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ROBINSON v. ROBINSON

August 3, 1981

Sandra ROBINSON
v.
Phillip B. ROBINSON



The opinion of the court was delivered by: CAHN

Plaintiff in this diversity action, Sandra Robinson, brings suit against her ex-husband, defendant Phillip B. Robinson. Plaintiff's Complaint contains eight counts, among them charges of theft, burglary, breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, fraud, deceit, extortion, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. At issue here is defendant's Motion to Stay or Abate this Court's proceedings or to dismiss plaintiff's Complaint. For the reasons stated herein, I will grant defendant's Motion to Dismiss Counts II, III, and so much of Count IV as does not deal with extortion ("the contract claims"), and will deny defendant's motion as to all other claims ("the tort claims").

I. FACTS

 Phillip and Sandra Robinson were married on October 19, 1958. On July 7, 1977, they entered into a "Settlement Agreement" in which they declared that they intended to separate. The Settlement Agreement also provided for marital property distribution, settlement of claims, and Mrs. Robinson's support. The Settlement Agreement stated that the couple's three children were living with Mr. Robinson, but did not determine which parent would receive permanent custody.

 On November 14, 1977, Phillip and Sandra Robinson were divorced by the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division. The divorce decree explicitly incorporated the Settlement Agreement into the judgment, but the court noted that it had not decided the fairness or equitableness of that Agreement. Order of November 14, 1977, Robinson v. Robinson, Docket No. M-3195-77 (N.J.Super.Ch.Div.).

 From then on, plaintiff alleges that defendant harassed her with phone calls, assaulted her, raped her twice, burglarized her apartment, and unlawfully appropriated her funds. Plaintiff also alleges that defendant did not fully and fairly disclose his true financial position to her prior to negotiating the Settlement Agreement. She charges that this conduct amounted to breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, fraud, and deceit. Counts II, III, and part of IV cover these contract claims, while the tort claims ask for damages for theft, burglary, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

 II. DISCUSSION

 A. THE DOMESTIC RELATIONS ABSTENTION DOCTRINE.

 Traditionally, the federal courts have chosen not to adjudicate cases involving domestic relations. These cases are dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Solomon v. Solomon, 516 F.2d 1018 (3d Cir. 1975). This doctrine is not premised on explicit statutory language limiting the jurisdictional authority of federal courts, but has been judicially created, id. at 1021, through dicta in a series of decisions of the United States Supreme Court. Ohio ex rel. Popovici v. Agler, 280 U.S. 379, 50 S. Ct. 154, 74 L. Ed. 489 (1930); De La Rama v. De La Rama, 201 U.S. 303, 26 S. Ct. 485, 50 L. Ed. 765 (1906); Simms v. Simms, 175 U.S. 162, 20 S. Ct. 58, 44 L. Ed. 115 (1899); In re Burrus, 136 U.S. 586, 10 S. Ct. 850, 34 L. Ed. 500 (1890); Barber v. Barber, 62 U.S. (21 How.) 582, 16 L. Ed. 226 (1859). This doctrine has often been criticized, Spindel v. Spindel, 283 F. Supp. 797 (E.D.N.Y.1968); see also Solomon v. Solomon, 516 F.2d 1018 (3d Cir. 1975) (Gibbons, J., dissenting); Phillips, Nizer, Benjamin, Krim & Ballon v. Rosenstiel, 490 F.2d 509 (2d Cir. 1973).

 The facts of the present case suggest that it would be appropriate to invoke the domestic relations Abstention doctrine as to the contract claims here. While plaintiff's attorney argues that this action merely requests reformation of a simple contract, a marital settlement agreement is not a simple contract. Rogers v. Rogers, No. 78 Civ. 826-CSH (S.D.N.Y. May 19, 1978).

 "(W)hile the disposition of the claim may not require application of domestic relations expertise, the fact that such adjudication will significantly alter marital rights and duties decreed by the state is sufficient to bring the case within the matrimonial exception. Even if the case is not conceived as falling directly into that exception, it is at the very least, on its periphery, which is an equally forbidden region for the federal courts, Phillips, Nizer, et al., supra, at 516." Id.

 The reasoning of the Rogers court applies with equal force here.

 As a matter of policy and comity, local problems of a domestic nature should be decided in state courts.

 "Domestic relations is a field peculiarly suited to state regulation and control, and peculiarly unsuited to control by federal courts." Magaziner v. Montemuro, 468 F.2d 782, 787 (3d Cir. 1972), citing Buechold v. Ortiz, 401 F.2d 371, 373 (9th Cir. 1968). Federal courts, and especially the courts of this Circuit, "have steered a course away from domestic relations cases." Magaziner v. Montemuro, 468 F.2d 782, 787 (3d Cir. 1972). Abstention is especially appropriate on the contract claims here because there is ...


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