Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Important New Decisions - July 27, 2011

Third Department Holds That While Plaintiff Lacked a Remedy at Law, the Dissolution of a Civil Union Falls Squarely Within the Scope of Supreme Court's Broad Equity Jurisdiction

In Dickerson v Thompson, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2011 WL 2899241 (N.Y.A.D. 3 Dept.) Plaintiff and defendant, residents of New York, entered into a civil union in Vermont in April 2003. In November 2007, plaintiff, unable to obtain a dissolution of the civil union in Vermont due to that state's residency requirements commenced an action for equitable and declaratory relief seeking a judgment dissolving the civil union and freeing her of all the rights and responsibilities incident to that union. Upon defendant's
default, plaintiff moved for a judgment granting the requested relief. Supreme Court, sua sponte, dismissed the complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed and reinstated the complaint (73 A.D.3d 52 [2010] [ Dickerson I ] ), holding that the courts of this state may recognize the civil union status of the parties as a matter of comity and that Supreme Court is vested with subject matter jurisdiction to adjudicate the dispute. It did not, however, reach the issue as to what relief, if any, could ultimately be afforded to the parties on the merits. Upon remittal, Supreme Court granted plaintiff's motion seeking a declaration relieving the parties from all rights and obligations arising from the civil union, but denied that portion of the motion seeking a dissolution of the union. The Appellate Division modified, disagreeing with Supreme Court's conclusion that, in the absence of any
legislatively created mechanism in New York by which a court could grant the
dissolution of a civil union entered into in another state, it was powerless to grant the requested relief. It held that while plaintiff lacked a remedy at law, the dissolution of a civil union falls squarely within the scope of Supreme Court's broad equity jurisdiction. As it noted in Dickerson I, the N.Y. Constitution vests Supreme Court with "general original jurisdiction in law and equity" (N.Y. Const, art VI, s 7[a] ). " 'The power of equity is as broad as equity and justice require' ". Indeed, "[t]he essence of equity jurisdiction has been the power ... to [mold] each decree to the necessities of the particular case" (State of New York v. Barone, 74 N.Y.2d 332, 336 [1989]. Thus, once a court of equity has obtained jurisdiction over the subject matter of the action, as Supreme Court had here, it has the power to dispose of all matters at issue and to grant complete relief in accordance with the equities of the case. In other words, even in the absence of any direct grant of legislative power, Supreme Court has the "inherent authority ... to fashion whatever remedies are required for the resolution of justiciable disputes and the protection of the rights of citizens," tempered only by our Constitution and statutes. It found that the exercise of Supreme Court's equitable powers to grant a dissolution of the civil union was clearly warranted here. Plaintiff was in need of a judicial remedy to dissolve her legal relationship with defendant created by the laws of Vermont. Residency requirements prevent her from obtaining a dissolution of the civil union in Vermont, and the provisions of Domestic Relations Law 170,
which provide for divorce and dissolution of a marriage, were not applicable to this action since the parties did not enter into a marriage in Vermont. Thus, absent Supreme Court's invocation of its equitable power to dissolve the civil union, there would be no court competent to provide plaintiff the requested relief and she would therefore be left without a remedy. A court of equity "withholds its remedies if the result would be unjust, but freely grants them to prevent injustice when the other courts are helpless". Here, the uncontested evidence submitted by plaintiff established that, during the course of the parties' relationship, defendant had subjected her to violent physical abuse on several occasions and was verbally abusive to both her and her autistic son on a daily basis. Defendant also stole from her, resulting in defendant's criminal conviction of grand larceny, and removed the license plates from plaintiff's vehicle to prevent her and her son from escaping defendant's abusive conduct. Furthermore, the parties have lived apart since April 2006 and
plaintiff had alleged facts demonstrating that resumption of the civil union is not probable. Since plaintiff would be entitled to a dissolution of the civil union in Vermont but for that state's residency requirement (see Vt Stat Ann, tit 15, s 551[3], [7]; ss 592, 1206), the Court found that equity would be served by granting her the requested relief and that Supreme Court erred in declining to invoke its equitable powers to do so. Furthermore, notwithstanding Supreme Court's declaration freeing the parties from the rights and obligations flowing from the civil union, the fact remained that, in the absence of a judgment granting a dissolution, plaintiff and defendant continued to be interminably bound as partners to the union. Given this legal status, plaintiff was precluded from entering into another civil union or a marriage in Vermont as well as analogous relationships in several other jurisdictions. Supreme Court's denial of the requested dissolution also barred the parties from enjoying the more limited protections available to domestic partners under certain locals laws of this state, including New York City's Domestic Partnership Law, which forbids parties to a civil union from entering into a domestic partnership with another (see City of N.Y. Administrative Code s 3-241).

Disposition Based Almost Entirely upon Proof That Court Elicited Is Expressly Disapproved. Function of the Judge is to Protect the Record at Trial, Not to Make It.

In Matter of Kyle FF, 926 N.Y.S.2d 196 (3 Dept, 2011) in August 2010, respondent (born in 1995) appeared in Family Court and admitted to committing acts that, if committed by an adult, would constitute the crime of criminal mischief in the fourth degree. At the dispositional hearing that followed, the parties stipulated to the admission of the predispositional report, which recommended, among other things, that respondent be placed on probation for two years subject to various special conditions. Although the parties asked that Family Court accept that recommendation and indicated that they intended to offer no further proof in this regard, Family Court called as its own witness the author of the report and questioned her extensively regarding respondent's prior admission to the local hospital's mental health unit and a subsequent mental health evaluation conducted by the Northeast Parent & Child Society. In response to this testimony, Family Court then indicated that it would not close the proof until it obtained the corresponding records for respondent's admission/evaluation and stated its intent to issue subpoenas to that effect. Following additional discussion, Family Court agreed to accept the discharge summary from respondent's hospital admission and closed the proof. Thereafter, relying almost exclusively upon proof that it elicited, Family Court ordered that respondent be placed with
the Office of Children and Family Services until August 31, 2011. The Appellate Division held that Family Court improperly assumed a prosecutorial role by eliciting testimonial and documentary evidence at the dispositional hearing. Although respondent did not object when Family Court called the author of the predispositional report as a witness and, further, stipulated to the admission of the discharge summary, thereby rendering this issue unpreserved for review it exercised its discretion and
reversed Family Court's order. The Appellate Division observed that Family Court is vested with the discretion to call witnesses, including the author of the predispositional report (see Family Ct. Act 350.4[2] ), and may assume "a more 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[2002] ). However, "[t]he overarching principle restraining the court's discretion [in this regard] is that it is the function of the judge to protect the record at trial, not to make it" and the court must take care to avoid assuming "the function or appearance of an advocate" (Matter of Yadiel Roque C., 17 A.D.3d at 1169). Here, even though the parties agreed with the recommendation made by the Probation Department, Family Court called and extensively questioned the author of the predispositional report, secured the production of additional documentary evidence and then, according essentially no weight to the underlying recommendation and the parties' expressed wishes, crafted a disposition based almost entirely upon proof that it elicited-a practice with which this Court previously had expressed its disapproval (see Matter of Keaghn Y., 921 N.Y.S.2d at 739; Matter of Blaize F. [Christopher F.], 74 A.D.3d 1454, 1455 [2010]; Matter of Stampfler v. Snow, 290 A.D.2d 595, 596[2002]). Accordingly, Family Court's order was reversed and, as respondent's placement had not yet expired, this matter was remitted for a new dispositional hearing before a different judge.