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Thoughts on the Rachel Canning Case

JURIST Guest Columnists William L. Laufer, Laurence J. Cutler, and John J. Harper, J.S.C. (retired) of Laufer, Dalena, Cadicina, Jensen & Boyd, LLC, comment on the unique issues presented by the case of Rachel Canning, the eighteen year old who filed suit against her parents for financial support and college tuition...

In taking a first look at the Rachel Canning case (PDF) presently pending before the trial court in Morris County, New Jersey, it would be best to identify the type of case, and what is involved, and what is not. At first blush, while this is a unique case, it is not totally novel in New Jersey. Simply put, it involves a suit by a disenfranchised child living outside of the home against her parents for support and educational funds. What makes this case different (and emotionally charged for reasons, in part, stated below) is that the parents remain in an intact status rather than being separated, divorcing or divorced. This is, in first analysis, for reasons stated hereinafter, a procedural case—that is, it concerns the vehicle which brings the substantive law to the court's attention. As a starting point, we will review the most procedurally analogous law in New Jersey followed by a brief summary of the substantive law of support. We will then opine as to where this case may be going.

Procedurally, the closest circumstance to this in precedential New Jersey case law is found in the case of Johnson v. Bradbury. In that case, an eighteen year old daughter sued both her father (on a contract theory) and her mother (on common law obligation principles) for contribution to her post-secondary education. In that case, after a divorce in Florida in 1976 (thirteen years prior), when the daughter was six years old, she resided with her mother. Shortly thereafter, her mother moved to New Jersey. Starting in 1982, her father promised her a college education if she would move to Florida and live with him and establish Florida residency. By 1987, she accepted his offer but by the spring of 1988, difficulties arose, and she returned to New Jersey to live with her mother. However, her mother told her that she was not welcome. At the time of the proceedings, the daughter was supporting herself by working and completing her senior year of high school. The trial court dismissed the daughter's complaint against the mother on the basis that parental duties for child education arise only in matrimonial matters where at least one party is the custodial parent.
The New Jersey Superior Court Appellate Division disagreed:

In our view, the parental obligation is not as limited as the court conceived. It is enforceable not only at the instance of a custodial parent against a noncustodial parent, but at the child's instance as well. Enforcement of the right by the child is not necessarily defeated by the fact that she has reached the age of majority ... Nor, in our view, is the right defeated merely because both parents are united in their determination to declare the child emancipated." (emphasis added).

A follow up case was White v. White, in which Judge Ronald Graves, sitting then as a Chancery judge before being assigned to the Appellate Division, cited Johnson but denied the application of the daughter to intervene because the father was capable of advancing her position against her mother himself. In other words, where one parent can make the application in a divorced situation against the other, coupled with the applicant's ability to represent the child's interest, the child's application will be denied.

In Phillip v. Stahl, the Appellate Court noted by way of dictum:

The parties did not raise the issue of Julia's separate cause of action, if any, in the Family Part, nor have they raised it on appeal. See Blum v. Ader; [Johnson].

But see Martinetti v. Hickman:

'It should not be necessary ... for the child herself to proceed against either parent .... So unseemly a course should be avoided wherever possible. It is rendered largely unnecessary by recognizing the right of either parent to proceed on behalf of an unemancipated child for the provision of a fair share of her needs, including educational expenses.'

Substantively, parents have a duty to support their children. Support for children may take many forms and is not just limited to direct support, i.e., it may include educational expenses (deriving from the status as parents). We know from the law that this is a right of the child regardless of marital status of his/her parents, and that that right cannot be waived by parents (i.e., the parents cannot limit their obligations, or that of either of them, to something less than what the Court has the power to order in a contested case). We know that the children are entitled to be supported in the current lifestyles of the parents, regardless of the status of the parents (meaning that the mere fact of their other-than-intact status does not defeat support for their children, and that the quantum of that support is not limited just to the lifestyle enjoyed during the marriage, but a child is entitled to enjoy the good fortunes of his/her parents after a divorce). Query: does the plaintiff-daughter in the Canning have an equal protection argument that she is entitled to an adjudication of her parents' support obligations toward her regardless of their marital status?

Commenting on substantive child support law, in New Jersey, the law relative to child support in all of its forms, thus, goes farther than any other state in protecting children and imposing obligations on parents for the children's financial needs. In this regard, parents in other-than-intact circumstances can be required by the court to pay not just for an undergraduate degree, but for post-graduate studies or even to pay for private pre-college schooling. In the most usual instance, this is procedurally raised to the Court by way of an application by one parent against another.

The foregoing procedural and substantive law in New Jersey was essentially all developed in litigation between parents in other-than-intact families, regardless of the age of the child involved. In other words, one parent sought contribution from the other parent for various expenses for their child to be paid either directly to the purveyor of the services or to the parent seeking the award. The Johnson case is differentiated from the vast majority of case law involving parental responsibilities toward children in that the child was the applicant against less-than-intact parents. The present Canning case takes that anomaly one step further in that it is not only the child making the application but the application is against intact parents.

Now that we have restated general New Jersey case law as it pertains to the substantive law of support coupled with our review of procedurally analogous cases, enter the Canning case in the procedural posture which we have stated above. According to press accounts, the matter is mired in a myriad of allegations of conduct and misconduct, which, in any event, are hotly contested. As with any such case, if there is a legal right to the relief sought and a prima facie showing is made, there will be a plenary hearing at which testimony will be taken in order that the Court can resolve the factual contentions in formulating findings of fact against which the law is applied. Therefore, any discussion of this matter at this time cannot be concerned with whether the applicant's case factually holds water. Instead, comment at this juncture can only be made with authority on the legal issue of whether New Jersey will recognize a cause of action by a child to sue his/her parents for support and educational expenses under circumstances in which the parents are not separated, divorced or divorcing. In other words, we might term the relationship of the parents as being intact.

So the legal question arises as to whether Johnson should be extended to include the circumstances of the Canning case, that is, a child suing both parents where their marriage is intact? On the face of it, without further inquiry, given the extension of New Jersey law to what might be termed the outer limits of parental obligations, we might be inclined to answer in the affirmative, especially in light of the law that a child's right of support is not dependent upon the marital status of his/her parents coupled with the law which disallows parents to waive the rights of their children. If the inquiry stopped there, we might easily perceive of an assertive court arriving at this legal conclusion.

But the inquiry just begins there. The parents' defense is one not so much on the substantive law (although they may wish to be heard that the law should not be extended to these circumstances) but, instead, the main thrust of their position sounds in public policy (which is, perhaps, a main reason why we are confident in the notion that this case will end up before our Supreme Court—on the policy questions). The policy questions which we can envision might well be raised by the parents in this situation are the continued discord between the child and the parents which most assuredly would result from such an action being allowed (especially in view of the public policy of the law which encourages familial reconciliations); that if there is any chance of reconciliation between them, this would seem to all but dash those hopes; that a child can already "report" his/her parents to the appropriate state human services agency, and why extend those presumably physical threat issues to mere monetary civil issues; that if a child is allowed to sue for such relief, the flood gates of litigation will be open and where will it stop (the slippery slope argument); the concomitant discord which would result if a child could sue his/her parents at the drop of a hat (the actual or implied threat would wreak havoc in an intact family); and the freedom which a parent should have in disciplining a child (should this be overridden by a court?). To be sure, there are other additional and maybe better policy considerations which could be brought to bear, so that those raised above are just some of them.

The bottom line is this: given the progressive nature of New Jersey law on the subject of support, we think that the child may well have a legal claim (we stress again, that this analysis takes place as a theoretical exercise prior to application of any of the facts to be analyzed under substantive support case law). But—and this is the huge "but" which makes this case so interesting both to us as lawyers and to the public at large—the issue has legs in view of the policy considerations in defense of the parents' position. On this, we make no judgment at this time, and save our opinions for actual development along the way. Lastly, we remain hopeful that the entire subject will be adequately resolved within our court system without the need for clarifying intervention of the legislature.

UPDATE: A dismissal was filed on March 18, 2014, and the plaintiff is back with the defendants. That moots the issue (at least for now, unless the New Jersey legislature decides to poke its nose into this. Our fear, given the present state of legislative affairs with respect to alimony reform, is that it may succumb to reviewing the entire subject of child support obligations).

Mr. Laufer is the founder of Laufer, Dalena, Cadicina, Jensen & Boyd, LLC, Morristown, New Jersey. Mr. Cutler and Judge Harper are of counsel to the firm.

Suggested citation: William L. Laufer, Laurence J. Cutler, and John J. Harper, Thoughts on the Rachel Canning Case, JURIST - Sidebar, March 26, 2014, http://jurist.org/sidebar/2014/03/laufer-cutler-harper-rachel-canning.php.

This article was prepared for publication by Emily Kinkead, an assistant editor with JURIST's professional commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to her at professionalcommentary@jurist.org

Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.

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