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Domestic Relations Exception Bars Diversity Action for Child Support

In the course of Plaintiff's state court divorce proceedings, Defendant had been revealed as biological father of Plaintiff's two children. Plaintiff thereafter sued the Defendant in this diversity action under the Michigan Paternity Act, M.S.A. §25.492, for fraud and misrepresentation, and for intentional infliction of emotional harm. Among other things, Plaintiff sought reimbursement for expenses of birth, maintenance, support and education from the birth of the children to the present. Defendant moved to dismiss based on the domestic relations exception to diversity jurisdiction, and also sought Burford abstention.

The court applied the domestic relations exception to dismiss the action. Under this exception, federal courts are required to decline jurisdiction in domestic relations cases when the primary issue concerns the status of parent and child or between spouses. This case would require the court to decide paternity and parental rights, a decision that could affect the state court divorce proceedings.

While the domestic relations exception was dispositive, the court also noted that the Burford abstention doctrine was clearly applicable. Under Burford v. Sun Oil Co., 319 U.S. 315 (1943), federal courts should decline jurisdiction to prevent "needless friction" between federal and state governments and their respective policy concerns. Here, the court would have to decide matters of Michigan public policy by determining the financial duties of a biological father in circumstances where he was not married to the mother.

Davis v. Hutton, Civil Action No. 96-74241 (Aug. 19, 1997) (Cohn, J.) (Docket No. 13, 7 pp.). This article was written by Ronald S. Longhofer, a partner in our Litigation Department, and previously appeared in the November 1997 edition of the Michigan Bar Journal.

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