Nouri v. Dadgar

Decision Date07 April 2020
Docket NumberNo. 585, 2273, Sept. Term, 2018,585, 2273, Sept. Term, 2018
Citation245 Md.App. 324,226 A.3d 797
Parties Bruce NOURI v. Shabnam DADGAR Mohammad Ghazirad v. Fatemeh Mojarrad
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland

Argued by: Kristina Badalian (Bryan Renehan, Brodsky, Renehan, Pearlstein & Bouquet, Chartered, on the brief), Gaithersburg, MD, for Appellant Bruce Nouri.

Argued by: Reza Golesorkhi (Joseph, Greenwald & Laake, PA, on the brief), Rockville, MD, for Appellant Mohammad Ghazirad.

Argued by: Mariam Ebrahimi, Vienna, VA, for Appellees.

Panel: Fader, C.J., Meredith, Shaw Geter, JJ.

Fader, C.J.

These two cases, consolidated for purposes of this opinion, present the same issue of first impression in Maryland: May a civil court adjudicating a divorce enforce a provision in a religious marriage contract that requires one spouse to make a payment to the other?1 We hold that a Maryland court may enforce such a provision only if, under secular legal principles, the contract satisfies the requirements of an agreement entered into by parties in a confidential relationship. That is, (1) "the burden of proof ... falls upon the party seeking to enforce the agreement," Cannon v. Cannon , 384 Md. 537, 573, 865 A.2d 563 (2005) ; and (2) "[t]he correct standard for determining the validity of [the] agreement ... [is] whether there is an ‘overreaching, that is, whether in the atmosphere and environment of the confidential relationship there was unfairness or inequity in the result of the agreement or procurement,’ " id. (quoting Hartz v. Hartz , 248 Md. 47, 57, 234 A.2d 865 (1967) ). We will vacate the judgments and remand both cases so that the Circuit Court for Montgomery County may determine whether the parties' agreements meet that heightened standard.

BACKGROUND

Each of the couples in these consolidated cases was married in both a civil ceremony and an Islamic religious ceremony. In connection with the Islamic ceremonies, each of the couples entered a marriage contract that contains a mahr , a provision that, as relevant here, required each of the husbands to pay a quantity of gold coins to each of the wives. The enforceability of those mahrs is the sole issue in each of these appeals. To provide context for our analysis, we will first explore what a mahr is and then turn to the facts of the two cases on appeal.

The Mahr2

All four of the parties in these cases are of Iranian descent, and their Islamic marriages were inspired by practice in Iran. Marriage in Islam is a contractual undertaking, the basic elements of which are offer, acceptance, and mahr . See Jeanette Wakin, Family Law in Islam , in 9 Encylopædia Iranica 184-96 (2012), http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/family-law (accessed Feb. 12, 2020). Mahr (also sometimes called sadaqa )3 is "a sum of money or some other economically valuable asset that a husband must give to a wife." Nathan B. Oman, How to Judge Shari'a Contracts: A Guide to Islamic Marriage Agreements in American Courts , 2011 Utah L. Rev. 287, 302 (2011). Mahr is a religious obligation, prescribed by the Quran, that has been incorporated into the civil law of many Muslim countries, including Iran. See Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Family Law in Modern Persia , in 9 Encylopædia Iranica 184-96 (2012), http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/family-law (accessed Feb. 12, 2020). A mahr also is included in the marriage contracts of many Muslim Americans who choose, like the couples in these cases, to be married in an Islamic marriage ceremony.

A mahr may consist of "anything that has a value," such as currency, see, e.g. , Aleem v. Aleem , 404 Md. 404, 408, 947 A.2d 489 (2008) (mahr was 51,000 Pakistani rupees); Seifeddine v. Jaber , 327 Mich.App. 514, 934 N.W.2d 64 (2019) (per curiam) ($50,000); Aziz v. Aziz , 127 Misc.2d 1013, 488 N.Y.S.2d 123 (Sup. Ct. 1985) ($5,032), or, as in these cases, gold coins, a Quran, and a hajj trip. The precise nature and amount of the mahr varies in each contract. Every Islamic marriage contract must have a mahr , however, and if one is missing, then it will be implied. See Lindsey E. Blenkhorn, Note, Islamic Marriage Contracts in American Courts: Interpreting Mahr Agreements as Prenuptials and Their Effect on Muslim Women , 76 S. Cal. L. Rev. 189, 200 (2002).

The mahr is a personal obligation of the groom to the bride, which, "[g]enerally speaking[,] ... is divided between an immediate gift to the wife" (the "prompt" or "immediate" mahr ) "and a deferred payment." Oman, supra , at 291. In principle—or sometimes, under the explicit terms of the contract—the wife is entitled to the deferred mahr upon demand at any time following the marriage, and "any delay is a matter of contractual forbearance on her part." Id. at 302. In practice, though, "[s]uch delays are standard," and the deferred mahr typically becomes "due upon divorce or the husband's death." Id. ; Wakin, supra ; see also, e.g. , Qureshi v. Qureshi [1972] Fam. 173 [186] (Eng.) (noting that the "sadaqa in the instant case amounted to a promise by the husband on behalf of himself and his estate to pay to the wife the sum of 9,000 rupees ... either (by agreement) on demand at any time or (perforce) on the dissolution of the marriage by divorce or death").

The parties' experts offered at least two explanations for the historical development of mahr in Islamic marriage contracts. Each explanation is grounded in features of Islamic law that differ from the law of Maryland. First, a mahr can operate as a disincentive for a husband to exercise his disproportionate power to divorce his wife without cause under Islamic law. Traditionally—and today, "where [ ] Islamic law has been adopted as the secular law of a jurisdiction""a husband has a virtual automatic right to talaq , [ ]i.e., to divorce his wife by acknowledging ‘I divorce thee’ three times[ ]." Aleem , 404 Md. at 406 n.1, 947 A.2d 489. "[T]he wife only has a right to talaq if it is in the written marriage agreement or if [the husband] otherwise delegates that right to her." Id. Otherwise, she may obtain a divorce only with her husband's consent or for cause from an Islamic judge. If the husband invokes his right of talaq , however, then the mahr generally becomes payable immediately. See Wakin, supra ; Oman, supra , at 305; see also Aleem , 404 Md. at 410 n.5, 947 A.2d 489 (characterizing a mahr , as described in a pleading filed in that case, "as a means of controlling the husband's power of divorce, since upon dissolution of the marriage he is requi[r]ed to pay the total amount of the [mahr ] at once").

Second, because Islamic law does not recognize marital property, a mahr can provide a wife with some financial security in the event of divorce or the husband's death. Under traditional Islamic law, upon dissolution of a marriage, the wife is not entitled to a disposition of marital property, nor does she have any claim to alimony or child support. See Oman, supra , at 305-06. Absent operation of a civil law providing such rights, the mahr is thus the exclusive compensation payable to the wife upon divorce. See Akbar Aghajanian, Divorce in Modern Persia , in 7 Encylopædia Iranica 443-51 (2011), http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/divorce (accessed Feb. 12, 2020).

Although the governing laws in this country recognize marital property and do not recognize talaq divorces, many American couples continue to enter Islamic marriage contracts that contain mahrs . See Maha Alkhateeb, Islamic Marriage Contracts: A Resource Guide for Legal Professionals, Advocates, Imams & Communities 18-22 (2012), https://www.api-gbv.org/resources/islamic-marriage-contracts/ (accessed Feb. 12, 2020) (describing marital practices among Muslim Americans). That includes the two cases before us, as we now explain.

Nouri v. Dadgar

The appellant, Dr. Bruce Nouri, and the appellee, Dr. Shabnam Dadgar, were married in two separate ceremonies in October 2005. As found by the circuit court, "[t]he first ceremony took place in Iran; the parties participated from Northern Virginia by conference call, while relatives, an Ayatollah, and other government officials were present at the ceremony in Tehran. The second occurred at Montgomery County Circuit Court." The parties "agreed to a mahr on the day of the Iranian marriage ceremony." According to its English translation,4 the mahr contained two components, a Quran, which was "handed to the bride" at the ceremony, "and a pledge of one thousand three hundred fifty-three (1353) full ‘Spring of Freedom’ gold coins[5 ] for which the husband is totally liable and shall hand them to the wife at any time she demands them."

In its written opinion, the court noted that no one at trial "testified in detail about the negotiation of the mahr ." Dr. Dadgar and her father both testified that the parties had agreed on the amount of the mahr . Conversely, Dr. Nouri testified that he and Dr. Dadgar had not discussed the amount of the mahr , and his father testified that Dr. Dadgar's parents had demanded the amount. The court ultimately found only that "Dr. Dadgar stated that she discussed the mahr with Dr. Nouri and they agreed to the number of 1,353. It reflected the year of her birth on the Iranian calendar."

In March 2016, after the parties' marriage soured, Dr. Nouri filed a complaint for joint custody of the parties' children and child support. Dr. Dadgar counterclaimed for sole custody as well as support and maintenance for the children. Later, she amended her counterclaim to seek an absolute divorce.

During the pendency of the proceedings in Montgomery County, each party also initiated separate actions in Iran that were addressed, at least in part, to the validity of the mahr . Dr. Dadgar began proceedings in Iran to enforce the mahr , but she withdrew her filing shortly before her deposition in this case. Dr. Nouri filed a separate petition for an annulment in Iran, which included a request that the Iranian court cancel his obligation to pay the mahr . Dr. Dadgar did not participate in the annulment...

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