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.

In its November 16, 2017 decision in Greco v. Greco, the Appellate Term of the Second Department reversed. The Court acknowledged that the Family Court and Supreme Court share exclusive concurrent jurisdiction over proceedings for support or maintenance. Here, however, the ex-wife’s claim was based upon the ex-husband having allegedly received and kept money which rightfully belonged to her, rather than a claim for support and maintenance. Consequently, the District Court could entertain the action, as the action lay outside the exclusive concurrent jurisdiction of the Family Court and Supreme Court. The judgment of divorce between the parties did not preclude jurisdiction of the District Court over the issue presented in this matter.

As to the matter of the prior small claims matters, and the ex-husband seeking dismissal on the ground of res judicata, the Court acknowledged that principles of res judicata typically require that once a claim is brought to a final conclusion, all other claims arising out of the same transaction or series of transactions are barred. However, the Court held that unfairness may result if the doctrine is applied too harshly; thus in properly seeking to deny a litigant two “days in court,” courts must be careful not to deprive a litigant of one.

Here, the papers submitted by the ex-husband showed that the parties’ divorce trial concluded on June 25, 2014, that a decision in the divorce action was rendered on October 16, 2014, and that a judgment in the divorce action was entered on April 21, 2015. In his moving papers, the ex-husband failed to demonstrate that the payments his ex-wife was seeking had been made before the conclusion of the divorce trial. Thus it was not shown that the ex-wife had a full and fair opportunity to litigate the claim for the insurance reimbursements. The ex-husband failed to establish that his ex-wife was precluded from bringing this action.

Therefore, the Appellate Term concluded that the dismissal of this action failed to render substantial justice between the parties according to the rules and principles of substantive law.

Michelle S. Stein, of the Law Offices of Leonard R. Sperber, represent the ex-husband.

For a related former blogpost, see Does Small Claims Court Have Jurisdiction to Resolve Divorce Settlement Agreement Disputes?