The Supreme Court Lays Out the Procedures for Cases Under the Grandparent Visitation Statute

Major v. Maguire, 224 N.J. 1 (2016).  The Grandparent Visitation Statute, N.J.S.A. 9:2-7.1, permits grandparents to apply for visitation rights with their grandchildren even where the children’s parents object.  In Moriarity v. Bradt, 177 N.J. 84 (2003), the Supreme Court ruled that applications under the Statute to which parents object must be proven “by a preponderance of the evidence that denial of [the] application would result in harm to the child.”  But that ruling on the substantive standards for cases under the Statute did not address the procedures for dealing with such cases.  Today, in an opinion by Justice Patterson, a unanimous Supreme Court announced the procedural parameters that courts are to apply in this context.  The Court affirmed the Appellate Division, which had reversed a Family Part ruling that had granted a threshold motion to dismiss the case.

Justice Patterson exhaustively reviewed prior caselaw regarding the substantive aspects of the Statute, as well as Appellate Division decisions that had addressed the procedures for dealing with such cases.  Noting that the Supreme Court had not previously spoken as to the proper procedures, Justice Patterson proceeded to address a range of issues, including whether and when cases may proceed as summary actions, the scope of discovery and the need to balance the desire for discovery against “the privacy of the child and his or her family,” the appropriateness and scope of expert testimony, and whether and when a case may be terminated by summary judgment or otherwise before trial.  The Court also strongly encouraged mediation or arbitration of these sensitive and emotional cases.

On the particular facts of this case, Justice Patterson made clear that Rule 4:6-2(e), which governs dismissals for failure to state a claim, applies in Family Part actions.  She determined, as had the Appellate Division, that plaintiffs had made a sufficient showing that their case should not have been dismissed at the threshold.  The case was thus remanded for proceedings consistent with the new guidelines announced by the Court.

Every Family Part attorney and litigant will need to absorb the procedures set forth in this decision.  This is the Court’s first opinion of 2016.  The Court has started the year off with a bang.