Trial Courts Have Discretion for Final Determinations and Adjournment Requests
Docket No. A-3658-18
Decided April 21, 2021
Submitted by New Jersey Family Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.
In a recent unpublished decision the Appellate Division reviewed a trial court’s decision to deny defendant’s request to a adjourn a trial, resulting in a Dual Final Judgment of Divorce (FJOD) requiring plaintiff to pay defendant $250 per week in alimony for six years.
In Furdyna, After sixteen years of marriage, defendant filed a non-dissolution verified complaint for support and maintenance. Both parties were self-represented during the initial argument. The following month, plaintiff filed a complaint for divorce and a motion for reconsideration of the earlier order awarding defendant spousal support and other funds. Defendant filed papers in response to the motion for reconsideration but did not answer the complaint.
After plaintiff filed a request to enter default, defendant retained counsel who filed a notice of appearance, and the parties consented to vacate the default. Defendant filed an answer and counterclaim, and the parties submitted a case management order.
Three months later, defendant’s attorney moved to be relieved as counsel, asserting defendant had not paid her and was not cooperating with her or providing the information necessary for the preparation of the case. The matter had not yet gone before an early settlement panel and no trial date was scheduled. Before the court ruled on the motion, a subsequent substitution of attorney was filed with defendant representing herself.
Three months later, and two weeks before the trial date, defendant filed a motion pro se asking for an increase in alimony payments and for a lump sum of $45,000. Because the trial occurred prior to the return date of the motion, the court denied all aspects of the motion other than continuing the pendente lite alimony payment of $1000 a month.
The parties appeared for trial on Tuesday, January 29, 2019. Both were self-represented. As the proceeding began, defendant told the court she had obtained counsel “as of last Friday.” Defendant gave the court the attorney’s name and stated he instructed her to request an adjournment. She did not know the spelling of his name or his phone number. She acknowledged counsel had not entered an appearance with the court. The judge advised she had not received a notice of appearance or had any communication from the attorney. Plaintiff objected to any adjournment of the case.
The Judge conducted the trial for two days, eliciting testimony, without defendant having counsel present. On March 13, 2019, the Family Part judge issued a comprehensive oral decision and entered a FJOD, ordering $250 per week for six years of alimony payable by plaintiff to defendant.
Defendant appealed, arguing the judge abused her discretion by denying defendant’s request for an adjournment. The Appellate Division found no abuse of discretion under the circumstances, given the timing and lack of defendant to object to continuing the proceedings.
This case is important to understand the discretion Trial Courts have for final determinations and adjournment requests. Unless you challenge a trial court’s application of the law, a family judge can make factual determinations, credibility determinations, and decisions regarding custody, child support, and even attorney’s fees so long as they analyze the appropriate legal tests with the facts provided. If a party wants to challenge a trial court’s decision on this basis, the challenger must demonstrate that the judge abused his or her discretion – a standard that is very difficult to overcome. Also, the Court has much deference in granting or denying adjournment requests and it is very hard to overturn those decisions. Therefore, it is important to hire an experienced family attorney early at the trial level to ensure your rights and interests are protected.
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