April 9, 2010
WILLIAM H. ARIZA, SR., PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
REMONA D. ARIZA, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Middlesex County, Docket No. FM-12-0216-01D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted March 10, 2010
Before Judges Graves and Sabatino.
This is a post-judgment matrimonial matter. Plaintiff, William H. Ariza, Sr., pro se, appeals the Family Part's order dated June 1, 2009 respecting child support paid to defendant, Remona D. Ariza.
The parties were married in 1987 and divorced in 2002. Their judgment of divorce incorporated a Property Settlement Agreement ("PSA"). The parties have two sons; one who was born in 1990, who is now twenty years old, and another born in 1995, who is now fourteen.
According to their PSA, the parties agreed to have joint residential custody and joint legal custody, and "a shared coparenting plan," which required the children to live with each parent on alternate weeks. Pursuant to Paragraph 19 of the PSA, plaintiff agreed to pay defendant $44.50 per week for child support. That figure was based on plaintiff's gross weekly earnings of $1,423 and defendant's gross weekly earnings of $884.62. In addition, plaintiff agreed to pay defendant $150 per week in rehabilitative alimony for a period of six years.
Plaintiff lost his job in January 2006. He found new employment in July 2006, but it paid him less than his former salary. This change in his earnings prompted plaintiff to file a series of motions, in an effort to reduce or eliminate his child support and alimony payments. These successive motions resulted in various orders issued by the Family Part in 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009, prior to the sole order appealed from, dated June 1, 2009.
The prior orders included an order entered by Judge Heidi Willis Currier on October 13, 2006, terminating plaintiff's child support obligation retroactive to April 13, 2006, with any overpayments to be applied to plaintiff's alimony arrears. That order also required the parties to exchange certain financial information concerning calendar years 2004 and 2005, to assist in a recalculation of the support amount. Subsequently, Judge Currier entered an order on January 23, 2007, directing defendant to provide her last three pay stubs, as well as her W-2 forms for 2006. Nearly a year later*fn1, plaintiff filed a motion to enforce litigants' rights and to compel defendant to supply the pertinent financial information. That motion was granted on January 4, 2008, by Judge Currier, who ordered the parties to supply financial information from 2007 to the court for the purposes of recalculating child support. Shortly thereafter, plaintiff was granted primary residential custody of the couple's oldest child in an order from Judge Currier, dated February 15, 2008. This same order made any future change in child support retroactive to January 22, 2008 and denied plaintiff's motion to force defendant to provide him with her 2005 and 2006 income tax information.
Almost ten months later, plaintiff filed another motion to enforce litigant's rights, claiming that defendant had yet to comply with the court's January 4, 2008 and February 15, 2008 orders. That motion resulted in a December 5, 2008 order from Family Part Judge John A. Jorgensen, who by that point had begun handling the case in place of Judge Currier, finding defendant in non-compliance with both orders, and directing her to provide the previously ordered financial information within twenty days.
A month later, the oldest son's February 2008 residency change, coupled with the fact that defendant was now earning more than plaintiff, and the court's receipt of additional financial information resulted in an order issued by Judge Jorgensen on January 20, 2009. Among other things, the January 20, 2009 order awarded plaintiff child support to be paid to him by defendant, thereby reversing the earlier payor-payee relationship.
Specifically, the January 20, 2009 order fixed defendant's child support obligation at $134.00 per week, retroactive for the period of January 22, 2008 to August 5, 2008, and thereafter at $109.00 per week. The order stated that the retroactive support levels had been calculated "[u]sing the financial information provided to the [c]court by both parties," and "pursuant to the New Jersey Child Support Guidelines, taking into account any health insurance costs paid by [p]laintiff for the parties' children." See R. 5:6A; see also Pressler, Current N.J. Court Rules, Appendix IX-A and IX-B to R. 5:6A at 2383 (2010). The court used a sole parenting worksheet for the older child and a shared parenting worksheet for the younger child. As the order reflects, "[i]n determining the final support amount, the [c]court averaged total support amounts from the sole and shared parenting worksheets for both, alimony and non-alimony, periods." (emphasis added). The order also directed the Probation Department to make appropriate audits and/or adjustments, retroactive to January 22, 2008.
In effect, the January 20, 2009 order left intact the parties' mutual child support responsibilities from April 13, 2006 (when plaintiff's obligations as a payor ceased) through January 22, 2008, when defendant became the payor. The order did not indicate the need for any additional financial information or discovery for the prior periods.
Plaintiff did not appeal the January 20, 2009 order, despite the fact that it established what it described as the "final" support amount. Instead, he filed several motions continuing to seek financial documents from defendant for 2006, including her last three 2006 pay stubs and her 2006 tax returns. Plaintiff contends that, although defendant had previously supplied some financial information for 2006, the pay stubs would have provided a more accurate picture of her true earning capacity, since defendant was disabled by surgery for several months that year. In a cross-motion, defendant asserted that she had already provided her 2006 pay stubs to the court and to plaintiff in 2008. The Family Part denied plaintiff's applications, and declined to make any further retroactive adjustments beyond those made by prior orders.
The sole order plaintiff appeals from was entered by Judge Jorgensen on June 1, 2009. Among other things, the court denied plaintiff's request for production of defendant's last three 2006 pay stubs; denied a recalculation of child support from April 13, 2006 through January 21, 2008; and denied plaintiff relief in aid of litigant's rights. The order further denied defendant an award of counsel fees against plaintiff and denied her request to enjoin repetitive motions by plaintiff. The order also addressed other topics such as the offset of alimony arrears, college tuition expenses, and dependency exemptions on the parties' tax returns.
On appeal, plaintiff argues that the June 1, 2009 order should be reversed essentially because it declined to make further retroactive adjustments in child support and declined to order additional disclosures of plaintiff's past financial information, including her 2006 pay stubs. Plaintiff asserts that the Family Part made its earlier child support determinations without complete financial information, and, had such information been supplied to it by defendant, he believes he would have been entitled to a net payment of child support from defendant for the latter part of 2006 and for calendar year 2007.
After the notice of appeal was filed, Judge Jorgensen issued a detailed five-page written amplification of his reasons underlying the June 1, 2009 order--pursuant to Rule 2:5-1(b)--beyond the reasons that he had orally stated on the record. Among other things, Judge Jorgensen noted in his written amplification that "[w]hile it is unfortunate [that defendant] did not provide the adequate financial information at an earlier time, that failure does not warrant the imposition upon her of a child support obligation going back to the Spring of 2006 as the facts demonstrate that no order mandating such an obligation was in place at the time. Such an obligation did not come into effect until January 22, 2008 [as a result of the January 20, 2009 order]."
It is well established that our scope of review in Family Part matters of this nature is limited. Each application to modify a support obligation "rests upon its own particular footing and the appellate court must give due recognition to the wide discretion which our law rightly affords to the trial judges who deal with these matters." Martindell v. Martindell, 21 N.J. 341, 355 (1956); see also Donnelly v. Donnelly, 405 N.J. Super. 117, 127 (App. Div. 2009). Moreover, in light of the Family Part's special expertise, appellate courts must accord great deference to fact-finding in family cases, and to the conclusions that logically flow from those findings. Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 412-13 (1998). In the realm of family law, we generally do not disturb the findings and conclusions of trial judges unless "'they are so manifestly unsupported by or inconsistent with the competent, relevant, and reasonably credible evidence as to offend the interests of justice.'" Pascale v. Pascale, 113 N.J. 20, 33 (1988) (quoting Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co., 65 N.J. 474, 483-84 (1974)).
Guided by these limited standards of review, we affirm the Family Part's order of June 1, 2009, substantially for the reasons set forth by Judge Jorgensen in both his oral bench ruling and in his ensuing written amplification. We appreciate that plaintiff earned less than defendant in calendar years 2006 and 2007, and that the retroactive adjustment compelling defendant, for the first time, to begin paying child support stretched back only to January 2008 and not to an earlier time. However, we are unpersuaded that the trial court acted outside of the zone of its allowable discretion in fixing January 22, 2008 as the date of retroactive adjustment. Nor was the trial court inexorably required to await additional 2006 financial information from defendant before making that substantive determination, based upon the financial data that was already before it. Moreover, plaintiff did not appeal the Family Part's January 20, 2009 order, which established the date of retroactivity. See Rule 2:4-1(a) (requiring appeals of final orders to be filed within forty-five days of their entry). The June 1, 2009 order simply reaffirmed that unappealed disposition.
Lastly, we note that nothing in this opinion forecloses either party from seeking relief from the Family Part on new issues that may arise.