Archives: parent coordinator

Whether it is because of busy dockets or the fact that the issues could be hard to decide, especially without a plenary hearing, the use of parent coordinators (PC) began becoming more frequent about 10 years ago.  Sometimes it was by consent but other times, it was foisted upon warring parties whether they wanted it or not.  A new reality of “let the parenting coordinator referee the disputes” became a new reality for many.  In fact, in 2007, the Supreme Court implemented a pilot program for the use of parent coordinators in several counties which had both guidelines and a model order.  The goals were laudatory:

A Parenting Coordinator is a qualified neutral person appointed by the court, or agreed to by the parties, to facilitate the resolution of day to day parenting issues that frequently arise within the context of family life when parents are separated. The court may appoint a Parenting Coordinator at any time during a case involving minor children after a parenting plan has been established when the parties cannot resolve these issues on their own.

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.

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What was clear was the “The Parenting Coordinator may not make any modification to any order, judgment or decree, unless all parties agree and enter into a consent order” though this was often honored in the breach and PCs were vested with far more authority than the law allowed.

The issue that then came up was whether a Parent Coordinator appointed in a non-pilot program county had to follow the Supreme Court Guidelines.  We and others had cases where we objected to what we believed was the PC overstepping their roles and heard both PCs and court’s say that they were not bound to the pilot program guidelines.  The Appellate Division disagreed in Milne v. Goldenberg, a reported decision that we previously blogged on.

In 2012, the pilot program ended, however, the use of parent coordinators was not abolished.  Rather, court’s could still appoint PCs and parties could agree to use them.  Does that mean that a court could simply defer decision making to the PC?  Once again, the answer was a resounding no in the case of Parish v. Kluger, an unreported (non-precedential) decision of the Appellate Division decided on March 17, 2016, which was the latest chapter in the long standing litigation between these parties.  In fact, I was involved in the original reported decision in this matter dealing with similar issues, as we blogged on in 2010.  In that decision, the Appellate Division held that judge’s must decide enforcement motions, noting:

We also emphasize that judicial review of enforcement motions, no matter how time consuming, is essential to discerning which motions pose problems mandating immediate attention and which describe matters that are trivial. If a court finds a motion is based on unsubstantiated allegations; is frivolous, repetitive, or intended to harass the former spouse; is the result of abusive litigation tactics; or is designed to interfere with court operations, the judge has the power to craft appropriate sanctions to curb such manipulations. When the imposition of sanctions fails, injunctive relief may be warranted.

The Court also made clear that parent coordinators could not address enforcement issues nor could they modify parenting plans. Further, a trial court must make decisions on motions and cannot abdicate that responsibility to third parties or experts.

One would think that with this history in this case, that it couldn’t happen again, but it did.  In the 2016 decision, the Appellate Division wrote:

If, as plaintiff claimed, defendant was preventing him from exercising parenting time as per the MSA, then he was entitled to a remedy. If, as defendant claimed, plaintiff failed to exercise his parenting time out of disinterest, then the court’s decision to not alter parenting time was appropriate. The court should have resolved that dispute. When the court’s decision is considered in its entirety, it could be interpreted – as plaintiff has interpreted it – to vest in the parenting coordinator the resolution of the parties’ conflicting positions as to why the MSA parenting plan was not working. The court has no authority to delegate its decision making to a parenting coordinator. Further, a trial court has no authority to require parties to “abide by [the parenting coordinator’s] recommendations.”

That last sentence is important, “…court has no authority to require parties to “abide by [the parenting coordinator’s] recommendations.”  Too often, PC orders would expressly or impliedly give the PC the final say, with the trial court as a rubber stamp and/or requiring the losing party to file a motion so that the PC’s recommendation would not become a de facto Order.

The takeaway from this case is clear.  PC’s don’t make decisions.  Court’s make decisions.  Court’s cannot tell parties to follow a recommendation of a PC in advance, and moreover, even after it is issued, without fully assessing the issues and making independent fact findings.  Given that this is the case, in the real high conflict cases where one of the parties is inevitably going to oppose a PC recommendation and take the issue to court, what is the point of having a PC in the first place?

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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_yeletkeshet’>yeletkeshet / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Earlier this year, we blogged about  of our colleague, Aaron Weems’ post on our firm’s Pennsylvania Family Law Blog, which advised that any recommendations by a parent coordinator would be given a de novo review by a court.  A de novo review means that the Court is taking a completely fresh look at the issue and is not obligated to make or accept the same conclusions, interpretations, or issue the same Order as the prior level did (in this case, the Parent Coordinator); their job is to look at all of the information as though it is brand new to everyone and reach a decision based on the evidence presented.

This week, Aaron posted a piece entitled New Rule: No Parent Coordinators Allowed on that blog.  Aaron advises that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court enacted a new rule that stated:

Only judges may make decisions in child custody cases. Masters and hearing officers may make recommendations to the court. Courts shall not appoint any other individual to make decisions or recommendations or alter a custody order in child custody cases. Any order appointing a parenting coordinator shall be deemed vacated on the date this rule becomes effective (Editor’s Note: May 23, 2013)….

Aaron noted that this ended the quasi-judicial role of parent coordinators.  He also wondered whether this would result in increased enforcement and modification proceedings. 

As I noted when commenting on Aaron’s prior post regarding the de novo review:

Isn’t that was it supposed to happen in NJ? Under the now defunct Parent Coordination Pilot Program which we have blogged on many times in the past, recommendations of a parent coordinator, if accepted, were to immediately become a court order. However, either of both parties objected, either or both could bring the matter to the court for review. That said, it really wasn’t a de novo review because the court would have the recommendation made by the parent coordinator. All too often, thought the judge is not supposed to defer to the parent coordinator, this is exactly what happened, 

So bravo to Pennsylvania for requiring a true de novo review, where judicial authority is not abdicated to a third party and evidence is actually considered. On the other hand, a malevolent party will object to every recommendation, totally vitiating the purpose of a parent coordinator in the first place, and causing the other party to incur fees, first for the parent coordination and then for the inevitable subsequent litigation.

As I blogged previously, New Jersey, while ending the pilot program, does not preclude the appointment of parent coordinators.  If courts defer blindly to the recommendations of parent coordinators, without thoroughly reviewing the issues, will New Jersey be next to totally bar their use? 

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Eric 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 practices in Fox Rothschild’s Roseland, New Jersey office though he practices throughout New Jersey. You can reach Eric at (973)994-7501, or esolotoff@foxrothschild.com.

Aaron Weems is an attorney in our Blue Bell (Montgomery County), Pennsylvania office and editor of the firm’s Pennsylvania Family Law Blog wrote an excellent post entitled "Trial Court Must Conduct De Novo Hearings on Parent Coordination Appeals."  As Aaron notes:

 A de novo review means that the Court is taking a completely fresh look at the issue and is not obligated to make or accept the same conclusions, interpretations, or issue the same Order as the prior level did (in this case, the Parent Coordinator); their job is to look at all of the information as though it is brand new to everyone and reach a decision based on the evidence presented.

Isn’t that was it supposed to happen in NJ?  Under the now defunct Parent Coordination Pilot Program which we have blogged on many times in the past, recommendations of a parent coordinator, if accepted, were to immediately become a court order. However, either of both parties objected, either or both could bring the matter to the court for review.  That said, it really wasn’t a de novo review because the court would have the recommendation made by the parent coordinator.  All too often, thought the judge is not supposed to defer to the parent coordinator, this is exactly what happened. 

So bravo to Pennsylvania for requiring a true de novo review, where judicial authority is not abdicated to a third party and evidence is actually considered.  On the other hand, a malevolent party will object to every recommendation, totally vitiating the purpose of a parent coordinator in the first place, and causing the other party to incur fees, first for the parent coordination and then for the inevitable subsequent litigation.

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Eric 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 practices in Fox Rothschild’s Roseland, New Jersey office though he practices throughout New Jersey. You can reach Eric at (973)994-7501, or esolotoff@foxrothschild.com.

Yesterday, Judge Grant, the Acting Administrative Director of the Courts, announced that effective November 26, 2012, the Parenting Coordinator Pilot Program would be ending. The notice further provides that judges may still appoint parenting coordinators (PCs) and even provides model, but not mandatory, Orders for the their appointment. 

To those who oppose the use parenting coordinators, they may see this announcement as a victory of sorts.  However, I would not start jumping for joy, right away.  The good thing about the pilot program is that there were at least published guidelines approved by the New Jersey Supreme Court that could be followed.  In fact, as I wrote on this blog in September of this year we learned from the Milne v. Goldenberg reported decision that even in non-pilot program counties, if a PC was appointed, the Pilot Program guidelines had to be followed.  Query how this provision of the Milne case jibes with the above announcement but only time will tell.

If the Guidelines don’t apply, are we going to return to a wild west environment like we had before the Guidelines?  In fact, I blogged about the pre-Guidelines madness all the way back in 2008.  As I noted then, over the years, judges began to make numerous appointments to attempt to, if not rid the courts, at least create a buffer for parenting and visitation issues that arose daily/weekly/monthly in high conflict divorce and post-divorce matters. Sometimes the professional was called a parent coordinator, other times it was a therapeutic monitor, a mediator, a parenting coach, etc. The role was generally the same, that is, to present these issues to a neutral third party that had either a legal or mental health background, or both, to assist the parties work out the differences and in many instances, make recommendations if they could not. 

The problem was that there was no uniformity to what this person, whatever they were called, could do.  Even Pre-Milne but post-Guidelines, I had cases where parent coordinators in non-Pilot Program counties were vested with incredible powers bordering on, if not crossing the line of the abdication of judicial authority, which is not supposed to happen.

Only time will tell whether the role of parent coordinator will go the way of the dinosaurs or go back to the free for all that existed pre-Guidelines.  Until then, we watch and hope that the dissolution of the Guidelines will not make things worse, instead of better.

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Eric 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 practices in Fox Rothschild’s Roseland, New Jersey office though he practices throughout New Jersey. You can reach Eric at (973)994-7501, or esolotoff@foxrothschild.com.

An issue that has vexed us in the past is whether the rules enacted by the Supreme Court regarding parent coordinators were to be applied to all parent coordinators appointed by the Court.  In 2006, the New Jersey Supreme Court implemented a pilot program in four vicinages (Bergen, Morris/Sussex, Union and Middlesex) for parenting coordinators.  The link above provides the Supreme Court mandated guidelines and procedures which have also been discussed on this blog previously.

The problem arose when a parenting coordinator was appointed outside of one of those vicinages.  To my chagrin, I have heard judges state and lawyers argue that since their vicinage was outside of the pilot program, they did not have to follow the guidelines.  This was often in the context of a court improperly vesting a parent coordinator with authority which approached or could be argued to be an abdication of the judicial role. 

Finally, we have an answer to this question in the reported (precedential) case of Milne v. Goldenberg decided on September 12, 2012.  The case seems like a never ending, "war of the roses" type custody battle and also has some interesting discussion regarding the role of a Guardian ad Litem and procedures related thereto.  That said, the parent coordinate issue was addressed because the court appointed an attorney who was not on the court approved, pilot program parenting coordinator list. 

Continue Reading Finally an Answer to the Question about whether the Supreme Court Guidelines Apply to Parent Coordinators appointed in Counties Outside of the Pilot Program

One of the hardest questions to answer for a client is why a Court doesn’t enforce their own Orders.  The next hardest questions to answer are if they found the other side in violation of litigant’s rights, (1) why weren’t there any real consequences for the violation of the order and (2) why didn’t I get counsel fees.  The Court Rules suggest that a litigant is entitled to counsel fees if they are required to come to court to enforce an Order.  In addition, the court rules in the family part also include numerous provisions, including the imposition of monetary sanctions and counsel fees, for violation of a parenting time (visitation) Order. 

As such, it was interesting to see the unreported decision in the case of Friedman v. Friedman decided on March 7, 2011 wherein an awarded of sanctions for violating a parenting time order was affirmed by the Appellate Division.  In this case, the father asserted that the mother violated the parties’ parenting schedule when she "signed both children out of school and drove them to [Virginia]." As a result, the father sought sanctions against the mother "for making unilateral changes" to the parenting schedule "and for failing to cooperate with the recommendations of the Parenting coordinator."  The trial judge found that  the mother violated the parties’ parenting schedule and the recommendations of the parent coordinator by extending "the children’s time with her, in Virginia."  As a result, the mother was ordered ordered to pay the father $500.00 as a sanction plus reimburse him for his costs to file and serve the motion.  The decision was based upon the court’s finding that the mother had a history of failing to cooperate with the plaintiff.  In addition, the mother’s request to relieve the current parent coordinator was denied.

Continue Reading Sanctions Actually Granted for Interference with Parenting Time

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.

Continue Reading NEW APPELLATE DIVISION DECISION REGARDING PARENTING COORDINATOR GRIEVANCES AND FEES

Mark Ashton, a partner in our Exton, Pennsylvania office, and a contributor the firm’s Pennsylvania Family Law blog, wrote an interesting post on that blog entitled "Is Parent Coordination for You?"

Parent Coordinators in New Jersey are nothing new and have been an arrow in the quiver of judges for years to address high conflict divorce cases. I have blogged about the use of parent coordinators and the use of other professionals to assist with custody and parenting issues in high conflict divorces before and they prove a use way to avoid litigation for issues that either require an immediate resolution and/or for issues that require some other way to address the complexities.  I recently had a parent coordinate involved overseeing things in a case where there were some serious mental health issues as to one of the parents, as well as medical issues related to a child.  The parent coordinator was able to gather and distill information and make recommendations.

Parent coordination is not a panacea and not a replacement for a judge.  Judges cannot abdicate their judicial decision making duty nor can they send enforcement issues to a PC.  In fact, that was something that the Appellate Division reiterated in my case of Parish v. Parish which was a reported decision (which we previously blogged about.)

In any event, Mark’s blog gives us another perspective of the types of issues you might want to use a PC for and some of the upsides and downsides of doing so.

In today’s New York Post there was an article about a Long Island woman getting jail time for her repeated interference with her ex-husband’s time with the parties’ children.

The article describes how the woman tried to keep the father and his daughters apart for weeks at a time and that she even falsely alleged that he groped one of his daughters.  The story goes on to say how the mother went on expletive filled tirades about the father in front of the children.  Further, she often scheduled last minute trips and events meant to frustrate parenting time.  The father was forced to either consent to not disappoint the girls and when he did not, she would berate him.  The judges stated that she. "… is a vengeful roadblock, the barbed wire standing in the way of her two daughters and their desperate dad."

All of the above acts are very typical acts of parental alienation.  In the past we have blogged about programs dealing with parental alienation and the fact that there is some consideration to adding parental alienation as a diagnosis to the next DSM.  Parental alienation syndrome is a very polarizing term because the person who coined the phrase, Dr. Richard Gardner, was self-published and the scientific bases to his conclusions were questioned.   His proposed remedies to alienation were also severe and there were a few notorious cases where his recommendations were followed by tragic results.  On the other hand, there is more and more research about parental alienation and its insidious effects.  The alleged conduct of the mother above contains some classic alienating behavior.

But what is the remedy.  We have recently blogged that the NJ Appellate Division rejected tort damages for emotional distress as a remedy. in most cases.  There are criminal statutes to prevent interference with custody orders but, anecdotally, they rarely seem to be used.  Similarly, there are court rules allowing for sanctions for interference with parenting time.  However, all too often, this becomes a he said/she said situation and court’s rarely hold hearings to get to the bottom of this much less impose sanctions.  In fact, often this kind of conduct results in the appointment of a parent coordinator, often adding another level of costs even though the Appellate Division, the the recent reported case Parish v. Parish (which was my case) has made clear that parent coordinators should not be dealing with enforcement issues. 

While jail is a drastic remedy and probably not appropriate in all cases, it is refreshing to see that a judge got tough with repeated custodial interference.  Perhaps this will serve as a deterrent to others, but probably not because many people who do this feel justified and/or believe that they are protecting their children.  We can only hope. 

On February 3, 2010, the Appellate Division issued a reported (precedential) opinion in the case of Parish v. Parish.  This case is near and dear to me because I represent Mr. Parish and we made new law. 

In this post-judgment litigation we filed a motion seeking enforcement of the parties’ divorce agreement because the ex-wife interfered with his parenting time with the children and to fix a parenting schedule for the next several months. The schedule was supposed to be arrived at with the assistance of a parenting coordinator but the issuance of a domestic violence temporary restraining order against Mr. Parish’s ex-wife delayed that process. After the restraining order was dismissed, the parties went to the parent coordinator who made recommendations prior to the return date of the motion. Mr. Parish agreed with them – he ex-wife would not state if she agreed or not, waiting to see what the court would do.

The trial court denied Mr. Parish’s motion as moot, ordered the parties back to the parent coordinator to deal with the issues in the motion and required that the parties attend settlement conferences before filing any future motions, even enforcement motions.

We appealed arguing that (1) the trial court unconstitutionally impaired Mr. Parish’s access to the Court and (2) the court improperly abdicated its responsibility to a parent coordinator who cannot, by Supreme Court directive, address enforcement issues in any event.

The Appellate Division agreed in a 2-1 decision. In doing so, they crafted new requirements before a family part litigant’s access to the Court can be restricted.

Continue Reading APPELLATE DIVISION CREATES NEW PROCEDURE LIMITING JUDGE'S ABILITY TO RESTRICT A LITIGANT'S ACCESS TO THE FAMILY COURT