BY MICHAEL VOLPE
Susan Carrington’s custody case took another troubling turn when she alleged in a New York Appeal’s Court that the judge who originally handled her case provided ex-parte advice to her ex-husband, John McNelis, in a hearing in 2010.
According to a February 3, 2016, appeal filed with New York’s Supreme Court, on May 7, 2010, John McNelis along with his attorney, Scott Ugell, entered the Rockland County Family Court Room of then Judge William Warren and began discussing issues related to custody with his ex-wife, Susan Carrington. The three began having a conversation without Carrington’s presence who was in Washington D.C. at the time.
McNelis was appearing in Rockland County though a Maryland Court had already issued a full ruling on their divorce and granted the couple joint custody. At the hearing McNelis told Warren that he had reason to believe Carrington was a danger to her children, the same accusations that had been dismissed in Maryland court with prejudice only a few months earlier and for which McNelis had actually been fined by the court for making frivolous allegations.
Yet transcripts and audio show that Warren did not request evidence or a transcript from prior court hearings, nor provide Carrington any reasonable opportunity to deflect such accusations. Instead, transcripts show that the longtime Rockland justice took McNelis seemingly at his word, going so far as to tell him that if he was in his shoes and was afraid for his daughters safety, he would not follow the Maryland order to return the children there for their regular visitation.
McNelis was attempting to transfer jurisdiction to Rockland County where he had recently moved, something not easily accomplished according to federal regulations. Transcripts show Warren told McNelis:
“What I’m saying is, the method you are using to attack this problem is not the method that should be used,” Judge Warren instructed McNelis from the bench. “What you want to do, I believe, is to change the visitation in some way, get some kind of control of her contact with the children. But presumptively the case has to go to Maryland. You didn’t bring that kind of a case. You didn’t bring a visitation or custody; you brought a family offense case, which doesn’t have those same requirements on it. A family offense case can be brought in this state, where you live, even if you’ve been living here for 10 minutes.”
Carrington’s lawyer Barbara Schwartz contends that Warren’s words could easily be construed as legal advice from the bench, which is against judicial ethics. The issue of jurisdiction has been at the source of controversy in this custody matter with Carrington, as she has argued that New York never legally acquired jurisdiction in the case and that McNelis and his attorneys worked around the system.
“Family offense means that one person hurt or threatened a member of the household,” according to the New York State Courts definition. By bringing his motion, as Warren suggested, as a family offense, Rockland County could begin to wrestle jurisdiction from Maryland.
McNelis, who had several DUI and drug arrests on his personal rap sheet, claimed repeatedly throughout the proceedings that Carrington was an abuser of drugs; an allegation that had also been made and dismissed by a Maryland court. The Rockland County allegation that Carrington abused drugs was backed up by the conclusion of Dr. Charles Heller, a New York forensic psychologist, who determined this without speaking or examining Carrington, but strictly based on McNelis allegations, according to several court filings.
Rolf Thorsen, who was assisting Warren on the case, demanded Carrington go for drug rehabilitation before she could see her children again. But Carrington was then rejected from entrance to a Rockland County drug rehabilitation facility because the facility determined she had no drugs in her system and did not have a drug problem. Somehow, this still did not help her position with the Rockland court.
The Rockland County Family Court system has stopped Carrington from having any contact with her two daughters for more than five years, though the court has never changed the custody order in Maryland. Carrington told RCT that this transcript shows that the intention all along for Rockland County was to keep her from her children.
“I was shocked in utter disbelief that my fate was predetermined and that no matter what I did or didn’t do, McNelis was going to make true on his promise to take my daughters away from me.”
While New York ceded jurisdiction in January, Carrington continues appealing in New York State to overturn several orders including one sanctioning her for approximately $15,000. In Carrington’s opinion, New York never truly acquired jurisdiction. Carrington also hopes to reestablish Maryland’s authority in the case as soon as possible and has filed a brief in court in that state.
McNelis currently lives at an unknown address in Florida wish his and Carrington’s two daughters. A person must live a state for at least six months before the state is eligible to claim jurisdiction in a custody case.
Ugell and Heller would not comment on the case at this time.