Ah, that unforgettable line uttered by Veruca Salt in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  As a matrimonial attorney, this is what it feels like we deal with quite often.  But I am not referring to people just being demanding, I am talking about people making unreasonable demands, with no apparent justification in law or in fact.  In fact, I have had enough of “my client just wants”, “that’s not enough” and “I know that a court would never do that but my client insists” over the last several months to last me a career.

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Some examples have been, in no particular order, demands for child support that exceed what the Guidelines would require by 7 to 10 times; demands for combined alimony and child support representing 60% or more of pre-tax income; demands for a buy out on the house for higher than the agreed upon value less the agreed upon mortgage; demands to share in exempt inheritances, trusts or family gifts that were never commingled; demands that one party get most of the marital assets because they were held in her name, though not exempt; demands for more than half of the assets, or 100% of the house free and clear of the substantial mortgage debt “because you caused the divorce.”

It is bad enough when an a litigant, who is uneducated about the law makes these demands.  That is to be expected because of ignorance of the law or raw emotions clouding judgment or both.  It is quite another thing when the client’s lawyer makes the demand, knowing that there is no rational or legal basis for the request.  As a younger lawyer, I remember incredulously asking an adversary, “Is your client really seeking 80% of the assets and 90% of my client’s net income?” to which the answer was yes.  Inevitably, when they are called on it, they sell their client out, saying how unreasonable they are, but they are just doing what they have been instructed to do.  Is that response good enough?  First, you wonder if they ever actually educated their client on the law (or whether they know it themselves).  If they have educated the client, is it proper to make a demand that is unreasonable, if not bad faith?

On the other side of the equation there may be the litigant that is willing to negotiate a reasonable resolution within the expected settlement parameters based upon the facts of the case (though often, water finds is level and where there is one unreasonable party, their spouse may be their mirror image in that regard.)  But what is the reasonable litigant to do?  They are often left with having to make the  “Hobson’s choice” of capitulating to the unreasonable party, or incurring the cost of litigation.  Worse yet, I have seen mediators, early settlement panelists, and even judges, try to pressure the reasonable party to settle because the other party wont budge, or split differences between the reasonable proposal and the unreasonable demand resulting in a slightly less unreasonable proposed resolution.  That said, I have seen these same judges, mediators or panelists use the threat that the unreasonable party may be required to pay the other party’s counsel fees as an effective deterrent.  Unfortunately, usually by that time, a lot of money has already been spent for something that should probably have been nipped in the bud from day one.

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Eric SolotoffEric 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 Roseland and Morristown, New Jersey offices though he practices throughout New Jersey. You can reach Eric at (973)994-7501, or esolotoff@foxrothschild.com.

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The recent Appellate Division case of Sirigotis v. Sirigotis, although unpublished (non- precedential), provides a great reminder of how important it is to know the “rules of engagement”.

In Sirigotis, the parties were able to resolve a majority of their issues by consent but agreed to submit the remaining unresolved issues to “final and binding” arbitration to be conduct by a retired judge. The parties provided the arbitrator a list of open issues that were to be decided.

The parties agreed to the appropriate amount of base alimony but a remaining open issue was that wife had an additional claim for alimony should husband’s income rise over a certain level as well as the inclusion of specific language in the award regarding plaintiff not being able to maintain the standard of living Crews v. Crews. Husband had objected to both of these requests.   During one of many arbitration sessions, the arbitrator had initially indicated that “all Crews [language] is out” because the issue of the determination of the marital lifestyle was not “before him”. Notwithstanding, in a later submission from wife, she again raised the issue of additional alimony on the grounds that the base alimony would not neither meet her needs or the marital lifestyle.  Husband’s submission argued that no additional alimony should be paid as the base alimony would “without question” meet wife’s needs and exceeds the marital lifestyle. Moreover, Husband requested that language be inserted that specifically indicated that both parties would be able to maintain a lifestyle reasonably comparable to that enjoyed during the marriage.

The reasons the parties were at odds over this language is because the standard of living and the likelihood that each party can maintain a reasonably comparable standard of living is a factor that must be considered when awarding alimony. This factor is of import because it serves as the touchstone for the initial alimony award and for adjudicating later motions for modification of the alimony award when ‘changed circumstances’ are asserted.

Ultimately, the arbitrator denied wife’s request to predicate more alimony based on a “future event” (increased income) and left wife to make an application to the Court in the future if necessary. The arbitrator also agreed with the husband that wife could maintain the standard of living.

Once the final arbitration award was issued, the wife moved to vacate the arbitration award in the trial court asserting that the arbitrator exceeded his authority by addressing the standard of living issue. Although the trial court found that the arbitrator had the authority to address the issue, the court ultimately vacated the arbitrator’s Crews finding and remanded for further proceedings, finding that plaintiff did not have the opportunity to give all her proofs on the issue.  Both parties appealed.

The Appellate Division found the trial court erred in vacating the Crews finding and reversed and remanded to the trial court to confirm the arbitrator’s award. In doing so, it reminded us that arbitration awards are given considerable deference therefore the party seeking to vacate it bears a heavy burden, with the scope of review being narrow.

While arbitration is ‘creature of contract’ and an arbitrator exceeds his or her authority if they decide something outside the scope, the Appellate Division found that be virtue of the issues raised by the wife herself, the Crews issue had to be decided. Moreover, the Appellate Division found that the wife had ample time and ability to present evidence on this issue and indeed did so by virtue of oral testimony, written submissions and voluminous exhibits.

The take away from this case is regardless of whether you decide to mediate, arbitrate or litigate, some or all of your divorce, it is important to know the “rules of engagement”. It is imperative to engage an experienced professional to help guide you through the ins-and-outs. You do not want to find yourself at a disadvantage simply because you were not aware of the rules.

You hear people talk all the time these days that mediation and arbitration, or quite frankly, any alternate dispute resolution (ADR) methods are the best things since sliced bread.  They may very well be in the right case – which these days may be most of them given judicial backlogs, and other factors making presenting cases to a court undesirable.  They may not be the panacea that people think they are, especially when you don’t frame what you want the arbitrator to do or how you want them to do it, correctly.  In fact, I have previously blogged that the right to appeal is not automatic unless you contract for it.

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The issue of a less than ideal arbitration agreement coming back to bite a litigant in the behind was exemplified again yesterday in the unreported (non-precedential) Appellate Division case of Little v. Little.  In that case, the parties agreed to arbitrate a Tevis claim seeking damages for alleged spousal abuse and battered woman’s syndrome before a retired judge. Rather than a full blown arbitration agreement, spelling out all of the desired standards, a right of appeal, etc., the agreement to arbitration was only memorialized in an order, which stated in total:

ORDERED, that the matter is hereby dismissed as the parties have agreed to submit to binding arbitration with a retired judge agreed on between the parties, which arbitration shall take place on or before February 15, 2013, the costs of which will be shared equally by the parties.

After the arbitration took place, the arbitrator issued a two-page written arbitration decision that awarded plaintiff $125,000 “for the physical and mental injuries sustained by her during her marriage…” The award did not set forth any findings of fact or conclusions of law.  Thereafter, the plaintiff moved to confirm the award and the defendant moved to vacate the award, both because of the lack of findings of fact and the reliance on a letter produced after the close of discovery.  The cross motion was denied and the arbitration award confirmed, leading to an appeal.

Defendant appealed claiming that  (1) the arbitration award was against public policy and should be vacated because without findings of fact and conclusions of law it cannot be determined if the award was procured by corruption, fraud or other undue means; and (2) the arbitrator’s reliance on the letterproduced after the close of discovery in constituted undue means.  The Appellate Division rejected both of those arguments.

As to the lack of fact finding, the Court specifically noted:

The scope of arbitration and the requirements of an arbitrator are controlled by contract. Minkowitz v. Israeli, 433 N.J. Super. 111, 132-33 (App. Div. 2013). If the arbitration agreement does not require the arbitrator to make specific factual findings or follow particular procedures, the arbitrator is free to make an award in a manner consistent with the Arbitration Act. N.J.S.A. 2A:23B-4. The Arbitration Act only requires the arbitrator to “make a record of an award.” N.J.S.A. 2A:23B-19(a). Moreover, the arbitration award provides that an arbitrator may conduct an arbitration in any manner that the arbitrator considers appropriate, with the goal of disposing of the matter fairly and expeditiously. N.J.S.A. 2A:23B-15(a). Accordingly, we have previously explained:

[W]ithout an agreement to the contrary, the power of the arbitrator is simply to issue an award that resolves a dispute. If they have not agreed in advance, the parties cannot, for example, force an arbitrator to give reasons for an award or to write a decision explaining his or her view of the facts. Neither can they appeal from the award as they could if they had proceeded to litigate their matter in court. Rather, the rights of the parties following issuance of an award, in the absence of an agreement to the contrary, are entirely governed by statute. (internal citation omitted).

As to the reliance on the letter produced after the close of discovery:

Arbitrators are not bound by the rules of evidence, and instead may determine the admissibility, relevance, materiality and weight of any evidence. N.J.S.A. 2A:23B-15(a). Additionally, an arbitrator may permit any discovery that he or she determines to be appropriate, taking into account the goal of making the proceeding fair, expeditious, and cost-effective. N.J.S.A. 2A:23B-17(c).

What is the takeaway here?  If you want the rules of evidence to apply, put that in your arbitration agreement.  If you want findings of fact and conclusions of law, put that in your arbitration agreement.  If you want a right of review greater than the very limited right of review contained in the arbitration statute, put it in your arbitration agreement.  Otherwise, you can be left with very little remedies if you disagree with a decision, and like the litigant in this case, very little ability to determine what the decision was actually based upon.

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Eric SolotoffEric 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 Roseland and Morristown, New Jersey offices though he practices throughout New Jersey. You can reach Eric at (973)994-7501, or esolotoff@foxrothschild.com. Connect with Eric: Twitter_64 Linkedin

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As a lover of all things Coldplay, I was sad to hear that lead singer Chris Martin and his wife of more than 10 years, Gwyneth Paltrow, were divorcing. Gwyneth Paltrow announced the separation on her website Goop.com and used the term “conscious uncoupling” to describe their approach to divorce.  Although the term had been originally coined by marriage and family therapist, Katherine Woodward Thomas, as with anything else endorsed by celebrities, the phrase went viral after her post.  It was of particular interest to me personally given my chosen profession as a divorce lawyer.

As professionals, especially ones whose practice is client-centric, we are always striving for better ways to do our jobs.  In my case, that means getting clients their desired result in the most effective and streamlined way possible. After practicing for several years, experience has shown me time and time again, that people going through divorce are most satisfied with the process when they feel they have control over it (i.e., are “conscious[ly] uncoupling”) and can proceed with a form of alternative dispute resolution (such as mediation) rather than traditional, costly, protracted litigation.

Even as American culture has become more progressive and accepting, divorce is still considered taboo and is almost always surrounded by extreme negativity and hostility.  Even if the couple themselves wants to proceed amicably, they are unfortunately often allowing others in their life (parents, siblings, friends, new boyfriend or girlfriend) to control the dialogue and encourage them to dig in their heels.

Once people “dig in”, it is often impossible to “dig out”.  Protracted litigation only intensifies negativity and hostility. The idea that divorce has to be a negative experience then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which divorcing parties behavior, is influenced by their expectation that divorce must be awful.  I believe if you change the conversation surrounding divorce and allow yourself to “consciously uncouple” you will have much more satisfying experience surrounding your divorce.

I recently completed a 40-hour divorce mediation training program. This program has only solidified my beliefs that in many cases, a mediated divorce, is a better divorce. That is not to say that litigation is never necessary. There are some circumstances that cannot be mediated and some people that simply cannot effectively participate in mediation. That said though, divorce is multi-dimensional: it is legal, it is financial, and it is emotional. The great thing about mediation is that it can effectively address each of those dimensions.

(1) LEGALLY

Whether you litigate or mediate, you achieve the same end result: a legal divorce.  A mediated divorce however is often faster, less adversarial and provides more flexible and creative resolutions, narrowly tailored to your specific family dynamic.  It also allows for a more confidential process than airing out your dirty laundry in a series of public court filings and appearances.

(2) FINANCIALLY

I will never say “always” or “never” because I’ve come to learn that nothing is absolute.  A mediated divorce however, can certainly be more cost effective. Spending less to uncouple leaves more to be divided between the parties and therefore places both parties in a better position to maintain financial independence and stability post-divorce.

(3) EMOTIONALLY

Although emotions can run high during mediation, there is a much more focused approach on compromise and collaboration rather than “winning” as is seen in litigation. When people feel their spouse is negotiating in good faith and trying to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem (i.e., zealously litigating over the smallest of disputes), they walk away feeling better about uncoupling, which leads to healthier relationships with themselves, their ex-spouse, and future romantic partners.

The takeaway from all of this is that choosing to uncouple, does not always have to be adversarial, financially draining and emotionally damaging. Take control of your divorce and find avenues in which to minimize the long-term effects.  Before deciding to wage war against your spouse, consult with an experienced and trained family law mediator to see how mediation can work for you.

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Lauren K. Beaver is a contributor to the New Jersey Family Law Blog and an attorney in Fox Rothschild LLP’s Family Law Practice Group. Lauren practices out of the firm’s Princeton, New Jersey office representing clients on issues relating to divorce, support, equitable distribution, custody, and parenting time.  Lauren also offers mediation services to those looking to procure a more amicable divorce. Lauren can be reached at (609) 844-3027 or lbeaver@foxrothschild.com.

In the recent matter of Perreault v. Perreault, P.P. and R.P. were divorced in 1996, after 22 years of marriage. Following a hearing, the Court ordered R.P. to pay permanent alimony in the amount of $500.00 per week. Neither the April 29, 1996 Final Judgment of Divorce, nor the August 7, 1996 Order provided that alimony would beof limited duration or would terminate upon R.P.’s retirement. P.P. also received $28,239.48 or 50% of the marital share of R.P.’s federal pension.

At the time of the divorce, R.P. was employed by the Veterans Administration Hospital and earned approximately $118,000.00 per year. At the age of 55, he retired from this job and began collecting his federal pension. After R.P.’s retirement, he continued working for other companies and in 2007 he began a consulting business with his current wife. In November 2013, he retired at the age of 65.

In April 2014, R.P. filed a motion to terminate his alimony obligation to P.P. based upon his retirement, or in the alternative, to reduce his alimony obligation. R.P. certified that he had gross income in 2013 of $96,985 derived solely from his pension, and from that amount, $28,239.48 was paid to P.P. pursuant to the Court’s August 7, 1996 Order. R.P. argued that only $25,000.00 of the remaining amount, $68,745.52 ($96,985.00-$28,239.48 = $68,745.52), could be considered for alimony purposes, and this amount was insufficient to justify an alimony award. Additionally, R.P.’s Case Information Statement showed that he had no debt, $9,891 in monthly expenses (although slightly reduced by the trial Court) and $823,000 in assets.

The trial Court determined that R.P.’s income had decreased, but that he had accumulated substantial post-judgment assets separate from his current wife from which he could pay alimony. Of the $823,000 in assets listed on R.P.’s Case Information Statement, the trial Court reduced this number by more than one-half to account for joint ownership with his current wife. The trial Court also recognized that with regard to R.P.’s pension, $40,505.04 was representative of the non-marital portion, not $25,000.00 as set forth by R.P. Additionally, the trial Court noted that R.P.’s future social security payments and his current wife’s income would assist him in paying his expenses, thereby increasing his ability to pay alimony. In contrast, P.P. would be in “dire straits” without alimony. In conclusion, the trial Court reduced R.P.’s alimony from $500.00 per week to $375.00 per week. Both R.P. and P.P. appealed.

R.P. asserted that the trial Court erred by ordering alimony in the amount of $375.00 per week because the non-marital portion of his pension, which he argues is $25,000.00, does not justify an alimony obligation and the Court erred by including his assets in determining his ability to pay alimony.

With regard to R.P.’s pension, “when a share of a retirement benefit is treated as an asset for purposes of equitable distribution, the trial court shall not consider income generated thereafter by that share for purposes of determining alimony.” Innes v. Innes, 117 N.J. 496, 505 (1990) (emphasis added). “Conversely, the rule does not bar counting as income for determining alimony, that portion of the former spouses’ pension attributable to post-divorce employment, and therefore not subject to division as marital property at the time of divorce.” Steneken v. Steneken, 367 N.J. Super. 427, 437-38 (App. Div. 2004)(emphasis added).

What does this mean? It means that retirement assets that were equitably divided in a divorce (and other assets for that matter), cannot later be considered available for purposes of alimony post-judgment. In this case, since R.P.’s pension was equitably divided in 1996 when the parties divorced, the share that was equitably divided is not available for to consider his present alimony obligation.

However, any money contributed to his pension after the parties divorced, can be considered for purposes of alimony to the extent the post-divorce earnings enhance the value of the asset.

In order to determine the non-marital portion of the pension, the trial Court added P.P.’s 50% share to R.P.’s share of the same amount to determine that the martial portion was $56,478.96. The Court then subtracted this amount from the present value of $96,984.00 to calculate a non-marital portion of $40,505.04. The Appellate Division affirmed this calculation.

In addition, the non-marital portion of R.P.’s pension, the Court must then consider whether R.P. had other sources of income that justified the reduced alimony amount. To do this, a Court may consider the income generated by supporting spouse’s assets, but not the total value of the asset itself, when determining the supporting spouses ability to pay alimony. See Miller v. Miller, 160 N.J. 408 (1999). Here, the trial court erred by considering the total value of R.P.’s assets, and the matter was remanded for further proceedings.

Although not discussed in Perreault, a litigant who wants to terminate or modify their alimony obligation based upon retirement must begin their analysis with  N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(j), one of the recent amendments to the alimony statute, which discusses how alimony may be modified or terminated upon the prospective or actual retirement of the obligor.

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Resolving issues pertaining to a divorce matter are not only costly and challenging, but if parties’ choose to litigate their issues before a sitting Family Part Judge, their dirty laundry becomes public record.

In order to resolve divorce litigation in a more private setting, parties have the choice of attending mediation and/or arbitration as alternative dispute resolution options. In addition to maintaining privacy, these alternative options usually bring matters to a resolution more quickly than the backlogged Court system is able to, and are more cost-effective. Further, given the more informal setting, there is usually a reduced level of conflict between the parties and attorneys.

When a Complaint for Divorce is filed, pursuant to New Jersey Court Rule 5:4-2(h), the first pleading of each party must include an affidavit or certification “that the litigant has been informed of the availability of complementary dispute resolution (‘CDR’) alternatives to conventional litigation, including but not limited to mediation or arbitration, and that the litigant has received descriptive literature regarding such CDR alternatives.” A copy of the Court-approved descriptive literature describing alternative dispute resolutions can be found here: http://www.judiciary.state.nj.us/notices/2006/n061204.pdf

With regard to arbitration, on September 1, 2015, the New Jersey Supreme Court adopted Rule 5:1-5, which applies to all Agreements to Arbitrate and Consent Orders to Arbitrate between and among parties to any proceeding heard in the family part, except: (A) the entry of the final judgment of annulment or dissolution of relationship; (B) actions involving the Division of Child Protection and Permanency; (C) domestic violence actions; (D) juvenile delinquency actions; (E) family crisis actions; and (F) adoption actions, which may not be arbitrated.

Fawzy v. Fawzy

The adoption of Rule 5:1-5 is essentially a codification of the 2009 New Jersey Supreme Court decision Fawzy v. Fawzy, 199 N.J. 456 (2009). In Fawzy, the parties agreed to resolve all matters pertaining to their divorce proceeding through binding arbitration. While the arbitration was in progress, the husband attempted to stop the proceeding and restrain the arbitrator from issuing custody or parenting time award. The Court denied the husband’s efforts to both stop the arbitration or restrain the arbitrator from ruling on custody and parenting time, and the arbitrator subsequently issued a custody and parenting time award.

The husband then sought to vacate the arbitration award and disqualify the arbitrator from ruling on the remaining issues of the matter, arguing that “parties cannot submit custody issues to binding arbitration because doing so deprives the court of its parens patriae obligation to assure the best interests of the child.”Fawzy v. Fawzy, 199 N.J. 456, 466 (2009). The trial judge denied the husband’s application, and the Husband appealed. The Appellate Division subsequently reversed, holding that “matrimonial litigants cannot submit custody issues to final, binding, non-appealable arbitration.” Id. at 466. The wife then filed a petition for certification to the Supreme Court on this issue.

New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Virginia Long issued an opinion holding that “within the constitutionally protected sphere of parental autonomy is the right of parents to choose the forum in which their disputes over child custody and rearing will be resolved, including arbitration”. Id. 461-462.

However, since the Arbitration Act does not require the recording of testimony or a statement of findings and conclusions by the arbitrator, in order to protect a parties right to challenge an arbitration award with respect to custody and parenting time, Justice Long additionally mandated that “a record of all documentary evidence adduced during the arbitration proceedings be kept; that testimony be recorded; and that the arbitrator issue findings of fact and conclusions of law in respect of the award of custody and parenting time. Without that, courts will be in no position to evaluate a challenge to the award.” Id.

Arbitration Procedure

As previously mentioned, all family law matters may be arbitrated unless they fall into one of the express exceptions under R. 5:5-1(a), which are listed above.

Once parties decide to resolve their matter through arbitration, R. 5:5-1(b) requires that several prerequisites be met. These are: (1) execution of the Arbitration Questionnaire; (2) execution of a Consent Order to Arbitrate or Arbitration Agreement; and (3) placement on the court scheduling Arbitration Track.

Specifically, with regard to the Agreement or Consent Order:

(A) Insofar as an Agreement or Consent Order relates to a pending family proceeding, the Agreement or Consent Order shall state:

(i) the parties understand their entitlement to a judicial adjudication of their dispute and are willing to waive that right;

(ii) the parties are aware of the limited circumstances under which a challenge to the award may be advanced and agree to those limitations;

(iii) the parties have had sufficient time to consider the implications of their decision to arbitrate; and

(iv) the parties have entered into the Agreement or Consent Order freely and voluntarily, after due consideration of the consequences of doing so.

(B) In addition, in all family proceedings involving child-custody and parenting-time issues, the Agreement or Consent Order shall provide that:

(i) a record of all documentary evidence shall be kept;

(ii) all testimony shall be recorded verbatim; and

(iii) the award shall state, in writing, findings of fact and conclusions of law with a focus on the best-interests of the child standard.

(C) Further, in all family proceedings involving child support issues, the Agreement or Consent Order shall provide that the award shall state, in writing, findings of fact and conclusions of law with a focus on the best-interests standard, and consistent with R. 5:6A and Rules Appendix IX.

As you can see, the subparagraphs of this rule have codified the requirements mandated by Justice Long in the Fawzy opinion, which protect a parties’ right to challenge custody and parenting time arbitration awards with a clear and concise record.

Take Away

It should be remembered that the new arbitration rule represents the minimum that is required by law to be in an Arbitration Agreement, and attorneys should be mindful of this when drafting Consent Orders or Agreements to Arbitrate. Clients should be fully aware of all of the issues that will or will not be litigated by the arbitrator, pursuant to the agreement, and the narrow scope of review that accompanies an arbitration award.  The more clear and concise the Arbitration Agreement is, the less likely it will be challenged by a disgruntled litigant who is unhappy with the award received.

With finger pointing, unsolvable problems, sad thoughts about the good times, and, most eloquently, “No I don’t fear no more, better yet respect ain’t quite sincere no more,” it is as if Taylor Swift’s latest hit was born for this blog.  Does it always, though, have to be about “Bad Blood” or will it ever get to the point that you can just “Shake it Off” (forgive me Sir Paul)?

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Readers of this blog know that I regularly discuss how the emotionally charged world of family law can only be made more so when two parties refuse to work with each other towards an amicable resolution, especially when represented by unreasonable attorneys furthering the charge.  When the smoke clears, however, the parties may be left barely standing and wondering where it all went wrong – the exhausted emotions, the legal fees needlessly incurred/spent while trying to figure out how they will be paid, the years of lives lost to litigation, the children destroyed by the endless battleground.

Taking a step back, no one really wants to go through this process.  The challenge comes when the wallet does ultimately have a bottom and decisions have to be made that not only can preserve the present, but also the future of all involved.  It never ceases to amaze me how frequently parties and, as a result, the attorneys on their behalf lose sight of the long-term goal simply to procure the short-term “win”.

What, then, is a frustrated litigant to do?  Being reasonable should be the right thing to do, but what happens when the other side has other ideas?  What if the other side is pressuring you through the kids, or with money on their side?  What if his family members are funneling money to pay for counsel fees while you are wondering how the next bill will be paid?  You can always ask for counsel fees but they are by no means a guarantee no matter how strong your position may be and, ultimately, you are faced with the unenviable choice of capitulating to your spouse’s unreasonable position, or continue fighting the exhaustive good fight.

Effective mediation.  Productive collaboration.  A common goal to bring a case to a reasonable conclusion.  Each is often effective, but oftentimes it is not until the end stages of a divorce litigation, with trial on the horizon, that parties finally realize that allowing a trial judge who knows little about their lives should not be the one to make decisions that will impact them for years, if not decades to come.  These are all lofty, but sometimes unattainable goals.  The only option may ultimately be that very trial, allowing the cards to fall where they may and seeking counsel fees as a component of any overall relief.

None of this is easy, no matter how simple the case.  The very nature of what is happening defies ease.  However, just because you may be “never ever (ever) getting back together” does not mean that the end cannot be done in a way that minimizes the long-term damage (emotional, financial and otherwise) for all involved.

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Robert A. EpsteinRobert Epstein is a partner in Fox Rothschild LLP’s Family Law Practice Group. Robert practices throughout New Jersey and is based in the firm’s Roseland, New Jersey office.  He can be reached at (973) 994-7526, or repstein@foxrothschild.com.

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As we have all seen and heard, alternate dispute resolution (ADR) is all the rage.  Two common methods of ADR are mediation and arbitration.  To describe the two as simply as possible, in mediation, the parties and their attorneys (and perhaps even their experts), meet with a neutral third party to help them to come to an amicable resolution of the matter.  With arbitration, the parties submit the matter to a third party to decide.  Arbitration is often very much like a trial, but the matter is tried to a private judge.  The parties can agree that the rules of procedure and evidence can be relaxed, or they can agree that the arbitration have the same or a similar formality that a trial would have. There are several reasons that people use arbitration as an alternative to litigation.  Some people believe that it is faster and less expensive than a trial in court.  Some times it is and some times it isn’t.  Other think that they would rather choose their judge then be subject to the random assignment in the judicial system.  Others still may have no choice but to go to arbitration because there are issues that they cannot try before a judge who may have a duty to report the matter to the IRS (see my prior blog post on this topic.) Now, with matters tried in court, parties have a right to appeal the decision to the Appellate Division if they don’t like the decision.  Is it the same for arbitrations?  The answer is clearly. Some things like, custody, can be arbitrated, but given the higher scrutiny because of the need to protect the children, the Supreme Court has determined that there needs to be greater procedural safeguards and the ability to review custody decisions (see my prior blog post on this topic.)  Thus, while not necessarily an appeal, the trial court can be asked to review the records. As to other issues, when you agree to arbitrate, it used to be all of the rage to put a right of Appellate review right into your arbitration agreements.  Unfortunately, no one asked the Appellate Division, who, in the case of Hogoboom v. Hogoboom rejected that process out of hand.  Specifically, they held:

“…Basically, arbitration awards may be vacated only for fraud, corruption, or similar wrongdoing on the part of the arbitrators. [They] can be corrected or modified only for very specifically defined mistakes as set forth in [N.J.S.A. 2A:24-9]. If the arbitrators decide a matter not even submitted to them, that matter can be excluded from the award. For those who think the parties are entitled to a greater share of justice, and that such justice exists only in the care of the court, I would hold that the parties are free to expand the scope of judicial review by providing for such expansion in their contract; that they may, for example, specifically provide that the arbitrators shall render their decision only in conformance with New Jersey law, and that such awards may be reversed either for mere errors of New Jersey law, substantial errors, or gross errors of New Jersey law and define therein what they mean by that.” … Here, the parties afforded themselves an expanded scope of review, as they were, by contract and by statute, permitted to do. The parties were not, however, entitled to create an avenue of direct appeal to this court. .. It is settled that consent of the parties does not create appellate jurisdiction.  … In our judgment, the parties must seek initial review of these awards in the trial court. The trial court is charged with employing the standard of review the parties contractually agreed upon in determining whether these awards, or either of them, should be vacated or modified. …

38911415_s The issue of Appellate review of an arbitration award recently came up again in the case of Shelley v Shelley, an unreported (non-precedential) opinion decided by the Appellate Division on April 21, 2015.  In that case, the husband appealed a trial court order confirming an arbitration award. In Shelley, the parties agreed to arbitrate the financial issues of their divorce under the Alternative Procedure for Dispute Resolution Act (APDRA), N.J.S.A. 2A:23A-1 to -30. After engaging in the arbitration, the arbitrator issued a detailed decision from which plaintiff requested modification. Even though, his request for modification was out of time, the arbitrator addressed each of his claims and affirmed the award.  He then raised the same claims to the trial court in opposition to the motion to confirm the award.  The trial court issued what the Appellate Division deemed were “two well-reasoned and comprehensive opinions” wherein she found that the husbands arguments lacked merit, and that he “… he had not demonstrated that the arbitrator committed any factual or legal error.”  The same issues were raised on appeal. The Appellate Division ultimately dismissed the appeal, concluding that they had no jurisdiction to hear it.  Why, might you ask if there is an appeal as of right from trial court opinions?  Because the agreement to arbitrate essentially took away those rights. In fact, the Appellate Division held:

The APDRA, N.J.S.A. 2A:23A-1 to -30, is a voluntary procedure for  alternative dispute resolution. Mt. Hope Dev. Assoc. v. Mt. Hope Waterpower Project, 154 N.J. 141, 145 (1998). The grounds to vacate, modify or correct an arbitration award under the APDRA are limited. An arbitrator’s decision on the facts is final if supported by substantial evidence. N.J.S.A. 2A:23A-13(b). Appeals pursuant to the APDRA may be filed with the trial division of the Superior Court, which can vacate or modify an award, but only if certain conditions are present. Here, the trial court exercised its appellate review role, and found the arbitration award should be confirmed. The question before us is whether we have jurisdiction to hear plaintiff’s appeal from the trial court’s decision, under N.J.S.A. 2A:23A-18(b). The Supreme Court has determined that, in general, N.J.S.A. 2A:23A-18(b) precludes appellate review with only a few exceptions, in rare circumstances, where the Appellate Division is compelled by public policy concerns or the need to exercise its supervisory authority. …None of those rare circumstances exist in this case.

So that’s it?  If you arbitrate, then you can’t appeal?  Not quite.  Just like you can agree to arbitrate the initial determination of the issues, you can also agree to an appellate arbitration, as well.  I have had matters where our initial arbitration agreement called for the use of a panel of two retired appellate division judges (didn’t have to be – could have been anyone we agreed to be the appellate arbitrators), who would then decide the matter as if they were sitting as a regular appellate panel.  While in that case, you essentially lose the chance to appeal to the Supreme Court, you still have a body to review the matter if you think that the arbitrator got it wrong in the first case. The take away, however, is that your arbitration agreement must clearly spell out the scope of review and who will review the matter – taking into consideration what the court system can and cannot do with regard to an arbitration award. _________________________________________________________

Eric SolotoffEric 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 Roseland and Morristown, New Jersey offices though he practices throughout New Jersey. You can reach Eric at (973)994-7501, or esolotoff@foxrothschild.com. Connect with Eric: Twitter_64 Linkedin Photo credit:  Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_lculig’>lculig / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

We have all had this happen.  Letters get written back and forth to try to settle a matter and/or you just file a motion because the issue is clear based upon the law and the facts.  Or, the parties, for whatever reason, just wont resolve an issue because one or both is being unreasonable.  So you come to court to argue your motion and the judge urges you to settle again before hearing argument.  Ok, settlement on the courthouse steps is not uncommon, but often, a review of the motion papers should make it clear whether there is any prayer or a consensual resolution.  Worse yet, after you argue the motion that is ripe for determination, the judge defers decision and sends you to mediation.  Is that right? 13690807_s Well, in the case of Powell v. Gorski (an unreported – non precedential Appellate Division decision decided on April 22, 2015), the Appellate Division said no.  Specifically, the court held that once the court reviewed and analyzed a motion, the matter should have been decided.  In this case, one party filed a motion for emancipation and the other filed a defective cross motion for retroactive college and future graduate school contribution.  The trial court denied the request for emancipation without prejudice “[g]iven the existence of disputed issues of material fact”  but rather than scheduling a plenary hearing, the trial judge “encouraged [the parties] to mediate their disagreements” because “future litigation would not appear to be in the interests of either party.”  The Appellate Division reversed holding:

We also comment on the procedure employed here. We have previously noted “[t]he business of the courts is to finalize disputes.” Parish v. Parish, 412 N.J. Super. 39, 54 (App. Div. 2010). When parties properly file actions seeking review and determination, and the case is presented for disposition, the matters should not be redirected, but determined. Despite the judge’s salutary motive in urging the parties’ settlement, they have the right to final review of their contest. Had the judge considered the matter appropriate for mediation or some other alternative dispute resolution process, see R. 5:4-2(h), he could have offered that suggestion prior to review. Once undertaking review and analysis, a final determination should be made. Further, if the motion record was found to include disputed material facts, the judge should have scheduled a plenary hearing. … (Emphasis added)

All to often, matters are deferred to mediation or deferred to more experts when decisions need to be made.  The Parish case cited above was my case, and the trial court in that case mandated settlement conferences prior to filing future motions, but the Appellate Division determined that that was improper.  When parties need an issue decided and do what is necessary to have it decided, it should be decided. _________________________________________________________ Eric SolotoffEric 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 Roseland and Morristown, New Jersey offices though he practices throughout New Jersey. You can reach Eric at (973)994-7501, or esolotoff@foxrothschild.com. Connect with Eric: Twitter_64 Linkedin

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Earlier today, Robert Epstein posted an interesting piece entitled The Psychology of Mediation.  Whether people like it or not, alternative dispute resolution (ADR) is here to stay as the new norm.  Court backlogs are long and trial dates are scarce, even when you want them.  Moreover, the system is set up to have numerous settlement events, from mandatory custody and parenting time mediation, to mandatory Early Settlement Panels (ESP), to mandatory economic mediation (post ESP), to Intensive Settlement Conferences (ISCs), to Intensive Settlement Panels (ISPs), to Blue Ribbon Panels, etc.

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 There are times when clients or other lawyers say that they don’t want to go to mediation because they feel it will be a waste of time because the case has no chance of settling.  In my experience, mediation very rarely is a waste of time.  Here are a few reasons why:

  • This may be the first time you get a settlement proposal from the other side, even if it is off the wall.
  • This may be the first time that you get a real settlement proposal such that even if you cannot settle at that point, you can start the process of moving the case toward settlement
  • You may find out what are real issues and what are fake issues.  In short, you may be able to narrow the issues is dispute.
  • You may find out what is really important to the other side
  • You may find out why things are important to the other side – the psychology of mediation so to speak
  • You may find out the proposed legal basis for the other party’s position for the first time.  If you don’t settle, you can use this as the opportunity to start building your defense.
  • You may find out the alleged factual basis for the other party’s position for the first time and similarly use this to figure out what proofs you need to defeat that position.
  • You can use the mediation to shut down bad positions – either because the other side finally sees that they are going nowhere, and/or the mediator tells them so.  Of course, this can lead to the creation of new theories of the case and new arguments that you will have to rebut.
  • This may be the first time that the other party (or your client too) is hearing a learned, non-biased view of their case.  There are times where I think that they other side is off of the wall and that it is the lawyer, not the client that is the problem.  In those cases, I may want to start mediation sooner rather than later so that the other party hears that there may be problems with the positions that they are taking.  Maybe this leads to that party getting new counsel or maybe it leads to them doing some more research to confirm what they learned from the mediator. 
  • Mediation can demystify the process and put people in a atmosphere where there is productive dialogue, about anything, for the first time in months. 
  • You may learn useful information that was previously undisclosed.
  • You may be able to resolve and get rid of the small issues, even if the major issues remain unresolved.

What is the take away?  Don’t be so quick to dismiss the possible of benefits of mediation, even if you don’t settle. the entire case. 

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Eric SolotoffEric 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 Roseland and Morristown, New Jersey offices though he practices throughout New Jersey. You can reach Eric at (973)994-7501, or esolotoff@foxrothschild.com.

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