On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Ocean County, Docket No. FM-15-568-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Sabatino and J. N. Harris.
Defendant appeals from an order of August 7, 2009, denying her motion to vacate a final default judgment of divorce. After a thorough review of the record and of the Family Part's findings, we affirm.
Plaintiff Hideshi Kudo and defendant Jody Kudo were married on March 6, 1993. During the marriage, plaintiff was employed as a manager by Mr. Good Lube, Inc., earning approximately $95,000 per year. Defendant worked from home after having earned a Bachelors Degree and Masters of Science Degree. She spent her time investing and selling several investment properties located in New Jersey and Florida.
In January 2006, plaintiff commenced divorce proceedings in the Monmouth vicinage, but venue was ultimately transferred to the Ocean vicinage. The primary investment property at issue in this case is located in Point Pleasant, Ocean County. This property had originally been purchased in June 1994 by defendant and her father, Joseph Skerbe. During the course of the marriage, the Point Pleasant property was initially held in a joint tenancy, but in 1996 title to the real property was transferred to defendant alone. This title remained solely in defendant for eleven years until March 2007, at which time defendant unsuccessfully attempted to re-convey the property to her father.
Defendant was personally served with the complaint for divorce on February 28, 2006. For reasons that still remain unclear and unexplained by defendant, she failed to respond or otherwise plead in a timely manner, resulting in the first default being entered against defendant. Defendant filed an application by order to show cause to vacate the default, which was granted. An answer and a counterclaim were finally filed on August 16, 2006.
On September 29, 2006, the Family Part entered a case management order requiring defendant to complete real estate appraisals on all of the investment properties by October 31, 2006, including the Point Pleasant property. These were never completed or provided, forcing the court to issue a follow-up case management order mandating that expert appraisals now be completed by April 15, 2007.
Throughout the litigation, despite being represented by four different attorneys at various times, defendant routinely failed to respond to numerous discovery obligations. As a result, the court in an order dated May 25, 2007, compelled defendant to "provide new and fully certified answers to interrogatories and response[s] to [a] notice to produce" by June 19, 2007. A subsequent order from the Family Part on June 26, 2007 required defendant to "certify her answers to [i]nterrogatories within [seven] days or her ans[wer] and [counterclaim] will be dismissed and default entered."
The trial was scheduled for September 2007. However, instead of the intended trial being conducted, additional delays occurred due to further discovery delinquencies by defendant. For example, in August 2007, defendant again failed to reply to inquiries regarding the necessary appraisals of the investment properties in her name.
The parties subsequently submitted to an Early Settlement Panel, but were unsuccessful in their efforts to amicably adjust the dispute. Thereafter, on November 9, 2007, the Family Part issued an order granting plaintiff access to the investment properties within ten days of the entry of the order, so that the property values could be assessed for the purposes of equitable distribution. The order explicitly stated that "[i]n the event defendant fails to comply with the [obligation to provide access], defendant's pleadings shall be stricken and her defenses suppressed, upon ex-parte application of the plaintiff." Defendant received notice of this order, but again failed to coordinate with plaintiff's attorney to arrange for the necessary inspections of the properties.
Instead of proceeding ex-parte when confronted with defendant's renewed refusal to cooperate, plaintiff filed a motion--on proper notice to defendant--to strike defendant's answer, suppress her defenses, and dismiss the counterclaim. The trial court granted plaintiff's ...