Subject Matter Jurisdiction

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.


Continue Reading Small Claims Court Has Jurisdiction to Determine Claim Between Former Spouses

In the fourth “international” decision this month, Westchester County Supreme Court Justice Paul I. Marx dismissed a divorce action over which the Court had jurisdiction, deciding, however, that Nicaragua was the better forum. In L.A.B. v. B.M.decided July 9, 2014, the importance of the majority of witnesses and assets being in Nicaragua overcame the wife’s choice of court.

The wife was born and raised in Nicaragua, holding only a Nicaraguan passport. The husband is a U.S. citizen with a U.S. passport. The parties met in Nicaragua and were married in Nicaragua in a civil ceremony in 2003 and a religious ceremony in 2004. After they were married, the parties lived together in the husband’s Manhattan apartment. The parties have two children, the first born in Manhattan; and the younger, born in Nicaragua.

Shortly after the birth of their first son, the wife moved back to Nicaragua. She remained there as a homemaker residing with the parties’ children in one of the parties’ properties in Managua, Nicaragua. The husband is a Risk Manager at Credit Suisse Securities, LLC, residing in a condominium in White Plains, New York.

According to the wife, the husband obtained permission from his employer to work remotely from Nicaragua for several days each month.This allowed The husband to travel each month between New York and Nicaragua, where the wife and the parties’ child (and later children) resided.

The parties owned three properties in Nicaragua. In addition, the husband owned a condominium in Westchester. The parties established a corporation in Nicaragua to purchase two of their Nicaraguan properties and proceeded to build homes on those two properties.

The parties’ marital difficulties began in Fall 2013. In October, the wife notified her husband of her desire to divorce. On December 23, 2013, she wife filed a divorce summons with notice in New York asserting no-fault grounds. On January 13, 2014, the husband filed for divorce in Nicaragua.

The wife moved for an interim award of counsel fees. The husband cross-moved to dismiss the action, arguing that New York was without jurisdiction to hear this divorce action under DRL §§ 230 and 231 and that New York was an improper and inconvenient forum (forum non conveniens).

Justice Marx first held that the court had both personal and subject matter jurisdiction; it had the authority to decide the divorce issues. The residency requirements of D.R.L. §230 had been met. It was undisputed that the parties lived together as husband and wife in Manhattan for approximately three years. The parties further agreed that the wife was not a New York resident.


Continue Reading Melting Pot (Part 4 of 4): Although New York Had Jurisdiction, Case Dismissed Because Nicaragua Was Better Forum

Not according to Richmond County Civil Court Judge (and Acting Suprme Court Justice) Philip S. Straniere, seemingly running afoul of a contrary body of case law, particularly in the Second Department.

Small Claims Court proceedings may well be the only practical way to redress relatively modest, but often important breaches of divorce settlement agreements as to matters of support and property. Such proceedings are quick, inexpensive, can be pursued without lawyers, and do substantial justice. Eliminating Small Claims Court as a proper forum for such relief would often leave parties without a reasonable remedy.

In his February 19, 2014 decision in Pivarnick v. Pivarnick, Judge Strainiere, held that Small Claims Court was without subject matter jurisdiction to enforce a divorce settlement agreement.

Doing so, he vacated an arbitrator’s $4,000 award to an ex-wife for counsel fees she incurred in connection with her submission to the Supreme Court of a proposed Qualified Domestic Relations Order to implement a division of the ex-husband’s pension and her defense of the ex-husband’s motion to dismiss that proposed QDRO. The ex-wife had cross-moved for sanctions “in the form of ‘attorneys’ fees for his engagement in frivolous conduct.’” Those post-divorce Supreme Court submissions were resolved by a so-ordered stipulation under which the entitlement of the ex-wife to share in the ex-husband’s pension was restated. No reference in the stipulation was made to the wife’s “attorneys’ fee claim” by cross-motion.

Thereafter, the ex-wife sought her counsel fees in Small Claims Court. The arbitrator had awarded the claimant legal fees in the amount of $4,000.00 and dismissed the defendant’s counterclaim for his own counsel fees.


Continue Reading Does Small Claims Court Have Jurisdiction to Resolve Divorce Settlement Agreement Disputes?