Check censoredFinding statements made by a father on the memo portion of three child support checks offensive, the Appellate Division, Second Department, found that such violated the mother’s order of protection.

Doing so in its February 3, 2016 decision in Clovis v. Clovis, the Second Department reversed the order of Orange County Family Court Judge Andrew P. Bivona that had dismissed the mother’s petition.

The mother had alleged that the father violated her order of protection by communicating with her by mail. Specifically, instead of making his child support payments through alternate means, the father knowingly and intentionally mailed to her seven checks for child support and that, on three of the checks, he had written offensive remarks in the memo portion. After a hearing, Judge Bivona stated that the memos on three checks “may be offensive,” yet, without explanation, found that the memos did not constitute a violation of the order of protection.

Reversing, the Second Department found that the mother had established by a fair preponderance of the evidence that the father, by mailing the child support checks, willfully violated the order of protection, which expressly prohibited any form of communication by the father with the mother, including the use of mail. The father admitted at the hearing that he had communicated with the mother by mail, despite being aware that the order of protection prohibited such communication. Moreover, under the circumstances of this case and the history between the parties, the statements in the memo portion of the three checks were offensive.

Kelli M. O’Brien, of Goshen, represented the mother. Richard N. Lentino, of Middletown, represented the father. William E. Horwitz, of Ardsley-on-Hudson, served as attorney for the child.

What is the “good cause” needed to extend a Family Court Order of Protection nearing its expiration? In its January 20, 2016 decision in Molloy v. Molloy, the Second Department, answered that question.

The parties were married in May 2002, and are the parents of one child. In February 2010, the wife filed a family offense petition against the husband and, following a finding that the husband had committed certain family offenses, obtained a two-year stay-away order of protection in favor of the wife and the parties’ child.

As the expiration date of the order of protection approached, the wife moved to extend it for five years, arguing that there was “good cause” for the extension, citing Family Court Act §842.

In her supporting affidavit, the wife alleged that the husband had violated the order of protection by, for example, showing up at her apartment and banging on the door, and driving his vehicle too closely to the wife, a wheelchair user, while she was on her way to a police station for a custody exchange. Fearing for her safety, she reported some of these incidents to the police. She alleged that he had recently been arrested for violating the order of protection, and that the case was pending in the Criminal Court of the City of New York, Queens County. The wife also claimed that the husband’s girlfriend warned her that the husband said that when the wife’s order of protection expired he would return to her residence, and he threatened to kill her.

The wife also noted that because she and the husband have a child in common they have to frequently interact regarding the child’s visitation. The wife claimed that the husband’s conduct during the course of their interactions over the past several years had so terrified her that she carried a panic alarm whenever she left her home. She feared that once the order of protection expired the husband would begin harassing her again and might harm or kill her.

Continue Reading Extending the Order of Protection: Defining “Good Cause”

In its February 14, 2013 decision in Melody M. v Robert M., the Third Department affirmed an order of now-retired St. Lawrence County Family Court Judge Barbara R. Potter which modified a prior joint custody order to award the father sole custody of the parties’ three children (ages 8, 9 and 12). The Third Department also affirmed Judge Potter’s imposition of an order of protection against the mother that prohibited her from, among other things, posting any communications to or about the children on any social network site.

The parties had entered into a separation agreement in 2006 providing for joint custody of their children with alternating physical placement. In February 2009, they stipulated to continue joint custody, but with the father having primary physical custody. In July 2010, the mother commenced the first of the four proceedings determined by Judge Potter’s order, seeking to alter her parenting time so that she would have the two youngest children from Wednesday to Sunday of each week and the oldest child from Sunday to Tuesday of each week. The father opposed the proposed schedule change, filed violation petitions and filed a modification petition seeking, among other things, sole legal custody of the children.

After a hearing, Judge Potter found a change in circumstances sufficient to conclude that the joint custody arrangement was no longer viable and that an award of sole legal custody to the father would be in the best interests of the children.

Continue Reading Mom Ordered to Stop Posting about Her Children on Facebook

Pinocchio female.jpgLast month, recognizing Domestic Violence Month, we reviewed the Second Department decision in Costigan v. Renner  which affirmed the granting of custody to a father because of domestic violence by the mother.  Indeed, since 1996, consideration of domestic violence has been mandated in custody and visitation cases.  Section 240(1) of the Domestic Relations Law provides in part:

Where either party to an action concerning custody of or a right to visitation with a child alleges in a sworn petition or complaint or sworn answer, cross-petition, counterclaim or other sworn responsive pleading that the other party has committed an act of domestic violence against the party making the allegation or a family or household member of either party, as such family or household member is defined in article eight of the family court act, and such allegations are proven by a preponderance of the evidence, the court must consider the effect of such domestic violence upon the best interests of the child, together with such other facts and circumstances as the court deems relevant in making a direction pursuant to this section and state on the record how such findings, facts and circumstances factored into the direction.

Two recent decisions suggest that the Legislature should also give weight to the making of false allegations of domestic violence.

In Williams, the Third Department on November 4, 2010 affirmed a Broome County award of sole custody to the father of a 9-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son where the mother’s allegations of domestic violence were discredited.

Similarly, on October 21, 2010, in Jeker, the Third Department affirmed a modification of a prior joint custody award and granted sole custody to the father, substantially on the basis of the mother’s elaborate plan to falsely accuse the father of physical assaults upon her.  The record was devoid of evidence to support the mother’s claims of abuse; rather the evidence demonstrated that she had lied under oath.

Indeed, in 2008, the Second Department in Mohen recognized the substantial effects that false allegations of spousal violence may have on parenting.  The court noted:

[E]vidence of false allegations of physical abuse which interfere with parental rights, is so inconsistent with the best interests of the child that it raises, by itself, a strong probability that the offending party is unfit to act as a custodial parent.

In Mohen, the court reversed an order of custody to the mother where the mother had made numerous false charges against the father, including four accusations of physical abuse by the father against the mother. The court specifically noted that as a result of the accusations, a temporary order of protection was issued against the father that prevented contact between the father and the child for approximately one month.

In Maine, the custody statutes recognize that such willful misuse of court remedies to gain tactical advantages may tend to show a lessened ability and willingness of the accusing parent to cooperate and work with the other parent in shared responsibilities for the children.  Accordingly such misuse of the courts is to be considered by the court in making a custodial award.

The seriousness of spousal abuse, and domestic violence in general, cannot be understated.  Breaking the inter-generational cycle of abuse and protecting children from exposure to violence is a vital goal of the judicial process.  However, numbing true claims of domestic of violence by tolerating false claims without sanction does a substantial disservice to all victims of domestic violence.  Without giving equal consideration in custody matters to the making false claims simply invites a race to Family Court and calls to the police.  D.R.L. §240(1) should be amended to emphasize the damage to the family and the judicial process caused by willful false accusations.