Notice and opportunity to be heard is one of the most fundamental tenants of due process in this country. Every litigant, no matter how small the case, has the right to have his or her “day in court.” As we learn in the recent Appellate Division decision of T.M.S. v. W.C.P., that applies equally to a plaintiff – the party bringing the action – and to a defendant – the party defending against the action.

Some background as to the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act (“PDVA”), N.J.S.A. 2C:25-17 to -35, may be helpful to understand the trial court’s error in this case.

Under the PDVA, a Court may enter a restraining order pursuant to a complaint to protect a victim of domestic violence. Following a hearing, the court will issue a Final Restraining Order (“FRO”) if it finds that the victim was subjected to domestic violence by someone with whom the victim has a domestic relationship. The victim must prove that an act of domestic violence occurred and that a restraining order is necessary to protect the victim from immediate danger or future acts of domestic violence.

Although restraining orders may be termed “final” that does not mean that they can never be vacated. Under the PDVA, a court may vacate an FRO upon good cause shown. N.J.S.A. 2C:25-29(d).

The case of Carfagno v. Carfagno, 288 N.J. Super. 424 (Ch. Div. 1995) establishes eleven factors a court must weigh to determine if a defendant established the requisite good cause to vacate an FRO:

(1) whether the victim consented to lift the restraining order;

(2) whether the victim fears the defendant;

(3) the nature of the relationship between the parties today;

(4) the number of times that the defendant has been convicted of contempt for violating the order;

(5) whether the defendant has a continuing involvement with drug or alcohol abuse;

(6) whether the defendant has been involved in other violent acts with other persons;

(7) whether the defendant has engaged in counseling;

(8) the age and health of the defendant;

(9) whether the victim is acting in good faith when opposing the defendant’s request;

(10) whether another jurisdiction has entered a restraining order protecting the victim from the defendant; and

(11) other factors deemed relevant by the court.

In T.M.S., a final restraining order was entered against the defendant on November 29, 2006. In 2008, the defendant moved, unsuccessfully, to vacate the FRO pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:25-29(d) and Carfagno. Subsequently, defendant filed a second Carfagno application to dismiss the FRO. The plaintiff did not appear for the hearing. After determining plaintiff had been properly served with notice of the hearing, the court granted the defendant’s unopposed application.

The Court made the following findings in support of its conclusion:

  • Plaintiff did not consent to the FRO’s dissolution because she was not present.
  • The facts proved defendant never violated the FRO because the parties had no reason to interact; specifically, because they did not have children and both were in committed relationships.
  • Defendant’s prior insobriety partially contributed to the domestic violence incident, and he had been sober for nearly eight years and even chaired his sobriety group.
  • Defendant attended domestic violence counseling.
  • Although physically Defendant was a “big guy,” defendant had health problems that reduced his strength.
  • As to plaintiff’s good faith, the court noted she did not appear in court, and there were no additional orders in other jurisdictions against defendant.

With the FRO vacated, defendant moved for relief from the weapons forfeiture, which requires a defendant to surrender his or her weapons upon the entry of the restraining order. At the initial weapons forfeiture hearing, a question arose for the first time as to whether plaintiff was properly notified of the dismissal of the FRO.

On the last day of the hearing, on December 15, 2015, the court, who had heard the initial Carfagno application, reversed its initial determination plaintiff was validly served with defendant’s dismissal application, and vacated the December 8, 2014 dismissal order, reinstating the FRO. As a result, the weapons forfeiture matter was dismissed. The Court determined that an old address on file for the plaintiff was used and it was questionable as to whether she still remained resident there.

While this case certainly calls into question the plaintiff’s notice and opportunity to be heard on the Carfagno hearing vacating the FRO, the Court focused on the Court’s violations of the defendant’s due process here. On appeal, defendant argued the PDVA does not permit a court to reinstate an FRO on its own motion. He asserted, although a trial court may revisit an interlocutory order, it could not sua sponte review a final order.

The Appellate Division agreed with the defendant and reinstated the dismissal. In doing so, the Appellate Division focused primarily on the fact that, by sua sponte reinstating the FRO in the ancillary weapons forfeiture matter, the court overlooked fundamental due process principles. If plaintiff challenged the order dismissing the FRO, she was required to file a motion for relief in the domestic violence matter, so defendant could be heard and there, address the issue of service.

The Court concluded that requiring plaintiff to reopen a dismissed TRO or FRO must be made in the underlying domestic violence matter, not an ancillary matter, and further requiring such requests to be made by formal application equally will (a) protect domestic violence victims by providing them with formal notice where there is an application to vacate the orders of protection, and, (b) assure due process for defendants.

In a footnote of the case, the Appellate Division also suggested the Conference of Family Presiding Judges consider promulgating formal operational guidance requiring plaintiffs to periodically update their address with the Family Division. We will let you know if this occurs.

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Eliana Baer, Associate, Fox Rothschild LLP Eliana T. Baer is a contributor to the New Jersey Family Legal Blog and a member of the Family Law Practice Group of Fox Rothschild LLP. Eliana practices in Fox Rothschild’s Princeton, New Jersey office and focuses her state-wide practice on representing clients on issues relating to divorce, equitable distribution, support, custody, adoption, domestic violence, premarital agreements and Appellate Practice. You can reach Eliana at (609) 895-3344, or etbaer@foxrothschild.com.

We have all had those cases where any request that we made, big or small, has been rejected by the other side and any requests that our client has made to her/his spouse is similarly rejected.  They don’t agree to informally provide discovery that they will eventually have to provide formally (and then maybe even not then).  They won’t agree to a mediator because you proposed him or her.  They won’t agree to a joint expert, for the same reason.  They wont agree to pay any or the right amount of support.  They won’t agree to parenting time.  They wont agree to the slightest deviations to parenting time.  Post-judgment, when an Agreement says that the parties must agree on something before the other side will have to pay “with consent to not be unreasonably withheld”, they will not agree to anything, nor even make proposals for the other side to agree to.

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This is bad when the litigant’s do this.  It is worse when the lawyers do it, especially when there is no advantage, tactical or otherwise, not to be agreeable.  I have a matter now where the other party simply refuses to answer discovery or do anything whatsoever, and there is no benefit to him in any way, shape or form.  Sometimes you hear “my client wont let me agree to an adjournment” which, quite frankly, is rarely, if ever, should be the basis of denying a reasonable adjournment request.  But all too often, the lawyer becomes the instrument of the client’s bad behavior or general inability to reasonably agree to anything.

I recently heard a story about a party rejecting out of hand a Consent Order providing the relief that he asked for and got, simply because it was drafted by the other attorney.  Instead of getting it done, his attorney said “why did you even bother since he wont sign anything unless I draft it.”  Think about that.  He was willing to cut off his nose to spite his face, and put himself in a more precarious position, simply because of who the messenger was, ignoring the message completely.

This can permeate every part of a case.  How many times have we seen bogus motions to quash of completely discoverable materials (i.e. income information, current bank account information, etc. – i.e. the stuff that you have a duty to update until the end of a case, if requested)?  How many times have we had to file repeated motions to compel or repeated enforcement motions?  How many times has an adversary apologized for taking a ridiculous position forcing you to file a motion rather than forcing their client to do the right thing?

On the rare occasion that the disagreeable person actually makes a settlement proposal that your client agrees to, how many times have you seen the offer be walked back or the deal otherwise go south because the proposal was really made in bad faith and was never expected to be accepted, and the offering party now thinks that the offer was too good if your client actually accepted.

 

Are their any benefits to saying no to everything?  Assuming the clients can pay, maybe the attorneys do ok.   Or do they?  When your reputation is damaged and/or your stature and relationship with your judge and your adversary takes a hit, is it worth it?  For the parties, unless both parties are equally disagreeable, and this happens sometimes, the court eventually figures out who the difficult party is.  Do you want that impression guiding a judge’s substantive or counsel fee decisions.

Now I am not suggesting that you need to agree on everything that the other party says.  There will be good faith disputes and disagreements that will have to be resolved by a judge or arbitrator.  But, in most cases unless there is an emergency or some really good strategic reason, what is the harm in trying to resolve issues, big and small, before just saying “no,”  It doesn’t make you weak, it makes you smart.

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Eric SolotoffEric Solotoff is the editor of the New Jersey Family Legal Blog and the Co-Chair of the Family Law Practice Group of Fox Rothschild LLP. Certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a Matrimonial Lawyer and a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Attorneys, Eric is resident in Fox Rothschild’s Morristown, New Jersey office though he practices throughout New Jersey. You can reach Eric at (973)994-7501, or esolotoff@foxrothschild.com.

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Ah, technology.  In this modern world, we navigate the roads on our phones instead of a map.  We talk to a cylindrical tube to tell it to order more toilet paper for us, tell us the weather, read us the news, or turn on the lights.  We don’t remember anyone’s phone number because they are all stored for us on our phones.  And we obtain personal jurisdiction over an out-of-state defendant via Facebook.

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The legal world is, perhaps, notorious for its luddite tendencies.  One need only step into any lawyer’s office to see reams of paper everywhere – stacked on the floor (okay maybe that’s just me), piled on the desk, packed into boxes.  But in terms of the use of social media as a mechanism for exercising “long-arm” jurisdiction over a defendant, the law appears to be catching up with modern means of communication as more and more jurisdictions are allowing the use of Facebook and other social media platforms to serve as a form of substituted service.

Personal Jurisdiction = Sufficient Minimum Contacts + Service of Process

For those who didn’t take Civil Procedure, it is important to understand that there are rules (a lot of them!) about who is subject to the jurisdiction of a particular Court.  Every state in the country has the ability to exercise “long-arm” jurisdiction over parties who do not reside within it, but only if certain rules are followed and conditions met.

In order for a New Jersey court to exercise jurisdiction over a person who does not live in this state, that person must have sufficient minimum contacts (a phrase drilled into every first-year law student’s head for all of time) with New Jersey, and must also be properly served with process.  Broadly speaking, the “minimum contacts” test is satisfied if the individual could or should reasonably expect to be brought into court in the state.

Importantly, there are limits on what types of actions a court can exercise its jurisdiction over, and these are based upon the type and scope of the minimum contacts the out-of-state defendant has with the state.  For example, if a PA resident has a car accident in NJ, and the nexus of personal jurisdiction is that the PA resident drove into NJ where the accident occurred, then a New Jersey Court would have jurisdiction over any legal claims arising out of the car accident.  But, if someone wanted to sue the PA resident for some other reason in NJ, there would have to be some other finding of minimum contact related to that cause of action here in NJ.

There also has to be service of process.  The purpose of this requirement is two-fold.  First, service must be reasonably calculated to apprise the party of the pending legal action.  Second, it must allow the party an adequate opportunity to respond.  Simply speaking, under our Court Rules, personal service (i.e. actually delivering the process to the person or a representative) is the preferred form of service.  Under certain conditions, service can also be made by mail.  But then, there is a third option.  If service cannot be made personally or by mail, then it can be made “as provided by a court order, consistent with due process of law.”  In other words, the Court can determine an alternate method of service, so long as this method accomplishes the dual purposes of service of process: the manner of service must be reasonably calculated to let the party know about the pending legal action and the claims against him/her, and must allow the defendant the opportunity to respond.

Recent Court Ruling Approves Service of Process Via Facebook

In a recent published (precedential) decision, K.A. and K.I.A. v. J.L, a New Jersey trial court found that – under the circumstances – service by Facebook would be sufficient to confer personal jurisdiction over the defendant.  In that case, K.A. and K.I.A. were adoptive parents of their son, referred to as “Z.A.”  Z.A.’s biological father had contacted not only Z.A. but also K.A. and other family members (all of whom were NJ residents) on Facebook and had disclosed to Z.A. on Instagram that Z.A. was adopted and told him the identity of his birth mother and the location of his birth.  J.L. also obtained photographs of Z.A. from K.A.’s Facebook page and published them on his own page, holding Z.A. out as his son.  The plaintiff’s commenced an action to enjoin J.L. from holding Z.A. out as his son, to enjoin him from contacting them and Z.A., and to compel J.L. to remove information pertaining to Z.A. that he allegedly published online.

The plaintiff’s attorney sent cease and desist letters to both of the defendant’s last known addresses, which were in Pennsylvania, by certified and regular mail.  Under the Court Rules, this is an acceptable method of service so long as the regular mail is not returned to the sender, and so long as an answer or response is made by the defendant.  In this case, both of the certified mailings were unclaimed and, although the regular mail was not returned, no answer was made by the defendant.

Because the defendant, based upon the conduct forming the basis of the claims against him, was evidently an active Facebook user, the plaintiffs sought permission from the Court to effect substituted service by use of Facebook.

Judge Hansbury found that under the circumstances, such service would meet the requirements to confer personal jurisdiction over the defendant with regard to the claims against him based on the following:

  • Personal Jurisdiction:  Judge Hansbury relied upon a Third Circuit case, Toys R’ Us, Inc. v. Step Two, S.A., 318 F.3d 446 (3d Cir. 2003), which held that a defendant’s intentional interaction with the forum state via the internet is sufficient to confer jurisdiction.  In the case before the Court, the defendant intentionally reached out to various members of the plaintiffs’ family who are NJ residents, using his social media accounts.  Any harm arising from these intentional contacts would clearly be concentrated in NJ.  Therefore, the Court found that it could exercise personal jurisdiction over the defendant by virtue of his intentional contact with the State via the internet.
  • Scope of Personal Jurisdiction:  Because the defendant’s contacts with the state were precisely those that gave rise to the causes of action the plaintiffs pursued against the defendant, the Court found that the scope of its personal jurisdiction over the defendant included these claims, though it acknowledged it did not have personal jurisdiction over the defendant as to any claims unrelated to the alleged contact with the plaintiffs and their family members.
  • Service:  Under the facts of the case, service of process via Facebook would accomplish the dual purposes of the service of process requirements discussed above.  The Court reasoned that because the defendant solely used his Facebook and Instagram accounts as the “conduits of the purported harm,” service via Facebook was reasonably calculated to apprise the defendant of the pendency of the action and afford him an opportunity to respond.  The Court observed that the plaintiffs had demonstrated that the defendant’s Facebook account was active.  Further, the Court noted that Facebook includes a feature that allows the sender of a message to see whether the recipient has opened and received the message, which would indicate whether the defendant was actually notified of the case.

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Limitations on the Use of Facebook to Confer Personal Jurisdiction

It is important to note that Judge Hansbury’s ruling does not mean that service of process via Facebook is acceptable as a primary method of service or even that it is available in every case.  Central to the ruling here is that personal service could not be affected, nor could service by mail.  Moreover, it was due to the particular facts of this case – specifically, that it was evident the defendant had an active Facebook account and that the Facebook account was the primary means of the harm alleged in the case – that caused the judge to believe it would be an appropriate means of substituted service.  However, given the widespread use of Facebook, the ruling suggests that it can be used in other cases as a means of substituted service and is something to keep in mind in cases where out-of-state defendants cannot be served by traditional methods.


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Jessica C. Diamond is an associate in the firm’s Family Law Practice, resident in the Morristown, NJ, office. You can reach Jessica at (973) 994.7517 or jdiamond@foxrothschild.com.

Last year I blogged on tri-parenting, or the concept whereby three parents agree to raise a child or children together as a family, with regard to the published New Jersey trial court decision of D.G. and S.H. v. K.S. My previous blog post can be found here.

In that matter, D.G. and his husband, S.H., along with their friend K.S. embarked on a journey of conceiving and raising a child together. The parties agreed to use D.G.’s sperm and K.S.’s egg, as they had known each other longer, and they would give the child S.H.’s surname. All three parties parented the child and were effectively able to do so for most of the child’s early life, until K.S. announced that she had fallen in love with A.A., who she intended to marry, and that she wanted to relocate with the child to California where A.A. resided. When the parties’ could not agree on a “tri-parenting plan”, D.G. and S.H. filed a Complaint seeking legal and physical custody of the child, parenting time, and that S.H. (who did not have any biological ties to the child), was the child’s legal and psychological parent.

After 19 days of trial, the Court found that S.H. was in fact the child’s psychological parent (although K.S. also stipulated to this on the eve of trial), and concluded that D.G., S.H. and K.S. should have equal legal and residential custody of the child, and the court established a 50/50 parenting time schedule. However, the court denied S.H.’s request for legal parentage as a matter of law on the basis that the court does not have jurisdiction to create a new recognition of legal parentage other than what already exists—genetic contribution, adoption, or gestational primacy. Further, although the best interest of the child standard is used for various family law determinations, it is not a factor in defining parenthood under the Parentage Act. (N.J.S.A. 9:17:38 through 9:17-59).

I concluded my prior post by stating that

With the evolution of today’s family, “tri-parenting” and other, similar custody and parenting time situations will emerge, creating a new, unique set of issues for families who are dissolving/separating. As the role of “parent” expands, it will be interesting to see how the courts will progress to handle these delicate issues.

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On March 8, 2017, The New York Supreme Court of Suffolk County also granted tri-legal custody and visitation, in the matter Dawn M. v. Michael M.

In that matter, Dawn and Michael, a married couple, began a polyamorous relationship with Dawn’s friend, Audria. All three parties considered themselves a family and decided to have a child together. Since Dawn was unable to have a child, the parties decided that Michael and Audria would try to conceive. The credible evidence presented to the Court established that all three parties agreed, prior to a child being conceived, that they would raise the child together as tri-parents.

Audria became pregnant and gave birth to a boy, J.M.; however shortly thereafter the relationship between the parties became strained and Dawn and Audria moved out together with J.M. Michael commenced a divorce action against Dawn, and asserted he no longer considered Dawn to be J.M.’s parent.

The court found credible the testimony of Audria and Dawn that J.M. was raised with two mothers and that he continues to the present day to call both “mommy.” The court further found that in all respects, during the first eighteen months of J.M.’s life when Dawn, Michael and Audria all lived together, and thereafter after their separation, Dawn acted as a joint mother with Audria and that they all taught the child that he has two mothers. The Court also conducted an in camera interview with J.M., which left no doubt in the Court’s mind that he considered both Dawn and Audria to be equal “mommies” and that he would be devastated if he were not able to see Dawn.

Although not a biological parent or an adoptive parent, Dawn argued that she has been allowed to act as J.M.’s mother by both Audria and Michael, that she has always lived with J.M., J.M. has known her as his mom since his birth and that the best interest of J.M. dictates that she be given shared legal custody and visitation with him. Audria, J.M.’s biological mother, strongly agrees. Dawn further argued, along with the child’s attorney, that Michael should be estopped from opposing this application because he has created and fostered this situation by voluntarily agreeing, before the child was conceived, to raise him with three parents, and that Michael has acted consistent with this agreement by allowing the child to understand that he has two mothers.

The Court found that the best interests of J.M. would be served by granted Dawn shared legal custody, stating that “J.M. needs a continuing relationship with the [Dawn] as his mother and that relationship cannot be left to depend on the consent or whim of either his biological mother or father. Anything less will promote great hardship and suffering for J.M.”, and established a tri-custodial arrangement, as Michael and Audria already shared joint legal custody.”

The Court concluded that Dawn, Michael and Audria

created this unconventional family dynamic by agreeing to have a child together and by raising J.M. with two mothers. The Court therefore finds that J.M.’s best interests cry out for an assurance that he will be allowed a continued relationship with [Dawn]. No one told these three people to create this unique relationship. Nor did anyone tell [Michael] to conceive a child with his wife’s best friend or to raise that child knowing two women as his mother. [Michael]’s assertion that [Dawn] should not have legal visitation with J.M. is unconscionable given J.M.’s bond with [Dawn] and [Michael]’s role in creating this bond. A person simply is responsible for the natural and foreseeable consequences of his or her actions especially when the best interest of a child is involved. Reason and justice dictate that [Michael] should be estopped from arguing that this woman, whom he has fostered and orchestrated to be his child’s mother, be denied legal visitation and custody…To order anything other than joint custody could potentially facilitate [Dawn]’s removal from J.M.’s life and that would have a devastating consequence to this child.”

Although the issue of legal parentage was not discussed in the New York Court opinion, it appears that the New York Court is as progressive as the New Jersey Court in moving  towards alternative custody arrangements in light of the evolution of today’s families.

While we do not typically blog on cases outside of the family court, a recent law division case examined the child support lien statute, N.J.S.A. 2A:56.23b and its impact on settling a personal injury case and on settlements in general.  The statute requires that a child support judgment search be performed to determine if a plaintiff in a given lawsuit has an outstanding child support obligation.  If he or she does, then the statute requires that any “net proceeds of a settlement” (i.e. the proceeds left after the payment of attorney’s fees, witnesses’ fees, court costs, and other related costs associated with the lawsuit are deducted from the settlement award) in excess of $2,000 be paid in either full or partial satisfaction of the outstanding child support arrears.  For example, let’s say $10,000 was owed in child support arrears, and a given plaintiff’s litigation costs totaled $10,000.  If the plaintiff took a $20,000 settlement, then $10,000 would go to pay his litigation costs, $8,000 would go to pay off the child support arrears, and the plaintiff would get to keep $2,000 (but would still have $2,000 in child support arrears).

In Smiley v. Thomas, et. al. , the plaintiff sued the defendants for personal injury as a result of a car accident.  He had also entered into a contingent fee agreement with his counsel, meaning that they agreed to take a fixed percentage of whatever the plaintiff was awarded in settlement or after a trial as their fee, rather than charging the plaintiff at their hourly rates.

Eventually, the defendants made a settlement offer of $25,000.  The only problem was, after the child support judgment search was conducted pursuant to the statute, it was discovered that the plaintiff had outstanding child support arrears in the amount of $19,306.04.  After satisfaction of the arrears and payment to his attorneys, the plaintiff would be left with $2,000; in fact, because his counsel fees and litigation costs exceeded the difference between the child support owed and the settlement amount, he would also be left with some unpaid child support arrears because he would have to pay counsel first.  The plaintiff refused to accept the settlement if, at the end of the day, it meant that he would only walk away with $2,000.

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But, evidently, the plaintiff’s attorney really wanted him to settle his case.  So badly, in fact, that the attorney was willing to reduce his fee.  So, the attorney asked the Court to modify the fee agreement accordingly; but, and here’s the rub, the attorney also asked the Court to call the money that the plaintiff would realize as a result of this reduction something other than “net settlement proceeds” so that they would not be subject to the child support lien by operation of law.

The Court weighed two important competing interests.  On the one hand, Courts love settlements!  Settlements make both parties feel happy (or equally unhappy) with the outcome and therefore (hopefully) curb future or continued litigation.  On the other hand, our case law is replete with decisions affirming over and over again a parent’s obligation to financially support his or her children and there is plenty of case law carving out exceptions, identifying specific needs of the children that should be included in support, and generally providing guidance as to arrival at an appropriate child support arrangement (seriously, there are a lot of these decisions and we’ve blogged on them here, here, here, here, here, and many more times).

Ultimately, the Court determined that a parent’s obligation to financially support his or her children trumps the competing interest in promoting settlement.  The Court found that it had the obligation to call a spade a spade.  It did not, and found that it could not, call the money that the plaintiff would receive as a result of the reduced counsel fee award something other than “net proceeds from settlement” in order to help the plaintiff evade his child support obligation.  To do so would be in direct contravention of the very purpose of the child support judgment lien statute.


headshot_diamond_jessicaJessica C. Diamond is an associate in the firm’s Family Law Practice, resident in the Morristown, NJ, office. You can reach Jessica at (973) 994.7517 or jdiamond@foxrothschild.com.

In a new published (precedential) decision, Ricci v. Ricci, the Appellate Division addressed an adult child’s (an oxymoron, I know) request for her divorced parents to contribute to her college education expenses. Going  back to basics, the Appellate Division reminded us that – before any determination about a divorced parent’s obligation to contribute to college education expenses can be made – a threshold question must be answered, namely: Is the child emancipated?

The Facts

The pertinent facts are as follows:

  • Maura and Michael Ricci divorced when their daughter, Caitlyn, was four (4) years old.  As Caitlyn grew older, she engaged in some less-than-responsible behavior.  This is not in dispute.  Caitlyn graduated from high school in June 2012, at which time it was determined by Caitlyn’s parents that – due to said irresponsible behavior – Caitlyn wasn’t ready to go away to college and live on her own.  Therefore, Maura and Michael agreed that Michael would pay for the summer and fall semesters of community college; Caitlyn attended as a part-time student while continuing to live with her mother.
  • In Winter 2012, Maura and Michael agreed, as a way of testing the waters as to Caitlyn’s readiness to live on her own, that Caitlyn would  participate in the Disney College Program in Florida.  Within a month of starting the program, Caitlyn was expelled for underage alcohol use.
  • This is where the facts get a bit murky.  Maura and Michael say that, after Caitlyn’s expulsion from the Disney College Program, they wanted her to return to community college on a part time basis to complete her associate’s degree and outlined for Caitlyn a program of school, counseling, and work (i.e. a part time job) in order to instill discipline and a sense of responsibility in her.  Caitlyn viewed these expectations as unreasonable and impossible.  What is undisputed is that at this point, Caitlyn moved out of her mother’s home and in with her grandparents.  In Michael and Maura’s views, this move was intended as a rejection of their parenting and their attempts to help Caitlyn.  In Caitlyn’s view, her parents’ unrealistic demands “pushed her beyond the sphere of parental influence.”
  • In March 2013, after Caitlyn moved out, her parents agreed that Caitlyn was emancipated.  They entered into a consent order accordingly.
  • Months later, Caitlyn, still enrolled in community college, filed a motion to intervene in her parents’ divorce matter and sought continued support from her parents; specifically, their contribution to her community college tuition.  In October 2013, the trial court judge granted her application.  Importantly, the judge deemed Caitlyn “un-emancipated [sic] solely for the purpose of a potential contribution from [her parents] as it relates to college costs.”  He ordered that Maura and Mike pay for Caitlyn’s tuition, fees, and costs for the 2013-2014 school year, after application of Caitlyn’s financial aid award.  This amounted to about $2,000, or what the trial judge viewed as a “de minimis” amount.  The judge did not conduct a plenary hearing prior to making its decision that Caitlyn be deemed “un-emancipated” for this specific purpose.  Nor did he conduct a review of the parents’ finances to determine their abilities to pay for Caitlyn’s college expenses.
  • Caitlyn was accepted to Temple University for the Fall 2014 semester.  She applied for financial aid and received it, but had about $18,000 / year in un-met tuition expenses, which she wanted her parents to pay.  Caitlyn filed a motion seeking to enforce the Court’s prior order, arguing that it required her parents to pay her tuition, fees, and book expenses.  Maura and Michael opposed the application, arguing that the October 2013 Order was limited to tuition, fees, and books for the 2013-2014 year and that the Order did not determine their obligations, if any, for college contribution in subsequent years.  In October 2014, the Court granted Caitlyn’s application and “enforced” the prior Order, ordering Maura to cover 40% of the unmet college costs, and Michael to cover the balance.
  • Michael and Maura filed a motion for reconsideration.  They argued that the order was unfounded because Caitlyn had unilaterally moved out of Maura’s home after refusing to even compromise about the plan they had laid out for her to impose discipline; transferred to an expensive out-of-state school without conferring with them; refused to communicate with her parents; and continued to act independently, without regard to their parental input.  In short, they argued, she was emancipated and their obligation to support her ended with her rejection of their parenting.  The Court denied their motion and Mike and Maura appealed from all three (3) trial court orders.

The Legal Framework

Whew, that was a lot of facts!  Now let’s get to the law.  In her opinion, Judge Lihotz walked us through the legal framework to which the Court should adhere in these cases.  First, the Court needs to answer the threshold question of whether the child at issue is emancipated.  Lots more on that below.

Next, if the child is not emancipated, the court must consider whether the child has the aptitude for college.  The seminal Newburgh case does not require deferred emancipation for children reaching the age of majority in every single instance; if a child is unable to perform adequately for his or her academic program, then it may be appropriate to find that the child is emancipated.

Finally, if a child has the aptitude for college, a review of the parents’ finances and determination of their abilities to pay and to afford college must be undertaken so that the Court can determine what a parent may reasonably contribute to a child’s college education expenses.

Highlighting the Threshold Question of Emancipation

In reviewing the trial court decisions below, Judge Lihotz essentially found that the trial judges had put the proverbial cart before the horse by failing to address the threshold question of whether Caitlyn was emancipated or not.

Simply put, the parent-child relationship imbues parents with certain “rights, privileges, duties, and obligations.”  One such duty  is to provide financial support, a form of which is contribution to a child’s college education expenses.    The Court, in exercising its power to protect children, has authority to impose support obligations, but this power is limited and terminates upon a child’s emancipation.

So when is a child emancipated?  Well, Judge Lihotz wrote, this depends upon the nature of the parent-child relationship as much, if not more so, than the age of the child:

The dependent parent-child relationship indicative of unemancipation is not merely shown by a child’s claimed need for financial support.  Our jurisprudence unmistakably mandates there must be examination of the parent-child relationship itself.  In fact, a better description is the relationship is one of interdependence: the child’s right to support and the parents’ obligation to provide payment are inextricably linked to the child’s acceptance and the parents’ measured exercise of guidance and influence.  Conversely, a finding of emancipation is a recognition of a child’s independence from a parental influence. (internal citations omitted).

In this case, Judge Lihotz observed, the two sides of the story could lead to different results.  Caitlyn’s version of the facts was, essentially, that she couldn’t possibly have accepted her parents’ guidance and influence because they were imposing unreasonable, unbearable restrictions and demands upon her; they had forced her outside of their sphere of influence involuntarily, and why should she be penalized for that?  Maura and Michael’s version of the facts, on the other hand, was that they were parenting Caitlyn; she needed their strict guidance due to her wild and irresponsible behavior, but she had outright rejected it and chosen to live independently of them and their influence.  Given the diametrically opposed accounts of what had happened, Judge Lihotz observed, a plenary hearing and a fact-finding should have taken place in order to make a determination as to whether Caitlyn’s version of events rang true such that she should be deemed unemancipated, or whether it was appropriate for her to remain emancipated because her parents’ version of the story was more accurate.

One thing seems to be certain: it was improper for the judge to deem Caitlyn un-emancipated for the limited purpose of assessing college expenses to her parents.  As Heidi Klum might say, you’re either “in” or you’re “out.”

 

Either you are emancipated and not entitled to support from your parents – including payment for college expenses – or you’re not emancipated, and you are entitled to support.

Let’s Try This Again…

Ultimately, Judge Lihotz ordered a remand (legalese for a “do-over”) to the trial court.  First, the trial judge must hold a plenary hearing to determine whether Caitlyn was emancipated after all.  The judge will have to review the record and make an assessment as to whether Caitlyn voluntarily set out on her own path and rejected her parents’ guidance and influence.  If not, and she was not emancipated, then the Court will have to address the secondary questions of whether Caitlyn had the aptitude for her academic program (which, now that Caitlyn is 23 and may or may not have graduated from college by now, should be self-evident), and will have to review the parties’ finances to determine their fair shares of financial responsibility.  But it all boils down to that first question:  was Caitlyn emancipated when she made her initial application?


headshot_diamond_jessicaJessica C. Diamond is an associate in the firm’s Family Law Practice, resident in the Morristown, NJ, office. You can reach Jessica at (973) 994.7517 or jdiamond@foxrothschild.com.

What rights do people have to an equitable distribution of assets stemming from a period prior to the marriage itself?  If there is no right to equitable distribution under those circumstances, then what rights exist and what remedies can be implemented to protect those rights?  In Thieme v. Aucoin-Thieme, a post-Judgment dispute involving several interesting issues including the equitable distribution of marital assets, distribution of assets pursuant to equitable principles stemming from a pre-marital cohabitation period, and the remedy of a constructive trust in connection with an ex-husband’s receipt of a bonus, the Supreme Court of New Jersey primarily held that:

  1. said bonus received by the ex-husband (Michael) was subject to equitable distribution to the extent it was earned during the parties’ marriage; and
  2. the matter’s “extraordinary circumstances” merited imposition of a constructive trust to protect the ex-wife’s (Bernice) claim of unjust enrichment and request for a portion of the bonus earned during the parties’ pre-marital cohabitation period.

Before even getting into the details of what happened, what is, perhaps, most interesting about this matter is not the very specific facts and circumstances at issue and how such circumstances led to an understandably fair result but, rather, how this case addresses the sort of equitable claims that may arise in connection with a palimony claim that were kept alive in Maeker v. Ross.  While the 2010 amendment to the statute of frauds requires that all post-amendment palimony agreements be in writing, this case also provides a window to argue around the amendment in certain cases if no writing exists – in other words, even without a written palimony agreement for a post-amendment case, the equitable arguments discussed in Maeker can still be made to procure relief.  The case certainly is not limited to that sort of analysis, and, in because of the unique circumstances at issue it even seems to overcome prior case law suggesting that the rights of cohabitants come to an end once the marriage occurs.  With that being said, let’s take a look into what happened…

Here are the unique facts you should know:

  • Michael and Bernice cohabited for eight years and were then married for a brief time.
  • During the cohabitation period and marriage, Michael was an employee of a company called IBG.  He had no ownership interest in IBG, but the company’s principals made a written commitment to Michael that IBG would compensate him for his contributions to the company if it sold.  A written Statement of Understanding was executed, and Bernice’s knowledge as to same was the subject of dispute at the subject post-Judgment trial.
  • Based on that commitment, Michael and Bernice “made personal and financial decisions” with the expectation of such future compensation including, but not limited to, Michael working and traveling extensively for the company, Bernice foregoing employment to devote her time to the parties’ child, and the parties purchasing a new home.
  • The parties divorced and the resulting settlement agreement distributed their assets.
  • During the divorce negotiations, the parties discussed Michael’s potential receipt of deferred compensation or some form of ownership stake in the company, with Michael representing that it “may never happen,” and that he did not anticipate a “big cash payment.”  He further indicated to Bernice that they could revisit the issue in the future should something transpire with the company.
  • Three months after the divorce concluded, IBG was sold and paid Michael $2.25 million (described as a “closing bonus”) for his contributions to the company.  The bonus was paid in accordance with the earlier Statement of Understanding and was paid “to show our appreciation for [Michael’s] contributions in helping [IBG] grow into the successful organization that it is today.”  During a deposition, a company representative testified that the bonus was based on Michael’s contribution to the company over thirteen years and that Michael did not know about the sale before its completion.
  • Bernice first learned of the bonus payment when Michael deposited the money into a bank account that, unknown to Michael, remained a joint account despite the divorce.  Bernice, without notice to Michael, withdrew the funds from the account.
  • Bernice then filed an application for a share of the closing bonus.
  • The trial held that Bernice was entitled to distribution of the bonus, but only that portion stemming from Michael’s work during the marriage.  The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court.

In affirming in part and reversing in part, the Supreme Court, in a decision authored by Justice Anne Patterson, held as follows:

  • It would contravene New Jersey’s equitable distribution statute to find that the portion of the bonus earned prior to the marriage was a marital asset subject to distribution.  As a result, the Court held that the trial court properly allocated the pre-marital and marital periods in determining what portion of the bonus was subject to equitable distribution.  While arguments can be made that this component of the trial court’s decision should not have been upheld based on how the marital portion of the bonus was calculated, that is not the primary focus of the case or this blog post.
  • As Justice Patterson noted, however, the story was not over.  As for that portion of the bonus earned during the parties’ cohabitation period, the Court addressed whether Bernice had made a claim of unjust enrichment.  Addressing a claim for unjust enrichment and its related remedies, the Court provided:

To prove a claim for unjust enrichment, a party must demonstrate that the opposing party ‘received a benefit and that retention of that benefit without payment would be unjust.’

  • Bernice would also have to show that she “expected remuneration” from Michael at the time she “performed or conferred a benefit” on Michael and that “the failure remuneration” enriched Michael “beyond [his] contractual rights”.
  • In the event of unjust enrichment, a court may impose the remedy of a constructive trust to prevent such enrichment.  Legally speaking, a constructive trust is “the formula through which the conscience of equity finds expression.  When property has been acquired in such circumstances that the holder of the legal title may not in good conscience retain the beneficial interest, equity converts him into a trustee.”  More generally, such a trust is a remedy designed to protect a party harmed by another party’s receipt or retention of property procured through unjust enrichment or some other wrongful means (fraud, mistake, undue influence, and the like).
  • Relying on its prior decision in Carr v. Carr, wherein the trial court equitably imposed a constructive trust awarding a wife a share of the marital assets controlled by the husband’s estate where the husband died during the divorce proceedings, the Court here held:

As the evidence presented at trial made clear, the prospect that [Michael] would be generously compensated was a significant factor in the parties’ personal and financial planning from the early stages of their relationship.  [Michael] and [Bernice] each relied on the expectation of deferred compensation if IBG were sold as they made important decisions for themselves and their family.

The parties’ shared anticipation that [Michael] would be paid deferred compensation was more than wishful thinking.  Given IBG’s written commitment to [Michael], and its owners’ genuine desire to reward their valued employee, both parties had reason to anticipate a significant payment in the event of a sale.

. . .

[I]t is clear that on multiple occasions [Michael] advised [Bernice] about his expectation that any sale of IBG could generate a substantial financial reward for their family.

. . .

[I]BG’s commitment to reward him was an important consideration in the decisions made by the parties throughout their cohabitation and marriage . . . In short, as they planned their finances and personal lives, [Michael] and [Bernice] anticipated that they might someday share in the proceeds of the company’s sale.

During the parties’ eight years of cohabitation, and for most of their brief marriage, [Bernice] undertook significant efforts to support [Michael’s] challenging career.

. . .

Indeed, [Michael] himself recognized that [Bernice’s] contributions to their family should be rewarded.

. . .

Accordingly, the record supports the conclusion that [Bernice’s] decision not to seek further education and employment was made, at least in part, in reliance on [Michael’s] financial commitment to her.

As family law practitioners, Thieme v. Aucoin-Thieme provides guidance as to how to not only bring an equitable claim stemming from a period when parties were not married, but also the sort of appropriate remedy that can be imposed in the event of a viable claim.  In a way, despite its specific factual scenario, it also opens the door to creative lawyering as to when these types of equitable claims could come into play.  Especially in the context of a palimony matter where other related equitable claims are raised, there is, perhaps, more opportunity to overcome an adverse party’s argument that all of the equitable claims are simply palimony claims dressed in different clothes.

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Robert A. EpsteinRobert Epstein is a partner in Fox Rothschild LLP’s Family Law Practice Group and practices throughout New Jersey.  He can be reached at (973) 994-7526, or repstein@foxrothschild.com.

Connect with Robert: Twitter_64 Linkedin

Growing up, my siblings and I all played sports. My brother and I were basketball players and my sister was, in no uncertain terms, a track star. Playing sports was a lifestyle in our family, and no one took it more seriously than my father himself, a former basketball player and my toughest coach. My dad was not only an extremely skillful basketball player, but he was a great teacher and I valued all the time he spent with me in the driveway teaching me how to perfect my shot. I like to think this is why he was always my most vocal fan at my games.

No matter how packed the stands were for a Friday night game (my high school had almost 4,000 students), I could tune out every cheer, scream and shout, that is, except of course, my dad’s. He had his share of one liners, “advice” for the referees and positive feedback, but when I wasn’t playing up to his standards (which rival that of Coach K or Jim Boeheim), I was always able to find him in the sea of parents, with two fingers on the bridge of his nose shaking his head in disappointment or somehow hear his “instructions” as to what I could be doing better, over all the noise.

A few distinct memories are as follows: once, when I was about 12, in the middle of a game, my dad, then toting along my much younger sister, came down from the stands over to the bench to tell me that I was playing “so badly” he was going to wait in the car–if that did not instill fear in you to play better, nothing would. It was going to be a long car ride if I didn’t turn that around! Another time a referee told him to start drinking decaffeinated coffee before coming to tournaments. But my favorite was when I missed a few foul shots in a game (which was the equivalent, or worse than, being expelled from school). My dad drilled into my head from a young age the importance of foul shots, so after the game, I was not allowed to come inside the house until I made 25 foul shots, in a row. I still remember that cold December evening, standing outside in the dark on the chalk-drawn foul line he made, taking shot after shot in the glow of the overhead garage light. Once you learn how to make foul shots without feeling your hands, it becomes second nature.

In any event, everything my dad did (except maybe his “advice” towards the referees), taught me how to be a better basketball player, a better team player, work harder and, subsequently/somehow, positively shaped me into the person I am today. And while he was tough, I never once felt discouraged or embarrassed; instead he motivated me to work harder. After all, by high school, I was our team’s technical foul shooter.

But all too often, parents cross the line from teaching their children to be better athletes to acting inappropriately, disparagingly, and disruptive not only towards their own children, but towards their children’s team and coaches.

65898085 - rear view little league baseball team sitting on bench

In the unpublished (non-precedential) matter of D.W. v. M.W., the mother of a 7-year old child filed a motion seeking to prohibit her ex-husband, the child’s father, from attending their son’s coach-pitched Little League baseball games due to what she alleged, was “inappropriate public criticizing and disparaging of the coach’s baseball-related decisions and abilities in an embarrassing and demeaning manner”. According to the mother, the father routinely made negative and demeaning comments at the baseball field, that their 11-year old daughter then began repeating, that other parents witnessed this inappropriate conduct, and that the father even took his commentary from the baseball field to FaceBook. The child’s father denied these allegations.

After recognizing the cultural importance of Little League baseball, Judge Jones took judicial notice “that the results of particular Little League games are not nearly as significant as the underlying goal of developing a child’s ongoing personal character in a positive fashion. In this respect, there is a paramount importance in maintaining the surrounding environment at the Little League field as one which promotes respect, integrity, responsibility, discipline and self-restraint. Ironically, however, a great challenge in meeting these goals often comes not from the participating children, but from parents. While fathers and mothers come to games and practices for the alleged purpose of supporting their sons and daughters, there are times when overly critical, judgmental and interfering parents invariably end up acting in an objectively inappropriate manner, which can be highly embarrassing and emotionally detrimental for their own children, and others as well.”The “social phenomenon of out-of-control sports parents is often informally referred to as ‘Little League Parent Syndrome”.

41648699 - summerlin, nevada - june 4: a summerlin little league girls game on june 4, 2015, in summerlin, nevada. two players warm up at a summerlin little league game in summerlin in nevada.

But when and where does the Court intervene in this matter? A parent’s inappropriate and disruptive conduct, not only at the ball field but in any public venue, may be directly contrary to the best interests of their child, and in cases before the family court, a child’s best interests, rights and needs are greater than that of either parent.

In the case at bar, Judge Jones made it clear that he could have set the matter down for a costly and elongated plenary hearing, but decided to undertake what he referenced as the “fresh start” approach. The “fresh start” approach does not make any finding as to the credibility or accuracy of either party’s viewpoints, but requires that both parents submit to the same “(a) parameters of parental conduct at the ball field; and (b)… act at all times in a manner which is consistent with the children’s best interests as well as the true purpose of organized youth sports in the first place.”

The parties were also directed to follow all league rules concerning parental conduct and additionally, adhere to the following parameters not only at the site of the games and practices, but also on social media:

1) A parent may not publicly harass or demean his or [her] child or any other child;

2) A parent may not publicly harass or demean any coach or official. If a parent has a particular issue which he or she wishes to communicate with a coach or official, then absent a legitimate emergency, the parent may address the issue with the coach or official, privately, either by letter or by any other method deemed acceptable by league officials, including but not limited to, if reasonably necessary, an in-person meeting, outside the presence of children, and consistent with any existing league rules, with all such communication conducted in a mature, diplomatic, and respectful manner;

3) A parent may not publicly harass or demean any other or any parent or other spectator in the stands; including but not limited to that parent’s separated divorced, or otherwise estranged spouse, or such person’s guest(s). A child’s sporting event is a wholly inappropriate place for any public domestic disputes of any kind;

4) A parent who attends a child’s youth sporting event or practice has an affirmative obligation to act in a manner which upholds the dignity of the event. In particular, a parent may not act in a manner which is directly contrary to the core purposes of the event itself, such as teaching children concepts of maturity, respect, and discipline, and good sportsmanship. A parent who cannot or will not accept these parameters, and who acts in a manner which publicly undermines these core goals and values, may undermine the integrity of the event and the rights of all participating children and other adults in attendance;

5) A parent is to fully comply with all other rules of conduct required by the league or organization in question.

The purpose of the “fresh start” approach is much like the lessons learned from youth sports; there is always a second chance to do better. “With parenting, the reality is that parents who allegedly commit errors or fumbles in raising children, and who end up in court over such incidents, may positively and constructively learn from the entire experience” and make positive changes going forward that are in the best interests of their children. While the “fresh start” approach is contingent upon both parties making positive changes, if they are willing and able undertake this approach, I believe it can be successfully extended to other parenting issues as well. In the right instances, as practitioners, we should be mindful of this approach when dealing with similar parenting issues.

As a matrimonial litigant, you never want to feel that your lawyer does not know how best to take you through the divorce or post-divorce process.  After spending substantial sums of money on an advocate to aid you through a difficult and emotional process, let’s just say that “the blind leading the blind” is not the vibe that you want to be left walking away with.

Unfortunately, however, it happens way too often and I cannot tell you how many times I have had consults with potential clients during which I am told about how disappointed he or she was with prior counsel.  I have had several recent cases where I am left baffled and scratching my head at the inability of a matter to move forward to a trial or settlement – not because of difficult parties or issues of complicated substance, but, rather, a lawyer on the other side who simply does not seem to know what he or she is doing.

The experiences to which I allude are all the more reason to heed the following points when selecting your divorce lawyer:

  • Does the lawyer practice exclusively in the area of matrimonial law? You want a lawyer who knows the law, right?  You also want a lawyer who knows how the law has been applied, how it fits to the facts of your case, and how and when it may be changing.  While no lawyer is going to concede to you that he or she does not know the law, or that acting on your behalf will be a new experience, always do your due diligence before meeting with the attorney to see what you are really dealing with.  Aside from discussing with your referral source, perhaps review the attorney’s online profile to see what articles he or she has written, or what presentations he or she has given on family law topics.
  • Is your lawyer familiar with the judges, lawyers, mediators and experts who may be involved in your matter? This point coincides with the first point.  A lawyer who is well versed in or only practices in the area of family law will more likely be familiar with the people you will come across in the course of your matter.  Knowing how your spouse’s lawyer operates, knowing which mediator may be good or bad for your case, and knowing which expert can best address your financial or custodial needs is of great importance in properly presenting and proceeding in your case.
  • Do you feel comfortable in communicating with your advocate about the law and the facts of your case? You are going to get to know your lawyer very well.  You want to be able to confide in that person all of the good and the bad that may have happened during your marriage, as well as anything that may impact upon your divorce proceeding.  Providing your lawyer with such information and allowing him or her to best address such issues is one of the reasons why you retained that lawyer in the first place.
  • Do you strategize with your lawyer in a way that addresses many different potential approaches while also taking litigation costs into consideration? There are many, many…many different types of divorce lawyers.  There are lawyers who prefer the path of least resistance to get you to a resolution, lawyers who are always aggressive, and so many others in between.  The lawyer you retain should fit your goals and motivations of what you want or believe your divorce matter should be.
  • Is your lawyer responsive to your needs? Responsiveness is one of the issues that I hear about most often from clients who have had prior counsel.  You want to ensure that your attorney gets back to you in a reasonable time to address any issues that you may have.

These are just a few of the critical points that you should consider in retaining matrimonial counsel.  Every lawyer is different, as is every client.  Finding the right match for you is not a decision to be taken lightly, and should be based on a consideration of several factors.  Your attorney is someone who you are going to confide in more than most other people in your life, including, on occasion, your family and friends.  Trust and comfort in your lawyer’s ability to advocate on your behalf is a critical, if not the most critical decision that you may make during the entire divorce process.

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Robert A. EpsteinRobert Epstein is a partner in Fox Rothschild LLP’s Family Law Practice Group and practices throughout New Jersey.  He can be reached at (973) 994-7526, or repstein@foxrothschild.com.

Connect with Robert: Twitter_64 Linkedin

 

I am not generally one to make resolutions at the New Year.  Most of them would involve eating, and I have a sweet tooth, so I am destined to fail. That being said, I do try to make some improvements to my work life each January and in addition to cleaning my desk, they include giving my clients some resolutions they should think about.

Copyright: underverse / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: underverse / 123RF Stock Photo

Number 1.  Don’t be a jerk.  Your dissolution/custody/post-judgment matter has enough difficult substantive issues involved without having to deal with unreasonableness for the sake of making things difficult.  It is so often tempting to lash out at someone who has acted in a childish, mean spirited manner against you.  However, while it might make you feel better for a hot minute, the longer effects of your actions may be that they come back to bite you in the derriere.  In today’s day and age, almost all of our actions are captured in some form of technology, whether it be a post on Instagram, a comment by someone other than you on social media, or a response by the recipient of your actions in an email.  Trust me- a judge will not be amused.

Talk to me first before you act against your ex.  Let’s discuss what was done to you and what is an appropriate response.  Remember, we judge ourselves by our intent, but we judge others by their actions.  This oftentimes necessitates taking the high road.  Let’s make sure we know how you will be judged by others (most notably a judge or expert).

Number 2.  Don’t ask me to be a jerk for you. I am a professional.  And I am courteous.  Add the two together, and I will practice professional courtesy.  Which means I will respond to a fellow attorney in a timely manner; I will pick up the phone, and yes, if I am asked to consent to an adjournment I will do so unless it will hurt my client’s interests. Trust me, I am doing this for you.  Why?  Because the fact of the matter is, you are going to need something later in the case, and chances are if I am a jerk, the other attorney will be a jerk right back at me.  More importantly, if I get a reputation of being a jerk, I am never going to get a break from the judge on your case. When you have a school play scheduled for 3:00 in the afternoon the day of a settlement conference, don’t hand the judge a reason to deny our request to move it.

Number 3. Understand my occasional scheduling issues.  You are important to me.  I promise. And it has nothing to do with the amount of money you have, the complexity of your case, or whether you are male or female.  I strive to do the very best I can for each one of my clients.  However, stuff happens.  It happens to you, and it happens to others.  And when one of my other clients has an emergency, I can only be at one place at one time. I am fortunate to have amazing colleagues who work with me, so it is rare that attention cannot be given to you.  I once was almost fired by a client when I had to reschedule an appointment to review documents when another client had been physically assaulted  by a spouse and I had to rush to the courthouse to get an order of protection.

Number 4 (and more important than number 3).  Understand that I have no power over the Court’s scheduling issues.  Trust me, I am just as frustrated at the fact that we have waited for over a month for an order from the Court.  I do understand that it is having a detrimental effect on you and your children.  However, the fact of the matter is that judges in NJ have approximately 400-450 cases, and there is only so much that can be done in a day or week.   Don’t ask me to call the court every day or write a scathing letter.  Trust me, this is not the way to endear you to the judge.

Number 5. Take a deep breath.  Your case is like a Bell Curve.  You are at the apex and it stinks.  I will help you get to the bottom, but it will not happen immediately.  Your matter will be over, and you will be able to move on with your life.

 

MillnerJennifer_twitterJennifer Weisberg Millner is a partner in Fox Rothschild LLP’s Family Law Practice Group. Jennifer is resident in the firm’s Princeton Office, although she practices throughout the state. Jennifer can be reached at 609-895-6712 or jmillner@foxrothschild.com.