Like many of the one million Americans who go through a divorce each year, Marvin Singer is indignant, depressed, financially stressed and convinced that he is a victim of judicial abuse.
Unlike all but a tiny number, Mr. Singer, 71, is also in jail.
Mr. Singer, a tall, thin, bent man with bushy gray hair and a cane, has been at the Nassau County Correctional Facility here since Oct. 24. A name tag identifies him as that rarest of jailbirds: a “civil inmate.”
According to the official record, Mr. Singer was jailed for refusing a judge’s order to pay his ex-wife’s lawyer $100,000 — about half of what he owes for her legal representation during their six-year tug-of-war over marital assets.
According to Mr. Singer, he is an inmate in a modern-day debtor’s prison.
“In this country, you’re not supposed to go to jail for owing money,” said Mr. Singer, a real estate lawyer who may or may not have retired, depending on which side of this bitter struggle one sits. “I haven’t hurt anyone. I haven’t robbed anyone. How could this be?”
There is no record of how many people travel a path from divorce court to jail. Administrators of the matrimonial courts in New York and other states track how many divorces are filed, and how many are resolved, but not how many litigants in irreconcilable marriages end up in irreconcilable rows with the judge.
This goes beyond the crackdown on men who fail to pay child support, which over the past decade has become a pet cause for many a politician and prosecutor. Like Mr. Singer, these soon to be ex-husbands — and it is almost always husbands — are tossed in jail not for abusing wives or children but for contempt, which is legalese for not doing what the judge ordered, often after a very long time of, well, not doing what the judge ordered.
Experts on matrimonial law say that such severe penalties are rare, but may be increasing because of the growing complexity of many families’ finances, and to frustration among judges at courtroom backlogs made worse by the intransigence of highly emotional adversaries.
“It’s a disgrace, how much delay there can be,” said Gaetano Ferro, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. Last February, the Matrimonial Commission, a task force convened by the New York State court system, issued a report that called, among other things, for stricter enforcement of divorce-court decrees. The report said that in two years of hearings around the state, dozens of the 100 or so witnesses told of waiting years for orders to be issued, only to find themselves waiting months and years more for them to be obeyed.
“After people have gone through the time and money and exasperation, and they get an order that is not enforced, it’s an injustice,” said Sondra Miller, a recently retired appellate judge who was the commission’s chairwoman. “There were many, many, many complaints about this; that there is a lack of enforcement, a need for sanctions. And jail is certainly a sanction available to the court.”
One commission member who seems to have taken the complaints to heart is Robert A. Ross, a former divorce lawyer who is the chief of the matrimonial court in Nassau County. He is the judge who jailed Mr. Singer — and, over the last two years, at least a half dozen other divorcing men — for contempt of his orders to pay up.
In October 2005, Judge Ross forced the founder and president of a Long Island manufacturing company, Joe Baumoel, to spend 45 days in jail for failing to comply with the judge’s order to sell his business and split the proceeds with his ex-wife. (When the sentence was completed, Mr. Baumoel sold his business, a gauge-making company called Controlotron Inc., for about $30 million; his lawyer said he could have gotten three times the price if he had been given more time.)
Last month, Judge Ross heard the plea of a man in a rumpled suit who was 18 months and $6,000 behind in child support payments; he had spent 30 days in jail and faced 60 more.
“My client assures me that he will take a second job, your honor,” pleaded the man’s lawyer, David A. Corson. “He says he is going to sell his van.”
The man had stood before Judge Ross many times in the past two years and made similar promises. Judge Ross reviewed the paperwork, which included many documents from the man’s ex-wife attesting to his ability and unwillingness to pay, then decided to send him back to jail. Though considered a standout for his tough posture, Judge Ross is not alone. In an infamous and record-setting Philadelphia case, a succession of judges have ordered H. Beatty Chadwick held in jail for the last 10 years. His ex-wife maintains that he is hiding vast assets he was ordered to divide with her. Last year, the former police chief of Akron, Ohio, received a 30-day jail sentence in a similar, though less pricey, case.
On Long Island, the case of Singer v. Singer has dredged a legal terrain strewn with real estate deals, liens, a bankruptcy, accusations of hidden assets, a boat, a Florida condominium, and a house in Great Neck — all despite a prenuptial agreement that protects most of the couple’s assets from dispute. What finally landed Mr. Singer in jail — some five years after his divorce became final — was his refusal to pay his wife’s lawyer, an obligation of whichever spouse is deemed wealthier under a 1996 ruling of New York’s Court of Appeals.
Judge Ross initially ordered Mr. Singer to pay the lawyer, Stephen Gassman, in 2004. “He has been given every opportunity to pay, but has refused time and time again,” Mr. Gassman said.
James B. Preston, chairman of the family law section of the American Bar Association, said Mr. Singer’s case illustrated growing problems in matrimonial cases.
“Years ago, dividing assets was nowhere near as complicated,” he said. “Estates worth millions of dollars are still something relatively new.” That, plus what Mr. Preston called a “willingness among litigants to explore every financial theory” in protecting their assets, leaves some litigants to choose between their money and their freedom
Enter Judge Ross, 47, who went from the matrimonial bar to the matrimonial bench in 2002, and said in an interview that “fairness to all parties” was his goal in every decision, including sending someone to jail.
“It is a drastic remedy,” he said. “But what is to be done when the law is not being complied with? There is an alarming frequency of contempt.” Judge Ross declined to discuss any current case, including Mr. Singer’s, but said that he would jail only someone who “makes a conscious decision not to comply with a court order.”
Maxine Last, a Long Island divorce lawyer who has struggled for years with cases that drag on for lack of enforcement, said of Judge Ross: “I wish there were many more like him,” adding that besides jail, “unfortunately, there is no incentive for the parties to comply.”
Local lawyers who disagree were equally adamant, though unwilling to be quoted by name. “I go before Judge Ross, and I do not want to be seen criticizing him, but I would say he goes too far,” said one. “You put a guy in jail, he comes out in a deeper hole than when he went in. What is the point?”
To spend a day in a divorce court is to see people grasping and wrestling through their lawyers over children and money and chandeliers behind what in effect is only a see-through curtain of courtroom decorum.
Strapping men stride forward to claim they are totally disabled, unable to work. Women flanked by two or more lawyers describe themselves as living hand-to-mouth. What is true, half-true, and the opposite of true is left to the discernment of a judge who may or may not have expertise in any or all of the legal domains of a typical day’s work: real estate, banking, tax, accounting, trusts, estates, life insurance, and child development.
Mr. Singer, who is scheduled to be released on Feb. 24, recently asked the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court to overturn the award of fees to his ex-wife’s lawyer, and to order Judge Ross to recuse himself from the case. His request was denied.
Mr. Gassman, the lawyer for Mr. Singer’s ex-wife, Susan, said he had no special relationship with Judge Ross, though they have known each other professionally for years as part of the relatively clubby matrimonial bar. He said he is eager for Mr. Singer’s release, so the hearing on distribution of marital assets — not to mention his own unpaid bill — can proceed.
In a jailhouse interview, Mr. Singer wavered between defiance and seeming confusion. “It’s not just about the $100,000,” he said. “If I pay that, he can order me to pay another $100,000, and send me to jail again if I don’t.”
In part because of the financial complexity — including Mr. Singer’s business relationship with his son, a real estate investor — and perhaps in part because of what Judge Ross has decried in past rulings as Mr. Singer’s “inexorable recalcitrance, discovery obfuscation and overwhelming obstructionist tactics,” the case has been on the docket since 1999. Judge Ross is the third judge to preside over the case.
“Every time we go to court, the meter is running and I’m paying,” Mr. Singer said, hands folded atop a battered legal folder in which he keeps documents and notes. “I’m like a dog chasing his own tail.”
Behind Mr. Singer, muscular young men wearing orange scrubs identical to his strode past, moving about twice as fast to their assigned visiting tables as he had done.
“At least while I’m here, everything’s on hold,” he said, waving a thin arm under the cold, fluorescent light. “She’s not getting richer off me.”
SOURCE: New York Times