For the second time in about a month, the Appellate Division has reversed improvidently granted discovery when there hadn’t been a showing of a change of circumstance.  As noted by Eliana Baer on this blog on August 12,  2019 (about a case she and I were involved in) in a post entitled Appellate Division Rules: No Custody Evaluation Without Finding of Changed Circumstances , when the trial court found that the father failed to meet his burden of showing a change of circumstances, it was error to allow him to get a custody expert.  In a similar ruling in the case of Landau v. Landau, a reported (precedential) Appellate Division decision from September 12, 2019, the Appellate Division once again prohibited the putting of the cart before the horse – this time in the context of a motion to modify alimony based upon cohabitation.

In this case, in a divorce agreement entered into in late 2014, after the alimony statute was amended, which included a new paradigm about how to deal with cohabitation going forward, the husband agreed to pay substantial alimony to the wife for 7 1/2 years.  Their agreement provided “[n]otwithstanding anything contained herein to the contrary, the Wife’s cohabitation as defined by then current statutory and case law shall be a basis for the Husband to file an application seeking a review and potential  modification, suspension or termination of alimony pursuant to New Jersey law.”   In his reply, he submitted a Certification from a private investigator who asserted that the wife and her boyfriend “cohabit in each other’s residence approximately 75% of the time period examined”, however, he only spotted defendant or her boyfriend leaving the other’s home in the morning on two occasions.

In December 2017, the husband moved to terminate, suspend or modify alimony based upon the wife’s relationship of more than a year.  Specifically, he alleged:

Plaintiff filed a certification in support of the motion alleging the two had traveled together, attended social activities as a couple and posted photos and accounts of their activities on social media sites. Plaintiff alleged the man engaged in many activities with the parties’ children and regularly slept over at defendant’s home, as she did at his home. Plaintiff claimed the man attended events he used to attend with defendant, including family birthday dinners with her parents. He further claimed the man attended the Bar Mitzvah of one of the parties’ sons and was seated next to defendant in the position of honor for a parent of the child being Bar Mitzvahed. At the celebration afterwards, plaintiff alleged defendant publicly acknowledged the man and their relationship in her speech. He also claimed defendant told him she moved her brokerage accounts to the firm where the man works and got a “friends and family discount.”

The Wife’s acknowledged the relationship but denied cohabitation, claiming:

She averred the two had “never discussed [their] ‘future’ with respect to merging [their] lives,” performed no household chores for one another, had no intertwined finances, do not share living expenses and do not  have authority over one another’s children. She noted each of them took separate family vacations, not something that married couples typically do. Defendant also noted she often attended social events alone, and that her boyfriend did not attend her law school graduation or her swearing-in ceremony, something he certainly would have done had they been in a relationship akin to marriage. As to her son’s Bar Mitzvah, defendant noted her boyfriend attended as her “date” and thus sat next to her, but did not participate in the ceremony and his presence was not commemorated by being included in any family photos. She denied she received any discount in connection with moving her brokerage accounts, and noted her boyfriend had nothing to do with her accounts at the firm. Defendant averred that while she
and her boyfriend enjoyed one another’s company, they were simply dating on a regular basis and had “no obligations” to one another.

Generally, to modify either custody or support, the seminal case of Lepis v. Lepis requires the moving party to make a prima facie showing of changed circumstances, before the court will grant discovery.  Prima-Facie legally means that an evidence is sufficient to raise a presumption of fact or to establish the fact in question unless questioned.

In Landau, the trial court did not find that the husband made a prima facie showing of cohabitation. Rather, the court held:

Although acknowledging the “general task for the judge hearing the [cohabitation] motion is to determine whether the moving party has established  a prima facie case of cohabitation,” meaning that plaintiff’s “proffered evidence, if . . . unrebutted would . . . sustain a judgment” in his favor, the judge “decided that [he was] not going to decide whether . . . plaintiff has made out a prima facie case, but [he was] going to allow discovery . . . to allow . . . plaintiff the opportunity to make a showing of a prima facie case, or
not, as the case may be.”

Put another way, the judge allowed the husband to conduct very broad and intrusive discovery to try to be able to make a prima facie showing of cohabitation.  The Appellate Division first stayed and then reversed the trial court’s Order allowing discovery.  In doing so, the Appellate Division rejected the husband’s argument that the new statute altered the Lepis rubric when it came to cohabitation.  The Court’s rationale is boiled down in the following two paragraphs:

There is no question but that a prima facie showing of cohabitation can  be difficult to establish, see Konzelman, 158 N.J. at 191-92 (describing the seven days a week, 127 days of surveillance of Mrs. Konzelman’s residence), precisely for the reason the trial court identified, that the readily available evidence is often “consistent with either a dating relationship or a cohabitation relationship.” But that is hardly a new problem and it cannot justify the invasion of defendant’s privacy represented by the order entered here. We are confident the Lepis paradigm requiring the party seeking modification to establish “[a] prima facie showing of changed circumstances . . . before a court will order discovery of an ex-spouse’s financial status,” 83 N.J. at 157, continues to strike a fair and workable balance between the parties’ competing interests, which was not altered by the 2014 amendments to the alimony
statute.

Because the trial court judge found plaintiff had not established a prima facie case of the changed circumstance of defendant’s cohabitation, plaintiff was plainly not entitled to discovery under Lepis. See ibid. As nothing in the 2014 amendments to the alimony statute altered “the procedures that a court should employ when passing upon a modification petition — particularly the allocation of the burdens of proof and the conditions for compelling production of tax returns,” id. at 145, the Court adopted in Lepis, we reverse the order for discovery.

Thus, while the consensus was that the 2014 amendment to the alimony statute made it easier to suspend or eliminate alimony based upon cohabitation in cases the ended after the amendment was signed into law, it is not so easy to allow a person alleging cohabitation to get discovery to try to prove cohabitation.  More importantly, because the rationale of the decision goes back to Lepis, this case should be argued each time someone is seeking discovery to prove a change of circumstances.

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Eric S. Solotoff, Partner, Fox Rothschild LLP

Eric Solotoff is the editor of the New Jersey Family Legal Blog and the Co-Chair of the Family Law Practice Group of Fox Rothschild LLP. Certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a Matrimonial Lawyer and a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Attorneys, Eric is resident in Fox Rothschild’s Morristown, New Jersey office though he practices throughout New Jersey. You can reach Eric at (973) 994-7501, or esolotoff@foxrothschild.com.

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