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Pertinent Information As It Relates To New Jersey Family Laws

Interference with Employment: A New Form of Domestic Violence

Posted in Domestic Violence

I previously blogged on economic abuse as a form of domestic violence in a post titled Financial Abuse: The Invisible Wounds of Domestic Violence. Although occurring in approximately 98% of all domestic violence situations according to National Network to End Domestic Violence, economic abuse is not what most people think about when they hear the term “domestic violence”.

Recently, the unpublished decision of C.G. v. E.G. addressed interference with employment as a harassing and coercive form of domestic violence. In this matter, the defendant intentionally attempted to obstruct and interfere with plaintiff’s new employment by calling her place of work without her consent, bothering her employer as well as her employer’s wife, and embarrassing plaintiff by alleging that she and her employer were having an affair.

Judge Jones defined economic harassment as “including purposeful acts which a defendant perpetrates while intending that such acts either (a) impair or obstruct a plaintiff’s actual or prospective job or job-related duties, or (b) threaten to do so with the purpose of controlling [someone], and/or pressuring or intimidating [someone] into submitting to [their] demands or wishes.” Judge Jones went on to describe this behavior as “fear-inducing to a victim of physical abuse” and that “there are arguable few threats more potentially harassing and coercive than threatening one’s livelihood or employment.”

20143619 - illustration depicting a sign with a victim concept

So what encompasses purposefully interfering with another’s employment?

(1)        Directly threatening to contact the victim’s place of employment and attempting to get the victim fired, either by making false allegations, or improperly publicizing private, personal and embarrassing information about the victim;

(2)        Actually contacting the place of employment and following through with actions designed to damage the victim’s status, and stability at his/her job; and

(3)        Repeatedly appearing uninvited at the victim’s place of employment and causing a disturbance, or otherwise acting in a manner which is disrespectful of, and/or embarrassing to, the victim, and disruptive to the victim’s job responsibilities and performance, and/or standard business operations.

The abusers underlying behavior, while an obvious form of harassment, is often times done as a way to corner the victim into either interacting with the aggressor or submitting to certain demands. Often times the victim, in order to avoid embarrassment gives in to the aggressor’s behaviors to their detriment.

Such interference with employment may constitute both harassment and coercion. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence has reported that between 35% and 65% of victims of domestic violence are harassed at work by their abusers.

The New Jersey Supreme Court has recognized the right to be left alone in State v. Hoffmann, 149 N.J. 564, 585-85 (1997). Thus, “a person has a basic right to be left alone by an estranged or former spouse or dating partner at his or her place of employment.”

The Court concluded in C.G. v. E.G. that by phoning “plaintiff’s place of employment against plaintiff’s wishes, with the purpose and tactic of causing her harm as expressed and desired in his text message, and/or otherwise wearing plaintiff down into submission”, defendant “knew or should have known that he was improperly encroaching on Plaintiff’s new employment, while potentially subjecting her to public embarrassment in front of her employer and co-workers” and that these actions constitute harassment.

Additionally, defendant’s actions constitute a new form of domestic violence, coercion. In August 2015, the New Jersey Legislature amended the Domestic Violence Act to include “coercion”.

Coercion is defined as “threats made to unlawfully restrict another’s freedom of action to engage or refrain from engaging in conduct by threatening to:

(1)        Inflict bodily injury on anyone or commit any other offense;

(2)        Accuse anyone of an offense;

(3)        Expose any secret which would tend to subject any person to hatred, contempt or ridicule, or to impair his credit or business repute;

(4)        Take or withhold action as an official, or cause an official to take or withhold action;

(5)        Bring about or continue a strike, boycott or other collective action, except that such a threat shall not be deemed coercive when the restriction compelled is demanded in the course of negotiation for the benefit of the group in whose interest the actor acts;

(6)        Testify or provide information or withhold testimony or information with respect to another’s legal claim or defense; or

(7)        Perform any other act which would not in itself substantially benefit the actor but which is calculated to substantially harm another person with respect to his health, safety, business, calling, career, financial condition, reputation or personal relationships.

Interference with one’s employment can be considered both harassment and coercion, the latter expanding the prior definition of domestic violence to give victims more alternatives for protection against their abusers.

If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence, contact your local law enforcement and/or the confidential and anonymous National Coalition Against Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-572-7233.

The Fine (or Maybe Not So Fine) Line Between Zealous Advocacy and Overzealous Advocacy

Posted in Practice Issues

In law school, lawyers begin to be engrained with the concept of ethical duty of zealous advocacy.  While this concept used to be in the Rules of Professional Conduct, over time, it has been removed.  It has even been largely removed from the ABA’s Model Rules, upon which many State’s rules have been based upon, other than in statements in the Preamble that say, “As advocate, a lawyer zealously asserts the client’s position under the rules of the adversary system” and:

In the nature of law practice, however, conflicting responsibilities are encountered. Virtually all difficult ethical problems arise from conflict between a lawyer’s responsibilities to clients, to the legal system and to the lawyer’s own interest in remaining an ethical person while earning a satisfactory living. The Rules of Professional Conduct often prescribe terms for resolving such conflicts. Within the framework of these Rules, however, many difficult issues of professional discretion can arise. Such issues must be resolved through the exercise of sensitive professional and moral judgment guided by the basic principles underlying the Rules. These principles include the lawyer’s obligation zealously to protect and pursue a client’s legitimate interests, within the bounds of the law, while maintaining a professional, courteous and civil attitude toward all persons involved in the legal system. (Emphasis added).

22610764 - advocacy - business background. golden compass needle on a black field pointing to the word "advocacy". 3d render.

Nevertheless, time and again you hear the refrain, in defense of an aggressive if not improper action, position, etc. that “I was only being a zealous advocate.”  However, assuming for arguments sake, that the duty of zealous advocacy exists in either some express or implied way, there certainly seems to be a difference between zealous advocacy and overzealous advocacy.  While the former may be appropriate, the latter is often not.  Moreover, it can be very costly, both financially and emotionally for the parties.

In a recent matter, I have seen an attorney send subpoena after subpoena seeking records, that if obtained, would add nothing to her client’s case.  In some instances, it is more than a fishing expedition or seeking a needle in a haystack, as even if the records were produced, no matter what they said, they would have no probative value in the case.  Moreover, when the subpoenas were not responded to or not responded to the their liking, threats of contempt followed.  Even the seemingly appropriate subpoenas seem needless given that a third party with much greater resources had already done an investigation.  There is one thing about leaving no stone unturned when there is a possibility that the due diligence will be fruitful, and quite another when it is a clear waste of time and money, if not harassment of third parties, from the start.  In that case, the “my client just wants to be sure” defense may not really cut it.

What about the lawyer that lies to further their client’s interests.  I have previously done a blog entitled The Lawyer The Liar which discussed this improper practice.

How about taking and litigating a position that is either contrary to the law, contrary to the facts, or both, and refusing to give it up notwithstanding.  I have seen lawyers push these issues because their client wanted to, because they figured they could make money and/or they figured they would wear the other side down and force them to capitulate to be done.   There are many other examples that I am sure my colleagues can add about examples of overzealous advocacy.

When the offender is called on these tactics, they hide behind the “zealous advocacy” shield. The question to ponder is what is a court to do when zealous advocacy crosses the line to overzealous advocacy.  Whether or not this rises to an ethical issue, will a court make the other party whole or at least put a stop to it?  If not, are we not rewarding pushing the envelope?


 

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 Roseland and Morristown, New Jersey offices though he practices throughout New Jersey. You can reach Eric at (973)994-7501, or esolotoff@foxrothschild.com.

Connect with Eric: Twitter_64 Linkedin

Photo credit:  Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_tashatuvango’>tashatuvango / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Exacting Revenge On Your Ex May Not Be So Sweet After All

Posted in Practice Issues

Cersei Lannister may seem like she has it all: unbridled brutality, a mountain of a protector, disfavor in the Realm and a growing list of enemies she’s collected along the way. After all, she’s just destroyed her enemies in one fell swoop as she blew up the Great Sept of Baelor. Although Cersei seemed to have finally served her sweet revenge, she comes to discover that bittersweet aftertaste that just won’t quit.

Cersei soon found out that the fleeting rush she got from all the carnage and destruction (just a few of her favorite things) gave way to a mixed bag of emotions; on the one hand she finally got her seat on the Iron Throne, but on the other hand, she had lost all of her children in the process.

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HBO.com

Apparently, Cersei’s conflicted feelings on the subject of revenge are not unique to her.
A recent study in the upcoming edition of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that the emotional consequences of revenge “are a mixed bag, in that we feel both good and bad when we take revenge on another party.”

Take the good: we love revenge because we punish the offending party. Apparently, the brain areas in charge of making crime and punishment judgments overlap with areas that process reward, which explains the pleasure in punishment/ revenge.

But then there’s the bad: it reminds us of the original act. To put that kind of pain it in context, think about the revenge your stomach exacts the morning after you eat an entire pizza. We’ve all been there.

In fact, just ask anyone who has slashed their cheating ex’s tires. Or take the story recounted by Marylin Stowe, one of England’s top divorce lawyers: Lady Graham Moon has gone down in English family law history for acting like a milkman, except that she was delivering to her neighbors the contents of her estranged husband’s valuable wine cellar.

The act of revenge may feel good in the moment, but soon thereafter, people are reminded of how they felt to have evoked the desire for revenge to begin with.

The stakes become even higher when that cheating ex and you share children together. Indeed, the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology study found that feelings of revenge support endless cycles of retribution that may emerge in the context of conflicts between families. And we all know how that can turn out for parents and children alike.

So take a page out of the book of Cersei, the Queen of Family Dysfunction, and now, the Seven Kingdoms. She should have listed to Mark Twain who said: “Therein lies the defect of revenge: it’s all in the anticipation; the thing itself is a pain, not a pleasure; at least the pain is the biggest end of it.”
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Eliana Baer, Associate, Fox Rothschild LLPEliana 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.

The Interplay Between Personal Firearm Forfeiture and Domestic Violence Proceedings Gets Some Clarification from the NJ Supreme Court

Posted in Domestic Violence, Practice Issues

Recently, the New Jersey Supreme Court provided some important clarification with regard to the issue of firearm forfeiture in the wake of an arrest and firearm seizure pursuant to the New Jersey Prevention of Domestic Violence Act (NJPDVA), N.J.S.A. 2C:25-17 to 35.  In In the Matter of the Application of New Jersey for the Forfeiture of Personal Weapons and Firearms Identification Card Belonging to F.M., the Supreme Court squarely addressed the following important question:  Under what circumstances can a personal firearm and firearms purchaser identification card seized pursuant to the NJPDVA be forfeited pursuant to the firearms forfeiture statute N.J.S.A. 2C:58-3(c)(5)?

The Facts & Evidence

The firearm owner at the center of this case – “F.M.” – was involved in a Domestic Violence proceeding in March 2010, wherein he was named defendant.  As a result of the domestic violence incident, F.M.’s personal firearm and identification card were confiscated by the police.  In addition to the domestic violence proceedings, F.M. was charged with simple assault.  Notably, F.M. himself worked as a police officer and, therefore, had not only a personal weapon but also a service weapon.  At a hearing to determine whether a Final Restraining Order should be entered against F.M. for the protection of his wife, the Court decided against the entry of same and dismissed the case against F.M.

Although one might think that, upon dismissal of an FRO, any weapons seized in connection with the restraining order are automatically returned to the defendant, this is not always the case.  The State may move to forfeit a personal weapon and identification card under N.J.S.A. 2C:58-3(c)(5) even if the domestic violence case under which the weapons were initially seized is dismissed.  This is precisely what the State did in the instant case.  Reserving on the State’s motion, the trial court judge noted that the court would issue a decision on the final disposition of F.M.’s personal and service weapons after he completed a batterer-intervention program and attended individual counseling.  F.M. did so, and subsequently filed a motion seeking the return of his personal weapon, the weapon at issue in this matter.

The State opposed F.M.’s motion, arguing that the return of F.M.’s personal firearm and identification card would not be in the interest of the public health, safety, or welfare.  To make out its case, the State relied upon the testimony of F.M.’s wife, who testified as to F.M’s history of violence against her, as well as the arresting office who responded to the March 2010 incident and confiscated F.M.’s personal firearm and identification card.  Interestingly, the State also relied upon the testimony of two licensed psychologists who had previously performed Fitness for Duty (FFD) evaluations on F.M., and had interviewed F.M.’s wife in connection with same.  Although their evaluations were directly applicable to the issue of F.M.’s service weapons, their testimony was permitted to address the issue of forfeiture of his personal weapon as well.  One of the psychologists had concluded that F.M. was not fit for full duty and recommended that he be disarmed because he was a “danger [] to himself or others.”  The other psychologist concluded that, although he couldn’t be classified as having a personality disorder, F.M. exhibited elements of various personality disorders that negatively impacted his ability to effectively serve as a police officer; he concluded that F.M. suffered from “a nearly paranoid sense that everyone was out to get him, poor impulse control, poor anger control, and poor judgment.”  He also stated that he believed the public would be endangered if F.M. continued to serve as an armed police officer and that F.M was not fit for duty.

The Path to the N.J. Supreme Court

Largely because there were no findings of clinical mental illness or personality disorder – but rather only elements of same, or what the trial court judge called “subclinical personality styles and tendencies” – the trial judge ordered the return of the personal weapon and identification card.  Interestingly, the Court rejected the psychologists’ conclusions as to the credibility of F.M.’s wife, because the judge him or herself had had more “exposure” to the altercations between F.M. and his wife as the Family Part Judge handling their domestic violence proceedings. The Family Part judge also seems to have concluded that F.M.’s wife had played a part in instigating the dispute that led to the seizure of the weapon, and that there was no prior instance during which F.M. had actually used a gun to harm anyone.  The Appellate Division largely agreed with the Family Part judge’s analysis and findings, noting that deference is accorded to Family Part judges given their intimate involvement with the facts of family part cases.  The State then appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the Family Part judge had misapplied the law.

The N.J. Supreme Court Decision

The N.J. Supreme Court agreed with the State as to its contention that the Family Part judge had misapplied the law and, in according the Family Part deference, the Appellate Division had erred.  In making its decision, the Court looked to the applicable statute which describes who may obtain a personal firearm and identification card, N.J.S.A. 2C:58-3(c), which states:

No person of good character and good repute in the community in which he lives, and who is not subject to any of the disabilities set forth in this section or other sections of this chapter, shall be denied a permit to purchase a handgun or a firearms purchaser identification card, except as hereinafter set forth.

The statute goes on to list 10 “disqualifiers” for purchase of a personal weapon and issuance of a firearms purchaser identification card, including:

(1)  To any person who has been convicted of any crime, or a disorderly persons offense involving an act of domestic violence as defined in section 3 of P.L. 1991, c.261 (C.2C:25-19), whether or not armed with or possessing a weapon at the time of such offense; [. . .](5) To any person where the issuance would not be in the interest of the public health, safety, or welfare; [. . .].

Relying on prior decisions, the Court noted that, in order to forfeit a weapon under subpart five (5) of the statute, the State only had to prove by a preponderance of the evidence (a lower evidentiary standard equating to “more likely than not”) that an individual’s possession of a firearm would be against the public health, safety, or welfare.  The purpose of the low evidentiary standard is, perhaps obviously, “to prevent firearms from coming into the hands of persons likely to pose a danger to the public.”

Contrary to the holding in the lower courts, the Supreme Court found that the  testimony of F.M.’s wife, the responding officer, and the psychologists – despite their lack of finding a clinical mental illness or personality disorder – suggested that F.M.’s possession of a firearm would indeed more likely than not pose a danger to the public.

Takeaways for the Family Law Practitioner

Those of us who practice family law are well versed in the precedential law that says that the Appellate Division and Supreme Court accord great deference to Family Part Judges.  In this case, however, the Supreme Court reminded us that, although such deference is given to Family Part judges as to the facts of a case, a judge’s legal determinations are of course not immune to review by the higher courts.  A Family Part judge may have a greater “feel” for the case given its familiarity with the parties and issues, but – and perhaps this is stating the obvious – that doesn’t mean their application of the law to the facts must be given deference on appeal.  In this case, the Family Part overlooked the plain language of the statute and appropriate evidentiary standard, and instead made its own justifications for returning the personal weapon and identification card to the defendant.

For those involved in domestic violence matters, this case also serves as a reminder that weapons forfeiture under that statute is black-and-white when an FRO is entered.  If a final restraining order is entered, under subpart (1) of N.J.S.A. 2C:58-3(c), the defendant’s firearm and identification card will be forfeited, something that must be taken into consideration if you are representing a defendant who is a licensed firearm owner.

And yet, if the domestic violence case is dismissed, the issue becomes more gray.  Even if the domestic violence matter that led to the initial confiscation of a firearm and ID card is dismissed against a firearm-owning defendant, the case discussed here makes clear that weapons can still be forfeited if there is credible testimony showing by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant may be a danger to the public.  Notably, the outcome here also shows that, even if a plaintiff’s testimony in his or her domestic violence matter is insufficient to sustain the entry of a restraining order under the NJPDVA, his or her testimony may be used to prove that the defendant’s firearm and identification card should be forfeited on other grounds.

Whether you represent the party pursuing a restraining order or defending against one, this is important knowledge to have when dealing with a firearm-owning client or adverse party in a domestic violence matter.


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.

All Apologies and the Distribution of a Famous Guitar

Posted in Divorce, Equitable Distribution, Estate and Trust Issues, Interspousal Agreements

Perhaps Kurt Cobain knew when writing the song “All Apologies” that one day his daughter would be embroiled in a nasty divorce battle.  While the lyrics, “Married, Buried, Married, Buried”, may not sound uplifting, they are undeniably classic Nirvana.  Fans of the band would largely agree that the most well known live performance of the song was the acoustic version played during the band’s “Unplugged in New York”, which took place shortly before Cobain’s death.  Now it is the guitar used by Kurt during that performance which lies at the center of Frances Bean Cobain’s divorce from her husband.

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Specifically, Frances’s husband is in possession of the guitar – thought to be worth several million dollars – and refuses to return it to her while alleging that she gave it to him as a wedding present.  Not surprisingly, Frances denies ever giving it to him at the start of their short-term marriage, and is taking the position that he has no right to any money from her fortune (Kurt’s estate is valued at approximately $450 million).

With that said, and straight from Seattle to the swamps of New Jersey, how would a court here potentially address the issue?

I Think I’m Dumb, or Maybe Just Happy:  Well, for starters, is there a prenup protecting Frances’s rights and interests in Kurt’s estate and, as part of the estate, the subject guitar?  I don’t know the answer, but even if Frances was blinded by her love for her now soon to be ex-husband, she would hopefully be smart enough to have had some sort of agreement drafted and signed protecting her from the claim now being made (unlike Paul McCartney in his divorce from Heather Mills, for example).  Such agreements often have language addressing so-called separate property and whether separate property is exempt from equitable distribution.  Language regarding interspousal gifts is also common and can be crafted in a way to ensure that even if she did gift the guitar to him during the marriage, it could still remain separate property exempt from distribution.

And For This Gift, I Feel Blessed:  At the heart-shaped box of this matter is whether the guitar was an interspousal gift from Frances to husband during the marriage.  This is essentially what husband is claiming.  In New Jersey, an interspousal gift is subject to equitable distribution.  Husband can take the position that even if the guitar was originally a non-marital asset exempt from equitable distribution (for instance, as an inheritance or gift to Frances, or by agreement), it lost that exempt status and became marital property subject to distribution once she gifted it to him.  If proven, Frances loses the right to claim that the guitar is exempt from equitable distribution at the time of the divorce.  With a guitar worth several million dollars, husband may look at his share of the guitar as the proverbial meal ticket in a short-term marriage where his rights are likely otherwise limited.

Hey!  Wait!  I’ve Got a New Complaint:  To rebut husband’s claim and supporting evidence/testimony that Frances gifted him the guitar, Frances would have to establish that there never was any gift.  In other words, there was no intent by Frances to gift him the guitar – a fact that perhaps she could establish by testifying about how she told husband at the time, and/or at other times during the marriage, that it was her/her family’s guitar, rather than husband’s guitar.  Maybe husband simply took it from the home and is now fabricating the entire story.  Credibility and the surrounding factual circumstances will play a large part in the final result.  Also, even if the guitar was ultimately deemed to be an interspousal gift, Frances may be aided in the actual allocation of the asset by New Jersey’s equitable distribution factors, especially that regarding who brought the subject property to the marriage.  Keeping the guitar in the Cobain family would seemingly be an important consideration for a family court judge, and may sway any determination regarding whether Frances could ever have intended it to be a gift.

It will be interesting to see how this matter unfolds and ultimately concludes.  Whether the litigant is Frances or anyone else similarly in her shoes, learning the law regarding gifts and equitable distribution may leave the litigant forever in debt to such priceless advice.

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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

*image courtesy of google free images.

Champagne Taste on a Beer Budget: How One Judge Determined Alimony for an Overspending Couple

Posted in Alimony, Child Support, Divorce, Equitable Distribution, Modification, Practice Issues

I’m not usually one to place a lot of stock in celebrity gossip, but I couldn’t help but take notice of the fact that it has been rumored that Amber Heard’s monthly income is $10,000, yet she spends $44,000 a month on shopping, dining out and vacations. Her ask for spousal support: $50,000 per month, based upon the parties’ marital lifestyle.

45351836 - champagne bottle in ice bucket and two full glasses realistic vector illustration

45351836 – champagne bottle in ice bucket and two full glasses realistic vector illustration

Amber Heard may not be only one spending beyond her means. This phenomenon applies to us common folk as well.

Particularly during the economic downturn, we have seen many cases where parties have splurged during times of plenty and then failed to scale back when the economic downturn hit. As a result, the parties are living on credit or perhaps not paying their bills. It, in effect, creates an artificial lifestyle which neither party really has the ability to maintain.

This puts the Court in a tough spot. On the one hand, the Supreme Court explained in Crews, “the standard of living experienced during the marriage . . . serves as the touchstone for the initial alimony award.” On the other hand, what happens when the marital standard of living is based on nothing more than irresponsible spending?

An unpublished case was just recently decided by the Appellate Division that touched on this issue. Although the crux of the case really focused on the reversal of a judge’s suspension of alimony as a discovery sanction, what peaked my interest was how the judge dealt with what he classified as an “artificial lifestyle,” marked by the parties’ “irresponsible spending and outlandish behavior, whether going on expensive vacations to South America and Europe, or purchasing fancy cars” when awarding alimony.

In Ponzetto v. Barbetti, decided on June 28, 2016, the parties had a nineteen year marriage which ended in a contentious divorce when the parties were in their mid-forties. The parties did not have any children and the only issues in the case were equitable distribution and alimony, both of which were hotly litigated during the course of a lengthy trial.

The husband had started a sound system business when he was a teenager, for which the wife kept the books. At one point, the business was so lucrative, that it generated revenue of $500,000 per year. These were the times of plenty.

Unfortunately, the business suffered during the economic downturn. The parties’ lifestyle, however, did not. They continued to spend lavishly. By the time of the divorce, they had two Ferraris, a Harley Davidson, Pontiac Fiero and two hummers.

While typically a judge would look at the parties’ spending during the last several years of the marriage to determine lifestyle, in this case, the trial judge found that it would not be appropriate to do so in this situation, where the lifestyle was not based on income or need.

As a result, the judge declined to use “the parties’ irresponsible spending from 2006 through 2008 in determining marital lifestyle” and instead determined to “kindly” utilize the marital lifestyle from 1990 through 2006, which the judge determined to be $14,500 per month. Ultimately, the wife was awarded $400 per week in alimony.

This is just one example of how a judge has dealt with this increasingly common situation. However, judges are frequently placed in these precarious situations, where the parties have exceeded a reasonable lifestyle based upon their income as compared to their expenses. In the case of Ponzetto v. Barbetti, the judge crafted a remedy that was equitable given the specific circumstances of the case.
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Eliana Baer, Associate, Fox Rothschild LLPEliana 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.

Can the Parent-Child Bond be Restored After Alienation?

Posted in Custody, Divorce, Domestic Violence, Modification, Visitation/Parenting Time

It’s a tale as old as time. Divorced parents bash each other in hopes of garnering favor with their child during a divorce or custody dispute. At some point the child, becomes so exposed to the bashing, blame and ill-will from one parent toward another that the child becomes disenchanted with the other parent; the relationship begins to break down, sometimes, irreparably.

25487205 - unhappy family and child custody battle concept sketched on sticky note paper

25487205 – unhappy family and child custody battle concept sketched on sticky note paper

This strategy is known as parental alienation, and is being increasingly tossed around in Court battles – sometimes by a truly harmful parent who has exploited their child for a litigation win or as some sort of perverse retribution, and sometimes, it is levied against a parent legitimately attempting to protect their child from abuse or neglect.

However, in cases of true alienation, it is clear that it is injurious to all involved. University of Texas psychologist Richard Warshak, author of Divorce Poison: Protecting the Parent-Child Bond from a Vindictive Ex explains that it’s typically the emotionally healthier parent that is rejected, whereas the alienating parent thinks it acceptable to use the child as a form of punishment for the other parent. Warshak characterized it as a form of abuse toward both parent and child.

Still, as Eric Solotoff blogged in late 2012, the American Psychiatric Association board of trustees will still not go so far as to characterize Parental Alienation Syndrome as a mental illness in the DSM 5 (released in May 2013).

Yet, given the grave effects of parental alienation on both parent and child, it is no surprise that Courts are taking aggressive steps to try to restore the parent-child bond. Experts advise that alienation requires an order from a Court to allow a manipulated child time to bond with the alienated parent.

Sometimes, this will mean reunification therapy for the child and alienated parent, perhaps beginning once a week, and then gradually increasing. The therapist may ultimately place the child and parent in a “real-life” situation, like having the therapy occur in a diner, or at the park. Eventually, the parent may have parenting time alone with the child for an increasing amount of time as the relationship progresses.

For more extreme cases of alienation, where the child is completely past the point of even being open to conventional reunification therapy, the Court may order an intensive, immersion therapy program such as Stable Paths, which is described on its website as an “intensive therapeutic reunification intervention for families impacted by separation resulting from high-conflict divorce, parental alienation, and familial abduction.”

There, the families essentially move on to a tranquil campus, and immerse themselves in therapeutic activities together, such as horseback riding, cooking, sports and games. The goal is to create new memories and re-establish existing bonds and attachments in hopes of repairing the relationship. Each family leaves with a treatment plan for reunification.

The most extreme cases, however, may warrant a complete overhaul to the custody arrangement. Judges may award primary custody of the child to the alienated parent in an effort to extract the child from a toxic situation and reestablish the bond with the other parent.

In 2012, in Milne v. Goldenberg, the Appellate Division reaffirmed the necessity of trial court judges to consider removing a child from the custody of the uncooperative parent and/or imposing temporary or permanent modification of custody. The decision reinforced the holding of New Jersey courts that interference with an ex-spouse’s parenting rights is so inimical to the welfare of the child that judges should transfer custody when the non-compliance puts parent/child relationships at risk:

[T]he necessity for at least minimal parental cooperation in a joint custody arrangement presents a thorny problem of judicial enforcement in a case such as the present one, wherein despite the trial court’s determination that joint custody is in the best interests of the child, one parent (here, the mother) nevertheless contends that cooperation is impossible and refuses to abide by the decree…However, when the actions of such a parent deprive the child of the kind of relationship with the other parent that is deemed to be in the child’s best interests, removing the child from the custody of the uncooperative parent may well be appropriate as a remedy of last resort.

The Milne court reinforces that the Rules of Court provide for a change of custody as a remedy for recalcitrant parents. R. 5:3-7(a)(6) explains that remedies for violations of custody and parenting time Orders include “temporary or permanent modification of the custodial arrangement provided such relief is in the best interest of the children.”

Turning custody on its head, although seemingly an effective remedy, may prove difficult to swallow for some judges. Even if the Court finds alienation has occurred, it may prove almost impossible to override the child’s wishes, who, by the time the Court is involved, may be a preteen absolutely refusing to have any relationship with the alienated parent.

Accordingly to Psychology Today, House Divided: Hate Thy Father, by Mark Teich, it will take a “sophisticated judge to realize what psychologists might see as obvious: Deep down, the child has never really stopped loving the other parent. He or she has just been brainwashed like a prisoner of war or a cult victim, programmed to accept destructive beliefs until critical thinking can be restored.”

The same sophistication is required when a judge is asked to identify whether a parent accused of alienation is merely attempting to protect his or her child from actual abuse by the other parent. Parental alienation seems to have taken on “buzz word” status in recent years, being used even in cases where there may be a legitimate concern for the child’s safety and wellbeing.

As it stands right now, alienation can be repaired, but it requires judges to:

(1) Differentiate real alienation from legitimate concerns about abuse or neglect;
(2) Order parents to intensive therapy programs and ensure that resulting treatment plans are complied with; and
(3) Overlook the supposed desires of an alienated child to see that he or she has never stopped loving their parent, but has just been brainwashed to accept untrue and very destructive beliefs.
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Eliana Baer, Associate, Fox Rothschild LLPEliana 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.

NJ Supreme Court Finds Law Against Discrimination Protects Employees Going Through Divorce

Posted in Divorce

While we do not often, if ever, blog about decisions in the area of employment law, the Supreme Court of New Jersey earlier this week in the decision of Smith v. Millville Rescue Squad held that our state’s Law Against Discrimination precludes discrimination and retaliation against an employee based on “marital status.  The meaning of “marital status” was found to include not only being single or married, but also “employees who have declared that they will marry, have separated from their spouse, have initiated divorce proceedings, or have obtained a divorce”.

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The case involved an employee who was terminated from his employment after he told his supervisor that he was having an affair with a co-worker, he was separated from his wife (who was also a co-worker), and was about to commence divorce proceedings.  Notably, the supervisor’s response to learning of such information was that he could not promise it would not have an impact on the employee’s job, and he later indicated his belief that the divorce would be “ugly.”

Written documentation regarding the termination, however, referred only to a corporate restructuring and the employee’s allegedly poor performance.  Notably, the employee testified that during his term of employment he was never subjected to formal discipline, was promoted twice, and received annual raises.

The trial court granted employer’s motion for an involuntary dismissal and, in so doing, found that employee failed to present evidence that he was terminated because of his marital status.  In finding that management properly acted out of concern that the divorce would likely be contentious, the trial judge found that such action did not constitute discrimination pursuant to marital status under the NJ LAD.

The Appellate Division disagreed, finding that “marital status” included being separated and involved in a divorce proceeding.  The Supreme Court agreed.  In so holding, the High Court provided:

The LAD prohibits an employer from imposing conditions of employment that have no relationship to the tasks assigned to and expected of an employee.  It also prohibits an employer from resorting to stereotypes to discipline, block from advancement, or terminate an employee due to a life decision, such as deciding to marry or divorce.  The LAD does not bar an employer from making a legitimate business decision to discipline or terminate an employee whose personal life decisions, such as a marital separation or divorce, have disrupted the workplace or hindered the ability of the employee or others to do their job.  However, an employer may not assume, based on invidious stereotypes, that an employee will be disruptive or ineffective simply because of life decisions such as a marriage or divorce.

The decision makes substantive and practical sense in defining the term “marital status,” which is not defined in the terms of the LAD, itself.  Separately, as noted in a post on this case from our Employment Discrimination Report blog, employers may not rely upon any religious exception for this prohibition.

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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

*image courtesy of google free images.

Watch Out: Judges Start Getting Creative with Non-Complying Litigants and Obstructers

Posted in Alimony, Child Support, Counsel Fee Awards, Custody, Divorce, Equitable Distribution, Interspousal Agreements, Practice Issues

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a million times: “why don’t judges enforce their own orders or take hard lines against obstructers?” Many times, litigants feel powerless. Powerless to change anything; powerless to have courts take a firm position in favor of those aggrieved; and, powerless to be heard. Clients and attorneys alike feel this frustration.

This is despite the fact that there are specific rules in New Jersey that apply to non-compliance in the family part. Rule 5:3-7 provides for very specific types of relief in specific actions:

Non-Compliance with Custody or Parenting Time Orders:

(1) compensatory time with the children;
(2) economic sanctions, including but not limited to the award of monetary compensation for the costs resulting from a parents failure to appear for scheduled parenting time or visitation such as child care expenses incurred by the other parent;
(3) modification of transportation arrangements;
(4) pick-up and return of the children in a public place;
(5) counseling for the children or parents or any of them at the expense of the parent in violation of the order;
(6) temporary or permanent modification of the custodial arrangement provided such relief is in the best interest of the children;
(7) participation by the parent in violation of the order in an approved community service program;
(8) incarceration, with or without work release;
(9) issuance of a warrant to be executed upon the further violation of the judgment or order; and
(10) any other appropriate equitable remedy.

Non-Compliance with Alimony or Child Support Orders:

(1) fixing the amount of arrearages and entering a judgment upon which interest accrues;
(2) requiring payment of arrearages on a periodic basis;
(3) suspension of an occupational license or drivers license consistent with law;
(4) economic sanctions;
(5) participation by the party in violation of the order in an approved community service program;
(6) incarceration, with or without work release;
(7) issuance of a warrant to be executed upon the further violation of the judgment or order; and
(8) any other appropriate equitable remedy.

27249354 - symbol of sanctions as a clamps

In other words, with most family part actions, the sky is the limit in terms of what remedies can be utilized to secure compliance. Moreover, in other instances of non-compliance not covered by the family part rules, for instance, filing frivolous motions to harass the other party, or failing to make discovery, other rules apply that should serve to get a litigant to do the right thing.

So why the disconnect?

Well, it appears that some judges are beginning to take a hard stance against people who just feel like marching to the beat of their own drums, people without any regard for Orders of the Court, or resultant victimization to the other party.

For example, in August, a New Jersey couple was hit with a $543,000 sanction by a Manhattan judge for interfering with their son’s divorce. Justice Ellen Gesmer said that the couple “orchestrated the litigation” between their son and his wife, caused extensive delays, and launched a legal battle designed to “intimidate” their daughter in law.

The parties were married in 2005, and had one child in 2007. Tragically, the husband suffered a brain aneurysm in 2008, rendering him disabled. The wife initially cared for the husband, but was ultimately pushed out of the picture by his parents, who actually took him to a facility and hid him from the wife for several months in 2009.

When the divorce was filed in 2010, the grandparents ran the show on behalf of the son, and directed the son’s lawyers to delay the custody hearing for as long as possible so that they could pursue 50% custody of their grandchild, based upon the pretense that it was on their son’s behalf. By the end of the litigation, the wife’s legal bills were in excess of $928,000.

The judge ultimately found that the parents “willfully interfered with (their granddaughter’s) development of a positive and loving relationship with her father…(and) purposefully engaged in frivolous litigation.”

The judge also came down hard on the father’s lawyers, ruling that they engaged “in frivolous conduct by repeatedly making misrepresentations and knowingly false statements and claims to the court.” She ordered the lawyers to contribute $317,480.67 toward the wife’s legal bills.
The in-laws were ordered to pay, in total, a whopping $543,000.

Back on the other side of the river, in a recent Somerset County case, two opposing litigants were both ordered to perform community service for what the judge found was their willful non-compliance with their marital settlement agreement. The judge also warned them that they were to comply or face the possibility of sanctions.

It appears that judges are “getting real” about compliance. Whether it means the imposition of counsel fees against an overly litigious party or community service, a more clear message is being sent by these judges that non-compliance will not be tolerated.
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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.

How New Jersey’s New Emancipation Statute May Affect Graduate School Contribution

Posted in Child Support, College, Custody, Divorce, Equitable Distribution, Modification, Mulcahey v. Melici, Practice Issues, Property Settlement Agreements

With summer just beginning, many people have visions of swimming pools, beaches and family vacations. Others in New Jersey have visions of Sallie Mae, tuition bills and book fees.

After four years of what has become obligatory college contribution pursuant to the mandates of Newburgh v. Arrigo, many parents in the state are then faced with the daunting possibility of an additional 3-4 (maybe more?) years of opening their wallets and contribute toward the cost of graduate school; sometimes for their 24, 25, 26 or 27 year old children who are not yet considered emancipated pursuant to our current laws. Many times, child support also continues during that period.

45567922 - graduate figure made out of falling sand from dollar sign flowing through hourglass

Indeed, New Jersey courts have recognized that completion of undergraduate education is not the determinative factor for either declaring emancipation or terminating child support. Many times, the determination as to whether child support would continue, and along with it the parents’ obligation to contribute toward the cost of the child’s education, focused largely on the whether the child, is “beyond the sphere of influence and responsibility exercised by a parent and obtains an independent status of his or her own”.

New Jersey is in fact one of the few states in the country that still requires divorced parents to pay for their children’s college educations. Even fewer require contribution toward graduate school. However, New Jersey remained an outlier in that regard.

For example, in the 1979 case of Ross v. Ross, the Chancery Division declared that the parties’ daughter could not be considered emancipated as she was attending law school after obtaining her undergraduate degree.

As recently as 2010 in Mulcahey v. Melici, the Appellate Division upheld a trial court’s determination that a 23 year old child was not emancipation and was entitled to contribution toward her education costs as well as continued child support. Eric Solotoff previously blogged about this case in his post entitled: I Don’t Have to Pay for My Kid’s Graduate School, Do I?

The New Jersey Emancipation Statute, signed into law on January 19, 2016, is set to take effect on February 1, 2017, and may change the way courts view graduate school contribution.

Whereas previously emancipation was a fact specific inquiry focusing on the level of independence of the child, now, child support “shall not extend beyond the date the child reaches 23 years of age.”

Does this mean that the possible obligation to contribute toward a child’s graduate school education is a thing of the past? If emancipation must occur by the age of 23, and the obligation to contribute hinges on the question of whether the child is emancipated, how could a parent be required to contribute to graduate school?

Another interesting question will be whether an agreement to pay for graduate school at the time of the divorce, pre-statute will be enforced.
Recall also the New Jersey Rutgers University professor who was ordered to pay more than $112,000 for his daughter to attend Cornell Law School in 2014 because he had agreed to contribute in his divorce settlement agreement, but failed to place any cap on tuition.

The enforcement of agreements to contribute toward college is extensively addressed in Robert Epstein’s – Appellate Division Addresses Enforceability of Settlement Agreement as to College in New Published Decision – but it will be interesting to see if the same principles are applied when it comes to graduate school.

We will keep you posted as the case law is decided.
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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