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Aernam v. Nenno

June 9, 2006

KENNETH VAN AERNAM, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL L. NENNO, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: John T. Curtin United States District Judge

On January 25, 2006, plaintiff Kenneth Van Aernam, a member of the Seneca Nation of Indians, filed a complaint in this court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for declaratory and injunctive relief against defendant Michael L. Nenno, an Acting New York State Supreme Court Justice. The next day, on January 26, 2006, plaintiff filed a motion (Item 2) for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunctive relief to prevent Justice Nenno from exercising jurisdiction over a divorce action brought in New York State Supreme Court, Cattaraugus County, by plaintiff's spouse, Jean Van Aernam. Plaintiff claims that Justice Nenno's rulings in the state court action are in conflict with a default divorce decree entered in an action previously filed by plaintiff in the Seneca Nation's Peacemakers Court. The Seneca Nation has moved (Item 16) to intervene as a plaintiff pursuant to Rule 24 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

Prior to the filing of responsive pleadings, the court directed briefing on threshold jurisdictional issues and other matters relating to the injunctive relief sought by plaintiff, and conducted a hearing on May 22, 2006.*fn1 Having considered the positions of the parties and proposed intervenor, the court now makes the following ruling in accordance with Fed. R. Civ. P. 52(a) and 65(d).

FINDINGS OF FACT

A. The Underlying State and Tribal Court Divorce Actions

Plaintiff and Jean Van Aernam were married in 1976, and resided on the Seneca Nation's Cattaraugus Reservation for several years after their marriage. Jean Van Aernam is not a member of the Seneca Nation.

In January 2004, Jean Van Aernam commenced a divorce action in New York State Supreme Court, Cattaraugus County, which was assigned to Justice Nenno. Plaintiff duly appeared in that action, and subsequently moved to dismiss it on the ground that it had not properly been filed. Prior to ruling on the motion to dismiss, Justice Nenno issued orders granting Jean Van Aernam various forms of relief, including temporary maintenance of $400 per week, exclusive occupancy of the marital residence, an award of temporary attorneys' fees in the amount of $5,000, and forensic accounting fees in the amount of $5,000 (Item 27, Ex. A; see also Item 3, ¶ 3).

The state court divorce action remained pending until May 27, 2005, when Justice Nenno granted Kenneth Van Aernam's motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, based on Jean Van Aernam's failure to file the initiatory summons with the Cattaraugus County Clerk (see Item 27, Exs. C & D).*fn2 That same day, Kenneth Van Aernam filed a petition for divorce in the Peacemakers Court of the Seneca Nation. Jean Van Aernam was served with a copy of the petition, but did not appear before the tribal court. On July 13, 2005, the tribal court entered a "default divorce decree" granting plaintiff a divorce on grounds of "irreconcilable differences" (see Item 3, Ex. A). The decree also directed plaintiff to pay maintenance of $400 per week along with health insurance and other financial obligations, and to provide lodging and use of a car (id.). This decree was entered as a final order of the tribal court on August 1, 2005 (see id., Ex. B).

Meanwhile, on or about June 20, 2005, Jean Van Aernam commenced a new divorce action in New York State Supreme Court, assigned Index No. 70026. Plaintiff again moved to dismiss, this time on the ground that it was barred by res judicata by virtue of the decree of the Peacemakers Court (see Item 1, ¶ 11). In opposition to this motion, Jean Van Aernam argued that under New York Indian Law § 46, the Peacemakers Court lacked jurisdiction over the divorce action because she is not a member of the Seneca Nation. On November 2, 2005, Justice Nenno denied plaintiff's motion, and issued an order in favor of Mrs. Van Aernam directing plaintiff to make payments for temporary maintenance in the amount of $2,000 per week, attorneys' fees in the amount of $10,000, and forensic accounting fees in the amount of $10,000 (see Item 3, Ex. C). Plaintiff's appeal from this order is pending in the Appellate Division of New York State Supreme Court, Fourth Department.

Jean Van Aernam subsequently filed a motion in state court seeking to hold plaintiff in contempt for failing to comply with Justice Nenno's order. Justice Nenno scheduled a hearing on the contempt motion for January 27, 2006.

B. The Federal Court Action

As mentioned above, plaintiff commenced this action two days prior to the scheduled state court contempt hearing. Plaintiff alleges federal jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1343,*fn3 and seeks redress under 42 U.S.C. § 1983*fn4 for deprivation of his rights under the Constitution, laws, and treaties of the United States. In his subsequently filed motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction, plaintiff sought the immediate relief of preventing the contempt hearing from going forward, and also seeks an order declaring that Justice Nenno has no authority to exercise jurisdiction over the matrimonial action brought by Jean Van Aernam because:

1. The issues have previously been determined by the Seneca Nation's tribal court, pursuant to the Nation's right of self-government as recognized in the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua and the United States Constitution;

2. Under 25 U.S.C. § 233, the state court is prohibited from exercising civil jurisdiction in matters involving alienation of Indian lands, including Jean Van Aernam's claim for equitable distribution of marital property;

3. Under the federal common law doctrine of tribal exhaustion, Jean Van Aernam is required to fully pursue her claims in the tribal courts with respect to their jurisdiction over the matrimonial action (see Item 1, ¶¶ 18-21).

On February 6, 2006, this court issued an order (Item 5) denying plaintiff's motion for a temporary restraining order as moot upon receiving information that Justice Nenno had adjourned the state court contempt hearing until a future date.*fn5 The court also directed the parties to submit briefs on the issue as to whether a federal district court may exercise jurisdiction over an action to enjoin proceedings in state court. Then, on February 27, 2006, this court issued a further order (Item 14) granting the request of counsel for the Seneca Nation for permission to be heard on the jurisdictional issue. The Seneca Nation responded with the motion to intervene as a plaintiff "in order to protect its sovereign right of self-government and the integrity of its judicial system" (Item 18, p.1).

In its order, this court denied plaintiff's motion for a temporary restraining order as moot upon receiving information that Justice Nenno had adjourned the state court contempt hearing until a future date, then undetermined. The court also directed the parties to submit briefs on the issue as to whether a federal district court may exercise jurisdiction over an action to enjoin ongoing proceedings in state court.

In response to the court's February 6, 2006 order, defendant Nenno submitted a memorandum of law (Item 6)*fn6 setting forth the following arguments:

1. This court cannot proceed unless and until Jean Van Aernam is joined as both a necessary and indispensable party to this action, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 19;

2. This court should abstain from determining whether Justice Nenno has jurisdiction over the matrimonial action until the state appellate courts have first decided the issue, citing the Anti-Injunction Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2283; Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971); Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413 (1923), and District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 (1983) (the "Rooker/Feldman doctrine"), and People ex rel. Kennedy v. Tyler, 269 U.S. 13 (1925).

In reply (Item 10), plaintiff contends that these arguments do not directly address the court's concerns, expressed in the February 6 order, about jurisdictional impediments to the federal court action. Responding to defendant's joinder and abstention arguments, plaintiff contends that (1) Jean Van Aernam is not a necessary or indispensable party, and the action may proceed in her absence; and (2) none of the abstention doctrines cited by defendant applies to the circumstances presented here.

The Seneca Nation, as proposed intervenor, adds that the federal courts have repeatedly exercised subject matter jurisdiction to enjoin ongoing state court proceedings and to issue corresponding declaratory relief when necessary to preserve sovereign tribal rights against state encroachment (see generally Item 18).

CONCLUSIONS OF LAW

A. Jurisdiction

The issue is not particularly well settled as to whether a federal district court may exercise jurisdiction over a section 1983 action brought by a member of an Indian tribe seeking to enjoin a state court judge from proceeding in a state court civil case while a parallel action is pending in a tribal court. Fortunately for this court, many of the very same arguments made by the parties (and the Seneca Nation) in this case have been considered and addressed in this district, in a somewhat different context, by Chief Judge Richard J. Arcara in Bowen v. Doyle, 880 F. Supp. 99 (W.D.N.Y. 1995) ("Bowen I"), aff'd, 230 F.3d 525 (2d Cir. 2000) ("Bowen II").

In that case, New York State Supreme Court Justice Vincent E. Doyle, Jr. exercised jurisdiction over a suit brought in state court by individual members of the Seneca Nation to enjoin Dennis Bowen, who was then the newly elected President of the Seneca Nation, from attempting to remove and replace certain members of the Nation's Tribal Council who had been appointed by the immediate past President. After a lengthy evidentiary hearing, Justice Doyle granted the plaintiff tribe members' request for injunctive relief and issued an order enjoining Bowen from removing any of the plaintiffs from their positions, essentially counteracting the effect of orders issued in a parallel action previously brought by Bowen in the Seneca Nation's Peacemakers Court. Bowen appealed Justice Doyle's order, and moved for a stay pending appeal, but the state Appellate Division denied the request for a stay.

Bowen then filed a section 1983 action in federal court, which was assigned to Judge Arcara, seeking to enjoin Justice Doyle from continuing to exercise jurisdiction over the state court case. The federal complaint was accompanied by an application for a TRO and preliminary injunction to prevent the state court from conducting a contempt hearing to address Bowen's failure to comply with Justice Doyle's orders.

Bowen urged many of the same grounds in support of his claims for declaratory and injunctive relief as are asserted in Kenneth Van Aernam's complaint in this action. Bowen claimed, for example, that the Nation's right of self-government under the1794 Treaty of Canandaigua prevented the state court from exercising jurisdiction over matters involving internal tribal affairs, and that the state court defendants*fn7 were required to exhaust their tribal remedies by fully litigating their claims in the Peacemakers Court action that was filed prior to the state court action. Justice Doyle responded (as Justice Nenno now argues) that the federal court is barred ...


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