Professor Gabriel Sawma
This author submitted an affidavit to the New York Supreme Court in Westchester County in support of recognition and enforcement of a divorce decree obtained from Abu Dhabi, an emirate in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The divorce was granted to the wife, and included mahr and custody of the children, http://law.justia.com/cases/new-york/other-courts/2012/2012-ny-slip-op-51875-u.html
The Supreme Court cited our affidavit in the following terms: “She (the wife) submits an affidavit from Gabriel Sawma, an expert consultant on Islamic divorce in the United States and Middle East Laws, including the legal structure of the courts of the UAE, which include the emirate of Abu Dhabi. Professor Sawma is fluent in Arabic and English and he reviewed both the Arabic and English translations of the certified orders, judgments, and decrees rendered by the Abu Dhabi courts in the criminal, divorce, and custody proceedings between the parties. In his affidavit, Professor Sawma explains the structure of the judiciary in the UAE, the legal proceedings between the parties and the judgments and decrees rendered by the Abu Dhabi courts.”.
I would like to note here that the Supreme Court of the State of New York is the trial-level court. Appeals from Supreme Court decisions, are heard by the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court. The Appellate Division is intermediate between the New York Supreme Court and the New York Court of Appeals. Unlike in most other states, the Supreme Court in New York is a trial court and is not the highest court in the state. The highest court of the State of New York is the Court of Appeals.
Summary of the Case
In 1998, S.B., a U.S. citizen professional woman (wife), married W.A. (husband), an immigrant from Egypt who later became an architect. They both had Islamic and civil marriage in New York, and both lived in New York State until 2006, where two children of the marriage were born. They then moved to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, where W.A. got a job.
In 2009, S.B. filed a suit in Abu Dhabi, accusing W.A. of attacking her, inflicting “severe bruises and a fractured skull.” Consequently, W.A. was convicted of assault on the grounds (according to the UAE court) that he had crossed his legal limits to discipline his wife. The husband never denied using physical force against his wife, but defended the charges claiming he had the right to use physical means to discipline his wife and that “her injuries were not as severe as she claimed.”
The Abu Dhabi Court of the First Instance granted divorce to S.B, and awarded her the $250,000 mahr, which, according to Islamic law, represents an amount of money that the husband promise to pay his wife in the event of divorce. The court also ordered W.A. to pay child support and some amount of spousal support, and gave the wife custody of the children.
Both parties had the opportunity to participate in the litigation in Abu Dhabi, and each party was represented by legal counsel. This was not just a case where husband and wife are living in the United States, and the husband goes back to his country in the Middle East to get a divorce without the wife’s participation.
W.A. appealed the first judgment to the Court of Appeal in Abu Dhabi, which rendered a decision on April 4, 2010, and the Court of Cassation, which rendered a decision on November 8, 2010. Both courts affirmed the judgment of the Court of First Instance, “except that the Udda Alimony.
Following the final judgment of the Court of Cassation, the husband fled Abu Dhabi and returned back to New York and brought with him the children’s passports without the knowledge of the wife. The wife had a banking job in the UAE, and wanted to abide by the terms of her three-year contract. At a later time, S.B. and her children returned back to New York.
Recognition of Divorce Judgment Pursuant to the Doctrine of Comity
S.B. filed a suit seeking recognition and enforcement of the Abu Dhabi divorce decree in New York. The Supreme Court of Westchester County in New York recognized the UAE.
The Supreme Court stated that “The general principle of law is that a divorce obtained in a foreign jurisdiction by residents of this State, in accordance with the laws thereof, is entitled to recognition under the principle of comity unless the decree offends the public policy of the State of New York”, … “Although not required to do so, the courts of this State generally will accord recognition to the judgments rendered in foreign country under the doctrine of comity which is the equivalent of full faith and credit given by the courts to judgments of our sister States”, … “Loosely, [comity] means courtesy, respect, or mutual accommodation; practically, it means that each sovereign, including the State of New York, can decide for itself which foreign country judgments it will recognize and which it won’t.”
The Court added: “A court has the inherent power pursuant to the principles of comity to recognize and enforce a foreign judgment of divorce unless there is some defect of jurisdiction shown to be against the public policy of the domestic state, … A party who has properly appeared in a foreign action is ordinarily precluded from attacking the resulting judgment by bringing a collateral New York proceeding… Only where there has been a showing that the foreign judgment was fraudulently obtained … or that recognition of the judgment would conflict seriously with a compelling public policy… can a collateral attack be entertained… Absent some showing a fraud in the procurement of the foreign country judgment… or that recognition of the judgment would do violence to some strong public policy of this State … a party who properly appeared in the action is precluded from attacking the validity of the foreign country judgment in a collateral proceeding brought in the courts of this State.”
The Court Rejected the Claim That Abu Dhabi Court Judgment is based upon the Religious Marriage Contract
In this case, W.A. “claims that the Abu Dhabi entered a divorce judgment based upon the religious marriage and declined to recognize and litigate the civil marriage, thereby violating the public Policy of this state. However, this claim is belied by the multiple orders, judgments, and decrees annexed to plaintiff’s moving papers, which establish that the divorce action was brought in the Abu Dhabi civil court system and under the Personal Status Law of 2005. Moreover, Article 5 of the Personal Status Law established that the divorce action was litigated in a civilian state court, not a Sharia religious court, by stating: “[t]he State courts shall have jurisdiction on Personal Status litigations in which citizens, or aliens, having domicile or residence or place of business in the State, are defendant.” (See also Affidavit of Professor Gabriel Sawma, dated May 11, 2012, at page 3, and the exhibits annexed thereto).
The Mahr Agreement is Enforceable Pursuant to the Doctrine of Neutral Principles of Law
The Supreme Court of Westchester County viewed the decree ordering the payment of the $250,000 mahr enforceable. The Court said: “There can be little doubt that a duly executed antenuptial agreement, by which the parties agree in advance of the marriage to the resolution of disputes that may arise after its termination, is valid and enforceable.”
The Supreme Court added: “So too many agreements predicate upon religious doctrine and customs be enforced in civil courts, as long as enforcement does not violate either the law of the public policy of the state. While “the First Amendment severely circumscribes the role that civil courts may play in resolving [religious] disputes,” a State may adopt any approach to settling these disputes, “so long as it involves no consideration of doctrinal matters, whether the ritual and liturgy of worship or the tents of faith”, … Use of the “neutral principles of law” approach, which “contemplates the application of objective, well-established principles of secular law to the dispute,” has been found to be “consistent with constitutional limitations.” This approach permits “judicial involvement to the extent that it can be accomplished in purely secular terms.”
“The “neutral principles’ method requires a civil court to “take special care to scrutinize the [religious] document in purely secular terms, and not to rely on religious precepts”. If interpretation of the document “requires the civil court to resolve a religious controversy, … resolution of the doctrinal issue” must be deferred to the “authoritative ecclesiastical body.”
A “Mahr Agreement is not void simply because it was entered into during an Islamic ceremony of marriage. Rather, enforcement of the secular parts of a written agreement is consistent with the constitutional mandate for a free exercise of religious beliefs, no matter how diverse they may be.” Since a Mahr agreement may be enforced according to neutral principles of aw, it will survive any constitutional challenge and enforceable as a contractual obligation.
The Custody Order from Abu Dhabi is recognized in the State of New York
The Supreme Court of Westchester County stated that “The Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) applies nationally and internationally and is designed to promote uniformity throughout the world in custody determinations, … The UCCJEA is mandatory and provides that “a child custody determination made in a foreign country under factual circumstances in substantial conformity with the jurisdictional standards of this article must be recognized and enforced.” Except where “the child custody law of a foreign country as written or as applied violates fundamental principles of human rights”.
The Domestic Relations statutes mandates that “any foreign nation must be treated as if it were a state within the United States for purposes of jurisdiction and inter-court cooperative mechanism. The UCCJEA is not a reciprocal act. There is no requirement that the foreign country enact a UCCJEA equivalent, … The statute “is designed to eliminate jurisdictional competition between courts in matter of child custody, with jurisdictional priority conferred to a child’s home state . . .”
When there is no violation to fundamental principles of human rights in the custody law of the foreign country, or that the foreign courts are without jurisdiction to determine custody, the U.S. court, based upon the principles of comity and pursuant to domestic law, must recognize and enforce the custody determination of a foreign court awarding custody. This is attested by the Supreme Court’s decision of Westchester County which reads: “Neither party alleges that any of the child custody laws of the UAE violate fundamental principles of human rights or that the Abu Dhabi courts were without jurisdiction to determine custody. Nor does this Court find any such violation or lack of jurisdiction. Therefore, based upon the principles of comity and pursuant to Domestic Relations Law 75-d, this Court must recognize and enforce the custody determination of the Abu Dhabi courts awarding plaintiff custody.”
The Appellate Division Affirms the Judgment of the Supreme Court
On January 20, 2016, the Appellate Division: Second Judicial Department of the Supreme Court of the State of New York affirmed the judgment of the lower court, http://www.courts.state.ny.us/courts/ad2/calendar/webcal/decisions/2016/D47647.pdf
The High Court refers to our affidavit as follows: “According to the affidavit of a Fairleigh Dickinson University professor submitted by the plaintiff in support of her motion, the parties’ mahr agreement is a marriage agreement in accordance with Islamic law wherein the defendant pledged to pay the plaintiff a “deferred dowry” in the event of a divorce. While the parties were living in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, the plaintiff sought and obtained a judgment of divorce against the defendant in the Abu Dhabi courts. The judgment of divorce awarded the plaintiff custody of the parties’ children and financial relief, including an award of $250,000 pursuant to the mahr agreement.” The Court added:
“Although not required to do so, the courts of this State generally will accord recognition to the judgments rendered in a foreign country under the doctrine of comity which is the equivalent of full faith and credit given by the courts to judgments of our sister States”, . . . Comity should be extended to uphold the validity of a foreign divorce decree absent a showing of fraud in it procurement or that recognition of the judgment would do violence to a strong public policy of New York.”
DISCLAIMER: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer. For specific or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.
Gabriel Sawma is a lawyer with Middle East background, and a recognized authority on Islamic law of marriage, divorce and custody of children, Hindu marital disputes in U.S. courts, and Iran divorce in USA.
- Professor of Middle East Constitutional and Islamic law,
- Expert Consultant on Islamic divorce in US Courts and Canada,
- Expert Consultant on Hindu divorce in U.S. courts,
- Expert Consultant on Iranian Shi’a divorce in USA,
- Expert Consultant on Islamic finance.
Admitted to the Lebanese Bar Association; Former Associate Member of the New York State Bar Association and the American Bar Association.
Prof. Sawma lectured at the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML) in New York State and wrote many affidavits to immigration authorities, Federal Courts, and family State Courts in connection with recognition of Islamic foreign divorces in the U.S., Hindu divorces, and Iranian marital conflicts.
Taught Islamic Finance for MBA program at the University of Liverpool, United Kingdom.
Travelled extensively to: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Egypt, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Syria and Palestine.
Wrote many articles on Islamic and Hindu divorce in USA, custody of children in the Middle East and Central Asia; and on abduction of children to Muslim countries;
Speaks, reads and writes several languages including Arabic, English, and French
Tel. (609) 915-2237
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