On June 27, 2014, the Second Circuit issued a decision in Leskinen v. Halsey, 13-1157-CV, limiting the application of the probate exception to federal jurisdiction.
In Leskinen, the EDNY dismissed a plaintiff’s RICO and related state-law claims against “various relatives and other participants in the sale of real property once owned by her late grandmother,” holding “that the probate exception to federal jurisdiction precluded its adjudication of [the plaintiff’s] claims because they directly target the administration of her grandmother’s estate, including the allegedly improper disposition of real property.” While the Second Circuit ultimately found alternate grounds to uphold the EDNY’s dismissal, it held that the probate exception did not apply, explaining:
This court . . . has narrowly construed the probate exception to apply only if a plaintiff seeks either to (1) administer an estate, probate a will, or do any other purely probate matter, or (2) to reach a res in the custody of a state court. Nothing in the record demonstrates that [the plaintiff] seeks to reach a res in the custody of a state court. Insofar as she sues for racketeering, common law fraud, willful negligence, and negligent misrepresentation, the relief sought may be at odds with concluded state probate proceedings, but the claims do not themselves ask the district court to administer an estate, probate a will, or perform another purely probate matter. In such circumstances, we cannot conclude that federal jurisdiction is lacking.
(Internal quotations and citations omitted) (emphasis added).
The domestic relations exception to diversity jurisdiction, which divests federal courts of power to issue divorce, alimony, and child custody decrees, is generally well-known. But the Witness Security Reform Act of 1984 (the “Program Statute”), which deals with the federal witness protection program, creates a rare exception to the exception by expressly creating a right of action for domestic relations matters in federal courts where the Program Statute applies.
In Garmhausen v. Corridan, 07-CV-2565 (ARR)(LB) (E.D.N.Y. Feb. 25, 2014), Judge Allyne R. Ross had to decide whether a child custody dispute involving a parent who had left protective custody would nevertheless benefit from the Program Statute’s federal right of action. Plaintiff, the father of the child at issue, argued that the Program Statute no longer applied once the mother left protective custody, and therefore the court did not have subject matter jurisdiction over the dispute. The government, appearing on behalf of the mother, argued that the court had jurisdiction–even though the mother had been removed from the witness protection program—because the terms of the Program Statute continued to apply. According to Judge Ross, this was a matter of first impression.
The statute makes itself applicable “to any person provided protection” under the program. The government argued that “once someone is ‘provided’ protection, their lives change in immeasurable ways—e.g., new identities, cessation of communication with loved ones, removal to a new state—and they do not typically revert to their former identities or lives when any physical protection ends.” Id. at 5. In essence, the government’s position was that the court retained jurisdiction because once a witness is in the program, he or she never leaves. Judge Ross agreed, finding as a policy matter that it was important to extend the Program Statute’s protections “because of the ongoing relationship that continues in place between Corridan and the Program.”