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In law school, lawyers begin to be engrained with the concept of ethical duty of zealous advocacy.  While this concept used to be in the Rules of Professional Conduct, over time, it has been removed.  It has even been largely removed from the ABA’s Model Rules, upon which many State’s rules have been based upon, other than in statements in the Preamble that say, “As advocate, a lawyer zealously asserts the client’s position under the rules of the adversary system” and:

In the nature of law practice, however, conflicting responsibilities are encountered. Virtually all difficult ethical problems arise from conflict between a lawyer’s responsibilities to clients, to the legal system and to the lawyer’s own interest in remaining an ethical person while earning a satisfactory living. The Rules of Professional Conduct often prescribe terms for resolving such conflicts. Within the framework of these Rules, however, many difficult issues of professional discretion can arise. Such issues must be resolved through the exercise of sensitive professional and moral judgment guided by the basic principles underlying the Rules. These principles include the lawyer’s obligation zealously to protect and pursue a client’s legitimate interests, within the bounds of the law, while maintaining a professional, courteous and civil attitude toward all persons involved in the legal system. (Emphasis added).

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Nevertheless, time and again you hear the refrain, in defense of an aggressive if not improper action, position, etc. that “I was only being a zealous advocate.”  However, assuming for arguments sake, that the duty of zealous advocacy exists in either some express or implied way, there certainly seems to be a difference between zealous advocacy and overzealous advocacy.  While the former may be appropriate, the latter is often not.  Moreover, it can be very costly, both financially and emotionally for the parties.

In a recent matter, I have seen an attorney send subpoena after subpoena seeking records, that if obtained, would add nothing to her client’s case.  In some instances, it is more than a fishing expedition or seeking a needle in a haystack, as even if the records were produced, no matter what they said, they would have no probative value in the case.  Moreover, when the subpoenas were not responded to or not responded to the their liking, threats of contempt followed.  Even the seemingly appropriate subpoenas seem needless given that a third party with much greater resources had already done an investigation.  There is one thing about leaving no stone unturned when there is a possibility that the due diligence will be fruitful, and quite another when it is a clear waste of time and money, if not harassment of third parties, from the start.  In that case, the “my client just wants to be sure” defense may not really cut it.

What about the lawyer that lies to further their client’s interests.  I have previously done a blog entitled The Lawyer The Liar which discussed this improper practice.

How about taking and litigating a position that is either contrary to the law, contrary to the facts, or both, and refusing to give it up notwithstanding.  I have seen lawyers push these issues because their client wanted to, because they figured they could make money and/or they figured they would wear the other side down and force them to capitulate to be done.   There are many other examples that I am sure my colleagues can add about examples of overzealous advocacy.

When the offender is called on these tactics, they hide behind the “zealous advocacy” shield. The question to ponder is what is a court to do when zealous advocacy crosses the line to overzealous advocacy.  Whether or not this rises to an ethical issue, will a court make the other party whole or at least put a stop to it?  If not, are we not rewarding pushing the envelope?


 

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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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 we have previously noted on this blog, some of the biggest changes in the 2014 alimony reform amendments came in connection with the issue of retirement.  In fact, the amendment to the alimony statute now has three different standards, one for early retirement, one for retirement at the attainment of full retirement age (i.e. age upon which you can receive full Social Security benefits – 67 for most people) for new matters and a third for retirement at full retirement age for matters that pre-dated the amendments to the statute.

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Perhaps due to either inartful drafting and/or creative lawyering, or both, there were arguments made that the language in the statute “…There shall be a rebuttable presumption that alimony shall terminate upon the obligor spouse or partner attaining full retirement age, …”  applied to all matters, no matter when the divorce occurred.

The Appellate Division decided this question in the negative in the reported (precedential) case of Landers v. Landers released on February 22, 2016.  In that case, which involved a pre-statute divorce where the ex-husband had been paying alimony for 24 years, the husband sought to terminate his divorce based upon retirement.  The trial judge misapplied the law, per the Appellate Division, and determined that the ex-wife had not overcome the presumption that alimony should terminate.

In reversing, Judge Lihotz held:

Notably, the rebuttable presumption included in subsection (j)(1), which places the burden on the obligee to demonstrate continuation of the alimony award once an obligor attains full retirement age, N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(j)(1), is not repeated, but replaced by a different standard in subsection (j)(3). The latter provision follows the prior principles outlined in Lepis and its progeny, by mandating “the court shall consider the ability of the obligee to have saved adequately for retirement as well as the following factors in order to determine whether the obligor, by a preponderance of the evidence, has demonstrated that modification or termination of alimony is appropriate . . . .” N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(j)(3) (emphasis added).

Just as the Crews case elevated marital lifestyle ostensibly to a “super factor” in the alimony calculus prior to the 2014 amendments, it appears that this decision could have the same effect on the “ability to save for retirement” aspect of the new statute.  Specifically, the decision holds:

Importantly, subsection (j)(3) elevates the ability of the obligee to have saved adequately for retirement, listed only as a factor under N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(j)(1)(j), setting it apart from other considerations and requiring its explicit analysis. N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(j)(3). Also, factors identified in the two subsections are not identical, making the court’s focus different. For example, most apt to plaintiff’s arguments are subsections (j)(3)(f) and (g), mandating an examination of the obligor’s ability to maintain payments upon retirement, and “[t]he obligee’s level of financial independence.”

The problem with making the ability to save to be a “super factor” presumes that permanent alimony, the predecessor to open durational alimony was actually permanent and could never be modified based upon retirement.  That simply was not the case for the last several decades and there was ample decisional law addressing retirement.  Moreover, if alimony had a “savings component” allowing a recipient to save for a time when alimony may end, does that too not suggest that even permanent alimony can end other than death (and upon death, alimony is secured by life insurance in most instances.)

So, put another way, if permanent alimony was never really permanent, or at the very least, if retirement of the payor was a foreseeable event, can someone argue that they knew or should have known of this possibility and the failure to save should not be held against the payor?  Remember, just because retirement was not specifically included in a divorce agreement, does not mean that it was not foreseeable since the law allowed for it – and by the way, it was very difficult, pre-amendment to ever get anyone to agree that alimony should terminate on retirement so the issue was often silent and left to the law to address at the appropriate time.

Either way, as the nuances of the new alimony law work their way through the court, it will be interesting to see if the results lead to the call for even more reform.


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 way things have gone lately, I thought it was time to reprise this blog post, originally published in April of 2014.  It is unfortunate for the system and the litigants to have to endure the misrepresentations by people who should know better.

I like a good joke as much as the next person.  That said, like many in my profession, I get sensitive about lawyer jokes.  Often, they are just cheap shots that in no way reflect the reality of what most of us do.  I particularly despise this one, “How can you tell when a lawyer is lying? His lips are moving.”

This one is particularly offensive on many levels.  Justice cannot tolerate dishonesty on the part of the lawyer.  In fact, honesty permeates the Rules of Professional Conduct:  meritorious claims and contentions; duty of candor to the tribunal; fairness to the opposing party and counsel; truthfulness in statements to others; not engaging in conduct that involving fraud, deceit, dishonesty, mispresentation or that which is prejudicial to the administration of justice are just a few of the rules where the bedrock is the lawyer being truthful.  There is an expectation in the system that someone is not telling the truth.  That is why judges and juries have to determine who is more credible.  That said, a lawyer cannot allow their client to get on the stand and lie.

(photo courtesy of free Google images.)

Unfortunately, however, lawyers lie all of the time.  Small lies and big lies.  They lie to their adversaries and they lie to judges.  I am not talking about an honest mistake – you believed that documents were not provided, but they actually were.  That said, too few people will even admit to the honest error, and then perpetuate the side show rather than just acknowledging that they were wrong with a lower case “w.”  Efforts then digress into addressing the misrepresentation that could simply be avoided.

A few years back, I was new to a case and at a case management conference, the other side alleged that my client had not produced his tax returns.  I did not believe this to be true and said as much, but I had only been in the case for a few days.  The judge reamed my client.  When I got back to my office, I contacted prior counsel who not only confirmed that the tax returns were produced, but there were emails from the adversaries office confirming receipt.  Given that my client had just been ripped by the judge, I asked the adversary to simply correct what must have been an inadvertent mistake.  She refused and then it became a much bigger issue.  It was a total and needless waste of time.

That’s a small lie that caused damage.  What about the big lie?  In one matter, opposing counsel insists that he was called “stupid” in a letter from one of my colleagues, and worse yet, that that letter justifies his vendetta against our client.  The problem is that no such letter exists yet he persists in pursuing this phantom letter, to the detriment of his client and ours.

In another matter, a lawyer denied taking a position on a major issue in the case in an earlier motion, even after the transcript showed otherwise.  She disavowed her own statement.

In another matter, the adversary epitomizes the distasteful joke noted above, from telling a court that documents were signed to allow us to get documents, when they were not, to misrepresenting income, to denying events that are not deniable, and on and on.

Why do lawyers lie?  Some do it to get an advantage in the case.  Some do it because they are afraid of losing the client if they don’t do their client’s bidding and/or are unsuccessful.  Some do it because it is a personal game – I win – you lose.  Some do it because they are unprepared or did not do what they are supposed to do so they are covering up.  Some do it to cover for their client’s misdeeds. Some do it because they just always lie.  For some, it is all of the above.

What do you do about it?   You raise the issue to the judge – but often, the judge doesn’t do anything about it.  Some times, it takes a trial to prove it and trials are few and far between.  Further, ethics complaints are usually tabled if not dismissed until a litigation is over.  If the perpetrator is a junior lawyer, perhaps you speak to their supervisor – but often that goes no where, because people protect their own.

That said, don’t let it go.  Call the person out.  Be prepared with your proofs.  At the appropriate time at a motion or a trial, let the judge know. Litigation is hard enough when people play it straight.  It is untenable when they lie and it does a disservice to the litigants, the courts and the system.  Moreover, clients are outraged when their spouse lies, but when it is the other lawyer, it is often impossible to control the justifiable outburst.  And lawyers, if you accidentally misspeak or make an honest mistake – you are human – it is better to own up to it and put the issue to bed then let it fester into something unnecessary and totally avoidable.  And don’t tell the big lie, for any reason.


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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On Tuesday, January 19th, Governor Christie took a break from his busy presidential campaign to sign several new pieces of pending legislation, one of which was New Jersey’s pending emancipation statute that impacts upon child support and when/how it terminates.  The new law, which takes effect 180 days after its signing, is applicable to all child support orders issued prior to, or, or after its effective date.  Much of it codifies existing case law, but alters, in part, the prior rebuttable presumption that child support terminates when a child reaches age 18.  The language specifics and nuances will most certainly in a manner similar to the amended alimony law, future litigation over what such language means and how it should be applied.

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With that said, let’s take a look at the important components of the new emancipation law and what it means:

Termination of Child Support

The law provides that, unless otherwise indicated in a court order or judgment, the obligation to pay child support shall terminate without order on the date a child – who is less than 19 years of age – marries, dies or enters into military service.

Child support shall also terminate when a child reaches 19 years of age unless:

  1.  another age for such termination is specified in a court order;
  2. the parties consent and the court approves the continuation of support until after a predetermined date; or
  3. child support is extended by the court based on an application filed by a parent or the child prior to reaching age 19.

A parent or child may also seek the continuation of child support beyond 19 years of age under the following circumstances:

  1.  the child is still enrolled in high school or other secondary program;
  2. the child is participating full-time in a post-secondary education program;
  3. the child has a physical or mental disability that existed prior to the child reaching the age of 19 and requires continued child support; or
  4. other exceptional circumstances as may be approved by the court.

Interestingly, if a court orders the continuation of child support, it must also provide in the order “a future date upon which the child support obligation will terminate or a date upon which the court will review the circumstances of the parties and children.”

Matters involving child support obligations supervised by the Probation Division will require Probation (and the State IV-D agency) to provide both parents with at least one notice of proposed termination and instructions on how to seek a continuation of child support.  Such notice is to be provided no less than 90 days prior to the termination of support under the new law.

Unallocated Child Support for Two or More Children

The new law codifies that if there exists an unallocated (not specifying the amount for each child) child support order for two or more children and the obligation to pay for one child terminates, the existing support obligation shall continue until modified by court order.  Of course, this is no way prevents the parties from coming to a resolution of the issue to avoid the time and expense associated with litigation.

If the support for such children was allocated – rather than unallocated – and support for one terminates, the amount of child support for the remaining children shall be adjusted to reflect only the amount allotted for the remaining child/children.

Arrears Existing at Termination

If support arrears exist when support terminates under the new statute, such arrears will remain due and enforceable.  The new law provides how payment for such arrears will be made, as the “sum of the recurring child support obligation in effect immediately prior to the effective date of termination plus any arrears repayment obligation in effect immediately prior to the effective date of termination” unless otherwise ordered.

Impact on Foreign Support Orders

The new statute shall not apply to child support provisions contained in orders/judgments entered by a foreign jurisdiction and registered in New Jersey for modification or enforcement under the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (“UIFSA”), or a law substantially similar to New Jersey’s prior Uniform Reciprocal Enforcement of Support Act (“URESA”).

Impact on Support While Child in College/Post-Secondary Educational Institution

The law unambiguously provides that it does not require or relieve a parent from paying “support or other costs while a child is enrolled full-time in a post-secondary education program.”

Important Miscellaneous Points

Any party may also still seek to terminate child support for any reason other than that provided in the new law.  Also, the law confirms that it does not “prohibit the parties from consenting to a specific termination date subject to the approval of the court.”  Prior language that did not make its way into the final law focused on utilizing “capped” age of 23 to terminate support, which is often found in settlement agreements as a sort of “catch all” provision as to when child support will end.  I have had adversaries argue to me – when, of course, it suits their client’s position – that using the age of 23 as a cap to end child support is unenforceable as against public policy.  The new law confirms, however, that such a cap could be enforceable, and that it – like any other agreed upon language regarding a support termination date – is subject to the court’s approval.   Hopefully that will limit litigation that can occur surrounding such provisions in a settlement agreement.  To that end, practitioners should also consider incorporating references to the new law in the emancipation portions of their settlement agreements.

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

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Often, cases are given nicknames, sometimes by judges and law clerks, and sometimes by the attorneys.  Sometimes the nicknames come from who the people are – for instance, a case we had several years ago where both parties were models became the “model case” at the courthouse.  Sometimes, the names come from something that one or both parties did – a case where a spouse tried building a brick wall inside his house to divide the house before the divorce might have been the “brick wall case.” Right now, we have a case called “the money tree case.”

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We call this case the money tree case because, despite the husband’s ever present cries of poverty, money keeps materializing from out of nowhere for lavish spending.  Turn over the entire paycheck for support – sure – yet he lives like a king with no apparent income.  $40,000 is needed for a particular expense, it is wired in a day without disclosing where it came from.  Oldest child needs a car – no used car for her, she gets a new Mercedes.  In opposing a motion for counsel fees, his lawyer laments that he hasn’t been paid in a year and as soon as the motion is decided, he gets paid in full from sources unknown.

While at the same time of crying the blues that there is no money, expensive new watches appear which was a “gift.”  One if not two residences are being paid for though who knows by whom. There are expensive vacations.  Showering the children with presents.  The home equity line gets paid off, from no known source.

Of course, there is no transparency or up front disclosure about anything up front.  It is only after he gets caught, is there a lame excuse of a “gift” or a “loan” – with no proofs as to anything.

I, myself, have mused to the judge that I would like to know where to get a money tree too, because literally money keeps appearing in this case from no known source.

What is the takeaway?  When a litigant is crying poverty, you can’t let it go at that, especially when the lifestyle and known expenditures exceed the known sources of income.  Discovery must be doggedly pursued and the total cash flow (notice I didn’t say income because who knows how this person will characterize this endless cash infusion) must be calculated as best as possible.  That is the only way that support can be fairly decided.  Moreover, this money tree may also indicate an undisclosed asset or assets that is being tapped now, but which should be divided in equitable distribution.  When crying poverty, the wiping of the tears with $100 bills  is always a red flag.

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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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As noted yesterday, the long awaited decision in the Gnall case was released today.  Previously, we have blogged about the Gnall v. Gnall case.  In this case, the Appellate Division deemed a 15 year marriage to be “long term” and remanded the matter for consideration of permanent alimony.  This case exploded onto the scene because it seemed to create a bright line that 15 years of marriage merited permanent alimony.

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However,  this case was decided before the new alimony reform statute had passed.  As I noted on this blog previously, there was a thought that the amendments to the alimony statute might render this much ado about nothing.  At the end of the day, it was much ado about nothing, but not because of the new statute, which was given very short shrift in the opinion.

Rather, the Justices, in a unanimous opinion, reiterated that all of the factors in the alimony statute must be considered, and no one factor can be elevated in importance.  One might say, “tell us something we don’t know.”

What was fascinating is the Supreme Court seemed to take both the trial court and the Appellate Division to task for focusing on one factor – duration of the marriage – to the exclusion of the others.  The Supreme Court noted:

… We find that the trial court did not consider and weigh all of the necessary factors required by N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23 in determining that permanent alimony was unwarranted but, instead, based its decision solely on N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(b)(2). We further conclude that in reversing the Appellate Division inadvertently created a bright-line rule requiring an award of permanent alimony.

The Court went on to note that:

While the trial court identified the marriage as “not short-term,” it ultimately concluded that consideration of an award of permanent alimony was obviated by the parties’ relatively young ages and the fact that they were not married for twenty-five or thirty-years. The trial court therefore, in effect, determined that permanent alimony awards are reserved solely for long-term marriages of twenty-five years or more, excluding consideration of the other factors. No per se rule exists indicating that permanent alimony is unwarranted unless the twenty-fifth year anniversary has been reached. Therefore, we find that the trial court improperly weighed duration over the other statutorily defined factors in determining a long-term marriage must be twenty-five years or more.

We further conclude that in its disposition of this appeal the Appellate Division inadvertently created a bright-line rule for distinguishing between a short-term and long-term marriage as it pertains to an award of permanent alimony. Although the Appellate Division stated “we do not intend to draw specific lines delineating ‘short-term’ and ‘long-term’ marriages in an effort to define those cases warranting only limited duration rather than permanent alimony,” a fair reading of the opinion may lead to such a conclusion. By not clarifying that the statement reflected only the fifteen-year marriage in this particular case, the Appellate Division made a generally applicable declaration.

The Court further noted that in using the language that was used by the Appellate Division, consideration of the other alimony factors was functionally eliminated.  The Court held:

Moreover, we note that the final clause of the sentence affirms that the “not short-term” nature of a fifteen-year marriage mandates that it cannot be considered for limited duration alimony. Such a holding removes the other twelve factors from consideration for alimony awards once a marriage reaches the fifteen-year mark. Our cases have consistently held that all thirteen factors must be considered and given due weight, and the duration of marriage is only one factor to be considered. (Emphasis added).

There you have it – courts have to consider all of the factors.  Put another way, there can be long term marriages where permanent alimony was not appropriate when all of the other factors were considered, and short term marriages that may have required permanent alimony, all other things considered.

As noted above, the new statute was barely mentioned.  Essentially, the new statute was dismissed in a footnote which said:

N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(c) was amended on September 10, 2014 to specify that “[f]or any marriage or civil union less than 20 years in duration, the total duration of alimony shall not, except in exceptional circumstances, exceed the length of the marriage or civil union. . . .” The amendment is not applicable to this case.

Clearly, on the remand, that means that the court will have to decide alimony based upon the old statute.  Query, however, what this means to cases settled or decided before the Amendment which have to go back to court for some reasons.  I suppose that some may use the footnote to argue that the old law should apply if it helps their client’s case.

I was fortunate to be one of the authors of the amicus brief filed by the New Jersey Chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML).  Even though the end result was somewhat anticlimactic, being involved in the process was still rewarding.

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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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You see it all of the time.  In defense of an enforcement motion, a litigant says “I didn’t knowingly violate the Order”, “I didn’t willfully violate the Order”, “it wasn’t my fault”, “it was an honest mistake.”  In fact, just last week someone was trying to add the term “willful” to an agreement to essentially make enforcement impossible because he would just blame is non-compliance on oversight or some other excuse.  Worse yet, judges sometimes buy the excuse and fail to find a party in violation of litigants rights even though there is no dispute that an Order or Agreement was breached.

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But is “willful violation” actually the standard for enforcement?  Well yesterday, the Supreme Court reminded us that it was not the standard in In re Adoption of N.J.A.C. 5:96 & 5:97 by N.J. Council on Affordable Housing.   This case is not a family law case, mind you, but rather, another in the long line of affordable housing cases.  That said, the Supreme Court told us once again what the standard is, as follows:

Although Rule 1:10-3 encompasses the notion of civil contempt, we have expressly stated that “we view the process [under Rule 1:10-3] as one of relief to litigants.” In re Daniels, 118 N.J. 51, 60 (per curiam) (emphasis added) (citing R. 1:10-5, now R. 1:10-3), cert. denied, 498 U.S. 951, 111 S. Ct. 371, 112 L. Ed. 2d 333 (1990). The focus being on the vindication of litigants’ rights, relief sought pursuant to Rule 1:10-3 does not necessarily require establishing that the violator of an order acted with intention to disobey. Indeed, courts have recognized that “demonstration of a mens rea, wilful disobedience and lack of concern for the order of the court, is necessary for a finding of contempt, but irrelevant in a proceeding designed simply to enforce a judgment on a litigant’s behalf.” Lusardi v. Curtis Point Prop. Owners Ass’n, 138 N.J. Super. 44, 49 (App. Div. 1975) (emphasis added); see also N.J. Dep’t of Health v. Roselle, 34 N.J. 331, 347 (1961) (“The Appellate Division correctly held that upon a litigant’s application for enforcement of an injunctive order, relief should not be refused merely because the violation was not willful.”).

It bears repeating in connection with this present application that our Court Rules generally are to be construed and applied to secure a just determination and to achieve simplicity in procedure. R. 1:1-2. That admonition has particular force when it comes to assisting a litigant in securing vindication of rights.

The Court Rules overall evince an intent toward flexibility when the enforcement of rights is at stake. They provide various means for securing relief and allow for judicial discretion in fashioning relief to litigants when a party does not comply with a judgment or order. In addition to the mechanism of Rule 1:10-3, Rule 4:59-2(a) provides related support for assisting a litigant in securing relief:

 If a judgment or order directs a party to perform a specific act and the party fails to comply within the time specified, the court may direct the act to be done at the cost of such defaulting party by some other person appointed by the court, and the act when so done shall have like effect as if done by the defaulting party.

[See also Roselin v. Roselin, 208 N.J. Super. 612, 618 (App. Div.) (citing R. 4:59-2(a) when noting alternatives available to trial court for enforcing party’s rights), certif. denied, 105 N.J. 550 (1986).]

In Roselin, supra, for example, Judge Pressler invoked Rule 1:10-3’s predecessor rule when assessing the alternatives available to a trial court where a party failed to sign a contract as ordered. 208 N.J. Super. at 618. Highlighting the hardship that the failure was foisting on another of the contract’s parties, the panel observed that “[i]ntervening rights of innocent third persons have arisen,” id. at 617, and declared that the innocent’s “rights must be enforced,” id. at 618 (citing R. 1:10-5). Judge Pressler noted Rule 4:59-2(a)’s ability to secure relief through the directed actions of others, which adds to a court’s flexibility when vindicating the rights of litigants. See ibid.

In sum, then, although punitive or coercive relief under the Rule cannot be used against one who is not a willful violator of a judgment, see, e.g., Schochet v. Schochet, 435 N.J. Super. 542, 548-49 (App. Div. 2014) (citing Pasqua v. Council, 186 N.J. 127, 141 n.2 (2006), for same and noting “objective of [Rule 1:10-3] hearing is simply to determine whether . . . failure [to comply with an order] was excusable or willful”); Milne v. Goldenberg, 428 N.J. Super. 184, 199 (App. Div. 2012) (upholding imposition of community service under Rule 1:10-3 against plaintiff where record established willful noncompliance), that does not foreclose the vindication of litigants’ rights through other forms of non-punitive and non-coercive orders entered pursuant to Rule 1:10-3’s authority enabling the enforcement of rights.

Simply put, while a court may not be able to impose punitive sanctions unless there is a finding that the conduct is willful, it can certainly find the offender in violation of litigant’s rights and order enforcement.  Why is this important?  Because willfulness or not, if someone is entitled to enforcement they are entitled to enforcement.  Moreover, since it is not uncommon to see repeat offenders, the finding that someone previously violated litigant’s right may be useful if there is a subsequent motion (1) as to whether that conduct was “willful” and (2) as to the issue of counsel fees.  Moreover, since Rule 1:10-3 allows for an award of legal fees, if someone is required to come to court to get that which they are already entitled to, should not they be made whole by the other party who violated an Agreement or Order – even if it was not willful?  The policy reasons noted by Judge Pressler in the above quote suggest so.

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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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“We can do this the easy way or the hard way.”  I tried finding the movie that this saying came from but it is in many.  For better or worse, this saying has become a recent mantra of mine – and not just with my kids.  In practice, I often tell this to clients and what it means, if the other side wants to resolve things (a particular issue or the entire case, if possible) in a reasonable and expeditious manner, we can do that.  On the other hand, if they insist on being reasonable, we can do that too. 

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Don’t get me wrong, sometimes/often you have to fight if not litigate an issue.  But sometimes you don’t.  Sometimes in the same case, there are going to be good faith, meaningful disagreements that may have to be decided by a judge, arbitrated or hashed out in several mediation sessions – and at the same time, there will be issues that are simply not worth fighting about and/or can be resolved easily with a little communication and a lot of common sense. 

Often, this silly skirmishes happen at the beginning of a case, when people don’t know the landscape or think that they have to prove something (“if I am soft now, he will run roughshod over me the whole case”).  Other times, people are disagreeable just to be disagreeable.  I recently had a motion where, though the other side previously consent in writing to several things, he opposed them just to oppose them to the court – even though he really didn’t oppose them when you parsed the rhetoric.

That said, doing it the “hard way” on things that should be done the “easy way” only serves to ratchet up emotions, hostilities and legal fees – often needlessly.  Again, I am not suggesting that you should not fight the good fight when it is necessary.  On the other hand, think long and hard if you want to endure the time, money and aggravation fighting over easily resolved issues or fighting just to fight.

Like I said, we can do this the easy way or the hard way – the choice is yours.

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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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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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