Family Law Keyed to Weisberg

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Ankenbrandt v. Richards

Citation. Ankenbrandt v. Richards, 504 U.S. 689, 112 S. Ct. 2206, 119 L. Ed. 2d 468, 1992 U.S. LEXIS 3547, 60 U.S.L.W. 4532, 92 Cal. Daily Op. Service 4978, 92 Daily Journal DAR 7953, 6 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S 400 (U.S. June 15, 1992)

Brief Fact Summary. Petitioner sought to bring a federal tortious action against respondents for the abuse of her children based on diversity-of-citizenship. The district court dismissed the action based on the domestic relations exception to diversity jurisdiction.

Synopsis of Rule of Law. The domestic relations exception to diversity jurisdiction applies only to the power of the federal courts to issue divorce, alimony, or child custody decrees.

Facts. Petitioner Carol Ankenbrandt brought suit on behalf of her daughters against respondents Jon Richards and Debra Kesler seeking monetary damages for alleged sexual and physical abuse of the daughters. Petitioner, a citizen of Missouri brought suit in federal court against respondents, citizens of Louisiana, based on the diversity-of-citizenship provision of Section: 1332. Richards was the divorced father of the children and Kesler his female companion. The District Court granted respondents’ motion to dismiss based on the “domestic relations” exception to diversity jurisdiction.

Issue. Is there a domestic relations exception to federal jurisdiction, and if such an exception exists, does it permit a district court to abstain from exercising diversity jurisdiction in a tort action for damages?

Held. Federal subject-matter jurisdiction is proper in this case pursuant to Section:1332 because the domestic relations exception encompasses only cases involving the issuance of a divorce, alimony, or child custody decree.
Previous federal precedent disclaimed any jurisdiction upon the subject of divorce, or for the allowance of alimony. Although technically dicta, this formed the basis for excluding domestic relations cases. Because this rule has been recognized for nearly a century and a half, the Court will continue to recognize the limitation.

The Constitution does not exclude domestic relations cases. It exists as a matter of statutory construction not based on historical justifications, but rather on Congress’ apparent acceptance of this construction. However, this limitation on jurisdiction applies only to the power of the federal courts to issue divorce, alimony, or child custody decrees.

Discussion. The domestic relations exception applies even in cases where the plaintiffs establish the requisite diversity of citizenship and amount in controversy.