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Anderson v. United States

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

February 22, 2018

INGE T. ANDERSON, Plaintiff,
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, et al., Defendants.


          A Robert S. Lasnik United States District Judge

         This matter comes before the Court on defendant United States' Motion to Dismiss. Dkt. #17. Plaintiff filed this action against her ex-husband, the United States of America, and the United States Air Force based on an alleged contract and torts arising from its breach. Defendants United States of America and United States Air Force (hereinafter, “the United States”) argue they should be dismissed entirely from the action pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P 12(b)(1) for lack of subject matter jurisdiction or alternatively pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim on which relief can be granted.

         The United States seeks dismissal of the claims against it on sovereign immunity grounds. Jurisdiction is a threshold matter that should be considered before addressing the merits of plaintiff's claims. Steel Co. v. Citizens for a Better Env't, 523 U.S. 83, 94-96 (1998). When evaluating its jurisdiction, the Court may consider facts outside of the four-corners of the complaint to assure itself that it does, in fact, have the power to hear this matter. Americopters, LCC v. Fed. Aviation Admin., 441 F.3d 726, 732 n.4 (9th Cir. 2006). The Court has, therefore, considered Form I-864, see; Dkt. #12 at 2 (taking judicial notice of the Form), and the motions and exhibits submitted by both plaintiff and the United States on this issue.

         The United States' Rule 12(b)(6) arguments require the Court to evaluate whether the facts alleged in the complaint sufficiently state a facially “plausible” ground for relief. Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). “All well-pleaded allegations of material fact in the complaint are accepted as true and are construed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.” Manzarek v. St. Paul Fire & Marine Ins. Co., 519 F.3d 1025, 1031 (9th Cir. 2008) (internal citation omitted). “A claim is facially plausible when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged. Plausibility requires pleading facts, as opposed to conclusory allegations or the formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action, and must rise above the mere conceivability or possibility of unlawful conduct that entitles the pleader to relief.” Somers v. Apple, Inc., 729 F.3d 953, 959-60 (9th Cir. 2013) (citing Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678-79 (2009); Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)) (internal quotations omitted). “Dismissal is proper only where there is no cognizable legal theory or an absence of sufficient facts alleged to support a cognizable legal theory.” Taylor v. Yee, 780 F.3d 928, 935 (9th Cir. 2015) (internal citation omitted).

         Dismissal without leave to amend is proper if it is clear the complaint could not be saved by any amendment. See United States v. Corinthian Colleges, 655 F.3d 984, 995 (9th Cir. 2011).

         I. Overview

         Plaintiff's claims are based on her ex-husband's submission of a Form I-864 in support of plaintiff's immigration to the United States. The Form allows persons in the United States to promise financial support for immigrants as a means of alleviating the government's concern that the immigrant will become a public charge. See Form I-864 creates a contract between the sponsor and the U.S. Government for the benefit of the sponsored immigrant and the benefit of any Federal, State, or local governmental agency or private entity that is called upon to provide any “means-tested public benefits” to the immigrant. Erler v. Erler, 824 F.3d 1173, 1175 (9th Cir. 2016) (citing 8 C.F.R. § 213a.2(d); 8 U.S.C. § 1183a(a)(1)).

         Plaintiff appears to raise the following claims against the United States: (1) breach of contract stemming from the United States' failure to compel defendant Anderson to fulfill his contractual obligations, Dkt. #3 at ¶ 3.1; (2) violation of Air Force Instruction 36-2906 §, stemming from the Air Force's failure to garnish defendant Anderson's wages to satisfy his alleged obligation to plaintiff under Form I-864, Dkt. #3 at ¶ 3.2; (3) negligence arising from the United States' failure to perform its obligations under Form I-864, Dkt. #3 at ¶ 3.4; (4) negligence arising from the failure to comply with Air Force Instruction 36-2906, Dkt. #3 at ¶ 3.5; and (5) intentional infliction of emotional distress arising from defendants' negligence. Dkt. #3 at ¶ 3.7.[1]

         II. Subject Matter Jurisdiction

         The United States argues that it should be dismissed entirely from this suit due to lack of subject matter jurisdiction based on sovereign immunity. The United States and its agencies are immune from suit absent “an express waiver of this immunity by Congress.” Tobar v. U.S., 639 F.3d 1191, 1195 (9th Cir. 2011) (quoting Block v. N.D. ex rel. Bd. of Univ. & Sch. Lands, 461 U.S. 273, 280 (1983)). As the United States Air Force is a federal agency, both it and the United States are entitled to sovereign immunity. Sovereign immunity is a legal protection that prevents a sovereign such as the United States from being sued without its consent. This protection is jurisdictional in nature. This means that if the United States does not consent to be sued, the Court cannot hear the claims. See F.D.I.C. v. Meyer, 510 U.S. 471, 475 (1994). Congress has waived the United States' sovereign immunity to limited types of suits through legislation. See Dep't of Army v. Blue Fox, Inc., 525 U.S. 255, 260 (1999). However, such waivers must be “unequivocally expressed in statutory text” and are strictly interpreted as to preserve the sovereign immunity of the United States. Lane v. Pena, 518 U.S. 187, 192 (1996). Therefore, absent an express waiver of sovereign immunity, plaintiff's claims against the United States and the United States Air Force cannot proceed.

         A. Form I-864 Claims

         Plaintiff brings two claims against the United States based directly on the Form I-864: a breach of contract claim and a negligence claim based on the breach of contract.

         The Tucker Act and its companion statute, the Little Tucker Act, waive United States sovereign immunity and permit money-damages claims based on “any express or implied contract with the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 1491(a)(1) (Tucker Act); 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(2) (Little Tucker Act); see United States v. Mitchell, 463 U.S. 206, 215 (1983) (Tucker Act); United States v. Bormes, 568 U.S. 6, 9-10 (2012) (Little Tucker Act). Taken together, the Acts provide the district courts and the Court of Federal Claims with concurrent jurisdiction over claims not exceeding $10, 000 and give the Court of Federal Claims exclusive jurisdiction over all other claims. See McGuire v. United States, 550 F.3d 903, 910-11 (9th Cir. 2008). To maintain a contract-based cause of action, “the contract must be between the plaintiff and the government and entitle the plaintiff to money damages in the event of the government's breach of that contract.” Ransom v. United States, 900 F.2d 242, 244 (Fed. Cir. 1990) (internal citations omitted). Direct third-party beneficiaries of government contracts may also sue. See Guardsman Elevator Co. v. United States, 50 Fed.Cl. 577, 580 (2001).

         It is undisputed that the Form I-864 is a contract between the sponsor and the United States. See Erler v. Erler, 824 F.3d 1173, 1175 (9th Cir. 2016); Dkt. #3 at ¶¶ 2.1 & 3.1.4; Dkt. #17 at 2. The Court also finds that plaintiff is a third-party beneficiary under the Form: the benefits to the immigrant are obvious and courts regularly allow immigrants to sue their sponsors to enforce their monetary rights under the contract. See Shumye v. Felleke, 555 F.Supp.2d 1020, 1024 (N.D. Cal. 2008). However, defendants are correct that plaintiff lacks the ability to sue the United States under the Form. Assuming the contract was breached, plaintiff has no right to money damages from the non-breaching party. The Form does not impose an obligation on the United States to make payments of any kind.[2] It simply states that government agencies may sue the sponsor for reimbursement due to support noncompliance. See Form I-864, part 8. While the Tucker Act can waive sovereign immunity and allow suits against the United States for breach of contract, it does not waive sovereign immunity for plaintiff in this case because, by the terms of the Form, plaintiff does not have a contractual right that can ...

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