The plaintiff former husband brought this state-court action action against his first wife seeking damages for her alleged false statements to the Citizenship and Immigration Service. The former husband blamed those statements for the Service’s conclusion that the the couple had not established a life together as husband and wife. The plaintiff also sought a judicial declaration that the requisite relationship had, in fact, existed.
In his August 28, 2013 decision in Kenan v. Campuzano (2013 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 3929 | 2013 NY Slip Op 32056(U), New York County Supreme Court Justice Arthur F. Engoron dismissed the action.
The plaintiff met his first wife face-to-face in 2006 when he came to New York shortly after finding her on JDate. They married four months later. Two months after that, the wife filed a petition to sponsor her new husband for US citizenship with the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”). The couple divorced a year later. At the same time the wife withdrew her petition to sponsor her husband for US citizenship.
Just 3 or 4 months after that, in January or February 2008, the husband married another woman. The second marriage, too, came to an end within a relatively short period of time. However, before it had ended, the second wife, too, petitioned for her new husband’s US citizenship. That petition was denied in part upon USCIS’s determination that the first marriage was “for the sole purpose of evading immigration laws and obtaining an immigration benefit.”
The now twice-divorced husband brought this action to redress the alleged false statements made by his first wife to the USCIS. he also sought a declaratory judgment that the parties had “established a life together under the meaning of the law.”
The first wife moved to dismiss the complaint. Justice Engoron granted that motion.
The husband’s first-pleaded claims sought redress for alleged injuries to reputation, styled as libel, “false affidavit,” injurious falsehood, or prima facie tort. All of these claims were in the nature of defamation. Such claims, it was noted, are defined in terms of the injury caused, damage to reputation, and not in terms of the manner in which the injury is accomplished. Regardless of the label, all such claims are subject to a one-year Statute of Limitations and were, here, time-barred.
Even were the claims timely brought, the motion to dismiss would still have been granted. The complained-of writings were privileged communications, as made during the course of a judicial proceeding. The former husband had argued that the statements by his former wife to USCIS were not made to a judicial body, but rather to an administrative one. Therefore, he argued, they were not entitled to an absolute privilege.
However, Justice Engoron noted that statements made during the course of a judicial or a quasi-judicial proceeding are clearly protected by an absolute privilege as long as such statements are material and pertinent to the questions involved. Further, the absolute privilege can extend to the preliminary or investigative stages of the process, particularly where compelling public interests are at stake. Thus, as to each of the statements made by the former wife in connection with the plaintiff’s application for citizenship before USCIS, a quasi-judicial body, the Court found that an absolute privilege attached.
Finally, the former wife sought dismissal of the cause of action that sought a declaration that the parties had “established a life together as husband and wife under the meaning of the law.”
The former wife argued that the instant action was a collateral attack on the Federal government’s immigration decision. In opposition, the former husband argued that the entity that rendered the denial was not actually a court, but rather an administrative agency, and thus, no estoppel attached. Moreover, the husband argued, collateral estoppel would only attach in immigration proceedings if there had been a full and fair opportunity for litigation. Here, the husband alleged, the matter was not litigated before a court, but rather heard by an administrative agency.
Justice Engoron held that for a state court to have jurisdiction to hear the case and issue declaratory relief there must be a genuine, not academic, dispute between the parties. In the matter at hand, no such non-academic, genuine controversy existed. A court’s declaration must serve some practical end in quieting or stabilizing an uncertain or disputed jural relation. Here, there was no justiciable controversy.
The parties had not disputed that they were legally married for a short period of time, and now are legally divorced. For what purpose USCIS deemed the marriage was entered into is of no concern to the defendant former wife. Seemingly, it was of no use to the former husband either. He had no “viable” immigration options as he is now divorced from his second wife. Justice Engoron noted that one purpose of the instant lawsuit, in addition to seeking damages and resolving a disputed jural relation, seemed to be to harass the first of the plaintiff’s two, recent, short-term spouses.
As there was no timely dispute between these parties that fell within the jurisdiction of this Court, the case was dismissed.