On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Essex County, Docket No. FM-07-2936-03R.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted September 16, 2008
Before Judges Wefing, Parker and Yannotti.
Defendant Joseph Meccia appeals pro se from a final judgment of divorce entered on November 29, 2005; an order entered on April 11, 2006 denying his motion for reconsideration and for a new trial; and an order entered on June 28, 2006 denying his second motion for reconsideration.
The facts relevant to this appeal are as follows. The parties were married on August 13, 1993. Two children were born of the marriage: a daughter in 1996, and a son in 1998. Plaintiff filed the complaint for divorce on June 11, 2003, and defendant counterclaimed.
Plaintiff was forty-two years old at the time of trial. She was graduated from Lebanon Valley College in 1985 with a degree in accounting and is a CPA. She has worked for various accounting firms in New Jersey and was employed by Hertz Claim Management, a subsidiary of the Hertz Corporation, at the time of trial. At the time of the marriage in 1993, plaintiff's income was approximately $31,000. In 2004, her W-2 form showed gross wages of $71,722. In 2005, she anticipated earning a bonus that would bring her income for that year to $80,000. She testified that the bonus was based upon how well the company did during the previous year. She did not know whether she would receive a bonus in any given year.
Defendant was forty years old at the time of trial. He was graduated from Pace University in 1986 with a degree in accounting and information systems. In 1992, he earned an MBA in finance at Seton Hall University and in 2000, he obtained a certificate in client server applications development from the Chubb Institute.
When the parties married in 1993, defendant's income was approximately $44,500. Shortly after the marriage, however, he was discharged from his job at American Reinsurance and spent several years investigating self-employment opportunities. In 1996, the year their first child was born, defendant opened his own beer and wine making store in Pennsylvania. He earned little income from the business and it closed in 1999, resulting in a substantial loss. The parties filed for personal bankruptcy in 2000.
Because he could not find a job after the business closed, defendant attended the Chubb Institute and, after earning his certificate, obtained a job earning $50,000 per year. He was fired from that job, however, after only a few months. Again, defendant remained unemployed but told plaintiff that he was employed and working from home during 2001 and 2002. Plaintiff later learned that he was not employed but was engaged in internet gambling. In 2001, defendant reported $13,813 in gambling proceeds on the parties' joint tax return. He failed to report an additional $28,000 in gambling proceeds, however, and later filed an amended return.
Defendant testified that he did, in fact, work at home for an internet company earning between $1,000 and $2,500 per month as a "forum moderator" for the offshore sports betting industry. He produced no W-2 form to confirm that employment, however. Defendant claimed that he stopped working for the website in 2002 and remained unemployed until plaintiff filed the complaint for divorce. After the complaint was filed, defendant obtained a job at Target, earning $11.65 per hour, or approximately $24,500 per year. He was working for Target at the time of trial and claimed that he could not find any other full-time employment in the fields of his education and expertise. He did not obtain any additional part-time employment because he was busy "researching the divorce process" and looking for full-time work in his field.
When the parties' first child was born in 1996, defendant was occupied with his business in Pennsylvania and lived with siblings in Pennsylvania and Flemington. Meanwhile, plaintiff lived with defendant's brother in Cedar Grove, worked full-time and cared for the children.
In 1998, when their second child was expected, the parties purchased a home in West Orange. Defendant was still involved in the Pennsylvania business and plaintiff continued to be the primary caregiver for the children. Although defendant was rarely at home, he considered himself an active parent.
After defendant's business failed, he began to assist more with child care and household chores and claimed that he was the children's primary caregiver between 1999 and 2003. The children were in daycare and school at the time.
Defendant continued to live in the marital home during the pendency of the divorce, except for one month during which plaintiff insisted he leave and she changed the locks. While they shared the marital home, the parties spent weekends apart and alternated weekends with the children.
While plaintiff agreed to joint legal custody of the children, she insisted on primary residential custody with defendant having parenting time on weekday afternoons after school, one overnight per week and every other weekend. Plaintiff testified that she did not believe defendant should be the residential custodian of the children because he had anger issues, lacked good judgment and would be living with his parents after the divorce.
Defendant maintained that he should have joint legal and residential custody of the children. He wanted an equal division of parenting time with the children. He further insisted that he be permitted to reside in the marital home until the children went to high school. If plaintiff were permitted to buy out his interest in the marital home, however, he would reside with his parents and the children could share a bedroom there. Defendant acknowledged that he did not have the financial ability to buy plaintiff's interest in the marital home.
Prior to trial, the court appointed a child custody expert, Dr. Edwin A. Rosenberg, and ordered the parties to share the expert's fees equally. Dr. Rosenberg recommended that plaintiff have primary residential custody because she was "better able to organize" and "handle" the children. She was more successful in dealing with the children's different personalities than defendant. Dr. Rosenberg characterized plaintiff as a structured and dependable person who was better able to take care of the children's day-to-day physical and emotional needs, provide them with a stable home and inculcate appropriate values in them.
Dr. Rosenberg found defendant passive in dealing with the children. Defendant had an elevated score on the child abuse potential inventory test, which evidenced a rigid and authoritarian view of the parent-child relationship. Dr. Rosenberg considered this problematic because it could result in defendant having a confrontational relationship with his strong-willed daughter and an inability to engage with his son who suffered a speech development problem.
Dr. Rosenberg did not consider joint physical custody workable in this situation. He noted that there was too much competition between the parties and believed that the children would be "shredded up in that process." Moreover, the children, who were very young, needed a "home base." Dr. Rosenberg found, nevertheless, that both parents were bonded with the children and recommended that defendant have significant amounts of parenting time and that the children have regular visits with their paternal grandparents. He further recommended that defendant spend after-school time with the children and bring them to his parents' home every other weekend.
Dr. Rosenberg recommended that defendant attend parenting classes to learn how to interact better with the children, but he did not believe that defendant was motivated to change. Indeed, defendant did not believe he needed parenting classes. Dr. Rosenberg also recommended that the parties' daughter receive therapy to deal with the anxiety she suffered as a result of the tension between her parents and to address her attention-seeking behavior.
With respect to child support, plaintiff asked the court to impute income in the amount of $60,150 per year to defendant because that was the mean annual wage of an accountant/auditor. She requested child support in the amount of $1,183 per month.
Plaintiff agreed to maintain life insurance for the children's benefit but did not want defendant to be the trustee of the funds because of his gambling. She requested that ...