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Saturday, May 24, 2008

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Court of Appeals Holds Family Court Lacked Subject Matter Jurisdiction to Entertain Wife's Application for Increased Spousal Maintenance Despite "De Novo" Provision of Separation Agreement

In Matter of Johna M.S. v Russell E.S., --- N.Y.3d ----, 2008 WL 1860165 (N.Y.) Petitioner wife and respondent husband executed a written separation agreement in 2003. No divorce action was commenced. The agreement provided that the husband would pay the wife $100 per week in spousal maintenance and $250 per week in child support. The section of the agreement pertaining to maintenance stated: "while this agreement will resolve these issues for the present time, the Wife shall not be foreclosed from seeking additional maintenance in negotiation with the Husband, or failing such negotiation, then filing in a court of appropriate jurisdiction for a modification of the present provisions concerning the payment of maintenance. Any application by the Wife shall be treated as a 'de novo' application to the court, since it is not possible to set future maintenance at this time because it is impossible to forecast the Wife's needs or the Husband's income/earning capacity."
The wife commenced a Family Court Act article 4 proceeding seeking an upward modification of maintenance and child support. The Support Magistrate dismissed that portion of the wife's application seeking additional spousal maintenance for lack of jurisdiction. The court noted that no proof was offered that the wife was likely to become a public charge (see Family Court Act 463); thus, the parties were bound by the terms of the separation agreement on the issue of spousal maintenance. Family Court affirmed, as did the Appellate Division. The Court of Appeals affirmed. It held that Family Court is a court of limited jurisdiction that cannot exercise powers beyond those granted to it by statute. It generally has no subject matter jurisdiction to reform, set aside or modify the terms of a valid separation agreement. Nor can an agreement of the parties confer on Family Court the power to modify the terms of a separation agreement. A statutory exception to the rule prohibiting the modification of separation agreements, not applicable here, exists where a spouse "is likely to become in need of public assistance or care" (Family Court Act 463). Family Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to entertain the wife's application for increased spousal maintenance. Although the parties' separation agreement purported to permit Family Court to treat any application by the wife as "de novo," such language cannot confer jurisdiction upon Family Court. The wife's petition to Family Court for increased maintenance expressly stated that it was "an application to the Court for an upward modification of spousal support," premised on the insufficiency of current maintenance due to a loss of certain Social Security benefits. In practical terms, the wife was not presenting a new, or "de novo," application for maintenance to Family Court. She was seeking increased maintenance from that provided under the separation agreement. Thus, because the wife was seeking a modification of a spousal maintenance award set forth in a separation agreement, Family Court was without jurisdiction to entertain the petition and grant the requested relief. Justice Smith dissented in an opinion
Second Department Holds Counsel Fees to Nonmonied Spouse Generally Warranted Where a Significant Disparity in Parties Financial Circumstances and Should Not Be Denied, or Deferred Absent Good Cause, Articulated in a Written Decision

In Prichep v Prichep, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2008 WL 1987254 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept.) the Second Department, in an opinion by Justice Prudenti, held that because of the importance of such awards to the fundamental fairness of the proceedings, an award of interim counsel fees to the nonmonied spouse will generally be warranted where there is a significant disparity in the financial circumstances of the parties and should not be denied, or deferred until after the trial, which functions as a denial, without good cause, articulated by the court in a written decision. It cited as examples of good cause, where the requested fees are unsubstantiated or clearly disproportionate to the amount of legal work required in the case. It based this conclusion on the fact that when an action for a divorce is commenced, it is often the case that most of the marital assets available for the payment of legal fees are possessed or controlled by one of the spouses, usually the husband. In order to ensure that the parties will have equal access to skilled legal representation, the Domestic Relations Law authorizes awards of interim counsel fees to the nonmonied spouse during the course of the litigation. The court pointed out that when a party to a divorce action requests an interim award of counsel fees, as opposed to a final award, a detailed inquiry is not warranted. The husband commenced the divorce action in 1998. In June 2005, the wife made a pretrial motion for interim counsel fees of $35,000. The wife's motion papers noted that, although the court previously had awarded her interim counsel fees of $20,000, she currently owed her attorneys $53,009. The wife pointed out that the husband was a "highly successful vascular surgeon," earning $420,100 per year, while she worked part-time as an early intervention therapist, earning $4,015 per year. In opposition to the wife's motion, the husband argued that the wife had "over-litigated" the case, creating and submitting voluminous and unnecessary papers, and thus generating excessive counsel fees. Supreme Court denied the wife's motion "without prejudice to renewal before the trial court to determine the financial circumstances of the parties, the nature and complexity of the case, which includes the valuation of a medical practice, the fees filed and legal services rendered and the expertise of the attorneys." The wife thereafter moved to renew her prior motion and for an additional award of interim counsel fees of $40,000. Her attorney submitted an affidavit asserting that the wife now owed his firm $159,000 in legal fees, as well as invoices and attorney time records documenting billings in that amount. In the alternative, the motion sought leave to withdraw as her counsel. Supreme Court denied the motion for fees but granted the law firm's request to the extent of relieving it as counsel for the wife. An award of interim counsel fees ensures that the nonmonied spouse will be able to litigate the action, and do so on equal footing with the monied spouse. Such an award "is appropriate 'to prevent the more affluent spouse from wearing down or financially punishing the opposition by recalcitrance, or by prolonging the litigation' "(citing Gober v. Gober, 282 A.D.2d 392, 393, quoting O'Shea v. O'Shea, 93 N.Y.2d at 193; see Charpie v. Charpie, 271 A.D.2d 169). If the playing field were not leveled by an award of interim counsel fees, "a wealthy husband could obtain the services of highly paid (and presumably seasoned and superior matrimonial counsel, while the indigent wife, essentially, would be relegated to counsel willing to take her case on a poverty basis".
Third Department Holds That Absent Stipulation No Pendente Lite Counsel Fee Award Without A Hearing

In Bush v Bush, 46 A.D.3d 1140, 848 N.Y.S.2d 721 (3d Dept, 2007) Defendant cross-moved for among other things, interim counsel fees in the amount of $85,172.81. Supreme Court awarded defendant interim counsel fees of $25,000. The Appellate Division reversed. It held that to justify an award of counsel fees, a sufficient evidentiary basis must exist for the court to evaluate the respective financial circumstances of the parties and value of the services rendered' Moreover, Supreme Court cannot award counsel fees based solely upon written submissions, unless so stipulated to by the parties. The proof submitted concerning the financial circumstances of the parties was limited to written submissions by respective counsel. As the record did not contain evidence of a stipulation agreeing thereto, the proof of the financial circumstances of the parties was inadequate for Supreme Court to properly assess the award of counsel fees. The Appellate Division reversed and remitted to Supreme Court for an evidentiary hearing (citing its 2003 decision in Yarinsky v.Yarinsky, 2 A.D.3d 1108 [3 Dept 2003] ).

First Department Critical of Law Guardian too!

Law Guardian May Not Be Unsworn Witness and Must Comply with Law Guardian Rules of the Chief Judge

In Naomi C v Russell A, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2008 WL 304936 (N.Y.A.D. 1 Dept.) the Appellate Division affirmed without a hearing Court’s dismissal of a petition to modify a custody order. The Appellate Division pointed out that with the parties present, the court asked the Law Guardian, on the record, to discuss the position of the 10-year-old child regarding how well the current custody arrangement was working. Although the court was warranted in dismissing the petition on its face, the questioning of the Law Guardian (now called Attorney for the Child) by the court was " something that should not be repeated". Although the court was correct to disallow the "cross-examination" of the Law Guardian by petitioner's counsel, the court should not consider the hearsay opinion of a child in determining the legal sufficiency of a pleading in the first place. Most importantly, such colloquy makes the Law Guardian an unsworn witness, a position in which no attorney should be placed. It emphasized that the attorney for the child is subject to the ethical requirements applicable to all lawyers, including but not limited to becoming a witness in the litigation. (Citing Rules of the Chief Judge [22 NYCRR] 7.2[b] ).

New York Recent Decisions of Interest

Second Department Removes Law Guardian Failure to Comply With Rules of Chief Judge

In Cervera v Bressler, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2008 WL 1748331 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept.) the parties' entered into a stipulation, later so-ordered by the court, in which they agreed to joint custody, with primary physical custody with the mother, visitation to the father
on alternate weekends and one weekday per week, and the removal of certain restrictions on visitation that had been imposed temporarily. In July 2005, the attorney for the child moved by order to show cause for supervised visitation, based on various allegations by the mother, including one allegation of sexual molestation. The sexual molestation allegation was subsequently determined to be unfounded. Although a hearing on the motion was scheduled at least once, it never took place, and visitation by the father remained supervised since July 28, 2005. The Appellate Division held that supervised visitation was appropriately required only where it is established that unsupervised visitation would be detrimental to the child and because no hearing was ever held on the order to show cause visitation remained supervised, and telephone contact between father and daughter was monitored, for about 2 1/2 years, based solely on the hearsay allegations of the mother. These consisted of the allegations of molestation, which were determined by OCFS to be unfounded, and stories of various incidents, the details of which were disputed by the father and, were insufficient to show that unsupervised visitation would be detrimental to the child's well-being. Under these circumstances, it was unacceptable to the Second Department that the hearing had not been held, although ordered more than 2 1/2 years earlier. This arrangement resulted in the violation of the father's right to reasonable access and visitation.
It also held that the court should not have required the father to pay the cost of supervising his visitation without determining the economic realities, including his ability to pay and the actual cost of each visit. Finally, it held that the court improvidently exercised its discretion in denying the father's motion to remove Joshua D. Siegel as the attorney for the child. It referred to the new rules that had been recently promulgated by the Chief Judge and stated that an attorney for the child should not have a particular position or decision in mind at the outset of the case before the gathering of evidence. On the other hand, attorneys for children are not neutral automatons. After an appropriate inquiry, it is entirely appropriate, indeed expected, that an attorney for the child form an opinion about what action, if any, would be in a child's best interest. An attorney for the child is not an investigative arm of the court. While attorneys for the children, as advocates, may make their positions known to the court orally or in writing (by way of, among other methods, briefs or summations), presenting reports containing facts which are not part of the record or making submissions directly to the court ex parte are inappropriate practices. Here, in the order to show cause , and the affirmation in support, as well as in every affirmation submitted thereafter, the attorney for the child included facts which were not part of the record, but which constituted hearsay gleaned from the mother. This behavior on the part of the attorney for the child, as well as his repeated ad hominum attacks on the father's character, was both unprofessional and improper, as it amounted to the attorney for the child acting as a witness against the father, in violation of the Rules of the Chief Judge (see 22 NYCRR 7.2[b] ).

Law Guardian Rebuked for Failure to Follow Rules of Chief Judge and Wishes of Child

In Matter of Delaney v. Galeano,--- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2008 WL 1823048 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept.) the attorney for the child appealed from an order of the Family Court, which, after a hearing, denied his motion to hold the respondent mother in contempt. Upon receipt of a copy of a letter dated June 15, 2007, from the 14-year-old child to the effect that he did not want the appeal to proceed, the Appellate Division issued an order to show cause directing the parties or their attorneys to show cause why an order should not be made dismissing the appeal in the above-entitled proceeding as withdrawn. After argument of the appeal the motion was granted and the appeal was dismissed as withdrawn. The Appellate Division held that where "the child is capable of knowing, voluntary and considered judgment, the attorney for the child should be directed by the wishes of the child" (22 NYCRR 7.2[d][2]). Here, the child on numerous occasions has expressed concern that his attorney was not representing his wishes. Additionally, he requested that the appeal be withdrawn, prompting the Court to require the parties or their attorneys to show cause why the appeal should not be dismissed as withdrawn. In response to that order to show cause, the attorney for the child failed to demonstrate any basis upon which the child's preference may properly be disregarded (see 22 NYCRR 7.2[d][3] ).

Latest New York Decisions Now Posted (and discussed)

This blog is written as a public service to provide useful information to the New York bench, bar and litigant. We have tried to decide on a format for the posting on this blog which will differ from the other blogs on the web. Almost all of the divorce and family law blogs we have visited contain general discussions of recent cases reported in the media which are newsworthy, but are not really important or helpful for the attorneys, judges and litigants involved in the New York Court System.

We have decided to use our blog to create an alternative source for some of the information available on our New York Divorce and Family Law web site.

This site will report on recent New York decisions regarding New York Divorce and Family Law which, in our opinion, are important for those involved in the New York court system. Where appropriate, our postings will contain editorial comment. We welcome your contributions and comments.