Division of Youth and Family Services v. P.M.

Decision Date25 February 1997
Citation301 N.J.Super. 80,693 A.2d 941
PartiesDIVISION OF YOUTH AND FAMILY SERVICES, Plaintiff, v. P.M. and G.M., 1 Defendants. Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Monmouth County, Family Part
CourtNew Jersey Superior Court
Vincent P. Valerio, Deputy Attorney General, for plaintiff DYFS

Theodore Sliwinski, East Brunswick, for defendants.



Eight year old Jose M. found himself at the center of protracted litigation culminating in a lengthy trial. At the end of that trial, this court found that Jose had neither been neglected nor abused by defendants--his mother and stepfather--as had been claimed by the Division of Youth & Family Services ("DYFS"). 3

16 witnesses testified over 10 days. The court found in favor of defendants and dismissed the complaint. Now, defendants seek, among other things, an award of counsel fees from DYFS. They rely on this court's harsh words in dismissing the action 4 in support of their argument that DYFS's "abuse and neglect" complaint was frivolous within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 2A:15-59.1 ("the frivolous litigation statute").

Originally, the moving and opposing papers presupposed DYFS's vulnerability to attack by way of the frivolous litigation statute. That was logical since an earlier decision had, in fact, said so. See Matter of K.L.F., 275 N.J.Super. 507, 646 A.2d 532 (Ch.Div.1993). Prior to the return date of this motion, however, the parties were invited to brief the question of whether K.L.F. should be followed.

For the reasons expressed below, this court disagrees with K.L.F. and holds that DYFS may not be sanctioned by way of N.J.S.A. 2A:15-59.1. Accordingly, the question of whether

DYFS's complaint was actually frivolous, or commenced or continued in bad faith, need not be reached.

A. The Problem

Picture the following scene. DYFS receives a referral from a school that one of their students has claimed to having been physically punished by his parents. A DYFS case worker is dispatched to the child's home that night. She is greeted by angry parents and tempers flare. The case worker seeks some indication that the child will not be disciplined inappropriately in the future but the parents stubbornly refuse to discuss the matter. None of the case worker's comments calm the waters or defuse the volatile situation. She calls her supervisor who contacts the local police in order to help restore civility in the home. Nothing works and while the case worker never intended to remove the child from the home, she now feels that the present situation warrants drastic action, particularly since some of the parents' anger seems directed toward the child. DYFS immediately removes the child from the home and a complaint is filed with the Family Part the next day. Whether the child was ever actually abused or neglected prior to removal remains a mystery as the litigation begins.

DYFS has been given the power to intervene into a scene such as described above, see N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.29(a), in order to "assure that the lives of innocent children are immediately safeguarded from further injury and possible death and that the legal rights of such children are fully protected." See N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.8. The issue now raised by defendants requires the court to consider whether the Legislature, in empowering DYFS to act swiftly and decisively to protect a potentially endangered child, also requires DYFS to act with deliberation and circumspection--to "stop In entertaining the conjectures that spring from this case, the court must consider the Legislature's expressions and intentions against the backdrop of the extraordinarily important goal of the protection of children from abuse and neglect.

think, investigate and research" 5--as required of private litigants in less exigent circumstances.

B. Did the Legislature Intend to Include DYFS as a Party Against Whom Frivolous Litigation Sanctions Could

be Awarded?

In determining how a particular statute should be applied, the ultimate function of a court is to implement the intent of the Legislature. State v. Sutton, 132 N.J. 471, 479, 625 A.2d 1132 (1993). That intent is to be found on the textual face of the statute in question when it is unambiguous. State v. Butler, 89 N.J. 220, 226, 445 A.2d 399 (1982). Under those circumstances the court's "sole function" is to enforce the statute "according to its terms." Sheeran v. Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company, 80 N.J. 548, 556, 404 A.2d 625 (1979). On the other hand, when the statute is ambiguous, or its application to a particular problem is unclear, the Legislature's intent must be found by applying the rules of construction traditionally applied by the courts.

1. The Legislature's Words

The Legislature's desire to exempt DYFS from sanctions and to leave unfettered DYFS's pursuit of the protection of children can be found on the faces of N.J.S.A. 2A:15-59.1 and N.J.S.A. 2A:15-60. N.J.S.A. 2A:15-59.1 permits an award of fees in favor of a prevailing party if the court finds that a pleading of the "non-prevailing person" was frivolous. N.J.S.A. 2A:15-60 provides that A close examination of the wording of these statutes compels a finding that the Legislature chose not to include the state, or any of its subdivisions, as a target of frivolous litigation sanctions. While the version of the frivolous litigation statute in existence at the time K.L.F. was decided strongly suggests this result, the amendments that were enacted after K.L.F. dispel any such doubts. The older and newer versions of the statute will be viewed separately.

"[i]n an action brought by the state ... the defendant ... shall not recover any costs against [the state]."
(a) "Something Old": the Pre-1994 Version of the Frivolous

Litigation Statute

N.J.S.A 2A:15-60 expressly bars an award of costs against the state "or any person for the use of the state." The court in K.L.F. acknowledged that this statute ostensibly prohibits an award of counsel fees against DYFS but avoided the effect of that conclusion when it mistakenly ruled that N.J.S.A. 2A:15-60 was in conflict with (and modified by) N.J.S.A. 2A:15-59.1.

Notwithstanding N.J.S.A. 2A:15-60, the phrasing used by the Legislature in the frivolous litigation statute reflects a conscious decision to bar its application to the state or its subdivisions. This can be seen when N.J.S.A. 2A:15-59.1 is momentarily shorn of most of its otherwise relevant verbiage, so that the statute reads that fees may be awarded to

A party who prevails ... against any other party ... [who is a] non-prevailing person. (emphasis added)

It is agreed, as urged by K.L.F., that the word "party" is generally understood to have a broad meaning. See, e.g., Kasharian v. Wilentz, 93 N.J.Super. 479, 482, 226 A.2d 437 (App.Div.1967) (a party is "the person or entity beneficially interested or personally sought to be held liable"); In re Garey's Estate, 65 N.J.Super. 585, 588, 168 A.2d 273 (Cty.Ct.1961) (a party is " 'ordinarily one who has or claims an interest in the subject of an action or proceeding instituted to afford some relief to the one who sets the law in motion against another person or persons' ") (quoting In its decision, the K.L.F. court erred in overlooking the significance of the Legislature's use of the word "person." Should a court simply ignore or choose not to give meaning to such phrasing? Earlier decisions provide the direction needed. They instruct that the meaning of a word or set of words may be indicated, controlled or clarified by neighboring words. State v. Mortimer, 135 N.J. 517, 536, 641 A.2d 257 (1994), cert. denied 513 U.S. 970, 115 S.Ct. 440, 130 L.Ed.2d 351 (1994); Falcone v. Branker, 135 N.J.Super. 137, 147, 342 A.2d 875 (Law Div.1975). That is, a word is known by the company that it keeps, Howard v. Harwood's Restaurant Co., 25 N.J. 72, 90, 135 A.2d 161 (1957); Ben Ali v. Towe, 30 N.J.Super. 19, 23, 103 A.2d 158 (App.Div.1954) and, thus, associated words in a statute can be viewed as explaining or limiting each other. Germann v. Matriss, 55 N.J. 193, 220-221, 260 A.2d 825 (1970); State v. B.H., 290 N.J.Super. 588, 598, 676 A.2d 565 (App.Div.1996). 6 Here, after first referring to the litigant against whom fees are sought as the "other party," the Legislature then qualified its description of that litigant by referring to it as the "nonprevailing person." The Legislature's switch from "party" to "person" should not be overlooked or viewed as insignificant. The courts are required to give, if possible, full effect to every word of a statute; a construction that renders part of a statute inoperative, superfluous or meaningless is to be avoided. Gabin v. Skyline Cabana Club, 54 N.J. 550, 555, 258 A.2d 6 (1969). This change in descriptive terms by the Legislature carries special significance in this case. N.J.S.A. 1:1-2 defines "person" as including "corporations, companies, associations Legislative intent can, at times, be elusive; capturing it requires resort to the clues left by the Legislature. The most telling of these are the very words used and the way these words have been defined in the past. In this case, the Legislature used a word of great scope ("party") but modified it with an admittedly broad, yet lesser inclusive term ("person"). The former might very well be assumed to include the state and its subdivisions, but the latter does not. N.J.S.A. 1:1-2. Without a clearer statement from the Legislature, the face of N.J.S.A. 2A:15-59.1 expressly excludes DYFS as a target of frivolous litigation sanctions because, in light of N.J.S.A. 1:1-2, DYFS cannot be found to be a nonprevailing "person".

Hughes v. Jones, 116 N.Y. 67, 22 N.E. 446, 448 (1889)); Black's Law Dictionary 1122 (6th ed. 1990) (parties are persons "by or against whom a legal suit is brought, whether in law or in equity"). However, the Legislature further narrowed the class of parties against whom sanctions may be awarded by ultimately referring to them as ...

To continue reading

Request your trial
1 cases
  • Wamco XV Ltd. v. Farrell
    • United States
    • New Jersey Superior Court — Appellate Division
    • May 20, 1997
    ... ... Loyola Consumer Services, Inc., Capital Bankers ... Life Insurance Company and First ... Superior Court of New Jersey, ... Appellate Division" ... Argued May 5, 1997 ... Decided May 20, 1997 ...   \xC2" ... ...

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT