On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, General Equity Part, Cape May County, C-3-05.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Kestin, Payne and Lihotz.
Plaintiff, Kelli DeVlieger, appeals from trial court orders entered on December 27, 2005 and May 1, 2006. Defendants, Susan M. DeVlieger and Louis F. DeVlieger, are plaintiff's former mother-in-law and father-in-law. Intervenor, John DeVlieger, is plaintiff's former husband.
The December 27 order, inter alia, resolved issues raised on cross-motions for summary judgment made by plaintiff and defendants. Judge William C. Todd, III, articulated the reasons for his determinations in a comprehensive oral opinion rendered on December 23, the return date of those motions. The May 1 order, on cross-motions for summary judgment made by plaintiff and intervenor, resolved the remaining issues in the case. Once again, Judge Todd stated the reasons for these rulings in an equally exhaustive oral opinion, on the return date of the latter motions, April 28.
The genesis of the disputes is in an April 1998 agreement. Defendants had owned a parcel of residential property, which they divided into two condominium units. They continued to occupy Unit A and sold Unit B to plaintiff and intervenor, granting purchasers an option to purchase Unit A on the condition that defendants would be permitted to continue residing in that unit for life at a rent of $1400 per month. The option would begin to run in two-and-one-half years from the date of the agreement for a duration of four years. The agreement was silent as to the parties' rights in the event the marriage of plaintiff and intervenor came to an end.
In April 2004, plaintiff and intervenor were divorced in Pennsylvania. The judgment of divorce dealt with the distribution of Unit B as part of the marital estate; however, the option to purchase Unit A was treated as having no value. Initially, plaintiff appealed the latter determination, but eventually withdrew that appeal.
Thereafter, on August 16, 2004, plaintiff entered into an agreement with Edward J. Callaghan that recognized plaintiff was a co-optionee with her former husband for purchase of Unit A, and provided that Callahan would finance plaintiff's efforts to exercise her interest in the option in return for a division of the net proceeds. Intervenor declined to participate in exercising the option and, in October 2004, plaintiff attempted to do so without him. When her efforts were ignored by defendants, plaintiff, on January 7, 2005, commenced this action for specific performance. In an amended complaint, she asserted causes of action against intervenor for breach of fiduciary duty and breach of the duty of good faith; and she added a count for a declaratory judgment against defendants and intervenor.
After considering the record developed and submitted by the parties on the cross-motions of plaintiff and defendants for summary judgment, Judge Todd concluded: this contract should be interpreted as providing that neither the plaintiff nor the intervenor would have the right to exercise the option alone, that the plaintiff does not have the right to exercise the option, that her claim for specific performance should be denied[.]
Subsequently, in deciding the cross-motions of plaintiff and intervenor, Judge Todd determined that intervenor had not breached any legal duty owing to plaintiff.
On appeal, plaintiff argues that the trial court misinterpreted the agreement, especially by "adding" a "marital discord clause" to it. Plaintiff also argues that the trial court "should have considered the single/joint exercise of the option as the controlling issue," and that the court should have determined that intervenor "failed in his good faith and fiduciary duties [as a] co-optionee."
We have analyzed the record in the light of the arguments advanced by the parties and prevailing legal standards, and perceive no basis for rejecting the conclusions Judge Todd reached. His determinations, based upon the essentially undisputed factual background of the matter, were rooted in contract interpretation. The issues of contract construction were well within the court's authority to decide, cf. Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. v. Checchio, 335 N.J. Super. 495, 501 (App. Div. 2000); Garden State Plaza Corp. v. S.S. Kresge Co., 78 N.J. Super. 485, 497-98 (App. Div. 1963), especially in a proceeding seeking equitable relief. We do not discern that the court's mention of "marital discord" considerations was essential to the decision reached. Rather, the result announced was based upon determinations that the option had been granted to two parties, not one; that the relationships at the root of the agreement had been dissolved; that the parties could not have contemplated that one of the option holders would be acting in concert with a stranger to exercise the option; and that the purpose of again unifying ownership of the two segments could no longer be achieved since, by the time of the litigation, neither option holder still owned the initially conveyed portion, Unit B, which had been sold in connection with the divorce proceeding. We see no misapplication of the trial court's discretion in reaching its result based on those perceptions.
In sum, the trial court's determination, that plaintiff had made no showing of compelling equities militating in her favor, was a well-based discharge of the court's role in balancing the equities, to which we must defer. The conclusion regarding plaintiff's asserted ...