MORRISTOWN, N.J. — Behind the novel legal issues surrounding the lawsuit filed by a teenage private school student against her parents for child support and college costs is a judge's push for the parties to reconcile, maybe through family therapy.
If a full-blown hearing occurs on April 22 in the Superior Court family division of Morris County, both senior Rachel Canning, 18, and her parents, Elizabeth and Sean Canning of Lincoln Park, N.J., would face public exposure of acrimonious allegations they have made against each other in court papers.
"I think everyone has to try to take a step back and realize that this family and Rachel in particular is well worth the effort to salvage, or attempt to," Superior Court Judge Peter Bogaard said at a preliminary hearing Tuesday.
"Unfortunately, and I'm not going to attempt to cast blame at anyone, but with respect to this it does appear that more energy has been utilized up to this point to devise ways to forever tear apart this family than try to figure out how this family can somehow be brought back together," Bogaard said.
Bogaard said no to Rachel Canning's initial requests but scheduled another hearing April 22 to decide whether the Morris Catholic High School cheerleader and lacrosse player was constructively abandoned by her parents and left or whether she chose to become independent.
Unless a settlement is reached, the judge will have to deal with whether Rachel at 18 emancipated herself by taking herself outside her family's "sphere of influence," or whether her parents have an obligation to continue supporting her and pay her anticipated college tuition costs by constructively abandoning her and driving her to leave home.
At Tuesday's hearing, Bogaard asked attorneys for both sides to file legal briefs with him on the doctrines of "constructive abandonment" and "constructive emancipation."
"It's a very unique case and Rachel does fall into a limbo zone," said Herbert Korn, who has handled numerous matrimonial and family cases during 40 years as an attorney.
The Canning case poses relatively uncharted legal territory because a judge cannot force counseling or other forms of resolution on Rachel since she has turned 18 and the majority of New Jersey court cases dealing with parental obligations to pay for college involve parents who are divorced, not together as Elizabeth and Sean Canning are.
"There's no case law that I'm aware of exactly on point to this. There are fewer options for a judge to look to in a case like this and it's something the judge will have to wrestle with," said family law attorney Vincent Celli of Morristown. "On the one hand you have a child, who has the emotional appeal but the parents have the right to act as parents as long as their children are living in their home."
Celli noted that Pennsylvania residents are not obligated to pay college tuition costs for their children once they turn 18.
In New Jersey, "There's no law or case or statute that I'm aware of that say parents in an intact family have to pay for their child's education," Celli said. Edward O'Donnell, a prominent matrimonial lawyer in Morris County, said there are a myriad of court rulings on divorced parents' obligations to pay college tuition costs so that children don't become pawns of the broken marriage.
"I've never seen something like this. If the girl were 17 there'd be no issue the parents would have to support her," O'Donnell said.
The honor student at Morris Catholic — where tuition currently is about $12,000 a year — sued on Feb. 24 in Morris County for a declaration of "non-emancipation." She contended that as a result of alleged abuse, neglect and "abnormal" ultimatums, she was forced to leave home when she turned 18 in November because of a "constructive abandonment" by her parents, including her father, who is a retired Lincoln Park police chief and current Mount Olive Township administrator.
The parents in response contend that the oldest of their three daughters emancipated herself by defying their household rules on curfew, drinking and respectfulness to them. They also want her to give up her boyfriend, a fellow Morris Catholic student, who they believe is a bad influence. The court record contains not only loving written exchanges between the parents and Rachel but also scathing communications immediately before and after Rachel's departure from home.
Bogaard, facing the parties and a mob of journalists attracted by the unusual aspects of the case, made preliminary rulings Tuesday that denied immediate, or so-called emergent relief, that Rachel was seeking. Since she left home, she has been living with the family of prominent attorney and former Morris County Freeholder John Inglesino, whose daughter also is a Morris Catholic senior, and Inglesino is funding the lawsuit.
Bogaard determined that Rachel is not entitled, at least for now, to weekly child support of $654, settlement of a tuition debt to Morris Catholic of about $6,000, and access to her college fund. Because Morris Catholic has resolved to keep Rachel on through her graduation and she is not living on the streets, Bogaard determined that none of the demands were immediate emergencies.
The hearing Tuesday at times went far afield of the immediate issues, almost turning into a mini-trial as Rachel's lawyer accused the parents of such actions as making alcohol available to their daughter and then lambasting her for allegedly drinking.
The judge multiple times reflected on what he called "a tragedy" and urged both sides to consider counseling and being a unified family again. He referred to references in court papers that the parents, after Rachel's move out, made an appointment for her to see a therapist but he noted he doesn't know whether they ever tried family counseling.
"The parties are encouraged to explore the option of family counseling," Bogaard said. "I don't know if counseling is going to be helpful. I think we have a situation here where both parties, perhaps, have drawn lines in the sand."