Justia Family Law Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Supreme Court of New Jersey
New Jersey v. A.L.A.
Defendant A.L.A. was the legal guardian of her four grandchildren, who ranged in age from three to seventeen years old. In August 2016, the oldest grandchild reported that defendant physically abused them. After an investigation, the New Jersey Division of Child Protection & Permanency initiated an emergency removal of all four grandchildren. Defendant was tried for multiple counts of endangering the welfare of a child. The parties agreed that the court would instruct the jury on second-degree endangering, and what the parties termed a lesser included disorderly persons offense of simple assault. The issue this case presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court’s review centered on whether the jury could have understood the affirmative defense of reasonable corporal punishment applied to both the child endangerment charge and the simple assault chard, where the reasonable corporal punishment instruction was provided only in the instructions for the child endangerment charge. The Supreme Court determined after review that the jury could not have understood the language in the instruction applied to both charges. Therefore, the Supreme Court held the trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury, in the context of the simple assault charge, that reasonable corporal punishment was not prohibited. Because that error in instructions could have led the jury to an unjust result, the conviction was vacated and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "New Jersey v. A.L.A." on Justia Law
Moynihan v. Lynch
Plaintiff Kathleen Moynihan and defendant Edward Lynch were involved in a long-term “marital-style relationship.” Anticipating the potential dissolution of that relationship, they signed and notarized a written agreement, without the assistance of counsel, that finalized the financial obligations each owed to the other. The issue this case presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's review was the validity of that palimony agreement. In 2015, the parties parted ways, and Lynch refused to abide by their written agreement. Moynihan filed a complaint seeking enforcement of the written agreement and an alleged oral palimony agreement that she claimed the parties had entered before the Legislature in 2010 amended N.J.S.A. 25:1-5 to include subparagraph (h), which mandated that palimony agreements be reduced to writing and “made with the independent advice of counsel.” She challenged N.J.S.A. 25:1-5(h) on constitutional grounds and urged enforcement as a typical contract; alternatively, she sought enforcement of the agreement on equitable grounds. Lynch denied the existence of an oral palimony agreement and asserted that the written agreement was unenforceable because the parties did not receive the independent advice of counsel before entering it. The Supreme Court concluded the palimony agreement, as written and signed, without the attorney review requirement, was enforceable. That portion of N.J.S.A. 25:1-5(h), which imposed an attorney-review requirement to enforce a palimony agreement, contravenes Article I, Paragraph 1 of the New Jersey Constitution. The Court concluded the parties did not enter an oral palimony agreement. View "Moynihan v. Lynch" on Justia Law
Coleman v. Martinez
The issue this case presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's consideration was whether, under the facts of this case, plaintiff Leah Coleman, the victim of a violent assault by social worker Sonia Martinez’s patient, could bring a negligence claim against Martinez. Martinez’s patient, T.E., suffered two violent episodes prior to her treatment with Martinez. Coleman worked for the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCPP) and was tasked with ensuring the welfare of T.E.’s children when the children were removed from T.E.'s care after her hospitalization following her second violent incident. In a letter to Coleman dated October 1, 2014, Martinez stated that T.E. had been compliant during her sessions and with her medication and was ready and able to begin having unsupervised visits with her children with the goal of reunification. At her deposition, Martinez acknowledged the inaccuracy of representing that T.E. did not exhibit psychotic symptoms in light of what she and the group counselor had seen. During a November 7 appointment, Martinez disclosed to T.E. Coleman’s report of T.E.’s hallucinations. T.E. “became upset” and “tearful,” denied any psychotic symptoms, and reiterated her goal of regaining custody of her children. Later that day, T.E. called DCPP and spoke with Coleman. During their conversation, T.E. referenced her session with Martinez, denied that she was experiencing auditory hallucinations, and stated she did not understand why such a claim would be fabricated. Coleman advised T.E. to seek advice from an attorney as DCPP would “maintain that she [was] not capable of parenting independently due to her mental health issues.” Six days later, T.E. made an unscheduled visit to DCPP offices, where she stabbed Coleman twenty-two times in the face, chest, arms, shoulders, and back. Coleman filed a complaint against Martinez, alleging that Martinez was negligent in identifying her to T.E. as the source of information about T.E.’s hallucinations, and that T.E.’s attack was a direct and proximate result of Martinez’s negligence. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Martinez, finding no legal duty owed to Coleman under the particularized foreseeability standard set forth in J.S. v. R.T.H., 155 N.J. 330 (1998). The Supreme Court disagreed, finding that Martinez had a duty to Coleman under the circumstances here. The trial court's judgment was reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Coleman v. Martinez" on Justia Law
S.C. v. New Jersey Department of Children and Families
This appeal involved the investigation into a claim that a mother, S.C., abused her seven-year-old son by corporal punishment. The New Jersey Department of Children and Families (Department) concluded, after its investigation, that the claim of abuse was “not established.” Because the abuse allegation was deemed “not established” rather than “unfounded,” it was not eligible to be expunged. S.C. appealed the Department’s action, claiming: (1) a deprivation of her due process rights because she was not afforded a hearing; and (2) that the Department’s “not established” finding was arbitrary and capricious because the record was insufficient to support a finding that her son was harmed. S.C. did not raise a direct challenge to the validity of having a “not established” finding category in the Department’s regulations, although amici urged that the category be declared illegitimate and eliminated. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed and remanded: (1) for the Department to provide improved notice of the basis on which its investigation has found credible evidence to support the allegation of harm; and (2) for S.C. to have an informal opportunity before the Department to rebut and/or supplement the record before the Department finalizes its finding. The Supreme Court rejected that due process considerations required the Department to conduct an adjudicative contested case proceeding either internally or at the Office of Administrative Law for a “not established” finding. That said, on the basis of the present record, the Supreme Court could not assess whether the “not established” finding in this instance was arbitrary or capricious. "It would be well worth the effort of the Department to revisit its regulatory language concerning the standard for making a 'not established' finding as well as its processes related to such findings. Our review of this matter brings to light shortcomings in fairness for parents and guardians involved in investigations that lead to such findings and which may require appellate review." View "S.C. v. New Jersey Department of Children and Families" on Justia Law
New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency v. R.L.M.
Plaintiff New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency (Division) brought a guardianship action against R.L.M. and J.J., seeking to terminate their parental rights to their daughter R.A.J. At a case management conference early in the proceeding, J.J. told the court that he did not want an attorney appointed for him. As the conference continued, J.J.’s previously assigned counsel continued to speak on his behalf. At the second case management conference, J.J. left the courtroom before the conference began. At the third conference, J.J. stated that he wanted to retain substitute counsel. The judge noted that J.J.’s assigned counsel would continue to represent him pending any substitution of attorney. J.J. did not retain private counsel. At the final case management conference and the pretrial conference, J.J.’s assigned counsel represented him; J.J. declined to appear. The Court granted J.J.’s petition for certification, in which he claimed only that he was entitled to a new trial by virtue of the trial court’s denial of his request to represent himself. "Although a parent’s decision to appear pro se in this complex and consequential litigation represents poor strategy in all but the rarest case," the New Jersey Supreme Court found N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.4 plainly authorized that parent to proceed unrepresented. "The parent’s right of self-representation, however, is by no means absolute. That right must be exercised in a manner that permits a full and fair adjudication of the dispute and a prompt and equitable permanency determination for the child." In this case, the the Supreme Court found the trial court properly denied J.J.’s "untimely and ambivalent claim." View "New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency v. R.L.M." on Justia Law
New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency v. A.B.
Sixteen-year-old A.F. and her infant son lived with her biological mother, A.B., in an apartment owned by A.B.’s sister, J.F. In 2012, the New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency (the Division) received a referral that A.F. had run away with her infant son in September 2012. The Division dispatched a caseworker to interview A.B. at her apartment. A.B. disclosed that A.F. had run away several days earlier when A.B. took away A.F.’s laptop and cellphone as punishment for being suspended from school. The caseworker went to the high school and met with A.F. During this meeting, A.F. related that she had been staying with various friends since leaving home. A.F. indicated that she had previously returned home to reconcile with A.B. and that they had gone together to the school to have A.F. reinstated. Near the end of the conference, A.F. expressed that she had “no intention of returning to her mom’s home,” and in fact did not. The issue this case presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court’s review centered on whether defendant A.B. abused or neglected A.F.; that A.B. willfully abandoned A.F.; and that remarks attributed to A.B.’s sister, J.F., were subject to suppression as embedded hearsay. The Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Division majority’s judgment that the New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency met its burden of proof concerning A.B.’s abuse or neglect of A.F. The Court found insufficient proof of willful abandonment and therefore reversed on that issue. The Court also found the hearsay evidence was properly suppressed. View "New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency v. A.B." on Justia Law
In the Matter of the Adoption of a Child by J.E.V. & D.G.V.
In this appeal, the issue this case presented for the Supreme Court's review was one of first impression: whether an indigent parent who faces termination of her parental rights in a contested private adoption proceeding has a right to appointed counsel. "Because of the nature of the right involved - the invaluable right to raise a child - and the risk of an erroneous outcome without the help of an attorney, we hold that indigent parents are entitled to appointed counsel in a contested private adoption matter under the due process guarantee of the State Constitution." View "In the Matter of the Adoption of a Child by J.E.V. & D.G.V." on Justia Law
Innes v. Marzano-Lesnevich
Plaintiff Peter Innes and his wife, Maria Jose Carrascosa, were involved in a contentious divorce and custody battle over their daughter Victoria. Innes was a citizen of the United States; Carrascosa was a Spanish national and a permanent resident of New Jersey. Victoria was a dual citizen of the United States and Spain. During the course of their domestic relations litigation, the parties entered into an agreement whereby Carrascosa's attorneys would hold Victoria's United States and Spanish passports in trust to restrict travel outside of the United States with Victoria without written permission of the other party (the Agreement). Carrascosa discharged her first attorney and retained defendants Madeline Marzano-Lesnevich, Esq., and Lesnevich & Marzano Lesnevich, Attorneys at Law. Defendant Marzano-Lesnevich received Carrascosa's file, including the Agreement and Victoria's United States passport. In December 2004, Carrascosa obtained Victoria's United States passport from defendants, and used the passport to remove Victoria from the United States to Spain. Innes filed a petition under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction for Victoria's return to the United States and traveled to Spain for a hearing on the petition. The Spanish court denied the petition and ordered Victoria to remain in Spain until age eighteen. Meanwhile, the parties' domestic relations litigation continued in New Jersey. The Family Part judge entered a judgment of divorce and granted Innes sole legal and residential custody of Victoria. The judgment gave Carrascosa ten days to bring Victoria back to the United States, but Carrascosa failed to comply with the order. Innes filed a complaint in the Law Division against defendants alleging, in part, that they improperly released Victoria's passport and intentionally interfered with the Agreement. Innes requested relief, including damages and attorneys' fees. The New Jersey Supreme Court granted defendants petition for certification, limited to the issue of whether the attorney-defendants could be liable for attorneys' fees as consequential damages to a non-client, and found that yes, defendant attorneys could be held liable for counsel fees if, as trustees and escrow agents for both Innes and Carrascosa, they intentionally breached their fiduciary obligation to Innes by releasing Victoria's United States passport to Carrascosa without Innes' permission. View "Innes v. Marzano-Lesnevich" on Justia Law
Major v. Maguire
Plaintiffs-grandparents filed an action under N.J.S.A. 9:2-7.1 in the Family Part, seeking an order compelling defendant-mother to allow them periodic visits with their granddaughter. The trial court determined that in their complaint, supplemented by their testimony, plaintiffs failed to present a prima facie showing that the child would be harmed unless visitation were ordered. It found that plaintiffs had improperly instituted litigation before defendant had denied visitation with finality, and dismissed the complaint. The Appellate Division reversed the trial court's determination and remanded for reevaluation of the sufficiency of plaintiffs' complaint. In this appeal, the issue this case presented for the Supreme Court centered on the procedures by which a Family Part judge determines whether a grandparent has made a prima facie showing of harm to the child sufficient to withstand a motion to dismiss, and manages the case if it continues beyond the pleading stage. The Supreme Court held that in order to overcome the presumption of parental autonomy, grandparents who bring visitation actions must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that denial of his or her application would result in harm to the child. If the grandparent meets that burden, the presumption in favor of parental decision-making is overcome, and the court sets a visitation schedule in the best interests of the child. In this case, plaintiffs alleged in detail their involvement in their granddaughter's life prior to the death of their son (the child's father) and contended on that basis that their alienation from the child caused her harm. The trial court should have denied defendant's motion to dismiss and given plaintiffs the opportunity to satisfy their burden to prove harm. View "Major v. Maguire" on Justia Law
New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency v. K.N.
In May 2013, the Division of Child Protection and Permanency filed an Order to Show Cause for Care and Supervision of T.E. (Tommy), the six-year-old son of K.N.(mother) and K.E.(father). The Family Part investigated allegations of domestic violence and drug use in Tommy's home and awarded temporary custody of Tommy to the Division. The Division temporarily placed Tommy in the home of his maternal grandmother, where he had been residing for several months, and conducted an on-site evaluation of the home. A later evaluation revealed that Tommy's maternal step-grandfather had been the subject of a domestic-violence complaint, which was dismissed. The Division substantiated the domestic violence claim and determined that the maternal grandparents home could not be licensed under the Resource Family Parent Licensing Act. As a result, the Division removed Tommy from his maternal grandparents' home and placed him with his maternal great aunt who was eligible to be licensed as a resource family parent and receive financial assistance under the Act. At the permanency hearings that followed Tommy s placement with his maternal great aunt, the Law Guardian argued that Tommy should be returned to the home of his maternal grandparents because Tommy was developing attachment issues and experiencing personality changes. The Division maintained that Tommy could not be returned to the home because the maternal step-grandfather had been the subject of a domestic violence complaint that was substantiated by the Division. At the conclusion of the hearings, the Family Part judge ordered the Division to return Tommy to the home of his maternal grandparents and to provide them with the financial assistance available to a resource family parent licensed under the Act. The Division filed an emergent appeal to stay the Family Part s order. The Appellate Division held that the Family Part had the authority to place Tommy with his maternal grandparents, but remanded the matter for further consideration of all relevant statutory and regulatory factors to determine the suitability of the placement. The Supreme Court affirmed, substantially for the reasons expressed in the Appellate Division opinion, that the Family Part judge had the authority to determine that the child s best interests were served by his continued placement with a relative not licensed as a resource family parent under the Act, and that the Family Part judge did not have the authority to compel the Division to pay financial assistance under the Act to a relative not licensed as a resource family parent. However, because the Division returned Tommy to the care and custody of his mother, the Court dismissed as moot the Appellate Division's remand to the Family Part to consider factors relevant to a placement review, including the claim of prior domestic violence involving the maternal step-grandfather. View "New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency v. K.N." on Justia Law