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New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services v. M.C.

March 31, 2010

NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF YOUTH AND FAMILY SERVICES, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
M.C. III, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.
IN THE MATTER OF M.C. IV AND N.C., MINORS.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 405 N.J. Super. 24 (2008).

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

In this abuse and neglect case, the Court considers whether the admission of certain documentary evidence at trial constitutes plain error that warrants a new trial.

On September 24, 2006, a brother and sister, both teenagers, had an argument with their father, defendant M.C. The teenagers telephoned the police. On their arrival, the officers interviewed the children, who reported that their father had been beating them. However, the officers did not ask the children to remove any clothing to determine whether there were injuries. After the officers left, the argument resumed. The son called 9-1-1, and the officers returned. After speaking with the son and after determining that M.C. was in his truck and leaving for work, the officers left. The children went to a relative's home and later were taken to a hospital emergency room.

The children were examined at the emergency room by Dr. Lewis. Based on the injuries observed, the doctor contacted the Division of Youth and Family Services (Division). A Division caseworker went to the hospital and spoke with the children, who recounted the altercation with M.C. The caseworker observed injuries on the children, spoke with doctors about the results of the examination, and reviewed photographs of the injuries that the hospital had taken. The caseworker also was present when M.C. was interviewed and admitted grabbing the children, holding them on the floor, and deflecting his son's attempts to hit him by grabbing his son's hand and placing it behind his back.

Dr. Lewis received a form from the Division on which she detailed the injuries of each child and opined that the injuries were consistent with an assault. Thereafter, a Screening Summary was completed summarizing the pertinent factual allegations, the people involved, and other relevant information.

On September 25th, another Division caseworker transported the children to a different hospital for physicals. That caseworker also observed injuries on the children. Finally, on September 27th, the children were examined at a pediatrician's office. The forms completed by the doctors at that office indicated that the cause of the children's injuries was the alleged assault.

An abuse and neglect complaint was filed against M.C., and the children were removed from his custody. At the fact-finding hearing, the Division offered fifteen exhibits for admission into evidence. With the exception of one exhibit that was not admitted into evidence, defense counsel did not object to the Division's exhibits. At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court found by a preponderance of the evidence that M.C. caused the injuries to his children. On December 15, 2006, the trial court memorialized its findings and placed the children in the care and custody of the Division. A subsequent order granted custody of the children to another member of the family.

M.C. appealed, claiming error in the admission of the documentary evidence and asserting that insufficient evidence was presented to warrant a finding of abuse. In a published decision, the Appellate Division concluded that it was error for the trial court to admit into evidence the Screening Summary and the DYFS-generated forms completed by Dr. Lewis because they failed to comply with New Jersey Court Rules and the statute governing abuse and neglect actions. 405 N.J. Super. 24 (2008). The panel found also that the information contained in the Screening Summary did not come from first-hand knowledge of the caseworker who prepared the report, but rather from information the caseworker received from Dr. Lewis, who did not testify at trial. The panel concluded that those errors were sufficiently prejudicial to constitute plain error because of the trial court's extensive reliance on the version of the events as detailed in the documents produced by the Division. The panel reversed and remanded the matter for a new trial.

The Court granted petitions for certification by the Division and the Law Guardian. 151 N.J. 515 (2009).

HELD: The trial court's findings of abuse and neglect in this case were supported by sufficient evidence, defendant M.C. is barred by the doctrine of invited error from contesting on appeal the admission of documents that were admitted into evidence with his express consent, and the trial court did not err in relying on those documents.

1. The Court finds no need to address whether the admission of the Screening Summary and the DYFS-generated forms completed by Dr. Lewis and the use of hearsay within the documents constituted plain error. This Court has often stated that issues not raised below will ordinarily not be considered on appeal unless they are jurisdictional in nature or substantially implicate the public interest. Under the doctrine of invited error, a disappointed litigant is barred from arguing on appeal that an adverse decision below was the product of error when that party urged the lower court to adopt the proposition now alleged to be error. The doctrine is based on considerations of fairness and preservation of the integrity of the litigation process. Here, it is not disputed that M.C.'s trial counsel consented to the admission of the documents at issue. By doing so, he deprived the Division of the opportunity to overcome any objection and deprived the trial court of the necessity to make a ruling based on the arguments presented by both sides. If defense counsel had objected, and the trial court agreed with those objections, the Division could have taken steps to satisfy any evidentiary requirements needed for the admission of the documents or could have presented a witness or witnesses in place of the documents. Particularly in this case, where defense counsel had sufficient time to review the exhibits and raise objections and may have made a strategic decision to try the case based on the documents, instead of possibly facing a witness's direct testimony, reversing on this issue would be unfair to the Division. Under these circumstances, the Court holds that M.C. is barred by the doctrine of invited error from contesting for the first time on appeal the admission of the documents, and it finds no reversible error in the trial court's consideration of the documents in reaching its conclusion. (Pp. 13-18)

2. Next, the Court rejects M.C.'s claim that there was not sufficient evidence to support the trial court's findings. The Court notes M.C.'s testimony that he grabbed his son by his shirt, as contrasted with the son's statement that his father grabbed him by the neck and punched him. Although the trial court did not expressly state that it disbelieved M.C.'s version and believed the son's version, it essentially accepted the son's version because it found that M.C. grabbed his son by the neck. Further, the trial court found that M.C. told the Division worker that he grabbed his son by the arm and held the arm back to stop his son from hitting him. The trial court noted that the son's injuries to his hand, thumb, chest, neck, and back were consistent with the fact that M.C. grabbed the children and that they suffered injuries as a result of M.C.'s conduct. Further, the trial court indicated that any discrepancy between the police and hospital reports occurred because police did not examine the children for injuries. The Court concludes that there was sufficient evidence to support the trial court's finding of abuse. Even though M.C. may not have intended to harm his children, his actions were deliberate. He intentionally grabbed the children and disregarded the substantial probability that injury would result from his conduct. (Pp. 18-23)

3. Finally, the Court provides general guidance for the admission of documentary evidence for future abuse and neglect cases. (Pp. 23-27)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED.

CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LONG, LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, RIVERA-SOTO and HOENS join in JUSTICE WALLACE's opinion.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Wallace, Jr.

Argued October 13, 2009

This is an abuse and neglect case. On September 24, 2006, a brother and sister were examined at a hospital emergency room. Based on the injuries observed, the examining physician contacted the Division of Youth and Family Services (the Division), and a Division caseworker investigated the allegations of the children that their father caused their injuries. At some point during the initial investigation, the examining physician received a form from the Division on which the physician detailed the injuries of each child and opined that the injuries were consistent with an assault. Thereafter, a document entitled Screening Summary was completed summarizing the pertinent factual allegations, the people involved, and other relevant information.

The children were removed from the custody of their father, and an abuse and neglect complaint was filed against him. The Division offered numerous exhibits into evidence at the fact-finding hearing, and, except for one exhibit that was not admitted, defense counsel did not object to their admission. Consequently, there was no need for the Division to attempt to justify the admission of the documents or for the trial court to rule on their admissibility.

The trial court found by a preponderance of the evidence that the father caused the injuries to his children, and ordered that care and custody of the children remain with the Division to explore the possible placement of the children with their stepsister. A subsequent order granted custody to the stepsister.

The father appealed. In a published opinion, the Appellate Division reversed, concluding that the documents were improperly admitted into evidence. We granted the Division's and the Law Guardian's petitions for certification. We now reverse. We hold that consistent with the doctrine of invited error, on appeal, the father may not protest the admission of the documents after he agreed to their admission at trial. We also conclude that there was sufficient credible evidence to support the trial court's decision.

I.

The following evidence was presented at the fact-finding hearing held on December 15, 2006. Michael and Tracey Collins*fn1 were divorced in 1999, and Michael was awarded custody of their two children, Matt and Nicole. Matt was born in April 1991, and Nicole was born in July 1993. The children were fifteen and thirteen respectively at the time of the incident in early fall of 2006.

At that time, Michael became increasingly concerned with Matt and Nicole's internet usage and their conflicts regarding the use of the computer. To help alleviate the conflict, Michael purchased a second computer with a feature that allowed him to monitor and control his children's use of the computer. Michael designated himself the "administrator," which permitted him to configure the computer with parental control settings. Under that configuration, any other user on the computer would need to log on as a "guest," and then Michael needed to insert a password for the children to use the system.

On September 24, 2006, Matt and Nicole discovered they no longer had unrestricted access to the computer. They expressed their dislike of the new computer arrangement. They began commenting that they were guests in their home, and as guests, they did not have to do any chores or help around the house. In turn, Michael disciplined the children. He required each child to write five hundred times the phrase, "I will not say I'm a guest in my own house." Matt decided to use the computer to complete his punishment. When Michael discovered that Matt was in the process of typing the phrase once and copying it five hundred times on the computer, he ordered Matt to write the assignment by hand.

Matt logged off of the computer and started hollering, "[t]his is bull crap." When Matt started up the steps, Michael instructed him to come back downstairs. Michael claimed that he followed Matt up the stairs, and pulled Matt's shirt in an attempt to stop him. In contrast, Matt told the Division investigator that as he began walking up the stairs, his father followed him and began hitting him for no reason.

Michael testified that Nicole started yelling, "get your f....ng hands off my brother!" Michael turned around and told Nicole, "[o]h, you want some," and started to move towards Nicole. She ran to her father's bedroom, and Michael followed her. Matt jumped on Michael's back and wrapped his arms around Michael's neck. Michael lost his balance and all three fell onto the floor of his bedroom. Michael said he held Matt and Nicole down on the floor to help calm them down.

Contrary to Michael's testimony, both Matt and Nicole recounted that Michael caught up to Nicole and began choking her. Matt added that Michael hit Nicole in her stomach and back and that, after they fell to the floor, Michael began punching him. Nicole then ran out of Michael's bedroom and called 9-1-1. Nicole's statement to the Division caseworker was consistent with Matt's statement on those points, but she added that she and her brother locked themselves in the bathroom until the police arrived.

Officer LaFountaine and his partner responded to the 9-1-1 call at approximately 12:30 p.m. Officer LaFountaine spoke with Matt and Nicole, while his partner spoke with Michael. He said that the children claimed their father had been beating them, but he did not observe any injuries. When he asked them where their father hit them, they responded "all over." Officer LaFountaine did not ask them to remove any clothing to look for injuries. He said that he and his partner left after approximately twenty to thirty minutes.

Michael testified that after the police left, he instructed Matt and Nicole to go upstairs, but both refused. Nicole insisted on calling her older sister Nancy because she wanted to stay with her. Matt attempted to leave the house, but Michael said "no," and pushed him back from the door several times. When Michael walked over to Nicole, Matt went outside and called ...


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