A version of this article first appeared in the Side Bar journal for the Litigation…
Courts continue to grapple with when a prior family law (divorce) case may pose a res juidcata problem for an I-864 plaintiff.
Levin v. Barone.
In Levin v. Barone, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 169573 (S.D.N.Y., Sept. 30, 2019), the plaintiff sought I-864 enforcement. In a prior proceeding (“Levin I”), the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York’s holding that a New York Supreme Court’s judgment of divorce, which ended the defendant Barone’s obligation to financially support the plaintiff Levin, was a prior judgment on the merits involving the same parties and the same cause of action and was therefore barred by res judicata. (citing Levin v. Barone, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 53861 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 29, 2018), aff’d, Levin v. Barone, 771 Fed. Appx. 39 (2d Cir. 2019)).
Without much of an analysis, the court dismissed Plaintiff’s claims pursuant to the doctrine of res judicata. (“Here, Plaintiff again seeks enforcement of the Affidavit of Support. Plaintiff’s claims in this action are the same as those that she brought, and that were adjudicated by Judge Nathan, in Levin I. The Court therefore dismisses Plaintiff’s claims for the reasons discussed in Judge Nathan’s opinion in Levin I, ECF 1:14-CV-0673, 101. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii).”).
Greiner v. De Capri.
Greiner v. De Capri, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 162411 (N.D. Fla., Sept. 10, 2019), involved a plaintiff (“Greiner”)—a citizen of the Federal Republic of Germany—who married the defendant (“De Capri”), a U.S. citizen, and thereafter gained permanent resident status upon De Capri’s petition to sponsor Greiner and execution of Form I-864, agreeing to provide sufficient support to Greiner in the U.S.
In January 2017, after living together for two years in the U.S., De Capri filed for divorce in a Florida court. On March 7, 2017, Greiner filed a counter-petition in which he asserted a counterclaim for “breach of contract” based on the promises De Capri made in the Form I-864. On June 1, 2018, the Circuit Court of the First Judicial Circuit in and for Walton County, Florida, entered a final judgment dissolving the marriage. Without discussion, the court did not award Greiner any relief based on the Form I-864.
On August 27, 2018, pursuant to 8 U.S.C. § 1183a, Greiner initiated an action in in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida, Pensacola Division to enforce his rights under the I-864, seeking an award of the financial support De Capri purportedly owed him under the Form I-864, including financial support due in 2016 to 2018. In response, De Capri unsuccessfully argued that the court lacked jurisdiction under the doctrines of the “domestic relations exception” and res judicata.
Two principles governed the court’s holding. First, the court concluded that a claim for enforcement of Form I-864 does not fall within the scope of the “domestic relations” doctrine, distinguishing such claims from a dissolution of marriage. Second, the court focused on the principle that res judicata would not bar enforcement of an I-864 when a plaintiff’s entitlement to support had not accrued at the time of a prior suit, regardless of whether such suit involved post-marital support.
DOMESTIC RELATIONS EXCEPTION.
The first defense De Capri asserted was that Greiner’s I-864 enforcement claim could not be brought in federal court pursuant to the domestic relations exception, a doctrine often invoked by federal courts to decline jurisdiction over claims involving family disputes, finding such disputes are better resolved in state courts. The court flatly rejected this argument, explaining, “an adjudication of [an I-864 enforcement] claim will not require this court to address issues traditionally considered within the purview and peculiar expertise of a domestic relations court, such as the division of marital property or an award of alimony.”). The court reasoned that the “parties’ prior marital relationship was not a prerequisite to [the plaintiff’s I-864 enforcement] action and simply is irrelevant to his claim insofar as many individuals who are not an alien’s spouse can serve as a sponsor by signing a section 1183a affidavit.”). Accordingly, the court held that the domestic relations exception did not bar Greiner’s claim.
Next, De Capri argued that “Greiner’s claim must be dismissed under the doctrine of res judicata because the Circuit Court of the First Judicial Circuit in and for Walton County, Florida, already decided that Greiner was not entitled to recover under 8 U.S.C. § 1183a.” Rejecting this argument, the court explained that in determining the accrual date of a claim “[u]nder general rules of res judicata, the crucial date is the date the complaint was filed, or in cases involving a counter-claim, the date that the counter-claim is filed.” (citing Welsh v. Fort Bend Indep. Sch. Dist., 860 F.3d 762, 767 n.6 (5th Cir. 2017) (noting that the Second, Eighth, Eleventh, and Federal Circuits “have determined that federal res judicata law does not bar claims based on facts that occurred after the filing of the first lawsuit”)).
The court went on to note that I-864 obligations are ongoing and that I-864 damages cannot be calculated for the future, since a plaintiff’s income may differ in the future. Under those circumstances, the court determined res judicata did not apply to Greiner’s I-864 claims