A version of this article first appeared in the Side Bar journal for the Litigation…
In Pavlenco v. Pearsall the District Court for the Eastern District of New York has offered the most detailed analysis to date on the application of abstention doctrines in the context of suing on the I-864. No. 13-CV-1953 (JS)(AKT), 2013 WL 6198299 (E.D.N.Y. Nov. 27, 2013) (memo. order). In Pavlenco the parties had a pending state court divorce matter, approximately one month from trial, in which the beneficiary had sought to raise issues pertaining to the I-864.The beneficiary had sought enforcement of the I-864 in the divorce proceeding but alleged that the defendant-sponsor had noted “allow[ed]” her to do so.
Subject matter jurisdiction. The court concluded easily that it possessed federal question jurisdiction over an I-864 enforcement suit, following the prevailing view on that issue. The Pavlenco court cited only to previous federal decisions that had reached the same view. The Middle District of Florida appears to be the only jurisdiction currently holding that federal courts lack subject matter jurisdiction over suits to enforce the I-864. See, e.g., Vavilova v. Rimoczi, 6:12-cv-1471-Orl-28GJK, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 183714 (M.D. Fla. Dec. 10, 2012) (report and recommendation of magistrate judge).
Younger abstention. Younger abstention prevents a federal court from considering a matter where the following conditions are met:
(1) there is an ongoing state proceeding; (2) an important state interest is implicated in that proceeding; and (3) the state proceeding affords the federal plaintiff an adequate opportunity for judicial review of the federal constitutional claims.
Application of the doctrine turned on whether the plaintiff-beneficiary would have a full opportunity to pursue her federal claim in the state court action, and whether the federal action stood to interfere with the state court matter. Because the plaintiff-beneficiary had not yet succeeded in bringing I-864 enforcement issues to the attention of the state court, enforcement in the federal lawsuit would not have the effect of enjoining any state court action. And the court noted that the mere existence of a parallel state court action does not implicate Younger abstention.
Colorado River abstention. The court then considered Colorado River abstention, under which a federal court must consider the following factors:
(1) whether the controversy involves a res over which one of the courts has assumed jurisdiction; (2) whether the federal forum is less inconvenient than the other for the parties; (3) whether staying or dismissing the federal action will avoid piecemeal litigation; (4) the order in which the actions were filed, and whether proceedings have advanced more in one forum than in the other; (5) whether federal law provides the rule of decision; and (6) whether the state procedures are adequate to protect the plaintiff’s federal rights.
The court found that three factors weighed in favor of abstention. First, a stay would avoid piecemeal litigation as the court believed it was likely the state court would address the I-864 issue. This reasoning is somewhat confusing – although the defendant-sponsor argued to the federal court that the I-864 should be raised in state court, it is unclear why the defendant would have any incentive not to fight adjudication of the issue in state court as well. Second, the court noted the advance stage of the state court litigation (approximately a week before trial). Lastly, the court noted that although the I-864 involved “federal law,” state courts were equipped to adjudicate I-864 obligations in the context of a divorce proceeding. The court therefore entered a six-month stay on the federal action.