A version of this article first appeared in the Side Bar journal for the Litigation…
In Al-Aromah v. Tomaszewicz, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 154638 (W.D. Va. Sep. 10, 2019), the plaintiff Nadiah Al-Aromah (“Al-Aromah”) sought I-864 damages for a 6-month period that occurred prior to the time she filed for divorce from her husband – I-864 sponsor in a state court. The state court divorce proceedings were still ongoing, yet the state court had entered an order of pendente lite spousal support. Specifically, Al-Aromah alleged that Tomaszewicz provided no support between the date of the parties’ separation on June 7, 2016, and the date of the Spousal Support Order, December 14, 2016 and thus was entitled to damages.
The court addressed two main issues, the first of which was whether Al-Aromah was precluded from recovering I-864 damages pursuant to the abstention doctrine. The second issue was whether Tomaszewicz’s payments pursuant to the Spousal Support Order could be considered in calculating Al-Aromah’s income in determining whether Al-Aromah’s income fell below the 125% federal poverty guideline
First, Tomaszewicz argued that the abstention doctrine precluded Al-Aromah’s claim for I-864 damages since a state court had already determined the amount of spousal support Aromah was entitled to at a time period after that of which she claims damages accrued during. The abstention doctrine set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 91 S. Ct. 746, 27 L. Ed. 2d 669 (1971) “provides that federal courts must abstain from exercising jurisdiction when doing so would interfere with pending state court proceedings.” (citing Golphin v. Thomas, 855 F.3d 278 (4th Cir. 2017)). Specifically,
..the Younger abstention doctrine provides that a court should refrain from exercising jurisdiction when: 1) there is an ongoing state judicial proceeding; 2) the proceeding implicates important, substantial, or vital state interests; and 3) there is an adequate opportunity to raise federal claims in the state proceedings.
(citing Wigley v. Wigley, No. 7:17cv425, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 35433, 2018 WL 1161138 (W.D. Va. March 5, 2018). Only the third prong was at issue in Al-Aromah, as the first two prongs clearly fell under the Younger absention doctrine. That is, the issue remaining was whether Al-Aromah had an adequate opportunity to raise her federal I-864 claim in the state court divorce proceedings.
The court began its analysis by noting generally that “[f]ederal courts routinely retain actions to enforce Affidavits of Support in cases where the federal action is filed after the parties’ divorce is final and the Affidavit of Support was not part of the final judgment.” (citing Du v. McCarthy, No. 2:14cv100, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 50001, 2015 WL 1800225, at *6 (N.D.W. Va. Apr. 16, 2015); Cheshire, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 26602, 2006 WL 1208010, at *1). Still, it conceded that courts disagree as to whether abstention is appropriate under certain circumstances like those involved in the case at bar, comparing the holding in Wigley v. Wigley, No. 7:17cv425, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 35433, 2018 WL 1161138 (W.D. Va. March 5, 2018 to that in Al-Mansour v. Shraim, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 9864 (D. Md. Feb. 2, 2011).
In Wigley, the court found abstention precluded the plaintiff’s I-864 claim because she had plenty of opportunities to invoke her I-864 claim during the state-court divorce proceedings, which were still ongoing. In direct contrast, the court in Al-Mansour retained jurisdiction over Al-Mansour’s I-864 claim notwithstanding a pending state-court divorce proceeding, reasoning that claims made during state-court divorce proceedings are only relevant to I-864 enforcement actions for purposes of determining income, and thus does not preclude a concurrent I-864 action litigated in federal court.
Ultimately, the court sided with the United States District Court for the District of Maryland in Al-Mansour. The court focused on the fact that the state court could not have ordered spousal support for Al-Aromah for a time period before the divorce proceeding was filed pursuant to a Virginia statute. Under those circumstances, the court determined that abstention was not appropriate, and retained jurisdiction over Al-Aromah’s I-864 claim.
Regarding the income calculation issue, Tomaszewicz argued that Al-Aromah failed to state a claim for the third element of injury or damages because his payments to Al-Aromah under the Spousal Support Order from 2017-2019, including some arrearages payments, equaled more than 125% of the federal poverty level that he was required to pay under the Affidavit of Support from 2016 through 2019. Al-Aromah counterargued that Tomaszewicz’s payments pursuant to the Spousal Support Order in 2017 and onward could not be retroactively applied to satisfy his obligation to support her under the Affidavit of Support for the year 2016.
The court agreed with Al-Aromah, finding that Tomaszewicz’s method of calculation was not supported by persuasive case law, which instructed the court to compare Al-Aromah’s annual income for a particular calendar year at issue against the 125% poverty threshold, rather than considering multiple years in aggregate, citing to the Fourth Circuit’s approach set forth in Younis v. Farooqi, 597 F. Supp. 2d 552, 554-55 (D. Maryland 2009). Specifically, in Younis v. Farooqi, the court noted “[t]o determine the appropriate damages for breach of an Affidavit of Support, courts compare the plaintiff’s annual income for the particular years at issue, rather than the aggregate income for the entire period, against the 125% poverty threshold for each particular year.”
Critically, the court noted that not all jurisdictions take the Fourth Circuit’s approach for calculating the claimant’s income, citing to Cheshire v. Cheshire, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 26602, 2006 (M.D. Fl. May 4, 2006) and Stump v. Stump (In re Affidavit of Support (Form I-864), 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 26022, (N.D. Ind. Oct. 25, 2005). In Cheshire, the court calculated the defendant’s support obligation under an Affidavit of Support on an aggregate basis by adding together the plaintiff’s annual income during a six-year period and compared it with 125% of the federal poverty threshold during that period. In Stump, the court calculated the amounts the defendant owed plaintiff on a year by year basis, aggregated that amount, and subtracted the plaintiff’s earnings or other offsets in an aggregate amount to arrive at a total amount due by the defendant.).
Concluding that the Younis approach was appropriate, the court therefore held that Al-Aromah stated a claim for damages for Tomaszewicz’s breach of contract during 6 months in 2016 despite his support payments in amounts greater than 125% of the federal poverty level in later years. In other words, the Fourth Circuit solidified its approach that must be used to calculate past-due Affidavit Support Payments for prior years: Affidavit of support payments in amounts greater than 125% of the federal poverty level made during one particular year cannot “make up” for prior years of unpaid support due.