The “Fugitive Disentitlement Doctrine”: An Anniversary

;On this date in 2002, the Supreme Court decided Matsumoto v. Matsumoto, 171 N.J. 110 (2002). By a 5-2 vote (majority opinion by Justice Long; dissent by Justice Verniero, joined by Justice Coleman), the Court for the first time held that the “fugitive disentitlement doctrine,” which had been developed in the context of criminal cases, applied in civil matters as well.

As Justice Long described it, the fugitive disentitlement doctrine “is an instrument for the effectuation of justice through the enforcement of the court’s orders against those who have evaded them by fleeing either physically or constructively.” Based on “the inherent power of courts to enforce their judgments and protect their dignity,” the doctrine “provides that a fugitive from justice may not seek relief from the judicial system whose authority he or she evades.”

This case arose out of a deteriorating marriage relationship. The parties and their son lived in New Jersey in a home that the husband’s mother, who lived in Japan, owned. The parties also were “essentially supported” by the husband’s mother.

After the parties and their son had flown to Japan to attend a ceremony commemorating the death of the wife’s father, the son remained in Japan with his grandmother and the parties returned to the United States on separate airline flights. The husband liquidated the couple’s bank accounts, sold their cars, had all their furniture shipped to Japan, and told the son’s school that he would not be returning there. His mother allegedly changed the locks on the New Jersey home and ordered the removal of the wife’s personal belongings from the house.

The wife sued for custody, separate maintenance, and an order to show cause, naming both the husband and his mother. She was awarded sole temporary custody of the son and sole possession of the New Jersey home. The husband and his mother were ordered to return the son within 48 hours. The husband was ordered to account for all personalty that he had removed from New Jersey and was enjoined from dissipating assets.

When the husband and his mother failed to comply with that order, a new order to show cause, with the threat of arrests, issued. They ignored that order too, and sanctions and criminal indictments followed. The husband his mother failed to appear for arraignment, and bench warrants were issued. Ultimately, a judgment of divorce was entered, the wife was awarded full custody of the son, ownership of the home, nearly $1 million in assets, alimony, child support, compensatory and punitive damages, and attorneys’ fees.

The husband and his mother appealed. The Appellate Division held that “because the trial court had jurisdiction over both defendants, their refusal to respond to the warrants, return to the State and litigate here prevent[ed the Appellate Division’s] consideration of their respective appeals,” invoking the fugitive disentitlement doctrine. The Supreme Court granted review on the issue of whether the doctrine could be extended to civil cases. The Court affirmed the Appellate Division’s ruling, as modified.

In an exhaustive and scholarly opinion, Justice Long traced the origin and evolution of the fugitive disentitlement doctrine. Originating in the criminal context, the doctrine expanded to “a case in which a criminal fugitive sought not to challenge the criminal charges pending against him, but to contest a related civil matter,” Degen v. United States, 517 U.S. 820 (1996). Degen “spawned a sub-set of fugitive disentitlement cases arising purely in a civil setting,” and Justice Long cited a number of federal and state rulings in that regard.

The majority had “no hesitation” in expanding the doctrine to civil cases “in light of the great weight of well-reasoned federal and state authority on the subject and our prior adherence to the doctrine in criminal cases.” The Court viewed that result as “a natural progression of the law.” Justice Long announced a test that included that “the 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.”

The Court found those criteria satisfied in this case. But the Court modified the Appellate Division’s order in certain respects. The husband was allowed to appeal the child custody decision and the support award upon the posting of security required by the Court. His mother would be allowed to appeal the award of the New Jersey house to the wife, again conditioned on posting security. If either the husband or his mother failed to provide the security, the appeal by that party or parties would remain dismissed.

The fugitive disentitlement doctrine remains viable in New Jersey, in civil and criminal cases. This was a landmark decision that brought New Jersey in line with other jurisdictions.