Given the transient tendencies of today’s society, jurisdictional issues arise quite frequently in divorces, custody matters and requests for financial support. Some examples include, but are not limited to, when one parent resides in another State outside of New Jersey or the child’s home state for custody purposes is in dispute. In fact, my colleagues have previously blogged on jurisdictional issues arising under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Enforcement Act and N.J.S.A. 2A:34-65(a)(2). On March 24, 2022, the Appellate Division approved its opinion in M.A.P. v. E.B.A. for publication.
The issue on appeal was whether the long arm statute of New Jersey’s Uniform Interstate Family Support Act may acquire personal jurisdiction over a nonresident alleged to have fathered a child through a sexual relationship with a New Jersey resident while in New York. In short, the Appellate Division reversed and remanded the trial court’s decision for a dismissal of the action as the nonresident defendant had no relevant contact with New Jersey.
Plaintiff gave birth to the child in April 2020. In her filings, she claims the child was conceived during her brief relationship with the defendant in New York City in or around July 2019. Defendant is an Argentine national. At the time of their brief relationship, the plaintiff was residing in New Jersey and defendant was residing between New York and the District of Columbia. The initial paternity suit was filed against the defendant in the District of Columbia. The defendant did not object to having the suit resolved there, but the plaintiff withdrew her action in September 2020. Upon re-filing her action in New Jersey, the defendant had returned to Argentina indefinitely.
The defendant failed to appear in the New Jersey action, which he later claimed was because of improper service of process. The trial court granted plaintiff’s relief based solely upon her testimony. After a few months, defendant retained counsel for the limited purpose of seeking a dismissal due to lack of jurisdiction over the defendant and insufficient service of process. The trial court, after hearing argument, denied the defendant’s application. Defendant successfully sought the Appellate Division’s leave for an appeal.
Defendant’s positions were as follows: New Jersey lacks personal jurisdiction because “the child does not reside in New Jersey as a result of [his] acts or directives”; defendant “does not maintain sufficient minimum contacts with New Jersey”; and “fair play and substantial justice” militate against bringing him to Court in New Jersey.
Jurisdiction in New Jersey to determine parentage of child is enumerated in seven (7) instances as delineated in N.J.S.A. 2A:4-30.129(a). The Appellate Division immediately determined that five (5) of those instances were inapplicable to the instant matter. The remaining two (2) instances were the subject of the Appellate Division’s opinion.
Personal jurisdiction over a nonresident of New Jersey is permitted when “the child resides in this State as a result of the [nonresident’s] acts or directives” and when “there is any other basis consistent with the constitutions of this State and the United States. These are subsections (5) and (7) of N.J.S.A. 2A:4-30.129(a), respectively.
The trial court concluded that subsection (5) allowed for personal jurisdiction over the defendant, despite his sexual relations with the plaintiff occurring outside of New Jersey. This decision was based upon defendant’s alleged knowledge that the plaintiff was a New Jersey resident at the time of their sexual relations. This was rejected by the Appellate Division as a “far too facile view” that the act required under subsection (5) can be the sexual act that caused conception. In rejecting this view, the Appellate Division highlighted that the legislature could not have intended such a boundless jurisdictional reach. By way of a hypothetical the Appellate Division remarked that if the same facts existed, but the sexual relations occurred in Alaska, the defendant could be compelled to defend a paternity suit in New Jersey simply because he knew the plaintiff was a New Jersey resident. As the Court explained, the legislature could not have possibly meant for this to be the outcome as it does not comport with basic notions of due process.
As the basic principal of legislative interpretation goes, “the express mention of one thing implies the exclusion of another.” Gangemi v. Berry, 25 N.J. 1, 11 (1957). Since that is the case, the interpretation of the trial court relative to subsection (5) would render subsection (6) superfluous. In other words, the Appellate Division held that the erroneous interpretation of subsection (5) would subsume subsection (6), which allows for jurisdiction over a nonresident who has engaged in sexual intercourse with the plaintiff in this State. In short, subsection (5) is intended for a far more limited basis over a nonresident.
As applied to the facts of this case, the Appellate Division held that the necessary “act” under subsection (5) focuses on the conduct of the nonresident father after the child’s birth and not the “act” of conception that occurred prior thereto.
Subsection (7) deals with sufficient minimal contacts with New Jersey. The Appellate Division held that the plaintiff did not provide proofs to establish jurisdiction over the defendant in New Jersey. The trial court chiefly relied upon the sexual relationship in New York as having sufficient contacts in New Jersey. However, the plaintiff argued on the appeal that it was far more than that. The overarching question to consider here is: did the defendant purposefully avail himself of the privilege of conducting activities within New Jersey so that he would have reasonably anticipated being haled into this forum.
In answering this question, the Appellate Division distinguished between contacts with New Jersey relative to the claims asserted by the plaintiff and those which are unrelated to the claims. In other words, specific jurisdiction compared to general jurisdiction. While the defendant resided in New Jersey from 2012 until 2018, he did not meet the plaintiff until 2018 in Virginia. Thereafter, plaintiff moved to New Jersey and defendant moved to New York and shortly after to the District of Columbia. The defendant never resided in New Jersey during the time that the parties knew each other or ever since.
General jurisdiction was not upheld by the Appellate Division. As for specific jurisdiction, it continued to remark that sending letters, text messages, settlement proposals from defendant’s attorney which suggested he travel to New Jersey to have his blood drawn, and occasional visits to New Jersey—were not sufficient to form the sole support of establishing personal jurisdiction. The overarching role of the courts is not to consider the quantity or existence of a single inessential contact, but rather the quality of the relationship defendant has to the forum and litigation. Without more, New Jersey cannot exercise personal jurisdiction over the defendant here.
The takeaway from this is quite simple: if jurisdiction is at issue, the sufficient minimal contacts with the forum State have to quality contacts enough such that the person should reasonably anticipate being haled into the forum State.