Articles Posted in Rules of Court

In a previous blog, I promised that the Appellant Division was going to revisit the proof required to be presented before one could obtain discovery of a dependent former spouse’s social and financial circumstances; as of today June 17th, 2021, the case has been decided although not yet approved for publication.

Temple v. Temple ( A-0293-20) is an important decision for anyone seeking to terminate their alimony obligations based on their former spouse’s cohabitation. In Landau v. Landau, the appellant court indicated that before one was entitled to discovery or a hearing, regarding issues of cohabitation the proponent of this change in circumstance needed to prove evidence of said change. The problem with Landau was that it did not address what proofs were needed in order to meet the requirement and move forward with the discovery phase.

The Trial Judge on Temple found that to be successful on an application one needed to prove all six factors set forth in the statute as things to evaluate when determining if a prima facia case was established. The Appellant Court accepted our argument that one needed not to prove all six statutory factors to establish a prima facia case but must only establish sufficient evidence so that the trier of fact may conclude that the parties have “ undertaken duties and privileges that are commonly associated with marriage or civil unions.”

On June 8th, I argued a case of significant importance in the Appellant Division. Although I have not received a decision as of yet, I am still of the belief I was heard. The case involved an application from the supporting spouse to terminate alimony based on the cohabitation of his former spouse. Although I did not represent my client at the trial level I believe that my predecessor made the necessary arguments allowing me to present the important issues to the higher court. The Trial Judge had misread the recently decided, Landau decision, believing that the fact in Landau created a litmus test as to what constituted a Prima Facia case allowing discovery and a plenary hearing as to the issue of cohabitation. In fact, Landau provides that before one is entitled to discovery and a plenary hearing one must establish a prima facia case.

A prima facia case is one where the court is to consider the issues presented by the proponent of a proposition in the light most favorable to said, petitioner. In considering the assertions of the petitioner the defenses offered by the opposition are not to be given weight. Since the opposition is not required to give evidence, their election to give selected evidence is should not be considered as the issue is not ultimately a success on the merits but rather the sufficiency of the assertion to justify a full examination of the issue.  

The idea of a prima facia case as an entry ticket is based on the privacy right of the dependent spouse who ought not to be forced to divulge intimate details absent the presentation of more than innuendo. In my case, there was significant proof including a private investigator’s report, statements by the paramour of the closeness of the relationship, and some economic proof. The initial problem was that the Trial Court had misread the law, this error of the law was compounded by the trial courts weighing the defenses of the dependent’s former spouse and finding her explanations more credible. 

Consistent with our firm’s position of being a leader in the field of Family Law, we have just received a decision on one of our appeals, meaning it is now law that will be binding for trial courts. The case is, Steele V Steele, and it was approved for publication today as I write this on, April 30, 2021.

This case analyzed the types of contracts that engaged and married couples can enter into. It makes clear that contrary to unreported decisions that premarital agreements are creatures of statute and that judges are bound by the statutory scheme and can not vary it. In the Steele case, the trial judge erroneously found that an agreement entered into after the marriage was a prenuptial agreement under the act because the husband had expressed an intent to have such an agreement.

The case then goes on to discuss when and if a marital agreement can become enforceable. Recognizing that divorcing adults are susceptible to entering into agreements that are enforceable because they are adverse to each other. It should also be stated that those with marital trouble on the potential path to divorce can contract so long as the agreement is fair at the time it was entered into and at the time enforcement is sought. In Steele, the wife had just conceived a child and was breastfeeding when she entered into the agreement. Unbeknownst to her, the husband had been preparing an agreement even before the parties were married changing the way he valued assets; ignoring some assets and sources of income altogether. The court indicated that for the post-marital agreement to be enforceable the agreement needed to be fair and equitable. Meaning that the dominant partner needed to make a full and complete disclosure of all assets and income without exception. In the Steele matter the husband who admitted to being worth at least 9 million dollars at the time of the agreement, did not decide to play fair and disclose all assets and used inconsistent means to value assets choosing in each instance the valuation technique that yielded the lowest monetary value. In this matter, the husband did not disclose all sources of income and ignored significant income-producing assets held in trusts. Another condition of enforcing such agreements is that they must be fair and equitable when the agreement is reached as well as when enforcement is sought. In this matter, a home selected and purchased after the parties’ marriage was excluded from property to be shared upon divorce and in the event of the husband’s death, his wife and young child would be left destitute as in the document the wife had waived any claim against the husbands’ estate. The overreaching of the husband is well documented in this exquisitely crafted appellant decision.

pexels-august-de-richelieu-4427541-200x300This happens with regularity. A new and sometimes even an existing client will tell me about a divorce case involving a friend, relative, or acquaintance that had issues “similar” to theirs’s, and that the judge, in that case, had decided those issues this way or that. They expressed a belief that how the judge decided those issues “must be the law”, and therefore, they would expect to have a similar result in their case. Why I certainly thank them for the information, they are then surprised and disappointed when I tell them that every divorce case is different and that how one judge may have decided the issues is not necessarily determinative on what will or shall happen in their case, and/or that the decisions of a judge in a different case are in no way binding upon the judge handling their case. The other judge’s decision may be the “law” in their friend, relative, or acquaintance’s case, but is not necessarily the law in theirs.

Before discussing the “legal” reasons for this, there are some very practical reasons why it is unwise to compare what may have happened in one divorce case with any other. The first reason is very simple. Just like no two people are exactly the same, neither are any two marriages nor the issues arising from the dissolution thereof. A primary breadwinner may “earn” the same amount of money, but one is a W-2 employee with a long-standing steady job and the other a small business owner whose income is based on many variables and creates a whole different set of considerations. The parties may be married for the same number of years but in one both parties have been gainfully employed, while in the other a party may have given up or deferred a career to raise children. In another, the parties may each have had two children, but in one the children are relatively healthy and doing well academically, but in the other, a child may have special needs or behavioral or educational deficits. The parties may have enjoyed the same family income, but one lived frugally and the other beyond their means. You get the point. As much as one may see similarities, no two marriages are alike. No two life stories are the same.

When a divorce case comes before a judge, there are certain legal authorities that the judge is to apply in deciding the issues in that case. There are statutes which have been enacted by the Legislature. There are Court Rules which have been promulgated by our Supreme Court. There are published decisions, which have been rendered by the courts in which they have interpreted, implemented, and/or applied those statutes and rules to a given case. A judge applies that legal authority to what it finds to be the facts and evidence in the case and renders a decision. However, since the facts and evidence are never exactly the same and vary from case to case, the resulting decision, even applying the exact same law, will vary as well. That, plus the fact that much of the law governing divorce matters is not based upon any sort of simple “formula”, but upon a multitude of factors a court is to consider, and which afford the court with a great level of discretion in determining. This ability to exercise discretion necessarily leads to different results depending not only upon the facts and circumstances of the case, but the weight of the evidence, the credibility of the testimony, and the “feel” of the case itself, so the judge can make a decision which is fair and equitable.

The care and feeding of the lawyer you hire is an important aspect of divorce husbandry. Too often I hear a litigant complain that their lawyer made a deal or a concession without consultation of the client. Some divorce lawyers take a paternalistic role in the responsibilities of their client, which can be a good thing when not taken to the extreme. The extreme occurs during non-emergent situations when the lawyer makes an agreement that affects a substantive right.  Unless you have given the lawyer authority in advance, they should never do something that impacts yourpexels-anthony-shkraba-5816300-200x300 economic or custodial rights without your permission.  Often in conferences with the court concessions can be strongly suggested by a judge or pushed by an adversary, because of this a lawyer can feel cornered.  A good lawyer will always back off reminding the participants that they themselves (the lawyer) can not make such a concession without first discussing it with their client. I have never been in this position when that simple reminder did not cause the court to immediately back off. Judges want cases to move and they want the parties to settle but they are aware that litigants, not lawyers make deals and that lawyers should not make concessions without their client’s authority. The problem that arises, is that lawyers have what is called “apparent authority” meaning if the lawyer agrees to something the law assumes they had the authority to do it.  If your lawyer has made a substantive concession without consulting you document it.  Send the lawyer a letter or an email indicating the date you were advised of the concession and that you were not consulted and do not agree. Insist they reverse the agreement and that they admit they made a mistake.  If they refuse… run.  Get another lawyer quickly and fix it. Waiting could be viewed as agreeing to the terms.

Note that I have been talking about substantive issues.  Substantive issues, for example,  deal with; parenting time, the level of alimony or child support, the payment of fees, and the sale or distribution of property.  Lawyers usually do not seek their client’s consent when dealing with calendar issues unless the issue involves the client.  If you are being deposed or if the deposition of a witness is being scheduled you have a right to be consulted about your availability however if the calendar does not concern you, the lawyer may rightfully resolve the timing of things.

I often analogize my role as a family law attorney to that of a captain of a ship.  When on the high seas and an emergency occurs that requires an immediate decision that is up to me as well as direction and strategy. But ultimate decisions are made by the shipowner ( the client). The relationship between a lawyer and his client is interactive and symbiotic. The need to work cooperatively should be a consideration when choosing your lawyer. Objectives should be discussed and parameters established to reach those objectives. The lawyer develops the strategy to accomplish those goals.  During the process, open communication is important looking at the objectives but always with the understanding that the ultimate decision is always the clients, although that decision may be informed by the lawyer.

 

 

I have received many questions as of late regarding Covid-19 and the effect it has had on the divorce process. Those I have spoken to expect to hear that the courts are in shambles unable to handle all of the paperwork and processing that has become necessary in this new socially distant world. In point of fact, my experience with the courts since the shutdown has been quite positive. I have argued several matters in the Appellant Courts since the shutdown most by Zoom or through the phone. The Judges have been attentive and as well prepared as an Appellant Judges always is. Most importantly though, the quality of the discussion has been in no way compromised, in fact in many ways I find this virtual experience better than in-person argument. pexels-ruslan-burlaka-140945-300x200Let’s start by our means of travel or getting there, my office in my home is in the family room. I joke to my wife when descending the stairs that I am ‘driving to work.’ The point being, I do not have to drive to the argument this saves time and furthermore the headache brought on by the annoyance of finding a parking space. My clients save money as well because as a lawyer, I bill for travel time. I also do not have to wait as the Zoom meeting starts promptly when the court is ready to hear our case; a second savings to our clients who are otherwise billed for waiting time. Lastly, I find argument easier as I am able to have all of my documents spread out on my desk (and floor.) When arguing in person the need to drag my files with me and have them all stored at the speaker’s podium which leaves me minimal space to spread out, the ease of finding documents and case law has greatly improved when my appearances have been virtual.

When looking at the trial level, a virtual conference has the same travel and waiting time advantages. When participating in a Zoom trial, the ability to load all of one’s exhibits onto the server and instantly deliver the documents being presented to the judge, the witness, and opposing counsel is very efficient. No more fumbling around for a piece of evidence or waiting for everyone to find the relevant page or section being referred to. Further, when trials were held in person, there were constant interruptions by lawyers seeking emergency relief or other parleys with the Judge. There is more of a flow with uninterrupted trial time on zoom. When first having to cross-examine a witness virtually, I was concerned that it would be harder for the court to capture the demeanor of the witness, this concern I learned is unfounded. Delays in responding and hedging are actually more obvious on zoom. You can literally see the liar sweat.

Motion practice has also been an absolute joy to do via zoom. Usually, on motion days a busy lawyer could be racing from county to county sometimes making three court appearances in three geographically distant locations on any given day. Clients paid for the travel and racing across the state takes a toll on the lawyer. Now I am able to schedule matters in; Bergen, Atlantic, and Sussex County and get them all done in the morning.

Ever since I wrote my past blog on correcting judicial errors, I have gotten a lot of questions from readers and interested clientele alike about how judicial errors can be addressed and amended. When it comes down to it, there are essentially three types of judicial error:1) Clerical, 2) Legal and 3) Matters of Law.pexels-magda-ehlers-1329297-300x211

Clerical errors encompass the indisputable or incontrovertible mistakes that have been made; these can include but are not limited to computation errors or other matters where both parties are in agreement.  These errors can be correct by the court on its own initiative or when called to the attention of the court by either party.  Usually, they can be corrected with something as simple as a letter but if the adverse party contests that an error exists it may require a motion. Computation errors can be corrected at any time, so there is generally no specific time frame in which an application needs to be made; however, it is best to make the application as soon as the error is discovered to avoid claims of estoppel.

Errors of the law or mixed errors of law and fact pertain to situations where the court either misinterprets legal precedents in the former or misapplied the precedents to the facts in the latter.   Legal errors may be corrected through an application to the court within 20 days of the receipt the court’s order if it is a final decision, or if the decision is not final anytime prior to the final decision.  If the decision is final, one also has the option to appeal the court’s decision to the Appellate Division rather than take the matter back to the court. The decision to bring a  motion for reconsideration rather than an appeal is a tactical decision, best discussed with your lawyer.

You know the feeling. Like clockwork a favorite relative sends you a birthday card year after year, often days if not weeks before your actual birthday. Then one year your birthday comes and goes and no card was received from that relative. You are filled with feelings of surprise and disappointment. What happened? Did the relative forget? Is the relative upset with me? For whatever the reason, you feel a sense of loss. For those of you who are regular readers of my blog posts, you know that in the Fall of each year, like clockwork, I write a series of posts summarizing recently promulgated amendments to the New Jersey Court Rules that would directly or indirectly impact Family Court matters. Like the expected birthday card that was not received, I am sure you are surprised and disappointed that I have yet to do so. However, like the belated birthday card that arrives weeks later, this blog post is just what you are waiting for. Candidly, however, it is more like getting a card without the expected check inside. Why? Whether due to the COVID pandemic or other reasons, there were an unusually small number of changes or amendments made to the Court Rules for this year, none relating to the Part V Family Part Rules, and few even indirectly impacting Family Court practice. However, there was one new Rule which was adopted, which although procedural in nature, could directly impact how Family Court matters are handled, particularly those unresolved matters for which a trial may be necessary. What you may ask? We finally have a Rule dealing with in limine motions.

I know. I know. You are asking what in the world is an in limine motion, and why does it deserve its own Rule? Over the years, in limine motions have come to resemble the “Wild Wild West” of motion practice. Generally speaking such in limine motions were made on the eve of and/or at the outset of a trial. Often they sought to address various evidence-related issues, such as whether certain evidence should be allowed and/or excluded from consideration during the trial. However, motions labeled as “in limine” were also being filed for the purpose of having a court make a determination on certain substantive matters such as whether a certain claim or issue would be granted or excluded from a case. For example in the Family Court context, a party may make a motion in limine as to whether or not a certain asset should be deemed exempt from equitable distribution in the hopes of “limiting” the issues to be addressed at trial. Often such in limine motions were made within days of, if not on the day of trial itself, leaving the opposing party with nominal opportunity to prepare and respond to same. How such motions were handled were largely left to the discretion of the trial court. While less so in the Family Court context, such in limine motions were being filed, the disposition of which could actually result in the dismissal of a complaint or claim, or of a defense thereto. Ultimately, several court decisions were rendered making clear that one should not be able to disguise what was in effect a “summary judgment” motion as a motion in limine, and that such motions must utilize the timing and notice requirements for summary judgment motions under R.4:46. Unfortunately, notwithstanding these admonitions against the misuse of the in limine motion practice, these abuses continued.

In the case of Seoung Ouk Cho v. Trinitas Regional Medical Center, 443 NJ Super 461 (App. Div. 2015); cert. denied, 224 NJ 529 (2016) the Appellate Division appeared to reach a breaking point when it came to this use and abuse of in limine motion practice and the lack of any rules or guidelines respecting same. In this medical malpractice case, the defendant doctor made a motion “in limine” on the day before jury selection was to begin to dismiss the claims against him. Although initially questioning whether this was a proper “in limine” motion, the trial court ultimately granted that motion. The Appellate Division reversed. In so doing it noted:

I’ve gotten a lot of questions lately about how the Divorce process works. This blog is intended to outline the procedural steps usually taken in a Divorce Litigation. It is not tied to any particular complexity and as it is generic in nature and since litigation is not always one size fits all it is neither exhaustive nor is it intended to cover all the nuances in more complicated litigation.Person in White Long Sleeve Shirt and Black Pants

1) A litigation usually starts with a letter to the opposing spouse advising them that  A Complaint for Divorce is about to be filed and they should retain a lawyer and have them contact the writer. The hope is that the lawyers will be able to discuss The matter early on and save the litigants time and money.

2) A Complaint for Divorce is filed and either served on the opposing spouse or  More frequently acknowledged by the spouse’s lawyer.

pexels-sora-shimazaki-5668882-200x300In the Supreme Court decision, Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, the limits placed on houses of worship in certain “orange areas” in New York City were struck

down on constitutional grounds based on religious freedom and equal protection.

Fundamentally the Supreme Court found that there was no rational basis that allowed the Governor by Executive Order to treat religious houses of worship differently from nonessential manufacturing facilities, certain classes of categorized “essential services” and pubic transportation. The Court was split 5- 4 with Chief Justice Roberts voting with the minority.