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Malhan v. Secretary United States Department of State

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

September 18, 2019

SURENDER MALHAN, for himself and as parent of E.M. and V.M., Appellant
SECRETARY UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF STATE; ATTORNEY GENERAL NEW JERSEY; STATE OF NEW JERSEY; ELIZABETH CONNOLLY, in her official capacity as acting Commissioner of Office of Child Support Services; NATASHA JOHNSON, in her official capacity as Director Division of Family Development; JOHN DOES 1-10; OFFICE OF CHILD SUPPORT SERVICES

          Argued on April 3, 2019

          On Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey (D.C. No. 2-16-cv-08495) District Judge: Honorable Claire C. Cecchi

          Paul A. Clark [Argued] Attorney for Appellant

          Melissa H. Raksa Ragner E. Jaeger [Argued] Office of Attorney General of New Jersey Department of Health & Human Services Attorneys for Appellees

          Before: CHAGARES and HARDIMAN, Circuit Judges, and GOLDBERG, [*] District Judge.



         This case arises out of a family law dispute that began in 2011 and remains pending in Hudson County, New Jersey Over the past eight years, the family court has required Appellant Surender Malhan to pay some $300, 000 in child and spousal support to his putative ex-wife, Alina Myronova. The crux of Malhan's complaint is that New Jersey officials violated his federal rights when they failed to reduce his support obligations after he was awarded custody of their two children and Myronova obtained a job that pays more than his own. The District Court dismissed Malhan's second amended complaint, holding that it lacked jurisdiction under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. And to the extent it had jurisdiction, the District Court declined to exercise it under Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971). In our view, Malhan is entitled to federal court review of some of his claims. So we will affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for further proceedings.


         In February 2011, Myronova sued Malhan for divorce in Hudson County, New Jersey.[1] The family court awarded Myronova full custody of the couple's two minor children and ordered Malhan to pay $6, 000 per month for child and spousal support. Malhan also had to give Myronova rental income from their jointly owned properties, which the court earmarked for mortgage payments.

         After suffering these setbacks, Malhan received some favorable rulings from the family court. In 2012, he was awarded joint custody of the children, which increased their proportion of overnight stays with Malhan from zero to more than half. The year after, the court found Myronova owed Malhan about $44, 000, half of which was rental income Myronova had embezzled for personal use rather than pay the mortgage. The other half was spousal support the court ordered her to return because she had been living with her boyfriend.

         Soon after he obtained these favorable rulings, Malhan sought a reduction in his child support obligations. But the court decided to postpone any reduction until a final judgment of divorce, which still has not issued. And in the years since, the gap between what Malhan must pay and what he should pay has only widened. See N.J. Rule of Court 5:6A, Appendix IX-A, Considerations in the Use of Child Support Guidelines 2 (2018); App. 28-30. By 2016, Myronova's annual income had increased from zero to more than $100, 000-well over Malhan's income of about $60, 000.

         Despite this reversal in their economic fortunes, Malhan still must pay Myronova $3, 000 per month in child support- an amount the court refuses to recalculate even after acknowledging it is unusual "for a parent who is not the parent of primary residence" to receive child support. App. 56 ¶ 179. Relying on that comment, Malhan briefly stopped paying child support. Because the comment was not an order lifting his obligations, however, Malhan fell into arrears, and the court ordered his wages garnished.

         Unable to find relief in family court, Malhan filed a six-count complaint in federal court. The three counts most relevant to this appeal seek declaratory or injunctive relief against New Jersey officials for violating federal law:

• Count 2 challenges the disclosure of Malhan's bank records and the administrative levy of his bank account. It alleges violations of 42 U.S.C. § 669a, a provision of the Child Support Enforcement Amendments of 1984 (CSEA) to Title IV-D of the Social Security Act. See Pub. L. No. 98-378, 98 Stat. 1305; App. 42-49.
• Count 5 claims Defendants are violating Malhan's right to due process of law by refusing to permit counterclaims and offsets to his child and spousal support debt. See App. 54-55.
• Count 6 alleges that the garnishment of Malhan's wages violates the CSEA and § 303 of the Consumer Credit Protection Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1673. See App. 55-64. The family court's garnishment order was in place until March 2018. The court then vacated its order in response to the U.S. Department of Labor, which said the garnishment violated § 1673(c). See App. 75-76.[2]

         The District Court dismissed Counts 2, 5, and 6 on two independent grounds. First, the Court held it lacked subject matter jurisdiction under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, which bars district court review of state court judgments. See Malhan v. Tillerson, 2018 WL 2427121, at *6-8 (D.N.J. May 30, 2018). It reasoned "(1) the Family Court has made a determination as to Plaintiff's parenting situation, as well as Plaintiff's child support obligations; (2) Plaintiff is complaining of these findings; (3) the Family Court made its findings before Plaintiff filed this matter; and (4) Plaintiff is asking this Court to overturn the Family Court's findings." Id. at *6 (applying Great W. Mining & Mineral Co. v. Fox Rothschild LLP, 615 F.3d 159, 166 (3d Cir. 2010)). Second, the Court invoked Younger abstention to decline jurisdiction. See id. at *6-8. It did so because Malhan's suit implicated "important state interests" and the New Jersey family court offered an "adequate opportunity to raise federal claims." Id. at *7. Malhan filed this timely appeal.[3]



         We first address the District Court's holding that it lacked jurisdiction under Rooker-Feldman. That doctrine conflicts with the familiar maxim that federal courts have a "virtually unflagging" duty to exercise jurisdiction conferred by Congress. Colorado River Water Conservation Dist. v. United States, 424 U.S. 800, 817 (1976). At the same time, federal district courts are not amenable to appeals from disappointed state court litigants. A litigant seeking to appeal a state court judgment must seek review in the United States Supreme Court under 28 U.S.C. § 1257. Id. As the Court has explained:

Rooker and Feldman exhibit the limited circumstances in which [the] Court's appellate jurisdiction over state-court judgments, 28 U.S.C. § 1257, precludes a United States district court from exercising subject-matter jurisdiction in an action it would otherwise be empowered to adjudicate under a congressional grant of authority, e.g., ยง 1330 (suits ...

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