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O'Connell v. Nataloni


October 14, 2009


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Bergen County, Docket No. FM-02-5328-86.

Per curiam.


Submitted October 1, 2009

Before Judges Fisher and Sapp-Peterson.

The parties were married in 1983. When they separated two years later, plaintiff Kristin O'Connell filed this divorce action. Three years later, the parties entered into a property settlement agreement (PSA), which was incorporated in a final judgment of divorce entered on September 14, 1988.

The PSA obligated defendant Andrew Nataloni to pay plaintiff $9100 per year for the support of the parties' only child, who was born in 1984. That obligation was subject to modification pursuant to an escalator clause; defendant also agreed to promptly pay the reasonable cost of various child activities.

In 2004, plaintiff filed a motion in aid of litigant's rights, seeking among other things payment of child support arrears and an award of counsel fees. Defendant opposed the motion and cross-moved for various modifications of the PSA. The motion judge determined that a plenary hearing was required. Plaintiff moved for reconsideration, seeking the immediate payment of the child support arrears that defendant conceded were owed. The motion judge granted that relief and awarded plaintiff $25,000.

Following discovery, a plenary hearing took place over the course of eleven days, beginning in May 2005 and ending in March 2006. The judge rendered a decision in April 2006. He rejected defendant's claim that the child support obligation should be reduced because plaintiff had alienated the child's affections.

In addition, the judge found defendant's income as a practitioner in obstetrics/gynecology had been substantially diminished by economic conditions, but the judge also found defendant was underemployed without just cause. He ultimately held defendant responsible for sixty-eight percent of the child's college costs. And, in adjudicating the competing fee applications, the judge ordered that defendant should contribute $5000 to plaintiff's outstanding fees.

Plaintiff appealed. In an unpublished opinion, we found all her arguments to be without merit with the exception of her challenge to the counsel fee award. O'Connell v. Nataloni, No. A-5614-05T3 (App. Div. March 12, 2008) (slip opinion at 18-19). We vacated the $5000 fee award and remanded for further proceedings.

In setting aside the fee award, we observed that the PSA stipulated that, upon violating its terms, a party would be required to pay the other's "entire counsel fees." We also recognized that plaintiff had certainly demonstrated a violation of defendant's support obligations:

When plaintiff filed her January 2004 enforcement motion, she claimed that in excess of $60,000 in child support, tuition and "other expenses" had accrued. It was only through the initiation of the enforcement action that defendant began to make any payments. Plaintiff incurred nearly $57,000 in counsel fees, but defendant was ordered to pay only $5,000. Defendant paid his own attorney $53,000 during the pendency of the proceedings.

The court's decision did not address the PSA's provision regarding counsel fees.

It is true that defendant eventually paid plaintiff $42,000 during the course of the legal proceedings, pursuant to interim orders, so that arrearages were no longer an issue to be addressed in the trial court's decision. Plaintiff, however, was justified in pointing out that defendant unilaterally ceased paying child support sometime after September 2001. At that time, [the child] was seventeen years old and defendant was still under an obligation to pay $9,100 in base child support, plus annual increases. Consequently, when plaintiff filed her motion to enforce litigant's rights, defendant's child support arrears alone had risen to over $22,000.

[Id. at 23-24.]

On the other hand, we recognized the judge could have discounted plaintiff's fee request because she had not been completely successful at the hearing:

It may be that the court tailored the counsel fee award to the amount of fees needed to compel payment of the overdue child support amounts, as distinguished from the fees needed to address the "other expenses[,]" many of which the court viewed as unproven or stale. Plaintiff's motion asserted that defendant owed over $38,000 in tuition, extra-curricular, and medical expenses that plaintiff claimed defendant was responsible to pay. The court found, however, that only $6,208 in "other expenses" were payable by defendant, and it limited defendant's payment obligation to $4,220 or sixty-eight percent of that amount. Hence, the court may have concluded that the PSA's provision for payment of the "entire counsel fees, costs and expenses" applied only to the fees related to the base child support amount plus the fees related to the reduced amount of the "other expenses" it awarded.

Alternatively, the court may have determined that defendant's economic situation also required modifying the counsel fee provisions of the PSA.

[Id. at 25 (citation omitted).]

Ultimately, we were "unable . . . to definitely discern why the court failed to enforce the counsel fee provision of the PSA given defendant's clear violation," and we remanded for further proceedings. Id. at 25-26.

Following our remand, the trial judge provided the parties with an opportunity to be heard and thereafter issued a written decision on July 30, 2008, holding that plaintiff was entitled to a $15,000 fee award. In his decision, the trial judge considered the competing factual assertions to which we had previously alluded, gave due regard for the provisions of the PSA, and crafted a counsel fee award based on a fair and equitable weighing of those and all other relevant circumstances.

Plaintiff again appealed, arguing the trial judge's fact findings and legal conclusions were erroneous and that she was entitled to all fees reasonably incurred. We find insufficient merit in plaintiff's arguments to warrant discussion in a written opinion. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(A) and (E).



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