Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Important New Decisions - June 22, 2011

Need to Give Appropriate Weight to the Feasibility of Preserving the Relationship Between the Parent and the Child Does Not Take Precedence over the Need to Give Appropriate Weight to the Economic Necessity for the Relocation

In Matter of Butler v Hess, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2011 WL 2436589 (N.Y.A.D. 4 Dept.) Petitioner father commenced a proceeding seeking to modify the parties' existing custody arrangement, pursuant to which the parties had joint custody with primary physical residence with respondent mother and visitation with the father. The father sought to prevent the mother from relocating with the child to Pennsylvania and sought sole custody of the child. The mother filed a cross petition in which she sought permission for the child to relocate with her to Pennsylvania. On appeal the Appellate Division agreed with her contention that Family Court erred in denying her cross petition. The record established that, pursuant to the existing arrangement, the father had visitation with the child on alternate weekends and Sunday overnights on the first Sunday of every month that does not fall within his regular access time. The mother remarried in December 2003, when the child was six years old, and the mother and the child began living with the mother's husband at that time. In December 2006, the mother lost her job as a result of budget cutbacks and, in July 2007, the mother's husband lost his job after his position was eliminated. The mother's husband accepted a job in Pennsylvania in October 2007, which was the basis for the mother's cross petition seeking permission to relocate with the child to Pennsylvania to join her husband. The Court concluded that the mother established by the requisite preponderance of the evidence that the proposed relocation would serve the child's best interests" (Matter of Tropea v. Tropea, 87 N.Y.2d 727, 741). While no single factor is determinative, the Court of Appeals in Tropea recognized that economic necessity may present a particularly persuasive ground for permitting the proposed move. The record reflected that the court did not adequately, if at all, consider the financial considerations underlying the requested relocation. The mother requested permission to relocate because she and her husband lost their jobs within a relatively short period of time. The mother's husband testified that both his health insurance, which also covered the mother and the child, and his severance pay ran out in August 2007. After the mother's husband lost his job, he and the mother depleted their savings and their house was placed into foreclosure. The mother and her husband testified that they unsuccessfully attempted to locate jobs in Western New York and that the mother's husband accepted the job in Pennsylvania out of financial necessity. The court based its determination primarily on its conclusion that the relocation would "qualitatively affect" the child's relationship with the father.
That was error because the need to 'give appropriate weight to the feasibility of preserving the relationship between the parent without primary physical custody and [the child through suitable visitation arrangements does not take precedence over the need to give appropriate weight to the economic necessity for the relocation (Matter of Cynthia L.C. v. James L.S., 30 AD3d 1085, 1086, quoting Tropea, 87 N.Y.2d at 740-741). The record established that the proposed relocation would not have a substantial impact on the visitation schedule. The mother and the husband testified that they would transport the child to and from Pennsylvania every other weekend, and they offered to pay for a hotel for the father in Pennsylvania on his off-weekends so that he could exercise additional access with the child. The mother further testified that the holiday access schedule would remain the same because she and her husband would be returning to Western New York at those times to visit with their respective families, who resided there. In addition, the mother's husband purchased video conferencing equipment for his household and the father's household to enable the father and the child to communicate during the week and on the father's off-weekends. Thus, the mother established "the feasibility of preserving the relationship between the [father] and child through suitable visitation arrangements" (Tropea, 87 N.Y.2d at 741)

Appeal Denied For Failure to Assemble Proper Record

In Gorelik v Gorelik, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2011 WL 2410437 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept.) the Appellate Division pointed out that it is the obligation of the appellant to assemble a proper record on appeal, which must include any relevant transcripts of proceedings before the Supreme Court. The plaintiff sought review of the judgment awarding the defendant the principal sum of $12,257, representing his pro rata share of the children's unreimbursed medical expenses and 100% of their summer camp expenses, made after a hearing was held to determine the validity and reasonableness of the claimed expenses. However, the plaintiff failed to include the hearing transcripts in the record on appeal. Accordingly, the record was inadequate to enable the Court to render an informed decision on the remaining issues raised in the plaintiff's brief including the propriety of the amounts awarded.

Allegations That Father Was Induced by Mother's Misrepresentations of Her Financial Circumstances to Enter into Stipulation Were Sufficient to Warrant Hearing on Issue of Fraudulent Inducement

In Cervera v Bressler, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2011 WL 2410503 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept.) pursuant to the decision and order of the Appellate Division (Cervera v. Bressler, 50 AD3d 837), a hearing was commenced on June 10, 2008, before a Special Referee Snyder, to consider the parties' relative financial positions and address the father's applications for reapportionment of the parties' respective obligations for payment of fees of the forensic evaluator and the attorney for the child from the 50/50 apportionment originally agreed to, and for an award of an attorney's fee. While that hearing, which concluded sometime in October 2009, was ongoing, the father moved to vacate certain portions of a so-ordered stipulation dated July 19, 2004 whereby the father waived his right to seek an attorney's fee and reapportionment of fees and costs of the court forensic evaluator and the attorney for the child incurred up to the date of the stipulation, in connection with a custody dispute between the parties beginning in 2002. In support of the motion, the father argued that those portions of the stipulation should be vacated based upon new evidence discovered during the ongoing hearing regarding the parties' finances, that the mother had misrepresented her finances in 2004. The father claimed that he had relied upon those misrepresentations in entering into the stipulation in which he agreed to waive his rights. Supreme Court denied that branch of the plaintiff's motion which was to vacate the aforementioned portions of the stipulation, determining that the claims regarding the stipulation and fees incurred in connection with the litigation resolved thereby, were barred by the doctrine of collateral estoppel, that the father had failed to meet his burden of showing that the stipulation was the result of fraud or overreaching, or that its terms were unconscionable, and that, in any event, even if the stipulation was proven to have been procured by fraud, the father had ratified it by accepting its benefits for a period of more than five years.

The Appellate Division reversed and remitted for a hearing. It held that the father's allegations that he was induced by the mother's misrepresentations of her financial circumstances to enter into the stipulation were sufficient to warrant a hearing on the issue of whether those portions of the stipulation were fraudulently induced. The father's allegations were supported by evidence, elicited at the hearing before the Special Referee regarding the financial circumstances of the parties, that the mother had assets available to her in 2004 of at least $306,631, her husband's gross income as reported on their joint tax returns for 2004, as opposed to the $105,000 gross income reported on her Statement of Net Worth dated May 3, 2004, the sole document provided by her at the time of the stipulation. Moreover, the mother's 2004 joint bank statements provided at the hearing before the Special Referee showed deposits totaling approximately $450,000 for that year, whereas the 2004 Statement of Net Worth was blank for "Total Cash Accounts."
Supreme Court erred in determining that the father was barred by the doctrine of collateral estoppel from litigating the issues of counsel fees and reapportionment of the parties' responsibilities for payment of fees incurred in connection with litigation from 2002 up to the date of the stipulation. "In order to invoke the doctrine of collateral estoppel, (1) the identical issue must have necessarily been decided in the prior [litigation] and be decisive of the present [motion], and (2) the party to be precluded from relitigating the issue must have had a full and fair opportunity to contest the prior determination". The issues regarding the fees incurred prior to the stipulation were never litigated, since the father waived his right to do so by the stipulation at issue herein.
The Appellate Division held that Supreme Court erred in concluding that the father had "knowingly and voluntarily" waived his rights to litigate these issues, since the question raised by the new evidence was precisely that: whether the father's waiver was knowing and voluntary, or whether it was fraudulently induced by the mother's misrepresentations.
As to the father's right to move to vacate portions of the stipulation almost five years after the stipulation was entered into, a waiver will not be inferred from mere silence or inaction. A waiver requires that the party to be estopped be aware of certain facts and, being aware of them, elect not to take advantage of them.
Moreover, estoppel will lie only where an individual has accepted the benefits of an agreement. Since the father did not have express knowledge of the mother's assets until sometime during the hearing regarding the parties' relative financial positions, which commenced on June 10, 2008, and concluded in October 2009, the father could not be said to have waived his right to seek vacatur of the stipulation simply because his motion was brought almost five years after the stipulation was entered into and there was no evidence that the father enjoyed any "benefits" of the stipulation by foregoing a possible award of an attorney's fee or reimbursement of payment of fees based upon a reapportionment of the parties' responsibilities for the same.