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Jean v. Barthelus


September 9, 2008


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County, Docket No. L-6206-04.

Per curiam.


Submitted August 27, 2008

Before Judges A. A. Rodríguez and Lihotz.

Defendant Joseph Barthelus appeals from a May 9, 2007 judgment in favor of plaintiff Jeannette Jean in the amount of $15,249, entered following a two-day bench trial. Defendant maintains the trial court failed to engage in the requisite factfinding and erred in its legal conclusions. We agree. Accordingly, we reverse and remand for a new trial.

For approximately one year, plaintiff and defendant resided together and were engaged in a romantic relationship. Thereafter, the parties discussed the purchase of realty. Defendant added plaintiff's name to his existing savings account. Then, plaintiff gave defendant funds, which he deposited into the joint savings account.

The parties agree plaintiff provided two checks for $5,648.69 and $21,209.71 and that she loaned defendant $3,500 to pay his outstanding tax bill. Plaintiff produced a third check in the amount of $5,000, which defendant denied he received. This check was deposited into defendant's checking account, not the joint savings account. Also, it is undisputed that plaintiff withdrew $10,000 from the joint savings account to pay her son's college tuition and $1,000 was expended as a deposit to purchase a home.

Defendant testified the savings account held a balance of $12,900 when, at plaintiff's request, he added her name. Defendant explained plaintiff desired to purchase a home and was using his savings account to help her qualify for a mortgage. Regarding the monies plaintiff deposited, defendant argued he was due offsets for monies expended on plaintiff's behalf. He spent approximately $10,000 of his funds to pay plaintiff's rent and provided care for her son for almost a year. At trial, defendant produced copies of his checks showing the rental payments. Also, defendant asserted he spent: $5,000 for plaintiff's efforts to purchase a taxi license; sent plaintiff $1,000 while she was visiting Haiti; and, on plaintiff's authorization, gave plaintiff's friend $500 and her sister $611. Thus, he maintains he owes plaintiff nothing.

Plaintiff agreed defendant wrote her rent checks, however, she asserted she gave defendant monthly cash payments for the obligation. Specifically, plaintiff testified her tenant paid $240 per month and she provided $300 in cash to satisfy the $540 monthly rental. Plaintiff did not directly refute the sums expended for the taxi medallion or advanced to her friend and sister.

In a brief written memorandum accompanying the judgment, the trial judge determined plaintiff gave defendant $31,249.00*fn1

to deposit into the joint bank account and plaintiff withdrew $10,000. She rejected plaintiff's assertion of cash transfers to satisfy the rent, and credited defendant with $5,000, approximately half of the sum he claimed.

The trial judge concluded plaintiff failed "to prove by a preponderance of the credible, objective evidence the existence of a contract, and the terms of that contract." Also, the trial judge concluded plaintiff did prove that she "had not consented to the withdrawal of any funds from the account and did not authorize any expenditures made with money from the account, with the exception of $1,000." Thus, a judgment in favor of plaintiff was entered in the amount of $15,249.

On appeal, defendant challenges the trial court's factfinding. Also, defendant argues plaintiff failed to prove the necessary elements for fraud to sustain a judgment against defendant.

Our scope of review of the findings of fact made in a non-jury matter is limited. Berberian v. Lynn, 355 N.J. Super. 210, 216 (App. Div. 2002), aff'd as modified, 179 N.J. 290 (2004). We defer to factual findings "when the evidence is largely testimonial and involves questions of credibility," Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 412 (1998) (quoting In re Return of Weapons to J.W.D., 149 N.J. 108, 117 (1997)), as credibility is always for the factfinder to determine. Ferdinand v. Agric. Ins. Co. of Watertown, N.Y., 22 N.J. 482, 492 (1956). However, the factual findings by a trial judge, including credibility determinations, must be supported by adequate, substantial and credible evidence in the record. Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co. of Am., 65 N.J. 474, 484 (1974). The trial court's conclusions of law, however, are not entitled to such deference; they are subject to plenary review. Manalapan Realty v. Twp. Comm., 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995); Lobiondo v. O'Callaghan, 357 N.J. Super. 488, 495 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 177 N.J. 224 (2003).

An oral contract will be enforced like any other agreement if plaintiff can prove a mutual understanding and the express terms of the agreement. In re Estate of Roccamonte, 346 N.J. Super. 107, 115 (App. Div. 2001), modified on other grounds, 174 N.J. 381 (2002); 17 C.J.S. Contracts § 68 (2008). In this matter, the facts suggest the existence of an apparent agreement that plaintiff's funds deposited in the joint bank account were for a realty purchase. Defendant's position that he never intended to buy the home with her does not change the essence of the understanding regarding ownership of the monies. Even defendant's defense of offset does not dispute that the deposited monies were plaintiff's.

The trial judge was required to resolve the amount of money plaintiff deposited, whether defendant was entitled to offsets, and if so, in what amount. Unfortunately, the terse statement of reasons lacks the necessary detail to enable this court to determine the support for the legal conclusions reached.

For example, we cannot reconcile the amount of plaintiff's deposits and monies loaned to defendant, as determined by the court, with the testimony presented. It is unclear how the quantum of the amount of offset was calculated, and no mention is made resolving defendant's claim for monies expended on plaintiff's behalf, other than the rental checks. We recognize these issues turn largely on the assessment of what testimony is worthy of belief, however, no credibility determinations were made. Finally, the memorandum provides no explanation for the basis of the legal conclusions. The court found plaintiff's evidence for breach of contract deficient, however, the theory upon which recovery was allowed was unarticulated.

Rule 1:7-4(a) denotes a trial court's obligation to make findings of facts and state conclusions of law "by an opinion or memorandum decision, either written or oral, . . . in all actions tried without a jury . . . ." Our cases have repeatedly stressed the importance of a trial judge's responsibility to provide findings and conclusions to assure informed appellate review. Rosenberg v. Bunce, 214 N.J. Super. 300, 303 (App. Div. 1986). Without findings relevant to the legal standards, the litigants and the reviewing court "can only speculate about the reasons" for the decision. Rosenberg, supra, 214 N.J. Super. at 304.

The oft cited instruction by the Supreme Court regarding trial court factfinding bears repeating:

[T]he failure to perform that duty "constitutes a disservice to the litigants, the attorneys and the appellate court." Kenwood Assocs. v. Bd. of Adj. Englewood, 141 N.J. Super. 1, 4 (App. Div. 1976). Naked conclusions do not satisfy the purpose of [Rule] 1:7-4. Rather, the trial court must state clearly its factual findings and correlate them with the relevant legal conclusions. [Curtis v. Finneran, 83 N.J. 563, 569-70 (1980).]

The factual disputes are at the core of this litigation. This court cannot resolve defendant's challenges on appeal on this record because the arguments depend upon factual determinations, including credibility assessments. We cannot discern whether the denial of plaintiff's contract claim and the conclusion to otherwise grant relief were justified.

We reverse the judgment in favor of plaintiff and remand the matter for a new trial.

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