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In re Ijeoma F. A.

Family Court, Queens County

December 12, 2017

In the Matter of Ijeoma F. A., Petitioner,
v.
Okechukwu D., Respondent.

          For the Mother, Ivette M. Zelaya, Esq.; For the Father, Adewole David Agbayewa, Esq.; Attorney for the Child, Heidi Luna, Esq.

          John M. Hunt, J.

         PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         The Mother, Ijeoma F.A. (hereinafter "Mother") and the Father, Okechukwu D. (hereinafter "Father"), have two children in common, Ikechukwu D. (age 17) and Nnenna (age 15). The parties are unmarried, but reside together with their two children, and co-parent. On June 1, 2017, the Mother filed two petitions against the Father, a family offense petition and a custody petition. On July 3, 2017, the Father filed two petitions against the Mother, a family offense petition and a custody petition. On July 3, 2017, the Father's custody petition was dismissed. On September 14, 2017, the remaining matters were transferred to this Court.

         On October 31, 2017, the Father filed a motion to dismiss the Mother's petitions. He argues that her custody petition should be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction and her family offense petition should be dismissed for facial insufficiency. The motion was returnable on November 15, 2017. On November 15, 2017, the Court heard argument and reserved decision.

         THE COURT DISMISSES THE MOTHER'S CUSTODY PETITION

         Absent a showing that the children's welfare is in danger or their reasonable needs have not been met, the Family Court has no jurisdiction to entertain a custody petition where parties reside together and co-parent children. See People ex rel. Sisson v. Sisson, 271 NY 285, 286-88 (1936); see also A.K. v. A.S., 32 Misc.3d 431, 432-34 (NY Cty. Fam. Ct., May 25, 2011). Compare Harari v. Davis, 59 A.D.3d 182, 182 (1st Dep't 2009) (where parties lived together, child support awarded during litigation due to showing of necessity to maintain child's reasonable needs); Darrow v. Burlingame, 298 A.D.2d 651, 651 (3d Dep't 2002) (unmarried parties, living together, stipulated to issuance of family court custody order); Koerner v. Koerner, 566 N.Y.S.2d 23, 23 (1st Dep't 1991) (upholding child support award during litigation where necessary to maintain reasonable needs of children). The Court of Appeals has held quite succinctly that a

"Court cannot regulate by its processes the internal affairs of the home. Disputes between parents when it does not involve anything immoral or harmful to the welfare of the child is beyond the reach of the law. The vast majority of matters concerning the upbringing of children must be left to the conscience, patience, and self restraint of father and mother. No end of difficulties would arise should judges try to tell parents how to bring up their children. Only when moral, mental and physical conditions are so bad as seriously to affect the health or morals of children should the courts be called upon to act."

People ex rel. Sisson v. Sisson, 271 NY 285, 286-88 (1936) . The Mother's petition states that the parties live together and share custody of their children. [1] Although the Mother alleges that the environment in which the children live is hostile and unhealthy, she fails to plead her petition with sufficient specificity. Moreover, her assertions of an unsafe environment are not only vague and conclusory, but belied by her acknowledgment in her attendant family offense petition that she left the children alone with their father during the time period that she traveled to Nigeria for a family funeral. Accordingly, the Mother's custody petition is dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. [2]

         THE COURT DISMISSES THE MOTHER'S FAMILY OFFENSE PETITION

         In deciding a motion to dismiss for failure to state a cause of action, pursuant to New York State Civil Practice Laws and Rules § 3211, [3] the Court must construe the petition liberally to determine whether, within the pleading's four corners, there exists a cognizable cause of action. See Harris v. Barbera, 96 A.D.3d 904, 905 (2d Dep't 2012); see also Martin v. Liberty Mutual Ins. Co., 92 A.D.3d 729, 730 (2d Dep't 2012); Ruffino v. New York City Transit Auth., 55 A.D.3d 817, 818 (2d Dep't 2008). To that end, the Court must accept all alleged facts within the pleadings to be true. See Martin, 92 A.D.3d at 730; see also Young v. Campbell, 87 A.D.3d 692, 693 (2d Dep't 2011).

         Even affording the Mother's family offense petition the most liberal reading, and accepting all facts alleged as true, the petition fails to set forth a conduct or events which constitute a family offense.

         The only arguable family offense committed by the Father is disorderly conduct. See NY Penal L. § 240.20 (McKinney's 2017); see also NY Fam. Ct. Act § 812(1) (2017). The disorderly conduct statute covers a variety of upsetting and irritating behavior, including fighting, threatening, "unreasonable noise, " cursing, and obscene gestures. See n NY Penal L. § 240.20 (McKinney's 2017). However, the mens rea associated with disorderly conduct is "intent to cause public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm, or recklessly creating a risk thereof." Id. Although Family Court Act § 812 extends the scope of the disorderly conduct statute to private places, [4] the Second Department has held that a family offense petitioner is nonetheless required to establish that a respondent's acts were designed to create public harm or a risk of it. See Cassie v. Cassie, 109 A.D.3d 337, 342 (2d dep't 2013); see also Sharon D. v. Dara K., 130 A.D.3d 1179, 1181 (3d Dep't 2015) (no disorderly conduct where incident occurred within confines of great-aunt's home and intent to cause public inconvenience not shown). Cf. Rebecca M.T. v. Trina J.M., 134 A.D.3d 551, 552 (1st Dep't 2015) (disorderly conduct upheld where screaming and yelling during altercation, apartment left in disarray, and petitioner ran from apartment partially naked); Martha B. v. Julian P., 133 A.D.3d 418, 418 (1 Dep't 2015) (disorderly conduct where husband threatened petitioner in superintendent's office of their building). The Mother's allegations of arguments, inter alia, about salt fail to set forth conduct or events that rise to the level of a family offense. Moreover, the Mother has failed to proffer allegations that demonstrate that the Father was acting with the proper mens rea. See Little v. Renz, 137 A.D.3d 916, 916 (2d Dep't 2016) (in family offense petition alleging disorderly conduct, father failed to establish necessary intent). Although the Court does not condone the Father's alleged behavior, the Mother's hurt feelings are not enough to sustain the petition. Further, the Mother's allegations that their teenage children were upset and crying does not speak to whether the children were upset at her, the Father, or the general discord in the home due to their parents' inability to get along. Even if the Mother had been more specific, the Court certainly can not presume that the Mother is privy to the operation of the children's minds. Accordingly, the Court is constrained to dismiss the Mother's family offense petition for failure to state a cause of action. To do otherwise would stretch the family court's limited authority to permit intrusion upon everyday verbal disagreements occurring in family households.

         As an aside, the Court's Attorney was advised by counsel for both parents that there is a pending partition action in Queens County Supreme Court regarding their residence. It is this Court's view that the parties' property dispute has likely been masquerading as a family offense ...


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