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Pankaj Bhatnagar v. Sonia Bhatnagar

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY APPELLATE DIVISION


August 31, 2011

PANKAJ BHATNAGAR, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
SONIA BHATNAGAR, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.

On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Bergen County, Docket No. FM-02-1623-04.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued May 10, 2011

Before Judges Graves and Waugh.

In this post-judgment matrimonial matter, plaintiff Pankaj Bhatnagar appeals from an order dated July 30, 2010, which denied sixteen of his nineteen requests for relief in a motion to enforce litigant's rights. For the reasons that follow, we reverse and remand.

Plaintiff and defendant Sonia Bhatnagar were married on December 23, 1994. They have two sons: R.B., now fifteen years old, and S.B., now ten.

Following a thirty-one day trial, the parties were divorced on January 11, 2006. Pursuant to an amended judgment of divorce (AJOD) dated March 28, 2006, the parties were granted joint legal custody of the children. Defendant was awarded primary residential custody, and plaintiff was granted parenting time on alternate weekends and designated weekdays. The AJOD provided that the parties "shall equally share important holidays and . . . vacation time with the children" and "continue to reside within close proximity of each other in Mahwah, NJ." Furthermore, Tobie Meisel, L.C.S.W., was ordered to serve as the parties' parenting coordinator and to assist in resolving "conflicts related to parenting issues."

Over the next year, plaintiff and defendant both filed post-judgment motions regarding financial and parenting time issues, and the court entered orders on March 2 and April 2, 2007. Additionally, on January 4, 2008, plaintiff was "adjudicated in violation of litigant's rights for failure to comply with provisions" of the March 2 and April 2, 2007 orders.

In November 2008, Meisel resigned as the parent coordinator. In a subsequent motion, plaintiff certified that defendant interfered with his parenting time and, without a parent coordinator, he was "entirely at the mercy of Defendant's whims." Plaintiff also claimed there were other child-related, financial, and enforcement issues that needed to be resolved. As a result, he filed a motion with nineteen specific requests for relief on May 18, 2010. Among other things, plaintiff sought an order: finding defendant "in violation of litigant's rights for her willful interference" with his parenting time and awarding him compensatory time with the children; modifying the parenting time schedule "based on the children's maturation"; compelling defendant to attend and participate in family therapy and to provide him with "notification and correspondence" from the children's schools; permitting him to move "within a 15 mile radius of Mahwah"; and appointing Cynthia Johnson as the new parenting coordinator.

In her opposition papers, defendant certified that plaintiff was attempting to relitigate issues that he had previously raised "during trial and after the trial." Defendant also stated that many of plaintiff's allegations were "blatant[] lies" and that his conduct was detrimental to the children's welfare because he prevented them from participating in school related activities during his parenting time. In her cross- motion, defendant asked the court to appoint Mary Ann Stokes, Esq., as the new parent coordinator.

Both parties requested oral argument. Nevertheless, the requests were denied without explanation, and the court entered a five-paragraph order that provided as follows:

1. Unless otherwise noted in this Order, the parties shall comply with the terms of their Judgment of Divorce, Property Settlement Agreement and all prior Orders of the Court.

2. The Plaintiff's motion to enjoin and restrain the Defendant from permitting the parties' son, [R.B.], to travel to Bangladesh during the summer of 2010 is denied as moot. . . .

3. The Plaintiff's motion to compel the Defendant to provide to the Plaintiff all notifications and correspondence from the parties' children's school is granted. The Plaintiff is entitled to full and complete disclosure with regard to the parties' children's education.

4. The Defendant's cross-motion to appoint Mary Ann Stokes, Esq. as the parties' Parenting Coordinator is granted. . . . In Paragraph 60 of her Certification, the Defendant [indicated] ". . . Ms. Stokes serves as [P]arenting Coordinator in many high conflict cases." In Paragraph 10 of his Reply Certification, the Plaintiff states that "[t]here cannot be any disagreement that we need a new [P]arenting

[C]oordinator." Ms. Stokes shall act in a manner that is consistent with the prior orders of the Court.

5. Any relief requested but not specifically granted herein is denied.

On August 11, 2010, plaintiff's counsel wrote to the motion judge seeking "additional findings of fact and conclusions of law" because the judge "did not specifically address key portions of the relief requested." However, the request was denied. Plaintiff now appeals from paragraphs four and five of the order and presents the following arguments:

POINT I

THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN FAILING TO GRANT ORAL ARGUMENT AND ISSUE FINDINGS OF FACT AND CONCLUSIONS OF LAW.

POINT II

THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN FAILING TO SUBSTANTIVELY ADDRESS PLAINTIFF'S MOTION.

A. THE TRIAL COURT FAILED TO ENFORCE ITS PRIOR ORDERS.

B. THE TRIAL COURT'S ORDER DID NOT SUBSTANTIVELY ADDRESS THE REQUESTED RELIEF.

Rule 5:5-4(a) provides: "Motions in family actions shall be governed by R. 1:6-2(b) except that, in exercising its discretion as to the mode and scheduling of disposition of motions, the court shall ordinarily grant requests for oral argument on substantive and non-routine discovery motions and ordinarily deny requests for oral argument on calendar and routine discovery motions." In this case, both parties requested oral argument and, in our view, they were entitled to it because the disputed issues included matters pertaining to the children's welfare. See Filippone v. Lee, 304 N.J. Super. 301, 306 (App. Div. 1997) ("There was patently no special or unusual circumstance here warranting the court's dispensing with an entirely appropriate request for oral argument of a motion presumptively entitled to argument on request.").

Additionally, we note that in paragraph four, Stokes was appointed as the parenting coordinator without an explanation as to why she was selected instead of Johnson and, in paragraph five, the court summarily denied all of plaintiff's remaining requests. Rule 1:7-4(a) states that "[t]he court shall, by an opinion or memorandum decision, either written or oral, find the facts and state its conclusions of law thereon in . . . every motion decided by a written order that is appealable as of right." "[A]n articulation of reasons is essential to the fair resolution of a case," and "[f]ailure to perform this duty constitutes a disservice to the litigants, the attorneys and the appellate court." Schwarz v. Schwarz, 328 N.J. Super. 275, 282 (App. Div. 2000) (internal quotation marks omitted). Moreover, unsupported conclusions are insufficient. Curtis v. Finneran, 83 N.J. 563, 570 (1980).

In view of the foregoing, paragraphs four and five of the July 30, 2010 order are remanded to the trial court for compliance with Rules 5:5-4(a) and 1:7-4(a). Jurisdiction is not retained.

Reversed and remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

20110831

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