What Happens to My Court Case During the Coronavirus Pandemic?

Over the course of the last few weeks, it has become clear that the consequences of the COVID-19 (“Coronavirus”) pandemic are far reaching. In order to protect the health and safety of individuals, certain precautionary measures have been implemented.

On March 15, 2020, Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks issued a Memorandum outlining updated operational protocols for the trial courts of the New York State Unified Court System. The Memorandum provides that, effective 5:00 p.m. on March 16, 2020, all non-essential functions of the trial courts are postponed until further notice. The Memorandum, in its entirety, can be found at http://nycourts.gov/whatsnew/pdf/Updated-Protocol-AttachmentA3.pdf.

But what does this mean for your civil court case? The answer to this question depends on the particular stage of litigation that your case is in.

For those courts that permit electronic filing, lawsuits may still be commenced by such electronic filing. However, you should discuss with your attorney whether filing a complaint at this time is prudent. For instance, a complaint must be served on the opposing party within 120 days of filing the complaint. Due to the implementation of such precautionary measures as social distancing, serving such pleadings may be difficult or dangerous.

If your case is in the discovery stage, document production and responding to demands can continue. However, delays should be expected as many attorneys have been forced to work remotely without the assistance of a fully staffed law firm. Depositions may also take place, but social distancing protocol should be observed.

Any motions, court conferences, and mediations will be postponed until at least May 2020. All civil trials (not commenced before March 13, 2020) have also been stayed indefinitely.

If your case has been appealed to the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court Fourth Judicial Department, all matters calendared for the March/April 2020 term will be considered on submission only, without oral argument. All matters currently scheduled for the May 2020 term are adjourned and will be re-calendared for a later term. The Court will, however, entertain emergency matters.

An unintended consequence of the foregoing changes will be the creation of an overwhelming backlog of cases for the Courts to deal with. It appears that litigants and the Courts will continue to feel the effects of this pandemic long after the crisis has passed.

Certain types of cases are exempted from the updated protocol, including, but not limited to, mental hygiene, guardianship, and civil commitment matters. In addition, certain specific types of matters are subject to a separate set of updated protocols, including, but not limited, evictions and foreclosures. For more information about these exemptions/exceptions, please consult our Litigation Department or your legal counsel.

If you have a case in the United States District Court of New York or Bankruptcy Court, operational protocols have also been updated. Such Orders can be found on each District’s website.

Collection of Child Support Arrears

One issue that often comes up when someone owes child support or spousal support arrears is how those arrears are to be collected. One of the more common methods is through the use of income execution for support enforcement under CPLR §5241.

CPLR §5241 allows the attorney for the party to whom to child support or spousal support are owed to obtain up to 65 percent of the debtor’s disposable earnings to pay both past due and current amounts of child support, alimony or maintenance, plus provision of health insurance for dependents. CPLR §5241(h) notes that a levy on this type of execution has priority “over any other assignment, levy or process.”

Similar to the income execution for support enforcement is the income deduction order for support enforcement authorized by CPLR §5242. Such an order is issued by the court at the same time it issues an order of support. It allows deduction of the same percentages from debtor’s income payable to the creditor and the same number-one priority over all other assignments, levies or process against the income of the debtor.

If you are a debtor, a deduction of 65% of disposable earnings is likely to be unmanageable.  So what can be done? The answer is contained in CPLR §5240, which allows the court to modify terms of garnishment.  In Fishler v. Fishler, 154 A.D.3d 917 (2nd Dep’t 2017), the debtor was served with an execution for the maximum percentage permitted, 65% of disposable earnings.  The Appellate Division, having reviewed financial circumstances of the debtor, reduced percentage collected to 40% of disposable wages.  In making its decision, the court was seeking to strike “a fair balance between the needs of a creditor holding a valid money judgment and the needs of a debtor managing competing financial obligations”.

One additional issue is worth mentioning. If child support or spousal support are being collected by New York State Child Support Enforcement Unit, those arrears will be collected by increasing the amount garnished by 50% of the current payment due.  Debtor paying such arrears may apply for a lower payment amount on arrears, the so-called administrative adjustment, but such modification is discretionary with CSEU and requires an application and proof of financial circumstances.

Exclusive Possession of Marital Residence Revisited

I have previously written about exclusive possession of a marital residence during a pending divorce action.  The applicable standard requires a showing of a marital strife and that the parties were unable to coexist in the same house.  I recently had an opportunity to litigate this issue in a situation where the parties’ conduct has not arisen to the level of marital strife, but the conflict was affecting the parties’ children.  Justice Richard A. Dollinger of the Monroe County Supreme Court reviewed and addressed this issue in L.M.L.v. H.T.N. a/k/a H.T.N., 57 Misc.3d 1207(A) (Sup. Ct. Monroe County 2017).

Having reviewed the history of the marital strife standard, Justice Dollinger wrote that lower courts have generally required more evidence of “strife” than the “petty harassments such as the hostility and contempt admittedly demonstrated herein that are routinely part and parcel of an action for divorce.”  However, he also noted that even minimal levels of domestic discord impact children living in a besieged household.  Given those circumstances, he wrote that:

The harm of a hostile home environment – populated with foul words, disparaging comments, loud demeaning voices, frequent arguments and verbal fights – and the fear for safety of the mother and the children rise, in this court’s view, to the level of domestic violence that [*10]mandates court intervention.Second, this court concedes that simply separating the parents may not end the torrent of verbal abuse directed at the other parent: even in new separate residences, a parent can unleashed verbal abuse and make demeaning comments about the other parent. The children will be exposed to that language, perhaps even harsher than what would be uttered in the company of both parents. But, the children will be spared the retort, the rising voices, the angry face-to-face confrontations that ensue when a parent begins a verbal argument. This difference — between the comments of separated parents living in separate residences and confrontations of parents living in the same residence — may be seem of minor importance to the judiciary, but it would seem to be easily classified as in the “better interests” of the children.

Justice Dollinger summarized the issues before the court as “[t]he mere suggestion that “exclusive use” should hinge, in any fashion, on the “voluntary establishment of an alternative residence” also suggests that preventing domestic violence may depend, in part, on the untenable notion that the convenience of one party’s ability to secure short-term housing away from the home is somehow more important than the emotional security of the children.”  The above holding represents a significant departure from the existing standard.  I agree with the decision and have always thought that the marital strife standard was unduly restrictive.  I will be interested to see if this decision will be followed by other court in pending divorce cases.

 

Expanding Definition of What It Means to Be a Parent

The New York State Court of Appeals ruled last week in Brooke S.B. v Elizabeth A.C.C., 2016 N.Y. Slip. Op. 05903, that a loving caretaker who is not related to, or the adoptive guardian of, a child could still be permitted to ask for custody and visitation rights.

The ruling came from a litigation between a couple, known in family court papers only as Brooke S.B. and Elizabeth A. C.C. In 2008, Elizabeth became pregnant with the couple’s child through artificial insemination. Though Brooke had no legal or biological ties to the child, a boy, she maintained a close relationship with him for years, cutting his umbilical cord at birth, giving him her last name and raising him jointly with Elizabeth. In 2013, after their relationship ended, Elizabeth tried to cut off Brooke’s contact with the boy. Brooke sued for custody and visitation privileges, but was turned down by a lower court, which found that legal precedent pursuant to Alison D. v. Virginia M., 77 N.Y.2d 651 (1991), did not define a non-adoptive, non-biological caretaker as a parent.

In its ruling, the Court of Appeals overturned Alison D., stating that “the definition of ‘parent’ established by this court 25 years ago in Alison D. has become unworkable when applied to increasingly varied familial relationships.” It further held that “where a partner shows by clear and convincing evidence that the parties agreed to conceive a child and to raise the child together, the non-biological, non-adoptive partner has standing to seek visitation and custody.”

While Brooke S.B. seems to be applicable primarily to same sex couples, it is easy to see that the same type of argument may be applicable to heterosexual couples in situations where one partner is artificially inseminated.  The Court of Appeals declined to state what the proper test should be in cases where no preconception agreement can be shown to have existed between nonbiological couple. As far as the proof of the parties’ intent, the courts are likely to look at the parties’ participation such activities as birthing classes, partners’ inclusion on birth notices and other traditional indications of the existence of a pre-conception agreement between a couple.

Final Custody Determination Requires a Plenary Hearing

A mother who lost custody of her children after she broke windows at their father’s house and set fire to his clothes in the driveway should have received an evidentiary hearing, the Court of Appeals has ruled in S.L. v. J.R., 2016 N.Y. Slip. Op. 04442 (2016).  According to the filings, the mother, identified as S.L., and the father, identified as J.R., were married in 1997 and had two kids together.

In September 2012, after 15 years of marriage, S.L. filed for divorce from J.R., and sought full custody of the children. Also that month, she texted J.R.—who had moved out of the family’s house several months prior—that she would burn down the house and set his clothes on fire.

J.R. arrived at the house to find his clothes burnt in the driveway and windows at the house smashed out.  He filed for temporary sole custody of the children, alleging that he feared for their safety because of incidents involving harassment by S.L. and that she also had extramarital affairs and abused alcohol and drugs.

S.L. admitted to setting fire to J.R.’s wardrobe and her involvement in several other incidents, including a past charge of aggravated assault. In October 2012, the trial ruled that there were “enough red flags” to justify granting temporary sole custody of the children to J.R. In April 2013, S.L.’s visitation was suspended after a therapist determined that it would not be in the best interest of the children to allow visitation to continue until she entered anger management therapy.

A few months later, the trial court granted sole custody to J.R. without having a hearing, writing that a hearing was not necessary because the “allegations are not controverted” and that S.L. was being charged in three pending cases in the Integrated Domestic Violence part. In two of the cases, the judge said, S.L. was charged with breaking orders of protection prohibiting her from contacting J.R. or the children.

S.L. appealed trial court’s ruling, but in 2015, the Appellate Division, Second Department affirmed the lower court in S.L. v. J.R., 126 A.D.3d 682 (2nd Dept. 2015), writing that, while custody decisions are generally only made following a comprehensive evidentiary hearing, no hearing is necessary when the court “possesses adequate relevant information to enable it to make an informed and provident decision as to the child’s best interest,” citing its 2004 ruling in Matter of Hom v. Zullo, 6 A.D3.d 536 (2nd Dept. 2004).

But, on June 9, the Court of Appeals unanimously reversed the Second Department’s decision. The Court wrote that while there should be no “one size fits all” rule mandating a hearing in every custody case, custody decisions should generally be made after a full and plenary hearing. In the case of S.L., there were facts relevant to the best interest analysis that were still in dispute, and the trial court appeared to base its decision on hearsay and on the statements of a forensic investigation whose credibility was not questioned by either party.

While the mother was successful in reversing the trial court’s determination, ultimately, I do not believe that it will make a difference when the case is tried. Given the conduct at issue, it is unlikely that the parties will be able to have a joint custodial arrangement.

Parent Who Is Prevented From Seeing Child By Other Spouse Is Not Obligated To Pay Child Support

I have previously written about situations where a child becomes constructively emancipated as a result of the child’s refusal to have contact with the parent.  What happens in situations where a parent is prevented from seeing the child by the other parent? In Coull v. Rottman, 131 A.D.3d 964 (2nd Dept. 2015) the Appellate Division, Second Department suspended father’s obligation to make child support payments.

The father last visited his son in February 2010. For the next several months, he said he would go to the exchange location on visitation days, but often neither the mother nor his son would be there. In one instance, both the mother and the child appeared, but the mother said the boy would not leave the car.

The court also found that the mother assumed an inappropriately hostile stance toward the father and witnesses who testified in his favor.  She further stated many times that she would never allow the father to see his child and would do “whatever it takes” to keep the boy away from him.

Given the circumstances, the court concluded that the father’s obligation to pay child support should be suspended.  While parents have a duty to continually support their children until they are 21 years old, where the noncustodial parent establishes that his or her right of reasonable access to the child has been unjustifiably frustrated by the custodial parent, child support payments may be suspended.

Further, the relationship between the father and the child had deteriorated and while the boy had participated in therapy for several months to foster a relationship with his father, he remained “vehemently opposed” to any type of visitation with the father.  Since the child was 13 at the time of the hearing, and the judge had placed great weight on the child’s wishes, since he was mature enough to express them.

A similar result was reached by the court in Argueta v. Baker, 2016 N.Y. Slip. Op. 01838, where the Appellate Division held that the father had demonstrated that the mother actively interfered with and deliberately frustrated his visitation with the child by failing to provide him with the child’s Florida address, preventing him from seeing the child when he was in Florida, and failing to notify him when the child was in New York. Therefore, the father was entitled to suspension of his child support obligations.

Both parental alienation and parental interference cases turn on specific proof of the child’s and parents’ actions. They may also require testimony of the child. If the parental relationship with the child is already bad, forcing the child to testify is not likely to improve it.

Validity and Finality of Custody Stipulations

Many custody cases are resolved by agreement. When this happens, the parties often place their agreement on the record, either as an oral stipulation recorded by court stenographer or reduce it to a written agreement. Sometimes, immediately after or some time later on, a party to the stipulation may change his mind and ask that the court vacate the stipulation.

In Jon v. Jon, 2015 N.Y. Slip. Op. 51118(U) (Sup. Ct. Nassau Co. 2015), the plaintiff, immediately after entering into a written settlement stipulation, regretted her decision and changed her mind and attempted to have the stipulation vacated. Plaintiff argued that since she was not represented by counsel, that her agreement was not knowing and voluntary, and it came as a result of overreaching by defendant or undue pressure placed on her.

The court heard testimony of the parties determined that although wife was not represented by counsel, the absence of independent legal representation, without more, did not establish overreaching or require nullification of an agreement. She had the opportunity in just a few hours to negotiate with defendant’s counsel in the presence and with the assistance of a court mediator. She decided to pass on that opportunity.

Furthermore, plaintiff was not significantly disadvantaged by the lack of counsel because she could have obtained equal parenting time with her children if she had only agreed to it. She declined because she did not want the children shuttling between their parents. If defendant was not going to agree to let plaintiff have custody of the children—and he wasn’t—she decided to do what in her opinion was the next best thing: let the children stay with defendant. And she did not identify a single thing she wanted in the stipulation that was not included. Given that the stipulation was drafted and signed in “neutral territory”—the courthouse within earshot of the judge—and since the attorney for the children was present throughout, the absence of an attorney did not render the stipulation unfairly made.

The court concluded that neither the terms of the stipulation nor the circumstances surrounding its execution evidence overreaching on the part of defendant. As a result, the court held that it may “not intrude so as to redesign the bargain arrived at by the parties on the ground that judicial wisdom in retrospect would view one or more of the specific provisions as improvident” or imprudent. Christian v. Christian, 42 N.Y.2d 63, 72 (1977).

The key finding that the court made was the following:

This court does believe plaintiff in one important respect: she freely and fairly made a decision and executed an agreement that she very quickly regretted and desired to change. But there is no statute or case that affords a contracting party the opportunity to change their mind, regardless of how quickly they desire to do so, in the circumstances presented here. This court sees the wisdom in affording to an unrepresented party the opportunity within a short window the absolute right to rescind a custody agreement. That would be plaintiff’s only salvation when faithfully applying the current statutory and common law to the facts in this matter.

Stipulations are meant to bring resolution and finality to the parties. They should not be taken lightly and should be thoroughly understood before being finalized.

Terminating Spousal Support Provisions After Divorce Due to Change In Circumstances

In New York, spousal support, also sometimes referred to as “alimony” or “spousal maintenance” can be granted in a divorce case to either spouse by the court pursuant to Domestic Relations Law §236. Alternatively, the parties can agree to a specific amount of maintenance, its duration, and the circumstances under which it will terminate in their settlement agreement.

Factors that a judge or the parties will consider in determining spousal support, among others, include:

The duration of the marriage and the age and health of both parties;
The present and future earning capacity of both parties;
The ability of both to become self-supporting;
The reduced or lost lifetime earning capacity resulting from having foregone or delayed education, employment training or career opportunities during the marriage;
The presence of children;
Tax consequences.

Even once the amount of maintenance is determined and included in the judgment of divorce or settlement agreement, spousal maintenance can be modified.

However, if the maintenance was set by the parties’ settlement  agreement, the party seeking its modification due to a change in circumstances will have to meet a significant burden of proof. Specifically, the party seeking the change will have to show prima facie evidence of “extreme hardship” before the court can hold a hearing to resolve these issues. Extreme hardship means that the payor’s circumstances are so adverse that the party can’t meet its living expenses without modifying spousal support. In a recent decision, McKelvey v. McKelvey, 2015 N.Y. Slip. Op. 02830 (3rd Dept. 2015), the Appellate Division found that the husband presented such evidence when he was able to show that “the undisputed proof indicating that the husband earns, after taxes, less than his monthly support obligation was sufficient to demonstrate prima facie evidence of extreme hardship, and Supreme Court should have held a hearing on his request to modify his support obligation.” Once such evidence is presented then the court hearing the case would hold a fact-finding to determine how spousal maintenance should be modified.

If spousal maintenance was set by a judge after a hearing, the party seeking the modification must establish a substantial change in circumstances and show that the needs of the dependent spouse or financial abilities of the paying spouse that warrant modification. The party making such request would face a significant burden and the court will have to consider such factors as the party’s current and past earnings, costs of living, financial obligations, as well as assets and liabilities.  In Klapper v. Klapper, 204 A.D.2d 518 (2d Dept. 1994), the Second Department held that, in determining whether there was a substantial change in circumstances sufficient to warrant downward modification, “the change is to be measured by a comparison between the payor’s financial circumstances at the time of the motion for downward modification and at the time of divorce or, as the case may be, the time that the order of which modification is sought was made.”

Further, a party who willfully or voluntarily reduces income will not receive a reduction in support payments. If evidence of such actions is presented to the court, the party seeking modification will not receive and is also likely to be ordered to pay the other spouse’s attorneys’ fees.

Enforcement of Payment Obligations Pursuant to Judgment of Divorce

One of the issues that occurs in cases where a party is ordered to make spousal maintenance or child support after the judgment of divorce is entered, is that party may fail to make such payments. This brings up a question of what remedy should be utilized under those circumstances.

A recent decision of Keller v. Keller, 2015 N.Y. Slip. Op. 02453 (2d Dept. 2015) demonstrates how the court approaches a contempt application based upon payor’s failure to pay child support and related expenses. In Keller, a contempt application was brought after the money judgment for child support went unpaid for a number of years, and 6 Family Court orders were apparently ignored by the payor. In discussing the remedies available, the Appellate Division stated that

Pursuant to Domestic Relations Law § 245, a spouse may be punished for contempt for failing to make payments pursuant to [a judgment of divorce], but it must appear presumptively, to the satisfaction of the court,’ that payment cannot be enforced pursuant to Domestic Relations Law §243 (sequestration), Domestic Relations Law §244 (money judgment), CPLR §5241 (income execution) or CPLR §5242 (income deduction)” (Jones v. Jones, 65 A.D.3d 1016, 1016; see Klepp v. Klepp, 35 A.D.3d 386; Higbee v. Higbee, 260 A.D.2d 603). Thus, contempt may be warranted where the record demonstrates “that resort to other, less drastic enforcement mechanisms [has] been exhausted or would be ineffectual” (Capurso v. Capurso, 61 A.D.3d 913, 914; see Jones v. Jones, 65 A.D.3d at 1016; Rosenblitt v. Rosenblitt, 121 A.D.2d 375).

While discussing the specific circumstances of the case, the Appellate Division stated that plaintiff repeatedly failed to pay child support as directed in the parties’ judgment of divorce, or to abide by the court orders and money judgments subsequently entered against him on account of child support arrears and related expenses. The record further showed that the defendant either exhausted all enforcement remedies other than contempt, or that such further attempts “would have been futile”. The court further held that the plaintiff had the burden of going forward with evidence of his inability to make the required payments. After reviewing the facts and applicable law, the Appellate Division found that holding plaintiff in contempt of court was the correct remedy.

If Keller was brought in Family Court, the court’s would apply a different set of rules. In Family Court, under Family Court Act §454(3), there is a presumption that a parent’s failure to pay court ordered child support is willful. Payee’s sworn testimony as to nonpayment of ordered child support payments from payor is a prima facie evidence of a willful violation. Once the violation is shown, the burden shifts to the payor to demonstrate inability to make the required payments.  Upon the court’s finding of willful violation, the court may grant attorneys’ fees, enter a money judgment, make an income deduction order, require an undertaking, make a sequestration order or suspend the respondent’s driving, professional or business license. Further, the court may direct incarceration of 6 months as a remedy as well. Thus, defendant would not have to make a showing that all available remedies were exhausted.

The above discussion illustrates that other remedies should always be considered before seeking a finding of contempt since a finding of contempt may require a substantial motion practice and, most likely, a hearing.  Thus, contempt motions should not be brought unless all other remedies were exhausted or, alternatively, if nonpayment of child support, a willful violation petition should be filed in Family Court.

Constructive Emancipation and the Child’s Conduct

I have previously written about constructive emancipation issue and also addresses some of the applicable law in another post.  Generally, a child can become emancipated through his actions when the child either refuses to have contact with the parent or voluntarily abandon’s parent’s home. However, what happens when a child engages in abusive conduct directed toward the non-residential parent?

In a recent decision, Cornell v. Cornell, 2015 NY Slip Op 25030 (Sup. Ct. Monroe Co. 2015), the court held that where a child’s conduct directed at the parent is abusive and inappropriate, the court can construe such conduct as abandonment. In Cornell, the evidence presented to the court established that the child engaged in communications that established “a substantial hatred and/or disrespect for the mother”. In the court’s view,

a child who utters such terms about their parent cannot realistically expect this court to ignore such conduct and order the maligned parent to pay any form of support for the child. A child over the age of 18, seeking reimbursement for college expenses, cannot use such language toward a parent and then, either directly or through his other parent, seek child support, and/or payment of college expenses. No one should be permitted to refer to their mother in such fashion, and then, without recanting or asking for forgiveness, seek the court’s assistance to have that person support their future life. This court will not condone such actions by an unworthy son.

Thus, the court emancipated the child and the mother was no longer obligated to contribute toward support of the child or pay a portion of his college expenses.

This decision is particularly interesting because of the court’s emphasis on the child’s negative conduct directed at the mother. The court also mentioned that the child refused subsequent contact with the mother. While refusal to have contact is significant, according to the controlling cases, the court also has to analyze the parent’s efforts to reestablish contact with the child. Unfortunately in Cornell, the court did not discuss what specific actions the mother undertook to reestablish contact with the child.

Ultimately, I think that the court has reached result.  It will be interesting to see if this decision will be appealed and what the Appellate Division’s decision will be.