Following on the heels of Eric Solotoff’s recent blog entry addressing the use of parenting coordinators, a new published (precedential) decision from the Appellate Division talks about grievances against parenting coordinators, parenting coordinator fees, and the need for a plenary hearing to address such issues. In Segal v. Lynch, the Appellate Division addressed these issues in the context of a long, acrimonious history of events simply regarding the parenting coordinator’s involvement in the highly contentious matter.
Soon after the trial court appointed the parenting coordinator pursuant to the Parenting Coordinator Pilot Program, the plaintiff called for the coordinators removal from the matter because the coordinator had contacted the trial judge to clarify the terms of an order. In response to the plaintiff’s indication that he would file a motion to have her recused, the coordinator pointed plaintiff to the Grievance Procedure outlined in the Pilot Program Guidelines, which required that plaintiff specifically outline his grievances to the coordinator before notifying the trial court. A major issue of contention at both the trial level and on appeal was the parenting coordinator’s indication that she would charge the plaintiff for her time taken to respond to his numerous grievances.
After the grievances could not be resolved, the plaintiff submitted his grievance letter to the trial judge, who issued an Order to Show Cause why the coordinator should not continue in the matter and why plaintiff should not pay the coordinator’s fees owed. The trial judge ultimately found for the coordinator, concluding that the plaintiff’s grievances were without merit and that the coordinator herself had acted "professionally and admirably" under very difficult circumstances.
In reviewing the matter on appeal, the Appellate Division reviewed the history of the Pilot Program, discussing the positive impact of parenting coordinators in helping to resolve various day-to-day parenting issues on the parties and the court calendar. The Court directly quoted from the Guidelines as to the parenting coordinator’s role:
The parenting coordinator’s goal is to aid parties in monitoring the existing parenting plan, reducing misunderstandings, clarifying priorities, exploring possibilities for compromise and developing methods of communication that promote collaboration in parenting. The parenting coordinator’s role is to facilitate decision-making between the parties or make such recommendations, as may be appropriate when the parties are unable to do so. One primary goal of the parenting coordinator is to empower parents to develop and utilize effective parenting skills so that they can resume the parenting and decision-making role without the need for outside intervention. The parenting coordinator should provide guidance and direction to the parties with the primary focus on the best interests of the child by reducing conflict and fostering sound decisions that aid positive child development.
Further, the parenting coordinator, as noted by the Court, cannot modify any Order or Judgment without mutual consent from the parties, as memorialized in a Consent Order. To that end, as referenced in Eric’s recent blog entry, the trial court cannot abdicate its role to the parenting coordinator.
The Grievance Procedure set forth in the Guidelines is also more specifically set forth as follows:
(8) Grievance Procedure — A party having a complaint or grievance shall discuss the matter with the Parenting Coordinator in person in an attempt to resolve it before pursuing it in any other manner. If the issue remains unresolved, the parties shall submit a written letter to the Parenting Coordinator detailing the complaint or grievance, with a copy to the other party, to both attorneys (if any), and to the attorney for the child(ren) if one is in place. The Parenting Coordinator shall within thirty (30) days provide a written response to both parties and the attorneys. The Parenting Coordinator at his/her discretion may schedule a meeting or conference call with the attorneys or with the attorneys and the parties in an effort to resolve the complaint. In situations where the grievance or complaint is not resolved by this process, the dissatisfied party may request a court hearing to make a determination on the issue(s).
The Appellate Division concluded that the Grievance Procedure had been properly followed, but also concluded that there existed a contractual basis (in light of the parenting coordinator’s retainer agreement) for the plaintiff to pay the coordinator’s time for responding to his long list of grievances. To that end, the coordinator’s response served two (2) purposes – 1) it provided a defense to the charges against her, and 2) it constituted a "report" to the trial judge, from which the judge determined the baselessness of plaintiff’s claims. It was, therefore, also, a necessary component of the parenting coordinator’s role to provide such a response for which she could charge fees to prepare. The Appellate Division similarly noted that public policy was advanced by awarding the coordinator’s fees for such work, finding that the inability to charge for such a response to grievances would effectively cripple the parenting coordinator program considering the number of parties dissatisfied with the process.
To that end, the Appellate Division concluded that the plaintiff was not entitled to a plenary hearing under the Pilot Program Guidelines, but that he was limited to merely requesting a hearing. After such a request, it is then up to the trial judge to determine if such a hearing is warranted under a given set of circumstances. In the present case, the trial judge concluded, in the mode of summary judgment (even though it was on the trial court’s Order to Show Cause where summary judgment rules do not apply) that there existed no genuine issue of material fact warranting a hearing. The plaintiff’s act of simply referring to the coordinator as a liar did not justify a hearing.
Similarly, the Appellate Division concluded that the Guidelines also did not call for the holding of a hearing to resolve a pay dispute for fees incurred by the coordinator in performing her standard coordinator services (beyond responding to plaintiff’s grievances). The trial judge was found to not have simply "rubber stamped" the coordinator’s requested amount of fees. Rather, he conducted a searching review of the voluminous submissions before him in concluding that the services performed and amount charged by the coordinator were reasonable, and, as a result, no hearing was necessary.
While a parenting coordinator can serve a highly useful purpose under certain circumstances, this matter conveys how both parties must be willing to cooperate with
the process, and how questioning the coordinator’s role and performance might be a costly price to pay should a party’s grievances not be resolved before a trial court addresses the matter.