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Brillon v. Watson

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY APPELLATE DIVISION


April 24, 2009

VERONICA D. BRILLON, F/K/A VERONICA D. WATSON, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
CRAIG T. WATSON, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.

On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Somerset County, Docket No. FM-18-416-06.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued January 27, 2009

Before Judges Winkelstein and Fuentes.

Defendant Craig T. Watson appeals from the order of the Family Part enforcing certain aspects of a Property Settlement Agreement (PSA) entered into by the parties as part of a final judgment of divorce. Specifically, acting on plaintiff Veronica D. Brillon's motion to enforce litigant's rights, the court found that defendant failed to use the net proceeds from the sale of certain real property to pay off a joint marital credit card debt. The court also awarded plaintiff $3,658 in counsel fees.

After reviewing the record and in light of prevailing legal standards, we affirm the trial court's decision finding defendant in violation of the PSA, vacate the award of counsel fees, and remand for the court to determine the amount of counsel fees, if any, plaintiff is entitled to receive after applying settled principles of law to counsel's certification of professional services rendered. Mani v. Mani, 183 N.J. 70, 93-95 (2005). This analysis must be set forth by the court in a statement of reasons delivered orally on the record or in a memorandum of opinion. R. 5:3-5(c); R. 1:7-4.

These are the relevant facts. The parties were divorced on May 23, 2006. The final judgment of divorce incorporated a PSA that provided, in pertinent part, as follows:

It is agreed that a 2-family home at 643 Palisades Avenue, Jersey City, New Jersey, previously owned by wife, was conveyed to husband as part of a financial restructuring and is currently listed for sale. It is agreed that upon the sale of that home and the payment of all mortgages, ordinary closing costs, realtor commissions, attorney's fees, and the like, approximately $40,000.00 of the net proceeds will be used to pay off the following joint marital credit card debt: MBNA, Bank of America/Fleet, Bank of America, and Chase Mastercard. The remaining net proceeds estimated to be in the amount of $44,000.00 will be equally divided by the parties at the time of closing on the sale of that property.

The credit cards referred to in the PSA were all in defendant's name. In addition to the Jersey City property, which the parties rented out, the couple also owned a home at 45 Manor Road in Princeton, New Jersey, which they used as the marital residence. The Princeton property was also to be sold and all net proceeds equally divided between the parties.

The court entered a supplemental order on July 10, 2006, indicating that the Princeton property was under contract for sale, and reflecting that the parties had agreed to use 50% of the net proceeds of that sale to pay down the MBNA credit card debt. Pursuant to this agreement, approximately $17,000 from the sale of the Princeton home was applied to the MBNA credit card debt.

The Jersey City property was sold on December 29, 2006, for $444,500.00, netting $46,022.86. As agreed, defendant had taken responsibility for making repairs to the property and handling the sale. In implicit violation of the PSA, however, defendant waited two months to notify plaintiff that the sale had occurred, and did not give her any portion of the sale proceeds.

In this light, plaintiff sought an order from the court directing defendant to pay her half of the net proceeds of the sale as provided for in the PSA. A plenary hearing was held on January 18, 2008, to consider plaintiff's application. Defendant did not offer any evidence showing that he had paid any of the marital credit card debt after the sale of the Jersey City property.

Instead, defendant produced a number of credit card statements reflecting outstanding balances. These statements did not differentiate between joint marital debt and defendant's personal debt. Defendant also produced bank statements showing that he had made eight monthly payments of $1,713, which, according to plaintiff, went to a credit counseling agency that had consolidated the marital credit card debt. The trial court rejected defendant's application to credit these payments against his liability to utilize half of the net proceeds from the sale of the Jersey City property to pay off joint credit card debt.

As a partial defense, defendant testified that he had incurred substantial expenses in preparing the house for sale, and offered documentation in support of some of the expenses. The trial court credited defendant for $1,100 in electrical work, approximately $500 for expenses related to the purchase and installation of smoke detectors and fire equipment, and a $5,000 payment that plaintiff stipulated defendant had made.

The court disallowed defendant's request for a credit of $5,344.65 in painting expenses based on inadequate documentation.*fn1

After applying these credits, the trial court ruled that defendant owed plaintiff $17,201.61 pursuant to the express language in the PSA. At the end of the hearing, the court reserved judgment on plaintiff's application for counsel fees. By order entered on February 8, 2008, the trial court granted plaintiff's uncontested request for attorney's fees in the amount of $3,658. The court did not provide any explanation for this ruling.

Against these facts, defendant now appeals, arguing that the court's ruling is not supported by the evidence, and requesting this court "to exercise its original jurisdiction pursuant to R. 2:10-5 to compute the amount owed to plaintiff," and reverse the award of counsel fees. We reject defendant's argument attacking the court's determination of the amount owed to plaintiff, but vacate the award of counsel fees.

A trial court has "broad authority" in making equitable distributions of marital assets. Wadlow v. Wadlow, 200 N.J. Super. 372, 377 (App. Div. 1985). We are required to defer to the findings of the trial court. Our scope of review is limited to determining whether the findings of the trial judge are "supported by adequate credible evidence in the record." Addesa v. Addesa, 392 N.J. Super. 58, 75 (App. Div. 2007). If they are, we are required to defer to the trial judge's findings. Here, the record amply supports the court's ruling. We need not belabor this issue. With respect to the court's enforcement of the PSA, we affirm substantially for the reasons expressed by the Family Part.

We are compelled to reach a different result on the question of counsel fees. It is now well-settled that in reviewing an application for counsel fees, the trial court must consider: (1) whether the party requesting the fees is in financial need; (2) whether the party against whom the fees are sought has the ability to pay; (3) the good or bad faith of either party in pursuing or defending the action; and (4) the nature and extent of the services rendered; and (5) the reasonableness of the fees. Mani v. Mani, supra, 183 N.J. at 95, (citing Williams v. Williams, 59 N.J. 229, 233 (1971)); R. 5:3-5(c).

Here, the court's order granting plaintiff's application does not reflect that these principles were considered and applied to counsel's affidavit of professional services rendered. R. 4:42-9(b); R.P.C. 1.5(a). A trial court's obligation to set forth the reasons for its ruling on a motion is equally well-settled. R. 1:7-4. As we noted in Salch v. Salch, 240 N.J. Super. 441, 443 (App. Div. 1990), "[m]eaningful appellate review is inhibited unless the judge sets forth the reasons for his or her opinion. In the absence of reasons, we are left to conjecture as to what the judge may have had in mind."

Even if, as here, the motion for counsel fees is unopposed, the court remains obligated to conduct the required analysis, and make its own independent judgment as to the reasonableness of the fees requested. Because the court did not provide a statement of reasons reflecting this analysis, we are required to vacate the award.

Affirmed in part, reversed in apart, and remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


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