Although most people are familiar with the concept of “due process” in the criminal context, we sometimes forget that due process also extends to civil litigation. “Due process” is basically the opportunity to be heard at a “meaningful time and in a meaningful manner”.
Typically, whenever a litigant is seeking relief from the Court, a motion must be filed, stating the time and place when it will be presented to the Court, the grounds upon which it is made and the relief sought. Although litigants may also seek emergent relief, notice must still be provided to the other party. While the notice requirement is not wholly inflexible, it may only be waived in circumstances where it can be shown that immediate and irreparable damage will likely result to the moving party before notice can be served/informally given and a hearing had thereon.
A common example of this in the matrimonial context is when a litigant is seeking to ask the Court to freeze assets because of a fear that the other side may liquidate or abscond with marital assets. Obviously, if the other side were first notified of this request, they would have the opportunity to do just that: liquidate or abscond with the assets. Thus, in very limited circumstances, the notice requirement will be waived, however, only a temporary order would issue and the other side would then be given the ability to immediately be heard by the Court as to why the relief sought should be ultimately granted moving forward.
In the recent published (precedential) case In the Matter of the Adoption of a Child by M.E.B. and K.N., the Appellate Division gave us a primer on the bounds of due process in a civil context. A short summary of the facts are as follows: The paternal grandparents of a child filed a Verified Complaint for Adoption after what they describe as a “verbal and implied consent of the child’s birth parents, who refused to contribute to or provide for the needs of the child”, essentially abandoning the child to their care.
Once the Complaint was filed, a preliminary order was issued for a hearing and the child was temporarily placed in the paternal grandparents care. Upon receiving this order, the child’s mother, filed an ex parte (i.e., without notice to the grandparents) Order to Show Cause refuting the allegations of abandonment asserting that she never relinquished her parental obligations. The child’s father also supported the return of the child to the mother’s care and for his parents to be restrained from further contact of the mother and the child.
The Court held the hearing on the mother’s application ex parte, again, without the paternal grandparents having notice of the hearing or a chance to be heard. The Court ultimately found that the paternal grandparents lacked standing and dismissed their Complaint for adoption with prejudice. The plaintiffs’ appealed the dismissal of their Complaint given the lack of opportunity to be heard prior to their Complaint being dismissed.
In recognition of a litigant’s right to due process, the Appellate Division reversed and remanded this matter for further proceedings finding,
It is one thing to schedule ex parte review of an application initiated by an order to show cause that also seeks temporary restraints; it is quite another to terminate the litigation on an ex parte basis. If a party demonstrates the need for ex parte relief, the judge considers the matter on the record and, upon a specific finding that immediate and irreparable harm would result were notice given, could issue an order to show cause. The adverse party must then be given an opportunity to be heard, including the chance to show injunctive relief was inappropriate or improvidently granted.
The Appellate Division found that the grandparents were not served with the mother’s pleadings and were not informed that a hearing would be held. Although, as noted above, there are situations in which it can be found that immediate and irreparable harm would occur if notice was given prior to the hearing, no such finding was made and could not be inferred from the record on appeal.
When an injunction is requested, the proceeding to consider the order to show cause with restraints must be on the record, requisite findings supporting relief must be made, and the adverse party must be given an opportunity to be heard on the scheduled return date. Even when restraints are not entered, the adverse party must be given the opportunity to respond to the entry of an order to show cause.
The takeaway from this case is that if you find that an Order has been entered in your case without notice to you and the opportunity to be heard, you should immediately consult with experienced counsel to determine the validity of that order and whether it can be ultimately challenged.
Lauren K. Beaver is a contributor to the New Jersey Family Law Blog and an attorney in Fox Rothschild LLP’s Family Law Practice Group. Lauren practices out of the firm’s Princeton, New Jersey office representing clients on issues relating to divorce, support, equitable distribution, custody, and parenting time. Lauren also offers mediation services to those looking to procure a more amicable divorce. Lauren can be reached at (609) 844-3027 or firstname.lastname@example.org.