Ruling after what was apparently the first trial of a contested no-fault divorce in New York, a Long Island judge has ended a 56-year marriage that he determined was “irretrievably broken.”
Although the state’s 2010 no-fault divorce law was intended to reduce lengthy litigation, Acting Supreme Court Justice James F. Quinn in Suffolk County (See Profile) held in Sorrentino v. Sorrentino, 13315/11, that Gloria Sorrentino was not entitled to a divorce from Sebastian J. Sorrentino on her word alone.
But Justice Quinn added that the evidence he heard at trial last fall had convinced him that the marriage was beyond redemption.
“It is this Court’s determination that the parties’ relationship has so deteriorated irretrievably for a period in excess of six months and that the defenses of fraud, and undue influence, and incapacity were without merit, and that all other economic issues having been previously resolved by way of agreement and on file with the court, the plaintiff is entitled to a judgment of absolute divorce,” Justice Quinn wrote.
The judge noted that Ms. Sorrentino had testified at trial that she and her husband had not had sex for five years and, although they live in the same house, they sleep in separate bedrooms and never have meals together.
Ms. Sorrentino testified that she socializes with her children but her husband does not, and they have no common friends. Also, although she has serious medical problems, she said that her husband had not taken her to the doctor for five years nor had he asked about her health in a decade.
Moreover, she said that Mr. Sorrentino had denied her access to her jewelry for 25 years, did not pay for her dental bills and failed to repair the air conditioner or the refrigerator.
Ms. Sorrentino told Justice Quinn that “she has no hope for the marriage, that the defendant failed to live up to his obligations and that her only wish is for a divorce so that she can have one-half of the marital assets and leave them to her four children on her demise.”
Mr. Sorrentino denied the allegations of his wife and a daughter who testified that her father was “argumentative” and had been arrested once after pushing his wife. He insisted that he “took his vows of marriage seriously and worked hard to acquire everything the parties had, and that only after his wife aborted a pregnancy he no longer had a relationship with her.”
Domestic Relations Law §170(7) added the no-fault option as a ground for divorce to six fault-based grounds: abandonment, cruel and inhuman treatment, adultery, imprisonment, and a one-year separation by court judgment or agreement.
The no-fault provision can be used where “the relationship between husband and wife has broken down irretrievably for a period of at least six months, provided that one party has so stated under oath.”
The statute also requires that all outstanding financial issues and other matters between the spouses, such as child custody and visitation, be settled before they can terminate their marriages.
But Justice Quinn wrote in Sorrentino that the Legislature’s approval of the no-fault option (NYLJ, July 6, 2010) did not necessarily settle the issue raised when only one party wants a divorce.
“It is interesting to note that the legislature wanted to create a no-fault provision, but maintained all six other grounds for divorce in the statute,” he wrote in the Jan. 12 ruling. “It appears that New York is a quasi-no-fault state based upon the availability of grounds, and no-fault provisions.”
The judge noted that only two state trial-level courts have yet to rule definitively on the rights of spouses who oppose their partners’ attempt to divorce them on no-fault grounds.
In A.C. v. D.R., 32 Misc. 3d 293, a Nassau County judge held that a spouse’s declaration that a marriage is “irretrievably broken” is all that is needed to trigger the no-fault divorce statute.
But in Strack v. Strack, 31 Misc. 3rd 258, a judge in Essex County decided that a contention by one spouse that a marriage is “irretrievably broken” may be challenged in court by the other spouse (NYLJ, Oct. 12, 2011).
In Sorrentino, Justice Quinn held that Mr. Sorrentino had raised affirmative defenses CPLR 3018(b)against the automatic granting of his wife’s divorce request. They included allegations that she was extremely frail, was not of her “right mind” and was under the unnatural sway of at least two of her four children.
“The legislature did not abrogate fault nor did it relieve any provision under DRL 170 from the requirements of particularity in specific actions of CPLR 3016,” Justice Quinn wrote. “The defendant, in this court’s opinion, had the right to put forth a defense.”
But the judge ultimately rejected that defense and granted Ms. Sorrentino a judgment of divorce.
Jennifer Goody of Wand, Powers & Goody in Huntington, who represented Ms. Sorrentino, said courts remain “very unclear” about the level of proof, if any, needed to grant a no-fault divorce.
“I think the judge did what the law said he should do,” she said.
She said both spouses in the action are almost 80.
Lee A. Rubenstein of Manhattan represented Mr. Sorrentino.
Lee Rosenberg, an attorney with Saltzman Chetkof & Rosenberg in Garden City, who was not involved in the case, said the decision to hold a trial was “wrong.”
“It flies in face of the law and the intent of the law,” Mr. Rosenberg said.
While citing A.C. v. D.R., and Strack, Mr. Rosenberg said the decision ignores the ruling by Acting Supreme Court Justice Richard A. Dollinger (See Profile) in Monroe County in Palermo v. Palermo, 2010/15824, which rejected a spouse’s right to challenge his partner’s declaration of intent to divorce in a no-fault proceeding( (NYLJ, Oct. 27, 2011).
“The only caveat here in the statute is that before the judgment is entered, the financial and ancillary issues are settled,” said Mr. Rosenberg, a specialist in divorce and family law matters. “It has nothing to do with the parties’ entitlement to the judgment.”
@|Joel Stashenko can be contacted at email@example.com.