Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Erler v. Erler (9th Cir. - June 8, 2016)

When you sponsor someone to immigrate to the United States, you promise (in a binding document) to ensure that the person you sponsor won't become a "public charge" -- i.e., will at least have an income that's 125% above the federal poverty line.  That way a sponsor can't bring someone into the United States, abandon them, and then burden the state with his support.  If you're a sponsor, you're a sponsor.  You're responsible for that person's welfare.  Until they leave the U.S., become a citizen, work for 10 years, or dies.  That's the rule.

Yashar Erler sponsors his future wife, Ayla Erler, and Mrs. Erler immigrates to the United States and marries him.  Mr. Erler's worth $4.6 million, so he easily qualifies as a sponsor.  No problem.

The Erlers ultimately divorce.  At which point, pursuant to a prenup, Mrs. Erler gets no alimony or support.  Absolutely nothing.  She's totally on her own.

So now Mrs. Erler is, at least metaphorically, out on the streets.  She tries but fails to get a job, and she's living off food stamps.  That plus the charity of her adult son.  He's making less than $40,000 a year -- hardly a princely sum -- but lets his mother move into his apartment, pays her expenses, etc.

Has Mr. Erler violated his support obligations under the agreement?

He says no, because she's "making" $40,000 a year in a "household of two," since she's in the same "household" as her adult son once he takes her in.  That's above the poverty line.

She says yes, because she's "making" nothing, and is living off the charity of others -- her son and the state -- and her income (of essentially nothing) as a "household of one" is under the poverty line.

Who's right?

The district court said that Mr. Erler is right.  So does Judge Schroeder, who says that "[i]n my view, the district court got this difficult case right."

But the majority opinion in today's opinion says that Mrs. Erler's approach is the correct one.  The majority says that Mr. Erler "asks the court to adopt a rule allowing sponsors to escape their support obligations by withholding payments and waiting for charitable third parties to pick up the slack," and doesn't find such a rule persuasive.

I agree.  As between the majority opinion and Judge Schroeder, I find the majority opinion far more persuasive.

But I wonder if even the majority opinion gets it entirely right.

The majority says that you don't count support from others who pick up the slack, and I think that's correct.  That rule essentially disposes of the current case, or at least makes the district court's task on remand exceptionally clear.  Very good.

But the majority opinion says that, as a matter of law, a sponsor always is simply agreeing to support a "one-person" household -- i.e., the immigrant herself (assuming the sponsor doesn't also expressly sponsor someone else) -- at 125% of the poverty line.  As the majority opinion puts it:  "At the time a sponsor signs an affidavit of support for a single intending immigrant, he or she would reasonably expect that, if the immigrant separates from the sponsor’s household, the obligation of support would be based on a household size of one. . . . The sponsor would not reasonably expect the obligation of support to be based on a household that includes the sponsored immigrant or immigrants plus anyone else with whom the immigrant might choose to live."

I'm not so sure about that.  Not so sure at all.

It seems to me that when you sponsor an immigrant, at least in some cases, you should reasonably expect that you might well end up supporting others.  And, as someone who thought long and hard about sponsoring someone at one point, I'm fairly confident that a reasonable observer might well, in fact, reasonably consider their agreement as permissibly taking on precisely such a burden.

The classic example of this, in my view, arises precisely from circumstances similar to those that transpired here.  Mr. Erler sponsored someone whom he intended to be his wife.  What's one thing that could potentially happen once the parties get married?  I don't know the details of Mr. and Mrs. Erler in particular -- their ages, their intentions, their sexual practices, etc. -- but I can nonetheless give a general answer that will apply in lots of such "sponsor-my-wife" cases:  Kids.

The immigrant and her sponsor may well pound out a kid or two before getting divorced.  And, last I checked, it's pretty darn hard for a newborn child to support himself.  In my view, when you agree to support an immigrant and to make sure s/he doesn't become a public charge, that includes the duty to whomever that immigrant might reciprocally have a duty to support; e.g., their children.  So if that immigrant has kids -- let's say, two -- and then your duty is to make sure that the immigrant has an income that's 125% above the poverty line for a household of three.  Otherwise, the immigrant is precisely what we don't want her to be (and what you promised she wouldn't be):  a public charge, because even if she's making 125% of the income for a household of one, that's not what she has, and she's in fact receiving public assistance etc. since she can't support herself and her three children.

Admittedly, one advantage of the Ninth Circuit's rule is that it's a nice, bright-line rule:  Sponsors are always merely agreeing to a household of one.  That avoids uncertainty about extreme circumstances that I agree shouldn't extend the sponsor's burden; e.g., when an immigrant decides to support fifty unrelated individuals in her household, etc.

But we can resolve unusual cases on their own merits.  The advantages of a bright-line rule in avoiding silly extremes don't outweigh the benefits of a rule -- like mine -- that's generally right, albeit with the need to resolve some difficult cases at the margins.

I think that a sponsor agrees to provide sufficient income for a household of the size that might reasonably be expected under the circumstances.  For most people, that means their kid.  And that's true regardless of whether the immigrant's a man or a woman and whether the kids are biological or adopted.  When you sponsor someone, you're agreeing that you're going to support that person at 125% of the poverty line of whatever size their household ends up being.  If it turns out they have six children, well, you know what, these things happen.  You promised that you wouldn't be creating a social burden; e.g., making a public charge.  And if the immigrant has six kids (!) that need support, then s/he needs to make an income of 125% of the poverty line for her household of seven -- $46,000 a year -- then that's the deal you struck.

So I'm on board for the majority's resolution of the present case.  But I'd backtrack on the "you're only ever agreeing to support at a household of one" dicta.  I think that'd be bad law.  Bad law that a district court would nonetheless follow, and that would result in both inequitable consequences -- e.g. a guy worth $4.6 million being able to keep an ex-wife and her kids in poverty and on food stamps -- as well as an increase in social expenditures for public charges.

That's bad for everyone.  Or at least everyone but the one guy who gets to avoid the obligations that he voluntarily undertook.