On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Cape May County, Docket No. FD-05-273-04.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted February 6, 2008
Before Judges Parker and Lyons.
Defendant William M. Brown (Brown) appeals from a trial court order finding him to be the father of twin girls and requiring him to pay support for them. Brown claims the order was entered without the trial court having personal jurisdiction over him. Because we find that Brown did not have the requisite minimum contacts with New Jersey to establish personal jurisdiction, we reverse the trial court order and dismiss the complaint.
The following factual and procedural history is relevant to our consideration of the issues advanced on appeal. Plaintiff April M. Brennan (Brennan) and Brown began a relationship in 2000. Initially, the parties lived in New Jersey; however, they later moved to Maine. They lived together in Maine, where twin girls were conceived and, subsequently, born on April 28, 2003. Later in August 2003, Brennan left Maine with her children and moved to Maryland. According to Brennan, after she moved to Maryland, she attempted to obtain child support from Brown by filing a complaint pursuant to the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA). See N.J.S.A. 2A:4-30.65 to 39.123. In 2003, pursuant to UIFSA, Brennan filed a complaint for paternity and support in Maryland. Maryland forwarded the complaint to Maine so that Brown could be served and a Maine court could enter a paternity and support order. When that was attempted in 2003, Brennan advises that Maine "denied the claim."
In 2004, Brennan again sought to file a complaint against Brown for paternity and support. On that occasion, the complaint was forwarded to New Jersey. On March 22, 2004, that complaint was dismissed after the New Jersey court found that Brown was not a resident of New Jersey, based on the proofs Brown submitted demonstrating his Maine residency. Accordingly, Brennan again, through the state of Maryland, attempted to file a petition in Maine. The record indicates that Brown was served in 2005 in Maine, but there is no documentation as to the result of that application.
On September 12, 2006, Brennan again filed, pursuant to UIFSA, a complaint for paternity and child support in Maryland. Maryland transmitted the complaint to New Jersey. New Jersey mailed notice of the complaint and hearing certified mail/return receipt requested to Brown at 220 Marshville Road, Woodbine, New Jersey, the home of Brown's father. According to Brown, when his father, who lives at the address, informed Brown that there was a notice that a certified letter was at the post office, Brown had a friend obtain the letter from the post office. Brown recognized the notice to be similar to what he had received in 2004, and wrote a letter advising the New Jersey court that he was not a resident of New Jersey, but rather a resident of Maine. He also included in his letter the prior order from March 2004 which dismissed a similar complaint.
Brennan's complaint stated that she sought support for the twins; that defendant was listed as their father on the children's birth certificate; that the children were conceived and born in Maine; and that she was living in Maryland. On November 30, 2006, a hearing was held before a hearing officer on Brennan's complaint. Neither Brennan nor Brown were present. The hearing officer read through the petition, but did not explore Brown's objection to jurisdiction. Rather, the hearing officer noted that a "green card" had been signed for the certified mail and simply proceeded to prepare an order for paternity and support. That order was then executed by the trial court.
When Brown learned of the order, he moved to dismiss it. On January 16, 2007, a hearing was held in New Jersey at which time Brown and Brennan appeared, and Brown submitted various documents demonstrating his Maine residency. Brown argued to the court that he was not a New Jersey resident, and that while acknowledging that he does come to New Jersey to work sporadically, he is not a resident of New Jersey. He produced Maine tax returns, as well as other documents indicating his domicile to be Maine. Brown stated that, with respect to whatever applications Brennan had made in Maine, he did not receive the papers. Brennan disputed Brown's claims and argued that Brown works in New Jersey, has a cell phone with a New Jersey area code, and that he pays child support through New Jersey for four other children from his ex-wife who lives in New Jersey after having obtained a divorce here years ago. Brown, on the other hand, pointed out his current Maine driver's license; his Maine income tax return; Maine property tax bills; utility bills showing his address in Maine; and he testified that he has for many years been registered to vote in Maine. After hearing testimony and reviewing the proofs, the trial court concluded that because Brown paid child support "through New Jersey" for his four other children who live in New Jersey, that the court had jurisdiction to entertain Brennan's complaint. The trial court stated that a New Jersey cell phone and Brown's intermittent work in the state created sufficient minimum contacts to find the court had jurisdiction. The court, therefore, entered a modified paternity and child support order.
On February 1, 2007, Brown, through counsel, filed a motion for reconsideration which was denied and this appeal ensued. On appeal, Brown argues that neither he nor Brennan have been a resident of New Jersey at any relevant time and that the New Jersey courts have no jurisdiction to hear this paternity and support action. Brown also argues that if we are to find that New Jersey had jurisdiction, he was denied due process by the trial court. Brennan on the other hand argues that the facts indicate Brown is a resident of New Jersey, and the court does have jurisdiction.
We begin first by setting forth some fundamental principles. N.J.S.A. 2A:4-30.68 sets forth the law with respect to personal jurisdiction over a non-resident individual in connection with establishing a support or paternity order pursuant to UIFSA. It reads as follows:
In a proceeding to establish, enforce, or modify a support order or to determine parentage, a tribunal of this State may exercise personal jurisdiction over a nonresident individual ...