Deadlines are commonplace in Marital Settlement Agreements negotiated incident to a divorce. In fact, most Orders from the Court contain time-sensitive obligations. But, what happens when someone misses that date or otherwise foregoes that date? The Appellate Division took up the task of answering that question in an unreported decision on January 9, 2023, Martin-Cattie v. Cattie regarding the timeframe in which the Wife was entitled to pursue, receive and review information regarding the Husband’s compensation and other benefits from his employer following their divorce.
The parties were married for 27 years prior to their 2016 divorce, which incorporated the terms of a Marital Settlement Agreement. As is the case in most matters, the parties negotiated a provision entitled “Warranty of Disclosure” as follows:
Husband will provide an authorization in a form prepared by counsel for Husband allowing Wife’s counsel and forensic expert at Wife’s expense to receive documentation from Oracle to confirm information regarding Husband’s compensation and other company sponsored benefits(s) (other than that already heretofore provided (i.e., Husband’s paystubs and commission plan have already been provided)). Same shall be provided within thirty (30) days of the execution of this Agreement. In the event Husband has failed to disclose any additional Oracle compensation plan upon which Husband may be entitled to receive income and/or any benefit(s) which should have been included in the calculation of alimony and child support or any asset which is subject to equitable distribution, this Agreement may be reformed to include Wife’s entitlement to same, if any, upon application made to a Court of competent jurisdiction.
The Husband prepared and forwarded an authorization for this information shortly after the parties’ divorce. His employer provided responsive information to the Husband’s attorney. The attorney determined that the information received was irrelevant and refused to provide it to the Wife. The Wife moved before the Family Part in September 2017, and received an Order thereafter which compelled the Husband to provide a similar authorization for the information to be released directly to the Wife. That same Order permitted a telephone conference between counsel and the Husband’s employer. The Wife’s attorney provided the Husband’s employer with the authorization, and his employer responded that there were no documents responsive to the authorization. The Wife advised the Husband of her intention to seek the telephone conference permitted by the Court. The Husband regurgitated his employer’s response, indicating there was no documents responsive to the authorization and that she was free to pursue the call on her own.
With a scarcity of information from that point forward, the Appellate Division recounts the Husband’s response in a January 2019 letter to the Wife’s attorney that she “has intentionally refrained from acting on her known rights  for far too long” and had “knowingly relinquished and abandoned her right to continue to pursue this matter.” Since no information was received in response to her authorization or directly from her Husband, the Wife moved again in October 2019 to enforce the September 2017 Order. That request was granted on November 11, 2019. That Order specifically provided:
Plaintiff’s Request to Enforce . . . the September 19, 2017 Order is GRANTED. Counsel for the parties shall confer to pick dates convenient for counsel and the parties to engage in telephone calls to Marriot, American Airlines and Oracle. In the event this is not accomplished within forty-five days (45) as a result of Plaintiff’s failure to act, her request for enforcement and for the underlying information is deemed waived.
While Plaintiff did not precisely fulfill the 45-day requirement, she did send another correspondence requesting a call with her Husband’s employer. The employer responded that the Husband’s stock options had not vested at the time of their divorce, that it would not be participating in a conference call, and demanded a validly issued subpoena for the information she sought.
Thereafter, and unrelatedly, the Husband filed a motion to modify his alimony obligation in June 2020. The Wife immediately served a subpoena upon his then-prior employer. Ultimately, the motion and subpoena were withdrawn, as the Appellate Division recounted the Wife’s attorney believed since there was no longer post-judgment litigation that the subpoena had to be withdrawn. Thereafter, the Wife sent letters to the Husband’s attorney in May 2021 and again in June 2021. Ultimately, since the issues were still unresolved, she filed a motion in September 2021 seeking to enforce the parties’ Property Settlement Agreement; obtain the initial response from the Husband’s employer in 2016; and permission to subpoena the employer for the records.
The Family Part Judge hearing the parties’ applications determined that the 2019 Order was afforded “finality” under the “law of the case doctrine.” The justification was that the Husband “should not be burdened by the fear that [the Wife] will come back to court to relitigate the issue. Ultimately, the Family Part determined the Wife waived her right to obtain these records.
The Appellate Division disagreed and lengthily discussed the law of the case doctrine and the concept of waiver. First, it indicated that the law of the case doctrine “is a non-binding rule intended ‘to prevent relitigation of a previously resolved issue.'” The hallmark of that doctrine is the “discretionary nature, [asking] the deciding judge to balance the value of judicial deference for the rulings of a coordinate judge against those ‘factors that bear on the pursuit of justice and, particularly, the search for truth,'” Since the Wife was not seeking to overturn or modify the 2019 Order, but rather enforce it, the Appellate Division squarely determined the law of the case doctrine had nothing to do with her motion.
Second, the Appellate Division determined that the Wife never waived her right to the employer’s information because she “never failed to act.” It recited much of the procedural history above in support of this position. The Wife bargained for this information in the Marital Settlement Agreement, the Husband’s attorney received this information in 2016, and the information was ultimately required to be subpoenaed by the Husband’s employer. With these facts, coupled with the Wife’s persistent pursuit thereof, the Appellate Division determined the Wife never expressly or implicitly waived her right to this information.
In reversing and remanding to the Family Part, the Appellate Division directed the Family Part, at the Wife’s discretion, to choose from the following options: (1) issue a subpoena to obtain all relevant information from the Husband’s employer; (2) conduct an in camera review and release all relevant documents to the Wife’s attorney.
The Wife’s persistence in enforcing the plain terms of the parties’ Agreement, and subsequent Orders, resulted in a favorable outcome in this non-precedential matter. The Appellate Division specifically mentioned that portions of the procedural history occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. While Court Rules were relaxed during the pandemic, deadlines remain a part of every divorce matter and are important to abide by. That being said, the circumstances surrounding any efforts to enforce obligations also plays a critical role.