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Sowell v. Southbury-Middlebury Youth and Family Services, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

August 5, 2019

JULIE SOWELL, et al., Plaintiff,



         For many years now, the Supreme Court has made clear by means of a rule known as the Rooker-Feldman doctrine that the federal district courts do not have a general or roving authority to sit in appellate review of state court judgments. Still, federal district courts are regularly asked to do just that-almost always at the behest of pro se litigants who do not know better.

         This case is different. A trained lawyer has chosen to file a lawsuit that over and over again explicitly asks me to review and reverse settled judgments issued by the Connecticut Appellate Court and the Connecticut Supreme Court. Indeed, he has sued many of the judges and opposing lawyers who were involved with the prior state court judgments, apparently thinking that I can force the judges to “undo” their prior rulings and that I can force the lawyers to fork over money damages for the “wrongs” they did by making winning arguments in the Connecticut state courts. But of course I cannot do that consistent with the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.

         Plaintiffs Julie Sowell and George Mendillo have filed this federal lawsuit seeking to challenge prior Connecticut state court judgments and to challenge the constitutional validity of certain state court rules that were involved or implicated in the prior state court litigation. I conclude that their claims are mostly barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine and that, to the extent that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine does not apply, plaintiffs lack standing to pursue their challenges to the state court rules. Accordingly, I will dismiss their complaint.


          This case involves years of state court litigation before its arrival here in federal court. Unless otherwise noted, the background facts recited below are drawn from the facts as stated in the opinions of the Connecticut Appellate Court in Sowell v. DiCara, 161 Conn.App. 102, cert. denied, 320 Conn. 909 (2015), and the Connecticut Supreme Court in Mendillo v. Tinley, Renehan & Dost LLP, 329 Conn. 515 (2018).

         The initial state court action

         The litigation began in 2012 when Sowell filed an employment-related lawsuit in the Connecticut Superior Court against her former employer, Southbury-Middlebury Youth and Family Services, Inc. (“YFS”). Sowell was represented in that lawsuit by Mendillo, who is an attorney and also her brother. YFS was represented by counsel from the law firm of Tinley, Renehan & Dost LLP, including attorneys Jeffrey Tinley and John Majewski.

         After YFS filed a counterclaim against Sowell, Mendillo responded by sending an unsolicited letter to individual members of the YFS board. The letter contended in relevant part that YFS's counterclaim was “false and libelous and made with malice, ” that it “must be withdrawn immediately, ” and that the board members could face personal liability. Sowell, 161 Conn.App. at 108 n.5.

         The Tinley firm objected that the letter was a violation of Rule 4.2 of the Connecticut Rules of Professional Conduct. This rule provides in relevant part that “in representing a client, a lawyer shall not communicate about the subject of the representation with a party the lawyer knows to be represented by another lawyer in the matter, unless the lawyer has the consent of the other lawyer or is authorized by law to do so.” Conn. R. Prof. Cond. 4.2. The commentary to the rule states that “[i]n the case of an organization, this Rule prohibits communications by a lawyer for one party concerning the matter in representation with persons having a managerial responsibility on behalf of the organization . . . .” Ibid. (commentary).

         YFS moved for a protective order to prohibit Mendillo from further violations of Rule 4.2. The state trial court granted the protective order after a hearing. Although it concluded that Mendillo had violated Rule 4.2, it did not otherwise impose any sanctions.

         The appeal from the protective order and Appellate Court decision

         Mendillo sought to challenge the protective order by filing a petition for writ of error in the Connecticut Supreme Court which transferred the petition to the Connecticut Appellate Court. On November 10, 2015, the Appellate Court ruled in part that “[o]n the basis of the letters attached to the agency's motion for protective order and Mendillo's admission before the court that he sent the claim letter to the board of directors, and in light of the trial court's articulation, we conclude that there was clear and convincing evidence before the court that Mendillo violated Rule 4.2 by communicating with Tinley's clients without his permission.” Sowell, 161 Conn.App. at 126. The Appellate Court considered at length and rejected multiple arguments made by Mendillo about why he did not violate Rule 4.2 and about why his due process rights were violated by the trial court's hearing and order. Id. at 126-33.

         The Connecticut Appellate Court decision was written by Judge Douglas Lavine and joined by Judges Eliot Prescott and Nina Elgo. On December 16, 2015, the Connecticut Supreme Court denied Mendillo's petition for certification for appeal of the Connecticut Appellate Court's decision. See 320 Conn. 909.

         The denial of a writ of error by the Connecticut Supreme Court

         On February 4, 2016, Mendillo filed a writ of error in the Connecticut Supreme Court seeking to challenge the Connecticut Appellate Court's ruling. The Connecticut Supreme Court dismissed the writ on May 25, 2016, and denied reconsideration on June 27, 2016.

         The second state court action and the Connecticut Supreme Court decision

         On October 3, 2016, Mendillo filed another lawsuit in the Connecticut Superior Court, now seeking a declaratory judgment to challenge the Connecticut Appellate Court's decision on multiple grounds. See Mendillo, 329 Conn. at 520 (summarizing claims). Mendillo named as defendants to this new action the Tinley law firm as well as Judges Lavine, Prescott, and Elgo. The trial court dismissed the action. Mendillo then appealed the ruling, and on July 24, 2018, the Connecticut Supreme Court dismissed the appeal. In an opinion written by Chief Justice Richard Robinson, the Connecticut Supreme Court concluded that the case was nonjusticiable: “We agree with the defendants that the present case is nonjusticiable because no practical relief is available to the plaintiff insofar as the allegations in the declaratory judgment complaint demonstrate that it is nothing more than a collateral attack on the protective order imposed by the trial court . . . and upheld by the Appellate Court.” Id. at 527.

         The ...

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