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Sunday, June 12, 2016

Court of Appeals Rejects "adequate relevant information standard" applied by the Courts in Custody Cases

In S.L. v J.R., ___NY3d ___, 2016 NY Slip Op 04442 (2016) the Court of Appeals, in an opinion by Judge Garcia, reversed an order of the Appellate Division, which affirmed Supreme Court's decision in a custody case not to conduct an evidentiary hearing based on its determination that the court possessed "adequate relevant information to enable it to make an informed and provident determination as to the child's best interest." The Court rejected the “undefined and imprecise” adequate relevant information" standard applied by the courts below which tolerates an unacceptably-high risk of yielding custody determinations that do not conform to the best interest of a child nor adequately protect a parent whose fundamental right, the right to control the upbringing of a child, hangs in the balance. The Court observed that in rendering a final custody award without a hearing, Supreme Court appeared to rely on, among other things, hearsay statements and the conclusion of a court-appointed forensic evaluator whose opinions and credibility were untested by either party. It pointed out that a decision regarding child custody should be based on admissible evidence, and there was no indication that a "best interest" determination was ever made based on anything more reliable than mere "information." Moreover, while Supreme Court purported to rely on allegations that were "not controverted," the affidavit filed by Mother plainly called into question or sought to explain the circumstances surrounding many of the alleged "incidents of disturbing behavior." The Court of Appeals held that these circumstances do not fit within the narrow exception to the general right to a hearing. It reaffirmed the principle that, as a general matter, custody determinations should be rendered only after a full and plenary hearing. It declined, to fashion a "one size fits all" rule mandating a hearing in every custody case statewide. However, where, as here, facts material to the best interest analysis, and the circumstances surrounding such facts, remain in dispute, a custody hearing is required. Significantly, the Court held that “ a court opting to forego a plenary hearing must take care to clearly articulate which factors were, or were not, material to its determination, and the evidence supporting its decision.” Under the circumstances of this case, a plenary hearing was necessary.

1 comment:

  1. Having served as the appellant's counsel, thank you for a very thorough summary. This was an unfortunate case - unfortunate because the trial court and the appellate court had absolutely no issue with the deprivation of due process that occurred. Perhaps things will change.