Divorce filings seem to be at an all-time high and, to no surprise, the trial courts are feeling the pressure. Documents filed with the court can get lost in the shuffle. Although motions should be addressed within 24 days from the initial filing date, it can take months until the court actually makes a decision. By then, the issues grow stale or even worse, they grow more complicated. Emotions blaze as time passes. Many would argue that having your "day in court" is becoming somewhat of an illusion. With this in mind, attorneys must be more creative and diligent in addressing issues in a case before they arise. Leaving it to the court can make it worse, especially if the judge does not follow proper procedures in providing their decision and the judgment/order of the court. If the court does it wrong, you may get your day in court – TWICE!
An example of this was discussed in the recently published Appellate Division case of Ducey v. Ducey, which I was involved in on the appellate level. In Ducey, the parties engaged in a 14-day trial that involved three forensic experts. Seven (7) months after the trial was over, the court issued a Judgment of Divorce that simply set forth the court’s rulings. A detailed decision was not attached to the Judgment. Rather, the cover letter that enclosed the Judgment advised the attorneys that the "underlying decision would be sent shortly." Three months later, the trial court issued a written opinion, but it didn’t match the Judgment. In fact, it wasn’t even close. For example, the weekly child support award was increased by 33%, the alimony amount was increased by 35%, the time period to pay alimony was lengthened, and the trial court’s value of the husband’s business was increased by more than 142%!
On appeal, the argument was simple – it just didn’t make sense. The Appellate Division agreed and warned trial courts not to make light of entering final judgments without providing simultaneous, well-reasoned decisions to support those judgments. To do otherwise deviates "from the fundamental due process at the expense of litigants," who are then forced to comply with court orders without knowing why the court entered the order in the first place. In addition, the judge’s letter with the opinion directed that the attorneys put the "usual provisions" in the the amended judgment that the court directed to be filed. As the Appellate Division noted, justifying reversal for this reason as well, is that there are no usual provisions.
Today, the Duceys have been separated for almost 6 years. Within the next year, their divorce trial will start all over again, from scratch. What do we learn from this? As attorneys and litigants, we can’t assume that "our day in court" will be the end-all-be-all. In this case, they will have their day in court twice – not because the trial court erred on the merits – because the Appellate Division did not address the merits of the appeal. Rather, there will be a new trial simply because the judge erred on the procedure in rendering a decision.