Thursday, October 13, 2011

Important New Decisions - October 13, 2011

Supreme Court May Not Determine Whether the Marriage Is Irretrievably Broken until All Ancillary Issues Are Resolved.

In Schiffer v Schiffer, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2011 WL 4790060 (N.Y.Sup.) plaintiff husband moved for an order directing that summary judgment be granted in his favor of divorce under Domestic Relations Law 170 (7). The defendant wife opposed the application and cross-moved for summary judgment dismissing the complaint. The parties were married in Massachusetts on March 25, 1990 and had three unemancipated children of the marriage. On November 29, 2010, Mr. Schiffer commenced the action for divorce, claiming irretrievable breakdown of the marriage for a period of more than six months prior to the commencement of the action. On December 21, 2010, Mrs. Schiffer served her verified answer, contesting these allegations, specifically claiming that Mr. Schiffer's actions belied his claims that the marriage was irretrievably broken. The Supreme Court observed that Domestic Relations Law § 170 [7] allows parties to seek a judgment of divorce when "the relationship between the husband and wife has broken down irretrievably for a period of at least six months, provided that one party has so stated under oath" also provides that "no judgment of divorce shall be granted under this subdivision unless and until the economic issues of equitable distribution of marital property, the
payment or waiver of spousal support, the payment of child support, the payment of counsel and experts' fees and expenses as well as the custody and visitation with the infant children of the marriage have been resolved by the parties, or determined by the court and incorporated into this judgment of divorce".
The Supreme Court agreed with the wife’s argument that the husband was not entitled to summary judgment since no judgment of divorce can be made unless and until the economic and custodial issues are determined or resolved by the parties. The statute clearly states that a judgment may only be granted after economic and custodial issues were resolved. In this case, all of the conditions of the statute had not been met since the economic and custodial issues were yet to be addressed. Mr. Schiffer had failed to meet his prima facie burden, and his motion for summary judgment was denied.
Mrs. Schiffer's motion for summary judgment was also denied, but for a different reason. Supreme Court observed that in Strack v. Strack (31 Misc.3d 258 [Sup Ct, Essex County 2011] ), Justice Muller held that the "determination of whether a breakdown of a marriage is irretrievable is a question to be determined by the finder of fact." This holding demonstrably agreed with fundamental concepts of due process and comported with similar interpretations of no-fault statutes from our sister states. Since the sole means of procuring a divorce in New York is by judicial process (N.Y. Const, art I, s 9), precluding a party from contesting a ground for divorce "must be regarded as the equivalent of denying [him or her] an opportunity to be heard ...and in the absence of a sufficient countervailing justification for the State's action, a denial of due process". A contrary finding would merely reduce the court to a rubber stamp whenever presented with an action for divorce under Domestic Relations Law 170 (7). While Mrs. Schiffer had established that the ancillary issues were not resolved and that her marriage to Mr. Schiffer had not broken down irretrievably, Mr. Schiffer raised a triable issue of fact that the marriage was irretrievably broken for at least six months. The proof bared by the parties sufficed to establish a true issue of fact as to whether this marriage was irretrievably broken, which the finder of fact would undoubtedly resolve after the other issues were resolved.

A Court May Not Delegate to a Parenting Coordinator the Authority to Resolve Issues Affecting the Best Interests of the Children

In Silbowitz v Silbowitz, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2011 WL 4599852 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept.) the Appellate Division affirmed an order of the Supreme Court which, in effect, granted the defendant former husband's motion to appoint a parenting coordinator to assist the parties in implementing the terms of their existing child custody and visitation arrangement provided for in the parties' stipulation dated October 22, 2007. It observed that although a court may properly appoint a parenting coordinator to mediate between parties and oversee the implementation of their court-ordered parenting plan a court may not delegate to a parenting coordinator the authority to resolve issues affecting the best interests of the children. Here, despite the expansive scope of the issues entrusted to the parenting coordinator by the Supreme Court's order, his power was properly limited to implementing the terms of the existing child custody and visitation arrangement provided for in the parties' stipulation dated October 22, 2007, subject to the Supreme Court's oversight. Although the parenting coordinator was empowered to issue a written decision resolving a conflict where he was unable to broker an agreement between the parties, the Supreme Court's order also provided that the parties may seek to have the parenting coordinator's decision so-ordered by the Supreme Court and that they "retain their right to return to Court and seek a modification of their parenting plan at any time." Accordingly, the Supreme Court properly limited the role of the parenting coordinator and properly provided that his resolutions remained subject to court oversight.
The plaintiff also contended that the order insufficiently protected the confidential and privileged information of the parties and the children because it required the parties to execute authorizations and releases allowing the parenting coordinator to obtain information which was otherwise confidential or privileged. However, the order required that the parenting coordinator maintain the confidentiality of the information and when read as a whole, clearly limited his authority to request authorizations or releases and use information only in furtherance of his duty to mediate between the parties in the implementation of their parenting plan. Accordingly, no further limitation was necessary.

Supreme Court Properly Declined to Imply a Term Which the Parties Did Not Insert into Their Stipulation, for the Purpose of Determining the Contempt Motion. Court Has Discretion to Decide If it Will Consider New Argument in Reply Papers.

In Penavic v Penavic, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2011 WL 4600442 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept.) the the plaintiff moved, pursuant to Judiciary Law 756 to hold the defendant in civil contempt. Supreme Court denied the motion. The Appellate Divison affirmed. It held that to prevail on a motion to punish a party for civil contempt, the movant must demonstrate that the party charged with contempt willfully violated a clear and unequivocal mandate of a court's order, with knowledge of that order's terms, thereby prejudicing the movant's rights. Supreme Court providently exercised its discretion in denying her motion to hold the defendant in contempt for failing to remove her name from a home equity line of credit ( HELOC) or closing it. While the plaintiff was aware of the HELOC at the time that she executed the stipulation, no provision was included in the stipulation requiring that her name be removed from it or that it be closed, even though the defendant was precluded from continuing to use the HELOC pursuant to the provision which prohibited him from incurring additional debt upon the plaintiff's credit. Since the terms of the stipulation with respect to whether the HELOC had to be closed were unambiguous, the Supreme Court properly declined to imply a term which the parties did not insert into the stipulation, for the purpose of determining the contempt motion. The plaintiff raised, for the first time in her reply papers, the argument that the defendant was also in contempt of the judgment by increasing the balance of the HELOC from $25,000, the amount of the balance at the time that the parties executed the stipulation, to $750,000, which he disclosed in his affidavit opposing the plaintiff's motion. The Appellate Division held that it was within the Supreme Court's discretion to decide if it would consider this new argument. Inasmuch as the plaintiff did not address this provision in her motion papers and relied solely upon the provisions concerning the acknowledgment that the bills or accounts for the former marital residence were solely in the husband's individual name as the basis for her motion, Supreme Court properly exercised its discretion to disregard that argument in connection with the motion before it (citing Matter of Allstate Ins. Co. v. Dawkins, 52 AD3d 826, 827).
Authors Note: In Matter of Allstate Ins. Co. v. Dawkins, the Appellate Division said: “The function of reply papers is to address arguments made in opposition to the position taken by the movant, not to permit the movant to introduce new arguments or new grounds for the requested relief (see Matter of Harleysville Ins. Co. v Rosario, 17 AD3d 677 [2005]; Matter of TIG Ins. Co. v Pellegrini, 258 AD2d 658 [1999]). Further, Dawkins was not afforded an opportunity to address the new argument (see Matter of Harleysville Ins. Co. v Rosario, 17 AD3d 677 [2005]; Matter of TIG Ins. Co. v Pellegrini, 258 AD2d 658 [1999]).”

Court May Not Order a Parent Undergo Counseling or Treatment as a Condition of Future Visitation or Re-application for Visitation Rights but May Direct a Party to Submit to a Mental Health Evaluation for Use in Any Future Determination of Visitation.

In Matter of Smith ex rel Hunter v Dawn F.B., --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2011 WL 4600469 (2d Dept 2011) Family Court granted the petition of the attorney for the child alleging that the mother violated an order of custody and visitation, prohibited her from having any contact with her son, directed that she submit to a mental health evaluation, directed her to follow treatment recommendations resulting from that evaluation,
and conditioned her application for resumption of visitation upon her compliance with treatment, including medication, recommended by a mental health professional.
The Appellate Division modified the order by deleting the provision conditioning the mother's application for resumption of visitation upon her compliance with treatment, including medication, recommended by a mental health professional. It found that Family Court's determination that it was in the child's best interest to suspend supervised visitation and prohibit all contact with the mother had a sound and substantial basis in the record. The mother, by her own admission, violated the express terms of the Family Court's previous order, which only permitted visitation supervised by designated individuals, by having unsupervised contact with the child at two separate little league baseball games. Moreover, the mother contributed to certain events at a recent therapeutic visit which adversely affected the child and undermined the progress of the therapeutic visitation.
The Appellate Division pointed out that a court may not order that a parent undergo counseling or treatment as a condition of future visitation or re-application for visitation rights, but may only direct a party to submit to counseling or treatment as a component of visitation. Here, the Family Court improperly conditioned the mother's application for resumption of visitation upon her compliance with treatment, including medication, recommended by a mental health professional. However, the Family Court properly directed the mother to submit to a mental health evaluation for use in any future determination of visitation.

Family Court Lacks Subject Matter Jurisdiction over Article 8 Proceeding Where There Is No Intimate Relationship Between Parties

In Matter of Riedel v Vasquez, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2011 WL 4600481 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept.), the Appellate Division affirmed an order of the Family Court which, without a hearing, granted Respondents motion to dismiss the petition for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. On August 10, 2010, the petitioner commenced an Article 8 proceeding seeking an order of protection against Milagros Carranza Vasquez (respondent), who was the estranged wife of the petitioner's live-in boyfriend. The petitioner had two children with the boyfriend, and the respondent had one child with him. The petitioner alleged that she and the respondent, who did not reside together, had an "intimate relationship" within the meaning of Family Court Act 812(1). The Family Court, without a hearing, dismissed the petition on the ground of lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
The Appellate Division affirmed. It pointed out that the Family Court is a court of limited subject matter jurisdiction, and "cannot exercise powers beyond those granted to it by statute" (Matter of Johna M.S. v. Russell E.S., 10 N.Y.3d 364). Pursuant to Family Court Act 812(1), the Family Court's jurisdiction in family offense proceedings is limited to certain prescribed acts that occur "between spouses or former spouses, or between parent and child or between members of the same family or household". Members of the same family or household include, among others, "persons who are not related by consanguinity or affinity and who are or have been in an intimate relationship regardless of whether such persons have lived together at any time" (Family Ct Act 812[1])(e). Expressly excluded from the ambit of "intimate relationship," are "casual acquaintance[s]" and "ordinary fraternization between two individuals in business or social contexts". Beyond those delineated exclusions, what qualifies as an "intimate relationship" within the meaning of Family Court Act 812(1)(e) is determined on a case-by-case basis. Relevant factors include the nature or type of relationship, regardless of whether the relationship is sexual in nature; the frequency of interaction between the persons; and the duration of the relationship. Here, the parties had no direct relationship and were only connected through a third party, who was the biological father of the parties' respective children. The parties never resided together and did not take care of each other's children. The respondent's contact with the petitioner and/or her children had been minimal. Given these undisputed facts, no hearing was required, as the Family Court possessed sufficient information to determine that the parties were not and never had been in an "intimate relationship" as defined by Family Court Act s 812(1)(e).

Family Court Lacked Exclusive, Continuing Jurisdiction to Modify Custody Order Where Neither the Child Nor the Father Maintained a Significant Connection with New York, and Substantial Evidence Regarding the Child's Present and Future Welfare Was No Longer Available in this State.

In Knight v Morgan, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2011 WL 4600549 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept.) the
the Family Court issued an order of custody on consent, on August 24, 2009, in connection with the father's petition seeking joint custody of the subject child with the mother, awarding joint legal custody to both parents, with primary residential custody to the father. Accordingly, the child, who was born in 2000, and had resided with his mother in New York since his birth, moved to California in September 2009 to live with his father. After moving to California with the father, the child was diagnosed by a psychologist in California with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and, possibly, a bipolar disorder. The child received treatment from healthcare providers in California, and was not permitted to travel until his condition was stabilized. The child had not returned to New York since moving to California. In December 2009 the mother filed a cross petition in the Family Court, to modify the prior order of custody so as to award her sole custody of the child, in which she alleged that the father had falsely accused her of abusing the child. In January 2010 the father separately cross-petitioned to modify the prior custody order so as to award him sole custody of the child. Subsequently, in May 2010, while both cross petitions were pending, the father moved, inter alia, to dismiss the mother's cross petition for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. After a hearing on the issue of jurisdiction, the Family Court granted that branch of the father's motion which was to dismiss the mother's cross petition on that ground. The Family Court did not address the father's separate cross petition.
The Appellate Division reversed. It held that the Family Court correctly determined that it lacked exclusive, continuing jurisdiction pursuant to Domestic Relations Law 76-a(1), since neither the child nor the father maintained a significant connection with New York, and substantial evidence regarding the child's present and future welfare was no longer available in this State (Domestic Relations Law 76-a[1][a]). However, the Family Court had jurisdiction to hear the mother's cross petition for modification pursuant to Domestic Relations Law 76-a(2) since it would have had jurisdiction for an initial child custody determination under Domestic Relations Law 76(1)(a). New York was the child's "home state" within the six months immediately preceding the commencement of this proceeding, and the mother continued to reside in this State. The matter was be remitted to the Family Court for further proceedings on the cross petitions.

New York Does Not Have Subject Matter Jurisdiction Where it Is Not State in Which Child Lived for at Least Six Consecutive Months Before Commencement of Custody Proceeding

In Jablonsky-Urso v Urso, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2011 WL 4600550 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept.) the Appellate Division held that Family Court properly granted the father's motion to dismiss the mother’s petition for custody of the parties' son for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Domestic Relations Law 75-a (7) defines a child's home state as "the state in which a child lived with a parent ... for at least six consecutive months immediately before the commencement of a child custody proceeding". Under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act, "[h]ome state jurisdiction is paramount and whether to accept jurisdiction is a home state prerogative" (Matter of Navarrete v. Wyatt, 52 A.D.3d at 836, 861 N.Y.S.2d 393). Here, the Family Court properly determined that New York was not the child's home state and, therefore, that New York did not have jurisdiction over this custody dispute (see Domestic Relations Law 76). However, it held that the Family Court erred in refusing to exercise temporary emergency jurisdiction over the family offense petition (see Domestic Relations Law 76-c) and in summarily dismissing the family offense petition upon its finding that the allegations contained in the mother's family offense petition were insufficient to sustain a family offense. The determination of whether a family offense was committed is a factual issue to be resolved by the hearing court and the allegations asserted in a petition seeking the issuance of an order of protection must be supported by a fair preponderance of the evidence. The Family Court improperly determined that the mother failed to demonstrate that the father possessed the intent required to sustain any of the family offenses alleged in the petition, as it did so without the benefit of a hearing. Based on the foregoing, that branch of the father's motion which was to dismiss the family offense petition had to be denied and the matter remitted to the Family Court, for a fact-finding hearing and a determination of the family offense petition with respect to the allegations contained therein.