On certified appeal from the Appellate Division of the Superior Court.
For reversal -- Chief Justice Vanderbilt, and Justices Heher, Oliphant, Burling, Jacobs and Brennan. For affirmance -- Justice Wachenfeld. The opinion of the court was delivered by Heher, J.
[20 NJ Page 362] The judgment of the Appellate Division of the Superior Court affirming the Chancery Division's judgment dismissing the complaint was certified here for appeal at the instance of plaintiff.
The gravamen of the complaint is that plaintiff, while "in fear of his safety and under duress" practiced by his defendant wife, by a deed of conveyance in which she joined, conveyed to her wholly-owned corporation, Natalie's Realty Co., Inc., all his right, title and interest in a farm of 126 1/2 acres containing a 14-room dwelling house and several farm buildings, situate on the Freehold-Matawan Road in Marlboro Township, Monmouth County, known as the "Marlboro Manor Farm," of the value of $90,000, and a plot of ground and a factory building on Dowd Avenue in Farmingdale, Monmouth County, of the value of $12,000, both tracts then being held by plaintiff and his wife in a tenancy by the entirety. The intervener-respondent was made a party defendant as the purchaser of 110 acres of the farm property for $23,000, by contract made with Natalie and her corporate co-defendant, a price said to be "far below its present market value."
The complaint charges that by the conveyances thus made plaintiff "has divested himself of all his real property and all his assets"; that "when he made the said conveyances and thereafter" Natalie "promised and agreed that she would support" their two infant children, Leon, 5 1/2 years of age, and Norman Thomas, 2 1/2 years old, "out of the incomes" of these properties; that the farm land which Natalie "proposes to sell has been under lease," yielding $2,500 annually; and that the farm property, "if properly managed, would produce sufficient revenues to provide for the support, maintenance and education of the infant children," but if 110 acres be sold at the stated price "the property will be so depreciated in value that the interest of the infants will be seriously jeopardized."
The relief sought is a reconveyance of an undivided half interest in the properties or, in the alternative, the transfer to plaintiff of shares of the capital stock of the defendant corporation equal to one-half of the capital stock outstanding or, by an amendment of the prayer made some four months
after the filing of the complaint, the imposition of a trust upon the land "in favor of the infant children of the marriage."
The dismissal of the complaint came at the close of the plaintiff's case, on defendants' motion. The Chancery Division found that, "taking the plaintiff's testimony * * * at its strongest as sworn testimony, and giving the testimony the benefit of every reasonable and logical conclusion to be drawn therefrom, it does not spell out what, under the cases, is required to prove duress, a course of action which leaves the person at whom it is directed bereft of free will and his own mind"; that a motion to dismiss at the close of the plaintiff's case is well founded unless duress be proved "rather clearly," and that standard of proof was not satisfied here.
The Appellate Division, in an unreported per curiam opinion, concurred in the view of the trial judge that "it did not clearly appear that the threats and other conduct of Mrs. Rubenstein in the surrounding circumstances actually subjugated the mind and will of the plaintiff and constituted the efficient cause of his execution of the deed of conveyance," and thus there was an "absence of proof of causative duress" which called for a dismissal of the complaint without hearing evidence from the defendants.
Referring to observations of the trial judge in the course of the hearing that he would consider the "several factors" "by word or deed" which the plaintiff said "led him to fear for his life," but he would not allow him to "give us the mental processes which led him to his stated conclusion that he was in fear of his life," the Appellate Division said:
"We are not certain that we exactly understand what the trial judge encircled in the category of the 'mental processes' of the plaintiff. Assuredly the efficiency of duress inheres in its resultant dominance of the reactive mind of the person upon whom it is practiced. A mental attitude or state evoked by an external influence is doubtless the product of the processes and operations of the mind. We refrain from any implied confirmation of the rule as stated by the trial judge, but we have examined the proceedings to ascertain ...