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Melanie Miller, F/K/A Melanie Tafaro v. Stephen Tafaro

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY APPELLATE DIVISION


May 27, 2011

MELANIE MILLER, F/K/A MELANIE TAFARO, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
STEPHEN TAFARO, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.

On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Hunterdon County and Warren County, Docket No. FM-10-339-03.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted April 12, 2011

Before Judges Graves, Waugh and St. John.

In these consolidated appeals, defendant Stephen Tafaro seeks reversal of two post-judgment matrimonial orders relating to college costs for his children. The first order was entered on March 1, 2010, by Judge Julie M. Marino,*fn1 and the second was entered on June 23, 2010, by Judge Kimarie Rahill. We affirm.

The factual background of the parties' relationship and ongoing disputes has been outlined in four prior decisions by this court. Miller v. Tafaro, Nos. A-2120-09 & A-3039-09 (January 7, 2011) (Tafaro IV); Tafaro v. Tafaro, No. A-4469-07 (May 12, 2009) (Tafaro III); Tafaro v. Tafaro, No. A-1189-05 (August 16, 2006) (Tafaro II); Tafaro v. Tafaro, No. A-4402-04 (July 13, 2006) (Tafaro I). Therefore, we will provide only a brief summary.

Following a seventeen-year marriage, the parties divorced on June 2, 2004. They have two children: Andrew, born in 1989, and Emily, born in 1990. The parties' property settlement agreement (PSA) provided for joint legal custody of the children and indicated that future college costs would be addressed "at the time they are incurred." It further stated that "the input of both parents" would be relevant to the children's college choice and that neither parent could "unreasonably withhold consent."

However, a Family Part order entered on November 4, 2004, granted plaintiff "final authority" regarding "major decisions affecting [the] children," including "schooling." Defendant sought reconsideration and ultimately appealed, but we affirmed the order in Tafaro I, supra, slip op. at 15.

Several years later, plaintiff sought contribution from defendant for Andrew and Emily to attend Rutgers University and Bryn Mawr College, respectively. On March 20, 2008, the court entered an order apportioning the parties' responsibility for college costs based on their relative income. Defendant's portion was set at 75%, and plaintiff's at 25%. Defendant again appealed, and we affirmed. Tafaro III, supra, slip op. at 13.

Over the years that followed, plaintiff repeatedly sought enforcement of these two orders by the Family Part, and defendant fought to avoid payment, claiming that he retained joint legal custody and had withheld his consent for the children to attend their chosen schools. Nevertheless, the court consistently enforced the terms of the November 4, 2004, and March 20, 2008 orders. Judge Ann R. Bartlett presided over most of the proceedings.

Defendant sued Judge Bartlett in December 2009, alleging that she had violated his civil rights. Although the complaint was dismissed, Judge Bartlett recused herself, and the orders at issue were entered by Judges Marino and Rahill.

In relevant part, the March 1, 2010 order denied defendant's requests to (1) "reword" a prior order that required the Hunterdon County Probation Department "to provide Defendant with an itemized list of all child and spousal support arrears"; and (2) credit the amount of $24,223.48 to defendant's child support account due to "excessive child support paid." The June 23, 2010 order required defendant to pay a total of $27,913.40 for his children's Spring and Summer 2010 college costs. It also denied as moot defendant's request for Judge Bartlett to recuse herself and rejected defendant's applications for an injunction "on all monetary orders," "a full plenary hearing to justify the monetary awards," and reimbursement for costs and fees.

Defendant raises the following issues on appeal in A-3709-09:

POINT ONE

JUDGE MARINO'S DECISION VIOLATES THE PARTIES' PROPERTY SETTLEMENT AGREEMENT.

POINT TWO

JUDGE MARINO HAS FAILED TO RECOGNIZE THE PERTINENT FACTS PRESENTED BY THE DEFENDANT AND HAS BASED HER DECISION ON ILLOGICAL AND UNSUPPORTED CONCLUSIONS.

He makes these additional claims in A-5461-09:

POINT ONE

JUDGE RAHILL'S CONCLUSION THAT THE DEFENDANT DOES NOT HAVE JOINT LEGAL CUSTODY IS BASED ON ILLOGICAL CONCLUSIONS THAT OFFEND JUSTICE.

POINT TWO

JUDGE RAHILL'S CONCLUSION THAT DEFENDANT DOES NOT HAVE JOINT LEGAL CUSTODY VIOLATES THE PARTIES' PROPERTY SETTLEMENT AGREEMENT, IS BASED ON ILLOGICAL REASONING AND OFFENDS JUSTICE.

POINT THREE

JUDGE RAHILL'S CONCLUSION THAT THE DEFENDANT DOES NOT HAVE JOINT LEGAL CUSTODY VIOLATES THE DEFENDANT'S CIVIL RIGHTS, PAST JUDICIAL DECISIONS AND OFFENDS JUSTICE.

POINT FOUR

JUDGE RAHILL IGNORED THE FACT THAT SEVEN OUT OF THE TWELVE NEWBURGH FACTORS FOR EMILY TAFARO WERE NEVER ANSWERED BY PLAINTIFF.

POINT FIVE

JUDGE RAHILL'S STATEMENT OF REASONS RELIES ON NUMEROUS ERRONEOUS STATEMENTS AND OFFENDS JUSTICE.

POINT SIX

JUDGE RAHILL'S REASONING FOR THE DEFENDANT HAVING TO PAY FOR THE PLAINTIFF'S LOANS IS TOTALLY ERRONEOUS AND OFFENDS JUSTICE.

POINT SEVEN

JUDGE RAHILL'S DENIAL TO RECUSE JUDGE BARTLETT FROM HEARING THIS MATTER IS NOT A MOOT POINT; PERTINENT EVIDENCE HAS BEEN IGNORED, THE REASONING IS BASED UPON ILLOGICAL CONCLUSIONS AND OFFENDS JUSTICE.

POINT EIGHT

JUDGE RAHILL'S DENIAL OF THE DEFENDANT'S REQUEST FOR INJUNCTIVE RELIEF IS BASED UPON INACCURATE AND ILLOGICAL CONCLUSIONS AND OFFENDS JUSTICE.

POINT NINE

JUDGE RAHILL'S DECISION TO DENY A PLENARY HEARING IS BASED UPON ILLOGICAL REASONING AND OFFENDS JUSTICE.

POINT TEN

JUDGE RAHILL IGNORED PERTINENT CASE LAW PRESENTED BY THE DEFENDANT.

Having reviewed these issues in light of the entire record and the applicable law, we conclude that they are clearly without merit and do not warrant extended discussion in a written opinion. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(E). We add only the following comments.

"Law of the case" is a discretionary doctrine that "operates to prevent relitigation of a previously resolved issue." In re Estate of Stockdale, 196 N.J. 275, 311 (2008); see also Pressler & Verniero, Current N.J. Court Rules, comment 4 on R. 1:36-3 (2011) (describing "law of the case" as "a non-binding discretionary rule intended, unless there is good cause not to do so, to avoid relitigation before the same court of the same issue in the same controversy"). Once the window to appeal an order expires, that order becomes the law of the case. Borden v. Cadles of Grassy Meadows II, LLC, 412 N.J. Super. 567, 580 (App. Div. 2010). Furthermore, "[a]n appellate decision on the merits is final though it does not terminate the case, and it becomes the law of the case." Acuna v. Turkish, 384 N.J. Super. 395, 407 (App. Div. 2006) (citing State v. Myers, 239 N.J. Super. 158, 164 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 127 N.J. 323 (1990)), rev'd on other grounds, 192 N.J. 399 (2007).

Here, defendant essentially seeks to relitigate orders that have already been decided and affirmed. Indeed, he acknowledges that several of his arguments were raised in previous appeals. These orders and appellate decisions are the law of the case and may not be revisited absent good cause. See ibid. Defendant has offered no such justification.

Affirmed.


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