plaintiffs' lawyers obtained a settlement judgment through fraudulent misrepresentations); Drake v. St. Paul Travelers Ins. Co., 353 Fed. App'x. 901, 905 (5th Cir. 2009) (Rooker-Feldman does not bar state-court loser's claim for damages as to state-court winner's alleged fraudulent statements in state-court litigation).

         Because Howell advances such claims here, Rooker-Feldman does not bar this Court from considering them. But although Rooker-Feldman is not jurisdictionally fatal to all of the claims in the complaint, the Court ...

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