On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Union County, Docket No. FM-20-0602-07G.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted January 25, 2010
Before Judges Lisa and Alvarez.
Plaintiff Carmen J. Albrechcinski appeals pro se from the denial of her Rule 4:50 motion for relief from a final judgment of divorce. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.
Plaintiff and defendant Steven P. Albrechcinski signed consent orders resolving parenting issues and equitable distribution on February 16, 2007, and December 5, 2007. On December 6, 2007, a hearing was conducted before a Family Part judge who issued a final judgment of divorce incorporating the consent orders.
Defendant filed an application for enforcement of litigant's rights on August 8, 2008. Plaintiff was found to be in violation of litigant's rights and a judgment in the amount of $54,434.68 was entered against her. The total consisted of $15,000 on account of plaintiff's jewelry, $15,000 for defendant's waiver of any claim against real property purchased by plaintiff prior to the divorce, $18,898.83 for defendant's one-half interest in plaintiff's bank accounts, and $5535.85, one-half of the parties' daughter's private school tuition. Plaintiff was ordered to continue to pay one-half of the child's tuition.
On October 20, 2008, plaintiff filed a Rule 4:50 motion seeking to vacate the final judgment. She claimed that she had not understood the settlement agreement before she entered into it and that her attorney had either misrepresented the agreement to her or, in some fashion, pressured her into signing it. She further claimed the agreement overall was unfair and that she should be relieved from compliance with its terms. When plaintiff's Rule 4:50 motion was denied, she filed this appeal.
We disturb a trial court's factual findings only where not "supported by adequate, substantial and credible evidence." Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co. of Am., 65 N.J. 474, 483-84 (1974). We must give due regard to the trial judge's credibility determinations and "feel for the case" based upon his opportunity to see and hear the witnesses. Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 411-12 (1998). See also Pascale v. Pascale, 113 N.J. 20, 33 (1988). Given the Family Part's expertise, appellate courts must accord particular deference to the trial judge's fact-finding and to the conclusions that logically flow from those findings. Cesare, supra, 154 N.J. at 413.
On appeal plaintiff reiterates the claims made in her Rule 4:50 application. She contends that the court erred in denying her relief because the equitable distribution process was premised upon incorrect valuations; she had not understood the agreement because she had not read the entire document; and her attorney pressured her into signing the agreement even though she did not have enough time to read and consider the terms.
Motions to set aside final judgments under Rule 4:50 are to be granted "sparingly." Pressler, Current N.J. Court Rules, comment 1 on R. 4:50-1 (2010). The Rule allows for relief only where some unique combination of facts and equities compel that a judgment be vacated. See R. 4:50-1.
On the other hand, "[t]he equitable authority of courts to modify property settlement agreements executed in connection with divorce proceedings is well established . . . . The agreement must reflect the strong public and statutory purpose of ensuring fairness and equity in the dissolution of marriages." Miller v. Miller, 160 N.J. 408, 418 (1999) (citations omitted). "'[A]pplications for relief from equitable distribution provisions contained in a judgment of divorce are subject to [R. 4:50-1] and not, as in the case of alimony, support, custody, and other matters of continuing jurisdiction of the court, subject to a "changed circumstances" standard.'" Eaton v. Grau, 368 N.J. Super. 215, 222 (App. Div. 2004) (quoting Pressler, Current N.J. Court Rules, comment 1.7 on R. 4:50-1 (2004)).
Under the Rule, a party may be relieved from a judgment due to "mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect." R. 4:50-1(a). These four categories encompass those instances where "a party, through no fault of its own, has [made] . . . a mistaken judgment on a material point at issue in litigation." DEG, LLC v. Twp. of Fairfield, 198 N.J. 242, 262 (2009). A trial court's decision on Rule 4:50 applications "will be left undisturbed unless it represents a clear abuse of discretion." Hous. Auth. of Morristown v. Little, 135 N.J. 274, 283 (1994) (citing Mancini v. EDS ex rel. N.J. Auto. Full Ins. Underwriting Ass'n, 132 N.J. 330, 334 (1993)).
Plaintiff asserts that the division of assets was premised on incorrect numbers; that her bank accounts were unfairly divided because at the time of distribution only $7045.42 was actually on deposit, and thus defendant was not entitled to $18,898.33 as his half. Plaintiff contends that the additional funds in her bank accounts at the time of distribution were artificially inflated by $30,000 in loans from her 401K and 403(B) retirement plans. Because her retirement plans were the source of funds in the bank accounts, plaintiff alleges defendant essentially recovered twice for one asset. The mathematical consequence of this is unclear, as defendant waived any share of plaintiff's retirement plans in the agreement. As the Family Part judge said on this point, plaintiff ...