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New York Matrimonial Trial Handbook

The New York Matrimonial Trial Handbook by Joel R. Brandes is available online in the print edition at the Bookbaby Bookstore and other bookstores. It is now available in Kindle ebook editions and epub ebook editions in our website bookstore. It is also available at Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble and Goodreads.

The New York Matrimonial Trial Handbook was reviewed in the New York Law Journal. Click here to read the review.

The New York Matrimonial Trial Handbook was written for both the attorney who has never tried a matrimonial action and for the experienced litigator. It is a “how to” book for lawyers. This 836 page handbook focuses on the procedural and substantive law, as well as the law of evidence, that an attorney must have at his or her fingertips when trying a matrimonial action. It is intended to be an aid for preparing for a trial and as a reference for the procedure in offering and objecting to evidence during a trial. The handbook deals extensively with the testimonial and documentary evidence necessary to meet the burden of proof. There are thousands of suggested questions for the examination of witnesses at trial to establish each cause of action and requests for ancillary relief, as well as for the cross-examination of difficult witnesses. Table of Contents

Friday, April 27, 2012

Important New Decisions - April 27, 2012


Decision to  Impose a Suny Cap on Cost of Child’s College Education must Be Determined on a Case-by-case Basis, Considering Parties' Means and Child's Educational Needs.


In Tishman v Bogatin,--- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2012 WL 1392995 (N.Y.A.D. 1 Dept.) the Appellate Division affirmed an order which directed defendant to pay 40% of the cost of the parties' older child's college education. It held that the motion court properly rejected defendant's contention that a so-called SUNY cap should be imposed on his obligation to contribute to the costs of the child's college education-that is, that his contribution should be based on the cost of an education at a college in the State University of New York system, because plaintiff failed to show that the child's needs cannot be met adequately at a SUNY college. Whether to impose a SUNY cap is determined on a case-by-case basis, considering the parties' means and the child's educational needs. A rule that, absent unusual circumstances, a parent's obligation is limited to the maximum SUNY tuition would be inconsistent with Domestic  Relations Law  240(1-b)(c)(7), which provides that a court may award educational expenses where it determines, "having regard for the circumstances of the case and of the respective parties and in the best interests of the child, and as justice requires," that the education sought to be paid for is appropriate.   The record supported the court's direction that defendant pay 40% of the costs of the parties' older child's education at a private college. The child attended an elite public high school, his reasons for preferring the private college over SUNY schools were sound, both parties attended private college and private law school, and both parties had the resources to pay the tuition at the private college where the child was enrolled




Where Judgment Does Not Accurately Incorporate the Provisions of a Stipulation of Settlement the Stipulation Prevails
                                                      
In  Ayrovainen v Ayrovainen, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2012 WL 1322433 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept.) the  Appellate Division observed that when a party alleges that a judgment does not accurately incorporate the provisions of a stipulation of settlement, the preferred remedy is to move in the trial court to resettle or vacate the judgment, rather than to appeal. Nevertheless, this Court may address the issue and, upon examining the stipulation and the judgment appealed from in this matter, it found that the latter did not conform to the former in several key respects including: the percentage of the college expenses of the parties' children for which the defendant was responsible, the date upon which the defendant's obligation to maintain the former marital residence would cease, under what conditions the defendant's maintenance obligation would terminate, and the manner in which the parties would claim their youngest child as a tax exemption. In addition, the judgment conflicted with the stipulation with respect to the defendant's responsibility to maintain a life insurance policy with the plaintiff as a beneficiary, whether the parties agreed that there would be a cost of living increase for the defendant's child support obligation, and whether the defendant was to assist the plaintiff with a potential sale of certain real property located in Livingston Manor. It remitted the matter to the Supreme Court to issue a corrected judgment which accurately reflects the terms of the parties' stipulation entered on the record in open court. .


Supreme Court Permits Amendment of Complaint to Add Irretrievable Breakdown Ground under  DRL § 170 (7) Rejecting Strack and Schiffer Decisions                                                     


In Palermo v Palermo, 2011 WL 7711557 (N.Y.Sup.), 2011 N.Y. Slip Op. 52506(U), the couple were married in 1977. In September 2000, the wife moved out of the marital residence. In 2001, the wife commenced a divorce action against the husband on grounds of cruel and inhuman treatment and a jury returned a verdict of no cause for action. In February 2011, the wife again filed a verified complaint, this time on the grounds that the marital relationship had broken down for a period in excess of six months. The husband answered, denying the allegations, and asserting an affirmative defense that the couple had lived separate and apart for a period of at least 10 years. The husband moved to dismiss the wife's complaint, arguing that the statute of limitations had expired on her claims, that they were barred by res judicata, and that the complaint failed to state a cause of action. The wife cross-moved to replead the claim under DRL §  170(7) to include the specific allegation that the marriage was irretrievably broken for a period of greater than six months. Because amendments to pleadings at the early stages of litigation are widely favored, the motion to amend and serve the complaint was granted. CPLR  3025(b).  The Court held that the verified statement of "irretrievable breakdown" of a marriage, in itself, without a trial, provided the necessary predicate to granting a divorce under the Domestic Relations Law. It examined the history of New York’s no fault divorce law. It observed that in Gleason v. Gleason, 26 N.Y.2d 28 (1970) the Court of Appeals pointed out that the legislature recognized "that it is socially and morally undesirable to compel a couple whose marriage is dead to remain subject to its bond."  The Gleason decision is important to the current question because it recognizes that the state legislature could fashion divorce remedies based on both parties consent to end their marriage without further testimony or evidence as to their private intentions. In this case, the question was whether the state legislature provided the same relief-divorce-based on the intentions of just one of the two partners to the marriage, without any inquiry into their intent or conduct by enacting DRL 170(7). It pointed out that under this statute the legislature no longer requires evidence of the "mutual contemporaneous intention" as required by the two previous no-fault grounds. Under DRL  170(7), one partner alone can declare the marriage is "dead" if sworn to under oath, in accordance with the statutory language. While a strict reading of the statute suggests that the declaration alone provides the basis for a divorce, the husband contended that he was entitled to a trial on this provision relying on  Strack v. Strack, 31 Misc.2d 258 (Sup.Ct. Essex Cty.2011), where, citing the Domestic Relations Law provision for a right to trial by jury, the court concluded that te legislature failed to include anything in the Domestic Relations Law   170(7) to suggest that the grounds contained therein are exempt from this right  to trial. Had it intended to abolish the right to a trial for the grounds  contained in the Domestic Relations Law, it would explicitly have done so. The court concluded that the question of whether a breakdown is irretrievable is a question of fact to be determined at trial.  In view of the Strack decision, there was an apparent collision of the no-fault entitlement under DRL 170(7), and the trial right under DRL 173. The court  resolved the statutory contradiction in light of the history and object of the enactment, in light of the facts which were found by the legislature to prompt its enactment. Malkin v. Wilkins, 22 A.D.2d 497 (4th Dep't 1965).   The legislative history of New York's newest no-fault statute demonstrates the legislature's recognition of this "evil" and the proposed "remedy." It is apparent that the legislature intended to provide estranged couples a simple and incontestable basis for ending their marriage, and avoid the squabbling over issues that flow from the other objective grounds in DRL 170.   In view of this intent, the court declined to follow the logic or holding of Strack. The court concurred with  A.C. v. D.R., 32 Misc.3d 293 (Sup. Cty. Nassau Cty.2011) that there is "no defense to the no-fault grounds."    This court also considered the opinion in  Schiffer v. Schiffer, 33 Misc.3d 795 (Sup.Ct. Duchess Cty.2011), which followed the logic of Strack, holding that the no-fault assertion under DRL § 170(7) was subject to the trial requirement. This court finds little in Schiffer that differed from the analysis in Strack and declines to follow it. The Schiffer court suggested that what is required, as a matter of fact finding under DRL  170(7), is that the relationship be irretrievably broken and a statement under oath by the party seeking the divorce. However, there is no "and" connecting the sworn statement provision and the " "irretrievable breakdown for six months" assertion. The legislature used another connector: "provided." The use of this word-" "provided"-rather than "and" means that the "irretrievable breakdown for six months" must be accepted as true "provided" one party swears that it is true. The court in Schiffer also raised a "due process" argument, claiming that the courts should not deprive a spouse of the right to trial on irretrievable breakdown and that to hold otherwise reduces the court to a "rubber stamp" when presented with a claim under DRL  170(7). This suggestion ignores the Court of Appeals directive in Gleason:  [R]ights growing out of the [marriage] relationship may be modified or abolished  by the Legislature without violating the provisions of the Federal or State  Constitution which forbid the taking of life, liberty or property without due  process of law.    Gleason v. Gleason, 26 N.Y.2d 28 (1970); see also  A.C. v. D.R., 32 Misc.3d 293, 306 (Sup. Cty. Nassau Cty.2011) (reasserting compelling conclusion of Gleason that there is no due process right to any defense in matters involving the dissolution of marriages).For these reasons, this court declined to follow Schiffer. 
   For these reasons, the defendant's motion to dismiss the complaint, because it
failed to state a cause of action, was denied. The court also denied the motion to dismiss for violation of the statute of limitations. There is no statute of limitations under DRL s 170(7) because the cause of action only arises at the time the party swears that the marriage has been irretrievably broken for a period in excess of six months. A cause does not accrue until there is "a legal right" to be enforced.  Hahn Automotive v. Amer. Zurish Ins. Co., 81 AD3d 1331 (4th Dep't 2011). The cause of action for divorce on the basis of irretrievable breakdown accrues at the time of the attestation by one partner and not sooner. The statute of limitations has no pertinence to a cause of action that arises at the time of the filing of the complaint. Finally, the court denied the defendant's motion to dismiss based on res judicata. Res judicata does not preclude the claim under DRL 170(7) because it is based on a different theory and cause of action. The jury finding that no cause of action for cruel and inhuman treatment existed a decade ago only applies to the facts before the jury at that time. It does not preclude this claim for a divorce on the grounds that one party has sworn that the marriage has been irretrievably broken for a period of excess six months.






Supreme Court Permits Amendment of Complaint to Add Irretrievable Breakdown Ground under  DRL § 170(7) Even Though Amendment States That the Act  
Shall Apply to Matrimonial Actions Commenced after the Effective Date




In G.C v G.C.,  2012 WL 1292729 (N.Y.Sup.), 2012 N.Y. Slip Op. 50653(U) Supreme Court permitted an amendment to a divorce complaint to add new causes of action under the Domestic Relations Law which arose after the filing of the complaint. The plaintiff brought a divorce action prior to October 10, 2010. He alleged that his wife had engaged in cruel and inhuman treatment toward him. The wife answered the complaint, denying the specific allegations. After the commencement, the parties lived apart. The wife moved to Ohio. During discussions over the status of the case, the wife made it clear that she would contest the grounds for the divorce. The husband moved to amend the complaint to assert two new grounds: a ground under Domestic Relations Law § 170(2) for abandonment and a claim under Domestic Relations Law § 170(7) for an "irretrievably broken" marriage. The wife opposed the abandonment amendment, arguing that the husband can not allege abandonment when it occurred during a year after the filing of complaint and that its assertion, now, after the action has been pending for more than two years, is untimely and prejudicial. She opposed he amendment on the grounds of under Domestic Relations Law § 170(7) because the complaint was filed prior to the effective date of the change.
Supreme Court observed that amendments were both made pursuant to CPLR 3025(b), which provides that amendments should be freely given or a complaint may be supplemented "by setting forth additional or subsequent transactions or occurrences, at any time by leave of court."CPLR 3025(b). An avalanche of authority directs that the leave to amend a complaint should be "freely granted" unless the proposed amendment is clearly and patently insufficient on its face.  Williams v. Ludlow's Sand & Gravel Co., 122 A.D.2d 612 (4th Dep't 1986).  A cause of action under Domestic Relations Law s 170(2) requires  allegations that a spouse's actual physical departure from the marital residence for one year is unjustified, voluntary, without consent of the plaintiff spouse, and with the intention of the departing spouse not to return. The amended complaint, on its face, met this minimal pleading requirement: it alleged that the wife left the marital residence in 2009, has not returned and her leaving was
without justification. The pleading stated the cause of action.  Under the weight of cases favoring "freely granting" amendments to complaint, the cause of action for abandonment, although it accrued while this action had been pending, was properly pleaded and did not lack merit.
 The Court pointed out that in October, 2010, the Legislature added a statutory
change to the Domestic Relations Law which created "no-fault divorce" and permitted one party to be granted the divorce upon a sworn declaration that the marriage was "irretrievably broken for a period in excess of six months" and the parties had agreed on all the issues related to support and equitable distribution The wife correctly noted that the statutory amendment states that the "act ... shall apply to matrimonial actions commenced after the effective date."It was  undisputed that the effective date was October 12, 2010. The clear intention of the Legislature, based on this language, was to not allow litigants to simply
amend their complaints, after the amendment took effect, and allow those claims to proceed to adjudication on the basis of the new "no-fault" allegations by claiming that the six months of "irretrievable breakdown" included time before the effective date of the amendment.  Nevertheless, the court granted his motion noting that the husband was not seeking any relief other than that sought in the original complaint: a divorce and accompanying property distribution. By virtue of the statutory change, the husband, having waited six months after its effective date, could now meet the time requirement of six months because all of the time accrued after the amendment took effect. The court reasoned that the husbands motion did not violate the language of the statute or the intention of the Legislature. Instead, he sought to invoke what the Legislature extended to him: a cause of action that has ripened because more than six months have passed since the date of the amendment and during that time, the husband swears that his marriage has been irretrievably broken. It pointed out that in  Gleason v. Gleason, 26 N.Y.2d 28 (1970), the Court held that a statutory amendment, which added subdivision (4) to Section 170 of the Domestic  Relations Law, could be used to permit an uncontested divorce to incorporate a separation agreement signed before the effective date of the statutory change. The Court of Appeals, in resolving the issue of the application of a new ground for divorce to an agreement, signed before the effective date of new statute, could not ignore the beneficial aspect of the statute and its goal of reducing tensions in obtaining final judgments in matrimonial cases. In this case, the change created by the addition of Section 170(7) paralleled the statutory change in Gleason v. Gleason: it simply provides another ground for a divorce. The new statute does not create greater rights for a spouse in a divorce. The no-fault change provides a speedy method for establishing the grounds and does not obviate the wife's right to insist on a trial regarding any and all financial issues related to the couple. The new change gives neither party any greater property rights. For these reasons, the language of CPLR 3025(b), the lack of any prejudice to the wife's property rights and the judicial command to "freely grant" such applications weigh heavily in favor of granting this motion.  The motion to amend to add claims under Section 170(4) and 170(7) was granted.


Monday, April 23, 2012

Important New Decisions - April 23, 2012




First Department Holds Although Husband Retained All the Property, Court Will Not Set Aside Agreement on Ground of Unconscionability Where Inequitable Conduct Lacking    
                                              
          In Barocas v Barocas, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2012 WL 1293783 (N.Y.A.D. 1 Dept.) the Appellate Division rejected defendant's contention that the property division provisions of the parties prenuptial agreement were unconscionable. Defendant failed to establish that her execution of the agreement was the result of inequitable conduct on plaintiff's part. Rather, the parties fully disclosed their respective assets and net worth, and the agreement was reviewed by independent counsel, who defendant admitted had told her that the agreement was "completely unfair" and advised against signing it. The fact that plaintiff's attorney recommended defendant's counsel, and that plaintiff paid her counsel's fees, was insufficient to demonstrate duress or overreaching. Defendant's claim that she believed that there would be no wedding if she did not sign the agreement, that the wedding was only two weeks away and that wedding plans had been made, was insufficient to demonstrate duress. Although application of the provisions would result in plaintiff retaining essentially all the property, courts will not set aside an agreement on the ground of unconscionability where inequitable conduct was lacking and simply because, in retrospect, the agreement proves to be improvident or one-sided. The circumstances surrounding the execution of the agreement disclosed no issue of fact as to whether there was overreaching. It therefore adhered to the general rule that " '[i]f the execution of the agreement ... be fair, no further inquiry will be made' " (Levine v. Levine, 56 N.Y.2d 42, 47 [1982], citing  Christian, 42 N.Y.2d at 73).  Moreover, duly executed prenuptial agreements are accorded the same presumption of legality as any other contract" ( Bloomfield v. Bloomfield, 97 N.Y.2d 188, 193 [2001] ). The majority disagreed with the dissent's conclusion that there was an issue of fact as to whether the property division provisions of the instant agreement are unconscionable. They observed that an unconscionable contract is one "which is so grossly unreasonable as to be unenforcible because of an absence of meaningful choice on part of one of the parties together with contract terms which are unreasonably favorable to the other party" ( King v. Fox, 7 NY3d 181, 191 [2006] ). Here, meaningful choice was not an issue inasmuch as defendant knowingly entered into the agreement against the advice of her counsel.
The majority also held that although defendant's waiver of spousal support was not unfair or unreasonable at the time she signed the agreement, given her knowing and voluntary execution thereof with benefit of counsel, factual issues existed as to whether the waiver would be unconscionable as applied to the present circumstances (Domestic Relations Law  236[B][3][3] ). A Child support award for the parties' two children had not been established, and it was unclear whether defendant would become a public charge without spousal support. It was also unclear whether waiver of all spousal support would result in inequality "so strong and manifest as to shock the conscience and confound the judgment of any [person] of common sense" ( Christian, 42 N.Y.2d at 71). The evidence showed that, despite the 15-year marriage, under the agreement, plaintiff would be entitled to retain property valued at about $4,600,000, while defendant would be entitled to only an IRA account valued at approximately $30,550. She claimed that she had no other assets or sources of income, and could no longer work, given that she was now 50 years old and that plaintiff had thwarted her efforts to get a college education and pursue a career during the marriage. Plaintiff, contends that defendant chose not to get a college degree or pursue a career, and that, while he supported her various business projects, the projects failed or she would quit after losing interest. The majority found that issues of fact existed as to whether the maintenance waiver would be unconscionable as applied to the current circumstances. Justices Freedman and Manzanet-Daniels dissented in part in separate memoranda.


Finding of neglect does not require actual injury but, rather, an imminent threat that such injury or impairment may result.      


          In Matter of Lamarcus E.,--- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2012 WL 1211389 (N.Y.A.D. 3 Dept.)  Respondent, the father of the child (born in 2002), was granted custody in 2008 in a contested proceeding against the child's mother. In August 2009, while under petitioner's supervision, respondent informed petitioner that he intended to relocate to Connecticut in October 2009 to obtain employment and live with his girlfriend, but that he would not be taking his then seven-year-old son with him. Petitioner rejected respondent's request to accept the child into a voluntary placement. After Family Court and petitioner rejected three different plans proposed by respondent for the future care of the child, petitioner filed a neglect petition against him alleging that he intended to imminently implement his plan to permanently relocate to Connecticut without the child and without any viable plan for the child's care. Upon receipt of the petition, the court immediately removed the child and placed him in the temporary custody of petitioner, and respondent relocated to Connecticut as planned. Following a fact-finding hearing, respondent, who remained living out of state, was found to have neglected the child and, after a dispositional hearing, the court continued the child's placement with petitioner in foster care. The Appellate Division affirmed.  It observed that a finding of neglect does not require actual injury but, rather, an imminent threat that such injury or impairment may result. In addition, the impairment "must be a consequence of the parent's failure to exercise a minimum degree of parental care" ( Matter of Afton C. [James C.], 17 NY3d at 9; Nicholson v. Scoppetta, 3 NY3d at 368, 370). Parental behavior, in turn, is evaluated by asking whether, under the circumstances, a reasonable and prudent parent would have so acted.   Family Court based its determination of neglect upon respondent's plan to effectively abandon the care and custody of his child which, absent the intervention of petitioner, the court found would "certainly" have led to the impairment of the child's physical, mental or emotional condition. Upon learning of his plan to leave his child behind without a viable caretaker, petitioner's caseworkers had multiple discussions with respondent regarding the child's future. One caseworker testified that, during these discussions, respondent told her that he did not want to take the child along because he was "too much to handle" and he did not want to be responsible for facilitating,  from Connecticut,  visitation with the child's mother; he persistently requested that the child be placed in foster care.   Significantly, although Family Court had previously ordered respondent not to relocate with the child out of state, he told a caseworker that he would not be taking his child with him even if granted the court's permission to do so and he did not file a petition to modify that restriction. While respondent implied in his brief that petitioner's refusal to permit him to voluntarily place his child in foster care is the basis for the neglect finding against him, a voluntary placement is appropriate only where a parent is unable to care for his or her child, and not where a parent is simply unwilling to do so, as here (see Social Services Law 384-a).  Respondent's knowledge that his child would be placed in foster care upon his refusal to take him to Connecticut, fully aware that this placement would result in a charge of neglect against him, reflected his clear intention to abdicate his parental obligations, including his responsibility to adequately plan for his child's needs, thereby placing the child at risk. Respondent's suggested alternatives to placing his child in foster care reflected a glaring and fundamental misunderstanding of his responsibilities as a parent.  Respondent's blatant unwillingness to provide proper care and supervision for his child placed the child in imminent danger of impairment. 


Supreme Court Holds Agreement Provision Prohibiting Divorce until Apartment Sold Violated Public Policy Governing Divorces in New York


          In Filstein v Bromberg, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2012 WL 1167458 (N.Y.Sup.) the parties were married in 1989. They parties purchased the marital residence, a three-bedroom condominium located on West 23rd Street in Manhattan ("the apartment") in 1998. In October 2007 the wife brought an action for separation. On February 15, 2008, the parties entered into the separation agreement that settled the wife's action for separation. The separation agreement, at Article IV, Paragraph 4(G), provides, in relevant part: “ Prior to the sale of the Apartment, (i) the parties' attorneys shall prepare a  package of documents for the parties and counsel to sign, pursuant to which the Husband will be able to obtain an uncontested divorce based upon the Wife's having abandoned the Husband more than one year prior to the commencement of this action; and (ii) neither party shall file any papers to obtain a judgment of divorce.” More than four years after the parties entered the separation agreement resolving the 2007 action for separation, the apartment remained unsold and the parties remained married. The husband commenced an action in March 2011 for divorce and for a declaratory judgment determining that the no-divorce clause of the separation agreement was unenforceable. The husband moved pursuant to CPLR 3212 for partial summary judgment on his cause of action for declaratory judgment. He argued that conditioning the ability to obtain a judgment of divorce on the parties' ability to sell the apartment violated public policy. The wife argued in opposition that the clause is an enforceable contractual provision and that striking it would amount to the court finding that there is an absolute right to divorce. The wife also argues that if the no-divorce clause is held to be unenforceable, then she is entitled to have the entire separation agreement invalidated. 
Supreme Court held that Article IV, Paragraph 4(G) of the parties' separation agreement violated public policy governing divorces in this state. In  Gleason v. Gleason, 26 N.Y.2d 28 (1970), the Court of Appeals laid out New York's public policy position: “Implicit in the statutory scheme is the legislative recognition that it is socially and morally undesirable to compel couples to a dead marriage to retain  an illusory and deceptive status and that the best interests not only of the  parties but of society itself will be furthered by enabling them "to extricate  themselves from a perpetual state of marital limbo."  He observed that in   P.B. v. L.B., 19 Misc.3d 186 (Sup Ct, 2008), the trial court applied the policy enunciated in the Gleason case to a party's challenge of a separation agreement clause preventing the husband from filing for divorce for five years after the parties signed the agreement. The court found that the clause was unenforceable, stating that "no waiver of a person's right to seek a divorce for longer than the statutory one year after execution of a separation agreement will be enforced by the court." Subsequently, another trial court found that a separation agreement preventing either spouse from commencing a divorce action for five years was void for the same reasons. Corso v. Corso, 21 Misc.3d 1102(A) (Sup Ct, 2008).  The husband's motion for partial summary judgment was granted.
Supreme Court rejected the wife’s argument that if the court strikes the provision, then it must strike the entire agreement. The agreement contained a severability clause. Case law makes clear that when a clause in a separation agreement is voided, it can be severed and the rest of the agreement may stand. The court found the rest of the agreement was valid and remained enforceable.


Supreme Court Holds That  Breach of the Collaborative Law Participation Agreement Does Not Require Finding That Husband Overreached During Collaborative Law Process.


           In H.K. v A. K., 2012 WL 1232970 (N.Y.Sup.), 2012 N.Y. Slip Op. 50639(U) (Table, Text in WESTLAW), Unreported Disposition, the parties were married in 1980 and had three children, two of whom were emancipated. They encountered marital problems and entered into a collaborative law process, each retaining attorneys experienced in collaborative law, and signed a participation agreement.  The participation agreement executed by the parties and their attorneys, on September 8, 2009,  stated that the collaborative process "relies on honesty, co-operation, integrity, and professionalism" and that the parties will deal in good faith and "shall provide all relevant and reasonable information" which includes "sworn statement of net worth and supporting documentation of their income, assets and debts ." The parties acknowledge that they are setting aside "certain procedures" including "formal discovery proceedings." To assist in handling the couple's complicated finances, the parties retained a financial specialist who also signed the agreement.  A lengthy collaborative process ensued. It was undisputed that the husband was in charge of the couple's finances. He had significant assets, traceable to his family, which provided the backbone of their income, and held senior titles in various real estate based entities. The wife was a part-time college professor. Once the collaborative process commenced, the husband provided significant financial disclosure. He averred, without contradiction, that he provided income tax returns, financial statements, and detailed financial records to the attorneys and the retained financial specialist. 
The couple signed a separation agreement on June 10, 2010. In it they acknowledged the role of the collaborative process, that they had "applied their individual standards of reasonableness and acceptability to the agreement," and that they believed the agreement "to be fair, just, adequate, and reasonable." In the final paragraphs, the parties acknowledged that they had full and complete discovery and they "unequivocally waive" any further disclosure. The attorneys oversaw the preparation of the agreement and notarized their respective clients' signatures.   
After signing the agreement, the wife learned from a third-party that the husband had a girlfriend and allegedly used marital funds to finance that relationship during the time he was negotiating the separation agreement. According to the wife, she raised this issue with her counsel and the attorney probed the husband on it. The wife alleged that the husband then refused to negotiate and was unwilling to fully disclose his involvement in the alleged relationship. When the issue boiled over, the wife changed counsel and the collaborative process ended. Shortly thereafter, this action was commenced and the competing motions for summary judgment were filed.
The wife argued that the husband breached the collaborative agreement and such a breach constituted fraud or overreaching under the principles established by the Court of Appeals in Christian v. Christian, 42 N.Y.2d 63 (1977). The wife argued that the husband breached the collaborative law agreement by misrepresenting the status of his EMA asset and requiring his wife to transfer it to their children's trusts. The wife's argument that the collaborative agreement sets a standard of conduct, which when breached by the husband constituted overreaching, was an issue of first impression in New York. The Court observed that the "collaborative law" process is a relatively new concept in matrimonial practice. New York courts have never considered its application. Collaborative law attempts to foster an amiable rather than an adversarial atmosphere by creating a "four-way" agreement between each party and their attorneys "in which all are expected to participate actively". The question of the scope of the participant's voluntary disclosure, which commentators have suggested is at the "hallmark" of the collaborative process, remains somewhat unsettled. A party can unilaterally terminate  collaborative law at any time and for any reason, including failure of another  party to produce requested information. Thus, if a party wishes to abandon collaborative law in favor of litigation for failure of voluntary disclosure,  the party is free to do so and to engage in any court sanctioned discovery that  might be available.   In this case, the wife did not terminate the process prior to executing the agreement, nor did either attorney. Only after the agreement was signed, when the wife was told that the husband had financed his relationship with his girlfriend, did the wife terminate. For most intents and purposes the process had already reached its goal: the separation agreement was signed. Under these circumstances, the court declined to consider whether the husband's alleged breach of the collaborative agreement would subject the husband to a finding of overreaching under Christian v. Christian. The Court pointed out that if the wife or her attorneys suspected the husband was guilty of overreaching, they could have discontinued the process, but they chose not to. The Court held that a breach of the participation agreement did not require a finding that the husband overreached during the collaborative law process.


In Valuing Wife’s Law Decree Any Reliable Analysis of the Wife's Potential Earning Capacity Had to Assume That If She Had Not Attended Law School, She Would Have Sought Employment Commensurate with Her Education and Bachelor's Degree.

          In Shea v Shea, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2012 WL 1124582 (N.Y.A.D. 3 Dept.) after the parties married in 1991, defendant (husband) completed his studies in psychology and obtained his Ph.D. degree. During the marriage, plaintiff (wife), in addition to having two children, attended law school and earned a law degree. After this divorce action was commenced in December 2006, the wife passed the bar exam and received her license to practice law. After a trial, Supreme Court awarded the husband $12,600, 10% of the value it placed on the wife's law degree. The court also directed the husband to pay $1,200 a month in child support and decreed that he owed $17,363.51 in child support arrears dating back to when the divorce action was commenced. In addition, the court denied applications by the wife that she be awarded a distributive share of the husband's Ph.D. degree, and by the husband that the wife be removed as custodian of bank accounts held in trust for their children. 
On appeal the husband challenged Supreme Court's decision which adopted the opinion offered by the wife's expert that placed the value on her law degree at $126,000. He argued that since his expert's analysis was based in large measure on the wife's actual employment history, that analysis was more reliable, and the value of $252,617.82 that his expert placed on the degree should have been adopted by the court. The Appellate Division observed that  in analyzing the value of the law degree, both experts compared what they believed the wife should have been able to earn during the relevant time period with and without a law degree and then factored the wife's work-life expectancy into the difference between these two figures to determine the extent to which the degree served to enhance her earning capacity. The principal difference in the evaluations offered by both experts revolved around what each believed the wife's earning capacity would have been had she not obtained a law degree. The wife's expert focused on her actual employment history, as well as statistical data on what an individual with a Bachelor's degree could have earned in the area where she lived during the relevant time period, and concluded that, without a law degree, the wife would have had an annual earning capacity of $44,500. The husband's expert arrived at a significantly lower figure primarily because of the emphasis he placed on the wife's actual employment history in the period prior to obtaining her law degree. He assumed in his analysis that the wife would not have entered the work force until 2006, or after she was admitted to practice law, and that she would have continued to work as a clerk throughout this entire period, even though before attending law school she had obtained a Bachelor's degree and had been accepted into a doctoral program at Indiana University. He concluded, given this history and based on these assumptions, that the wife's potential earning capacity, even with a Bachelor's degree, would not have exceeded $22,827 per year.  Supreme Court rejected the opinion of the husband's expert and concluded, as did the wife's expert, that any reliable analysis of the wife's potential earning capacity had to assume that if she had not attended law school, she would have sought employment commensurate with her education and Bachelor's degree. The Appellate Division found that the decision to adopt the opinion of the wife's expert as to the value of her law degree was supported by credible evidence introduced at trial.
The Appellate Division rejected the husbands argument that he was entitled to a greater degree of the value of the wife's law degree because he was the family's primary wage earner during the parties' marriage and arranged his work schedule so that he could care for their children while the wife attended law school. It  observed that a nontitled spouse seeking a portion of the enhanced earning potential attributable to a professional license or degree of a titled spouse is required to establish that a substantial contribution was made to the acquisition of the degree or license". Where only modest contributions are made by the nontitled spouse toward the other spouse's attainment of a degree or professional license, and the attainment is more directly the result of the titled spouse's own ability, tenacity, perseverance and hard work, it is appropriate for courts to limit the distributed amount of that enhanced earning capacity". His sacrifices represented overall contributions to the marriage rather than an additional effort to support the wife in obtaining her license. In addition, the wife's own efforts in obtaining her law degree could not be minimized. For example, she worked in part-time positions throughout the marriage and was employed during the summer months while attending law school. She earned merit scholarships and paid a significant part of her law school tuition with an inheritance she received during the marriage. It reached a  similar conclusion as to the wife's claim that she should share in the value of the husband's Ph.D. degree. The husband had satisfied most of the requirements he needed to obtain this degree before the parties married and paid for it while providing financial support for his family. What assistance the wife may have provided in aiding him in acquiring this degree was simply not so significant or unique as to warrant awarding her a distributive share of its value.


Bonus Which Was Compensation for Future Services That Were Not Performed Prior to the Commencement of the Action  Was Separate Property Not Subject to Equitable Distribution


               In Ropiecki v Ropiecki, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2012 WL 1109179 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept.) the Appellate Division held that Supreme Court properly exercised its discretion in directing that the husbands maintenance obligations be retroactive to the date the action was commenced and properly awarded the defendant credit toward the maintenance arrears for voluntary payments he had made of $180,179.28. The defendant was not entitled to any further credit for voluntary payments, as the expenses from his net worth statement included payments made on behalf of himself and his emancipated children, payments for which the wife was not responsible (see  Horne v. Horne, 22 N.Y.2d 219, 224; LiGreci v. LiGreci, 87 AD3d 722, 724). The Appellate Division found that Supreme Court properly considered the relevant statutory factors in fashioning the distribution. The parties were married for 27 years, and the plaintiff's very limited earning potential was a result of her staying home and taking care of the parties' four children, including their daughter, who suffered from Retts Syndrome and was severely disabled. The defendant, by contrast, acquired considerable earning potential. Under the circumstances, the Supreme Court providently exercised its discretion in awarding the plaintiff 100% of the equity in the marital home. Similarly, the Supreme Court properly required the defendant to pay the remaining mortgage debt on the marital home in full before transferring title to the plaintiff. 
The Appellate Division agreed with the defendant that the Supreme Court improperly awarded the plaintiff a portion of his bonus in the sum of $200,000 as part of the equitable distribution of marital assets. The defendant's bonus, awarded in 2006, after the commencement of the action, was provided as an incentive for future services. Based on the defendant's testimony at trial, as well as the Executive Incentive Bonus Plan, the bonus plan was adopted by the defendant's employer in October 2006 as an incentive for certain employees, including the defendant, to meet certain goals and to ensure the successful sale of the company in the future. Accordingly, the bonus was compensation for future services that were not performed prior to the commencement of the action and, thus, was separate property not subject to equitable distribution. In light of the foregoing, the distributive award had to be reconsidered to ensure that the plaintiff was awarded her equitable share of the marital property, and the matter was remitted to Supreme Court for further review and a recalculation, if warranted, of the equitable distribution of marital property other than the marital residence.
The Appellate Division held that  under the circumstances of this case, including the monthly amount of the defendant's maintenance obligation and the ages of the parties, the $1,500,00 of life insurance the defendant was required to carry, as ordered by the Supreme Court, was excessive, and was reduced by substituting a provision directing the defendant to maintain a life insurance policy naming the plaintiff as an irrevocable beneficiary in the sum of $1,200,000 until the plaintiff reaches the age of 65, and in the sum of $600,000 thereafter for as long as the defendant is obligated to pay maintenance. It  also held that Supreme Court improvidently directed the defendant to pay 90% of the plaintiff's unreimbursed health care expenses, as such open-ended obligations have been consistently disfavored by the Court. It held that  Supreme Court should have directed the defendant to pay 90% of the plaintiff's unreimbursed health care expenses only for as long as he is obligated to pay maintenance.


Argument, That Child Should Have Attended  less Expensive College, Without Merit Where Parties Stipulation Did Not Require  Parental Consent to Child's College Choice, and Did Not Place Limit on  Tuition Amount 
          In Matter of Filosa v Donnelly, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2012 WL 1109332 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept.) the Appellate Division found that the father failed to establish, in accordance with the terms of the parties' stipulation of settlement of divorce, that he was financially unable to pay for the child's college tuition or that the mother did not comply with her obligation to encourage the child's use of financial aid, scholarships, and available student loans. Thus, Family Court did not improvidently exercise its discretion in granting the mother's petition and apportioning 50% of those expenses to him. It found his argument, that the child should have attended a less expensive college, without merit. The parties' stipulation did not mandate parental consent to the child's college choice, and it did not place a limit on the tuition amount for which the parties were responsible. Similarly, the father was not entitled to a credit toward his child support payment by virtue of the room-and-board component of the child's tuition, as no such credit was contemplated by the parties' stipulation of settlement.


Default must Be Vacated Once Movant Demonstrates Lack of Personal Jurisdiction, and  Movant Is Relieved of Obligation to Demonstrate a Reasonable Excuse for Default and  Meritorious Defense


          In Matter of Anna M, 940 N.Y.S.2d 121, 2012 N.Y. Slip Op. 01676 (2d Dept 2012) in an order dated October 24, 2008, the Family Court appointed the petitioner, the uncle of the subject children, as guardian of the children.   The father had failed to appear in these proceedings.   Almost two years later, the father moved, inter alia, to vacate the order of guardianship, arguing that the Family Court lacked personal jurisdiction over him.   The father argued, among other things, that he was not served with the order to show cause or petitions in this matter. In addition, his attorney argued that the affidavit of service stated that the father was served on September 28, 2008, which was a Sunday, rendering service void (see General Business Law  11). Family Court denied the father's motion without addressing the issue of personal jurisdiction. It found that the father had notice of the petitioner's request for guardianship but failed "to take action" and "explain his delay" in moving to vacate the order of guardianship and opposing the petitions.   The Family Court therefore determined that even if there was a defect in service," the doctrine of laches operated to bar the father from vacating the guardianship order.   The Appellate Division held that this was error.  CPLR 5015 provides that "[t]he court which rendered a judgment or order may relieve a party from it upon such terms as may be just," upon the ground of, inter alia, "excusable default" (CPLR 5015[a][1]) or "lack of jurisdiction to render the judgment or order" (CPLR 5015[a][4] ).   A court may not rule on  the excusable nature of a defendant's default under CPLR 5015(a)(1) without first determining the jurisdictional question under CPLR 5015(a)(4).   Where want of jurisdiction is the ground for a motion to vacate pursuant  to CPLR 5015, a default must be vacated once the movant demonstrates a lack of personal jurisdiction, and the movant is relieved of any obligation to demonstrate a reasonable excuse for the default and a potentially meritorious defense. Family Court failed to determine whether personal service was properly effected, or whether any defect in service could be disregarded as an irregularity under CPLR 2001 . The matter was remitted to the Family Court for a hearing to determine the issue of personal jurisdiction and thereafter for a new determination of the motion to vacate the order dated October 24, 2008.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Important New Decisions - April 16, 2012



Court of Appeals Rejects Husbands Argument That Intention to Equally Divide Marital Estate Was Frustrated Because Both Parties Operated under "Mistake" or Misconception as to Existence of a Legitimate Madoff Investment Account
In Simkin v Blank, --- N.E.2d ----, 2012 WL 1080295 (N.Y.) Plaintiff Steven Simkin (husband) and defendant Laura Blank (wife) married in 1973 and had two children. The Husband was a partner at a New York law firm and the wife, also an attorney, was employed by a university. After almost 30 years of marriage, the parties separated in 2002 and stipulated in 2004 that the cut-off date for determining the value of marital assets would be September 1, 2004. The parties, represented by counsel, spent two years negotiating a detailed 22-page settlement agreement, executed in June 2006. In August 2006, the settlement agreement was incorporated, but not merged, into the parties' final judgment of divorce. The settlement agreement set forth a comprehensive division of marital property. The Husband agreed to pay the wife $6,250,000 "[a]s and for an equitable distribution of property ... and in satisfaction of the Wife's support and marital property rights."In addition, wife retained title to a Manhattan apartment (subject to a $370,000 mortgage), an automobile, her retirement accounts and any "bank, brokerage and similar financial accounts in her name."Upon receipt of her distributive payment, the wife agreed to convey her interest in the Scarsdale marital residence to husband. The Husband received title to three automobiles and kept his retirement accounts, less $368,000 to equalize the value of the parties' retirement accounts. He also retained "bank, brokerage and similar financial accounts" that were in his name, two of which were specifically referenced-his capital account as a partner at the law firm and a Citibank account. The agreement also contained a number of mutual releases between the parties. Each party waived any interest in the other's law license and released or discharged any debts or further claims against the other. Although the agreement acknowledged that the property division was "fair and reasonable," it did not state that the parties intended an equal distribution or other designated percentage division of the marital estate. The only provision that explicitly contemplated an equal division was the reference to equalizing the values of the parties' retirement accounts. The parties further acknowledged that the settlement constituted: "an agreement between them with respect to any and all funds, assets or properties, both real and personal, including property in which either of them may have an equitable or beneficial interest wherever situated, now owned by the parties or either of them, or standing in their respective names or which may hereafter be acquired by either of them, and all other rights and obligations arising out of the marital relationship."

At the time the parties entered into the settlement, one of husband's unspecified brokerage accounts was maintained by Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities (the Madoff account). According to husband, the parties believed the account was valued at $5.4 million as of September 1, 2004, the valuation date for marital assets. The Husband withdrew funds from this account to pay a portion of his distributive payment owed wife in 2006, and continued to invest in the account subsequent to the divorce. In December 2008, Bernard Madoff's colossal Ponzi scheme was publicly exposed and Madoff later pleaded guilty to federal securities fraud and related offenses. As a result of the disclosure of Madoff's fraud, in February 2009, about 2 ½ years after the divorce was finalized, the husband commenced an action against wife alleging two causes of action: (1) reformation of the settlement agreement predicated on a mutual mistake and (2) unjust enrichment. The amended complaint asserted that the settlement agreement was intended to accomplish an "approximately equal division of [the couple's] marital assets," including a 50-50 division of the Madoff account. To that end, the amended complaint stated that $2,700,000 of wife's $6,250,000 distributive payment represented her "share" of the Madoff account. The Husband alleged that the parties' intention to equally divide the marital estate was frustrated because both parties operated under the "mistake" or misconception as to the existence of a legitimate investment account with Madoff which, in fact, was revealed to be part of a fraudulent Ponzi scheme. The amended complaint admitted, however, that funds were previously " 'withdrawn' from the 'Account' " by husband and applied to his obligation to pay wife.

In his claim for reformation, the husband requested that the court "determine the couple's true assets with respect to the Madoff account" and alter the settlement terms to reflect an equal division of the actual value of the Madoff account. The second cause of action sought restitution from wife "in an amount to be determined at trial" based on her unjust enrichment arising from husband's payment of what the parties mistakenly believed to be wife's share of the Madoff account. Supreme Court granted the Wife’s motion to dismiss the amended complaint. The Appellate Division, with two Justices dissenting, reversed and reinstated the action ( 80 AD3d 401 [1st Dept 2011] ).

The Court of Appeals observed that on a motion to dismiss under CPLR 3211, the pleading is to be given a liberal construction, the allegations contained within it are assumed to be true and the plaintiff is to be afforded every favorable inference. At the same time, however, "allegations consisting of bare legal conclusions as well as factual claims flatly contradicted by documentary evidence are not entitled to any such consideration" . Moreover, a claim predicated on mutual mistake must be pleaded with the requisite particularity necessitated under CPLR 3016(b). The Court, in an opinion by Judge Graffeo, noted that marital settlement agreements are judicially favored and are not to be easily set aside. Nevertheless, in the proper case, an agreement may be subject to rescission or reformation based on a mutual mistake by the parties. Similarly, a release of claims may be avoided due to mutual mistake. The mutual mistake must exist at the time the contract is entered into and must be substantial". Put differently, the mistake must be "so material that ... it goes to the foundation of the agreement". Court-ordered relief is therefore reserved only for "exceptional situations". The premise underlying the doctrine of mutual mistake is that "the agreement as expressed, in some material respect, does not represent the meeting of the minds of the parties". After reviewing Appellate mutual mistake cases in the context of marital settlement agreements the Court was of the view that the amended complaint failed to adequately state a cause of action based on mutual mistake. As an initial matter, the husband's claim that the alleged mutual mistake undermined the foundation of the settlement agreement, a precondition to relief under the Court’s precedents, was belied by the terms of the agreement itself. The Court pointed out that in True v. True (63 AD3d 1145 [2d Dept 2009] ), the settlement agreement provided that the husband's stock awards from his employer would be "divided 50-50 in kind" and recited that 3,655 shares were available for division between the parties. After the wife redeemed her half of the shares, the husband learned that only 150 shares remained and brought an action to reform the agreement, arguing that the parties mistakenly specified the gross number of shares (3,655) rather than the net number that was actually available for distribution. The Second Department agreed and reformed the agreement to effectuate the parties' intent to divide the shares equally, holding that the husband had established "that the parties' use of 3,655 gross shares was a mutual mistake because it undermined their intent to divide the net shares available for division, 50-50 in kind" (id. at 1148). Unlike the settlement agreement in True that expressly incorporated a "50-50" division of a stated number of stock shares, the settlement agreement here, on its face, did not mention the Madoff account, much less evince an intent to divide the account in equal or other proportionate shares. To the contrary, the agreement provided that the $6,250,000 payment to wife was "in satisfaction of [her] support and marital property rights," along with her release of various claims and inheritance rights. Despite the fact that the agreement permitted husband to retain title to his "bank, brokerage and similar financial accounts" and enumerated two such accounts, his alleged $5.4 million Madoff investment account was neither identified nor valued. Given the extensive and carefully negotiated nature of the settlement agreement, the Court did not believe that this presented one of those "exceptional situations") warranting reformation or rescission of a divorce settlement after all marital assets have been distributed.

Even putting the language of the agreement aside, the core allegation underpinning the husband's mutual mistake claim, that the Madoff account was "nonexistent" when the parties executed their settlement agreement in June 2006, did not amount to a "material" mistake of fact as required by case law. The amended complaint contained an admission that husband was able to withdraw funds from the account in 2006 to partially pay his distributive payment to wife. Given that the mutual mistake must have existed at the time the agreement was executed in 2006 the fact the husband could no longer withdraw funds years later was not determinative. This situation, however sympathetic, was more akin to a marital asset that unexpectedly loses value after dissolution of a marriage; the asset had value at the time of the settlement but the purported value did not remain consistent. The Court found this case analogous to the Appellate Division precedents denying a spouse's attempt to reopen a settlement agreement based on post-divorce changes in asset valuation. The Court held that the husband's unjust enrichment claim likewise failed to state a cause of action. It is well settled that, where the parties executed a valid and enforceable written contract governing a particular subject matter, recovery on a theory of unjust enrichment for events arising out of that subject matter is ordinarily precluded. Accordingly, the order of the Appellate Division was reversed, the order of Supreme Court reinstated, and the certified question answered in the negative.


QDRO Based on a Stipulation Can Convey Only Those Rights to Which the Parties Stipulated as a Basis for the Judgment
In Gursky v Gursky, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2012 WL 1033543 (N.Y.A.D. 3 Dept.) after plaintiff commenced an action for divorce, the parties entered into a partial written stipulation in which they agreed upon the total present value of the marital portion of the defined benefits component of plaintiff's pension. They did not reach any agreement as to the division of this asset. Instead, they specifically reserved their rights with respect to its equitable distribution. When they appeared for trial, they entered into an oral stipulation in which they agreed that the pension "will be divided pursuant to the Majauskas [f]ormula" (Majauskas v. Majauskas, 61 N.Y.2d 481 [1984] ). The stipulation was incorporated but not merged into the judgment of divorce, and defendant then moved for an order directing entry of his proposed qualified domestic relations order. Plaintiff objected, arguing that the proposed order exceeded the terms of the parties' stipulation because it created a separate pension interest for defendant by providing that he could elect to receive payment from the pension plan when plaintiff reached the plan's early retirement age of 55, regardless of whether she had yet retired. Supreme Court rejected plaintiff's objections and granted the motion. The Appellate Division reversed and denied the motion. It observed that a qualified domestic relations order based on a stipulation "can convey only those rights to which the parties stipulated as a basis for the judgment" ( McCoy v. Feinman, 99 N.Y.2d 295, 304 [2002]). Where the language of the stipulation is unambiguous, the intent of the parties must be ascertained from within its four corners and the Court will not add language that the parties did not include. Here, there was no ambiguity. The parties agreed to divide the pension by applying the Majauskas formula. To interpret that agreement, Supreme Court was required to look to Majauskas, where the formula entitled the nonemployee spouse to receive a proportionate share of one half of each pension check received by the employee spouse, with the denominator of the fraction based on the length of the employee spouse's employment prior to his or her retirement. By invoking the Majauskas formula, without more, the parties stipulated that distribution of the pension would take effect upon plaintiff's retirement, as in Majauskas, resulting in a shared payment. Thus, Supreme Court's distribution of a separate pension interest to defendant prior to plaintiff's retirement improperly expanded the terms of the parties' stipulation.

Wife Did Not Waive Right to Challenge Husband's Claims Regarding Income Because She Signed Joint Tax Returns That Listed His Annual Income.
In Harrington v Harrington, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2012 WL 1033451 (N.Y.A.D. 3 Dept.) Plaintiff (husband) and defendant (wife) were married in 1991 and had two children (born in 1989 and 1991). The husband was a self-employed contractor who operated his own construction business while the wife, who was permanently disabled, devoted herself to the care of the parties' children and was not otherwise employed. The husband commenced this action for a divorce in December 2008. After a trial, Supreme Court granted the wife's counterclaim for divorce, distributed certain marital assets, and directed the husband to pay maintenance for 15 years and approximately $10,000 towards the wife's counsel fees. The Appellate Division affirmed. It rejected the husbands challenge to Supreme Court's decision to impute an additional $30,000 to the income he claimed to earn each year. The Appellate Division held that Supreme Court is not bound by representations made by a party in a matrimonial action regarding his or her annual income and may increase that figure where the record establishes, as it did here, that a party routinely paid "personal expenses from business accounts" and had access to other income to offset such expenses. In support of his claim regarding his annual income, the husband submitted tax returns for a four-year period beginning in 2005 in which he claimed annual adjusted gross income between $13,802 and $33,689. Supreme Court found, and the record established, that despite the husband's claims regarding his limited income, he paid, in addition to other expenses, $559 per month in child support and $2,000 each month to his girlfriend to live at her residence and for bookkeeping services she provided his contracting business. Also, the husband admitted using the business checking account for personal expenses and paying for numerous vacations he had taken with his girlfriend, plus $950 a month in rent for a residence in which he did not reside. This evidence provided ample support for Supreme Court's determination that additional income should be imputed to the husband to reflect an annual income of $60,000 per year. Supreme Court was not bound by a determination previously rendered by Family Court in a child support proceeding that his annual income was $30,000. Here, evidence was presented that the husband's claims in this regard were not accurate or credible, and provided a rational basis for Supreme Court's decision placing his annual income at $60,000. In addition, the wife did not waive her right to challenge the husband's claims regarding his annual income simply because she had previously signed joint tax returns that listed his annual income as $30,000.

Supreme Court conducted a hearing at which the wife's counsel testified to the legal services she provided during the course of these proceedings. Given the wife's need for these legal services, and the parties' respective financial conditions, the Appellate Division held that court did not abuse its discretion by directing the husband to contribute $9,816 to the payment of the legal expenses that the wife incurred in these proceedings. While the wife's counsel did not, as required, bill the wife every 60 days for her services, she did provide her with a copy of a retainer agreement, as well as a statement of client's rights and responsibilities pursuant to 22 NYCRR 1400.3. Counsel's failure to bill the wife for these services every 60 days was not a ground upon which the husband can rely to avoid paying a share of her legal expenses. The court noted that the action was commenced prior to the amendment to Domestic Relations Law 237(a) (see L 2010, ch 329, s 1 ).


Error in Failing to Afford Father Opportunity to Make Closing Statement Does Not Require Reversal Where Court Familiar with the Facts of Case and Parties' Arguments
In Matter of Bond v Bond, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2012 WL 1033469 (N.Y.A.D. 3 Dept.) Petitioner (father) and respondent (mother) were the parents of six children. The three youngest children, two daughters (born in 1994 and 1995) and a son (born in 2001), were the subject of the proceeding on appeal. In November 2004, the parties stipulated to a custody arrangement by which the mother had sole legal and primary physical custody of the three children, with extended alternate weekend visitation with the father. This agreement was later incorporated into a custody order in January 2005 and the judgment of divorce in March 2007. In April 2010, the father filed a petition for modification seeking joint legal and primary physical custody of the younger daughter and joint legal and shared physical custody of the son. Following trial, Family Court dismissed the petition on the ground that the father had failed to establish a sufficient change in circumstances. The Appellate Division affirmed. It observed that the father's petition alleged that the two younger children wished to spend more time with him, that the mother was verbally and physically abusive, and that the mother disappointed the younger daughter by failing to bring her to an out-of-state award ceremony. As the allegations of abuse were unsubstantiated and the children's preferences standing alone did not establish a sufficient change in circumstances, there was a sound and substantial basis in the record supporting Family Court's determination. The Appellate Division observed that the trial testimony and decision referenced events occurring prior to the existing custody order. As the father argued, relying upon those prior events would be improper in assessing whether there had been a change in circumstances. However, it did not find that the Courts analysis relied upon these extraneous references. It rejected that the father's contention that Family Court's error in failing to afford him the opportunity to make a closing statement required reversal (see CPLR 4016[a] ). At the conclusion of the fact-finding hearing, the father's counsel stated that he wished to make a short closing statement only if the mother did so, and the court indicated that arrangements would be made following the Lincoln hearing. The mother subsequently submitted a written closing statement; the father neither responded to this submission nor requested a further appearance, and more than four weeks passed before the decision was rendered. Considering these circumstances, and that the court was fully familiar with the facts of the case as well as the parties' arguments, no reversible error occurred (See Matter of Saggese v. Steinmetz, 83 A.D.3d 1144, 1145 [2011; Lohmiller v. Lohmiller, 140 A.D.2d 497, 498 [1988] ).

On Motion to Dismiss Family Offense Petition Pursuant to CPLR 3211(a) (7) Court Should Wade Through Allegations and Dismiss Only Those Which Do Not Sufficiently Allege Conduct That Constitutes a Family Offense
In Matter of Pamela N v Neil N, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2012 WL 1033487 (N.Y.A.D. 3 Dept.), Petitioner (mother) and respondent (father) were married in 2003 and had twins in 2005. The father was awarded custody by order of August 20, 2010. In December 2010, the mother filed two family offense petitions against the father, and filed a third such petition in February 2011, as well as a modification of custody petition. Family Court granted the father's motions to dismiss the two December 2010 family offense petitions, and also dismissed the custody petition given that a divorce action was then pending in Supreme Court. The court also dismissed the February 2011 family offense petition, on the father's motion, for failure to state a cause of action (CPLR 3211[a][7] ), without a hearing. The Appellate Division observed that presented with a motion to dismiss pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(7), which is proper here in that family offense proceedings under Family Ct Act article 8 are civil in nature a court may freely consider affidavits submitted by the petitioner to remedy any defects in the petition, and the criterion is whether the proponent of the pleading has a cause of action, not whether he or she has stated one. ( Guggenheimer v. Ginzburg, 43 N.Y.2d at 275). A family offense proceeding is originated by filing a petition alleging that the respondent committed one of the enumerated offenses against, among others, a spouse, former spouse or child. In her pro se February 2011 petition, the mother checked all boxes on the petition form listing those enumerated offenses. Her attached affidavit and handwritten answers contained many conclusory, irrelevant, ambiguous and insufficiently specific allegations, including claims against individuals who were not "members of the same family or household". However, liberally construing the petition and giving it the benefit of every favorable inference (Leon v. Martinez, 84 N.Y.2d at 87-88), the Court found that while it was inartfully drafted, it adequately alleged, at the very least, that the father had stalked and harassed her. For example, the mother alleged in her affidavit that on November 23, 2008, the father came to her house while she had the children and threatened and harassed her, making excuses for his presence; he then called her three times that evening and continued to make excuses for coming to her house, leading her to file a domestic incident report with police the next day. These allegations described the type of conduct required to originate a family offense proceeding (Family Ct Act 821[1] ) in that they adequately allege, so as to survive a motion to dismiss for failure to state a cause of action (CPLR 3211 [a][7] ), that the father, acting with the requisite intent that is inferable from the alleged circumstances, engaged in a course of conduct which alarmed or seriously annoyed the mother, which served no legitimate purpose, thereby committing the offense of harassment in the second degree (Penal Law 240.26 [3]) Additionally, the allegations, if credited, were sufficient to allege that respondent committed the offense of stalking in the fourth degree (Penal Law 120.45[1], [2] ). The Appellate Division agreed with the mother and attorney for the children that Family Court should not have dismissed the petition in its entirety but, rather, should have waded through the myriad allegations and dismissed with specificity only those which did not sufficiently allege conduct that constituted harassment, stalking or any other act listed in Family Ct Act 821(1). The order granting respondent's motion to dismiss the February 18, 2011 petition was reversed, the motion denied and matter remitted to the Family Court for further proceedings not inconsistent with the Court's decision.

Family Court Lacks Subject Matter Jurisdiction to Enforce Purported Modification Agreement Not Incorporated into Judgment
In Hirsch v Schwartz, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2012 WL 1033520 (N.Y.A.D. 3 Dept.) Petitioner (mother) and respondent ( father) were divorced in 2009 and had two children from the marriage (born in 2001 and 2003). The parties' 2007 separation agreement, which required the father to pay 96% of all child-care expenses, was incorporated but not merged into their 2009 judgment of divorce. Shortly thereafter, the mother sent the father a letter offer which proposed a reduction of the father's child-care expenses from 96% to 75%. Although the father did not sign and return the letter offer he made at least two full reimbursement payments and several partial payments in the months that followed. The mother subsequently commenced this proceeding seeking to enforce the child support provisions of the judgment of divorce. In response, the father argued that the mother's letter offer served to modify his support obligations and that the terms of this subsequent agreement should be enforced. Following a trial, a Support Magistrate found that the letter offer constituted a valid modification of the parties' separation agreement that reduced the father's child-care expenses to 75%, and ordered arrears in the amount of $2,625.25. Upon the mother's written objections, Family Court concluded that the Support Magistrate lacked the authority to enforce the terms of the purported modification agreement and, therefore, the provisions in the judgment of divorce concerning the father's child-care obligations controlled. The Appellate Division affirmed. It observed that Family Court, as a court of limited jurisdiction, may only enforce or modify child support provisions contained in a valid court order or judgment ( Family Ct Act 422, 461[b][I]; 466; Matter of Johna M.S. v. Russell E.S., 10 NY3d 364, 366 [2008]; Matter of Brescia v. Fitts, 56 N.Y.2d 132, 139 [1982]; Kleila v. Kleila, 50 N.Y.2d 277, 282 [1980] ). Thus, even assuming that the mother's letter offer constituted a valid modification of the parties' separation agreement, Family Court did not have subject matter jurisdiction to enforce the amended agreement which stands as an independent contract between the parties .

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Important New Decisions - April 4, 2012

Court of Appeals Rejects Husbands Argument That Intention to Equally Divide  Marital Estate Was Frustrated Because Both Parties Operated under "Mistake" or Misconception as to Existence of a Legitimate Madoff Investment Account                                                     


                                                      
In Simkin v Blank, --- N.E.2d ----, 2012 WL 1080295 (N.Y.) Plaintiff Steven Simkin (husband) and defendant Laura Blank (wife) married in 1973 and had two children. The Husband was a partner at a New York law firm and the wife, also an attorney, was employed by a university. After almost 30 years of marriage, the parties separated in 2002 and stipulated in 2004 that the cut-off date for determining the value of marital assets would be September 1, 2004. The parties, represented by counsel, spent two years negotiating a detailed 22-page settlement agreement, executed in June 2006. In August 2006, the settlement agreement was incorporated, but not merged, into the parties' final judgment of divorce.  The settlement agreement set forth a comprehensive division of marital property. The Husband agreed to pay the wife $6,250,000 "[a]s and for an equitable distribution of property ... and in satisfaction of the Wife's support and marital property rights."In addition, wife retained title to a Manhattan apartment (subject to a $370,000 mortgage), an automobile, her retirement accounts and any
"bank, brokerage and similar financial accounts in her name."Upon receipt of her
distributive payment, the wife agreed to convey her interest in the Scarsdale marital
residence to husband. The Husband received title to three automobiles and kept his
retirement accounts, less $368,000 to equalize the value of the parties' retirement accounts. He also retained "bank, brokerage and similar financial accounts" that were in his name, two of which were specifically referenced-his capital account as a partner at the law firm and a Citibank account. The agreement also contained a number of mutual releases between the parties. Each party waived any interest in the other's law license and released or discharged any debts or further claims against the other. Although the agreement acknowledged that the property division was "fair and reasonable," it did not state that the parties intended an equal distribution or other designated percentage division of the marital estate. The only provision that explicitly contemplated an equal division was the reference to equalizing the values of the parties' retirement accounts. The parties further acknowledged that the settlement constituted:  "an agreement between them with respect to any and all funds, assets or  properties, both real and personal, including property in which either of them  may have an equitable or beneficial interest wherever situated, now owned by the  parties or either of them, or standing in their respective names or which may  hereafter be acquired by either of them, and all other rights and obligations  arising out of the marital relationship."
 At the time the parties entered into the settlement, one of husband's unspecified brokerage accounts was maintained by Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities (the Madoff account). According to husband, the parties believed the account was valued at $5.4 million as of September 1, 2004, the valuation date for marital assets. The Husband withdrew funds from this account to pay a portion of his distributive payment owed wife in 2006, and continued to invest in the account subsequent to the divorce. In December 2008, Bernard Madoff's colossal Ponzi scheme was publicly exposed and Madoff later pleaded guilty to federal securities
fraud and related offenses.  As a result of the disclosure of Madoff's fraud, in February 2009, about 2 ½ years after the divorce was finalized, the husband commenced an action against wife alleging two causes of action: (1) reformation of the settlement agreement predicated on a mutual mistake and (2) unjust enrichment. The amended complaint asserted that the settlement agreement was intended to accomplish an "approximately equal division of [the couple's] marital assets," including a 50-50 division of the Madoff account. To that end, the amended complaint stated that $2,700,000 of wife's $6,250,000 distributive payment represented her "share" of the Madoff account. The Husband alleged that the parties' intention to equally divide the marital estate was frustrated because both parties operated under the "mistake" or
misconception as to the existence of a legitimate investment account with Madoff
which, in fact, was revealed to be part of a fraudulent Ponzi scheme. The amended
complaint admitted, however, that funds were previously " 'withdrawn' from the 'Account' " by husband and applied to his obligation to pay wife.  In his claim for reformation, the husband requested that the court "determine the couple's true assets with respect to the Madoff account" and alter the settlement terms to reflect an equal division of the actual value of the Madoff account. The second cause of action sought restitution from wife "in an amount to be determined at trial" based on her unjust enrichment arising from husband's payment of what
the parties mistakenly believed to be wife's share of the Madoff account. Supreme Court granted the Wife’s motion to dismiss the amended complaint. The Appellate Division, with two Justices dissenting, reversed and reinstated the action ( 80 AD3d 401 [1st Dept 2011] ).
The Court of Appeals observed that on a motion to dismiss under CPLR 3211, the pleading is to be given a liberal construction, the allegations contained within it are assumed to be true and the plaintiff is to be afforded every favorable inference. At the same time, however, "allegations consisting of bare legal conclusions as well as factual claims flatly contradicted by documentary evidence are not entitled to any such consideration" . Moreover, a claim predicated on mutual mistake must be pleaded with the requisite particularity necessitated under CPLR 3016(b). The Court, in an opinion by Judge Graffeo, noted that marital settlement agreements are judicially favored and are not to be easily set aside. Nevertheless, in the proper case, an agreement may be subject to rescission or reformation based on a mutual mistake by the parties. Similarly, a release of claims may be avoided due to mutual mistake. The mutual mistake must exist at the time the contract is entered into and must be substantial". Put differently, the mistake must be "so material that ... it goes to the foundation of the agreement". Court-ordered relief is therefore reserved only for "exceptional situations". The premise underlying the doctrine of mutual mistake is that "the agreement as expressed, in some material respect, does not represent the meeting of the minds of the parties". After reviewing Appellate mutual mistake cases in the context of marital settlement agreements the Court was of the view that the amended complaint failed to adequately state a cause of action based on mutual mistake. As an initial matter, the husband's claim that the alleged mutual mistake undermined the foundation of the settlement agreement, a precondition to relief under the Court’s  precedents, was belied by the terms of the agreement itself. The Court pointed out that in True v. True (63 AD3d 1145 [2d Dept 2009] ), the settlement agreement provided that the husband's stock awards from his employer would be "divided 50-50 in kind" and recited that 3,655 shares were available for division between the parties. After the wife redeemed her half of the shares, the husband learned that only 150 shares remained and brought an action to reform the agreement, arguing that the parties mistakenly specified the gross number of shares (3,655) rather than the net number that was actually available for distribution. The Second Department agreed and reformed the agreement to effectuate the parties' intent to divide the shares equally, holding that the husband had established "that the parties' use of 3,655 gross shares was a mutual mistake because it undermined their intent to divide the net shares available for division, 50-50 in kind" (id. at 1148). Unlike the settlement agreement in True that expressly incorporated a "50-50" division of a stated number of stock shares, the settlement agreement here, on its face, did not mention the Madoff account, much less evince an intent to divide the account in equal or other proportionate shares. To the contrary, the agreement provided that the $6,250,000 payment to wife was "in satisfaction of [her] support and marital property rights," along with her release of various claims and inheritance rights. Despite the fact that the agreement permitted husband to retain title to his "bank, brokerage and similar financial accounts" and enumerated two such accounts, his alleged $5.4 million Madoff investment account was neither identified nor
valued. Given the extensive and carefully negotiated nature of the settlement
agreement, the Court did not believe that this presented one of those "exceptional
situations") warranting reformation or rescission of a divorce settlement after all
marital assets have been distributed.
    Even putting the language of the agreement aside, the core allegation underpinning the husband's mutual mistake claim, that the Madoff account was "nonexistent" when the parties executed their settlement agreement in June 2006,  did  not amount to a "material" mistake of fact as required by case law. The amended complaint contained an admission that husband was able to withdraw funds from the account in 2006 to partially pay his distributive payment to wife. Given that the mutual mistake must have existed at the time the agreement was executed in 2006 the fact the husband could no longer withdraw funds years later was not determinative.   This situation, however sympathetic, was more akin to a marital asset that unexpectedly loses value after dissolution of a marriage; the asset had value at the time of the settlement but the purported value did not remain consistent. The Court found this case analogous to the Appellate Division precedents denying a spouse's attempt to reopen a settlement agreement based on post-divorce changes in asset valuation.
The Court held that the husband's unjust enrichment claim likewise failed to state a cause of action. It is well settled that, where the parties executed a valid and enforceable written contract governing a particular subject matter, recovery on a theory of unjust enrichment for events arising out of that subject matter is ordinarily precluded.
 Accordingly, the order of the Appellate Division was reversed, the order of Supreme Court reinstated, and the certified question answered in the negative.


QDRO Based on a Stipulation Can Convey Only Those Rights to Which the Parties Stipulated as a Basis for the Judgment 
                                                      
In Gursky v Gursky, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2012 WL 1033543 (N.Y.A.D. 3 Dept.) after plaintiff commenced an action for divorce, the parties entered into a partial written stipulation in which they agreed upon the total present value of the marital portion of the defined benefits component of plaintiff's pension. They did not reach any agreement as to the division of this asset. Instead, they specifically reserved their rights with respect to
its equitable distribution. When they appeared for trial, they entered into an oral stipulation in which they agreed that the pension "will be divided pursuant to the Majauskas [f]ormula" (Majauskas v. Majauskas, 61 N.Y.2d 481 [1984] ). The stipulation was incorporated but not merged into the judgment of divorce, and defendant then moved for an order directing entry of his proposed qualified domestic relations order. Plaintiff objected, arguing that the proposed order exceeded the terms of the parties' stipulation because it created a separate pension interest for defendant by providing that he could elect to receive payment from the pension plan when plaintiff reached the plan's early retirement age of 55, regardless of whether she had yet retired. Supreme Court rejected plaintiff's objections and granted the motion. The Appellate Division reversed and denied the motion.  It observed that a qualified domestic relations order based on a stipulation "can convey only those rights to which the parties stipulated as a basis for the judgment" ( McCoy v. Feinman, 99 N.Y.2d 295, 304 [2002]). Where the language of the stipulation is unambiguous, the intent of the parties must be ascertained from within its four corners and the Court will not add language that the parties did not include. Here, there was no ambiguity. The parties agreed to divide the pension by applying the Majauskas formula. To interpret that agreement, Supreme Court was required to look to Majauskas, where the formula entitled the nonemployee spouse to receive a proportionate share of one half of each pension check received by the employee spouse, with the denominator of the fraction based on the length of the employee spouse's employment prior to his or her retirement. By invoking the  Majauskas formula, without more, the parties stipulated that distribution of the pension would take effect upon plaintiff's retirement, as in Majauskas, resulting in a shared payment. Thus, Supreme Court's distribution of a separate pension interest to defendant prior to plaintiff's retirement improperly expanded the terms of the parties' stipulation.




Wife Did Not Waive Right to Challenge Husband's Claims Regarding Income Because She  Signed Joint Tax Returns That Listed His Annual Income.


In Harrington v Harrington, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2012 WL 1033451 (N.Y.A.D. 3 Dept.)
Plaintiff (husband) and defendant (wife) were married in 1991 and had two children (born in 1989 and 1991). The husband was a self-employed contractor who operated his own construction business while the wife, who was permanently disabled, devoted herself to the care of the parties' children and was not otherwise employed. The husband commenced this action for a divorce in December 2008. After a trial, Supreme Court granted the wife's counterclaim for divorce, distributed certain marital assets, and
directed the husband to pay maintenance for 15 years and approximately $10,000
towards the wife's counsel fees. The Appellate Division affirmed. It rejected the husbands challenge to Supreme Court's decision to impute an additional $30,000 to the income he claimed to earn each year. The Appellate Division held that Supreme Court is not bound by representations made by a party in a matrimonial action regarding his or her annual income and may increase that figure where the record establishes, as it did here, that a party routinely paid "personal expenses from business accounts" and had access to other income to offset such expenses. In support of his claim regarding his annual income, the husband submitted tax returns for a four-year period beginning in 2005 in which he claimed annual adjusted gross income between $13,802 and $33,689. Supreme Court found, and the record established, that despite the husband's claims regarding his limited income, he paid, in addition to other expenses, $559 per month in child support and $2,000 each month to his girlfriend to live at her residence and for bookkeeping services she provided his contracting business. Also, the husband admitted using the business checking account for personal expenses and paying for numerous vacations he had taken with his girlfriend, plus $950 a month in rent for a residence in which he did not reside. This evidence provided ample support for Supreme Court's determination that additional income should be imputed to the husband to reflect an annual income of $60,000 per year. Supreme Court was  not bound by a determination previously rendered by Family Court in a child support proceeding that his annual income was $30,000. Here, evidence was presented that the husband's claims in this regard were not accurate or credible, and provided a rational basis for Supreme Court's decision placing his annual income at $60,000. In addition, the wife did not waive her right to challenge the husband's claims regarding his annual income simply because she had previously signed joint tax returns that listed his annual income as $30,000.
Supreme Court conducted a hearing at which the wife's counsel testified to the legal services she provided during the course of these proceedings. Given the wife's need for these legal services, and the parties' respective financial conditions, the Appellate Division held that court did not abuse its discretion by directing the husband to contribute $9,816 to the payment of the legal expenses that the wife incurred in these proceedings. While the wife's counsel did not, as required, bill the wife every 60 days for her services, she did provide her with a copy of a retainer agreement, as well as a statement of client's rights and responsibilities pursuant to 22 NYCRR 1400.3. Counsel's failure to bill the wife for these services every 60 days was not a ground upon which the husband can rely to avoid paying a share of her legal expenses. The court noted that the action was commenced prior to the amendment to  Domestic Relations Law  237(a) (see L 2010, ch 329, s 1 ).




Error in Failing to Afford Father Opportunity to Make  Closing Statement Does Not Require Reversal Where Court Familiar with the Facts of Case and Parties' Arguments


In Matter of Bond v Bond, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2012 WL 1033469 (N.Y.A.D. 3 Dept.)    Petitioner (father) and respondent (mother) were the parents of six children. The three youngest children, two daughters (born in 1994 and 1995) and a son (born in 2001), were the subject of the proceeding on appeal. In November 2004, the parties stipulated to a custody arrangement by which the mother had sole legal and primary physical custody of the three children, with extended alternate weekend visitation with the father. This agreement was later incorporated into a custody order in January 2005 and the judgment of divorce in March 2007. In April 2010, the father filed a petition for modification seeking joint legal and primary physical custody of the younger daughter and joint legal and shared physical custody of the son. Following trial, Family Court dismissed the petition on the ground that the father had failed to establish a sufficient change in circumstances. The Appellate Division affirmed.  It observed that the father's petition alleged that the two younger children wished to spend more time with him, that the mother was verbally and physically abusive, and that the mother disappointed the younger daughter by failing to bring her to an out-of-state award ceremony.
As the allegations of abuse were unsubstantiated and the children's preferences standing alone did not establish a sufficient change in circumstances, there was a sound and substantial basis in the record supporting Family Court's determination. The Appellate Division observed that the trial testimony and decision referenced events occurring prior to the existing custody order. As the father argued, relying upon those prior events would be improper in assessing whether there had been a change in circumstances. However, it did not find that the Courts analysis relied upon these extraneous references. It rejected that the father's contention that Family Court's error in failing to afford him the opportunity to make a closing statement required
reversal (see CPLR 4016[a] ). At the conclusion of the fact-finding hearing, the
father's counsel stated that he wished to make a short closing statement only if
the mother did so, and the court indicated that arrangements would be made
following the Lincoln hearing. The mother subsequently submitted a written closing
statement; the father neither responded to this submission nor requested a further
appearance, and more than four weeks passed before the decision was rendered.
Considering these circumstances, and that the court was fully familiar with the
facts of the case as well as the parties' arguments, no reversible error occurred
(See Matter of Saggese v. Steinmetz, 83 A.D.3d 1144, 1145 [2011; Lohmiller v. Lohmiller, 140 A.D.2d 497, 498 [1988] ).






On Motion to Dismiss Family Offense Petition Pursuant to CPLR 3211(a) (7) Court Should Wade Through Allegations and Dismiss Only Those Which Do Not Sufficiently Allege Conduct That Constitutes a Family Offense 
                                                      
In Matter of Pamela N v Neil N, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2012 WL 1033487 (N.Y.A.D. 3 Dept.),   Petitioner (mother) and respondent (father) were married in 2003 and had twins in 2005. The father was awarded custody by order of August 20, 2010. In December 2010, the mother filed two family offense petitions against the father, and filed a third such petition in February 2011, as well as a modification of custody petition. Family Court granted the father's motions to dismiss the two December 2010 family offense petitions, and also dismissed the custody petition given that a divorce action was then pending in Supreme Court. The court also dismissed the February 2011 family offense petition, on the father's motion, for failure to state a cause of action (CPLR 3211[a][7]
), without a hearing. The Appellate Division observed that presented with a motion to dismiss pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(7), which is proper here in that family offense proceedings under Family Ct Act article 8 are civil in nature a court may freely consider affidavits submitted by the petitioner to remedy any defects in the petition, and the criterion is whether the proponent of the pleading has a cause of action, not
whether he or she has stated one. ( Guggenheimer v. Ginzburg, 43 N.Y.2d at 275). A family offense proceeding is originated by filing a petition alleging that  the respondent committed one of the enumerated offenses against, among others, a spouse, former spouse or child. In her pro se February 2011 petition, the mother checked all boxes on the petition form listing those enumerated offenses. Her attached affidavit and handwritten answers contained many conclusory, irrelevant, ambiguous and insufficiently specific allegations, including claims against individuals who were not "members of the same family or household". However, liberally construing the petition and giving it the benefit of every favorable inference (Leon v. Martinez, 84
N.Y.2d at 87-88), the Court found that while it was inartfully drafted, it adequately
alleged, at the very least, that the father had stalked and harassed her.   For example, the mother alleged in her affidavit that on November 23, 2008, the father came to her house while she had the children and threatened and harassed her, making excuses for his presence; he then called her three times that evening and continued to make excuses for coming to her house, leading her to file a domestic incident report with police the next day. These allegations described the type of conduct required to originate a family offense proceeding (Family Ct Act  821[1] ) in that they adequately allege, so as to survive a motion to dismiss for failure to state a cause of action (CPLR 3211 [a][7] ), that the father, acting with the requisite intent that is inferable from the alleged circumstances, engaged in a course of conduct which alarmed or
seriously annoyed the mother, which served no legitimate purpose, thereby
committing the offense of harassment in the second degree (Penal Law  240.26
[3]) Additionally, the allegations, if credited, were sufficient to allege that respondent committed the offense of stalking in the fourth degree (Penal Law  120.45[1], [2] ).
The Appellate Division agreed with  the mother and attorney for the children that Family Court should not have dismissed the petition in its entirety but, rather, should have waded through the myriad allegations and dismissed with specificity only those
which did not sufficiently allege conduct that constituted harassment, stalking or
any other act listed in Family Ct Act  821(1). The order granting respondent's motion to
dismiss the February 18, 2011 petition was reversed, the motion denied and matter remitted to the Family Court for further proceedings not inconsistent with the Court's decision.




Family Court Lacks Subject Matter Jurisdiction to Enforce Purported Modification Agreement Not Incorporated into Judgment


In Hirsch v Schwartz, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2012 WL 1033520 (N.Y.A.D. 3 Dept.)    Petitioner (mother) and respondent ( father) were divorced in 2009 and had two children from the marriage (born in 2001 and 2003). The parties' 2007 separation agreement, which required the father to pay 96% of all child-care expenses, was incorporated but not merged into their 2009 judgment of divorce. Shortly thereafter, the mother sent the
father a letter offer which proposed a reduction of the father's child-care
expenses from 96% to 75%. Although the father did not sign and return the letter
offer he made at least two full reimbursement payments and several partial
payments in the months that followed.   The mother subsequently commenced this proceeding seeking to enforce the child support provisions of the judgment of divorce. In response, the father argued that the mother's letter offer served to modify his support obligations and that the terms of this subsequent agreement should be enforced. Following a trial, a Support Magistrate found that the letter offer constituted a valid modification of the parties' separation agreement that reduced the father's child-care expenses to 75%, and ordered arrears in the amount of $2,625.25. Upon the mother's written objections, Family Court concluded that the Support Magistrate lacked the
authority to enforce the terms of the purported modification agreement and,
therefore, the provisions in the judgment of divorce concerning the father's
child-care obligations controlled. The Appellate Division affirmed. It observed that Family Court, as a court of limited jurisdiction, may only enforce or modify child support provisions contained in a valid court order or judgment ( Family Ct Act  422, 461[b][I];  466;  Matter of Johna M.S. v. Russell E.S., 10 NY3d 364, 366 [2008]; Matter of Brescia v. Fitts, 56 N.Y.2d 132, 139 [1982]; Kleila v. Kleila, 50 N.Y.2d 277, 282 [1980] ). Thus, even assuming that the mother's letter offer constituted a valid modification of the parties' separation agreement, Family Court did  not have subject matter jurisdiction to enforce the amended agreement which stands as an independent contract between the parties .