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Oliver v. Ambrose

February 05, 1998


Argued September 22, 1997 -- Decided February 5, 1998 On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Garibaldi, J.

In this appeal, we consider the application of the entire controversy doctrine to the joinder of claims. The primary issue is whether we should create an exception to that doctrine for custody actions. Plaintiffs instituted a tort action against defendant, which is based on the same alleged incidents of abuse by defendant that comprised plaintiff's certification in a prior custody action involving defendant. Specifically, therefore, the question is whether the entire controversy doctrine bars the tort action.

The trial court granted defendant's motion for summary judgment, holding that plaintiffs' tort action was barred by the entire controversy doctrine. The Appellate Division affirmed. This appeal is before us as a result of a Dissent in the Appellate Division, R. 2:2-1, which claimed custody actions should be exempt from the entire controversy doctrine. We hold that the entire controversy doctrine applies to custody actions.


The Relationship

This action arises from a tumultuous eight-year relationship between Beverly Oliver (Beverly) and Louis Ambrose (Ambrose). Their relationship, which began in July 1981 and ended in January 1989, was characterized by cycles of separations and reconciliations. Beverly and Ambrose have varying accounts of what transpired during that period. They first met in January of 1980, when they were both employed in the accounting department of AT&T. When they met, Beverly had recently been divorced, and Ambrose was married and living with his wife and children.

On July 1, 1981, Beverly was involved in an automobile accident, and was hospitalized. The trauma of the accident exacerbated an eating disorder, from which she had suffered since age 13. Thereafter, Ambrose visited Beverly in the hospital, and their friendship evolved into an intimate relationship.

In October 1982, Beverly ended the relationship with Ambrose, and developed a relationship with another man, Timmy. In February or March of 1983, Beverly and Ambrose resumed their relationship. In April 1983, Beverly learned that she was pregnant. Beverly contends that when she informed Ambrose of the pregnancy, an argument followed because he wanted her to have an abortion. Beverly claims that during the argument, Ambrose slapped her in the face, pushed her against a wall, and choked her.

A few days later, Ambrose drove Beverly to a clinic where she had an abortion. Beverly contends that Ambrose forced her to have the abortion to make her feel guilty about her relationship with Timmy. She further testified that her eating disorder worsened because she felt guilty about having the abortion.

In December 1983, Beverly became pregnant again. According to Beverly she had another abortion because Ambrose threatened to kill her if she refused to do so. Thereafter, Beverly again broke off their relationship.

In September 1984, Ambrose's wife filed for divorce, and Ambrose and Beverly reconciled. In December 1984, Beverly became pregnant once again. According to Beverly when she refused to have an abortion this time, a violent argument ensued during which Ambrose attempted to run her over with his car, chased her into the house while threatening to kill her, tied her to a refrigerator, and threw her down the basement steps and locked the basement door. Later that night, Beverly awoke and discovered that she had miscarried.

Ambrose's version of the same events differs. He claims that an argument occurred after her miscarriage and was unrelated to the pregnancy. He also claims that when he attempted to drive away, Beverly jumped on the hood of his car to prevent him from leaving. Then, when he went to the basement to retrieve his clothes, she followed him, so he ran upstairs and locked the door. After this incident, Ambrose terminated the relationship, but again the two reconciled.

In October 1985, Beverly again informed Ambrose that she was pregnant. Beverly contends that when she informed him of her pregnancy, Ambrose became violent, slammed her against a wall, threw her down a flight of stairs, and kicked her as she lay at the base of the staircase. Later that night she had another miscarriage. Ambrose disputes this account, and claims that he did not see Beverly until after she had had the miscarriage. Thereafter, Beverly told Ambrose that he was not supportive and that she wanted to end the relationship.

In May 1986, Ambrose's divorce became final, and Beverly and Ambrose again reconciled. Subsequently, in January 1988, Beverly informed Ambrose that she was pregnant for the fifth time. According to Beverly, Ambrose demanded that she either have an abortion or put the baby up for adoption. Beverly further alleges that when she insisted on having the baby, Ambrose assaulted her. According to Beverly these events exacerbated her eating disorder, causing her to be hospitalized on February 16, 1988. During her stay in the hospital, Beverly terminated her relationship with Ambrose. She began dating another co-worker, Bruce Oliver.

Beverly gave birth to Melissa Rose on July 9, 1988, and on July 24, 1988, she became engaged to marry Bruce Oliver. Beverly contends that when she told Ambrose of the engagement, he threatened that she would have to kill him to keep him away from her. Ambrose asserts that during the weeks following Beverly's release from the hospital, he made repeated unsuccessful attempts to visit his daughter, Melissa.

The Procedural History

On August 25, 1988, the day after her wedding to Bruce Oliver, Beverly filed a harassment complaint against Ambrose in Raritan Municipal Court. On October 4, 1988, Ambrose filed a verified Complaint against Beverly in the Chancery Division, Family Part, seeking joint custody of Melissa, visitation, and a support determination. In his verified Complaint, Ambrose asserted that Beverly refused to allow visitation. On October 27, 1988, Bruce Oliver filed a Complaint seeking to adopt Melissa.

On October 31, 1988, Beverly filed a responding certification to Ambrose's application for custody and visitation. In the certification, Beverly detailed the abortions and the abusive behavior. In part, Beverly stated:

4. During the course of our relationship I had 2 abortions and 2 miscarriages. . . . I never felt I had a choice, it was either [Ambrose's] way or no way at all. When I wouldn't consent to an abortion in December 1984, beat me and threw me down a flight of steps causing me to have a miscarriage. Looking back, I know that I was really afraid of , he was abusing me both mentally and physically. The trauma from my relationship with the plaintiff exacerbated my eating disorder, known as bulimia. . . .

5. During the past seven years, has tied me to a refrigerator, locked me in the basement, smacked me across the face, and beat my arms until physical bruises showed. . . . The traumatic emotional scars . . . may never heal completely.

6. In January 1988, when I told I was pregnant. . . . e demanded that I have an abortion. . . . On January 11, 1988 . . . we had a violent argument over my decision to have the baby. . . .

7. The next time I heard from was February 10, 1988. He came to my home in a rage and demanded that I have an abortion. . . . From the stress of these constant arguments with , I relapsed into my bulimia again. . . .

9. . . . Since my child's birth, has continually harassed me through friends, family, at work and on the phone. The course of harassment only stopped when I signed a complaint against him in the Raritan Borough Municipal Court for harassment. . . .

11. Indeed, I am afraid for Melissa's safety with . After 7 years, I state to this Court that is unpredictable - one moment he seems fine, the next minute he "snaps" and becomes physically abusive. I feel I must protect my daughter from this. Indeed, it is my belief that the real motivation behind this custody action is [Ambrose's] desire to get back at me for ending the relationship. I am afraid that he will try to get back at me through my child. . . .

On November 1, 1988, Beverly filed an Answer to Ambrose's Complaint in the custody action. The Answer did not include any counterclaims or other affirmative claims; however, Beverly asserted that the "Complaint is frivolous and instituted for the sole purpose of continuing a course of conduct of harassment and threats made by against ."

In response to Ambrose's motion, the trial court consolidated the municipal court harassment complaint with the custody action, and stayed the adoption proceedings pending the outcome of the custody/harassment action. Thereafter, the parties settled the custody and adoption matters, with Ambrose withdrawing his request for custody and consenting to the adoption. The harassment complaint was dismissed.

Institution of Tort Suit

Four months after that settlement, Bruce and Beverly Oliver instituted a tort suit against Ambrose, based on his alleged abusive and violent behavior against Beverly between 1981 and 1988. The Complaint alleged: assault and battery, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, and loss of consortium for Bruce Oliver.

Ambrose then filed declaratory judgment actions against his homeowner's insurance carriers for coverage of plaintiffs' claims. In August 1990, the court consolidated the declaratory judgment actions with the tort action against Ambrose. In September 1992, the Olivers amended their complaint to include a claim of false imprisonment. On October 5, 1992, Ambrose filed an Answer to Amended Complaint in which he raised as a separate defense that plaintiffs' claim was barred by the Entire Controversy Doctrine.

In September 1993, Ambrose and his insurers moved for summary judgment on the ground that the tort claims should have been brought in the adoption/harassment action or as counterclaims in the custody action. Ambrose further argued that the tort claims were barred by the applicable statute of limitations. See N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2.

The trial court reserved on the entire controversy doctrine issue, but ordered a plenary "Lopez" hearing, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2, to determine when the statute of limitations began to run. During the eleven-day Lopez hearing, the court heard testimony from Ambrose, Beverly, and from the parties' experts on Beverly's state of mind. Because the trial court found that Beverly failed to show that she was incompetent or otherwise incapable of bringing suit during that period, the court concluded that the statute of limitations barred all claims that were not instituted within two years from their occurrence. Thus, all claims based on Ambrose's conduct prior to December 26, 1987 were barred.

The court further held that the entire controversy doctrine barred all claims up until August 4, 1989, the date the custody action was settled. The court concluded that "there was an intentional withholding of the claim by knowing that she intended to file it later." Furthermore, "he wanted him to voluntarily surrender any rights to Melissa so that she and Mr. Oliver could raise her as their own, which she succeeded in, and she did not want to upset the apple cart with another lawsuit."

The Olivers appealed. In an unpublished opinion, a divided Appellate Division affirmed the dismissal on entire controversy doctrine grounds. In affirming, the majority reasoned that the entire controversy doctrine "requires that a party who has elected to hold back from an initial lawsuit a related component of the controversy be barred from thereafter raising it in a subsequent proceeding." The court further noted that, in applying the entire controversy doctrine, "the central consideration is whether the claims arise from related facts of the same transaction or series of transactions." The majority, therefore, concluded that since the Olivers' tort claims were based on the same facts relevant to the custody/harassment action, the claims should have been joined in that action.

This appeal is before us as a result of Judge Shebell's Dissent, which reads in its entirety:

I would not subscribe to a rule that requires a parent to join a claim for assault in an action to determine custody. It serves no purpose related to the efficient administration of Justice and would detract from a determination of the best interests of the child. I would reverse as to the application of the entire controversy doctrine.

The Olivers appealed to this Court under R. 2:2-1. They did not file a petition for certification. Accordingly, the only issue before this Court is the issue raised in Judge Shebell's Dissent: whether the entire controversy doctrine should apply to custody actions.

We affirm the judgment of the Appellate Division, and hold that custody actions are not exempt from the application of the entire controversy doctrine.


Background of Entire Controversy Doctrine

For over sixty years, it has been established in New Jersey that the entire controversy doctrine requires the mandatory joinder of all claims to a single transaction. The doctrine which originated as an equitable common law procedural rule, see, e.g., Smith v. Red Top Taxicab Corp., 111 N.J.L. 439, 440-441 (E. & A. 1933) ("No principle of law is more firmly established than that a single or entire cause of action cannot be subdivided into several claims, and separate actions maintained thereon"), is "so deeply rooted in the administration of the judicial system" that it was elevated to constitutional status. Prevratil v. Mohr, 145 N.J. 180, 187 (1996).

Indeed, Justice Brennan, writing for this Court, recognized that the design and purposes of some of the procedural reforms introduced by the Judicial Article of the 1947 Constitution and the implementing rules of court, were for the just and expeditious determination in a single action of the ultimate merits of an entire controversy between litigants. It is a fundamental objective of this procedural reform to avoid the delays and wasteful expense of the multiplicity of litigation which results from splitting of a controversy.

[Ajamian v. Schlanger, 14 N.J. 483, 485, cert. denied, 348 U.S. 835, 75 S.Ct. 58, 99 L.Ed. 659 (1954).]

In Cogdell v. Hospital Center at Orange, 116 N.J. 7, 15 (1989) (citing 2 State of New Jersey Constitutional Convention of 1947, Committee on the Judiciary Report § 11(J) at 1187 (1947)), we observed that "the purposes of the doctrine include the needs of economy and the avoidance of waste, efficiency and the reduction of delay, fairness to parties, and the need for complete and final Disposition through the avoidance of 'piecemeal decisions.'" See also Falcone v. Middlesex County Medical Soc'y, 47 N.J. 92, 94 (1966) ("The piecemeal litigation of fragments of a single controversy is too evident an evil to remain unchecked . . . .")(quoting Silverstein v. Abco Vending Serv., 37 N.J. Super. 439, 449 (App. Div. l955)); Vacca v. Stika, 21 N.J. 471, 476 (1956) (broadening the doctrine by requiring representative parties to assert counterclaims in one suit because otherwise a single action would be nothing more than "the trigger which . . . would start the chain reaction of other litigation."); Pressler, Current N.J. Court Rules, comment 2 on R. 4:30A (2)(1998) (citing additional joinder of claims entire controversy cases).

In the interest of fairness and judicial efficiency, "to sanction [one party's] holding in reserve his one available remedy for the purpose of attack in another suit, would be utterly destructive" to the goals of the entire controversy doctrine. Prevratil, supra, 145 N.J. at 188-89 (quoting Ajamian, supra, 14 N.J. at 489). Likewise, the Appellate Division has determined that the entire controversy doctrine requires "a party who has elected to hold back from the first proceeding a related component of the controversy be barred from thereafter raising it in a subsequent proceeding." Wm. Blanchard Co. v. Beach Concrete Co., 150 N.J. Super. 277, 292-93 (1977); see also Mortgagelinq Corp. v. Commonwealth Land Title, 142 N.J. 336, 338 ...

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