On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, General Equity Part, Middlesex County, Docket No. C-223-05.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Stern and A. A. Rodríguez.
Evelyn Ciman (Ciman) and her daughter Venus Vado (Vado), also known as Venus Banguela, appeal from the August 8, 2006 judgment in favor of Miguel A. Feliciano (Feliciano) for $320,000 in compensatory and $25,000 in punitive damages. The judgment also provided that Ciman should receive a credit against the judgment in the amount of $30,000 plus "all property taxes paid." We affirm the judgment except for the award of punitive damages, which is reversed.
In October 1989, Feliciano and his then-wife purchased a condominium unit in South Brunswick. Following his divorce, Feliciano continued to reside in the home and held sole title to the property. However, without his former wife's income, he was unable to meet his mortgage obligations. In 1999, the mortgagee, GMAC, initiated foreclosure proceedings.
During this period, Feliciano started his own business, Maritima Auto Freightways, Inc. (Maritima). Feliciano hired Ciman as one of his sales representatives. Some time later, they became romantically involved. Feliciano discussed the foreclosure action with Ciman. Prior to her employment with Maritima, Ciman worked many years in the mortgage industry and had studied to obtain a real estate license. According to Feliciano, Ciman advised him to declare bankruptcy in order to delay a potential foreclosure judgment on the property.
Feliciano took Ciman's advice and declared bankruptcy four times in order to avoid paying the mortgage. Eventually, GMAC obtained a foreclosure judgment. At a sheriff's sale, GMAC was the winning bidder at $77,100.
Feliciano then contacted GMAC to discuss purchasing the property. They agreed on a purchase price of $110,000 in an all cash transaction. Ciman cautioned Feliciano against purchasing the property in his own name because she believed that GMAC would be reluctant to give Feliciano title. Ciman recommended that her daughter, Vado, hold title to the property.
Thereafter, Feliciano and Ciman met with Mitch Berger, GMAC's counsel, to facilitate the purchase of the property. After this meeting, Feliciano issued several bank checks from his account totaling $125,000. Ciman delivered these checks to Berger's law office. The funds were deposited in an escrow account.
According to Feliciano, Ciman had recovered $80,000 from an auto accident. She had given this money to him to deposit into his safe deposit box in cash form. Ciman claimed that from this fund, she contributed $55,000 in cash towards the purchase of the property. Feliciano contributed the other $55,000.
Feliciano, however, testified that Ciman did not contribute any money towards the purchase price of the property. Rather, he alleges that in February 2000, he borrowed approximately $30,000 from Ciman to pay off debt owed to his business vendors.
The closing took place on January 19, 2000. According to the closing documents, Vado purchased the property in her name for $112,711.06. The balance in the escrow account was refunded to Feliciano.
At trial, Vado testified that the only reason she agreed to become involved in this transaction was because Feliciano agreed to pay her rent equal to one-half of the full rental value of the property. Because Feliciano failed to deliver on this promise, Vado conveyed the property to Ciman on May 2, 2002. Vado did not receive any consideration for this transfer despite the fact ...