Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Important New Decisions and Legislation- August 31, 2011

Domestic Relations Law § 240 (1-b) subdivisions (d) (g) and (i) and Family Court Act § 413 (1) subdivisions (d) (g) and (i) amended by Laws of 2011, Ch 436, effective November 15, 2011

In Rose v Moody, 83 NY2d 65 (1993) the Court of Appeals held Domestic Relations Law § 240 (1-b) and Family Court Act § 413 (1) unconstitutional insofar as they imposed an inflexible minimum child support obligation against support obligors whose income would, by virtue of the obligation, fall below the poverty level. The Court of Appeals held that that the irrebuttable presumption mandating that an indigent, non-custodial parent be ordered to pay a minimum of $25 per month in child support contravened the Federal Child Support Enforcement Act Social Security Act, Title IV-D §467(b)(2), as amended, 42 USCA §667(b)(2), thus violating the constitutional principle of Federal preemption. While the effect of the Court's ruling has been to require that support obligors be permitted to rebut the presumption in favor of a minimum obligation of $25 per month, the statutory language had not been conformed accordingly. Additionally, in cases where the basic child support obligation would reduce the non-custodial parent's income to a level below the self-support reserve, but not below the poverty level, both subdivisions provide alternative standards for determining child support, that is, the greater of $50 per month or the difference between the non-custodial parents' income and the self-support reserve. However, both statutes are silent regarding whether separate amounts may also be ordered in such cases for child care, future medical and educational expenses, in accordance with subparagraphs four, five, six and seven of paragraph (c) of both subdivision one of section 413 of the Family Court Act and subdivision (1-b) of section 240 of the Domestic Relations Law. Several cases have, therefore, disallowed the inclusion of any of these expenses as part of the child support order in such circumstances. See Callen v Callen, 287 AD2d 818 ( 3rd Dept 2001); In Re Rhianna R., 256 AD2d 1184 (4th Dept 1998) (citing Matter of Cary)(Mahady) v Megrell, 219 AD2d 334 (3rd Dept 1996), Iv App Dismissed, 88 NY2d 1065 1996); Dunbar v. Dunbar, 233 AD2d 922 ( 4th Dept 1996.) (See NY Legis Memo 436 (2011).

Domestic Relations Law § 240 (1-b) and Family Court Act § 413 (1) were amended by Laws of 2011, Ch 436 to correct these anomalies and to codify the decision in Rose v Moody.

The amendments make the presumption in favor of a minimum order of $25 per month rebuttable by a showing that such an order would be unjust or inappropriate, based upon the ten factors applicable to departures from the child support standards set forth in Domestic Relations Law §240(1-b)(f); Family Court Act 413(1)(f). Family Court and Supreme Court are authorized to order payment of an amount it deems to be just and appropriate. The amendment eliminates the proviso that " in no instance shall the court order child support below $25 per month." The amendment also clarifies that in cases where imposition of the basic child support obligation would reduce the non-custodial parent's income to an amount below the self-support reserve, but not the poverty level, the Court would be authorized, although not required, to direct payments for child care, educational and health care expenses, as part of its child support order.

Domestic Relations Law § 240 (1-b), subdivisions (d) (g) and (i) were amended accordingly. In addition, subdivision (i) was amended to make technical corrections , including deleting “social services” and replacing it with “the office of temporary and disability assistance”.

Domestic Relations Law § 240 (1-b), paragraphs (d), (g) and (i) were amended to read as follows:

(d) Notwithstanding the provisions of paragraph (c) of this subdivision, where the annual amount of the basic child support obligation would reduce the non-custodial parent's income below the poverty income guidelines amount for a single person as reported by the federal department of health and human services, the basic child support obligation shall be twenty-five dollars per month, provided, however, that if the court finds that such basic child support obligation is unjust or inappropriate, which finding shall be based upon considerations of the factors set forth in paragraph (f) of this subdivision, the court shall order the non-custodial parent to pay such amount of the child support as the court finds just and appropriate. Notwithstanding the provisions of paragraph (c) of this subdivision, where the annual amount of the basic child support obligation would reduce the non-custodial parent's income below the self-support reserve but not below the poverty income guidelines amount for a single person as reported by the federal department of health and human services, the basic child support obligation shall be fifty dollars per month or the difference between the non-custodial parent's income and the self-support reserve, whichever is greater, in addition to any amounts that the court may, in its discretion, order in accordance with subparagraphs four, five, six and/or seven of paragraph (c) of this subdivision.

(g) Where the court finds that the non-custodial parent's pro rata share of the basic child support obligation is unjust or inappropriate, the court shall order the non-custodial parent to pay such amount of child support as the court finds just and appropriate, and the court shall set forth, in a written order, the factors it considered; the amount of each party's pro rata share of the basic child support obligation; and the reasons that the court did not order the basic child support obligation. Such written order may not be waived by either party or counsel; provided, however, and notwithstanding any other provision of law, the court shall not find that the non-custodial parent's pro rata share of such obligation is unjust or inappropriate on the basis that such share exceeds the portion of a public assistance grant which is attributable to a child or children. Where the non-custodial parent's income is less than or equal to the poverty income guidelines amount for a single person as reported by the federal department of health and human services, unpaid child support arrears in excess of five hundred dollars shall not accrue.

(i) Where either or both parties are unrepresented, the court shall not enter an order or judgment other than a temporary order pursuant to section two hundred thirty-seven of this article, that includes a provision for child support unless the unrepresented party or parties have received a copy of the child support standards chart promulgated by the commissioner of the office of temporary and disability assistance pursuant to subdivision two of section one hundred eleven-i of the social services law. Where either party is in receipt of child support enforcement services through the local social services district, the local social services district child support enforcement unit shall advise such party of the amount derived from application of the child support percentage and that such amount serves as a starting point for the determination of the child support award, and shall provide such party with a copy of the child support standards chart. (Laws of 2011, Ch 436, §1, effective November 15, 2011)

Almost identical amendments were made to Family Court Act , § 413 (1), paragraphs (d), (g) and (i). (Laws of 2011, Ch 436, §2, effective November 15, 2011)

Second Department Holds That Counsel Fees May Be Requested under FCA 438 (a) At Any Time until the Appellate Process Has Concluded

In Talty v Talty--- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2011 WL 3715407 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept.), a support proceeding, the Appellate Division, Second Department reversed an order of the Family Court which had vacated a counsel fee award of $11,893.04 and reinstated the award. It observed that Family Court Act § 438(a) provides: "[i]n any proceeding under this article, including proceedings for support of a spouse and children, or for support of children only, or at any hearing to modify or enforce an order entered in that proceeding or a proceeding to modify a decree of divorce, separation, or annulment, including an appeal under article eleven, the court may allow counsel fees at any stage of the proceeding, to the attorney representing the spouse, former spouse or person on behalf of children." It construed the language "[i]n any proceeding under this article" to include "an appeal under article eleven" , and held that the plain meaning of the statute supports the interpretation that a request for an attorney's fee can be made "at any stage of the proceeding," which includes "an appeal under article eleven". In this context, therefore, the "proceeding" does not conclude until the appellate process has concluded. The proceeding is terminated when an appeal has concluded and no more appellate relief is available, or when the time to file an appeal has expired. Applying this interpretation of the statute to the facts of this case, it held that the mother's motion for an award of an additional attorney's fee was timely, as the appellate process had not yet concluded at the time the motion was made. It further held that to the extent that any of its decisions suggested otherwise (citing Matter of McGrath v. Parker, 41 AD3d 852; Matter of Cassieri v. Cassieri, 31 A.D.2d 927, 298 N.Y.S.2d 844), they are no longer to be followed.

“Extraordinary Circumstances Analysis” must Consider "The Cumulative Effect" of All Issues Present in a Given Case and Not View Each Factor in Isolation. Custody Awarded to Non-biological Relative of Child Rather than Father

In Matter of Pettaway v Savage, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2011 WL 3611215 (N.Y.A.D. 3 Dept.), Eric Pettaway was the father of a daughter (born in 1997). In 2003, he and the child's mother, Denise Knight, now deceased, stipulated to joint legal custody of the child with primary physical custody to the mother and visitation to the father. The child resided with the mother and the child's two half siblings until the mother's death in June 2009, at which time the father commenced proceeding No. 1, seeking custody. In response, the attorney for the child moved by order to show cause for an award of sole legal and physical custody to William Savage II, also known as Eric Savage. Savage was not a biological relative of the child; he was the father of the child's older half sister and had fostered a close relationship with the child over the course of several years. Savage then commenced proceeding No. 2, also seeking custody of the child. Family Court found the existence of extraordinary circumstances sufficient to permit the court to intervene in the father's relationship with the child and then, further, that the child's best interests would be served by an award of sole custody to Savage. The father, was granted visitation on alternate weekends and such additional periods of time as the parties and the child may agree. The Appellate Division affirmed. It noted that extraordinary circumstances may not be established "merely by showing that the child has bonded psychologically with the nonparent". The extraordinary circumstances analysis must consider "the cumulative effect" of all issues present in a given case and not view each factor in isolation. In prior cases, extraordinary circumstances have been established based upon the combined effect of factors, including the child's psychological bonding and attachments, the prior disruption of the parent's custody, separation from siblings and potential harm to the child, as well as the parent's neglect or abdication of responsibilities and the child's poor relationship with the parent (see Matter of Banks v. Banks, 285 A.D.2d 686, 687 [2001] ). In Matter of Banks v. Bank, a case in which there were a number of significant similarities to this one, the children--at the time of their father's death--had already developed a bond with his second wife after living with the couple for approximately 30 months. The Appellate Division reversed Family Court's award of custody to the biological mother, citing as extraordinary circumstances the death of the father, the "poor relationship" between the children and the mother, bereavement needs and other special issues affecting one of the children and the mother's recent "withdrawal as a parent". Each and all of those factors were present here; as in Banks, one of the child's parents was deceased, the child had formed a strong psychological bond with a nonparent, the child had special needs in addition to psychological needs resulting from bereavement, and the parent seeking custody withdrew almost completely from the parental role for an extended period before the other parent's death. Here, Family Court found that, prior to the mother's death, the father failed to play any significant role in the child's life, visited inconsistently throughout the child's life, and failed to attend to the child's emotional needs. The court credited a psychologist's testimony and opinion that the father had emotionally abandoned the child by his neglect of her and had demonstrated a fundamental lack of understanding of her needs. These findings were fully supported by the record. Family Court's conclusion that the father abdicated his parental responsibilities was supported by the testimony of several witnesses that the father frequently missed scheduled visits with the child and often left the child with other adults even when he did pick her up for visits, and by undisputed testimony that the father did not attend the child's school conferences or special education meetings until after the mother's death, did not know her teachers' names and never helped her with homework, although he testified that he knew she needed special assistance. Even while this matter was pending, the father failed to appear for a scheduled meeting with the child's teacher and guidance counselor, for reasons unexplained. Testimony further revealed that the father had failed to provide for the child's basic needs during her time with him--he had not provided her with enough food during past visits, nor did he supply her with essentials such as soap or deodorant. When the child sustained an injury while performing physical work for the father's brother, neither the father nor his brother furnished appropriate medical care. There was further disturbing testimony--which Family Court found to be credible--that the father knew that his brother had "badgered" the child about her desire to live with Savage, and that the brother had threatened the child that his conduct should not be mentioned in court; despite this knowledge, the father did not intervene or seek to protect the child. Family Court also found that the period in which the father had custody of the child after the mother's death "did not go well," noting that during this vulnerable period, the child felt isolated from her other family contacts and had limited interaction with them--at a time when any responsible parent or caretaker should have readily recognized that such support was essential. The court had ample basis for doubting the father's testimony that he would not relocate with the child to New Jersey, where his new wife resided and owned a growing travel business, finding it instead "extremely unlikely" that the father would foster the close relationship between the child and her sister and "the others [who] have become her true family." The court further found that the father lacked credibility regarding his previous conviction for attempted rape in the third degree of a person under 17, and his failure to complete sex offender treatment thereafter.

Error to Allow Wife to Benefit from Her Failure to Comply with Discovery

In Cabral v Cabral, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2011 WL 3600503 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept.) the parties were married on January 24, 1980, and had three children, born in 1980, 1982, and 1989. During the marriage, the parties purchased the marital residence in Westchester County, as well as a vacation residence in the Dominican Republic. Beginning in 1983, the defendant was employed by Westchester County, in which position she received a salary and accrued pension benefits. In 1986, the plaintiff obtained an insurance license and opened an agency selling insurance policies and providing financial and other services. The plaintiff was incarcerated from 1991 to 1994 upon his conviction of felony drug charges, and his insurance license was revoked. The plaintiff testified at trial that prior to his incarceration, he liquidated a retirement benefit and used the proceeds to provide a source of income to the defendant and the parties' children. The defendant continued operation of the agency during the plaintiff's incarceration, and during that time federal tax liens were levied against the agency. The plaintiff also testified that after he was released from prison, the defendant refused to allow him to return to work at the agency in any capacity. Thereafter, the plaintiff did obtain full-time employment, albeit at an annual salary which was significantly less than what he earned as an insurance broker. In 2001, the plaintiff commenced this action for a divorce. Due to the defendant's failure to comply with pretrial discovery orders, she was precluded from offering evidence at trial on the issue of equitable distribution. Supreme Court equitably distributed marital property and awarded child support, and the wife appealed. The Appellate Division, 35 A.D.3d 779, 826 N.Y.S.2d 443, reversed and remitted. On remittal, the Supreme Court awarded child support arrears, awarded the husband no share of the wife's pension, directed that he be solely responsible for the federal tax lien assessed on parties' business, and directed him to pay child support. The husband appealed and the Appellate Division reversed insofar as appealed from and remitted. It held that Supreme Court erred in failing to include the defendant's income from the insurance agency in calculating her income or assets, thereby allowing her to benefit from her failure to comply with discovery and shielding her insofar as the income related to equitable distribution. The defendant's income was also improperly omitted in the calculation of child support and in the apportionment of the debt incurred by the parties' insurance agency. It found that Supreme Court should have included the defendant's pension benefits which accrued prior to the commencement date of the action in the equitable distribution of marital property. Finally, under the particular circumstances of this case, and in the absence of any evidence demonstrating that the plaintiff had the ability to earn a salary approaching his previous income, the Supreme Court improperly imputed annual income to him of $85,000 as part of its calculation of child support.

Inquest on Papers to Determine the Amount of Restitution Is Permitted Pursuant to Family Court Act 841(e)

In Polanco v Dilone,--- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2011 WL 3557068 (N.Y.Fam.Ct.) Petitioner moved for summary judgment on her petition for an order of protection based on Mr. Dilone's guilty plea in Bronx Criminal Court to assault in the 3rd degree. On December 2, 2010, the court granted the motion, and issued findings of fact and a 5 year order of protection. The court also directed an inquest on papers to determine the amount of restitution. It observed that pursuant to Family Court Act 841(e), restitution is an available remedy in this case. Petitioner submitted an affidavit, dated December 15, 2010, delineating her expenses: Travel by Subway to prosecute this case: $78.50 Destroyed toys, bottle of perfume and bouquet of flowers: $100 Certificate of disposition: $10. There was no evidence that respondent was ordered to pay restitution in the criminal action and thus this order was not duplicative. Respondent failed to file opposition which was due by January 21, 2011. The Family Court observed that under FCA 834, the standard of proof at a dispostional hearing is material and relevant. Petitioner submitted a receipt for the certificate of disposition which established the $10 expense. Petitioner's travel expenses were also sufficiently documented in that her appearances in court were in the court's file and would necessitate trips to meet with her attorney, the detective and District Attorney. Further, petitioner testified to injuries for which medical treatment was documented and thus those travel expenses were supported by the record as well. However, petitioner did not allege in the petition that she suffered property damage. Since petitioner moved for summary judgment based on the criminal proceedings, there was no testimony here about property damage. The criminal disposition was silent as to property damage as well. In addition, there was no documentary evidence for the $100 for destroyed property. Admittedly, $100 was an estimate for items of sentimental value. While the court is authorized to award nominal damages, it cannot award sentimental value. Furlan v. Rayan Phot Works, Inc., 171 Misc. 839 (Mun Ct, Queens County 1939). The court accepted petitioner's credible testimony that the intrinsic value of the toys, perfume, and flowers was $100. Victoria C v. Higinio C., 1 AD3d 173 (1st Dept 2003). However, petitioner was required to first plead and prove property damage before any damages could be awarded. Therefore, petitioner had established damages in the amount of $88.50. The court granted the petition for restitution and directed that petitioner shall have judgment for $88.50 with interest from September 24, 2009. The clerk was directed to enter judgment accordingly.