A version of this article first appeared in the Side Bar journal for the Litigation…
On June 20, 2019 a judge for the Northern District of Alabama handed down a decision on the first I-864 litigation in that state (whether federal or state court). The order, Belevich v. Thomas, touches on a number of interesting and helpful points of law.
The Plaintiff was the beneficiary of Form I-864s signed by both his wife and her mother (as joint sponsor). While he was out of the country, his wife informed him that she would be filing for divorce and canceled his return ticket. The Plaintiff was temporarily homeless after making it back to the United States, until be moved in with a friend. After being irregularly employed and with income under 125% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines, he sued his sponsors for their failure to support him.
The court decision.
The principal matter before the court was cross summary judgment motions by the Plaintiff and Defendants. (Virtually all I-864 cases are resolved at summary judgment, if not earlier – it is extremely unusual for one to proceed to trial).
1. “SUBJECT TO REMOVAL.”
First, the Court rejected the argument by Defendants that the Plaintiff “became “subject to removal” when an Alabama court issued a protective order against him or, alternatively, when he was charged with aggravated felonies.” Memo. Op. at 10. That assertion is frankly ridiculous, and it is surprising the Court was not harder on the Defendants. “Removal” is a term of art under the Immigration and Nationality Act, and refers to an order of removal issued by an immigration authority (usually the Executive Office of Immigration Review). The notion that any state court has authority to do something that is tantamount to a “removal” order is completely baseless. The Court also correctly noted that even if the Plaintiff had been ordered removed, the order by itself does not terminate obligations under the Form I-864.
2. CALCULATION OF INCOME
Following the Northern District of California, the Court in this case held that income shortfalls are calculated annually, rather than for the entire period for which support is sought. Memo. Op. at 13. That does indeed follow the language of the Form I-864.
3. THE 5 TERMINATING EVENTS REALLY ARE THE ONLY WAY TO AVOID LIABILITY.
Citing a case litigated by Immigration Support Advocates, the Court followed the view that the only defenses available in I-864 cases are the 5 terminating conditions listed in the contract. Memo. Op. at 22. The Court also included as a sixth terminating event the death of the sponsor. But, the Court held, alleged negligence by the Plaintiff would not be a defense to liability. This directly follows the Seventh Circuit’s holding in Liu v. Mund that a Form I-864 Plaintiff has no duty to mitigate damages by seeking employment.
4. PREJUDGMENT INTEREST.
The final interesting holding in the case is that a Form I-864 plaintiff is entitled to pre-judgment interest on his claims. Memo. Op. at 23. That is an issue that has not been squarely raised in I-864 cases. But it is helpful to have a clear decision on that topic.