Justice Richard A. Dollinger

Knight1All hail Sir Richard of Rochester! Chivalry is not dead.

Although opening his January 17, 2015 opinion in Cornell v. Cornell with “Sticks and stones will break my bones, But words will never harm me,” Monroe County Acting Supreme Court Justice Richard A. Dollinger nevertheless held that vile words to a child support-paying mother from her college-aged son were not to be tolerated.

As Justice Dollinger summarized, this case tested whether a son who engaged in vile disparagement of his mother, may strip his father of his right to claim support, including payment of college expenses. The Court held that it did.

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.

In his motion papers before the Court, the father sought child support from the mother and payment for college expenses. The mother argued that her obligations to pay any support – including the cost of college education – were obviated because of the child’s calculated estrangement from her. She claimed that her son described her as a “douche bag” and an “asshole,” and that this, among other behavior, has caused alienation between her and the son.

Continue Reading Do You Kiss Your Mother With That Mouth?

In its October 30, 2014 decision in Hoffer-Adou v. Adou, the Appellate Division, First Department, affirmed the granting of summary judgment awarding a no-fault divorce solely upon the plaintiff’s (here the wife) sworn statement. That award had been made below by Supreme Court, New York County Justice Deborah A. Kaplan.

In so holding the First Department joined the Fourth Department in holding that whether there has been an irretrievable breakdown is purely subjective. In a decision issued November 9, 2012 in Palermo v. Palermo, the Fourth Department (December 13, 2012 blog post) had affirmed a decision of Monroe County Supreme Court Justice Richard A. Dollinger (January 30, 2012 blog post) for the reasons stated in Justice Dollinger’s opinion: a party’s sworn statement of irretrievable breakdown is incontestable. It is not subject to attack at trial.

The First Department, here, held:

Contrary to the husband’s contention, the wife was entitled to a judgment of divorce under the no-fault provision of DRL § 170(7), since her statement under oath that the marriage was irretrievably broken for a period of six months was sufficient to establish her cause of action for divorce as a matter of law.

However, as noted in prior blog posts, the subject has not been without debate. Two decisions of the Nassau County Supreme Court, Townes v. Coker (relied upon by the First Department and discussed in the blog post of February, 20, 2012), and A.C. v. D.R. (discussed in the April 4, 2011 post), both held that New York’s new no-fault ground was purely subjective.

Continue Reading A Party’s Sworn Statement Of Irretrievable Breakdown Is Incontestable: The First Department Weighs In

In his February 26, 2013 decision in J.K.C. v T.W.C., Monroe County Supreme Court Justice Richard A. Dollinger held that an attorney could not have a charging lien under Section 475 of the Judiciary Law against the IRA received by his former client (the wife) as her marital share of the husband’s IRA. IRAs, generally, are exempt from creditor’s claims pursuant to CPLR §5205(c)(2).
The attorney had represented the wife in a divorce action. In the retainer agreement, the attorney noted that if fees were due and owing at the time of his discharge, the attorney had the right to seek a charging lien which the agreement described as “a lien upon the property that was awarded to you as a result of equitable distribution in the final order or judgment in the case.” The client also signed a “statement of client’s rights and responsibilities” which stated that a court could give the attorney a charging lien which “entitled your attorney to payment for services already rendered at the end of the case out of the proceeds of the final order or judgment.”

Justice Dollinger recognized several facts as pertinent to his analysis:

  • There was no evidence that the wife ever contested her attorney’s charges until after the judgment of divorce;
  • There was no allegation before the court that the wife ever agreed to pay the attorney’s fees specifically from the IRA account;
  • There was no evidence that the wife possesses any other assets, distributed under the divorce judgment, available to satisfy the charging lien; and
  • There was no allegation that the client, in the divorce judgment, engaged in any collusive or other improper behavior to thwart the attorney’s recovery of his fees.

Holding that a charging lien could not be asserted against an IRA, Justice Dolinger also considered:

  • The federal tax consequences on any withdrawal;
  • The penalty imposed when an unqualified withdrawals is made;
  • The actual ownership of the trust funds by the trustee;
  • The “anti-alienation” provisions of ERISA;
  • The wife’s never having “available cash proceeds” during the trustee-to-trustee transfer of the funds from the husband’s IRA to her own;
  • The broad language protecting IRA roll-overs from the reach of creditors in CPLR §5205;
  • The lack of express direction in Section 475 in the Judiciary Law to permit a charging lien against retirement funds; and
  • The lack of any provisions relating to a charging lien for attorneys fees under New York’s Domestic Relations Law.

Continue Reading Collecting Counsel Fees in Divorce Actions: Charging Lien Against IRA Denied

gavel 1 small.jpgIn a decision issued November 9, 2012 in Palermo v. Palermo, the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, affirmed the October 28, 2011 decision of Monroe County Supreme Court Justice Richard A. Dollinger for the reasons stated in Justice Dollinger’s opinion: a party’s sworn statement of irretrievable breakdown is incontestable. It is not subject to attack at trial.

For other decisions on this topic, see the blog published January 30, 2012.

College Fund 4.jpgIn last week’s blog, I discussed the extraordinary analysis undertaken by Monroe County Supreme Court Justice Richard A. Dollinger in L.L. v. R.L. in order to apply the agreement made by parents at the time of their divorce to finance their children’s college education “according to their respective means at the time the child attends college.”

On October 18, 2012, the Appellate Division, Third Department in Cranston v. Horton, affirmed the determination of Ulster County Family Court Judge Marianne O. Mizel to uphold a Support Magistrate’s order that each parent contribute 33% towards the reasonable educational expenses of their unemancipated children.

The Family Court had applied the parties’ 2007 surviving divorce settlement agreement requirement that each party “shall assist with the children’s reasonable college educational expenses according to their relative means and abilities at the time of attendance.”

Contrary to the father’s suggestion, the equal contribution level fixed by Family Court does not conflict with this provision.

In another part of the lower court decision, the father’s application for a reduction in his child support obligation was granted based upon a reduction in his reduced adjusted gross income from $98,000 to $63,000.

Justice Dollinger’s analysis would look to a variety of factors to assess the “relative means” of the parties. With how much is each parent left after considering their obligations. Here, the father had a child support obligation (apparently reduced in Cranston to $21,000), the maintenance obligation (unspecified), and the unspecified cost of student and other loans of one of the parties’ four children.

The Appellate Division concluded that the father’s income still far exceeded that of the mother (more than $23,000 at the time of the parties’ 2007 agreement). Thus, the father was in no position to claim an injustice based upon equal contributions by the parties to their children’s educational expenses. The court gave no credence to the father’s contention that the Family Court impermissibly rewrote the parties’ agreement in affirming the Support Magistrate’s determination regarding educational expenses.

Cranston is just the most recent in a never-ending line of cases in which the court was asked to apply a standard the parties created, and could have defined for themselves but did not.

Justice Dollinger’s decision in L.L. v. R.L is remarkable, if not unique in providing the parties with a formula to resolve their issue as it will continue to arise in the future.

However, the parents in Cranston, have no such guidance, unless we are to assume that in all future years, each parent will pay one third of college expenses. Does that blanket holding reflect the “relative means” of the parties when they have two or more children in college at one time or if either of their incomes, or expenses, change.

It’s common, if not easy to settle a divorce by agreeing to determine the college expense responsibility at a later time. However, these recent cases suggest that divorcing parents would be wise to reach specific guidelines, if not a precise formula by which their future income and assets will be assessed to determine both the relative contrbutions of the parents as well as their share of the total cost.

Dana M. Loiacono, Esq., of Larkin, Axelrod, Ingrassia & Tetenbaum, LLP, of Newburgh, represented the father. Joshua N. Koplovitz, Esq., of the Pro Bono Appeals Program of Albany represented the mother.

College Fund 2.jpg“It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” Bill Clinton, August 17, 1998

“What does “means” mean?” Justice Richard A. Dollinger, June 22, 2012

By statute, a court may direct a parent to contribute to a child’s education, even in the absence of special circumstances or a voluntary agreement of the parties. Under the Child Support Standards Act (D.R.L. 240[1-b][c][7] and F.C.A. 413[c][7]) the court may award educational expenses:

Where the court determines, having regard for the circumstances of the case and of the respective parties and in the best interests of the child, and as justice requires, that the present or future provision of post-secondary, private, special, or enriched education for the child is appropriate.

In my May 9, 2012 blog, I discussed the April 24, 2012 decision in Tishman v. Bogatin, in which the Appellate Division, First Department, held that a parent’s contribution to a child’s college education would not necessarily be limited to a portion of the expense to attend a campus within the State University of New York system: the “SUNY cap.” In making a decision, there is no burden placed on a parent to show that the child’s needs cannot be met adequately at a SUNY college. “Whether to impose a SUNY cap is to be determined on a case-by-case basis, considering the parties’ means and the child’s educational needs.”

In its July 25, 2012 decision in Lynn v Kroenung, the Second Department reaffirmed that unlike the obligation to provide support for a child’s basic needs, support for a child’s college education is not mandatory. Instead, absent a voluntary agreement, whether a parent is obligated to contribute to a child’s college education is “dependent upon the exercise of the court’s discretion, and an award will be made only “as justice requires.”

In L.L. v. R.L., Monroe County Supreme Court Justice Richard A. Dollinger was compelled to determine what “means” meant in a couple’s separation agreement. That agreement provided that the parents would finance the children’s college education “according to their respective means at the time the child attends college, after grants and scholarships have been taken into consideration.”

In 2011, the parties’ oldest son applied, was accepted, and enrolled at Penn State (Harrisburg). Before he left for school, the mother moved for an allocation of the college expenses. In a prior decision, Justice Dollinger reserved this issue. When the couple’s second son recently applied to Hofstra (stated cost $33,000 annually), the mother sought an allocation of those expenses as well.

Justice Dollinger clarified the issue he would be deciding:

This Court is not deciding what the parents should contribute to their children’s college education expenses. The agreement clearly indicates that both parents would contribute something if they had the means to do so. The only issues before the court are questions of contract interpretation and contractual rights: what the parents agreed they would contribute, what obligation may be enforced against either parent under the agreement, and whether either party has, to date, breached their obligations thereunder.

Continue Reading The Divorced Parent's Obligation to Pay for College: It Depends What "Means" Means

Generations.jpgWhat are the support rights and obligations of a couple who have habitually lived often the generosity of their parents?

That was the question Monroe County Suprme Court Justice Richard A. Dollinger answered in his July 23, 2012 decision in G.R.P. v. L.B.P. when determining temporary support.

The divorcing couple have been married for 20 years and have 3 children. Throughout the marriage, they enjoyed a “substantial” lifestyle: a comfortable home, country club and health club memberships, annual vacations in resort communities including skiing in Colorado and winters in Florida.

However, that lifestyle always exceeded the couple’s earned income. The husband had been employed as a photographer in a business owned by his father, but the business stalled and was closed in the last 18 months. The husband claimed $8,470 in annual income as of July 2011. Although the husband held two undergraduate degrees, he never earned significant sums, with annual earnings in 2000-2009 approximating $35,000. The husband provided no evidence of his efforts to find employment, except a “meek statement” of trying to find work as a self-employed photographer.

In considering his obligation to support his family, this court declines to give any significant credence to the husband’s employment efforts. Again, the only reasonable conclusion is that the husband’s parents have financed most of, if not all, the family’s expenses for at least two years, if not significantly longer.

The wife, who also held an undergraduate degree, earned $25,000 annually from her employment.

Nonetheless, the husband in his statement of net worth listed expenses of $94,812 annually. The wife estimated expenses at more than $107,000 annually. Moreover, neither party’s budget included any expenses for the education of the oldest child, now attending college.

Continue Reading When Divorcing Parents Live Off Their Own Parents

Gavel main.jpgThe rule of law discussed by Monroe County Supreme Court Justice Richard A. Dollinger in Lomaglio v. Lomaglio is undoubtedly correct. An ex-husband may not be required to provide health insurance beyond the period he is required to pay his ex-wife maintenance. The question is was he allowed to correctly apply the law?

With allusions to Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore, Justice Dollinger answered his own question:

When does a trial court judge get to review or opine, expand upon or possibly modify an appellate division ruling? Answer: “hardly ever.”

Domestic Relations Law §236B(8) is straightforward enough. A divorcing spouse may not be required to provide health insurance beyond the support period:

8. Special relief in matrimonial actions. a. In any matrimonial action the court may order a party to purchase, maintain or assign a policy of insurance providing benefits for health and hospital care and related services for either spouse or children of the marriage not to exceed such period of time as such party shall be obligated to provide maintenance, child support or make payments of a distributive award.

So why is Justice Dollinger’s just-published February, 2012 opinion implementing this provision front page news (New York Law Journal 5/21/2012)? It is because 12 years ago, the Appellate Division Fourth Department appears to have held that Mr. Lomaglio would be obligated to provide health insurance to his ex-wife, permanently, although the 18-month period for which he was obligated to provide maintenance to his ex-wife had expired.

Continue Reading Did Judge Overrule the Appellate Division to Hold Ex-Husband May Not Be Required to Provide Health Insurance Beyond Period He Is Required to Pay Support to Ex-Wife?

U-haul.jpgWhen a judge works this hard to provide a searching analysis of a difficult question, we should sit up and take notice.

Should an unemployed father be required to prove why he should not have to relocate to seek/obtain employment in his field as a condition to him receiving a downward modification of his child support obligations?

Presenting a scholarly review of decisions in New York and around the country, Monroe County Supreme Court Justice Richard A. Dollinger crafted a test to determine whether a parent with substantial child support obligations, and unique job skills, is required as a matter of law to geographically expand his search for employment.

The essential facts in Szalapski v. Schwartz are not unfamiliar. The former spouses have three children, ranging in ages from 10 to 15. When the parties were divorced in 2005, the father was earning $82,000 annually; the mother approximately $6,000. The father’s child support obligation was $1,826.49 monthly.

Mr. Szaplapski (the “father”) is a “multi-disciplinary physicist,” with a career in academia before serving as a staff engineer. He left academics in 2004, electing to stay in western New York to accommodate his family. He worked in software design for which he had only marginal qualifications. In July, 2010, the father was laid off. After his severance pay ended, he received unemployment insurance benefits of $405 per week.

In the application being decided by Justice Dollinger, the father, now remarried, sought to reduce his child support obligation. He alleged that he was unable to find comparable employment in the geographic area where his children live.  His ex-wife challenged the diligence of his job search, but also argued that because of the father’s unique talents, the court must require him to diligently search for employment in a broader geographic area. That the father failed to do.

Justice Dollinger began with a detailed legal and factual analysis of the father’s search for employment in the Rochester area where the parties lived. This exhaustive analysis, itself, presented a primer on the diligent efforts necessary to withstand a motion to dismiss an application for a downward modification of a child support obligation based upon the loss of employment. Based upon the evidence presented Justice Dollinger found that the father presented “a prima facie case for a hearing.”

Noting that a parent’s child support obligations are “paramount.” Justice Dollinger then turned “to the second question: is the applicant required to demonstrate a reasonable job search outside the local community and, if so, how far does his job search have to extend?”

Continue Reading Unemployed Father May Have To Relocate Rather Than Having His Child Support Obligation Reduced

Gavel 2.jpgElevating substance over form, Supreme Court Monroe County Acting Justice Richard A. Dollinger allowed a husband to amend his complaint in a 2009 divorce action to add a no-fault claim under D.R.L. §170(7), effective October 12, 2012.

Justice Dollinger in his April 16, 2012 decision in G.C. v. G.C. (pdf), noted New York’s public policy is to freely grant permission to amend complaints. The wife objected, noting that the Legislature expressly limited no-fault claims to actions commenced after its effective date.

D.R.L. §170(7) permits a divorce to be granted upon the sworn declaration of a party that the marriage has been “irretrievably broken down for a period of six months.” Justice Dollinger stated that the Legislature’s limitation of such a no-fault ground to actions commenced after the October 12, 2010 effective date of the statute, was satisfied by requiring that no such claim could be raised by amended complaint until six months after the effective date.

When the husband moves to amend his complaint to add a cause of action under Section 170(7), he does not violate the language of the statute or the intention of the Legislature, Instead, he seeks to. invoke what the Legislature extended to him: a cause of action that has ripened because more than six months have passed since the date of the amendment and during that time, the husband swears that his marriage has been irretrievably broken.

Continue Reading Judge Allows No-fault Divorce Claim to be Added to Pre-No-fault Case