2/1/2019

The Harmful Consequences of a Digital-Age Divorce: A Look Inside the Jenni Farley and Roger Mathews Public Debacle

*NOTE:  Since the publication of this blog, Jenni's 14-paragraph letter on her website was removed (thank goodness).   As a result, the links provided in this blog may no longer be accessible or relevant.  Even so, our opinions provided within this blog have not changed.  

        This morning, as we were engaging in small talk, we came across this - a public message from Jenni “J-Woww” Farley to her estranged husband about their pending legal actions regarding divorce, domestic violence and the custody of their children.  For those of you who don’t know, “J-Woww” was featured on MTV’s Jersey Shore from 2009 to 2012.  She is currently embroiled in a messy divorce with her husband Roger Mathews, whom she met while on the show.  Custody and financial issues seem to be hotly contested in the divorce.  Jenni recently obtained a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) against Roger, alleging various acts of domestic violence.  Prior to the TRO, Roger posted several messages and videos on the internet to disparage Jenni.  In response, Jenni drafted this 14-paragraph letter, which she posted on the home page of her personal website.   It included text messages with the children’s nanny, court documents, personal details about their children, videos of fights they had in front of their children, videos of physical altercations in their home, videos of their baby watching these arguments, and much more.  It has been shared all across social media and on countless websites.  It is everywhere.  The gossip-craving reader may perceive Jenni’s disclosures as “juicy.”  As family law attorneys, we cringed.  While we absolutely empathize with her circumstances, she engaged in a big legal no-no.  Let us explain why.

          We live in a digital age.  People recount nearly all aspects of their personal life on social media - whether it’s the meal they cooked for dinner or the gruesome details of their 20-hour childbirth.  Some people use social media platforms as a “Brag Book”, or an opportunity to share pictures and updates regarding the positive developments in their lives.  Others publically air grievances or advance negativity.  However, airing out your personal grievances can sometimes be downright destructive. 

        When going through a divorce or separation, it can become especially enticing to publicly disparage your ex or provide intimate details of your relationship to garner support from your friends and followers.  This need for public affirmation may be heightened when your ex-partner/spouse initiates the public war by posting negative commentary about you.  Understandably, you may feel the need to publicly defend yourself using the same platforms.  While you may feel temporarily relieved by “exposing” your partner on social media, do not succumb to the temptation.  You will only do more damage to yourself, your children and your legal matters. 

          Courts will never commend a party for widespread disparagement of the other party.  In fact, a Court may impose sanctions or restrictions upon such conduct.  As divorce attorneys, we would never recommend our clients engage in any widespread public display of their private lives for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to the following:

      1.  Harassment:

          When social media is routinely used as a platform to disparage the other party, it may be viewed as harassment, which is a basis to secure a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) in New Jersey.   Roger began this mess by uploading videos of himself in a squad car, followed by several other videos replete with negative remarks about Jenni.  His supporters quickly flocked Jenni’s social media page to disparage her. Initially, she took the high road and asked “for privacy in an effort to protect herself and her children during this time.”  Notwithstanding this prior request, Jenni’s “open letter” to Roger was full of serious accusations, critiques on his parenting skills and troubling revelations. 

         Predictably, Jenni’s letter incited disgusting and disparaging commentary on Roger’s social media accounts.  Hours prior to the open letter, a video uploaded to Roger’s Instagram page showed Roger dancing with the parties’ daughter while dressed in Disney attire.  The commentary on this video was initially endearing.  After Jenni’s letter became public, the comments became saturated with vile statements, most of which are too obscene to mention here.  Many even wished him death and jail time.  It was reasonably foreseeable that Jenni’s serious and disturbing accusations against Roger would elicit this type of response.  As a result, she has potentially created a safety issue for Roger and their children. 

           Unfortunately, both parties’ use of social media has opened the door for further litigation and a litany of additional complaints to be launched against one another.  The bottom line is that the allegations raised in both parties’ social media posts should have been presented to the Court or kept private rather than brought to the public eye.

       2.  Protection of the Children: 

          In awarding custody and parenting time in New Jersey, Courts will focus on the “best interests of the child.”  Launching into a public verbal assault against the other parent or openly critiquing their ability to adequately parent the child will not bolster their case from the Court’s perspective.  On the contrary, public revelations designed to embarrass or humiliate a parent will be viewed negatively by the Court and be seen as affecting the “parties’ ability to agree, communicate and cooperate in matters relating to the child,” a factor that is relevant in awarding custody and parenting time in New Jersey.

        More importantly, the children can suffer by the publication of any widespread personal information, such as claims of parental alienation and accusations of a parent’s ineptness in handling their child’s private medical needs.  Also, how will people react to Roger when he is spotted in public with his children?  The impact this behavior can have on the children is endless.

          Regrets in uploading such social media diatribes are not cured by deleting these posts because its digital footprints can exist in perpetuity, especially in high profile cases.  It’s only a matter of time until the young children involved in this mess will discover the existence of these public feuds between their parents.  It will also be viewed by their children’s peers, educators, love interests, and even their own children.  These children never asked to be part of a public spectacle - regardless of who initiated it.  This can never be undone.

      3.  Revelation of Confidential Settlement Negotiations:

          In New Jersey, there is a rule (N.J.R.E. 408) that prohibits either party from disclosing (in court) settlement negotiations as evidence against the other party to prove that a claim someone is making is valid. 

          In Jenni’s public letter, she reveals various settlement offers she made to Roger, including but not limited to issues regarding custody, holidays, school and medical records, etc.  If Jenni’s positions on these issues change in the future, Roger may now be able to introduce her public letter against her in court.  If Jenni hadn’t posted this letter, he may have been precluded from doing so. 

          A person should always keep their settlement offers private to encourage settlement discussions in a divorce.  If settlement discussions are aired publicly, the other side will likely be resistant to engaging in productive negotiations for fear of being judged or criticized for their positions.  If you want to encourage cost-effective settlement rather than pay for endless legal battles, keep your mouth shut. 

      4.  Counsel Fee Awards:

          Jenni’s public letter also impacted any potential counsel fee award in this case.  In New Jersey, a judge must assess the parties’ financial positions (including income, assets, debts, and other financial circumstances) in determining whether a party should be responsible for part or all of the other’s counsel fees.  The court must also consider whether either party engaged in “bad faith” or acted unreasonably.

           Jenni had a really good case for counsel fees - prior to her public letter.  She could have argued Roger was engaging in a public tirade that put her and her children at risk.  Now, due to her letter and the resulting death threats Roger is receiving, the tables may have turned and Roger may have a case for legal fees against Jenni. 

          In other words, don’t engage in injurious behavior just because the other side is.  You risk yourself being responsible for their counsel fees or losing any chance of the other side being forced to pay your counsel fees.   

      5.  Inadvertent Exposure of Trial Positions or Evidence:

          The standard to obtain a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) in New Jersey is relatively low.  The judge issuing the TRO must merely believe the victim’s fear is warranted.  Prior to issuing a TRO, the judge only briefly hears from the alleged victim.  It is much more difficult to convert the TRO to a Final Restraining Order (FRO).  A Final Restraining Order hearing typically occurs within 10 days of the TRO being issued.  At the hearing, all people involved testify and are subject to cross examination.  Unlike a typical divorce trial, discovery (or the exchange of evidence) is not required prior to the FRO hearing.  This allows for the greater element of surprise at the hearing.  In her letter, Jenni essentially disclosed her evidence and strategy prior to the hearing.  As a result, Roger will be well-prepared to conjure up a justifiable explanation for every allegation she made in her public letter.  Jenni’s public display was definitely an unwise legal strategy that could possibly cost her the protection she needs with the issuance of a FRO.

      6.  Negative Publicity

          Airing private grievances via the internet or engaging in social media feuds is unlikely to create positive results or boost a celebrity’s career.  In fact, quite the opposite is true.  For instance, Jersey Shore reality star Ron Ortiz-Magro and his child’s mother frequently engage in heated exchanges via social media networks, launching accusations of physical abuse, drugs, cheating, etc.  These public altercations were a frequent punchline on Jersey Shore.  They have become the laughingstock of the internet.  The public perception of this couple as a result of their behavior is generally negative.  Ronnie’s behavior is disappointing as a parent and unlikely to bolster his “celebrity” status. 

          It was equally disheartening to see Jenni (who is typically a protective mother) follow in Ronnie’s explosive footsteps via a very public letter to her estranged spouse.  Jenni’s behavior thrust her divorce into the spotlight even more than Roger’s bad behavior, which is a result contrary to the goal of most high-profile individuals.  It isn’t a coincidence that people are quick to forget the fleeting divorce/separation announcements of A-list celebrities (case in point, Ben Stiller and Christine Taylor, Jennifer Aniston and Justin Theroux and Drew Barrymore and Will Kopelman).  On the other hand, we will never look at Johnny Depp or Amber Heard the same way again after their explosive, public divorce.  To stay under the radar, many high profile divorces are announced on a Friday afternoon, often before a holiday weekend or filed simultaneous with other high profile divorces.  This is purposefully done to dilute media coverage.  By Jenni issuing a public statement on a Wednesday evening, it seems her “message to Roger” was not actually directed toward him.  Rather, it was strategically released to boost her celebrity status.  In reality, it will likely to have the opposite effect - especially on her children.

          We presume Jenni’s divorce attorney was aware of and supported her public exposé, as the attorney’s name and website are advertised at the conclusion of her letter.  We would not advise our clients to take this action.  It muddies the waters, jeopardizes their case, increases legal fees, and harms the children involved.  Should Roger financially or physically suffer as a result of Jenni's attorney's participation in or support of this spectacle, he may have a potential law suit against Jenni's lawyer.  The ripple effect would be felt by that law firm's other clients and employees.  

          While we commend Jenni Farley for her open support of other victims of domestic violence, her public letter was not the right way to do it - legally and morally.  We understand she may have endured embarrassing publicity at the hands of Roger.  We do not challenge her accusations, which if true, should definitely warrant the issuance of a Final Restraining Order and impact any custody decision in their divorce.  However, we disagree with the strategy she and her attorneys took regarding the timing and manner in which she aired her grievances.  It has likely ruined the possibility of any settlement in the near future.  It will most definitely increase everyone’s legal fees.  

          In the words of Michelle Obama, “when they go low, we go high.”  One should never reduce themselves to engaging in unwise tactics - even if the other side is.  It always ends badly, not only for the parties involved, but more importantly, their children. 

Blog authored by Alyssa S. Engleberg, Esq. and Melissa M. Ruvolo, Esq.

Photo credit:  https://www.tmz.com/2018/09/27/jwoww-divorce-jenni-farley-jersey-shore/