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United States v. Li

United States District Court, D. Arizona

March 6, 2014

United States of America, Plaintiff,
Grace Xunmei Li, Defendant.


DAVID G. CAMPBELL, District Judge.

Defendant Grace Xunmei Li and Plaintiff United States of America ("the government") have both filed motions for summary judgment. Docs. 134, 157. The motions have been fully briefed, and the Court held oral argument on February 27, 2014. For the reasons stated below, the Court will deny the government's motion and grant Defendant's motion in part.

I. Background.

Li came to the United States in 1995 at the age of 25. Docs. 134 at 1, 151 at 8. Li met Antony Bambrough early that year at a swimming pool in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Doc. 135, ¶ 13, Doc. 151 at 8. The couple became romantically involved and were married two years later in February of 1997. Doc. 135 ¶¶ 14-18.

Li met Gang Chen in May of 1997. Id., ¶ 20, Doc. 161 at 16. Although the exact date on which their relationship became romantic is disputed, Li asserts that she and Chen began an affair in December 1998. Doc. 135, ¶ 20. Li alleges that "sometime" in 1998 she moved out of the house that she and Bambrough shared as a residence in Fort Lee, New Jersey, though the parties disagree on why she left. Doc. 161, ¶ 30. In August of 1998, Li and her mother purchased a house in Fort Lee where, according to Chen, he would "sometimes" stay. Doc. 161, ¶¶ 32-34.

Although she remained married to Bambrough, over the next several years Li gave birth to two daughters fathered by Chen. Doc. 135, ¶¶ 7-8. In 1999, before the birth of her first daughter, Li informed Bambrough, who was still her husband at the time, that the child she was expecting was not his. Id., ¶ 21, Doc. 161 at 20. The first daughter of Li and Chen was born in September 1999. Doc. 135, ¶ 27.

Li, Chen, and their daughter moved to California in 2000. Doc. 161, ¶¶ 72-73. They made an offer on a house together in December of that year. Id., ¶ 76. In 2002, Li gave birth to a second daughter, also fathered by Chen. Id., ¶ 28. At some point before July 5, 2002, Li and Chen went to the Santa Clara County Clerk's office and applied for a marriage license. Id., ¶¶ 42-43. On July 5, 2002, Li and Chen participated in a church wedding ceremony with family and friends that was presided over by a Lutheran pastor flown in from out of state. Id., ¶¶ 38, 41. The couple then hosted a post-ceremony banquet for their guests. Id., ¶ 38. The pastor who performed the ceremony believed the marriage was legitimate. Id., ¶ 42. After the ceremony, a copy of the marriage license was sent to and recorded by the Santa Clara County Recorder's Office. Id., ¶ 50. Li was fully aware that she was married to Bambrough at the time of the ceremony with Chen. Id., ¶ 35.

The government asserts that Li and Chen thereafter represented themselves as husband and wife in a series of contracts and legal documents. Doc. 151 at 10-11. For example, the government submits evidence that they purchased a house, replied to a legal complaint under penalty of perjury, refinanced a home, submitted a residential loan application, purchased a second house, and filed tax returns, all as husband and wife. Doc. 152, ¶¶ 119-147. Li provides no evidence to the contrary, nor does she dispute the validity of the documents cited by the government. Despite her relationship with Chen, Li remained married to Antony Bambrough until they divorced in 2004. Doc. 135, ¶ 52.

Eight months after her divorce from Bambrough, on September 24, 2004, Li submitted an N-400 application for naturalization to become a U.S. citizen. Id., ¶ 57. Li represented on the application that she was (1) divorced, (2) childless, (3) had been married only once, (4) had never committed a crime or offense for which she was not arrested, and (5) had never been married to more than one person at a time. Id., ¶ 59. On April 18, 2005, Li met with Officer Que-Huong Nguyen for her naturalization interview. Id., ¶ 60. Li's application for naturalization was approved that day and Li became a U.S. citizen on May 5, 2005. Id., ¶ 60-62.

In 2008, Li was charged with conspiracy to commit naturalization fraud under 18 U.S.C. § 371 and unlawful procurement of naturalization of citizenship under 18 U.S.C. § 1425. Li pled guilty in August of 2009 in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California to a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1015(a). Id., ¶¶ 65-70. The elements of this offense included (1) knowingly making a false statement under oath, (2) in a matter relating to naturalization or citizenship under the laws of the United States. Id., ¶ 74. Li's plea agreement included the following factual basis for her plea:

On September 24, 2004, while living in San Jose, California, I submitted a petition for naturalization to the United States Citizenship & Immigration Services (CIS). In that petition, I knowingly made the following false statements and omissions: (1) I claimed to be "divorced, " when in fact I was married at the time to Gang "Steven" Chen ("Chen"); (2) I omitted that I had any children, when in fact I had two children with Chen; (3) I claimed that I had been married only once - referring to my prior marriage to a man identified in the Superseding Information by his initials, A.B. - when in fact I had been married twice; and (4) I responded "No" to a question asking whether I had ever been married to more than one person at the same time, when in fact, between July 5, 2002 and March 9, 2004, I was married to both Chen and A.B.
On April 18, 2005, I appeared for an interview with a CIS adjudicator in San Jose, California. During that interview, among other false statements, I stated under penalty of perjury that every statement contained in my naturalization petition was correct, knowing that certain statements in my naturalization petition, and specifically those described in the previous paragraph were false or intentionally misleading.

Id. at 7.

At the sentencing hearing in December 2009, the district judge engaged in a lengthy colloquy with Li regarding her guilty plea. Docs. 135, ¶¶ 73-79; 158-8. Li initially maintained that she believed her marriage to Chen was not valid. Doc. 158-8 at 111. After a lengthy and somewhat confusing explanation from the judge, Li was asked to affirm her admissions and said simply: "I admit to the - I admit that I knowingly made a false statement." Doc. 15-8 at 114. Li did not specify which "false statement" she made. The prosecutor said that Li's admission was "close enough, " and the judge sentenced Li to probation and a $500 fine. Id. at 114, 116, 118.

II. Legal Standard.

A party seeking summary judgment "bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of [the record] which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Summary judgment is appropriate if the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, shows "that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Milton H. Greene Archives, Inc. v. Marilyn Monroe LLC, 692 F.3d 983, 992 (9th Cir. 2012). Summary judgment is also appropriate against a party who "fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit will preclude the entry of summary judgment, and the disputed evidence must be "such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

In a denaturalization proceeding, the government bears the "heavy burden" of providing "clear, unequivocal, and convincing" evidence that citizenship should be revoked. United States v. Arango, 670 F.3d 988, 992 (9th Cir. 2012) (citing United States v. Dang, 488 F.3d 1135, 1139 (9th Cir. 2007)). The government's evidence justifying denaturalization must "not leave the issue in doubt." Dang, 488 F.3d at 1139. In short, "summary judgment for the government in a denaturalization proceeding is warranted in narrow circumstances: if, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the naturalized citizen, there is no genuine issue of material fact as to whether clear, unequivocal, and convincing evidence supports denaturalization." Arango, 670 F.3d at 992.

III. Judicial Notice.

The government argues that Li's guilty plea in her prior criminal case is a final decision that establishes the facts admitted by Li, including her false statements, false testimony in her naturalization interview, and her bigamous marriage to Chen. Doc. 157 at 13-15. Li argues that the guilty plea does not have preclusive effect in this subsequent civil immigration action. Doc. 160 at 7-8.

It is "settled law in this circuit that a guilty plea may be used to establish issue preclusion in a subsequent civil suit." United States v. Real Prop. Located at Section 18, 976 F.2d 515, 519 (9th Cir. 1992) (citing United States v. $31, 697.59 Cash, 665 F.2d 903 (9th Cir. 1982); United States v. Bejar-Matrecios, 618 F.2d 81 (9th Cir. 1980)). The Ninth Circuit has applied this principle in disposing of arguments in immigration cases that attempt to re-litigate prior criminal convictions. See, e.g., Granados-Mondragon v. I.N.S., 28 F.Appx. 695 (9th Cir. 2002).

In ruling on the government's motion for judgment on the pleadings, the Court held that Young v. Holder requires that we "treat[] the plea as an admission of only those facts that are essential to the conviction.'" Doc. 45 at 6 (citing 697 F.3d 976, 988 (9th Cir. 2012). Although this rule might not apply to a criminal conviction like Li's that included a detailed factual admission in the plea agreement, the record from Li's conviction is more complicated. As noted above, Li engaged in a colloquy with the judge about what precisely she was admitting. Doc. 135-2 at 52. Li's counsel raised concerns about whether or not Li engaged in the acts described in the plea agreement, and the judge provided a lengthy explanation before asking what Li was admitting. Id. at 55. She responded: "I admit that I knowingly made a false statement, " without identifying the false statement. Doc. 158-8 at 114.

The government seeks Li's denaturalization based on allegations that she gave false testimony during her naturalization interview, lied on her naturalization application, and was bigamously married to Gang Chen, among others. Although Li's written plea agreement contained admissions of each of these acts, the colloquy with the judge left an imprecise record as to the specific basis for her conviction. At the key moment, when the judge sought to confirm that there was a factual basis for conviction, Li admitted only to making "a false statement, " an admission the prosecutor said was "close enough." The judge proceeded on the basis of that admission.

From this record, the Court cannot take judicial notice of Li's admission to all of the false statements set forth in her plea agreement. "[O]nly matters necessarily decided in the prior action are barred from relitigation by collateral estoppel, " Section 18, 976 F.2d at 519 (emphasis added), and the only matter necessarily decided prior to conviction was that Li knowingly made an ...

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