CHARLESTON – Last year, the state Supreme Court ruled that Putnam Family Law Judge William M. “Chip” Watkins III erred in rulings he made in a Pakistani doctor’s divorce.
The Court on May 13, 2011, affirmed Putnam Circuit Judge Phillip M. Stowers’ April 16, 2010, order reversing in part Watkins’ rulings in Saira Ahmad’s divorce from her husband, Dr. Saed Aftab Ahmad. In his order, Stowers said while Watkins was correct in granting their divorce, he erred in dividing their marital assets, and awarding Saira child, and spousal support.
The reason, Stowers said, was the lack of personal jurisdiction the family court had in the Ahmad’s divorce due to Shaira’s failure, at the time of his ruling, to achieve sufficient service of process on Ahmad.
According to court records, the Ahmads were married in Pakistan in 2000. When Saed, without notice, left, and liquidated some of their assets in April 2008, Saira filed a pro se divorce the next month. The same day she filed her petition, then-Putnam Circuit Judge N. Edward Eagloski issued an emergency order awarding temporary custody, and child support to Saira.
The order also prohibited Saed from removing the children from the United States.
A week later, Saira mailed a copy of Eagloski’s order and her petition to an address in New Martinsville where Saed was believed to be living, and working. Records show on June 11, 2008, Saed sent the Putnam Circuit Clerk’s Office a letter requesting more information on the divorce, and provided a return address in Lahore, Pakistan.
Eventually, Watkins held a final hearing on the Ahmad’s divorce in which he upheld all previous child, and spousal support rulings. Also, Watkins ordered unspecified assets liquidated and applied to pay Saira’s household expenses, and Ahmad’s medical license suspended for failure to pay child support.
Citing the “divisible divorce” doctrine in the Court’s 2000 decision in Burnett v. Burnett, Stowers said Watkins was correct in severing the Ahmad’s marriage as the family court had subject-matter jurisdiction in the case. However, he was incorrect to order their assets liquidated, and award child, and spousal support as the family court lacked “sufficient personal jurisdiction over Dr. Ahmad to meet the basic constitutional requirements of both the United States and the State of West Virginia in order to affect his personal property rights.”
“As for personal jurisdiction,” Stowers said in his ruling, “this Court finds that Ms. Ahmad never obtained sufficient service over Dr. Ahmad to give personal jurisdiction to the Putnam County Circuit Court, presided by Judge Eagloski, or the Putnam County Family Court. Phone calls, emails, or written letters sent to friends of Dr. Ahmad are not sufficient to meet the requirements of personal jurisdiction.”
“Even allegations of a party’s personal knowledge of the proceedings do not meet the requirements for personal jurisdiction,” Stowers added.
In his ruling, Stowers said in order for the family court to have personal jurisdiction in the Ahmad’s divorce, Saira would have to serve Saed her petition via the Secretary of State’s Office. In concluding his order, Stowers gave Saira 30 days to accomplish service, and Saed 60 days to respond once he was properly served.
According to court records, Saira was successful in serving Saed with her petition. Nevertheless, she appealed Stowers’ decision arguing that Saed’s reply to the certified letter she sent to New Martinsville and signed by Richard Wright was sufficient enough for the family court to assert both subject-matter, and personal jurisdiction.
However, the Court disagreed, and remanded the case back to Watkins “for consideration of the merits of the case.”
West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals case number 35741