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Liu v. Kell

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle

October 26, 2017

LI LIU, Plaintiff,
KEEGAN KELL, Defendant.



         This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiff Li Liu's motion for summary judgment on affirmative defenses raised by Defendant Keegan Kell (Dkt. No. 19), and Kell's cross-motion for summary judgment on the defense of res judicata (Dkt. No. 22). Having thoroughly considered the parties' briefing and the relevant record, the Court finds oral argument unnecessary and hereby GRANTS in part and DENIES in part Liu's motion (Dkt. No. 19), and DENIES Kell's motion (Dkt. No. 22) for the reasons explained herein.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The following facts are undisputed. Liu is a citizen of China and a permanent resident of the United States. (Dkt. No. 2 at 2.) She gained residency after marrying Kell, who served as her immigration sponsor. (Id. at 3.) As a condition of her visa, Kell signed a Form I-864EZ, Affidavit of Support (“I-864 Affidavit”). (Dkt. Nos. 2 at 3, 22 at 2.) The I-864 Affidavit represents a binding agreement between a sponsor and the U.S. government for the benefit of the sponsored immigrant. Erler v. Erler, 824 F.3d 1173, 1175 (9th Cir. 2016) (citing 8 U.S.C. § 1183a(a)(1); 8 C.F.R. § 213a.2(d)). Kell is obligated to provide sufficient support to Liu to ensure she receives income equal to at least “125 percent of the Federal poverty line during the period in which the affidavit is enforceable.” 8 U.S.C. § 1183a(a)(1)(A). This obligation remains enforceable until Liu: (1) becomes a U.S. citizen, (2) is credited with 40 quarters of coverage under the Social Security Act, (3) leaves the U.S. and terminates permanent resident status, (4) is the subject of a new affidavit of support, or (5) dies. 8 U.S.C. § 1183a(a)(2)-(3); 8 C.F.R. § 213a.2(e)(2)(i). None of these terminating events have occurred in this case (Dkt. No. 2 at 5.)

         The couple recently divorced. (Dkt. No. 22 at 6.) During the dissolution proceeding before the Thurston County Superior Court, Liu sought ongoing spousal maintenance, both on the basis of Washington's spousal maintenance requirements and on the basis of the I-864 Affidavit. (Dkt. Nos. 19 at 8, 22 at 2.) The court denied spousal maintenance. (Dkt. Nos. 22 at 6, 30 at 4.)

         Liu brings suit before this Court, seeking enforcement of the I-864 Affidavit. (Dkt. No. 2.) Kell asserts the following defenses: (1) res judicata, (2) failure to mitigate, (3) waiver, and (4) equitable estoppel. (Dkt. Nos. 11 at 6-7, 25 at 13-21.) Kell also seeks to reserve additional defenses as deemed “appropriate.” (Dkt. No. 11 at 7.) Liu asks the Court to grant summary judgment as to Kell's defenses, asserting none are permissible as a matter of law. (Dkt. No. 19 at 4.) Kell cross-moves for summary judgment, asserting Liu's claims are barred by res judicata because they were raised in the dissolution proceeding. (Dkt. No. 22.)


         As a threshold matter, Kell asserts Liu's motion should be characterized as a motion to strike under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(f). Kell provides no authority for this assertion. Moreover, this Court routinely treat motions presenting evidence beyond the pleadings as summary judgment motions. See, e.g., Rookaird v. BNSF Ry. Co., No. C14-0176-RSL, Dkt. No. 75 (W.D. Wash. June 2, 2015); Smith v. Ardew Wood Products, Ltd., C07-5641-RJB, Dkt. No. 63 (W.D. Wash. Jan. 5, 2009). As both of the parties' motions present significant evidence beyond the pleadings, the Court will treat each as motions for summary judgment.

         A. Summary Judgment Standard

         The Court grants summary judgment if the moving party shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). In doing so, the Court must view the facts and justifiable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). Summary judgment is appropriate against a party who “fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986). However, if the defendant moves for summary judgment based on an affirmative defense, the defendant “must establish beyond peradventure all of the essential elements of the . . . defense to warrant judgment in his favor.” Martin v. Alamo Cmty. College Dist., 353 F.3d 409, 412 (5th Cir. 2003).

         B. Res Judicata

         Kell moves for summary judgment on the basis of res judicata; namely, that Liu is precluded from litigating her claim to enforce the I-864 Affidavit because she already could have, and indeed did, raise the issue in her dissolution proceeding before the Thurston County Superior Court (Dkt. No. 22 at 6). Conversely, Liu moves for summary judgment on Kell's res judicata defense, asserting that it is impermissible as a matter of law. (Dkt. No. 19 at 6.) Liu has the better argument.

         The doctrine of res judicata ensures the finality of judgments by preventing parties from litigating a matter that has been or could have been litigated. See Marino Prop. Co. v. Port Comm'rs of the Port of Seattle, 644 P.2d 1181, 1184-85 (Wash. 1982). To determine whether the doctrine bars a suit, the Court looks to the res judicata rules of the state from which the original judgment arises. See Marrese v. American Acad. of Orthopaedic Surgeons, 470 U.S. 373, 380 (1985) (full faith and credit statute dictates that states determine the preclusive effect of their judgments). Under Washington law, if a court, in a marital dissolution action, “did not adjudicate an action for breach of the sponsor's I-864 obligation, ” then the obligee “will not be precluded from asserting her I-864 contract right in a separate action.” In re Marriage of Khan 332 P.3d 1016, 1020 (2014). As discussed below, the undisputed evidence indicates that the Thurston County Superior Court did not adjudicate Kell's I-864 support obligation during the dissolution action. On this basis, res judicata is inapplicable.

         Kell points to four instances where Liu referenced the I-864 Affidavit and chacterizes her statements as asserting a breach of contract claim. (Dkt. No. 22 at 13.) The Court disagrees. Liu's statements are better characterized as equitable ...

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