With litigation so expensive, what claims between former spouses may be heard in small claims court?

In this small claims action, the former wife sought to recover $2,500 from her former husband because he allegedly wrongful retained health insurance reimbursement checks. The wife alleged that she, rather than the ex-husband, had paid the sums to her health providers for which the ex-husband had been reimbursed.

The ex-husband moved to dismiss the small claims action, claiming that the ex-wife’s claims were within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and Family Court. In addition, the ex-husband claimed that, based on the Supreme Court judgment in the parties’ matrimonial action, the ex-wife, whose two prior small claims actions had been dismissed, was precluded from bringing this action under the doctrine of res judicata.

In an order dated November 6, 2015, Nassau County District Court Judge Paul L. Meli, granted the ex-husband’s motion to dismiss this action, concluding that small claims court lacked jurisdiction and that the matter in issue had, in any event, been previously litigated.


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New York’s Domestic Relations Law §25, enacted in 1907, provides that a marriage is valid, even in the absence of a marriage license, if it was properly solemnized. However, New York County Supreme Court Justice Matthew F. Cooper, in his May 29, 2014 decision in Ponorovskaya v. Stecklow held that D.R.L. §25 could not be used to validate a marriage ceremony that failed to meet the  legal requirements of Mexico where the ceremony was performed. While so holding, Justice Cooper called for the statute to be amended or repealed, and joined the debate on whether Universal Life Church “ministers” could “properly solemnize” marriages.

Justice Cooper’s recitation of the facts merits quotation:

[Ms. Ponorovskaya], who is a clothing designer and business owner in Manhattan, and [Mr. Stecklow], a lawyer, began their relationship in 2004. While in Mexico for a 2009 New Year’s celebration, [Mr. Stecklow] proposed to [Ms. Ponorovskaya] overlooking the Mayan ruins in Tulum. The parties subsequently planned a Mexican destination wedding at the Dreams Tulum Resort & Spa. . . . On February 18th, the couple had a wedding ceremony on the resort’s beach. The ceremony was performed under a chuppah, a canopy under which a couple stands during a Jewish wedding. Certain Hebrew prayers were recited, vows were exchanged, and there was a glass-breaking ritual, as is customary at Jewish weddings.

Despite these traditions, the ceremony was not performed by a rabbi. Instead it was conducted by [Mr. Stecklow]’s cousin, Dr. Keith Arbeitman, a dentist who lives in New York. In 2003, in order to perform a marriage for friends, he became an ordained minister of the Universal Life Church (“ULC”), a distinction easily achieved by paying a fee on the ULC’s website. . . . [A]t oral argument on the motion, [Ms. Ponorovskaya]’s counsel produced a certificate that he printed off the internet certifying that Dr. Arbeitman is indeed a minister in good standing with the ULC. Likewise, during the ceremony Dr. Arbeitman told the audience, “I am an ordained minister — this will be a legal union.”


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Filing income tax returns as “single” for the 11 years before a decedent’s death, did not, as a matter of law, estop a woman from claiming to be the decedent’s surviving spouse in contested estate proceedings. So held New York County Surrogate Nora S. Anderson in the May 22, 2014 decision in Estate of Tran (pdf).

Sang Kim Nguyen filed a petition to be appointed Administratrix of the Estate of Truong Dinh Tran. Ms. Nguyen claimed to be Mr. Truong’s widow under the common law of Vietnam. Separate cross-petitions for appointment were filed Mr. Truong’s alleged son, duaghter’s and grandson, who all sought summary dismissal of Ms. Nguyen’s petition.

Mr. Truong died at the age of 80 on May 6, 2012, leaving an estate that has been estimated to be worth more than $100 million.

According to Wikipedia, Truong was the principal owner of the Vishipco Line, the largest shipping company in South Vietnam in the 1970s. As a shipowner, he earned millions of dollars hauling cargo for the United States military. Truong left Vietnam on April 30, 1975, the day that Saigon fell to the communists. Truong boarded one of his eleven ships and traveled to the United States with two suitcases of gold.


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Falanga.jpgIn his March 28, 2011 decision in A.C. v. D.R., Supreme Court Nassau County Justice Anthony J. Falanga gave full effect to New York’s new no-fault divorce law and temporary financial relief amendments.

In this first blog of two parts, the Court’s joinder of the wife’s no-fault action with the husband’s pre-no-fault action will be considered, together with the denial of the the wife’s motion for partial summary judgment on her no-fault grounds.  Although holding there is no defense to a no-fault claim, the Court declared that summary judgment and bifurcation of grounds issues are inapproriate.

Wednesday’s blog will consder the financial awards granted under the recent D.R.L. amendments.

The parties were married in 1992 and have 3 children, ages 13, 10 and 7. The husband, 52, is a physician; the wife, 46, a homemaker.

The husband commenced his divorce action on July 27, 2010 on the grounds of constructive abandonment and/or cruelty, although the wife was not served until October 22, 2010 (well within the 120 days of filing needed for timely service). However, four days before such timely service, the wife filed her own Summons with Notice, commencing an irretrievable-breakdown divorce action under D.R.L. §170(7) [effective October 13, 2010].

Earlier in this case, Justice Falanga resolved by January 18 Order, the husband’s motion to consolidate the two actions. The wife opposed on the grounds that if her action was subsumed within the earlier action, she would be prejudiced by her inability to avail herself of the new financial statutes. Represented by Robert Broderick, Esq., the wife argued instead for joinder for trial under C.P.L.R. §602(a), leaving the two actions intact, yet bringing the two actions together in one venue for pretrial and trial proceedings.

Justice Falanga noted that by joining the cases, as opposed to consolidating them, the husband would preserve his earlier commencement date for Equitable Distribution purposes, yet the wife would be entitled to relief under the later-enacted amendments to D.R.L. §§236B(5-a) and 237. In its January 18 Order, the Court granted a joint trial and joint discovery, after a bifurcated immediate grounds trial.

However, before that trial, the wife moved for partial summary judgment to establish her no-fault grounds as well as for interim financial relief.

In its March 28 Order, the Court re-analyzed the issues addressed in its January 18Order, denied partial summary judgment and canceled the grounds trial. In doing so, Justice Falanga gave true meaning to the no-fault nature of New York’s new divorce ground.

. . . [A] plaintiff’s self-serving declaration about his or her state of mind is all that is required for the dissolution of a marriage on grounds that it is irretrievably broken. . . . In adopting no-fault divorce, the Legislature implicitly recognized that the parties to a marriage should be able to make personal and unavoidably subjective decisions about the continuation of their marriage partnership.

. . . .

Therefore, in this court’s view, the Legislature did not intend nor is there a defense to DRL § 170(7).

Denying partial summary judgment, Justice Falanga also gave full import to the second sentence of D.R.L. §170(7), which provides that “no judgment of divorce shall be granted” until the custody and financial issues have been resolved. Such, the Court held, precludes the granting of summary judgment.


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