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Friday, November 04, 2011

Important New Decisions - November 4, 2011

Family Courts Jurisdiction is Limited to Family Offenses Committed Against Persons Listed in Family Court Act 812 Only

In Matter of Janet GG v Robert GG,--- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2011 WL 5083241 (N.Y.A.D. 3 Dept.) in March 2010, petitioner (mother) filed a Family Ct Act article 8 petition alleging that respondent (father) committed a series of family offenses against her and their two children (born in 1996 and 1998). Specifically, she alleged that on March 2, 2010, the father telephoned the children's school, spoke to a guidance counselor and demanded to see his children. Because the counselor believed that an order of protection was in place that barred the father from having such contact with his children, the counselor informed the father that he should not come to the school and, in any event, would not be allowed by school authorities to visit with his children. The father, despite this admonition, went to the school and, upon entering the premises, confronted the school superintendent demanding to see his children. After he became loud and boisterous and refused to leave the premises, the police were notified and the father was placed under arrest. The mother subsequently filed a petition claiming that this conduct qualified as a family offense and, on that basis, sought an order of protection for herself and the children. The father argued that what had occurred, even if true, did not constitute a family offense and, therefore, Family Court did not have jurisdiction. The court agreed and dismissed the petition with prejudice. The Appellate Division affirmed. It observed that Family Court's jurisdiction over family offense proceedings is limited to those acts between family members that 'would constitute disorderly conduct, harassment in the first degree, harassment in the second degree, aggravated harassment in the second degree, ...stalking, menacing in the second degree, menacing in the third degree, reckless endangerment, assault in the second degree, assault in the third degree or an attempted assault (Family Ct Act 812[1] ). Family Court determined that while the father's actions may have constituted disorderly conduct, they did not amount to a family offense because, when committed, the father was not in contact with the mother or either of their children. Instead, the father's actions were directed at school personnel and not any member of his family. The Appellate Division agreed. The father's actions were directed not at the mother or the children, but at school personnel, and what occurred did not constitute a family offense. As such, Family Court was without jurisdiction to entertain this petition (Family Ct Act 812).

Second Department Construes Parties' Stipulation Providing for the Distribution of "Any Pension," to Refer Only to the Portion of Pension Representing Deferred Compensation.

In Nugent-Schubert v Schubert, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2011 WL 5085506 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept.) the plaintiff former wife and the defendant former husband were divorced by judgment incorporating a stipulation of settlement. The stipulation of settlement provided for a 50% distribution to the plaintiff of the value of "any pension" received by the defendant. The plaintiff thereafter submitted to the Supreme Court a Qualified Domestic Relations Order ( QDRO), which included a provision entitling her to receive a share of any future disability pension, but limited to any portion thereof representing the defendant's earnings and years of credited service. However, the Supreme Court struck that provision of the QDRO. Subsequently, the defendant, who was employed by the New York City Police Department, retired on an accidental disability pension as a result of a line-of-duty injury. Pursuant to the QDRO in its current form, the plaintiff was receiving a portion of the defendant's accidental disability pension that represented compensation for personal injuries. The defendant moved to amend the QDRO so as to exclude this portion of his accidental disability pension from distribution to the plaintiff. The Appellate Division held that the motion should have been granted. It observed that where a QDRO is inconsistent with the provisions of a stipulation or judgment of divorce, courts possess the authority to amend the QDRO to accurately reflect the provisions of the stipulation pertaining to the pension benefits. A proper QDRO obtained pursuant to a stipulation of settlement can convey only those rights to which the parties stipulated as a basis for the judgment. Under controlling law, pension benefits, "except to the extent that they are earned or acquired before marriage or after commencement of a matrimonial action, constitute marital property" because they are "in essence, a form of deferred compensation derived from employment" during the marriage. However, any compensation a spouse receives for personal injuries is not considered marital property and is not subject to equitable distribution. Thus, to the extent [a] disability pension represents deferred compensation, it is subject to equitable distribution while to the extent that a disability pension constitutes compensation for personal injuries, that compensation is "separate property" which is not subject to equitable distribution. In Berardi v. Berardi, 54 A.D.3d at 984-985, 865 N.Y.S.2d 245 this Court concluded that, absent a provision in the stipulation specifically awarding the [wife] accident disability benefits, the Supreme Court had erred in amending the QDRO to award the wife a portion of the husband's pension representing compensation for personal injuries, as such a provision in the QDRO expanded the rights granted to the wife under the stipulation. Similarly, here, the parties' stipulation providing for the distribution of "any pension," which was entered into before the defendant became entitled to or applied for an accidental disability pension, must likewise be construed to refer only to the portion of the defendant's pension representing deferred compensation. The Appellate Division distinguished this case from its decisions in Rosenberger v. Rosenberger (63 A.D.3d 898, 882 N.Y.S.2d 426) and Pulaski v. Pulaski (22 A.D.3d 820, 820-821, 804 N.Y.S.2d 404). In those cases, the husbands had applied for disability benefits, based upon line-of-duty injuries, prior to execution of the stipulation such that they were "chargeable with knowledge of the prospect of [an] eventual disability retirement when [they] entered into the stipulation". Thus, in Pulaski and Rosenberger, where the husbands were aware, before entering into a stipulation, of the specific potential for receipt of pension benefits that they would be entitled to treat as separate property, the broad language in the stipulation referring to distribution of a pension generally, with no provision for separate-property treatment of the pension, was reasonably interpreted as intending to distribute the entire disability pension. Here, as in Berardi, where it was unknown and unanticipated that the defendant would qualify for a disability pension, there was no reason to conclude that a general provision providing for equal distribution of "any pension" was intended to opt out of the controlling law in order to distribute portions of any such pension that would not ordinarily be subject to equitable distribution. The fact that the plaintiff submitted a QDRO which would have limited the distribution of any future disability pension to that portion representing deferred compensation further evinced the parties' understanding that separate-property portions of "any pension" received by the husband would not be subject to distribution.

Third Department Affirms Initial Custody Award Made without Evidentary Hearing

In Matter of Cole v Cole, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2011 WL 4975299, 2011 N.Y. Slip Op. 07328
(NYAD 3 Dept) Petitioner (father) and respondent (mother) were the parents of two sons (born in 2007 and 2008). In June 2010, the father filed a petition for custody of the children. He thereafter left the marital residence at the home of the maternal grandmother, and relocated to the paternal grandmother's home. In July 2010, the mother filed a petition seeking custody of the children. At the initial appearance, Family Court assigned an attorney for the children and temporarily ordered joint legal custody of the children with physical custody to the mother and, when the mother was working, childcare provided by the father at the maternal grandmother's home. At the next appearance, the father requested shared physical custody of the children and Family Court granted this as to weekends, when the mother was working. At the third and final appearance, in November 2010, Family Court issued a final order essentially based upon this same arrangement. The Appellate Division affirmed. It rejected the mother’s argument that Family Court erred by issuing a final order without conducting a hearing or engaging in other formalities such as placing stipulations or consent of the parties upon the record. An evidentiary hearing is generally necessary to determine custody matters, but it is not obligatory where, as here, no request is made and the court has sufficient information to undertake a comprehensive independent review of the [children's] best interests. Although no sworn testimony was taken, all three appearances before Family Court were attended by each of the parents, their respective attorneys, and both grandmothers, and the court invited and received input from all involved. The attorney for the children attended the two later
appearances, and advocated a position based on interviews with the mother, her
employer, the father and various service providers for the children. Further, the
Chemung County Department of Social Services provided Family Court with a report
assessing the needs of the children and the current family circumstances. The two
parents, with the support of the two grandmothers, were essentially collaborating
relative to the matters of sharing time and the responsibilities of caring for their children during the course of the proceedings, and Family Court found this structure in the best interests of the children. Although the mother was represented by counsel at all three appearances, at no time did she or her counsel request a hearing or other formalities. Upon review, it found that Family Court had sufficient information before it to support the determination.

Third Department Holds that In Neglect Proceeding Attorney for Children May Advocate a Different Position When the Children's Wishes Would Likely "Result in a Substantial Risk of Imminent, Serious Harm to the Children

In Matter of Alyson J, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2011 WL 5083950 (N.Y.A.D. 3 Dept.) a neglect proceeding, the Appellate Division disagreed with respondent's contention that the attorney for the children failed to adequately represent the children's interests. It pointed out that the duty of the attorney for the children is to advocate and express the children's wishes to the court, but on occasion it is acceptable for counsel to deviate from this obligation; the attorney is specifically allowed to advocate a different position when the children's wishes would likely "result in a substantial risk of imminent, serious harm to the child[ren]" (Citing (22 NYCRR 7.2 [d][3]; see Matter of Mark T. v. Joyanna U., 64 A.D.3d 1092, 1093-1094 [2009], lv denied 15 N.Y.3d 715 [2010] ). Here, counsel had been involved with the children for several years and was well aware of their conditions, and the Appellate Division accepted the contrary position as in the best interests of the children. At the fact-finding hearing, the attorney for the children did indicate his clients' wishes, and properly informed Family Court that
he was deviating from them.

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