Jersey Girl Sues Parents: What to Make of the Rachel Canning Case

The nation has been swept into a furor in the past few days over a New Jersey girl suing her parents.

Rachel Canning, 18, filed a complaint against her parents, alleging that they abused and mistreated her before kicking her out of the house, stopping payment of her private high school tuition, and “redirecting” her college fund.

Sean and Elizabeth Canning, Rachel’s parents, counter that she left of her own volition because she did not like house rules (e.g. curfew) and refused to dump a bad-influence boyfriend after being given an ultimatum.  Moreover, Sean and Elizabeth indicate that Rachel was disrespectful to them and was repeatedly disciplined at home and school for bullying her younger sister.

School Grounds

More troublesome allegations include that Elizabeth psychologically abused Rachel, calling her disparaging names and destroying her self-image to the extent that Rachel developed an eating disorder.  The eating disorder, Rachel claims, made her too weak to continue playing basketball (a sport for which she would likely have earned a college scholarship).

Rachel also contends that her father has an inappropriately affectionate relationship with her, having provided alcohol on numerous occasions and treating Rachel as “more than” a daughter.  A cursory investigation by New Jersey officials did not reveal abuse, but the findings were far from substantial.  Sean and Elizabeth countered with a disturbing voicemail in which Rachel berated her mother.

Rachel has been living with a friend whose father, an attorney, supports the lawsuit and has paid Rachel’s legal fees to this point.  The parents of Rachel’s boyfriend have also made statements defending their son and simultaneously indicating that Rachel’s alleged misbehavior began before her son was involved and that Rachel’s allegations of abuse are true.

The courts have also been dragged into the dispute: yesterday, a New Jersey judge denied Rachel’s petition for her parents to pay her outstanding school tuition and living expenses until the case is resolved.

Meanwhile, commentators both amateur and professional have taken to television, radio, and social media around the country to express their opinions of the case, Rachel, her family, and the state of parenting in the 21st century.

Amid the chaos, however, are some real legal issues (and misunderstandings) to consider:

1.      What is Rachel’s case?

Part of Rachel’s suit against her parents rests on the assertion that she was abused and subsequently abandoned during the school year.  Although the Canning case is in New Jersey, Arizona law provides a similar basis for the idea that parents must support children while they remain in school:  “Except [in cases of sexual conduct with a minor or sexual assault], every person has the duty to provide all reasonable support for that person’s natural and adopted minor, unemancipated children … the court may order support to continue past the age of majority.  If a child reaches the age of majority while the child is attending high school or a certified high school equivalency program, support shall continue to be provided while the child is actually attending high school or the equivalency program but only until the child reaches nineteen years of age unless the court [orders that the obligation continue].” Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 25-501.

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Tremendous public confusion has resulted from Rachel’s attorney insisting that Rachel does not want to be emancipated from her parents, mostly because the common understanding of parental obligations is that the duty to provide support terminates automatically when a child turns 18.  As demonstrated in § 25-501, however, the obligation that every parent has to support children persists through high school (until age 19), or even longer if a court finds support necessary.

Rachel’s argument that her parents should pay her college tuition is more complicated because the law does not generally require parents to pay for post-secondary education.  Rachel’s attorney might argue that Rachel and her parents had a binding agreement that she would gain access to her college fund once her application to a university was accepted.  It is also possible that Rachel’s case will call on college tuition orders in divorces as precedent that parents are obligated to pay college tuition in some circumstances.

Notably, the U.S. Department of Education does not allow financial aid administrators at higher education institutions to grant need-based aid unless the parents are unable to pay.  A parent’s refusal to provide financial information for the student’s aid application or refusal to pay tuition does not create need sufficient to warrant financial aid.  Even if the parents do not claim the student as a dependent or the student is financially self-sufficient, the Department will not issue aid if the parent is capable of paying.  Accordingly, Rachel must win her argument or mend her relationship with her parents in order to attend one of the numerous universities that have accepted her applications without substantial loan debt, even if she becomes independent.

 2.      Why so much talk about precedent?

In the most recent hearing, the judge chided Rachel’s attorney for asking him to set a precedent that would give parents “constant fear” that their child could sue for cell phones, televisions, or simply to avoid obeying household rules.  Notwithstanding the fact that his rhetorical questions grossly minimize the abuse allegations, the judge’s concern with precedent may have merit.

Graduation (Woodnick)

In all types of law, case-by-case decisions change the landscape.  Because courts tend to follow the reasoning used to make earlier decisions, novel cases like Rachel’s lawsuit can have lasting effects on how judges resolve future disputes.  One New Jersey family court judge’s decision is not likely to have a significant impact on common law development in New Jersey – and has negligible persuasive value for courts in any other state – because trial-level decisions do not bind other courts.

If the New Jersey judge ultimately grants Rachel’s petition for college tuition, that decision would have persuasive value in other New Jersey courts, but would have almost no effect in Arizona.  If a Brophy or Xavier student decides to sue a Scottsdale parent in the Superior Court, they will face the same uphill battle.

The only “precedent” with which the judge should be worried is that media coverage will spread misunderstanding and create uncertainty among parents, but far-reaching policy concerns of that stature create bad court decisions and should be left to the legislature.

3.      Where did this case go wrong?

Serious family disputes occur every day, to the surprise of absolutely no one. Intrafamily lawsuits, however, are far less common.  Family courts focus substantial resources on mediation, coordination, and counseling to help families resolve problems.  Only when these remedial measures fail do courts resort to trials and orders, because those orders can have a tremendous negative impact on a family’s future.  Judges greatly prefer to avoid forcing families to act if voluntary resolution is possible.

In the Canning case, speculation is rampant that attempts to mediate between the parties either never occurred or were sabotaged by everyone from Rachel’s friends, the attorney bankrolling her case, the school, the attorneys representing the parties, Rachel’s boyfriend, and the list continues.  Many commentators suggest that Rachel feels so strongly entitled to her college fund that she simply can’t understand the gravity of the situation, while others believe she is being manipulated.  It may be that Rachel is an abuse victim and is terrified of the prospect of moving back into her parents’ home.

The national uproar over the case illustrates one key observation: children do not regularly sue their parents and have a lot to lose if they do.  With all of the contemporaneous mud-slinging at the parents and (mostly) Rachel, observers seem ready to level blame and offer their 140-characters-or-less solutions to all of the world’s parenting problems.  One commenter even suggested that Rachel “find a corner” and “work off her entitlement;” a despicable and naïve response to a sad situation.

Instead of trying to fit the case into a narrative agenda, parents, teachers, lawyers, practitioners, and policymakers should see the Canning case as a sobering example of how quickly a family can be derailed and ask tough questions about how we define adulthood, family support, and abuse.

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