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
on April 3, 2019
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
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,
OPINION OF THE COURT
HARDIMAN, CIRCUIT JUDGE.
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.
February 2011, Myronova sued Malhan for divorce in Hudson
County, New Jersey. 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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., § 1330