When the Supreme Court of Ontario ordered Louis Cohen’s wife, Ruth, to pay him $335 a month in 1970, the diminutive Polishborn tailor became the first man in Canada to win alimony. But after 14 years of legal warfare, 78-year-old Cohen still has not received a single payment. Then, last month he applied for a judgment in an Ontario provincial court that could, at last, secure what he resolutely maintains is his due. But his odyssey through the justice system may still continue. Cohen has devoted his life to a single-minded crusade, in and out of the courts, to collect the money and to correct what he alleges is a complex series of wrongs that lawyers and the courts have inflicted on him ever since his wife—from whom he is still not divorced—walked out of their Windsor, Ont., apartment in 1953.
Cohen, who never learned to write and who reads with difficulty, now lives in a shabby, one-room Toronto apartment, guarding dozens of cardboard boxes full of court transcripts and other legal documents, many of them signed by people who died years ago. His $490 monthly income from his old-age pension covers his subsidized rent, food and telephone. But his legal problems, Cohen says, have left him $90,000 in debt. He says he wants to repay the money, borrowed over 30 years from banks, friends and relatives. And, he added, he will be able to begin to do so when he collects the overdue alimony, an amount he estimates to be at least $65,000. But Cohen
also wants the courts to return to him a 21-unit Windsor apartment building that he signed over to his wife, for $1, in 1948 and that he still insists is his.
In 1947 Cohen, who followed an older brother from Poland to Canada in 1924 and worked his way to relative affluence by making clothes at night and selling them by day, owned both the building and a successful clothing business. That year, at a family gathering in Toronto, he met Ruth Eckler. She was 28; he was 41. They married nine months later. Cohen dates his troubles to the day he met the woman he refers to as his “poison,” but his legal problems began when he signed over the building. He says his motive was to protect himself against possible business setbacks. But Ruth Cohen has testified that the transfer was part of a marriage contract.
The marriage effectively ended when Ruth Cohen, the Cohens’ two young daughters and Ruth’s parents, who also lived in the apartment building, moved out on Good Friday, 1953. Then, his wife evicted him from his shop, which was in the same building. Cohen, who has testified that his family’s departure affected his nerves so badly that he has been unable to work ever since, immediately began to picket the building and to launch his campaign to get it back. He has done little else since then, even though his wife sold the building 16 years ago for $96,500.
A major difficulty for Cohen now is the 1953 court-settlement document. It declared that Ruth Cohen would retain ownership of the disputed property and that the matter would go no further. But
Cohen claims that he never saw the minutes of settlement, did not know what they were and did not sign them. In an attempt to prove his point, he commissioned a handwriting analyst who reported that Cohen’s signature had been forged. But Cohen contends that he has been unable to find a lawyer who will pursue his complaint in the courts. Said Cohen, who has retained more than 20 lawyers since 1953: “They tell me that I am right. They take my money. And then they refuse to act.” He has complained to the Law Society of Upper Canada.
Cohen believed that he had won at least a minor battle when the Ontario Supreme Court awarded him alimony in 1970. Although Ruth Cohen appealed the judgment and the court reduced the award to $125 a month, the judgment itself still stands. Still, Cohen has been stifled in his attempts to collect the money. In 1979 he initiated contempt proceedings in Ontario provincial court, and Madam Justice Janet Boland ruled in his favor. Her ruling stated, in part: “Louis Cohen has been shamefully treated by his wife. She has wilfully disobeyed the order of Mr. Justice John Osier dated April 9, 1970, wherein he ordered that Ruth Cohen pay her husband $335 a month. To date she has not paid him a cent.” The court ordered Ruth Cohen to pay $5,000 toward the balance owing and to discharge the entire debt by Feb. 15, 1979.
Four months later, Ruth Cohen successfully appealed that decision to the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled that Justice Boland did not have jurisdiction over the matter. Louis Cohen was back where he started. He then obtained a warrant of committal in an Ontario provincial court in Toronto, but the Windsor police declared in a letter to Cohen’s lawyer that “all attempts to execute the warrant at the Windsor address provided by the court and Mr. Cohen have resulted in negative results.” Then, in 1982 Cohen discovered that his wife had moved to Florida. Eventually, with the help of a private investigator, he found her in Lake Park, Fla. She declines to be interviewed, and the Florida authorities said that the Canadian warrant was not valid in the state.
Cohen now is petitioning an Ontario provincial court in Toronto to update the original court order so that it will be valid in Florida under a recent reciprocal agreement between Ontario and the U.S. state. And he has persuaded another law firm, in Palm Beach, to represent him. “I lost my children, I lost my building, I lost my business,” said Cohen. “I lost my future.” The only thing he has not lost is his hope.
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