Most attorneys who practice family law agree that the FD docket is the “Wild West” of the Court; as it is a place where things like Rules of Court, deadlines, and civil procedure are regularly ignored by litigants, court staff, adversaries, and judges. The regularly-occurring debauchery that takes place in the FD division often goes unchecked, as the litigants tend to have less resources than the litigants moving through the FM docket, and as such, do not have the funds to attempt to take corrective actions such as filing motions for reconsideration or appeals.
However, the Appellate Division recently reversed and remanded a trial court judge’s decision in an FD case which the judge transferred custody and set a parenting time schedule after mishandling the case in at least five major ways. First, the Plaintiff’s attorney requested that, due to the gravity of the requested relief (a change in custody) that the matter be placed on a complex discovery schedule. The judge rebuffed the attorney’s request by stating that “it’s an FD matter . . . . it’s not a divorce.” The judge steadfastly held onto his completely baseless reasoning for denying discovery even when the attorney cited a Court Rule to support the request. Second, the attorney attempted to speak on behalf of their client later in the proceedings, the judge silenced the attorney by stating “I’m asking [Plaintiff,] not you.” Third, the judge did not allow the parties to cross-examine each other, even though they made wildly conflicting accusations about each other in their written submissions. Fourth, the judge did not give the litigants the opportunity to call any witnesses, including Plaintiff’s mother, who had regularly provided childcare and who the parties sharply disagreed on her continued ability to do so. Fifth, the judge failed to make fact-findings and failed to make his decision based upon the custody factors outlined in N.J.S.A. 9:2-4(c).
The judge simply stated “here is what I am going to do…” before entering an order wherein he changed custody of the parties’ 4 year old child and set a parenting time schedule that he made up on his own. The judge made no attempt to outline the statutory factors or explain his reasoning for the drastic change he was effectuating. In addition to the five egregious mistakes, the Appellate Division remarked that the judge made several other mistakes, including not requiring the parties to attend mediation as per Court Rule, not requiring the parties to submit proposed parenting time plans as per Court Rule, and not holding a plenary hearing (which surely would have alleviated several of the larger issues that ultimately resulted in the judge’s inept decision.)
The Appellate Division found the trial court judge’s actions and decision to be so wrong that they reversed the judge’s order remanded the case back to the trial court with instruction to assign the case to a different judge.