Custodial interference refers to a wide variety of actions that intentionally interfere with a parent's custodial and/or visitation rights. New Jersey laws address custodial interference under Rule 5:3-7, Additional Remedies on Violation of Orders Relating to Parenting Time, Alimony or Support. Sanctions for non-compliance with custody or parenting time orders include monetary compensation, make-up visitation time and modifications to the existing order. In extreme cases, violators may be sentenced to community service, or a period of incarceration with or without work release.
While the sanctions are clearly spelled out, issuing them is ultimately up to each judge's discretion. Enforcing them is another issue; it's all too common for stubborn or manipulative parents to flat out ignore the judge's orders. The situation is even worse when the offending parent has wealthy or influential family members who help orchestrate delays and costly litigation. Traditionally, alienated parents had little to no recourse against third party interference, but that has been changing within the past few years.
One of the most significant third party custodial interference cases in recent years involved Ophira and Heshey Gottlieb of Edison, NJ. The Gottlieb's son, Michael, had suffered a brain aneurysm in 2008, which left him brain-damaged and unable to care for himself. The Gottliebs and their daughter-in-law, Lauren, battled over the next two years over his care. Divorce papers were filed in 2010, at which point the Gottliebs began an aggressive and prohibitively expensive legal campaign to not only stall the divorce, but to win joint custody of their granddaughter. Through their son's attorneys, the Gottliebs orchestrated a series of frivolous suits against Lauren, and caused numerous, lengthy delays by repeatedly failing to produce court-ordered documents.
The case was finally brought before the New York City Appellate court, where Justice Ellen Jesmer issued a scathing ruling against the Gottliebs and their son's attorneys. She accused them of engaging “in frivolous conduct by repeatedly making misrepresentations and knowingly false statements and claims to the court.” In addition, she believed that the Gottliebs “intentionally interfered with [their granddaughter's] development of a positive and loving relationship with her father.” The judge makes an interesting point here; the grandparents' meddling violated not only their daughter-in-law's parental rights, but their son's, as well. It also addresses the issue of the child's best interests, which according to the judge, were greatly compromised by the grandparent's ruthless legal maneuvers.
In the end, Lauren Gottlieb was awarded full custody of her daughter, and the Gottliebs were ordered to pay $543,000 in court sanctions. The attorneys were hit with sanctions of $317,480.67, which would go towards Lauren's legal fees. While this case is an extreme example, it does give hope to divorced or divorcing parents who are being prevented from maintaining a relationship with their children. If you are a parent who is struggling with custodial interference, please find out about your rights and legal options from the attorneys of Villani & DeLuca, P.C.