Leave to Amend Complaints must be Granted Liberally, Even in Divorces


In the case of Sadeeshkumar v. Venugopal, ___ N.J. Super. (App.Div.2024), the trial court denied the defendant the ability to amend his answer to the complaint for divorce. The appellate court reversed.

The parties had been married for over 30 years when the plaintiff filed for divorce in 2022. There was pending business litigation between the defendant and another party (Muragan). The Plaintiff-Wife had intervened in that case. Plaintiff’s Complaint was filed in May 2022. The defendant filed an answer in October 2022. In May 2023, the defendant filed a motion to amend his answer to include a counter-claim for divorce. These facts seem simple enough, but family part cases always have great twists.

The defendant certified that the parties had met Muragan in 2000. Muragan claimed that he was given powers by a Hindu goddess. The defendant claimed that the plaintiff devoted herself to Muragan and declared Muragan to be the family’s Swamiji. Notably, the defendant maintained that the plaintiff and Muragan took actions in the business and in the divorce litigation that adversely affected him both personally and financially, as well as causing him stress, anxiety, and emotional distress.

While the court’s characterization of the relationship between the plaintiff and Muragan is crouched in the politest terms, it is clear that they were having an affair and taking money from the business to finance their lifestyle to the exclusion and detriment of the defendant.

The trial court denied the defendant’s motion. Clearly, the court was irked by the request and stated that the request, serves only to further exacerbate the contentious rapport between the parties during this litigation. The case is well over 427 days old and both parties plead irreconcilable differences.” The defendant moved for reconsideration pointing out that he had not plead irreconcilable differences, but rather, he never filed a counterclaim. The trial court again denied the defendant’s motion and stated that he agreed with the plaintiff’s position.

The appeals court set forth the rules and body of case law that all weigh heavily in favor of allowing pleadings to be amended, at any stage of the litigation, regardless of the merits, unless there would be undue prejudice or the cause of action is futile. Under Rule 4:9-1, leave to amend should be liberally granted in the interest of justice. Generally, this means that you are going to be able to amend a complaint (at any time for basically any reason). The appeals court noted that the fact that the case was contentious was not a basis to deny the defendant the right to seek a divorce on his own claims. Rather, the court suggested that the trial court should do more to cool the tensions.

Notably, the appeals court also gave weight to the defendant’s allegations regarding Muragan and the allegation that there had been dissipation of marital assets. This issue may well weigh against the plaintiff’s claim for alimony and in favor of the defendant’s claim for equitable distribution.

This case is also an excellent example of what happens when one party is represented by someone seemingly unfamiliar with the family part and the other side has a family law expert. The plaintiff’s attorney made arguments that were simply not supported by the rules. In fact, the appeals court spent pages of the decision correcting counsel.

Plaintiff’s counsel relied upon Rule 5:4-2(e) and claimed that this rule is not the liberal interest of justice standard of Rule 4:9-1. After tracing the history of the development of the current Rule 5:4-2(e), the appeals court stated, “There is no precedent applying Rule 5:4-2(e) in the manner suggested by plaintiff. Existing precedent has interpreted the predecessor, Rule 4:77-4, and N.J.S.A. 2A:34-2 to permit the amendment of a complaint or counterclaim where a cause of action arose after the filing of the original pleading.” The court went on and noted that Rule 5:4-2(e) was about amending an existing counterclaim, not amending to file a counterclaim when one had not been previously filed and concluded that the rule did not even apply to this case.

Rule 5:4-2(e) is actually more about the uniqueness of the family part. It is common that parties would plead multiple reasons for the divorce and then ultimately on the day of the divorce proceed on only one.

Alternatively, by the time they get divorced they may be separated for 18 months, whereas they were not so separated for 18 months at the time of filing. In other words, the reason for the divorce may change by the actual date and this rule specifically authorizes the court to recognize this. This rule does not apply in other case types because there is no need or application for it.

This is a case where the plaintiff both could have and should have allowed the defendant to amend the complaint, which would have both saved substantial time and substantial money. Rather, by taking hardline positions, she caused unnecessary litigation.

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