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Colleen Knight v. Christopher Knight

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY APPELLATE DIVISION


July 2, 2012

COLLEEN KNIGHT, N/K/A COLLEEN BRUSNAHAN, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.

On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Camden County, Docket No. FM-04-1609-10.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued May 7, 2012

Before Judges Grall and Alvarez.

Defendant Christopher Knight appeals from a July 15, 2011 order entered approximately six months after his divorce from plaintiff Colleen Knight. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

Pursuant to their separation agreement, plaintiff and defendant share joint custody of their eight-year-old son, plaintiff being the parent of primary residence. Defendant has parenting time every other weekend from Friday after work to Sunday at 6:00 p.m., and every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday after work through 7:00 p.m. Defendant picks up the child at the start of the visit, and plaintiff picks the child up from defendant's home at the end. The agreement also required defendant to satisfy a debt to a retailer for the cost of bunk beds which he kept.

Plaintiff filed a motion seeking to modify the parenting schedule on the basis that the drive was "taxing" on her and the child, and that the schedule did not allow her sufficient time with her son, or for the child to spend with his friends. She suggested defendant's parenting time be rescheduled to every other weekend from Thursday after school to Sunday at 6:00 p.m. and that two, if not all, of the weeknight visits be eliminated. Plaintiff also requested, in the alternative, that defendant assume responsibility for all of the weekday driving. She also sought to enforce litigant's rights, requiring defendant to pay the still outstanding bill for the bunk beds. Defendant filed a cross-motion to become the parent of primary residence, modify child support, and grant plaintiff limited parenting time.

As to the debt, defendant reported that he had negotiated a reduction in payment of $1265.80 with the retailer and paid the balance in full. Plaintiff's counsel as a result argued that the account adjustment could theoretically cause plaintiff to owe additional income taxes for which defendant should be liable.

At oral argument, defendant appeared pro se, and the oath was administered to both parties. The Family Part judge then attempted to elicit on the record any additional change in circumstances that warranted a change in the current schedule, in addition to the substantial information each party supplied in his or her written submissions. The judge ultimately decided that the "simple solution[,]" one in the best interests of the child, would be to require defendant to drive the child directly from any week night activities scheduled on his parenting days back to plaintiff's home, in order to spare the child the additional travel time of going from the activity to defendant's home, and from there to plaintiff's home.

Because the judge was not entirely confident that the document defendant produced corroborated his assertion that the debt had in fact been paid, the order states that defendant was required to satisfy the debt within thirty days. He was also required to reimburse plaintiff any additional taxes that might be imposed by May 15, 2012. The judge awarded plaintiff $300 in counsel fees.

Defendant raises the following points on appeal:

A. AS A MATTER OF LAW, THE TRIAL COURT'S FINDINGS OF FACT AND CONCLUSIONS OF LAW WITH REGARD TO APPELLANT'S CROSS-MOTION FOR MODIFICATION OF CUSTODY AND CHILD SUPPORT ORDERS WERE UNSUPPORTED BY OR INCONSISTENT WITH THE COMPETENT, RELEVANT AND REASONABLY CREDIBLE EVIDENCE

1. The Trial Court Erred By Failing To Make Sufficient Findings Of Fact In Accordance With New Jersey Court [Rule] 1:7-4(a) And [N.J.S.A.] 9:2-4(f)

2. The Factual Findings And Legal Conclusions Of The Trial Court Are So Manifestly Unsupported By Or Inconsistent With The Competent, Relevant And Reasonably Credible Evidence As To Offend The Interest Of Justice

B. AS A MATTER OF LAW, THE TRIAL COURT'S FINDINGS OF FACT AND CONCLUSIONS OF LAW WITH REGARD TO RESPONDENT'S MOTION TO MODIFY PARENTING SCHEDULE WERE UNSUPPORTED BY OR INCONSISTENT WITH THE COMPETENT, RELEVANT AND REASONABLY CREDIBLE EVIDENCE

1. The Trial Court Erred By Failing To Make Sufficient Findings Of Fact In Accordance With New Jersey Court [Rule] 1:7-4(a) And [N.J.S.A.] 9:2-4(f)

2. The Factual Findings And Legal Conclusions Of The Trial Court Are So Manifestly Unsupported By Or Inconsistent With The Competent, Relevant And Reasonably Credible Evidence As To Offend The Interest Of Justice

C. THE TRIAL COURT'S AWARD REGARDING TAX LIABILITY WAS ARBITRARY, CAPRICIOUS AND AN ABUSE OF DISCRETION

D. THE TRIAL COURT'S AWARD REGARDING COUNSEL FEES WAS ARBITRARY, CAPRICIOUS AND AN ABUSE OF DISCRETION We first address defendant's contentions with regard to the cross-motion for a change in custody. On this score, we defer to the trial court's factual findings on the motion to modify the separation agreement. See Abouzahr v. Matera-Abouzahr, 361 N.J. Super. 135, 149, 151 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 178 N.J. 34 (2003). Generally, the factual findings and legal conclusions of a trial judge will not be reversed on appeal unless "they are so manifestly unsupported by or inconsistent with the competent, relevant and reasonably credible evidence as to offend the interest of justice." Ibid. (citing Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co., 65 N.J. 474, 484 (1974)).

In support of his argument that the court erred in denying his application for a transfer of custody, defendant asserts that the court failed to make sufficient findings of fact and reach legal conclusions of law. See R. 1:7-4(a); N.J.S.A. 9:2-4(f). We disagree.

Defendant bore the burden to prove changed circumstances. See Mastropole v. Mastropole, 181 N.J. Super. 130, 136 (App. Div. 1981). He proved none whatsoever, and as a result the judge merely said "I don't think that there has been a significant change [in] circumstances justifying a revisitation of custody . . . ." The judge's brief statement was sufficient to address the scant proofs defendant presented. Since defendant did not present any evidence affecting the child's welfare, there was no need for the court to make more detailed findings regarding the best interests of the child. See Abouzahr, supra, 361 N.J. Super. at 152.

Secondly, defendant claims that the court's modification of the driving schedule was unsupported by adequate findings of fact or conclusions of law, and was "unsupported by or inconsistent with the competent, relevant and reasonably credible evidence[.]" The Family Part judge, however, explained that he tested plaintiff's request against the best interests of the child standard. His conclusion that it was not in the child's best interest to undergo additional travel time three nights a week, between activity, defendant's home, and plaintiff's home, is unobjectionable. This change, minimal as it was, only reduces the time the child spends in a car. On a school night, the decision is commonsensical and completely supported by the record. Plaintiff's request for a minor adjustment required very minimal analysis.

Third, defendant contends that the court's imposition of tax liability upon him was "arbitrary, capricious[,] and an abuse of discretion." "[T]he contractual nature of [marital] agreements has long been recognized and principles of contract interpretation have been invoked particularly to define the terms of the agreement and divine the intent of the parties." Massar v. Massar, 279 N.J. Super. 89, 93 (App. Div. 1995). One such principle is that the document is read "as a whole in a fair and common sense manner." Hardy ex. rel. Dowdell v. AbdulMatin, 198 N.J. 95, 103 (2009). The court must attempt to ascertain the intention of the parties based on the language as written. Barr v. Barr, 418 N.J. Super. 18, 32 (App. Div. 2011). If the terms of the contract are clear and unambiguous, the court must enforce those terms, Watson v. City of E. Orange, 175 N.J. 442, 447 (2003), and must give the words "their plain, ordinary meaning." Pizzullo v. N.J. Mfrs. Ins. Co., 196 N.J. 251, 270 (2008).

The debt provision in the parties' judgment of divorce was clearly intended to make defendant entirely responsible for the cost of the bunk beds he kept. It contains the terms "indemnify" and "hold [] harmless." It is self-evident that this includes any tax liability that may result from defendant's negotiation of a reduction in the amount he paid. Therefore, based on the plain language of the agreement, the Family Part judge correctly required defendant to pay any additional taxes plaintiff might be assessed.

Lastly, defendant objects to the court's award of counsel fees. On this point, we agree that the judge could have expanded upon his findings. It is noteworthy, however, that his decision to award $300 in counsel fees, a relatively modest amount and less than the requested $1177.50, was spurred solely because defendant did not pay the retail debt on a timely basis. The judge observed that the retailer's "bill should have been paid and it shouldn't have been necessary to come back to court to get that paid . . . ." Because the court acknowledged that defendant may have been truthful in asserting that he had already paid the debt, he did not award the entire amount of fees requested. But plaintiff's original application was, after all, for enforcement of litigant's rights because defendant failed to fulfill his obligation.

In fact, Rule 5:3-5(c) states that attorney's fees may be awarded in civil actions based on "the degree to which fees were incurred to enforce existing orders . . . ." Under the circumstances, the court's award is not arbitrary or inequitable. We therefore find that the court did not err in making it without addressing other provisions of the Rule that have limited significance where the prevailing party on a motion to enforce a financial obligation seeks fees, even in the absence of more substantial findings.

Affirmed.

20120702

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