Recent Federal Court Decision Addresses the Parental Rights of a Father

By Fredrick P. Niemann, Esq. of Hanlon Niemann, a Freehold, NJ Adoption Law Attorney

A federal civil rights suit over termination of a father’s parental rights was wrongly dismissed the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has ruled.

The father’s suit, brought in the U.S. District Court, Newark, NJ, was dismissed based on the legal doctrine which says a federal court may not exercise jurisdiction over a case by a party who loses a state court proceeding and invites federal court review of that judgment. The district court focused on whether the federal court suit was “inextricably intertwined” with proceedings in the Bergen County Superior Court, where plaintiff’s parental rights were terminated.

The facts of the case are not very complimentary to either the father or the mother. After the birth of plaintiff’s son in 2007, the child and his mother both tested positive for cocaine. Mom voluntarily surrendered her rights to the child, and DCPP brought a suit to terminate the father’s rights. The state’s petition was granted after a five-day trial, and plaintiff’s mother (the child’s grandmother), was given custody. The Appellate Division affirmed that ruling.

The state terminated the father’s parental rights after he refused to submit to drug testing on multiple occasions, although he claimed he had a medical condition.

Plaintiff filed a federal suit in response claiming his constitutional rights were violated. He claimed the defendants improperly removed the child without a hearing or due process and interfered with his fundamental right to be a parent to his son. He sought an injunction and compensatory damages. Amazingly, his federal suit did not seek restoration of his parental rights.

The U.S. District Judge assigned to the case granted the defendants’ motion for dismissal after finding the federal case was “inextricably intertwined” with the state proceeding in which the plaintiff lost the case, thus the appeal to the Third Circuit.

The appellate court vacated the district court judgment and remanded the case for reconsideration of the father’s claims because the trial judge relied too much on the term “inextricably intertwined” and reinstated the case for all the defendants except for the psychologist and the Deputy Attorney General who were entitled to absolute immunity.

If you have a NJ adoption matter or are being threatened by a termination of parental rights, please contact Fredrick P. Niemann, Esq. toll-free at (855) 376-5291 or email him at fniemann@hnlawfirm.com. Please ask us about our video conferencing consultations if you are unable to come to our office.