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ANASTASI v. ANASTASI

February 16, 1982

Jeanne Brandon ANASTASI, Plaintiff,
v.
Joseph ANASTASI, Defendant



The opinion of the court was delivered by: DEBEVOISE

I. The Pleadings

Plaintiff, Jeanne Brandon Anastasi, instituted this action in the Chancery Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey, charging that defendant, Joseph Anastasi, has breached his agreement "to provide plaintiff with all of her financial support and needs for the rest of her life".

 The complaint alleges that plaintiff met defendant in March, 1970; that she began to date him a year later and lived with him "off and on" for the next four years. The complaint further alleges that in or about January, 1975 plaintiff and defendant entered into an oral contract under which, in exchange for life support, "plaintiff agreed to come live with defendant full-time and be his helpmate, companion, homemaker, housewife and cook". According to the complaint, the parties entered upon the relationship contemplated by the contract; plaintiff changed her surname from Brandon to Anastasi, and they continued this arrangement until July, 1980, when defendant forced plaintiff to leave his household and refused to continue to support her. Plaintiff seeks damages, including the reasonable value of her services, attorneys' fees, and such other relief as the Court shall deem equitable and just.

 Defendant removed the case to the federal court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a) on the basis of diversity of citizenship. He answered, denying the allegations of the complaint (other than admitting cohabitation "on and off" in Florida) and asserting affirmatively the defenses of the Statute of Frauds and lack of personal jurisdiction over him in New Jersey. Subsequently defendant moved pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a) to transfer the action to the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida. I raised the question whether the case should be remanded to the state court on the ground that it is within the domestic relations exception to federal jurisdiction notwithstanding that there is diversity of citizenship. The parties have briefed and argued that question as well as the motion to transfer.

 II. Domestic Relations Exception to Jurisdiction

 To resolve this question it is necessary to examine the policies and present limits of the domestic relations exception to federal jurisdiction, see generally Hart & Wechsler's The Federal Courts and the Federal System (2d ed. 1973), pp. 1189-92.

 The leading Third Circuit case upon the subject is Solomon v. Solomon, 516 F.2d 1018 (1975). Plaintiff wife sued defendant husband for support payments owing under a separation agreement. Plaintiff was in violation of child visitation provisions of the agreement and defendant had admittedly failed to make payments for support. The District Court granted summary judgment for defendant on the ground that it lacked jurisdiction to adjudicate a cause of action involving domestic relations.

 The Court of Appeals reviewed at some length the history and rationale of the doctrine that federal courts will decline to accept jurisdiction of cases involving domestic relations, see 516 F.2d at 1021-1024. It set forth the contemporary rationale for this exception to the federal court's jurisdictional powers: "... state courts have historically decided these matters and have developed both a well-known expertise in these cases and a strong interest in disposing of them." 516 F.2d at 1025. In Solomon the Court noted that state expertise and interest were implicated because custody of children was involved, there was pending state litigation, there was an agreement to litigate in the state courts, and there was the danger that the feuding couple would play one court system off against the other. In those circumstances, the Court held, a district court should dismiss the case for want of subject matter jurisdiction. The Court noted, however, that "we do not mean to suggest that a separation agreement may never be litigated in the federal courts by parties between whom there is diversity of citizenship". 516 F.2d at 1025.

 A sampling of federal cases helps illustrate the limits of the domestic relations exception to federal jurisdiction. In Zimmermann v. Zimmermann, 395 F. Supp. 719 (E.D.Pa.1975), decided two weeks after Solomon, the Court held that the exception did not apply. There, husband and wife had entered into two written contracts under which the defendant husband agreed to provide financial support for his wife and children. The contracts were incorporated into a subsequent divorce decree. Nine years later plaintiff commenced a diversity action, seeking damages for her ex-husband's alleged breach of those contracts. The Court held that because the dispute involved no child custody questions, no pending state court actions between the parties, and no evidence that the parties were attempting to play one court off against another, Solomon did not preclude jurisdiction.

 In Allen v. Allen, 518 F. Supp. 1234 (E.D.Pa.1981), the District Court applied the "domestic relations" exception to actions concerning marital property which was the subject of a post-nuptial property settlement agreement. Eight actions were pending in the state court between the parties for custody, divorce, alimony, support, maintenance, replevin, and equitable distribution, some or all of which related to the parties' property claims. The Court concluded that the case was one in which the parties were attempting to play one court system off against the other and, consequently, under the criteria set forth in Solomon, jurisdiction was lacking.

 In Sutter v. Pitts, 639 F.2d 842 (1st Cir. 1981), plaintiff wife claimed that defendant husband's violation of a state court custody order infringed upon the exercise of her civil rights. The District Court abstained and dismissed the complaint, relying upon the "domestic relations" exception to jurisdiction. The dismissal was affirmed on the ground that "(although) (plaintiff) has clothed her complaint in the garb of a civil rights action, we agree with the district court that her claim boils down to a demand for custody of the child". Id. at 844.

 Spindel v. Spindel, 283 F. Supp. 797 (E.D.N.Y.1968), contains a scholarly history and analysis of the domestic relations exception to jurisdiction, questioning whether in reality the issue is one of jurisdiction and urging, in any event, a narrow application of the doctrine. In that case the Court held that notwithstanding the exception it had jurisdiction over a case in which plaintiff wife alleged that defendant husband had fraudulently induced her to marry him and then fraudulently procured a Mexican divorce dissolving the marriage. She sought compensatory and punitive damages and a declaration that the Mexican divorce was invalid. The Court found that there was no question of interference with state policies, for the federal court was being asked to do exactly what a state court would do. That, of course, is true in any domestic relations case brought in a federal court on the basis of diversity jurisdiction, and one is left with the distinct impression that Judge Weinstein, who decided Spindel, finds very little rational justification for the exception. On the facts, however, Spindel is not inconsistent with Solomon. The exercise of jurisdiction in Solomon would have involved the federal court in the continuing problem of custody of children. The judgment sought in Spindel was for money damages and a declaration of the invalidity of a judgment, traditional remedies which would not require continuing judicial supervision of family affairs.

 In Cole v. Cole, 633 F.2d 1083 (4th Cir. 1980), the Court suggested a standard for determining whether the domestic relations exception applies. In that case plaintiff husband brought an action against his estranged wife for, among other things, malicious prosecution, abuse of process, arson, and conversion. The District Court dismissed the counts alleging these charges for lack of subject matter ...


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