Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Important New Decisions - July 6, 2011

Counsel Sanctioned for Obtaining From Court a “So-Ordered Trial Subpoena Before Trial Date Was Set

In Duval v Duval, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2011 WL 2574001 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept.) the Appellate Division held that Supreme Court improvidently exercised its discretion in denying defendant's motion to impose sanctions upon the plaintiff and her counsel pursuant to 22 NYCRR 130-1.1. Under the circumstances presented, the conduct of the plaintiff and her counsel in obtaining a "so-ordered" subpoena duces tecum and serving it upon Long Island Jewish Medical Center to obtain the defendant's medical records prior to filing a note of issue and before a trial date was set was frivolous within the meaning of 22 NYCRR 130-1.1(c), as it was completely without merit in law and cannot be supported by a reasonable argument for an extension, modification, or reversal of existing law. Contrary to the defendant's contention, pretrial disclosure on the issue of child custody is permissible with respect to a parent's health, since the parties to a contested custody proceeding place their physical and mental conditions in issue. Here, in her attempt to obtain pretrial disclosure of the defendant's medical records in connection with the issue of child custody, the plaintiff sought a "so-ordered" trial subpoena duces tecum from the Supreme Court, thereby obviating the need to obtain the defendant's written authorization to release the records. The plaintiff also failed to serve the subpoena on the defendant in a timely manner, thus depriving him of the opportunity to request withdrawal of the subpoena or to make a timely motion to quash. Moreover, it can be inferred from the record that the challenged conduct was designed primarily to harass and maliciously injure the defendant. In view of the foregoing, the defendant's motion to impose sanctions upon the plaintiff and her counsel pursuant to 22 NYCRR 130-1.1 should have been granted. It remitted the matter to the Supreme Court for a hearing on the issue of the amount of an appropriate sanction to be imposed upon the plaintiff and her counsel. The Appellate Division also held that Supreme Court improvidently exercised its discretion in denying, with limited exception, defendant's motion to suppress all information relating to the contents of records produced in response to the subpoena duces tecum served upon Long Island Jewish Medical Center and to preclude the plaintiff from using such information. Under the circumstances of this case, suppression and preclusion, along with the imposition of a sanction, were the appropriate remedies for the improper manner in which those records were obtained (see CPLR 3103[c] ). Accordingly, that branch of the defendant's motion which was to suppress all information relating to the contents of records produced in response to the subpoena served upon Long Island Jewish Medical Center and to preclude the plaintiff from using such information should have been granted in its entirety, with a directive that the plaintiff and her counsel deliver all records produced in response to the aforementioned subpoena to the defendant and to affirm that all such records, and any copies thereof, have been so returned and/or
destroyed and were not transmitted to any third party.

Appellate Divison Holds That Emancipation Occurs When Child Becomes Economically Independent Through Employment and Is Self-supporting.

In Smith v Smith, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2011 WL 2571089 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept.) the Appellate Division affirmed an order which, granted the wife child support and spousal support. It found that the record supported the Support Magistrate's determination that the parties' son was not emancipated. It pointed out that a parent is obligated to support his or her child until the age of 21 unless the child becomes emancipated, which occurs once the child becomes economically independent through employment and is self-supporting. Although the parties' son worked full-time, paid for his own car insurance, and paid for his own cell phone, the fact that his mother still paid for his food, shelter, clothing, and health and dental insurance, demonstrated that he was not economically independent of his parents.


Family Court Lacks Jurisdiction to Consider Objections Unless Proof of Service Filed

In Matter of Girgenti v Cress, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2011 WL 2571850 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept.), the father appealed from an order of the family court which dismissed his petition to enforce a stipulation of settlement concerning child support arrears. The Appellate Division affirmed the order finding that the issues raised by the father on this appeal are not reviewable, since he failed to file proof of service of a copy of the objections on the mother. Family Court Act 439(e) provides, in pertinent part, that "[a] party filing objections shall serve a copy of such objections upon the opposing party," and that "[p]roof of service upon the opposing party shall be filed with the court at the time of
filing of objections and any rebuttal." By failing to file proof of service of a copy of his objections on the mother, the father failed to fulfill a condition precedent to filing timely written objections to the Support Magistrate's order. Consequently, the Family Court lacked jurisdiction to consider the merits of the objections and the father waived his right to appellate review.


Denial of Objections to Finding of Willfulness and Recommendation of Incarceration Proper since Recommendations Had No Force or Effect until Confirmed

In Matter of Ceballos v Castillo, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2011 WL 2572307 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept.), the Appellate Divison observed that to establish entitlement to a downward modification of a child support order entered on consent, a party has the burden of showing that there has been a substantial change in circumstances. Loss of employment may at times constitute a substantial change in circumstances. A party seeking a downward modification of his or her child support obligation based upon a loss of employment has the burden of demonstrating that he or she diligently sought to obtain employment commensurate with his or her earning capacity . Here, the father testified that he was unable to pay child support because he had not worked since 2008 and was not eligible to receive unemployment benefits. He stated that he had been working for the Renaissance Hotel until May 2008, but that he left that job after the hotel significantly cut back his hours. He thereafter obtained employment at a pizzeria, where he was initially able to work longer hours. Although he was eventually let go from his position at
the pizzeria, he did not, contrary to the Support Magistrate's finding, quit the pizzeria job. The father further testified in detail that he attempted to obtain employment at various specified restaurants and supermarkets; that he went to an employment agency called Labor Ready to find a job; that he looked for employment in newspapers and the "Pennysaver" publication; and that he explored job leads which he learned of via word-of-mouth. Under these circumstances, the father demonstrated that his loss of employment constituted a substantial change in circumstances, and that he made a good faith effort to obtain new employment which was commensurate with his qualifications and experience. Thus, the Support Magistrate's determination that the father failed to satisfy his burden of establishing an inability to pay his child support
obligation was not supported by the evidence. Accordingly, the father's objections
to the denial of his petition for downward modification of his child support
obligations should have been granted.
The Appellate Division pointed out that to the extent that the father filed objections to the Support Magistrate's finding of willfulness and her recommendation of a term of incarceration of six months, the denial of those objections was proper, since the Support Magistrate's recommendations had no force and effect until confirmed by the Family Court Judge. Upon, in effect, confirming the willfulness finding, the Family Court issued an order of commitment directing that the father be committed to the Westchester County Jail unless he purged his contempt by paying the sum of $1140 to the Support Collection Unit. The father's failure to pay child support constituted
prima facie evidence of a willful violation. This prima facie showing shifted the burden to the father to come forward with competent, credible evidence that his failure to pay support in accordance with the terms of the order on consent was not willful. In the absence of proof of an ability to pay, an order of commitment for willful violation of a support order may not stand. Based upon the evidence in the record, the father met his burden of establishing his inability to meet his child support obligation set forth in the
order dated April 11, 2005. The evidence did not support the Support Magistrate's
finding that the father had the means, resources, and ability to pay child support, but chose not do so.