On June 28, 2010, the Appellate Division released the unreported (non-precedential) opinion in the case of "O.R. v. H.S."  In this case, the Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s Order, rendered without a plenary hearing and where there were disputed facts, granting the defendant joint legal custody. 

In this case, the parties were never married. While the plaintiff was pregnant with the parties’ child, she obtained a domestic violence final restraining order against the defendant.  Four years had passed and the parties were now in court dealing with emergent custody and parenting time issues.  The defendant’s attorney requested that joint legal custody be ordered and plaintiff’s attorney objected, contradicting defendant’s account of his support of the child and noting defendant’s history of drug use.  Plaintiff also noted the FRO, her fear of the defendant and that defendant presented no proof regarding his relationship with the child.  Notwithstanding, the Court issued an Order granting the parties joint legal custody and designating the plaintiff the parent of primary residence.

Plaintiff appealed and the Appellate Division reversed noting that a decision like this, where there was contradictory information presented, required a plenary (evidentiary) hearing.  The Appellate Division also noted that the parties’ relationship had been strained for year, as noted by the FRO, and that along with the FRO goes a presumption in favor of awarding custody to the non-abusive parent.  In addition, the Court noted that the plaintiff’s fear as well as the defendant’s drug use need to be considered at the hearing. 

This case reminds us of two things.  First, court’s cannot decide major issues without having plenary hearings if there are material facts in dispute.  Second, court’s must be mindful of findings of domestic violence when addressing the issue of custody, including legal custody, considering the statutory presumption of custody favoring the non-abusive parent.  Fundamental to the notion of joint legal custody is the parties’ ability to communicate and cooperate which is why a review of the history of domestic violence is so important.

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