Sunday, May 25, 2008

Court of Appeals Holds Agreement Can't Confer Jurisdiction on Family Court

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

2 Dept Holds Interim Counsel Fee Should Not Be Denied or Deferred Where Warrantred

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".

3d Dept Holds No Interim Counsel Fee witout a Hearing

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] ).

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