New Jersey Appellate Division Applies the Fugitive Disentitlement Doctrine to Family Law Case Involving Custody

Earlier this month, the New Jersey Appellate Division took up the issue of whether or not a litigant living as a fugitive outside the United States has standing to challenge a default judgment entered by the trial relating to custody and support. The case of Yvietta Matison v. Mark Lisantary, involved an appeal by the father from the trial court’s June 20, 2014 order denying his motion to vacate a May 1, 2013 default judgment, which awarded the mother palimony and custody of the couple’s twin children, who were born in 2004. The court based its ruling on the facts submitted by the mother because the father did not participate in the litigation. According to the mother, “Before she came to the United States in March 2006, the father purchased a home valued at approximately $1.9 million in Franklin Lakes and paid for substantial renovations to the home. He also provided a nanny, interior decorator and secretary. During this time, [ the father] returned to Europe to conduct business and [the mothejudger] remained in the Franklin Lakes home with the children and the nanny. He subsequently sold the property, and plaintiff and the children moved to Tenafly where the children were enrolled in private school. [The father] continued to provide support to plaintiff from abroad.

The mother took legal action against the father in 2012, after he stopped supporting his children and she obtained a court order for child support. The court’s order also provided for a bench warrant to be issued for the father’s arrest which stated that it “shall remain outstanding until he satisfies his support arrears and complies with the other terms of this Order.” The father never returned from Russia and after his numerous adjournments, trial was finally scheduled on December 4, 2012; the father was a no show. He also fired his attorney around this same time. The court entered a default against father and held a four-day hearing on plaintiff’s claims for relief. After the hearing, the trial court entered a default judgment and the father moved to vacate the default judgment just one day prior to the one-year limit afforded under the court rules. Father’s motion was denied and he filed the appeal. The Appellate Court denied the father’s appeal by applying the rarely utilized fugitive disentitlement doctrine. The court reasoned: “[w]hile [father] initially submitted himself to New Jersey’s jurisdiction by filing for relief here, after the warrant was issued he left the country and became a fugitive. The child support bench warrant first issued in 2012 remains outstanding against him.” The court noted that the fugitive disentitlement doctrine barred the father from seeking relief in the New Jersey system, whose authority he is currently evading. The Court pointed out that the doctrine is applicable to both civil and criminal cases and cited the opinion of the prolific retired Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, Virginia Long, in the case of Matsumoto v. Matsumoto, 171 N.J. 110, 120, 792 A.2d 1222 (2002).  In Matsumoto, Justice Long set forth the standards for application of the doctrine:

[T]he party against whom the doctrine is to be invoked must be a fugitive in a civil or criminal proceeding; his or her fugitive status must have a significant connection to the issue with respect to which the doctrine is sought to be invoked; invocation of the doctrine must be necessary to enforce the judgment of the court or to avoid prejudice to the other party caused by the adversary’s fugitive status; and invocation of the doctrine cannot be an excessive response. Id. at 129, 792 A.2d 1222.

The Appellate Division went on to state “that the fugitive disentitlement doctrine is not to be imposed as a punishment, but as an invocation of the court’s inherent power to enforce its orders ‘against those who have evaded them by fleeing either physically or constructively.’” Id. at 135, 792 A.2d 1222. The court also rejected the father’s argument that the doctrine should not bar him from being heard on the issue of custody.  In doing so the court pointed out that the trial court had afforded him certain custodial rights that he wasn’t exercising because of his choice to remain a fugitive overseas. In doing so the court concluded: “We decline to afford him the protection of the court while he flaunts the court’s authority from overseas.”