On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Middlesex County, Docket No. FM-12-674-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted December 1, 2009
Before Judges Carchman and Ashrafi.
Defendant Victor Alonso appeals denial of his motion to vacate a default judgment that equitably distributed property he jointly owned with plaintiff Claudina Brizuela. We reverse and remand for reconsideration and a limited proof hearing.
The relevant facts are contained in Brizuela's amended complaint for annulment or divorce and the motion papers filed in support of and in opposition to Alonso's motion to vacate the judgment.
Brizuela and Alonso were married in August 1992. A few months after the marriage ceremony, Brizuela learned from a lawyer that Alonso was not yet formally divorced from a previous marriage. When confronted, Alonso said the previous marriage was only to obtain legal residency status for the woman he had married.
Brizuela and Alonso resided together as husband and wife for fourteen years. No children were born of the relationship or are otherwise involved.
In 1993, they purchased together the marital home located in Metuchen, New Jersey. Although no documents in the record establish the specifics, it appears that they obtained a mortgage loan to finance the $87,000 purchase price.
In 1998, they purchased for $252,000 another property located in East Brunswick, New Jersey, the former home of Alonso's parents. The deed named Brizuela, Alonso, and Alonso's brother, Randall Bratton, as grantees. Brizuela contends that Bratton did not contribute any funds toward the purchase but was included on the deed at the last-minute urging of Alonso to help his brother's credit rating. Alonso asserts that he considers the property his inheritance, and his parents wanted Bratton to be part owner. A mortgage on the property secured an original debt of $201,600 and named all three owners.
In 2003, the parties refinanced the mortgage loan on the East Brunswick property in the amount of $275,000. All three owners are named in the mortgage documents. According to Alonso, proceeds from the refinancing were used to pay off the existing mortgage balance of about $65,000 on the marital home so that the Metuchen property was thereafter owned by Brizuela and Alonso free and clear of debt.
In 2006, the parties separated. Each filed a domestic violence complaint against the other, and later, both complaints were dismissed voluntarily. In September 2006, Brizuela filed her complaint for annulment or divorce. Alonso retained attorney Steven Segalas, who filed an answer on his behalf. In 2007, Brizuela amended her complaint to add Bratton as a party. Bratton was served but never filed an answer, and default was entered against him. He is not a party to this appeal.
In pretrial proceedings, Brizuela alleged that Alonso was uncooperative in providing discovery and otherwise caused her delay and unnecessary expenses. A judge of the Family Part conducted a case management conference and entered an order dated January 8, 2008, requiring the parties to exchange responsive answers to discovery by February 1, 2008. The order also authorized either party to seek remedies in the event of continuing non-compliance with discovery demands.
At the next scheduled case management conference on February 5, 2008, Brizuela's attorney reported that Alonso had not provided discovery as ordered by the court. Segalas requested leave to withdraw as Alonso's attorney, apparently telling the judge that Alonso was not maintaining contact with him or ...