Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Important New Decisions - June 15, 2011

Fair Trial Denied Where Family Court Judge Took on the Function and Appearance of an Advocate

In Matter of Jacquilin M, 83 A.D.3d 844, 922 N.Y.S.2d 111 (2 Dept, 2011) Jacqulin M. appealed from an order of disposition of the Family which, upon a fact-finding order of a hearing, finding that the appellant committed acts which, if committed by an adult, would have constituted the crimes of grand larceny in the fourth degree and criminal possession of stolen property in the fifth degree, adjudged her to be a juvenile delinquent, and placed her on probation for a period of 18 months. The order of disposition was reversed on the law and as a matter of discretion in the interest of justice, the fact-finding order was vacated, and the matter is remitted to the Family Court for a new fact-finding hearing. The appellant's contention that she was deprived of a fair trial because the Family Court Judge took on the function of an advocate by excessively intervening in the fact-finding hearing was unpreserved for appellate review. However, the Appellate Division reached this issue in the exercise of its interest of justice jurisdiction because the Family Court Judge's excessive intervention deprived the appellant of her right to a fair fact-finding hearing. It observed that although trial courts may appropriately take an active role in the presentation of evidence "in order to clarify a confusing issue or to avoid misleading the trier of fact" (People v. Arnold, 98 N.Y.2d 63, 67, 745 N.Y.S.2d 782, 772 N.E.2d 1140), the function of the judge is "to protect the record at trial, not to make it". Thus, while a certain degree of judicial intervention in the presentation of evidence is permissible, "the line is crossed when the judge takes on either the function or appearance of an advocate at trial" (People v. Arnold, 98 N.Y.2d at 67, 745 N.Y.S.2d 782, 772 N.E.2d 1140; see People v. Zamorano, 301 A.D.2d 544, 546, 754 N.Y.S.2d 645). These principles apply in bench trials, including juvenile delinquency proceedings. Here, the Family Court Judge took on the function and appearance of an advocate by extensively participating in both the direct and cross-examination of the two presentment agency witnesses and eliciting testimony which strengthened the presentment agency's case. Furthermore, when the appellant indicated, during the course of her direct examination, that a certain document which would support her defense had been turned over to a Probation Department officer, the Judge interrupted her testimony to question a Probation Department Court Liaison who was present in the courtroom about whether documents of this nature would indeed be kept by the Probation Department. The Judge then summoned the Probation Department officer assigned to the appellant's case to the courtroom, and indicated to the appellant's attorney that unless he agreed to stipulate as to what certain Probation Department records would reflect, those records would be admitted into evidence through the Probation Officer's testimony. It was clear from the record that neither the presentment agency nor the appellant's attorney intended to call the Probation Officer as a witness or enter the Probation Department records into evidence, and the stipulation regarding what those records reflected had the effect of rebutting a portion of the appellant's testimony. Thus, the Judge essentially "assumed the parties' traditional role of deciding what evidence to present" . Furthermore, the Judge offered no explanation on the record as to why he felt compelled to solicit this evidence. Under these circumstances, a new fact-finding hearing was warranted.

Third Department Explains Difference Between in Camera Hearing and True Lincoln Hearing

In Matter of Spencer v Spencer, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2011 WL 2150028 (N.Y.A.D. 3 Dept.) the parties were the parents of three children (born in 1997, 1999 and 2001). In their divorce judgment, the parties agreed to joint legal custody, physical placement with respondent (mother), and visitation with petitioner (father) every other weekend. In 2009, the father commenced a proceeding seeking to modify the custodial arrangement based upon an improper relationship that the mother's male friend had with one of the parties' children while in the mother's care. Family Court temporarily placed the children with the father. After several court appearances and an in camera interview with each of the children, the court issued an order awarding primary physical custody to the father and extensive visitation to the mother. The Appellate Division found that the mother did not consent to the court making and order without a hearing, and held that Family Court erred by modifying the custody order without holding a fact-finding hearing. The father's petition adequately alleged a change in circumstances, namely that the mother exposed the children to a convicted sex offender and she was aware that this individual had an inappropriate relationship with one of the children. The mother admitted that an inappropriate relationship occurred, but denied knowing about it. The parties disagreed about most of the other allegations. The mother specifically objected to the court's failure to hold a hearing, and the court lacked record information that would permit it to determine whether the alleged change in circumstances required a modification of the prior custody order .A court may not grant a final order based upon mere allegations and a request by an attorney for a party or the children; evidentiary proof is required. Thus, it reversed the order on the law and remitted for Family Court to hold a hearing on the petition.
The Appellate Division observed that Family Court and the parties inaccurately referred to the in camera interviews with the children as a Lincoln hearing. The purpose of a Lincoln hearing in a custody proceeding "is to corroborate information acquired through testimonial or documentary evidence adduced during the fact-finding hearing" (Matter of Lincoln v. Lincoln, 24 N.Y.2d 270, 273 [1969] ). Thus, a true Lincoln hearing is held after, or during, a fact-finding hearing; there is no authority or legitimate purpose for courts to conduct such interviews in place of fact-finding hearings, and Family Court erred in doing so here. Additionally, it cautioned the court to protect the children's right to confidentiality by avoiding disclosure of what children reveal in camera during a custody proceeding.

Unsubstantiated Allegations Insufficient to Warrant the Invocation of Temporary Emergency Jurisdiction under UCCJEA.

In Segovia v Bushnell, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2011 WL 2150113 (N.Y.A.D. 3 Dept.) Respondent, the mother of two sons (born in 1999 and 2002), refused to release the children to the paternal grandparents for visitation and instead brought them to New York from Texas. A Texas court thereafter issued a temporary order granting custody to the father and petitioner, the paternal grandmother. Petitioner then commenced a proceeding seeking registration and enforcement of the Texas order ( Domestic Relations Law 77-d, 77-g). Respondent did not contest registration of the Texas order, but requested that Family Court exercise temporary emergency jurisdiction based on her allegations that the paternal grandparents had sexually abused the children (Domestic Relations Law 76-c). Family Court placed the children in the temporary custody of the Department of Social Services and ordered an investigation into respondent's allegations. Upon conclusion of the investigation, Family Court found the allegations to be unfounded and granted enforcement of the Texas order.
The Appellate Divison affirmed. Family Court heard, without objection, testimony that the children met with a local sexual abuse validator who determined that there was no sexual abuse, and it reviewed an investigative report prepared by authorities in Texas after respondent made the same allegations there. The Texas authorities conducted an exhaustive review and found no evidence to substantiate the allegations of sexual abuse. In light of the information rebutting respondent's claims, it agreed with Family Court that her unsubstantiated allegations were insufficient to warrant the invocation of temporary emergency jurisdiction.

The Rights and Needs of the Children Must Be Accorded the Greatest Weight in a Relocation Case

In Alaire K.G. v Anthony P.G.,--- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2011 WL 2135385 (N.Y.A.D. 1 Dept.) the First Department, in an opinion by Justice Moskowitz, observed that the appeal, involving a custodial parent's request to relocate with the parties' child, fell within the class of cases that "present some of the knottiest and most disturbing problems that our courts are called upon to resolve" (Matter of Tropea v. Tropea, 87 N.Y.2d 727, 736 [1996] ). The parties were married in January 2004, separated about a year and a half later and were divorced on July 13, 2006. They were the parents of a now six-year-old boy born on May 17, 2004. The stipulation settling the divorce case granted the mother legal and physical custody of the child. The father had visitation every week from Monday at 8:00 p.m. until Wednesday at 6:00 p.m. The stipulation allowed relocation within 25-miles of the father's house in the Bronx.
The father had a history of irregular employment and was currently not employed. At the time of trial, the mother, who was remarried, cared for her younger child from her second marriage, full time. After the parties separated, the mother remained in the marital apartment in the Bronx with the child for two years. In the fall of 2007, she began working as a project administrator in the construction field. In 2007, she moved with the child and her boyfriend to Connecticut. The mother testified that she always wanted her son to be in a suburban environment. She stated that she was trying "to mirror my own childhood. I had a wonderful suburban upbringing." The relationship in Connecticut ended when the boyfriend returned to his native New Zealand. The mother returned to New York with the child and moved into an apartment in Harlem. In March 2008, the mother met her future husband, Hugh Bonnar, on Bonnar was retired from the Air Force, lived in North Carolina and was then involved in a nation-wide job search. Ultimately, Bonnar took a job with Northrop Grumman in San Diego. He had requested to work at Northrop Grumman's Long Island branch, but the company could not accommodate his request. The mother and Bonnar became engaged in May 2008. Soon after her engagement, the mother approached the father about moving to California to live with Bonnar. The father was concerned about the distance and the stability of the mother's new relationship. The parties therefore met with a mediator to try to work out an arrangement by which the mother could leave the child with the father temporarily while she settled in California. The mediator sent a letter, dated May 12, 2008, that purported to memorialize the parties' agreement. The letter stated that the parties agreed that the child would stay with the father from June 27, 2008 until December 31, 2008, with the mother making several long weekend visits to New York. Mother and son were also to participate in a webcam phone call two to three times a week. The letter did not address where the child would live after December 31, 2008. However, the father refused to sign an agreement embodying these terms and instead asked the mother to sign over custody to him. She refused. The mother left for California on June 26, 2008. She claimed that she never intended the father to have permanent custody, but arrangements to move to California had become irreversible by the time she learned that the father did not agree. The mother gave birth to Bonnar's son on April 4, 2009. She and Bonnar were also married in April 2009.
On July 17, 2008, the father filed a petition seeking sole legal and physical custody of the parties' child, claiming that the mother had abandoned the child. On December 1, 2008, the mother filed a petition for relocation.
Justice Moskowitz pointed out that each relocation request must be considered on its own merits with due consideration of all relevant facts and circumstances and with the predominant emphasis being placed on what outcome is most likely to serve the best interests of the child" (citing Tropea v. Tropea 87 N.Y.2d 727, 739 [1996] ). The dissent stated that Tropea dictates that the court's "central concern" should be the impact of the move on the relationship between the child and the noncustodial parent. Justice Moskowitz held that this interpretation misreads the case. Tropea states that "[o]f course, the impact of the move on the relationship between the child and the noncustodial parent will remain a central concern." However, it is not "the" central concern. Rather, the case makes abundantly clear that "it is the rights and needs of the children that must be accorded the greatest weight". She noted that the Court of Appeals rejected the "three-tiered" analysis that required a court to determine first "whether the proposed relocation would deprive the noncustodial parent of regular and meaningful access to the child".
The court found that there was a sound and substantial basis in the record for the determination granting the mother's request to relocate to California with her son. First, there was no question that the California home was financially more stable than the father's home. The stepfather had a steady job with Northrop Grumman that provided his family with health insurance. By contrast, the father was not currently working. Although he had been offered a job as a teacher's aide, he had postponed his start date. He was currently on some type of public assistance and received money from his parents in Ireland. He admitted that "it's not been easy like money wise." He was not currently in a relationship. Given his bleak financial circumstances, with no career or family in New York, it appeared that there was nothing keeping the father from moving to San Diego himself to be closer to his son. The Court quoted that part of Tropea, 87 N.Y.2d at 740 which said"where the custodial parent's reasons for moving are deemed valid and sound, the court in a proper case might consider the possibility and feasibility of a parallel move by an involved and committed noncustodial parent as an alternative to restricting a custodial parent's mobility". Further, living in San Diego ensured that the child would grow up in the same house as his half brother. The father agreed that it was very important for the child to have a brother in his life. He even testified that he actually expected the child eventually to move to California so that he could be with his brother, the father was merely opposed to the date of the move. The mother established that the child would have access to an education that was just as good as, if not better than, his school in New York. Moreover, she testified that Bonnar's status as a veteran would allow the child to attend college within the State of California's university system free of charge. The record also reflected that the mother went out of her way to facilitate communication between the child and his father. The same could not be said of the father with respect to communication between the child and his mother. Finally, the child's own attorney recommended that the court permit the mother to relocate with the child, a factor that militated in favor of affirming the result the court reached.
Justice Moskowitz commented that the dissent's characterization of the mother as putting her own romantic interests ahead of her son's welfare was rank speculation. It was just as likely that the mother, herself an only child, was pursuing marriage aggressively to produce a sibling for her son, before he became much older, and an intact family. Regardless of the mother's motivations, it is the best interest of the child that must guide the decision.
The Court found that the visitation schedule, that required the mother to pay for air travel for the child to be with the father on numerous extended weekend visits throughout the year in addition to extended summer and holiday visits, did not deprive the father of the opportunity to maintain a close relationship with his son .

Memorandum of Understanding Was Not a Final Agreement Even Thought it Contemplated Parties' Subsequent Execution of "Opting-out Agreement”

In Vega v Papaleo, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2011 WL 2224860 (N.Y.A.D. 3 Dept.) Plaintiff commenced the action for divorce in 2006 on the ground of cruel and inhuman treatment. In 2008, after engaging in protracted litigation and settlement negotiations, the parties, both of whom were represented by counsel, signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that provided for distribution of the parties' marital assets. Plaintiff's attorney then notified Supreme Court that the matter had been resolved and the case, which had been scheduled for trial, was removed from the trial calendar. Thereafter, plaintiff was presented with a settlement agreement but refused to sign it. Plaintiff subsequently retained new counsel and the matter was restored to the trial calendar. After several pretrial conferences, Supreme Court granted a motion by defendant for summary judgment, seeking a judgment granting plaintiff a divorce and incorporating, but not merging, the terms of the MOU into the judgment of divorce. A judgment of divorce was entered accordingly, prompting this appeal by plaintiff.
On appeal Plaintiff argued that the MOU was not an enforceable agreement and that, even if it is enforceable, it should be set aside on the basis that her attorney fraudulently induced her to sign the document by misrepresenting its legal significance. The Appellate Division affirmed. It found that as the movant for summary judgment, defendant met his initial burden of demonstrating that the MOU was an enforceable agreement under Domestic Relations Law 236(B)(3), as the document, itself was in writing, subscribed by the parties, and acknowledged or proven in the manner required to entitle a deed to be recorded" (Domestic Relations Law 236[B] [3]; see CPLR 2104). Plaintiff conceded that the MOU met the statutory requirements. Her argument that it was not enforceable because it was not "endorsed" in open court was unavailing, as there is no requirement that a properly executed written settlement agreement be so endorsed Thus, the burden shifted to plaintiff to demonstrate by the proffer of admissible evidence the existence of material issues of fact requiring a trial. To that end, plaintiff submitted her own affidavit, and the affirmations of her current attorney and a friend who accompanied her to her then attorney's office on the day she signed the MOU. According to those submissions, plaintiff did not wish to sign the MOU because it did not address certain assets, but she ultimately signed it based upon her then attorney's assurances that those issues could be raised at a later time. Plaintiff alleges that she would not have signed the MOU if she had known that it would be considered a final agreement. As to the merits, plaintiff had not alleged that defendant, or anyone acting on defendant's behalf, perpetrated any fraud or duress upon her. While plaintiff may have other remedies available to her, her allegations--relating solely to her attorney's conduct–were insufficient to set aside the MOU.
The Appellate Division also rejected plaintiff's argument that the MOU was not a final agreement because it contemplated the parties' subsequent execution of an "opting-out agreement." The MOU provided that it "will be incorporated into a full opting-out agreement to be signed by the parties containing these terms and only those other terms which are necessary to have a full and complete opting-out agreement, but due to the time constraints, [the parties] may not have the ability to finalize an opting-out agreement prior to the date scheduled for trial." The MOU then goes on to address, in detail, numerous issues including, among other things, a division of various items of real property, business interests, bank accounts, retirement accounts, marital debt and maintenance payments. It also contained a provision that "any additional terms and agreements to be contained within the opting-out agreement shall not alter or change any of the terms or conditions set forth in this [MOU]." Although the MOU directed entry into a further agreement, its terms were not contingent upon entry into such agreement. Accordingly, plaintiff failed to raise a question of fact sufficient to defeat defendant's motion.

Second Department Holds That 529 Plan College Fund Is Not a Bank Account under Stipulation for Divison of Assets

In Zuchowski v Zuchowski, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2011 WL 2279060 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept.) the parties 2009 stipulation of settlement, which was incorporated but did not merge into their judgment of divorce that was entered on June 17, 2009 provided that "all joint bank accounts have been split to the mutual satisfaction of the parties and here and forward each party shall keep any bank accounts in their respective names; namely, the wife in her name, the husband in his name." The stipulation also provided that "each party is responsible to pay the 50/50 share of college" for their children, but "the children shall avail themselves of every possible loan, grant or any other moneys offered to them by the college before the parties are respectfully [sic] required to contribute towards the education of the children." In an order dated January 11, 2010, the Supreme Court granted the defendant former husband's motion which was, in effect, to direct the plaintiff former wife to provide him with quarterly statements relating to a "529 Plan" sponsored by the State of New Hampshire and managed by Fidelity Investments, which the parties had established as a college fund for their son Peter, and to apply the money in the subject account to Peter's college expenses before either party would be required to contribute to such expenses. The former wife moved for leave to reargue, contending that since the 529 Plan was in her name, it was, under the terms of the stipulation of settlement, separate property belonging to her, and thus should be applied to reduce only her share of Peter's college costs. The account statements named the former wife as the "participant" and Peter as the "beneficiary," and the record indicated that the participant is considered to be the owner of the account assets until they are withdrawn. Supreme Court granted the former wife's motion and, upon reargument, vacated the portion of its January 11, 2010, order relating to the 529 Plan.
The Appellate Divison reversed on the law. It observed that when interpreting a contract, the court should arrive at a construction which will give fair meaning to all of the language employed by the parties to reach a practical interpretation of the expressions of the parties so that their reasonable expectations will be realized. Contrary to the former wife's contention, the stipulation of settlement could not reasonably be interpreted as treating the 529 Plan as one of the "bank accounts" that the party named as the account holder was entitled to "keep." While the stipulation of settlement provided that "all joint bank accounts have been split to the mutual satisfaction of the parties," there was nothing in the stipulation to support a finding that the parties intended the monetary assets they were allocating between themselves to include Peter's college fund. Although the former wife was technically the owner of the funds in the 529 Plan, the reason for that account's existence was not to personally benefit either of the parties, but to fund Peter's college education. Accordingly, upon reargument, the Supreme Court should have adhered to its original determination directing the former wife to provide the former husband with quarterly statements relating to the 529 Plan, and to apply the money in that account to Peter's college expenses before either party would be required to contribute to such expenses.

Failure to Agree on a Modified Visitation Schedule Is Not a "Default” for Purposes of Attorneys Fee Provision

In Matter of Allegretti v Fitzpatrick, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2011 WL 2279571 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept.) the Appellate Division held that the Family Court did not err in denying her motion for an award of an attorney's fee in connection with her petition to modify the visitation provisions set forth in a stipulation that was incorporated but not merged into the parties' judgment of divorce. The stipulation provided, among other things, that the parties were to "re-evaluate" the established visitation arrangements when their child began school. The stipulation also provided that in the event that either party defaulted with respect to their obligations thereunder, that party would be responsible for paying the attorney's fee incurred by the other party in an enforcement proceeding. The Family Court correctly concluded that the parties' failure to agree on a modified visitation schedule once their child began school did not constitute a "default" under the terms of the stipulation. Accordingly, the Family Court properly denied the mother's motion for an award of an attorney's fee.