A Maryland appeals court has refused to disturb — on state contract law grounds — an Orthodox Jewish arbitration panel’s denial of a financial award to a divorced woman who had signed a prenuptial agreement to have the dispute resolved by the clerical body.
In its 3-0 decision, the Court of Special Appeals noted that the constitutional separation of church and state generally bars judicial review of rulings by religious bodies.
But the court said resolution of the post-marital litigation between Julie Lang and Zion Levi rests not on sectarian grounds but on the couple’s agreement to have divorce-related matters decided by the Beth Din panel.
“In our opinion, the Beth Din appropriately exercised its authority within the confines of its own rules and procedures, which both Lang and Levi agreed to be subject to under the [prenuptial] arbitration agreement,” Judge Robert A. Zarnoch wrote for the intermediate appellate court.
“The parties agreed to arbitrate in the Beth Din and granted that body authority to interpret as well as determine matters of Jewish law, including a consideration of the equities,” Zarnoch added. “Since this court cannot interpret Jewish law or gauge equities as determined by rabbinical tribunals, we decline to vacate the decision of the Beth Din as contrary to the parties’ agreement.”
Levi, an attorney who pressed his own case before the court, said he successfully argued that the prenuptial agreement was “a specific contract with a religious context.”
Though he specializes in tax law, Levi said he chose to argue the case himself because his finances have been “pretty much depleted by the frivolous claims” of his ex-wife.
“I’m not a litigator,” said Levi, of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice PLLC in Washington, D.C. “I was looking to God to save me and God spoke through the Court of Special Appeals.”
Lang’s attorney, C. Allen Foster, stated in an email message Friday afternoon that he had not had a chance to speak with his client about possibly seeking review by Maryland’s top court, the Court of Appeals. Foster declined further comment on the Court of Special Appeals’ decision, which was released Friday morning.
He is with Greenberg Traurig LLP in Washington, D.C.
The prenuptial agreement called on Levi to pay Lang $100 per day if the couple separated. This per-diem charge would be assessed for each day he did not grant Lang a get, or a Jewish divorce.
The agreement stated that the Beth Din, a rabbinical court, would have authority to resolve disputes arising from the per-diem arrangement.
The couple married on June 22, 2003, separated on Oct. 1, 2005, and received a decree of absolute divorce from the Montgomery County Circuit Court on March 28, 2008.
On Sept. 17, 2008, Lang went before the Beth Din, claiming Levi owed her $108,000 in per-diem arrearage for not having provided her a get. The panel awarded her $10,200, based on the 102 days between the couple’s separation and Jan. 10, 2006, when Levi offered her a get but she refused it.
Both parties appealed the decision to the Av Beth Din, a rabbi who oversees the arbitration panel.
Rabbi Mordechai Willig reduced the monetary award to zero, citing Jewish law.
Willig explained that the per-diem fee’s purpose was to spur Levi to provide a get quickly, which he sought to do soon after the couple’s separation but which was rejected by Lang. Willig ruled that Lang should not be compensated, as the per-diem’s goal would have been accomplished but for her rejection.
Lang then filed suit in Montgomery County Circuit Court to vacate the religious body’s decision.
Through counsel, Lang argued that Willig’s ruling was “an irrational decision on a question of law that is so extraordinary that it is tantamount to the arbitrator’s exceeding his powers” and warrants the court’s intervention.
But Montgomery County Circuit Judge Nelson W. Rupp Jr. granted Levi’s motion for summary judgment in July 2009, concluding that the couple had agreed to accept the Beth Din’s arbitration procedures, including Willig’s authority to reverse the panel’s decision.
In upholding Rupp’s ruling, the Court of Special Appeals said Willig’s decision to deny Lang any recovery — even putting Jewish law aside — was rational because it reflected common-law principles and “balanced the intentions of the parties with principles of equity.”
Judges Deborah S. Eyler and Lawrence F. Rodowsky joined Zarnoch’s opinion. Rodowsky, a retired judge, was sitting by special assignment.
WHAT THE COURT HELD
Lang v. Levi, CSA No. 1425, Sept. Term 2009. Reported. Opinion by Zarnoch, J. Filed April 1, 2011.
Did the trial judge err by denying a petition to vacate an Orthodox Jewish arbitration panel’s decision, which had been sought under a prenuptial agreement?
No; the parties had agreed to have their post-marital dispute resolved by the panel and must accept its decision.
C. Allen Foster for appellant; Zion Levi (pro se) for appellee.
RecordFax # 11-0401-00