On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Union County, Docket No. FM-20-1709-07G.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Winkelstein, Fuentes and Chambers.
Defendant Stefano Randazzo appeals from the order of the Family Part suppressing his responsive pleading, entering default against him, and as a consequence, limiting his participation in the case to the hearing conducted to determine plaintiff's equitable distribution award. The court entered this order against defendant as a sanction based, in large part, on defendant's pattern of obstreperous conduct, culminating in his failure to appear at a court-ordered case management conference.
After carefully reviewing the record before us, and in light of the deference owed to Family Part judges in dealing with these contentious matrimonial matters, we affirm. We are satisfied that Judge Cassidy properly exercised her discretionary authority to prevent defendant from disrupting and delaying the trial proceedings, to the detriment of plaintiff and the children born of the marriage.
These are the salient facts. The parties were married in September 1993, and separated in April 2007, when the plaintiff obtained a temporary restraining order under the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, N.J.S.A. 2C:25-17 to -35. The parties had four children during their fourteen-year marriage, three girls and one boy ranging in ages from thirteen to six years old. Plaintiff filed for divorce in April 2007, and obtained a final restraining order against defendant in May 2007, awarding her temporary custody of the children.
Although neither party has a great deal of formal education, defendant owns a successful carpet business and plaintiff is employed as a teacher's assistant by the Elizabeth Board of Education. Due to defendant's consistent failure to honor his discovery obligation, the record does not clearly reveal defendant's actual earnings. The court thus imputed income to defendant at $85,000 annually; plaintiff's salary is $30,000 per year.
From the commencement of this litigation, defendant consistently thwarted plaintiff's efforts to ascertain the value of his carpet business. As a result, plaintiff was forced to resort to motion practice and subpoenas to obtain the necessary financial records. Defendant was equally defiant of court orders awarding plaintiff and the children pendente lite relief. As a result, plaintiff was again forced to seek judicial intervention in the form of orders to show cause and motions to enforce litigant's right.
Although plaintiff prevailed in each of these efforts, this did not deter defendant from continuing to defy the orders of the court. The January 29, 2008, order finding defendant in violation of litigant's rights for his failure to pay pendente lite relief ordered on September 14, 2007, illustrates the point. Among the relief granted to plaintiff, the court ordered defendant to sell a warehouse property he jointly owned with his father-in-law, and turn over 50% of the net proceeds of the sale to plaintiff. The court authorized plaintiff to use these funds to pay off a $99,000 equity loan secured by a mortgage on the marital property. The remaining funds from the warehouse sale were to be held in trust pending the outcome of the case. The court also ordered defendant to sell three lots he owned in Old Bridge.
As a corollary to this action, plaintiff's father filed suit against defendant in connection with the warehouse property and the carpet business. Defendant and his father-in-law reached a stipulation of settlement in that case on February 5, 2008, requiring defendant to pay his father-in-law $110,000, thereby obtaining clear title to the warehouse. This payment was due within sixty days of the settlement date. Defendant agreed to assume this financial obligation at the same time he was failing to honor his court-ordered support obligations to plaintiff and the children.
Throughout this time, defendant had been represented by attorney Robert J. Jeney. In February 2008, attorney Ashton E. Thomas filed a notice of appearance and substitution of attorney on defendant's behalf. By this time, the case had gone through one year of intense motion practice and had been reviewed for possible resolution by the Early Settlement Program. R. 5:5-5.
On February 22, 2008, plaintiff received notice from the attorneys representing the home equity lender, indicating the commencement of a foreclosure action based on defendant's failure to pay court-ordered payments for the past eleven months. The foreclosing mortgagee agreed to reinstate the loan upon receipt of $42,789.23. A total of $110,000 was needed to pay off the entire loan.
Plaintiff petitioned the court to permit her father to buy defendant's interest in the warehouse, thereby making available to her the $110,000 necessary to pay off the home equity loan. By this time, defendant had failed to take any steps to sell the warehouse or the three lots in Old Bridge as ordered by the court on January 29, 2008. As a consequence, no funds were available to retain a forensic ...