TRENTON, N.J. (CN) - Grandparents who sued for greater visitation rights to their granddaughter should have been allowed to go to trial, New Jersey's high court ruled.
In a decision published Jan. 12, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided that a trial court improperly dismissed a lawsuit by two grandparents and should have given them an opportunity to prove their granddaughter would be harmed by being cut off from them.
The grandparents, Anthony and Suzanne Major, had visited the girl once every two weeks and then later several times a week as their son grew sick from cancer and then died, the ruling states.
However, once their son died and the mother, Julie Maguire, got sole custody of the grandchild, they were only allowed to visit the girl twice over a four-month period, once for only five minutes after a dance recital, according to court documents.
Maguire had cohabitated with the plaintiffs' son, Chris Major, between 2007 and late 2009, when he was diagnosed with cancer. During that time, the parents entered into a joint legal custody agreement, sharing time with the girl. However, because of Major's sickness, the grandparents ended up spending most of his allotted time with the child.
Suzanne Major claimed that she had attended her granddaughter's dance recitals, brought her to "take your child to work day" for three consecutive years, and had taken the girl to Disney World and Key West. The grandfather, who is divorced from Suzanne, also took the girl on fishing trips and cared for her while his son underwent cancer treatment.
In 2012, when her son's health declined, Suzanne says she took off work to help him, picking up her granddaughter from school two days per week and helping with the girl's homework.
After Chris Major died in 2013, the relationship between Maguire and the grandparents reportedly soured. Maguire and her family were barred from his funeral, according to Suzanne, and Maguire refused to allow the then 5-year-old daughter to attend the funeral. Maguire said that the grandparents called her names behind her back but in front of her daughter.
Due to their poor relationship with Maguire, the Majors say they were allowed to visit their granddaughter during a four-month period for only for a half-hour at a skating rink and later for five minutes at a dance recital.
The grandparents applied for greater visitation rights, but Maguire responded that the girl was doing well at home with her stepfather and newborn brother. The Majors decided to sue.
The trial court in the case warned the Majors that they lacked prima facie evidence of harm to their granddaughter, and as such they would not be allowed discovery but could testify. The court also forbade an expert witness, which the Majors had requested, to discuss the question of harm and apparently "admonished plaintiffs" that they should have resolve the issue out of court.
During the pleading stage, Suzanne Major testified during the pre-trial phase that her granddaughter "lost her daddy [and] she's lost her family that she has known for almost six years." She added that "she needs us in her life and we need her in our life."
The trial court dismissed the application for visitation. After an appeal, the New Jersey Appellate Division overruled the lower court's decision.
The state's high court affirmed Tuesday, noting that New Jersey law allows grandparents standing to file suit for visitation.
Further, the New Jersey Supreme Court agreed with the Appellate Division's ruling that the trial court should have held discovery in the case and that new regulations passed in September 2015 require trial courts to conduct case management conferences to review complex cases.
"The grandparents have established a prima facie case that the absence of visitation between the grandparents and their granddaughter will harm the child," Justice Anne Patterson wrote in the 5-0 opinion, noting the "close bond" between the Majors and their granddaughter.
Justices Barry Albin and Faustino Fernandez-Vina did not participate in the ruling. The case now returns to trial court, where the Majors will have the opportunity to prove the granddaughter has been harmed by their absence.