In the recent NJ divorce case, Shifrin-Douglas v. Shifrin, Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division, Docket No. A-0566-21, between the defendant, Alexander Shifrin, and the plaintiff, Svetlana Shifrin-Douglas, the appellate court affirmed the trial court, rejecting the defendant’s request to modify or vacate the parties’ Property Settlement Agreement. 


Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, the parties married in 2009, had twins in 2011, and divorced in 2017.  Both parties, who are doctors, had agreed to refer all financial and child-related issues arising out of their relationship to an arbitrator. In a letter to the plaintiff’s counsel in 2017, the defense counsel complained about the plaintiff’s “underemployment.” The letter addressed eight employment opportunities that were available to the plaintiff and stated that her earning capacity would be in the $250,000 to $300,000 per year range. The plaintiff subsequently accepted a new two-year position with an annual salary of $122,000, running from June 1, 2018, to June 1, 2020.

On June 1, 2020, the parties entered into a property settlement agreement (PSA), with both parties agreeing that if either of them commenced a divorce action, they would be bound by all of the terms of the PSA. On July 2, 2020, the plaintiff filed for divorce, alleging the parties had settled the terms of their matrimonial dispute and had entered into a PSA. She sought a dissolution of the marriage and the incorporation of the PSA into the final judgment of divorce. Following the execution of the PSA, the defendant learned that the plaintiff had taken a new job where her annual salary under a two-year employment contract would be $240,000. On November 3, 2020, the defendant moved in the Superior Court to vacate the PSA arguing the plaintiff had fraudulently induced him into executing the PSA by representing her income was $122,000 when she knew her income would increase to $240,000 in a new job. After hearing argument, the judge denied without prejudice each aspect of the defendant’s motion and granted the plaintiff’s motion to enforce the PSA. The defendant filed an appeal.


The Appellate Court’s Decision

On appeal, the defendant made four claims. The defendant argued that the Family Part judge erred by failing to: (1) vacate the PSA or, alternatively, its support provisions based on the plaintiff’s alleged fraud; (2) find a change in circumstances warranting a modification of the PSA’s support provisions; (3) provide a ninety-day discovery period, schedule a plenary hearing, and suspend defendant’s alimony and supplemental alimony obligations pending a plenary hearing; and (4) award him counsel fees.

The appellate court was unpersuaded, fully affirming the lower court. On the first and second claims, the appeals court found that the defendant failed to prove that the plaintiff engaged in fraud or that circumstances had changed that warranted a modification of the PSA. Further, the court found that the plaintiff should have anticipated the change in the plaintiff’s income, and none of the plaintiff’s actions rose to the level required by the defendant’s claim. Additionally, the appellate court opinion stated that the lower court was within its rights to deny the defendant’s request for discovery or a plenary hearing. Finally, as the defendant failed to submit the affidavit of services required by Rule 4:42-9(b), the lower court judge did not exceed his discretion in denying the defendant plaintiff fees.


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