Does an Alabama Domestic Relations Case Belong in Federal Court?

Every now and then you read a case that makes you just sit back and say “duh.” Of course the court would rule this way, so why did this party waste the time to argue it? The latest example is Alabama v. Huffaker, Civil Action No. 08-680-KD-C (S.D. Al. January 26, 2009). It started as a conventional post-divorce modification case in state court, in which the mother asked the court to find the father in contempt for failing to pay alimony and child support and to modify the decree to provide for post-minority support. After the judge found the father in contempt and ordered him to pay alimony and child support arrearages, the father took the unusual step, pro se, of attempting to remove the case to the federal court.

The father’s argument was that the state court had denied him equal protection and due process and impaired his fundamental rights as a parent. He said that because Alabama’s child support guidelines were promulgated in response to federal mandates, federal law preempts state law, a breathtaking leap of logic.

In its opinion the district court said that the U.S. Supreme Court has identified only three statutes that completely preempt related state law claims: (a) portions of the Labor Management Relations Act, portions of the ERISA law governing retirement plans, and portions of the National Bank Act. “The Court found that complete preemption applied to those statutes because all three ‘provided the exclusive cause of action for the claim asserted and also set forth procedures and remedies governing that cause of action.'”

The court noted that the father had not named any Alabama domestic relations law that is in conflict with federal law and that he had in fact acknowledged that the Alabama child support guidelines were created in compliance with federal law. “Accordingly, the court finds that the domestic relations laws of the State of Alabama have not been completely preempted by federal law such that plaintiff’s petition ‘arises under’ federal law. Therefore, the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction.”

The district court remanded the case to state court. No mention in the opinion of attorneys’ fees to the mother for defending her interests in this exercise in futility.