Federal Court Dismisses Civil Rights Claim in New York Child Support Case

FireworksWhen the parents of one or more minor children file for divorce in New York, a court must make or approve arrangements for the support of the child or children. The child support obligation becomes part of the final judgment of divorce, and it is enforceable like any other court order. Since child support enforcement can involve prosecution in the court system by a state agency, various constitutional concerns can potentially come into play. A New York federal court recently ruled that it lacked jurisdiction to hear a child support obligor’s civil rights claim against the family court officials. The court dismissed the obligor’s claim in Kneitel v. Palos, et al. with prejudice, meaning he is barred from filing it again.

Federal law allows individuals to file suit against federal, state, or local government officials for depriving them “of any rights, privileges, or immunities” while acting in an official capacity. A claim filed under this law is known as a “1983 claim,” after the law’s codification in 42 U.S.C. § 1983. It allows claims for violations of due process, equal protection, and other constitutional rights. Certain public officials may be protected from liability for certain acts, however, and federal courts lack jurisdiction over certain matters.

The Constitution and a wide range of statutes and court decisions have established that the federal government has exclusive jurisdiction over certain matters, the states have exclusive jurisdiction over others, and on many other matters they share jurisdiction. Domestic relations, including divorce, alimony, and child support, have generally remained under the jurisdiction of state governments and state laws. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed this view, beginning in 1859 in Barber v. Barber, in 1890’s In re Burrus ruling, and in 2004 in Elk Grove Unif. Sch. Dist. v. Newdow.

The plaintiff/obligor in Kneitel filed a 1983 lawsuit in federal court against several officials of the New York Unified Court System, claiming violations of his constitutional rights in connection with ongoing child support enforcement and modification proceedings. He raised three claims:  one involving a petition to reduce his child support obligation, one involving a separate motion to terminate child support, and one involving a claim that the court system “has demonstrated beyond any doubt that it is incapable of handling these judicial matters with any degree of fairness or reasonable degree of expeditiousness” and that it is “incapable of conducting full and fair hearings.”

The court ruled that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the plaintiff’s claims under the domestic relations exception. It also found that it lacked jurisdiction under the RookerFeldman doctrine, which is based on two U.S. Supreme Court rulings and prohibits federal courts from hearing cases seeking to overturn orders from state courts. Finally, it found that the State of New York was immune from suit in federal court under the Eleventh Amendment, and that state judicial officials were protected by the doctrine of absolute judicial immunity.

The court dismissed the case with prejudice and cautioned the obligor about “filing repetitious and duplicative actions.” The obligor had previously filed a very similar claim, and the court had previously dismissed it in 2011.

An experienced and skilled child support attorney with knowledge of New York law and of the New York City court system can help you better understand your rights and obligations in a family law matter and can advocate on your behalf both in and out of court. Ingrid Gherman has practiced family law in New York City for more than 30 years. To schedule a confidential consultation to see how we can help you, contact us today online or at (212) 941-0767.

More Blog Posts:

Former Spouse Seeks to Enforce Money Judgment in New York Divorce Case from Retirement Plan, Other Assets, New York Divorce Attorney, May 9, 2016

New York Child Support Obligor Appeals Finding of “Willful” Violation of Order, New York Divorce Attorney, May 4, 2016

Possible Consequences of Failing to Pay Child Support in a New York Family Law Case, New York Divorce Attorney, February 23, 2016

Photo credit: Anthony Quintano [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr.