washingtonpost.com  > Metro > Maryland > Crime

Battered Wife Wins Suit Against Md. Matchmaker

Company Didn't Screen Clients Properly or Help When She Reported Abuse, Ukrainian Alleged

By Eric Rich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 19, 2004; Page B01

To Nataliya Derkach, he seemed a terrific catch: caring, financially secure and serious about family. The Ukrainian woman, who met James Fox through an international matchmaking agency, imagined her future unfolding happily on 40 acres in Loudoun County.

She and Fox married in November 1998, less than three months after they met. The first indication, she said, that she had misjudged her new husband came the morning they exchanged vows, when he changed clothes and left for work. "I was waiting all dressed up and alone in the house, and then I started crying," she testified recently.

The situation had grown far more desperate by July 2000, when she moved into a shelter for battered women, she said.

A federal jury in Baltimore awarded her as much as $434,000 yesterday, returning a highly unusual verdict against the Internet matchmaking agency that introduced her to James Fox. Both sides said there were few if any precedents for the case.

Nataliya Fox, 33, had sued the Bethesda-based company, Encounters International, for failing to screen its male clients and failing to tell her about the so-called battered spouse waiver, a provision in immigration law intended to help foreign nationals escape abusive relationships without fear of automatic deportation.

"We hope [the verdict] will send a message to the international marriage broker industry that they cannot pair women with abusers with impunity," said Layli Miller-Muro, director of the nonprofit Tahirih Justice Center, which helped attorney Randall Miller of the firm Arnold & Porter bring the lawsuit on Nataliya Fox's behalf.

Paul H. Zukerberg, attorney for Encounters International and its owner, said he will ask that the award be reduced. Of the company's owner, Natasha Spivack, he said: "She's extremely disappointed at the result. She doesn't believe it was justified."

The jury awarded monetary damages for specific counts of the lawsuit. Nataliya Fox's attorneys said they calculated the total award at $434,000. But Zukerberg said the total may be somewhat lower.

James Fox was not a defendant at the trial because of an earlier settlement, in which Nataliya Fox received $115,000. During the trial, he testified that he had never abused Nataliya, whom he described as "nutty" and "a fruitcake."

Nataliya Fox testified that her husband was prone to fits of rage -- an assertion corroborated by his first wife and a former fiancee -- and described in detail one particularly brutal attack: In July 2000, she said, he assaulted her for two hours after she asked him to help care for their newborn baby.

James Fox was charged with attempted murder in connection with that assault, which led to Nataliya's move to the shelter. The case was dropped after James Fox agreed to undergo anger management counseling. While she was at the shelter, he flew to Haiti to get a divorce.

The agency says it has arranged more than 250 marriages in 11 years with a divorce rate of 16 percent -- far below the national average.

Zukerberg argued that the agency never recruited Nataliya Fox and that it therefore had no obligation to tell her about the battered spouse waiver. He portrayed Fox, a civil engineer now engaged to someone else and living in Leesburg, as an opportunistic bride who has committed immigration fraud and would "do anything and say anything to stay in the United States."

Attorneys for Nataliya Fox argued that Encounters International recruits women from the former Soviet Union, holding out the promise of a better life in the United States. The agency vouches for its male clients, they said, and tells the women that the men are screened to ensure that they are stable and family-oriented.

Fox testified that she told Spivack about the abuse and that Spivack told her she would have to endure it or return to Ukraine. " 'All Americans -- all American men are crazy. Maybe you just listen to him and do what he says,' " Spivack responded, according to Fox.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company