October 15, 2010
ANTHONY TORELLI, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
LISA PAMULA (F/K/A TORELLI), DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Morris County, Docket No. FM-14-837-00.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted September 14, 2010
Before Judges Carchman and Graves.
Plaintiff Anthony Torelli and defendant Lisa Pamula were divorced in 2002. They are the parents of a twelve-year-old son. Defendant appeals from an order entered on October 7, 2008, that resolved various post-judgment issues. The order was entered following a four-day plenary hearing. We affirm.
On November 19, 2001, the parties entered into a consent order that was incorporated into an amendment to their judgment of divorce on March 26, 2002. Pursuant to the consent order, the parties agreed to share joint legal custody of their child; defendant was designated as the parent of primary residence; and plaintiff was granted parenting time with the child on alternating weekends, from Friday after school until Monday morning, and every week from Wednesday after school until Thursday morning. In addition, the parties agreed they would share holidays, and each parent would spend two weeks of vacation with the child per year. The parties further agreed to consult with each other regarding "all major decisions concerning the child's health, education and welfare," and to participate in therapeutic mediation to resolve decisions on which they disagreed.
After the parties divorced, defendant obtained a final restraining order (FRO) against her former husband as a result of an incident on June 18, 2004. Criminal charges were also filed against plaintiff, and he was prohibited from having any contact with defendant or their son as a condition of bail.*fn1
On October 20, 2004, a Family Part judge ordered the parties to meet with Dr. Mathias Hagovsky, Ph.D., for a recommendation regarding a supervised visitation schedule. The court subsequently granted plaintiff supervised visitation with the child every Saturday beginning in January 2005. In December 2005, the court permitted plaintiff "unsupervised parenting time with the parties' son every other Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. commencing on Saturday, December 17, 2005, followed by a therapeutic session with Julie Roebuck[, MSW, LCSW] at 2 p.m." In addition, the court ordered plaintiff to have "therapeutic parenting time with the parties' son supervised by Julie Roebuck every other Monday at 6 p.m. commencing on Monday, December 12, 2005."
Six months later, in a letter to the court dated June 13, 2006, Dr. Hagovsky stated "that the appropriate long term goal for this family is to normalize Mr. Torelli's parenting time... to an every other weekend, once per week format." Dr. Hagovsky also recommended that the exchanges could be "from school to school" with plaintiff having parenting time "on a Thursday overnight into Friday on one week," and from Friday after school until a "return to school on Monday the second week." In addition, Dr. Hagovsky noted that Julie Roebuck supported "expanded contact" between Mr. Torelli and the parties' son.
On June 16, 2006, the court granted plaintiff's motion for additional unsupervised parenting time and ordered that neither parent was to involve the child in "motor cross/dirt bike/recreational motorized transport." In December 2006, the court permitted plaintiff overnight visitation. Subsequently, in May 2007, after reviewing "the submissions of the parties and the reports of Julie Roebuck," the court increased plaintiff's parenting time to include alternating weekends.
The May 2007 order also prohibited plaintiff from involving the parties' son "in any rigorous activity," particularly "motor cross bike riding." After defendant alleged that her former husband had violated the May 2007 order, the court scheduled a plenary hearing to address all outstanding issues, including plaintiff's application to increase his parenting time.
During the hearing, which took place in June 2008, the court heard testimony from Anthony Torelli, Lisa Pamula, Dr. Hagovsky, and Julie Roebuck. After considering the parties' written submissions, the court set forth its findings and conclusions in a comprehensive eighty-page oral decision on October 7, 2008. An eighteen-page order memorializing the decision was entered the same day.
On appeal, defendant presents the following arguments:
THE TRIAL COURT'S CONCLUSION THAT PLAINTIFF DID NOT CLEARLY VIOLATE THE COURT'S ORDER ENTERED MAY 30, 2007 WAS AGAINST THE WEIGHT OF THE EVIDENCE PRESENTED.
THE TRIAL COURT UTILIZED THE WRONG LEGAL STANDARD IN CONSIDERING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR INCREASED PARENTING TIME, AND APPLICATION OF THE CORRECT LEGAL STANDARD WOULD HAVE COMPELLED THE OPPOSITE RESULT.
THIS COURT SHOULD EXERCISE ITS ORIGINAL JURISDICTION, REVERSE THE TRIAL COURT, AND ENTER A FINAL ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFF'S REQUEST FOR INCREASED PARENTING TIME.
Based on our examination of the record, briefs, and applicable law, we are satisfied that these arguments are clearly without merit. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(A) and (E). We add only the following comments.
The scope of our review is limited. "The general rule is that findings by the trial court are binding on appeal when supported by adequate, substantial, credible evidence." Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 411-12 (1998). We do not disturb the factual findings and legal conclusions of a trial judge unless "'they are so manifestly unsupported by or inconsistent with the competent, relevant and reasonably credible evidence as to offend the interests of justice.'" Id. at 412 (quoting Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co. of Am., 65 N.J. 474, 484 (1974)). Moreover, "[b]ecause of the family courts' special jurisdiction and expertise in family matters, appellate courts should accord deference to family court factfinding." Id. at 413.
We recognize, of course, that a trial court must resolve custody and parenting time issues based on the best interests of the child. Sacharow v. Sacharow, 177 N.J. 62, 80 (2003); see also Asch v. Asch, 164 N.J. Super. 499, 505 (App. Div. 1978) ("It is axiomatic that the court should seek to advance the best interests of the child [when] parents are unable to agree on the course to be followed."). That is precisely what happened here.
We also conclude from our review of the record that the trial court's findings and conclusions are adequately supported by substantial credible evidence and that the court properly applied the correct legal principles to the facts. Consequently, we affirm substantially for the reasons stated by Judge Robert J. Brennan in his oral decision on October 7, 2008.