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Maghu v. Singh

Supreme Court of Vermont

January 12, 2018

Taranjit Kaur Maghu
v.
Prabhjot Singh Prabhjot Singh
v.
Taranjit Kaur Maghu

         On Appeal from Superior Court, Washington Unit, Family Division Kevin W. Griffin, J.

          Matthew J. Buckley, Williston, for Plaintiff-Appellee/Cross-Appellant Prabhjot Singh.

          Charles S. Martin of Charles S. Martin & Associates, PC, Barre, for Defendant-Appellant/ Cross-Appellee Taranjit Kaur Maghu.

          PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Skoglund, Robinson, Eaton and Carroll, JJ.

          ROBINSON, J.

         ¶ 1. Wife appeals the denial of her motion to dismiss husband's divorce complaint under the theory that husband's nonimmigration visa status prevents him from being a Vermont domiciliary. In addition, wife argues that husband's complaint should be dismissed because Indian law governs the dissolution of the parties' marriage. We hold that husband's nonimmigration visa status is not an impediment to his establishing Vermont residency for purposes of filing a divorce action, and that the trial court properly denied wife's motion to dismiss. We affirm.

         ¶ 2. The material facts are as follows. Husband was raised in India and attended high school and college there. In 2009, he moved to Montreal, Canada to pursue a master's degree in food science and engineering from McGill University. In 2011, Keurig Green Mountain, Inc. (employer) hired husband to be a research scientist, and brought him to Vermont on a temporary H-1B employment visa. In 2016, the employer received approval for husband's I-140 immigration application, which, as explored more fully below, put him on track for a permanent resident visa.

         ¶ 3. Since 2011, husband has lived in Vermont. Husband has received his Vermont driver's license, opened an account with a local bank, opened a 401K retirement account with his employer, and has accumulated five credit cards, all issued in the United States. Over the last six years, husband has returned to India three times: a two-and-a-half-week trip in 2012 for his engagement to wife; a three-week trip in 2013 for the couple's wedding; and a two-week trip in 2014 for his sister's wedding.

         ¶ 4. In 2012, husband met wife, who was then residing in India. The couple married in India a short time later. Soon after the wedding, wife moved with husband to Vermont on a 4-H spouse-dependent visa; she has lived in Vermont ever since.

         ¶ 5. In December 2015, while wife was on a trip to India, husband filed for a no-fault divorce in Washington County Superior Court. Upon her return, in March 2016, wife filed a complaint against husband for separate statutory spousal maintenance.[1] The two proceedings were consolidated.[2]

         ¶ 6. Wife moved to dismiss husband's divorce complaint on four bases. First, she contended that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because husband's nonimmigration H-1B visa status made it impossible as a matter of law for him to claim Vermont residency. Second, wife asserted that the court should dismiss the complaint on the basis of comity because India- where the couple married-recognizes only fault grounds for divorce. Third, she argued that the contractual doctrine of lex loci demanded that the court look to the divorce laws of the jurisdiction in which the couple were married. Under wife's theory, if the grounds for divorce are "not authorized by the jurisdiction where the [marriage] contract was entered into, the person seeking relief cannot obtain it in another jurisdiction." Fourth, wife argued that the doctrine of equitable estoppel barred the complaint because husband originally filed for divorce while wife was in India, and thus husband had attempted to deny wife entrance back into the country, participation in the divorce, and her opportunity to file for a permanent resident visa.

         ¶ 7. In February 2017, after an evidentiary hearing, the court denied wife's motion to dismiss. Noting case law from other jurisdictions, the court held that a nonimmigrant alien may establish Vermont domicile by proving intent to remain coupled with positive steps toward obtaining U.S. citizenship. In concluding that husband lived in Vermont and intended to remain here indefinitely, the court relied on the fact that husband had lived and worked continuously in Vermont since 2011; had a Vermont driver's license and vehicle registration, local bank account, and United States-issued credits cards; and had returned to India for only a few brief visits over the course of his years living in Vermont. The court found that husband's actions in pursuit of a permanent resident visa, combined with the factors noted above, were sufficient to establish his domicile in Vermont.

         ¶ 8. The court likewise rejected wife's remaining arguments. The court declined to defer to Indian law on the basis of comity considerations because the couple's residence in Vermont and their intent to remain in this state rendered Vermont's laws most applicable to the divorce proceeding. It rejected wife's lex loci argument as well because it did not identify any authority for invoking the doctrine to prevent the dissolution of a marriage, rather than to validate one, and because wife's approach would preclude state courts in the United States from asserting jurisdiction over foreign executed marriages. Finally, the court rejected wife's equitable estoppel argument because she was not "ignorant of the facts of husband's intent to file for divorce." In April 2017, the court issued a final order and decree for the no-fault divorce. At the same time, the court dismissed wife's claim for separate statutory maintenance because of her failure to prosecute her claim.[3]

         ¶ 9. On appeal, wife raises the same challenges to the court's jurisdiction in the divorce action as below. For the reasons set forth below, we conclude that husband's nonimmigration residency status is not a legal barrier to domicile, and that the trial court appropriately granted the divorce.

         I. Husband's Residency

         ¶ 10. We review the legal analysis underlying the trial court's denial of a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction without deference, and its factual findings for clear error. Gosbee v. Gosbee, 2015 VT 82, ¶ 18, 199 Vt. 480, 125 A.3d 514; Conley v. Crisafulli, 2010 VT 38, ¶ 3, 188 Vt. 11, 999 A.2d 677.

         ¶ 11. Vermont law includes a residency requirement that is a perquisite to the court's subject matter ...


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