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Marte v. Oliveras

June 14, 2005


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Hudson County, HUD-L-1811-03.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Alley, J.A.D.



Argued telephonically May 25, 2005

Before Judges Kestin, Lefelt and Alley.

Plaintiff and defendant were married in 1977 and had a daughter, Teresa Marte, in 1978. When they were divorced shortly thereafter, defendant obtained custody of Teresa.

Plaintiff and his witnesses maintained that he visited Teresa and paid child support, but according to defendant, plaintiff rarely made support payments and did not spend much time with his daughter. Plaintiff remarried and had two other daughters. Defendant also remarried and had a son.

Teresa underwent a life-changing experience in 1988, on the day of her First Communion, when she was in a car that had stopped for gas. Someone outside the car sparked a lighter and a fire resulted. Teresa sustained burns on over forty percent of her body, although she survived after eleven months of hospitalization and residential rehabilitation.

Plaintiff claims that defendant spoke to him about filing a lawsuit to recover for Teresa's injuries, that he accompanied her to the office of a lawyer she had selected, and that he signed some papers that he was told through a Spanish interpreter were necessary to start the suit. Plaintiff asserts that he does not speak, read or write English, whereas defendant speaks "perfect English." Also according to plaintiff, defendant told him that she would tell him what was needed for the lawsuit. He willingly let her handle the lawsuit due to his limited English. He contends that he was shocked when a newspaper revealed that Teresa was getting a $3 million settlement. He had no knowledge of a settlement and did not consent to it. He claimed defendant called him and told him not to believe what the papers had written and that Teresa was only going to receive one million dollars.

Defendant, however, contended that she never spoke to plaintiff about starting a lawsuit "as he was not at all interested in anything to do with her welfare or any money she might receive as a result of the accident. He just did not care." Further, she claimed that plaintiff understood and spoke English fluently. She denied telling him not to believe what he read in the papers concerning the lawsuit.

What occurred was that a lawsuit was filed by Teresa, with her mother as her guardian ad litem. Both her mother and father had individual claims as well. They were all represented by the same attorneys. Under a settlement reached in 1993, Teresa obtained a $3 million annuity which paid her $4,250 per month, with payments to increase by three percent each year. Lump sum payments, ranging from $15,000 to $500,000, were also set forth. Defendant testified at the "friendly" hearing that she had talked to plaintiff and that he approved of the settlement. Plaintiff claimed that he was not notified about the "friendly" hearing, so he did not attend.

At the direction of the judge before whom the settlement was reached, defendant applied to be the guardian of Teresa's assets, and with plaintiff's consent, was appointed. Defendant named herself as the primary beneficiary, and plaintiff and Teresa's half-brother were named equal secondary beneficiaries. There was no evidence that defendant received court approval to so designate herself.

Plaintiff also maintains that he did not agree that defendant should be the sole beneficiary of the annuity in the event Teresa predeceased them. Defendant claimed that plaintiff gave his consent for her to be the beneficiary.

On January 8, 2000, Teresa died of pneumonia at the age of twenty-one. An aunt of defendant's certified that, immediately after Teresa's funeral, she heard defendant tell plaintiff that although she had been named the beneficiary of the annuity, she was willing to have plaintiff or his children share in the annuity. Plaintiff said he wanted no part of the money. Defendant offered the same account.

Plaintiff claimed that on January 21, 2000, defendant asked him to sign a paper to permit a police investigation into Teresa's death. Plaintiff denied ever seeing a form dated January 21, 2000, with the heading "Bergen County Surrogate's Court." The paper, signed by plaintiff, is a "Renunciation for Administration Ad Prosequendum" for Teresa's estate, and requests the appointment of defendant as the administrator of the estate.

On the same date, according to plaintiff and his wife, defendant asked him what he wanted to do about some money Teresa had left when she died, but plaintiff did not want to talk about it. Defendant said that Teresa wanted to leave some money for the education of her half-sisters, Chantelle and Suzelle. Plaintiff said that whatever Teresa wanted was fine with him. Defendant told him that there would not be much money left after the State took its share.

On March 31, 2003, plaintiff filed a complaint against defendant alleging conversion, breach of fiduciary duty, and "unjust enrichment and constructive trust." On May 22, 2003, defendant answered the complaint. Defendant moved for summary judgment, plaintiff opposed, and the judge granted defendant's motion in a decision read from the bench on January 20, 2004. He signed an order dismissing the case on January 26, 2004. Although plaintiff moved for reconsideration, the court denied the motion.

In reviewing summary judgment orders, "[w]e employ the same standard that governs trial courts" in determining whether or not to grant them. Prudential Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co. v. Boylan, 307 N.J. Super. 162, 167 (App. Div. 1998). A trial judge cannot grant summary judgment in the face of genuine issues of material fact and if the moving party is not entitled to judgment as a matter of law. R. 4:46-2. The record must be considered in a light most favorable to the opponent of the motion, and all doubts resolved against the ...

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