The Washington Court of Appeals recently shed light on the reach of Washington’s Long-Arm Statute in divorce proceedings involving a long-distance marriage. In Oytan v. David-Oytan (PDF), the court addressed whether the responding party in dissolution, who has never lived full-time in Washington, can nonetheless be said to have “liv[ed] in a marital relationship within this state” and thus fall within the reach of Washington’s Long-Arm Statute? Applying the interpretive principle that different statutory terms must be presumed to have different meaning, the court ruled that the Long-Arm Statute clause “living in a marital relationship within this state” does not have the same meaning as “resident of the state.” Thus, the court ruled, full-time past residence is not required for personal jurisdiction to exist. Rather, whether personal jurisdiction exists must be considered in light of the totality of the circumstances surrounding the marriage whether the party had sufficient minimum contacts with the state.

Kudret Oytan and Margaret David-Oytan met in Turkey in 1993 while Kudret was working as a diplomatic officer in the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Margaret worked as a lawyer with the United Nations. Between 1997 and 2004 Kudret and Margaret resided together in Los Angeles full-time. During that time, they were married, acquired property together and had a daughter. Margaret continued working as an attorney. Kurdet left the Turkish diplomatic corps to work in the financial services industry for several years before returning to the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and to a posting in Turkey in 2004. Even though Kurdet and Margaret no longer resided together full-time, Kurdet returned to Los Angeles to visit his wife and child as frequently as possible.

In 2007, at Kurdret’s urging, Margaret accepted an in-house counsel position with Microsoft in Redmond, Washington. Kudret was integrally involved in moving Margaret and his daughter from California to Washington. On the records at his daughter’s new school, Kudret was listed as the head of household and the primary contact using the local Redmond telephone number and address. But Kudret remained assigned to diplomatic postings outside the United States. Nonetheless, between 2007 and 2010, Kudret investigated opportunities to acquire property and a franchise business in the Seattle area, wrote to Margaret that he was not living with her and their daughter only for “business reasons,” and indicated to others that he considered Redmond to be the place where he and his family lived.

In 2010, Margaret filed a petition for divorce in King County Superior Court and sought an order freezing certain Turkish bank accounts containing the couple’s funds, along with a protective order supported by evidence of sustained domestic violence. Kudret asserted that the trial court lacked personal jurisdiction and did not appear at trial. The trial court concluded that it had personal jurisdiction and subsequently entered a substantial monetary judgment against Kudret.

In this case of first impression, the Court of Appeals affirmed, explaining that Washington’s Long-Arm Statute did not require that the responding party have past full-time residency in the state and that there were sufficient minimum contacts to satisfy due process.

With respect to the Long-Arm Statute, the pertinent language provides that Washington courts have personal jurisdiction in a dissolution action over “[a]ny person, whether or not a citizen or resident of this state [who does the following act]: [l]iving in a marital relationship within this state notwithstanding subsequent departure from this state, . . . so long as the petitioning party has continued to reside in the state . . . .” RCW 4.28.185(1)(f). There was no question that Margaret – the petitioning party – resided in Washington. Thus, the interpretive question boiled down to the meaning of “living in a martial relationship within this state.”

Starting from the presumption that different terms used in the same statute must be given different meaning the court explained that the terms “living in a martial relationship” must have a different meaning from the terms “resident of this state.” Otherwise, there would be no distinction between residency and living in a marital relationship, and the latter language would be rendered meaningless or superfluous. Furthermore, the court observed that long-distance marriages are common and that based on the legislatures use of different terms, living in a martial relationship cannot depend on residency but, rather, turns on the unique facts of each case. Thus, the court held, the Long-Arm Statute as applied to dissolution actions does not contain a bright-line full-time residency requirement.

Considering the facts surrounding Kudret’s and Margaret’s marriage – in particular, Kudret’s involvement in his daughter’s school, his attempts to acquire property and start a business in the Seattle area, his various statements that his family home was in the Seattle area, the lack of any other family home, and evidence of Kudret’s activities in the Seattle area – the court concluded that Kudret had lived in a marital relationship within Washington for the purpose of the Long-Arm Statute and that the minimum contacts required by due process (as articulated in International Shoe and Tyee Construction) were also satisfied.

My Comments: Beyond the immediate clarity that Oytan provides about personal jurisdiction, the court’s opinion is most significant for its serious, careful application of principles of statutory interpretation. One would struggle to criticize the neutral application of interpretive principles in this instance.