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Sullivan v. Office of Texas Attorney General

United States District Court, W.D. Texas, El Paso Division

April 15, 2019




         On this day, the Court considered the following submissions in the above-captioned cause:

• Defendant Arizona Department of Economic Security's [hereinafter “Arizona DES”] “Motion to Dismiss First Amended Complaint” (ECF No. 20) [hereinafter “Arizona DES Motion”], filed on December 19, 2018;
• Plaintiff Larry Neal Sullivan's [hereinafter “Plaintiff”] “Answer to ADES Motion to Dismiss First Amended Complaint” (ECF No. 23) [hereinafter “Response to Arizona DES”], filed on January 7, 2019;
• Arizona DES's “Reply in Support of its Motion to Dismiss” (ECF No. 24) [hereinafter “Arizona DES Reply”], filed on January 14, 2019;
• Plaintiff Larry Neal Sullivan's [hereinafter “Plaintiff”] “Supplemental Answer to ADES Motion to Dismiss” (ECF No. 28) [hereinafter “Surreply to Arizona DES”], filed on January 31, 2019;[1]
• Defendant Office of the Attorney General of Texas's [hereinafter “Texas OAG”] “Motion to Dismiss Pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6)” (ECF No. 25) [hereinafter “Texas OAG Motion”], filed on January 18, 2019;
• Plaintiff's “Answer to Texas OAG Motion to Dismiss First Amended Complaint” (ECF No. 29) [hereinafter “Response to Texas OAG”], filed on February 6, 2019;
• Texas OAG's “Reply in Support of Motion to Dismiss” (ECF No. 30) [hereinafter “Texas OAG Reply”], filed on February 12, 2019; and
• Plaintiff's “Sur-reply to OAG Reply in Support of Motion” (ECF No. 42) [hereinafter “Surreply to Texas OAG”], filed on March 20, 2019.

         After due consideration, the Court is of the opinion that Arizona DES's and Texas OAG's Motions should be granted and the above-captioned cause should be dismissed, for the reasons that follow.


         This case arises out of a dispute challenging state actions related to child support payments. Plaintiff and his former spouse married in 2009. Sullivan v. Lepage-Sullivan, No. 07-15-00081-CV, 2017 WL 393981, at *1 (Tex. App. Jan. 25, 2017).[2] They have one marital child, who was adopted during the marriage. Id. “In the Fall of 2012, the marital relationship deteriorated, ” and in February 2013, Plaintiff's wife moved from Texas to Arizona. Id. at *2. Both spouses filed for divorce in Lubbock, Texas, in February 2013. Id. A final divorce hearing was held in September 2013, and “[m]ore than fourteen months after the final hearing was held, ” a final divorce decree was entered in December 2014. Id. According to Plaintiff, at the time of the divorce hearing, Plaintiff held regular employment; however, Plaintiff's regular employment ended in June 2014. Am. Compl. 7. Plaintiff alleges that the final divorce decree and child support order “completely disregard[ed] the downturn in [his] financial circumstances.” Id.

         Thereafter, the Texas trial court refused to hear a request to modify Plaintiff's child support on jurisdictional grounds. Id. at 15. Because the child had moved to Arizona with Plaintiff's former spouse for a sufficient amount of time, the Texas court determined that Arizona had become the child's “home state” and that any modifications must occur in Arizona. Id. Then, in March 2015, Plaintiff filed a petition to modify the child support order in Pinal County, Arizona. Id. Plaintiff alleges that the Arizona court dismissed the motion ex parte and that Plaintiff did not receive notice or a hearing. Id. at 16-17.

         According to Plaintiff, “[i]n May 2015 Arizona DES used administrative process without a pre-enforcement adversarial hearing to garnish the Petitioner's SSA monthly old age benefit without prior notice or opportunity to be heard.” Id. at 23. At some point, Plaintiff declared bankruptcy; however, because “child support arrears are not dischargeable in bankruptcy, ” Plaintiff remains responsible for thousands of dollars in unpaid child support obligations. Id. at 24. Additionally, Petitioner alleges that “BOTH [Texas's and Arizona's] state-sponsored collection agencies are claiming the right to enforce” Plaintiff's outstanding child support obligations. Id. at 25.

         Plaintiff appealed his divorce decree to a Texas Court of Appeals, and his appeal was decided in January 2017. Sullivan, 2017 WL 393981, at *1. In his appeal, Plaintiff raised several alleged “points of error” challenging the trial court's factual determinations. Id. at *4-8. Additionally, Plaintiff raised “fundamental errors, ” including alleged constitutional violations. Id. at *8-11. Specifically, Plaintiff “claim[ed] denial of substantive and procedural due process as well as violation of equal protection rights.” Am. Compl. 8.

         According to the Texas Court of Appeals, Plaintiff alleged that the Texas Family Code § 143.133 was unconstitutional as applied to him and offended notions of substantive due process. Sullivan, 2017 WL 393981, at *9. Additionally, Plaintiff asserted that the statutory presumptions in the Texas Family Code § 154.122 were unjust and inappropriate. Id. Further, Plaintiff asserted that the trial court abused its discretion because of its delay in entering the final divorce decree. Id. at *11. The Texas Court of Appeals overruled each of Plaintiff's constitutional claims. Id. at *9-11. Plaintiff expresses frustration with the Texas Court of Appeals' decision. In particular, Plaintiff asserts that the Court of Appeals “completely ignored [his] equal protection claims.” Am. Compl. 10. He also criticizes the Court of Appeals' reasoning regarding his due process claims and characterizes its analysis as “conclusory-begs-the-question remarks.” Id. at 11.

         Plaintiff, an attorney who represents himself in this action, filed his initial “Complaint for Violations of Constitutional Rights” (ECF No. 7) on October 24, 2018, and his “First Amended Complaint for Violations of Constitutional Rights” (ECF No. 11) [hereinafter “Amended Complaint”] on November 6, 2018. Now, in federal court, Plaintiff again challenges his child support proceedings as well as state statutes underlying the child support systems. According to Plaintiff, “[t]his dispute is about whether and how federal equal protection and due process clauses of the U.S. Constitution protect a child support obligor in an interstate setting.” Am. Compl. 1.

         Specifically, Plaintiff challenges the right of Texas OAG “to seize an IRA and any of ‘all other [unspecified] accounts' to satisfy alleged child support arrears, or to garnish wages or SSA benefits.” Id. at 2. Additionally, Plaintiff challenges the Arizona DES's rights to enforce the child support order at issue. Id. Plaintiff argues that “errors of accounting” underlie his child support calculations and “cannot be resolved by litigating separately with either Texas OAG or Arizona DES.” Id. at 3. Plaintiff also requests that the Court assert supplemental jurisdiction over his motion to modify child support, which is pending in Arizona state court. Id. at 4.

         Arizona DES and Texas OAG filed motions to dismiss. Arizona DES asserts that the Court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction because the suit is barred by the Eleventh Amendment, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, and the Younger abstention doctrine. Arizona DES Mot. 4-9. Additionally, Arizona DES avers that the Court lacks personal jurisdiction over it because (1) the Texas long-arm statute does not reach Arizona DES, (2) asserting jurisdiction over the agency would violate due process, and (3) Arizona is a non-jural entity incapable of being sued. Id. at 9-16. Finally, Arizona DES avers that Plaintiff fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6). Id. at 16-19.

         In its Motion, Texas OAG avers that the claims against it are barred by Eleventh Amendment immunity and the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. Texas OAG Mot. 4-7. Moreover, Texas OAG contends that Plaintiff's claims are barred by the domestic relations exception to diversity jurisdiction. Id. at 7. Finally, Texas OAG alleges that, “[t]o the extent that [Plaintiff] alleges claims other than those based on constitutional challenges under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the legal bases for these claims are unclear and they must therefore be dismissed for failure to state claims for which relief may be granted.” Id. at 8.


         A. Rule 12(b)(1): Lack of Subject-Matter Jurisdiction

         If a court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction over a claim for relief, then it must dismiss the claim. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1). Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, and therefore have power to adjudicate claims only when jurisdiction is conferred by statute or the Constitution. Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994); Stockman v. Fed. Election Comm'n, 138 F.3d 144, 151 (5th Cir. 1998). A case is properly dismissed for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction when the court lacks the statutory or constitutional power to adjudicate the case. Home Builders Ass'n of Miss., Inc. v. City of Madison, 143 F.3d 1006, 1010 (5th Cir. 1998). Once a defendant files a motion under Rule 12(b)(1), the plaintiff bears the burden of establishing that the court possesses subject-matter jurisdiction over the dispute. Ramming v. United States, 281 F.3d 158, 161 (5th Cir. 2001) (citing Menchaca v. Chrysler Credit Corp., 613 F.2d 507, 511 (5th Cir. 1980)).

         B. Rule 12(b)(2): Lack of Personal Jurisdiction

         The Texas long-arm statute “has been interpreted to extend to the limits of due process.” Stuart v. Spademan,772 F.2d 1185, 1189 (5th Cir. 1985) (citations omitted). “For due process to be satisfied, (1) the non-resident defendant must have ‘minimum contacts' with the forum state resulting from an affirmative act on the defendant's part, and (2) the contacts must be such that the exercise of jurisdiction over the person of the defendant does not offend ‘traditional notions of fair play and substantial ...

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