New Jersey has no jurisdiction over a resident’s suit against an Israeli law firm or two of its lawyers he claims helped his estranged wife pursue a divorce case in that country and kept him from seeing his daughter, both in violation of a judge’s order here.
Sharon Ben-Haim, of Fair Lawn, alleges that the wife’s lawyers—Tal Itkin and Miki Mor of the Itkin Law firm in Haifa—defamed him and caused him emotional distress by claims they made in Israel’s civil and religious courts.
But N.J. Appellate Division Judges Victor Ashrafi, Jerome St. John and George Leone agreed with a Bergen County judge that New Jersey has no personal jurisdiction over the firm or its lawyers because they have no connection with the state.
To require the Israeli attorneys to defend themselves in New Jersey would “offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice,” the court said.
The dispute began when Ben-Haim and his wife, Oshrat, visited Israel during Passover in 2010. She filed divorce proceedings in the Israeli civil court system and in a Rabbinical court. Ben-Haim returned to New Jersey and filed a complaint seeking to enjoin her from pursuing claims in Israel.
Superior Court Judge Bonnie Mizdol issued an order requiring Oshrat to return to New Jersey with the couple’s daughter, Ofir. She further ordered that no filings be made on Oshrat’s behalf in any Israeli court and that Israeli court rulings would not be accorded comity.
The Israeli Rabbinical court nevertheless issued an order demanding that Ben-Haim return to Israel and participate in court proceedings there.
Ben-Haim then sued the Itkin Law Firm and its attorneys.
He stated that when he did return to Israel at one point, he was denied permission to leave the country for four months while child support issues were pending. He since has won custody over Ofir, now 4, by pursuing a complaint under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, but has not been able to take her to the U.S. because of various appeals.
Ben-Haim argued that New Jersey has specific jurisdiction over the attorneys because they convinced the Rabbinical court to contact religious authorities in Fair Lawn to impose community sanctions on him.
Superior Court Judge Charles Powers Jr. dismissed the suit, and the appeals court agreed. “We find that connection unavailing for the exercise of jurisdiction over defendants,” the panel wrote per curiam. “It is undisputed that defendants neither reside nor do business in New Jersey, and that the lawyers and law firm operate in Israel without soliciting business here. The only link to New Jersey is plaintiff’s residence and his action in the Family Part.”
In a concurring opinion, Leone said an argument could be made that the defendant attorneys met the minimum threshold for contact with the state when they helped Oshrat convince the Rabbinical court to notify religious authorities in Fair Lawn that the husband should be subjected to community sanctions, including being branded as a criminal under Israeli law.
Rosaria Suriano, the attorney for the Israeli lawyers, said the appeals court correctly found that they had no contacts with New Jersey and could not be forced to litigate a case against them here.
To rule otherwise would be to “open the floodgates” to plaintiffs seeking to force defendants who have no contact with New Jersey to litigate in this state.
Ben-Haim’s lawyer, Newark solo Eric Mark, did not return a call.
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