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Stephen Levine v. Eric Levine and Vanessa Levine

February 23, 2011

STEPHEN LEVINE, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
ERIC LEVINE AND VANESSA LEVINE, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS.



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Morris County, Docket No. FD-14-110-10.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued January 10, 2011

Before Judges Lisa and Sabatino.

Plaintiff,*fn1 Stephen Levine, appeals the Family Part's order of April 22, 2010, denying his application for relief and dismissing his complaint under the Grandparent Visitation Statute, N.J.S.A. 9:2-7.1, as to his two minor grandchildren, L.L. and A.L. Because we agree with the trial court that plaintiff failed to make an adequate showing under the statute to warrant interference with the decision-making prerogatives of the minors' parents, we affirm.

Plaintiff is the paternal grandfather of L.L., a girl who was born in 2003, and A.L., a boy who was born in 2006. Defendants Eric Levine and Vanessa Levine are the parents of L.L. and A.L. Plaintiff is remarried.

After certain disputes arose between the parties involving the children's religious upbringing and other subjects, defendants discontinued contact between their children and plaintiff in or about April 2009. In June 2009 plaintiff filed an initial complaint in the Family Part, seeking an order compelling visitation with L.L. and A.L. under N.J.S.A. 9:2-7.1, but he voluntarily withdrew that first complaint, and the parties executed a consent order dismissing that complaint in September 2009.

Plaintiff filed the present action in January 2010. In his verified complaint, he alleged, among other things, that he and his wife were "involved in the [grand]children's lives since birth," and that the grandchildren "have always been close to [them] their entire lives, [and have] enjoyed spending time with them. By way of illustration, the complaint alleges that, up until the events that led defendants to stop the contact, plaintiff and his wife regularly spent time every Friday with L.L. and A.L.

In a supporting certification, plaintiff described his and his wife's prior relationship with the grandchildren, including their customary activities on Fridays, their attendance at events such as gymnastic practices and music recitals, and their participation in family gatherings such as birthdays and holidays. Plaintiff elaborated further about these matters in a reply certification. He noted, among other things, that after the rift with defendants arose, certain incidents occurred that appeared to have caused the grandchildren to become upset. In particular, plaintiff described an incident in early 2009 in which they attended L.L.'s dance recital but were not allowed to speak with her at the event. He also recounted an incident at a playground, in which L.L. cried when her mother told her that she had to leave her grandparents there. He also described an incident at a school event, at which A.L. started crying when defendants allegedly refused to allow his grandparents to pick him up.

Plaintiff contended that the cessation of contact with him and his wife has caused L.L. and A.L. psychological harm. In support of that contention, plaintiff submitted to the trial court a May 2009 report from a forensic psychologist. That forensic psychologist interviewed plaintiff and his wife but did not communicate with defendants or with the grandchildren. Based on the limited information supplied to him, the forensic psychologist opined that "if the information obtained from the grandparents is accurate, the children could most certainly be harmed by the removal of such a longstanding, intimate, bonded relationship." The expert added that "in order to reach such a conclusion, it would be necessary to examine the children and, if possible, to interview the[ir] parents."

Plaintiff later identified a different expert psychologist, who is represented to have particular expertise in evaluating circumstances under the Grandparent Visitation Statue. Plaintiff proposed that the court issue an order compelling defendants to have L.L. and A.L. evaluated by that expert psychologist. If her evaluation confirmed plaintiff's perception that the children are being harmed by the loss of contact with him and his wife, plaintiff sought to have the court order that such visitation be resumed through a court order.

Defendants opposed plaintiff's demand for relief under N.J.S.A. 9:2-7.1. They maintained that plaintiff had not satisfied his burden to allege a sufficiently "special relationship" to justify interference with their parental rights under the statute and associated case law. They filed a lengthy certification in opposition to plaintiff's application, contending that plaintiff and his wife have acted in a disruptive and meddlesome fashion, that they have had numerous disagreements with defendants concerning the children, that they have made unannounced appearances at the children's events, and that they have not respected defendants' parental prerogatives.

Defendants asserted that the conflict and tension with plaintiff became so great that they felt it necessary to keep the children away from him and his wife. They stated that "further contact with [plaintiff] would only cause more tension and hostility in our lives, as well as the lives of our children." Defendants also opposed a court-ordered psychological evaluation of the children, asserting that "the children should not be subjected to [such] an unnecessary evaluation[.]"

The applicable provision, N.J.S.A. 9:2-7.1, imposes significant burdens upon a grandparent seeking relief ...


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