Error to Decide Custody Without Forensic Report Where Conflicting Testimony Regarding Parties Conduct, and Evidence Suggesting Children Exhibiting Behavioral Problems
In Ekstra v Ekstra, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2008 WL 669895 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept.) Supreme Court appointed psychologist Lobel as a neutral forensic expert to conduct evaluations and submit a written forensic report on the custody issue. The appointment order provided that "[t]he neutral forensic evaluator's final report shall be admitted as evidence-in-chief without the necessity for independent foundation testimony or evidence, pursuant to 22 NYCRR 202.16(g)." The order further provided that "[a]ny party who wishes to cross-examine the neutral [forensic] evaluator, as permitted by the Uniform Rules, shall bear the cost of the neutral [forensic] evaluator's services in preparing such testimony, travel and testifying unless the Court directs otherwise." After Dr. Lobel's report was submitted, the father's counsel expressed an intention to cross-examine him and asked the court whether the father would be required to bear the costs of his appearance. The court responded that the father would not be required to bear that expense, but made no other provision for payment. As a consequence of not receiving his fee, Lobel did not appear, and the court granted the father's application to preclude the forensic report. Relying largely on its evaluation of the credibility of the witnesses, the court awarded sole custody of the parties' two children to the father. The Appellate Division reversed. It held that the in light of the sharply conflicting testimony regarding the conduct of the parties, and evidence suggesting that the children were exhibiting behavioral problems, the court should not have rendered a custody determination without first receiving the report of the neutral forensic expert it had appointed. Moreover, inasmuch as the father had the right to cross-examine the expert (see 22 NYCRR 202.16[g] ), and the expert could not have been compelled to testify without appropriate compensation the court should have made provision for payment to Lobel as it indicated that it would in the order appointing him. It reversed and remitted the matter to the Supreme Court, to reopen the custody hearing, at which time Lobel's report should be received in evidence and, should either party wish to cross-examine him, the court should make provision for the payment of his fee and expenses in accordance with the order appointing him.