The Fugitive Disentitlement Doctrine

Matison v. Lisnyansky, 443 N.J. Super. 549 (App. Div. 2016).  This opinion by Judge Koblitz today, which dismisses the appeal, is one of the shortest published Appellate Division decision that I can recall.  That is because no lengthy discussion was necessary in this palimony and child support case.

Defendant appealed a default judgment against him that had awarded plaintiff palimony and custody of the couple’s twin children.  A warrant for defendant’s arrest for failure to pay child support had previously been issued.  Seeking to evade the warrant, defendant decamped to Russia.  He remains a fugitive outside the United States.

The fugitive disentitlement doctrine, an issue that neither party raised but on which the Appellate Division called for briefing, “bars a fugitive from seeking relief in the judicial system whose authority he or she evades.  Matusmoto v. Matsumoto, 171 N.J. 110, 120 (2002).”  The 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 either physically or constructively.”

Judge Koblitz recognized that the doctrine “is not generally consistent with the best interest of the child.”  But she found that the circumstances here did not warrant “afford[ing defendant] the protection of the court while he [flouts] the court’s authority from overseas.”  Defendant had been “afforded contact with his children by way of continued ‘supervised parenting time to be arranged as between the parties.’  Defendant offers no custodial alternative, nor did he complain about custody throughout the litigation– waiting until the last possible date to file a motion to vacate default judgment.  He may always reopen the issue of custody should he be in a position to offer his children a viable custodial alternative.”  Thus, the panel did not relieve defendant of the effect of the fugitive disentitlement doctrine, which though rooted in the criminal law also seems to have strong equitable justifications.  Instead, the Appellate Division rightly dismissed the appeal.

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