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In re Dench-Layton

Supreme Court of New York, Third Department

June 8, 2017

In the Matter of TANYA A. DENCH-LAYTON, Respondent,
v.
PAUL T. DENCH-LAYTON, Appellant.

          Calendar Date: May 2, 2017

          Jane Bloom, Monticello, for appellant.

          Before: Peters, P.J., Garry, Lynch, Clark and Aarons, JJ.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          Peters, P.J.

         Appeal from an order of the Family Court of Sullivan County (Meddaugh, J.), entered May 27, 2015, which, among other things, granted petitioner's application, in a proceeding pursuant to Family Ct Act article 4, to hold respondent in willful violation of a prior order of support.

         Pursuant to a 2013 order of support, respondent (hereinafter the father) was required to pay child support to petitioner (hereinafter the mother) for their three children (born in 1997, 1999 and 2004). Thereafter, the mother commenced this proceeding alleging that the father was in willful violation of the support order. On the fourth day of the fact-finding hearing, the father failed to appear and the Support Magistrate denied the request by the father's counsel to adjourn the hearing. The Support Magistrate subsequently issued an order on the father's default finding him in willful violation of the support order and granted the mother a money judgment. The father's motion to vacate his default was denied by the Support Magistrate, and the matter proceeded to Family Court for confirmation of the willful violation finding. After reviewing the evidence admitted before the Support Magistrate, Family Court found, among other things, that the father willfully violated the support order and placed him on probation until the $22, 053 in arrears was satisfied or there was no longer an order of support in effect for any of the subject children, whichever event occurred first. The father appeals.

         The father asserts that the denial of his request to adjourn the fact-finding hearing was an abuse of discretion and that he was not required to seek vacatur of the default because he was denied his fundamental right to be heard. "The grant or denial of a motion for an adjournment for any purpose is a matter resting within the sound discretion of the trial court" (Matter of Steven B., 6 N.Y.3d 888, 889 [2006] [internal quotation marks and citation omitted]; accord Matter of Martin v Martin, 46 A.D.3d 1243, 1246 [2007]; see Matter of Lorys v Powell, 116 A.D.3d 1047, 1048 [2014]). Adjournment requests "should be granted only upon a showing of good cause" (Matter of Nicholas V. [Rick V.], 82 A.D.3d 1555, 1556 [2011]; see Matter of Beverly EE. [Ryan FF.], 88 A.D.3d 1086, 1088 [2011]; see generally Family Ct Act § 626 [a]).

         The father was present for the first three days of the fact-finding hearing, during which he provided direct testimony in support of his defense, was cross-examined by the mother's counsel, testified on redirect examination and was free to otherwise introduce additional forms of proof. When the father failed to appear on the last day of the hearing, on which he was scheduled to be questioned further by the mother's counsel and present the testimony of his girlfriend, the father's counsel requested an adjournment on the basis that there was an illness in the father's family. The Support Magistrate denied the adjournment request on the grounds that the case had been prolonged and there was no evidence to support the father's explanation for his nonappearance. In view of the father's previous history of failing to appear in court as well as his failure to provide any medical documentation to support the illness claimed, and given that he was afforded an adequate opportunity to testify and present evidence at the fact-finding hearing, it was not an abuse of discretion to deny his adjournment request (see Matter of Braswell v Braswell, 80 A.D.3d 827, 829 [2011]; Terio v Terio, 190 A.D.2d 665, 666 [1993], appeal dismissed 81 N.Y.2d 994');">81 N.Y.2d 994 [1993], lv dismissed 82 N.Y.2d 778');">82 N.Y.2d 778 [1993], cert denied 511 U.S. 1022 [1994]). Nor was the father denied due process inasmuch as he was provided with a full and fair opportunity to testify and introduce evidence on his behalf.

         The Support Magistrate erred, however, in finding the father in default based on his nonappearance on the last day of the fact-finding hearing. The father had appeared on the first three days of the hearing, had already provided substantial testimony in support of his defense and had been cross-examined by the mother's counsel (see Matter of Savanna G. [Danyelle M.], 118 A.D.3d 1482, 1482 [2014]; Matter of Danielle M., 26 A.D.3d 748, 748 [2006], lv denied 7 N.Y.3d 703');">7 N.Y.3d 703 [2006]). Moreover, although the father did not appear on the last day of the hearing, his counsel had made a written request for an adjournment earlier that day and thereafter appeared in court to reiterate such request (see Matter of Manning v Sobotka, 107 A.D.3d 1638, 1639 [2013]; Matter of Erie County Dept. of Social Servs. v Thompson, 91 A.D.3d 1327, 1328 [2012]; Matter of Cassandra M., 260 A.D.2d 961, 962-963 [1999]) [1]. Because there was no default, the father was not required to move to vacate the Support Magistrate's order and to file objections to the denial of such motion with Family Court. Accordingly, Family Court properly reviewed the record before the Support Magistrate to determine whether to confirm the finding of a willful violation on the merits (cf. Matter of Manning v Sobotka, 107 A.D.3d at 1638; see generally Family Ct Act § 439 [a], [e]).

         Addressing the merits, a parent is presumed to have the means to support his or her children under the age of 21 (see Family Ct Act § 437; Matter of Powers v Powers, 86 N.Y.2d 63, 68-69 [1995]). "[P]roof of a failure to pay child support as ordered constitutes prima facie evidence of a willful violation" (Matter of Ulster County Support Collection Unit v Oliver, 135 A.D.3d 1114, 1115 [2016]; see Family Ct Act § 454 [3] [a]), which shifts the burden to the parent who owes the support to come forward with competent, credible evidence of his or her inability to pay (see Matter of Powers v Powers, 86 N.Y.2d at 69; Matter of Provost v Provost, 147 A.D.3d 1256, 1257 [2017]).

         At the fact-finding hearing, the mother presented a document from the child support collection unit indicating the amount of child support arrears owed and testified that the amounts were accurate and that she had not received any child support payments from the father that were not already reflected in the document. This evidence was sufficient to make a prima facie showing of a willful violation and to shift the burden to the father to establish, by competent proof, an inability to pay (see Matter of Santana v Gonzalez, 90 A.D.3d 1198, 1200 [2011]; Matter of Wilson v LaMountain, 83 A.D.3d 1154, 1155-1156 [2011]; Matter of Sandulescu v Caico, 64 A.D.3d 905, 907 [2009]).

         To that end, the father testified that he was unable to work due to his various medical conditions and because he was the primary caretaker of the two children he shared with his girlfriend. He did not, however, offer any medical documentation or evidence to substantiate his medical claims (see Matter of Boyle v Boyle, 101 A.D.3d 1412, 1413 [2012]; Matter of Freedman v Horike, 68 A.D.3d 1205, 1206 [2009], lv dismissed and denied 14 N.Y.3d 811');">14 N.Y.3d 811 [2010]). Further, despite his alleged medical issues, the father testified that he drove over 200 miles to New York City each weekend to sell produce and admitted that he worked in the farming industry after he had been diagnosed with cancer and received treatment (see Matter of Wilson v LaMountain, 83 A.D.3d at 1156; Matter of Travell v Travell, 33 A.D.3d 1169, 1171 [2006]). As aptly noted by Family Court, the father "deliberately structured his life in such a manner [as] to create the appearance of indigenc[e] to avoid paying child support." Although the father claimed that he had given his farm to his girlfriend, he admitted that he did not legally assign the farm to her and there is no evidence that he received any consideration for it. In fact, the father continued to work for the farm without receiving any compensation. [2]

         Moreover, the father failed to show that he made a good-faith effort to obtain employment, as evidenced by his own testimony that his job search was limited to an Internet inquiry and that he had not applied for any such jobs (see Matter of Roshia v Thiel, 110 A.D.3d 1490, 1492 [2013], lv dismissed and denied22 N.Y.3d 1037');">22 N.Y.3d 1037 [2013]; Matter of Greene v Hanson, 100 A.D.3d 1558, 1558-1559 [2012]). The father's pending application for Social Security disability benefits "did not preclude Family Court from finding that he was capable of working" (Matter of Wilson v LaMountain, 83 A.D.3d at 1156; see Matter of Bukovinsky v Bukovinsky, 299 A.D.2d 786, 787-788 [2002], lv dismissed100 N.Y.2d 534');">100 N.Y.2d 534 [2003]). Furthermore, having failed to appear on the last day of the fact-finding hearing, the father may not now argue that he should have been allowed to present additional evidence in support of his defense (see Matter of Ball v Marshall, 103 A.D.3d 1270, 1271 [2013]) [3]. According due deference to the trier of fact on issues of credibility (see Matter of Dempsey v Arreglado, 95 A.D.3d 1388, 1390 [2012]; Matter of Freedman v Horike, 68 A.D.3d at 1207), we find ample record support for Family Court's determination that the father willfully violated the support order (see ...


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