A version of this article first appeared in the Side Bar journal for the Litigation…
Another case, this one in Texas, illustrates the dangers of trying to enforce the Form I-864 in state versus federal court. In Beringer v. Beringer, yet another I-864 beneficiary got less than what she was entitled to under the plan terms of the I-864 and federal law. No. 04-19-00097-CV (Tex. App. Apr. 1, 2020).
The Beneficiary was a Mexican national who moved to the United States in 2014 and married the Sponsor in 2016. That year, the Sponsor signed the Form I-864. The following year, the Sponsor filed for divorce.
In her counterpetition, the Beneficiary expressly plead breach of contract with respect to the I-864. An evidentiary hearing was held on the Beneficiary’s work, since earned income offsets any sponsor’s obligation. The Court heard legal argument but – and this is revealing – noted that it did not have access to federal cases on its research system. That’s rather significant if you are applying federal law!
The trial Court ordered that the Sponsor would need to make monthly support payments in the amount of 125% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines until one of the terminating events described in the I-864. That is, for sure, the correct ruling.
There were two issues on appeal.
First, the Beneficiary argued that the trial Court erred in not awarding support arrears due under the I-864. The appeals court disagreed on basically procedural grounds. It noted that the Beneficiary’s counterpetition had asked for continued payment of support, but not support arrears. That is a somewhat weak view, since “notice pleading” in the United States is generally forgiving as to language used in setting forth legal claims. What is more significant, though, is that the Beneficiary’s attorney seems not to have presented evidence on the entitlement to arrears.
Next, the Beneficiary argued that she was entitled to legal fees, as she most certainly is entitled to under the Form I-864 and 8 U.S.C. § 1183a(c). In holding so hyper-technical it is absurd, the appeals court disagreed. It noted that – as above – the Beneficiary had not plead or presented evidence of her entitlement to past support under the I-864. It then noted that the pleadings could no have requested future support, since future support isn’t owed until the Form I-864 contract is breached. Instead, the payments ordered by the court were “declaratory relief” rather than recovery under the contract. So the Beneficiary was not entitled to legal fees, which she then has to pay herself.
This is, to be blunt, a ridiculous result. The trial court ordered the Sponsor to pay support specifically because of – and in the amount due under – the Form I-864. The Beneficiary plead, specifically, that she was entitled to support under the contract. Nonetheless, the appeals court acted like there was no basis for granting attorney fees. But if the support provisions of the I-864 supported a “declaratory” award of money to the Beneficairy, why would the attorney fee provisions of the contract not support a “declaratory” award of her legal fees?
Beringer is just another example of the bad and often silly results that I-864 beneficiaries experience in state court. At least the Beneficairy in Beringer got the full entitlement to future support under the I-864. But she lost out on all of her support arrears. More impactful, she lost her legal fees. Given the relatively modest amount of damages at issue in I-864 cases, and the vast amount of time required to litigate them, it is not economically viable for beneficiaries to enforce their rights unless they can recover legal fees. Beringer means that no Texas divorce attorney in her right mind should agree to help someone recover money under the I-864, unless the person can pay upfront. But if they have the money to pay upfront, they probably don’t have a claim under the I-864, which requires low or zero income. So Beringer basically means that it will be hard or impossible for Texas-based I-864 beneficairies to find a good divorce attorney. That is sad and not what Congress intended.