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In Florida, can you bring an I-864 lawsuit in federal court?

The form I-864, Affidavit of Support is created by federal law. Indeed, the form has been integral to the practice of (federal) immigration law for over twenty years… much longer if you consider the predecessor Affidavits of Support. So if you’re an immigrant looking to enforce your financial rights against a sponsor, you should go to federal court – right? Not so fast. At least not in Florida.

Federal question and diversity jurisdiction.

Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction. That means, in short, that there are only certain cases that they will decide. That’s unlike your main state court, which can hear almost any type of dispute (including federal claims, unless a federal law explicitly says the court cannot). One way to get federal jurisdiction is through diversity, which means the parties live in different states. But that is only for cases valued at $75,000 or more, and in I-864 cases the parties usually live in the same state.

The other way to get into federal court is to have a claim that arises out of federal law. Civil rights cases are a good example of this, or lawsuits against federal agencies such as under the federal Freedom of Information Act. When it comes to the I-864, it has always seemed clear to me – and seems clear to most courts – that federal courts have jurisdiction over these cases. Why? Because there is a “private cause of action” – a provision of law saying that sponsored immigrants can sue – directly in the Immigration and Nationality Act. 8 U.S.C. 1183a(e)(1) says clear as daylight:

(e) Jurisdiction. An action to enforce an affidavit of support executed under subsection (a) may be brought against the sponsor in any appropriate court—

(1) by a sponsored alien, with respect to financial support

To me, that sounds awfully clear. Right there in the statute: “immigrant, if you need to enforce these claims, go to court.” And since it’s a federal statute, that’s a federal right of action.

Middle District of Florida – “no subject matter jurisdiction.”

Sometimes I come across a court opinion that seems so clearly wrong that I must have misread it. Winters v. Winters was such a case. No. 6:12-CV-536-ORL-37, 2012 WL 13137011 (M.D. Fla Apr. 25, 2012), adopting the report and recommendation, 2012 WL 1946074 (M.D. Fla. May 30, 2012). That case was a typical I-864 enforcement matter, where one Florida resident (the I-864 beneficiary) sued another Florida resident (the I-864 sponsor) for financial support.

The sponsor moved for dismissal, saying that the lawsuit was a breach of contract case, rather than a claim arising out of federal law. The plaintiff did just what I would have done, and showed the court 8 U.S.C. 1183a(e)(1) and its clear private right of action.

But the court agreed with the defendant. Basically, it said sure, the federal statute says that the sponsored immigrant can sue. But it doesn’t clearly enough say that the lawsuit can be in federal court.

Now, Winters was an unpublished district court decision, so it technically doesn’t have an precedential value. But the same Court (the Middle District of Florida) later followed Winters in a second, nearly identical decision.

The Northern District of Florida gets jurisdiction right.

Winters was decided in 2012. Fast forward a few years and district courts all across the United States have decided more and more I-864 enforcement cases. On top of that, you have decisions at the Seventh and Ninth Circuits. Granted that those cases don’t expressly decide issues of jurisdiction, but there are strong, strong indicators that federal courts understand themselves to have jurisdiction in these cases (cases that enforce federal law).

In Greiner v. De Capri – in a district-level decision that was published – the Northern District of Florida did a course-correction on jurisdiction 403 F. Supp.3d 1207 (N.D. Fla 2019) (decision and order on motion to dismiss). The Court starts with the clear proposition that “A civil action “arises under” federal law at least when a federal statute creates the cause of action.” Well… right.

Here, Greiner’s complaint plainly states that he is bringing this action pursuant to section 213A of the Immigration and Nationality Act. 8 U.S.C. 1183a. The Immigration and Nationality Act is federal law. Nobody disputes that the power to regulate immigration is unquestionably exclusively a federal power.

Bam – it couldn’t be clearer. Only federal law could have created this contract in the first place, since only Congress can regulate immigration. You couldn’t find a more federal-centric area of law!

The cause of action asserted by Greiner was expressly created by a federal statute; the statute created a federal right that otherwise did not exist; and federal law provides an essential element of the claim.

But for a federal law, the claim just wouldn’t exist. On top of that,

In addition to the fact that federal law created the right at issue and the cause of action, and federal law provides the substantive law that must be applied to the case, Greiner is seeking to assert his federal statutory right in a civil action specifically authorized by federal law.

In other words, on top of the fact that the federal statute creates these private rights, the whole case is going to be about interpreting and applying federal law. Federal, federal, federal.

Then the Court turned its attention to Winters. Remember that the Winters Court wanted the statute to explicitly say “U.S. District Courts have jurisdiction.” But the Greiner Court rejected the idea that a statute has to be so clear.

There certainly is no requirement that Congress explicitly state in each statute authorizing a federal cause of action that the “United States Districts Courts” enjoy subject matter jurisdiction. So long as federal law authorizes a cause of action, a case arises under federal law for purposes of 28 U.S.C. § 1331 [federal question jurisdiction], and Congress need not even mention the word “jurisdiction” in the statute that authorizes the cause of action or explicitly confer subject-matter jurisdiction on federal courts.

The Greiner Court tries to give the Middle District a way to save face, noting that Winters was decided before the Seventh (and Ninth) Circuits decided I-864 enforcement cases. Hopefully that is an olive branch that the Middle District will accept, and will reverse course on Winters.

So do Florida’s federal courts have jurisdiction in I-864 cases?

Clearly I-864 plaintiffs are relatively safe in the Northern District. Elsewhere in the state things are either unclear or – in the Middle District – muddy at best. But I am optimistic that Greiner marks a turning point for Florida, and I-864 plaintiffs have a clearer path to vindicating their (federal law) rights in federal court.

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Greg is recognized as the leading national authority on enforcement of the Form I-864, Affidavit of Support. Greg represents low-income green card holders in lawsuits to recover support from their sponsors. Practicing family-based immigration law, Greg also focuses on helping married and engaged couples with U.S. immigration.

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