Final Custody Determination Requires a Plenary Hearing

A mother who lost custody of her children after she broke windows at their father’s house and set fire to his clothes in the driveway should have received an evidentiary hearing, the Court of Appeals has ruled in S.L. v. J.R., 2016 N.Y. Slip. Op. 04442 (2016).  According to the filings, the mother, identified as S.L., and the father, identified as J.R., were married in 1997 and had two kids together.

In September 2012, after 15 years of marriage, S.L. filed for divorce from J.R., and sought full custody of the children. Also that month, she texted J.R.—who had moved out of the family’s house several months prior—that she would burn down the house and set his clothes on fire.

J.R. arrived at the house to find his clothes burnt in the driveway and windows at the house smashed out.  He filed for temporary sole custody of the children, alleging that he feared for their safety because of incidents involving harassment by S.L. and that she also had extramarital affairs and abused alcohol and drugs.

S.L. admitted to setting fire to J.R.’s wardrobe and her involvement in several other incidents, including a past charge of aggravated assault. In October 2012, the trial ruled that there were “enough red flags” to justify granting temporary sole custody of the children to J.R. In April 2013, S.L.’s visitation was suspended after a therapist determined that it would not be in the best interest of the children to allow visitation to continue until she entered anger management therapy.

A few months later, the trial court granted sole custody to J.R. without having a hearing, writing that a hearing was not necessary because the “allegations are not controverted” and that S.L. was being charged in three pending cases in the Integrated Domestic Violence part. In two of the cases, the judge said, S.L. was charged with breaking orders of protection prohibiting her from contacting J.R. or the children.

S.L. appealed trial court’s ruling, but in 2015, the Appellate Division, Second Department affirmed the lower court in S.L. v. J.R., 126 A.D.3d 682 (2nd Dept. 2015), writing that, while custody decisions are generally only made following a comprehensive evidentiary hearing, no hearing is necessary when the court “possesses adequate relevant information to enable it to make an informed and provident decision as to the child’s best interest,” citing its 2004 ruling in Matter of Hom v. Zullo, 6 A.D3.d 536 (2nd Dept. 2004).

But, on June 9, the Court of Appeals unanimously reversed the Second Department’s decision. The Court wrote that while there should be no “one size fits all” rule mandating a hearing in every custody case, custody decisions should generally be made after a full and plenary hearing. In the case of S.L., there were facts relevant to the best interest analysis that were still in dispute, and the trial court appeared to base its decision on hearsay and on the statements of a forensic investigation whose credibility was not questioned by either party.

While the mother was successful in reversing the trial court’s determination, ultimately, I do not believe that it will make a difference when the case is tried. Given the conduct at issue, it is unlikely that the parties will be able to have a joint custodial arrangement.

Family Court Referees and Their Authority to Hear Cases

Most of the cases in Family Court are decided by Family Court Judges who preside over most Family Court hearings. The Family Court Judges, here in Monroe County and elsewhere in New York State, typically hear child custody, visitation, adoption, juvenile delinquency and other cases. However, here in Monroe County, Court Attorney Referees hear custody, visitation, and order of protection cases. Family Court Attorney Referees are appointed pursuant to the Family Court Act and CPLR.

One of the first things that takes place in a case before a Family Court Attorney Referee is that the parties and their attorneys will be asked if they will agree to the Referee’s jurisdiction to hear and determine the matter. If the parties agree, the Referee will asked them to sign a stipulation confirming their consent. If the parties do not consent, the case is usually removed and heard by the Family Court Judge.

It is critical for the Referee to make sure that the parties consent to his jurisdiction to hear the case. A recent case, Gale v. Gale, 2011 NY Slip Op 06490 (2nd Dept. 2011), demonstrates what happens if the referee fails to obtain that consent. In Gale, the mother filed a petition seeking to modify provisions of the parties’ judgment of divorce. The case was assigned to a Family Court Attorney Referee who heard the case and ultimately modified custody provisions of the judgment of divorce, granting the petitioner sole custody of the children. The father appealed, arguing that the referee lacked jurisdiction to hear the case since the referee had failed to have the parties sign the stipulation or otherwise establish that the parties consented to her jurisidiction. The Appellate Division agreed with the father and reversed.  Specifically, the Appellate Division stated that

Upon review of the record, we find that the parties did not stipulate to a reference in the manner prescribed by CPLR 2104. In any event, there is no indication that there was an order of reference designating the referee who heard and determined the petitions at issue here. Contrary to the mother’s contention, the father did not implicitly consent to the reference merely by participating in the proceeding without expressing his desire to have the matter tried before a judge. Furthermore, a stipulation consenting to a reference to a specified referee, executed by the parties in connection with the father’s previous petition to modify the visitation schedule, expired upon completion of that matter and did not remain in effect for this matter.

Accordingly, the referee had no jurisdiction to consider the father’s petitions related to custody and visitation and the mother’s petition to modify custody, and the referee’s order determining those petitions must be reversed. (citations omitted)

While the parties cannot choose the person who will decide their case, they do not have to agree to the Family Court Attorney Referee to hear and decide it. Sometimes there are reasons to have the case heard by a Family Court Judge, and the parties should consider not agreeing to the referee’s jurisdiction under appropriate circumstances.