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Seifeddine v. Jaber

Court of Appeals of Michigan

April 16, 2019

BATOUL JABER, Defendant-Appellee.

          Wayne Circuit Court Family Division LC No. 16-113901-DM

          Before: Letica, P.J., and Ronayne Krause and Boonstra, JJ.

          PER CURIAM.

         Plaintiff appeals as of right a judgment of divorce. On appeal, plaintiff presents arguments challenging the trial court's enforcement of a provision in the parties' Islamic marriage certificate requiring plaintiff to pay $50, 000 to defendant and challenging the trial court's property distribution analysis. We affirm.

         Plaintiff makes several arguments challenging whether the trial court applied neutral principles of law in determining that the mahr[1] provision in the parties' Islamic marriage certificate constituted a contract requiring plaintiff to pay $50, 000 to defendant. Plaintiff's arguments are devoid of merit.

         "The existence and interpretation of a contract are questions of law reviewed de novo." Kloian v Domino's Pizza, LLC, 273 Mich.App. 449, 452; 733 N.W.2d 766 (2006). Issues of constitutional law are likewise reviewed de novo. Winkler v Marist Fathers of Detroit, Inc, 500 Mich. 327, 333; 901 N.W.2d 566 (2017). In a divorce case, this Court reviews the trial court's factual findings for clear error. McNamara v Horner (After Remand), 255 Mich.App. 667, 669; 662 N.W.2d 436 (2003). "A finding is clearly erroneous if, after a review of the entire record, the reviewing court is left with a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made." Id. "This Court gives special deference to a trial court's findings when they are based on the credibility of a witness." Draggoo v Draggoo, 223 Mich.App. 415, 429; 566 N.W.2d 642 (1997).

         The First Amendment of the United States Constitution provides, in relevant part, that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof[.]" U.S. Const, Am I. The First Amendment applies to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. Winkler, 500 Mich. at 337 n 4. Civil courts may not decide religious doctrinal matters. See Jones v Wolf, 443 U.S. 595, 602; 99 S.Ct. 3020; 61 L.Ed.2d 775 (1979); Winkler, 500 Mich. at 337-338. But the United States Supreme Court has held that, in the context of resolving a church property dispute, a civil court may review religious documents if the court is applying neutral principles of law. See Jones, 443 U.S. at 602-604. By applying neutral principles of law, civil courts avoid "entanglement in questions of religious doctrine, polity, and practice." Id. at 603. Therefore, when examining a religious document, "a civil court must take special care to scrutinize the document in purely secular terms, and not to rely on religious precepts . . . ." Id. at 604.

         Relying on Jones, appellate courts in other states have persuasively concluded that religious marital agreements may be examined when a court applies neutral principles of law.[2]In Avitzur v Avitzur, 58 N.Y.2d 108, 111; 446 N.E.2d 136 (1983), the New York Court of Appeals held that the secular terms of a ketubah[3] agreement, which was entered into as part of a religious marriage ceremony, could be enforced in civil court. After the parties were divorced civilly, the plaintiff, who wished to obtain a religious divorce, sought to enforce a provision of the ketubah requiring the parties to appear before a rabbinical tribunal having authority to resolve issues of traditional Jewish law. Id. at 112. Accepting the plaintiff's allegations as true for the purpose of a motion to dismiss, the Avitzur court concluded that the ketubah constituted a marital contract in which the parties had agreed "to refer the matter of a religious divorce to a nonjudicial forum." Id. at 113-114. Such an agreement was "closely analogous to an antenuptial agreement to arbitrate a dispute in accordance with the law and tradition chosen by the parties." Id. at 114. The ketubah "should ordinarily be entitled to no less dignity than any other civil contract to submit a dispute to a nonjudicial forum, so long as its enforcement violates neither the law nor the public policy of this State." Id. at 114. The defendant argued that enforcement of the ketubah in civil court would impermissibly entangle the civil court in religious matters. Id. The Avitzur court rejected that argument, cited Jones, and stated that the case could "be decided solely upon the application of neutral principles of contract law, without reference to any religious principle." Id. at 115.

In short, the relief sought by plaintiff in this action is simply to compel defendant to perform a secular obligation to which he contractually bound himself. In this regard, no doctrinal issue need be passed upon, no implementation of a religious duty is contemplated, and no interference with religious authority will result. . . . To the extent that an enforceable promise can be found by the application of neutral principles of contract law, plaintiff will have demonstrated entitlement to the relief sought. . . . [Id.]

         In Odatalla v Odatalla, 355 N.J. Super 305, 309-312; 810 A.2d 93 (Ch Div, 2002), the New Jersey Superior Court cited Jones as well as Avitzur and concluded that a mahr agreement contained with an Islamic marriage license could be enforced. "As in Jones, supra, no doctrinal issue is involved-hence, no constitutional infringement." Id. at 310.

Furthermore, the 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. If this Court can apply "neutral principles of law" to the enforcement of a Mahr Agreement, though religious in appearance, then the Mahr Agreement survives any constitutional implications. Enforcement of this Agreement will not violate the First Amendment proscriptions on the establishment of a church or the free exercise of religion in this country. [Id. at 311.]

         Plaintiff here argues that the trial court erred in enforcing the mahr provision in the Islamic marriage certificate because the Legislature has not prescribed a method to resolve religious issues. However, the trial court expressly and repeatedly stated that it was not applying religious principles or doctrines but was instead applying Michigan common law regarding contracts. It is abundantly clear from the record that the trial court applied Michigan common law regarding contracts and determined that each of the elements for establishing a valid contract were met.[4] Plaintiff makes no argument challenging any particular element for establishing the existence of a contract. Nor does plaintiff cite any authority for his contention that a neutral principle of law must be derived from a statute rather than from Michigan common law when examining a religious document. A party may not simply announce a position and leave it to this Court to make his arguments and search for authority to support his position. Wilson v Taylor, 457 Mich. 232, 243; 577 N.W.2d 100 (1998). Failure to adequately brief an issue constitutes abandonment. McIntosh v McIntosh, 282 Mich.App. 471, 484; 768 N.W.2d 325 (2009). In any event, the persuasive analyses in Avitzur and Odatalla reflect that neutral principles of law may be derived from a state's common law of contracts. Plaintiff's argument is devoid of merit.

         Plaintiff next argues that the trial court erred in relying on Avitzur because the religious agreement in that case called for submission of postmarital disputes to a rabbinical tribunal such that there was no judicial involvement in religious doctrine. By contrast, plaintiff argues, the trial court in this case applied Islamic principles to find that a contract existed. Plaintiff refers to the fact that the trial court heard testimony from two imams, one presented by each party, to support his contention that the trial court applied religious principles in this case. Plaintiff's argument lacks merit and reflects his misunderstanding of the analysis in Avitzur. Although the content of the marital agreement in Avitzur differed from that of the contract in this case, the relevant part of the holding in Avitzur was that the case could be decided solely through the application of neutral principles of contract law. Avitzur, 58 N.Y.2d at 115. The same conclusion is reached here because the trial court applied neutral principles of contract law that did not require consideration of religious doctrine. See id. Although the trial court allowed each party to present testimony from an imam regarding the cultural implications of the Islamic marriage certificate, the trial court repeatedly emphasized that it would not rely on such testimony in determining whether a contract exists and that the court would instead apply Michigan law, and this is exactly what the trial court did when it decided the contract issue. The record thus refutes plaintiff's assertion that the trial court decided the case on the basis of religious principles.

         Plaintiff next argues that the Islamic ceremony standing alone is not recognized as a legal marriage in Michigan, and he claims that the parties' subsequent civil ceremony was somehow ineffective (even though he signed the marriage certificate). This argument fails for multiple independent reasons. Initially, plaintiff has waived this issue by failing to include it in his statement of questions presented. River Investment Group, LLC v Casab, 289 Mich.App. 353, 360; 797 N.W.2d 1 (2010); MCR 7.215(C)(5). Further, plaintiff fails to clarify why he thinks the purported absence of a legal marriage is relevant to the issues he has raised on appeal. He provides no cogent argument that his contractual obligation to pay $50, 000 is contingent on the existence of a legal marriage. The trial court found that the consideration for the $50, 000 mahr was the Islamic marriage ceremony and the party that occurred that night. Plaintiff fails to acknowledge or address the trial court's finding on this point. Plaintiff also fails to provide an analysis of the contractual language to support any contention that his obligation to pay $50, 000 was contingent on a legal marriage. Plaintiff cannot leave it to this Court to make his arguments for him. Wilson, 457 Mich. at 243. His failure to adequately brief the issue constitutes abandonment. McIntosh, 282 Mich.App. at 484. Plaintiff also fails to discuss the trial court's pretrial ruling denying plaintiff's motion for a declaratory judgment that the ...

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