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Category: Motion Practice

Elder v. Elder – 2024 UT App 68 – enforcement vs. modification

Elder v. Elder – 2024 UT App 68

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

BRITTANY LEE ELDER, Appellee, v. MATT BLAKE ELDER, Appellant.

Opinion No. 20210902-CA Filed May 9, 2024

Second District Court, Farmington Department

The Honorable David M. Connors No. 154700355

Julie J. Nelson and Jaclyn Robertson, Attorneys for Appellant Steven C. Tycksen, Attorney for Appellee

JUDGE RYAN D. TENNEY authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES RYAN M. HARRIS and AMY J. OLIVER concurred.

TENNEY, Judge:

¶1 The district court issued an order requiring Matt Blake Elder to reimburse his ex-wife, Brittany Lee Elder, for the amount she had paid to satisfy a loan on a townhouse that she had been awarded in the divorce.[1] Matt challenges this ruling on appeal, arguing that it was a procedurally improper modification of the couple’s divorce decree. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm.

BACKGROUND

¶2 Brittany and Matt were married in 2008. In early 2015, Brittany filed a petition for divorce. Later that year, Brittany and Matt entered into a stipulated agreement that the district court subsequently adopted in a Decree of Divorce (the Decree). Under a “Division of Property” heading, the Decree divided the couple’s real property, vehicles, and other personal property. Matt received the “marital home along with any accompanying debts and/or equity.” Of note here, Brittany was awarded a townhouse “as an equalization of the distribution of the assets.” The Decree specified that “Matt will be responsible for any loans associated with the townhouse and have them paid off within 120 days of signing this Stipulation.”

¶3        A separate provision in the Decree was captioned “Remedies on Default.” It stated that in “the event that either party defaults in her or his obligations, or must seek relief from the Court in the enforcement of the Decree of Divorce, the nonprevailing party shall be liable to the other party for all reasonable expenses, including attorneys’ fees and court costs actually incurred.”

¶4        Matt failed to remove the loan on the townhouse within 120 days. After that 120-day period expired, Brittany filed a motion for an order to show cause. In this motion, Brittany asked the court to hold Matt in contempt for failing to comply with several terms of the Decree—including, of note here, his obligation to pay off the loan associated with the townhouse. The district court later issued an order in which it refused to find Matt in contempt on the townhouse issue, but it did order Matt to “remove all liens on the townhouse” within 30 days. Matt failed to comply with this order.

¶5        In 2017, Matt filed for bankruptcy. Later that year, Brittany sold the townhouse. “[P]ursuant to a short sale agreement she made with the bank,” she paid off a discounted loan balance of $143,165.

¶6        In April 2019, Brittany filed another motion for an order to show cause relating to the townhouse. In this motion, Brittany requested a judgment in excess of $180,000, a figure that included the final loan balance, realtor’s commissions, closing costs, and repairs that she alleged were necessary to make the townhouse habitable.

¶7        During a hearing in July 2020, the district court noted that a domestic relations commissioner had certified for hearing the issue of “the amount [Matt] should pay [Brittany] due to his failure to have the liens removed from the townhouse.” At that point, Brittany’s counsel expressed the desire to conduct discovery on the issue. In response, Matt’s counsel suggested that she wasn’t sure if discovery was warranted because there was “no petition to modify pending,” after which she asked the court to “clarif[y]” whether it would “allow[] there to be discovery between the parties.” The court responded that it was allowing “discovery” on “what amounts, if any,” it should order Matt to pay Brittany for his “failure to have the liens removed from the townhouse,” and the court specifically ruled that the parties could depose each other on this if they wished.

¶8        Brittany subsequently submitted interrogatories, a request for production of documents, and requests for admission to Matt. For his part, Matt issued several subpoenas duces tecum to financial institutions. At a pretrial hearing in November 2020, Brittany argued that Matt’s responses to her requests for admission had been inadequate. Over the protest of Matt’s counsel, the court agreed that Matt’s responses had been inadequate and ordered Matt to submit more detailed responses. In the course of that hearing, Matt never argued that he was being deprived of the opportunity to conduct discovery of his own.

¶9        A few weeks later, the court held an evidentiary hearing on the question of “potential damages connected with the failure to deliver the title” to the townhouse “free and clear of liens.” At that hearing, both parties presented extensive arguments about their positions.

¶10      After almost a year of additional litigation, the court issued a written ruling on Brittany’s motion for an order to show cause. There, the court first noted that the provision in the Decree that made Matt “responsible” for any loans associated with the townhouse had “never been modified.” The court also ruled that Matt’s bankruptcy had not discharged his obligations relating to the townhouse.

¶11      The court then found that Matt had “failed to satisfy, pay off or remove the liens related to the loans associated with” the townhouse and that Matt’s failure had “forced” Brittany to sell the townhouse in order to pay off the discounted loan balance. The court also found that the “actual amount paid by” Brittany to the bank “to remove the lien” on the townhouse “that was associated with the loan was $143,165.00.” And it further found that the “required payment of this amount” by Brittany “was a direct result of [Matt’s] failure to comply with the provisions of the Decree of Divorce.” The court accordingly awarded Brittany “the actual amount she paid the bank, $143,165,” plus post-judgment interest, though it then determined that she was not entitled to any additional amounts related to the renovation and sale of the townhouse. Finally, the court awarded Brittany her “reasonable expenses, including attorney fees and court costs actually incurred, related to the issue of [Matt’s] failure to comply with his obligations” under the Decree.

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶12 Matt challenges the district court’s ruling granting Brittany’s motion for an order to show cause. In Matt’s view, the ruling was not a valid enforcement of the Decree but instead improperly modified it. “We review procedural issues for correctness and afford no deference to the lower court’s ruling.” Berman v. Yarbrough, 2011 UT 79, ¶ 12, 267 P.3d 905.[2]

ANALYSIS

¶13 Matt argues that when the district court ordered him to reimburse Brittany for what she had paid to satisfy the loan on the townhouse, the court modified the Decree. In Matt’s view, because Brittany had only filed an enforcement action, not a modification action, this ruling was procedurally improper. We disagree with Matt’s assessment of the nature of the ruling.

¶14 District courts enjoy “inherent” authority, “when properly invoked,” to “enforce a final judgment.” Little Cottonwood Tanner Ditch Co. v. Sandy City, 2016 UT 45, ¶¶ 23–24, 387 P.3d 978 (quotation simplified); see also id. ¶ 33 (explaining that district courts may “make such orders as may be necessary to carry out and give effect to their decrees” (quotation simplified)). “If a party fails to comply with a specific directive of a judgment, another party to the judgment may move to enforce this directive.” Id. ¶ 24. However, a “court’s power to enforce a judgment is confined to the four corners of the judgment itself.” PacifiCorp v. Cardon, 2016 UT App 20, ¶ 6, 366 P.3d 1226 (quotation simplified). And a “motion to enforce cannot be used to take up matters beyond the contours of the judgment and thereby short-circuit the usual adjudicative processes.” Berman v. Yarbrough, 2011 UT 79, ¶ 15, 267 P.3d 905 (quotation simplified). A motion to enforce is thus “procedurally improper” where a judgment contains neither an “unequivocal mandate” nor a “clear directive” enjoining “the respondent to undertake some action.” Id. (quotation simplified). This is so because, “without a directive or unequivocal mandate, there is nothing for the court to enforce.” Id.[3]

¶15 Separate from the enforcement power, courts in some instances have power to modify a final judgment that has already been entered. And we’ve previously recognized that a key difference between the power to modify and the power to enforce is that the latter does “not generally extend to modifying the substantive rights of parties that have previously been agreed to or adjudicated.” Robertson v. Stevens, 2020 UT App 29, ¶ 8, 461 P.3d 323. In the family law context, “proceedings to modify a divorce decree . . . must be commenced by filing a petition to modify.” Utah R. Civ. P. 106(a). And a petition to modify allows courts to “revisit many of the provisions contained in a typical divorce decree, including provisions pertaining to child custody, child support, alimony, property distribution, and debts,” under the terms set forth by certain statutes. Robertson, 2020 UT App 29, ¶ 7.

¶16      Here, Brittany filed a motion for an order to show cause, which, as noted, was the procedural mechanism at the time for filing an enforcement action. But Brittany did not file a petition to modify the Decree. The question before us, then, is whether the district court moved beyond its enforcement powers when it ordered Matt to reimburse Brittany for what she had paid to satisfy the loan on the townhouse. Put differently, the question is whether this ruling was authorized from within “the four corners of the judgment,” Little Cottonwood, 2016 UT 45, ¶ 24 (quotation simplified), or whether it instead “modif[ied] the substantive rights of [the] parties,” Robertson, 2020 UT App 29, ¶ 8. In our view, this was indeed an enforcement ruling, as opposed to a modification, because it was grounded in the four corners of the Decree itself and did not alter the parties’ substantive rights.

¶17 “We interpret a divorce decree according to established rules of contract interpretation.” Osborne v. Osborne, 2011 UT App 150, ¶ 6, 260 P.3d 202 (quotation simplified). “When interpreting a contract, a court first looks to the contract’s four corners to determine the parties’ intentions, which are controlling.” Bakowski v. Mountain States Steel, Inc., 2002 UT 62, ¶ 16, 52 P.3d 1179. “If the language within the four corners of the contract is unambiguous, then a court does not resort to extrinsic evidence of the contract’s meaning, and a court determines the parties’ intentions from the plain meaning of the contractual language as a matter of law.” Id. Finally, in “interpreting a contract, we determine what the parties intended by examining the entire contract and all of its parts in relation to each other, giving an objective and reasonable construction to the contract as a whole.” G.G.A., Inc. v. Leventis, 773 P.2d 841, 845 (Utah Ct. App. 1989).

¶18 The Decree in question stated that “Matt [would] be responsible for any loans associated with the townhouse and have them paid off within 120 days of signing this Stipulation.” And it further explained that the townhouse was being awarded to Brittany “as an equalization of the distribution of the assets.” In this sense, the Decree plainly contemplated that Brittany would receive the townhouse free and clear. But she didn’t. As indicated, Matt failed to pay off the loan within 120 days. And when the court subsequently issued another order requiring Matt to remove the liens within an additional 30-day period, Matt failed to comply with that order too.

¶19 In the ruling at issue, the court found that Brittany was ultimately “forced to sell” the townhouse and “pay the discounted bank loan balance in the amount of $143,165,” and it further found that the “required payment of this amount” by Brittany “was a direct result of [Matt’s] failure to comply with the provisions of the Decree.” Matt has not challenged these findings on appeal.

¶20 In light of these findings, the order requiring Matt to reimburse Brittany was a proper exercise of the court’s enforcement power. The language of the Decree didn’t narrowly require Matt to pay a particular amount to a particular bank. Rather, the provision in question was worded more broadly, requiring Matt to “be responsible for any loans associated with the townhouse” and requiring him to “have them paid off within 120 days.” (Emphasis added.) As a result, when Brittany was subsequently “forced” to pay the loan off herself due to Matt’s failure to comply with his obligations, the court’s decision to place that financial burden back onto Matt’s shoulders did nothing more than “carry out and give effect” to the Decree’s own terms. Little Cottonwood, 2016 UT 45, ¶ 33 (quotation simplified).

¶21      Matt responds on several fronts, but we find none of them availing.

¶22      First, Matt argues that under the principles set forth in Gullickson v. Gullickson, 2013 UT App 83, 301 P.3d 1011, the court’s order could only have been accomplished through a modification action. We disagree. In Gullickson, the divorce decree had set forth a specific arrangement for how to deal with the marital home after the divorce: namely, the wife was permitted to live in it for a period of five years, during which period she was responsible for making the mortgage payments; at the end of the five years, the husband would be required to either buy out the wife’s share of the equity in the home or instead sell it and give her half of the proceeds. Id. ¶ 2. Of some note, the arrangement under which the wife could remain in the home for five years was “prompted at least in significant part” by the “ongoing special needs” of the parties’ son. Id. ¶ 22. When the wife subsequently faced a changed financial situation, however, she decided to move from the home earlier than planned. Id. ¶ 4. To facilitate this, she “filed a petition to modify the divorce decree,” asking the court to require the husband to either buy her out sooner than was required by the decree (thus changing the time-period set forth in that decree), or to instead agree that she could move from the home and rent it out in order to help her pay the mortgage. Id. ¶ 4. The district court granted the wife’s request and directed the husband to make that choice. Id. ¶¶ 6–7, 13.

¶23 On appeal, we considered various questions relating to whether the district court had properly followed the modification procedures. Id. ¶¶ 21–25. Drawing on aspects of that discussion, Matt now suggests that Brittany’s request in this case could only have been brought as a modification petition. But unlike the wife in Gullickson, Brittany did not file a petition to modify her divorce decree; rather, she filed a motion for an order to show cause, so she chose an entirely different procedural tack all along. Moreover, unlike the wife in Gullickson, Brittany did not ask the court to change any particular term of her divorce decree. Rather, when Brittany asked the court to order Matt to reimburse her for the pay-off amount on a loan that Matt was supposed to have paid from the beginning, Brittany was asking for Matt to be held “responsible” for that loan, which is what her divorce decree already required. Thus, Gullickson involved a modification because the order changed that divorce decree’s terms; by contrast, this case involved an enforcement action because it sought to effectuate the divorce decree’s terms. Gullickson therefore doesn’t mean that Brittany could only proceed through a modification action.

¶24      Second, Matt argues that because the Decree required him to pay off any loans within 120 days, and because the amount at issue had been paid by Brittany much later than those 120 days, the court’s order effectively changed the Decree’s essential terms, thus constituting a modification. If the Decree had only said that Matt was required to pay off a particular loan to a particular bank within 120 days, Matt’s argument might have a little more force (although we might still have some skepticism). But as noted, the Decree wasn’t worded that narrowly. In addition to the language Matt relies on, the Decree said that “Matt will be responsible for any loans associated with the townhouse,” and it further noted that Brittany was being awarded the townhouse “as an equalization of the distribution of the assets.” (Emphasis added.)

¶25 As indicated, when reading contracts or divorce decrees, we interpret surrounding provisions in harmony with each other. The unmistakable intent of the Decree was to require Matt to assume the financial obligations associated with the townhouse. When Matt repeatedly failed to do so in a timely manner, the court had authority to “make such orders as may be necessary to carry out and give effect” to these provisions. Little Cottonwood, 2016 UT 45, ¶ 33 (quotation simplified). Since it’s uncontested on appeal that Matt’s failure to timely pay off the loan “forced” Brittany to sell the townhouse, the order in question placed the financial cost of that sale back onto Matt, thereby making him “responsible” for the loan, which is what the Decree always required.

¶26 Third, Matt complains of the alleged unfairness that resulted from the court treating this as an enforcement action, as opposed to requiring Brittany to proceed through a petition to modify. According to Matt, if this had been filed as a modification petition, the rules would have provided him with delineated discovery powers. In Matt’s view, these discovery powers would have allowed him to obtain evidence to support various defenses, such as “whether Brittany could have (or even did) take mitigating action,” whether Brittany received any benefit from living in the townhouse between the time of the Decree and when Brittany sold it, and whether “the marital estate was smaller than the parties thought when they stipulated to its division.”

¶27      Matt’s concerns seem grounded in the fact that, both before and after the 2021 amendments, the rules don’t provide for formalized discovery relating to an enforcement action (whether filed as an old motion for an order to show cause or instead through a current motion to enforce). But the question of whether a party should automatically be entitled to discovery in an enforcement action is a question best left to those tasked with drafting the rules. Here, however, Brittany filed a motion for an order to show cause, and as explained above, that motion was warranted to enforce the terms of the Decree. We see no basis for overturning the district court’s ruling simply because the rule drafters have not provided for automatic discovery in such cases.

¶28    In any event, even if it’s possible that the absence of automatic discovery might result in some unfairness in some other enforcement action, Matt is not in a position to complain about any such unfairness here. As noted, the district court specifically allowed the parties to conduct discovery—including taking depositions, if the parties desired—on “what amounts, if any,” the court “should order [Matt] to pay [Brittany] due to the failure to have the liens removed from the townhouse.” In reliance on that, Matt issued several subpoenas duces tecum to financial institutions. And Matt never argued below that he was being deprived of the opportunity to conduct any additional discovery.

¶29      Moreover, Matt also has not persuaded us that any of the proposed evidence would have constituted a valid defense to Brittany’s request for relief. Under the Decree, Brittany was entitled to receive the townhouse without any loans as of 120 days after the stipulation was signed. Nothing in the Decree obligated her to take any mitigation efforts if Matt failed to comply with his obligations to pay off the loans, and any benefits that she received from living in the townhouse in the ensuing years were benefits that she was always entitled to receive. As for Matt’s claim that the parties underestimated the marital estate’s size, we note that Matt stipulated to the terms of the Decree. If he later thought that some error had infected that stipulation or the ensuing Decree, he could have made his own request to somehow alter or modify it. But what Matt wasn’t entitled to do was simply not comply with its terms. And in the meantime, Brittany was entitled to ask the court to enforce the Decree as written, which is what she did.

¶30      In short, we conclude that the district court’s order appropriately “carr[ied] out and [gave] effect to” the terms of the Decree. Little Cottonwood, 2016 UT 45, ¶ 33 (quotation simplified). Because of this, the district court did not err in granting Brittany’s motion for an order to show cause.

¶31 As a final matter, Brittany has requested an award of attorney fees and costs that she incurred in this appeal, and she has done so pursuant to the same provision from the Decree that authorized the fee award she received below. That provision stated that in “the event that either party defaults in her or his obligations, or must seek relief from the Court in the enforcement of the Decree of Divorce, the nonprevailing party shall be liable to the other party for all reasonable expenses, including attorneys’ fees and court costs actually incurred.”

¶32      “If the legal right to attorney fees is established by contract, Utah law clearly requires the court to apply the contractual attorney fee provision and to do so strictly in accordance with the contract’s terms.” Vierig v. Therriault, 2023 UT App 67, ¶ 13, 532 P.3d 568 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 537 P.3d 1013 (Utah 2023). And as a general matter, “when a party who received attorney fees below prevails on appeal, the party is also entitled to fees reasonably incurred on appeal.” Tronson v. Eagar, 2019 UT App 212, ¶ 39, 457 P.3d 407 (quotation simplified). Because Brittany has prevailed on appeal, she is entitled to her fees reasonably incurred on appeal. We therefore remand this case to the district court for determination of those fees and an entry of that award.

CONCLUSION

¶33      The ruling in question was a valid exercise of the district court’s power to enforce the Decree. As a result, we affirm the court’s decision and remand for an award of attorney fees reasonably incurred on appeal.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277


[1] Because the parties share a last name, we’ll refer to them by their first names moving forward, with no disrespect intended by the apparent informality.

[2] In his opening brief, Matt surmised that the district court’s ruling might be read as a contempt ruling, and he then argued that the ruling was not justified under the court’s contempt powers. In her responsive brief, Brittany declined to defend the ruling on this basis, instead insisting that it was a valid enforcement action. We accordingly address the ruling solely on those terms.

[3] The rule in effect at the time that Brittany filed the motion at issue allowed her to file an order to show cause, and it further stated that such a motion could be granted for the “enforcement of an existing order.” Utah R. Civ. P. 7(q) (2019). The cases we’ve discussed above referred to a court’s enforcement power.

Under a rule that became effective in May 2021 and that remains in place, a motion for an order to show cause in a “domestic relations action[]” is now referred to as a “motion to enforce.” See Utah R. Civ. P. 7B(a), (i), (j) (2023). (The same is true in civil cases more generally under rule 7A of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure.) Rule 7B further provides that its process “replaces and supersedes the prior order to show cause procedure.” Id. R. 7B(j). As with the old regime, however, the new one turns on the court’s enforcement power. See id. R. 7B(a) (allowing a party to file a motion to “enforce a court order or to obtain a sanctions order for violation of an order”).

Neither party in this case has argued that this new rule was intended to alter the substantive scope of a court’s enforcement power, much less that the new rule did so in a manner that would change the outcome of this case. Having surveyed the matter ourselves, we see no authority suggesting that such a change was intended.

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Holt v. Holt – 2024 UT App 6 – reasonable time rule

Holt v. Holt – 2024 UT App 6

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

RHONDA S. HOLT, Appellee,

v.

CHRISTOPHER JOHN HOLT, Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20220090-CA

Filed January 11, 2024

Third District Court, Salt Lake Department

The Honorable Andrew H. Stone

No. 044902588

Ben W. Lieberman, Attorney for Appellant

Matthew A. Steward and Katherine E. Pepin,

Attorneys for Appellee

JUDGE GREGORY K. ORME authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER and

DAVID N. MORTENSEN concurred.

ORME, Judge:

¶1       Christopher and Rhonda Holt’s divorce was finalized in 2004 after the entry of a stipulated settlement agreement and the district court’s entry of a divorce decree. Per the divorce decree, Rhonda[1] was awarded a commercial property in which she operated a salon and Christopher was awarded an equity interest in the property redeemable “when the property is sold.” From the time the court entered the divorce decree, Rhonda operated the salon and did not sell the property or satisfy Christopher’s outstanding interest.

¶2        Years later, Christopher petitioned the district court asking that it require Rhonda to sell the property and satisfy his equity interest, first on the rationale of modifying the divorce decree and later on the rationale of enforcing it. He contended that because “Utah law implies a reasonable time under the circumstances,” the court should compel Rhonda to sell the property. The district court ultimately determined that Rhonda had no obligation to sell the property and declined to impose any deadline by which she had to do so. But under Utah law, a reasonable time for performance will be implied if a contract fails to include a specific time for performance. And on the facts of this case, we conclude that a reasonable time for Rhonda’s performance extends to the time when she ceases to operate a salon on the property.

BACKGROUND

¶3        Christopher and Rhonda were married in 1988. In 2004, Rhonda filed a complaint for divorce, and soon after, the district court granted Rhonda’s motion for default judgment. The court then entered a divorce decree based on the parties’ Stipulation and Settlement Agreement (the stipulation). The record reflects that when the stipulation was entered, each party was represented by counsel. Christopher’s counsel withdrew after the stipulation was filed, just prior to entry of the decree.

The Stipulation and the Decree

¶4        The stipulation included an integration clause indicating that it was the parties’ final agreement. Specifically, it was “a complete settlement of all rights either party may have in the other’s property” and any “valid” modification or waiver of the stipulation’s terms must be “in writing and signed by both parties before a notary public.” The stipulation provided that neither party would receive alimony. Pursuant to the stipulation, the district court entered findings of fact and conclusions of law and a divorce decree that mirrored the provisions of the stipulation.

¶5        At the heart of this matter is section 9(B) of the decree. First, it awarded Rhonda the salon property and ordered Christopher to “execute a quit claim deed” in her favor. Second, it reserved for Christopher “an equitable lien for one-half of the net equity in the property when the property is sold.” Third, it defined net equity as “the gross selling price less realtor commissions and normal closing costs.” And fourth, it reiterated that Christopher “shall only be entitled to his equity when the property is sold.” The preceding section—section 9(A)—awarded Rhonda the parties’ home “free and clear from any claim by” Christopher and instructed that Christopher was to “execute a quit-claim deed in favor of” Rhonda within ten days following entry of the decree. It is noteworthy that section 9(B), in contrast to section 9(A), did not include a specific timeframe related to Rhonda’s satisfaction of Christopher’s equity interest in the property.

The Petition to Modify the Decree

¶6        In October 2018, over fourteen years after the decree was entered, Christopher filed a petition to modify the decree, claiming “a material and unforeseeable substantial change of circumstances.” Specifically, the petition indicated that “the parties did not anticipate that fourteen years would pass” during which Christopher’s equity interest in the property would go unpaid. Christopher sought an order compelling Rhonda to either sell or refinance the property and to satisfy Christopher’s outstanding interest.

¶7        In response, Rhonda moved to dismiss the petition on the ground that Christopher had failed to support his assertion of a material and unforeseeable change in circumstances warranting the requested modification of the decree. Rhonda acknowledged that Christopher would be entitled to have his equity interest in the property cashed out, but she argued that under the plain language of the decree, he was entitled to payment only when the property was sold, which had not yet occurred. Rhonda noted that the parties’ circumstances had not materially changed since the court entered the decree in 2004—she had not sold or refinanced the property and she continued to operate her salon on the property. Quoting Land v. Land, 605 P.2d 1248 (Utah 1980), Rhonda argued that “when a decree is based upon a property settlement agreement, forged by the parties and sanctioned by the court, equity must take such agreement into consideration.” Id. at 1250–51. She noted our Supreme Court’s position that “[e]quity is not available to reinstate rights and privileges voluntarily contracted away simply because one has come to regret the bargain made.” Id. at 1251. Rhonda asserted that the decree does not impose a deadline by which she had to sell the property and “clearly withholds distribution” of Christopher’s interest in the property until it is sold. Thus, she maintained that Christopher “failed to demonstrate that there has been a substantial change in circumstances that was not [contemplated] by the parties at the time the decree was entered.”

¶8        In his opposition to the motion to dismiss, Christopher claimed that he was not represented by counsel during the divorce action and thus was not involved in drafting the decree.[2] He also claimed that he relied on representations Rhonda made both before and after entry of the decree that she would refinance or sell the property “in the very near future to pay him out.” Christopher asserted that prior to the divorce, the parties had received an $84,000 loan from his parents to purchase the property and that when his parents passed away some years later, $84,000 was taken out of his inheritance to pay the obligation. Christopher argued that under the plain language of the decree and under Rhonda’s suggested interpretation of section 9(B), he “could die and not receive any benefit from the agreement” and he could potentially lose his interest in the property if Rhonda were to pass away or transfer the property to someone else, thereby avoiding the satisfaction of Christopher’s equity interest.

¶9        Rhonda responded that the petition before the court was one to modify the decree based on a theory of material change of circumstances—not one to enforce the decree. She argued that this was really a situation of unilateral mistake on his part, and she reiterated her position that hindsight and dissatisfaction with a prior stipulation are not adequate grounds for relieving parties of their contractual obligations. Rhonda again acknowledged her obligation to pay Christopher his share of the equity when the property is sold, but she pointed out that the decree did not specify a sale deadline. She also noted that it would have been very easy to incorporate such a date into the stipulation and the decree if that had been the parties’ intention. To support this position, Rhonda pointed out that section 9(A) of the decree imposed a ten-day deadline for Christopher’s delivery of a quitclaim deed to the parties’ home, while section 9(B), which dealt with the sale of the salon property, included no provision concerning the time for performance.

¶10      Christopher requested that the court hold an evidentiary hearing concerning Rhonda’s motion to dismiss. But the district court denied this request and also denied Rhonda’s motion to dismiss. Eventually, a trial date was set. And at the ensuing bench trial,[3] at which both Christopher and Rhonda testified, the district

court granted Rhonda’s motion for a directed verdict and dismissed the petition on the ground that Christopher had failed to provide sufficient evidence to support the petition.[4]

The Motion to Enforce the Decree

¶11      In July 2021, Christopher filed a motion to enforce the decree in a renewed effort to compel Rhonda’s sale of the salon property. Christopher argued that under the principles articulated in New York Avenue LLC v. Harrison, 2016 UT App 240, 391 P.3d 268, cert. denied, 393 P.3d 283 (Utah 2017), the decree’s lack of an “expressly-stated time[] for performance” signified that the court should impose a “reasonable time under the circumstances” by which Rhonda had to sell the property and that such a time had already passed. See id. ¶ 32 (quotation simplified).

¶12      In response, Rhonda argued that the motion to enforce was simply Christopher’s attempt to get a “third bite at the apple.” Similar to her response to the petition to modify, Rhonda argued that Christopher failed to present sufficient credible evidence to support his contention that the parties’ intent was anything other than to afford Christopher his interest in the property when Rhonda sold it. She contended that because the salon on the property was her “sole source of income,” the parties deliberately omitted any specific performance deadline, providing instead— and explicitly emphasizing—that Christopher would be entitled to payment for his interest when, and only when, the property was sold. Rhonda asserted that it would therefore be inappropriate for the court to impose a reasonable time by which she had to sell the property when the decree’s plain language was straightforward and explicitly did not include one.

¶13 In October 2021, Commissioner Russell Minas heard argument on the motion. The commissioner concluded that “[b]ecause there [was] no deadline provided by the parties, Utah law implies a reasonable time under the circumstances,” see id., which he determined to be “until [Rhonda] ceases to use the Property to operate a business.” The commissioner thereafter issued his recommendation in the matter. See Utah R. Civ. P. 108(a) (“A recommendation of a court commissioner is the order of the court until modified by the court.”).

¶14 Christopher subsequently filed an objection to the recommendation pursuant to rule 108 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. See id. (“A party may file a written objection to the recommendation within 14 days after the recommendation is made in open court[.]”). Christopher acknowledged that the commissioner correctly determined that the reasonable-time rule articulated in New York Avenue applied to this case. But he challenged the commissioner’s application of the rule. He argued that the “reasonable time under the circumstances is determined by looking to the intention of the parties at the time of the formation of the contract” and that in so doing, it is clear the reasonable-time threshold had already passed because neither the stipulation nor the decree intended for Rhonda “to retain the Property and all equity so long as she operated a business.” Rhonda yielded to the commissioner’s interpretation of a reasonable time, arguing that the commissioner correctly defined a reasonable time under all the circumstances.

¶15 The district court heard argument on Christopher’s objection.[5] The court overruled Christopher’s objection from the bench and modified the commissioner’s recommendation. The court concluded that a reasonable time for performance should not be implied here because, per the language of the decree, Rhonda’s deadline to sell the property was whenever she chose to sell it and that “it would be inappropriate for the Court to impose a date by which the Property must be sold.”

¶16      Christopher appeals.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶17 Christopher primarily argues that the district court erred in concluding that the reasonable-time rule was inapplicable here. “We interpret a divorce decree according to established rules of contract interpretation.” Mitchell v. Mitchell, 2011 UT App 41, ¶ 5, 248 P.3d 65 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 255 P.3d 684 (Utah 2011). Accordingly, we review the district court’s interpretation of the decree for correctness. See Mintz v. Mintz, 2023 UT App 17, ¶ 14, 525 P.3d 534, cert. denied, 531 P.3d 730 (Utah 2023).

¶18 Christopher also argues that the court “exceeded the scope” of his objection when it addressed “matters not before the court.” The scope of a court’s review of a commissioner’s recommendation turns on the correct interpretation of the applicable rule of civil procedure. Cf. Zions Bancorporation, NA v. Schwab, 2023 UT App 105, ¶ 12, 537 P.3d 273 (holding that the district court’s “statutory interpretation” is reviewed “for correctness”) (quotation simplified); Bermes v. Summit County, 2023 UT App 94, ¶ 28, 536 P.3d 111 (stating that a district court’s “interpretation of a set of statues or ordinances” is reviewed “for correctness”) (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 2023 WL 9058850 (Utah 2023).

ANALYSIS

I. Reasonable Time Under the Circumstances

¶19      Christopher first challenges the district court’s conclusion that “it would be inappropriate for the Court to impose a date by which the property must be sold.” He asserts that the court’s conclusion is incorrect, that the reasonable-time rule is applicable here, that a reasonable time has long since elapsed, and that Rhonda should be compelled to sell the property and satisfy his equity interest. We determine that the district court’s conclusion was incorrect and conclude that the reasonable-time rule is applicable in this matter. We then determine what constitutes a reasonable time for Rhonda’s performance under the circumstances.

¶20 A stipulated divorce decree represents an enforceable contract between divorcing spouses, and so “we interpret the parties’ decree according to established rules of contract interpretation.” Thayer v. Thayer, 2016 UT App 146, ¶ 17, 378 P.3d 1232 (quotation simplified). Of course, “the cardinal rule in contract interpretation is to give effect to the intentions of the parties as they are expressed in the plain language of the contract itself,” and “we construe a contract to give effect to the object and purpose of the parties in making the agreement.” New York Avenue LLC v. Harrison, 2016 UT App 240, ¶ 21, 391 P.3d 268 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 393 P.3d 283 (Utah 2017). Key to the issue before us, our principles of contract interpretation further provide “that if a contract fails to specify a time of performance the law implies that it shall be done within a reasonable time under the circumstances,” id. ¶ 32 (quotation simplified), which analysis entails a question of fact, see iDrive Logistics LLC v. IntegraCore LLC, 2018 UT App 40, ¶ 55, 424 P.3d 970, cert. denied, 425 P.3d 803 (Utah 2018).

¶21 The parties agree on the basic meaning of the terms contained in section 9(B) of the decree. They accept that under section 9(B), Rhonda was awarded ownership of the property, Christopher was required to “execute a quit claim deed” in Rhonda’s favor while reserving for himself “an equitable lien for one-half of the net equity of the property when the property is sold,” and that Christopher would “only be entitled to his equity when the property is sold.” Further, both parties acknowledge that section 9(B) does not include a date by which the property was required to be sold. Based on this understanding, Christopher argues that the district court’s conclusion was incorrect, that the reasonable-time rule does apply, and that Rhonda should be compelled to sell the property immediately, a reasonable time having long since come and gone, or else his interest “could remain trapped forever.”

¶22 Christopher asserts that under our decision in New York Avenue, the district court should be required to apply the reasonable-time rule based on the reality that section 9(B) did not include a specified time of performance. In that case, a seller contracted with a buyer for the sale of certain real estate. 2016 UT App 240¶ 3. Due to unforeseen complications, the transaction was not settled on the date intended by the contract. Id. ¶¶ 5–6. The buyer, still desiring to be bound by the terms of the contract, elected to begin making monthly settlement extension payments to the seller, as provided for in the contract, thus advancing the contract’s intended settlement date to the last day of the month associated with the buyer’s settlement extension payment. Id. ¶ 6. While the contract provided terms to extend the settlement date, it failed to specify a final date regarding the ultimate settlement of the contract or to define the maximum number of settlement extensions available to the parties. Id. ¶ 5. After numerous settlement extensions, the seller sought to terminate the contract. Id. ¶¶ 8–9. Following a summary judgment hearing, the district court determined that the contract entitled the buyer to extend the settlement deadline indefinitely, “so long as valid tender of the extension payment was made.” Id. ¶ 12 (quotation simplified).

¶23 On appeal, we held, in relevant part, that because the contract did “not limit the number of extension payments,” it did “not provide a date by which [seller] must perform its core obligation to complete the purchase of the Property.” Id. ¶ 34. Accordingly, we noted “that if a contract fails to specify a time of performance the law implies that it shall be done within a reasonable time under the circumstances.” Id. ¶ 32 (quotation simplified). And we concluded that the district court erred in granting summary judgment that countenanced an indefinite extension of the time for performance. Id. ¶¶ 29, 32.

¶24 Similar to the seller in New York Avenue, Christopher is concerned that if we conclude that the reasonable-time rule does not apply to section 9(B) of the decree, there exists a possibility that Rhonda could opt to never sell the property and thereby retain all of the equity indefinitely. In reviewing the conclusions of the court, we must evaluate the plain language of section 9(B) of the decree to determine if the district court correctly held that the reasonable-time rule did not apply.

¶25 Based on the plain language of section 9(B), it is obvious that nowhere in its four sentences is there any provision regarding a specific date by which Rhonda must sell the property. Rhonda argues on appeal that it would be improper for the court to impose a reasonable time for performance because, unlike the contract at issue in New York Avenue, section 9(B) did not intend to “create an obligation” for the sale of the property. She further contends that sale of the property is a condition precedent, and thus, she is not required to sell the property but that if she does, Christopher would then be entitled to receive his share of the equity. We are not persuaded by Rhonda’s argument. The intent of the decree was to “resolve all issues between” the parties. Therefore, while section 9(B) was not intended to be a sales agreement, it was also not intended to allow Rhonda to indefinitely prevent the satisfaction of Christopher’s interest. See Brady v. Park, 2019 UT 16, ¶ 53, 445 P.3d 395 (“When we interpret a contract we first look at the plain language of the contract to determine the parties’ meaning and intent.”) (quotation simplified). Accordingly, we agree with Christopher that a reasonable time for performance should be implied. Thus, we conclude that the district court incorrectly determined that the reasonable-time rule was inapplicable here. We next determine what the reasonable time should be, and here we part ways with Christopher and endorse the view adopted by the commissioner.

¶26      Due to the nature of these proceedings and Christopher’s decision not to request transcripts of the prior hearings, we are unable to consider the parties’ presentations before the commissioner or the district court, including not only the arguments they made but also any evidence they introduced or evidentiary proffers they made. Even so, Christopher contends that “[a] reasonable time is defined by the parties’ intentions at the time the contract is formed, not when the dispute arises,” and that because the parties did not intend for his interest to remain unsatisfied this long, a reasonable time has long since elapsed. Conversely, Rhonda contends that “[t]he language of the Decree demonstrates that the Parties intended for [her] to be able to operate her business from the Property to support herself indefinitely.”

¶27 In consideration of what constitutes a reasonable time under the circumstances, we must discern the parties’ intentions from the language of their contract—the stipulated decree—and the relevant circumstances, but in the absence of whatever evidence might have been adduced or proffered at the hearings as we have not been favored with the transcripts. We are mindful that neither party was awarded alimony in this case, meaning Rhonda’s livelihood depended on her continued ability to operate her salon business. And it is significant that not only was no time for Rhonda‘s performance specified, but it was emphasized that Christopher shall be entitled to his equity only “when the property is sold.” The conclusion is inescapable, as determined by the commissioner, that the intention of the parties, as reflected in the language they employed, was that Rhonda’s obligation to sell the property and cash out Christopher would be triggered when she ceased to operate the salon business. That occurrence would equate to the reasonable time for her performance under the unique circumstances of this case.

II. Scope of District Court Review

¶28      Christopher next challenges the district court’s expansive consideration of the commissioner’s recommendation, arguing that the court “exceeded the scope” of his objection by addressing “matters not before the court.” We disagree with Christopher’s position. A plain reading of rule 108(f) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure requires the district court to make “independent findings of fact and conclusions of law based on the evidence.” And our jurisprudence makes clear that a district court has plenary responsibility for “what is essentially its own order.” Somer v. Somer, 2020 UT App 93, ¶ 12, 467 P.3d 924 (quotation simplified). Accordingly, we conclude that the court did not exceed the scope of its authority in reviewing the commissioner’s recommendation without being confined to the contours of the objection made by Christopher.

¶29      “We interpret court rules, like statutes and administrative rules, according to their plain language.” Day v. Barnes, 2018 UT App 143, ¶ 12, 427 P.3d 1272 (quotation simplified). Rule 108 provides a procedure by which a party may object to a commissioner’s recommendation and request that the district court review the recommendation. Within this framework, subsection (a) first indicates that a commissioner’s recommendation “is the order of the court until modified by the court” and that “[a] party may file a written objection to the recommendation.” Utah R. Civ. P. 108(a) (emphasis added). Next, subsection (b) explains that any objection “must identify succinctly and with particularity the findings of fact, the conclusions of law, or the part of the recommendation to which the objection is made and state the relief sought,” and it also provides that the accompanying memorandum of support “must explain succinctly and with particularity why the findings, conclusions, or recommendation are incorrect.” Id. R. 108(b). Lastly, subsection (f) directs that “[t]he judge will make independent findings of fact and conclusions of law based on the evidence, whether by proffer, testimony or exhibit, presented to the judge, or, if there was no hearing before the judge, based on the evidence presented to the commissioner.” Id. R. 108(f) (emphasis added). Thus, the plain language of the rule “does not provide for an appeal-like review of a commissioner’s decision, but instead requires independent findings of fact and conclusions of law based on the evidence.” Day, 2018 UT App 143, ¶ 16 (quotation simplified).

¶30 In the case at hand, after the commissioner made his recommendation, Christopher filed an objection wherein he explained that while the commissioner “correctly found” that the reasonable-time rule applied to section 9(B) of the decree, he erred because the recommendation was not based on evidence that, at the time the decree was entered, the parties intended that Rhonda would “retain the Property and all equity so long as she operated a business.” After a hearing on Christopher’s objection, the court modified the recommended order based on its independent determination that it would be “inappropriate” to apply the reasonable-time rule and “to impose a date by which the Property must be sold.” Christopher now argues that the court’s decision to modify the recommendation concerning the reasonable-time rule “exceeded the scope” of his objection because, as the objecting party, he “was entitled to define the scope of his objection, and he did so narrowly.”

¶31 We reject this argument. As just explained, when faced with an objection to a commissioner’s recommendation, the responsible district court judge is expected to make “independent findings of fact and conclusions of law based on the evidence.” Utah R. Civ. P. 108(f) (emphasis added). We have previously explained that because a commissioner’s recommendation is “the order of the district court until modified by that court,” “it would make little sense that the district court would be limited in reviewing what is essentially its own order.” Day, 2018 UT App 143, ¶ 18 (quotation simplified). Therefore, while rule 108 provides that the objecting party must proceed with “particularity” concerning the basis of the objection, Utah R. Civ. P. 108(b), that same particularity does not circumscribe the authority of the reviewing court and does not limit the reviewing court’s ability to make its own findings and conclusions, see id. R. 108(f). Thus, notwithstanding Christopher’s “narrowly” defined objection, the court’s modification of the commissioner’s recommendation did not exceed the appropriate scope of review in a procedural sense, even though we conclude that the court’s substantive conclusion was incorrect.

CONCLUSION

¶32 The district court erred because the reasonable-time rule should have been applied in this case, and the reasonable time to be imputed is essentially the time as determined by the commissioner, namely when Rhonda ceases operating her salon on the property. We remand so the court can adjust its order accordingly. At the same time, we conclude that the court did not exceed the scope of its review authority under rule 108.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277


[1] Because the parties share the same last name, we refer to them by their first names, with no disrespect intended by the apparent informality.

[2] Christopher, then represented by new counsel, may have been confused about this because the decree was entered on the basis of his default. But the record in this case demonstrates that Christopher was represented by counsel right up until the time the decree was entered on the basis of his stipulated default.

[3] With no transcript of the bench trial submitted by Christopher, we rely on the minutes of the proceedings found in the record. Cf. In re A. Dean Harding Marital & Family Trust, 2023 UT App 81, ¶ 85, 536 P.3d 38 (stating that “when an appellant fails to provide an adequate record on appeal, we presume the regularity of the proceedings below”) (quotation simplified).

[4] In May 2021, Christopher appealed, requesting that this court review the dismissal of the petition to modify and “all subsidiary rulings and orders leading to final judgment,” but he moved to voluntarily dismiss this appeal shortly thereafter, which motion this court granted.

[5] As with the bench trial, Christopher did not request a transcript of this hearing and we therefore rely on the minutes of the proceedings found in the appellate record to understand what occurred during the hearing. See supra note 3. While it perhaps is not always necessary to include a transcript of hearings in the appellate record, we have previously determined that a transcript “is necessary in cases where the court issued an oral ruling at the conclusion of the hearing and where the court’s eventual written order is silent with regard to the matter being challenged.” In re A. Dean Harding Marital & Family Trust, 2023 UT App 81, ¶ 86, 536 P.3d 38“In such cases, a transcript of the hearing is necessary for us to effectively review the challenged issue” because without it “we do not know what evidence or argument the court relied on in rendering any decision.” Id. While we do have a spartan description of the hearing included in the court’s minutes, which is not without utility, we discourage parties from relying wholly on the court’s minutes when a transcript is readily available.

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What Should I Do When a Family Court Judge Refuses to Look at My Evidence?

What should I do when a family court judge refuses to look at my evidence of abuse because my ex’s lawyer lied about me bringing it to him when I had a witness with me?

What you can or should do depends upon why the judge would not consider your evidence.

You say that the judge refused to review your evidence because the judge believed a lie that your ex’s lawyer told him (I presume) something along the lines of “Objection, Your Honor, I was never given a copy of these documents/photographs/recordings. I’m not prepared to address them.”

You claim that you can prove that your ex’s lawyer is lying because you had a witness with me when you delivered the evidence to your ex’s lawyer (I presume) well in advance of the hearing.

It appears that either the judge did not believe you, or, if you did not bring the witness with you to court, that the judge ruled that without the witness’s testimony the judge would not believe that you served your ex’s lawyer with the evidence, and thus would not allow you to present that evidence to the judge.

The lesson learned here?: when you deliver or serve documents/photographs/recordings to someone and need proof that you did so, use a method of delivery or service that provides an objective means of proving it. Have the lawyer or someone at his/her office sign for the documents/photographs/recordings when you or someone from the post office deliver(s) them.  Or you could email the documents/photographs/recordings to the lawyer, which would another way of proving that you delivered/served them. Another thing you could do is file a copy with the court which, though it does not objectively prove you delivered/served the documents on the lawyer, the point is that if you went to the trouble of filing them with the court, then it’s more than likely you also delivered/served them on the lawyer too. Another thing you or your lawyer should do is file a certificate of service with the court that you or your lawyer served/delivered them.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

https://www.quora.com/What-should-I-do-when-a-family-court-judge-refuses-to-look-at-my-evidence-of-abuse-because-my-exs-lawyer-lied-about-me-bringing-it-to-him-when-I-had-a-witness-with-me

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Nelson v. Nelson – 2023 UT App 38 – Claim Preclusion and Child Support

2023 UT App 38

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STASHIA NELSON,

Appellee,

v.

ISAAC SCOTT NELSON,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20210345-CA

Filed April 13, 2023

First District Court, Logan Department

The Honorable Brian G. Cannell

No. 154100713

Sara Pfrommer, Ronald D. Wilkinson, and Nathan S. Shill, Attorneys for Appellant

Jacob A. Watterson and James C. Jenkins, Attorneys for Appellee

JUDGE JOHN D. LUTHY authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES DAVID N. MORTENSEN and RYAN D. TENNEY concurred.

LUTHY, Judge:

¶1        This case raises issues regarding the claim preclusion

branch of the doctrine of res judicata in the context of divorce proceedings. Two years after Stashia and Isaac Nelson divorced, their circumstances had changed enough that Isaac[1] asked the district court to modify their divorce decree to give him shared physical custody of their children and to lower his monthly child support obligation. Isaac was behind in his support payments, and in response to his petition, Stashia asserted that Isaac’s “claims [were] barred, in whole or in part, because of [his] unclean hands in not being current in his child support obligation.”

¶2        The parties engaged in mediation and were able to agree on a new custody and parent-time arrangement and on a reduced monthly child support obligation for Isaac going forward. They presented their agreement to the court, and it entered a modified divorce decree that incorporated the terms of the agreement.

¶3        Stashia then initiated a separate proceeding to collect the child support that Isaac had failed to pay under the original decree. Isaac argued that all child-related financial matters, including his child support arrears, had been resolved in the proceeding to modify the divorce decree and that Stashia was therefore barred under the claim preclusion branch of the doctrine of res judicata from collecting the unpaid support. The court disagreed and ordered Isaac to pay past-due support. In response, Isaac filed a certificate of readiness for trial on an issue that he had not raised previously, namely, whether the reduction in his monthly support obligation should be backdated to when he filed his petition to modify the divorce decree. The district court ruled that there were no issues to certify for trial and entered judgment against Isaac for unpaid support in the amount of $2,835.40 plus interest. Isaac appeals.

¶4        We see no error in the conclusion that claim preclusion does not bar Stashia’s claim for unpaid child support. We also see no error in the district court’s ruling that there were no issues to certify for trial. We therefore affirm.

BACKGROUND

The Parties’ Marriage and Divorce

¶5        Isaac and Stashia married in 2007 and together had two children. Stashia later initiated divorce proceedings, during which the parties reached an agreement that was incorporated into a divorce decree in March 2016.

¶6        The divorce decree provided for the parties’ joint legal custody of the children, while giving Stashia sole physical custody and Isaac parent-time. The decree also ordered Isaac to pay $768 per month in child support, based on Stashia having sole physical custody of the children and on her lack of employment at the time.

Isaac’s Petition to Modify the Divorce Decree

¶7        In June 2018, Isaac petitioned to modify the divorce decree, based on “substantial and material changes in the circumstances of the parties.” In support of modifying the decree’s custody order, Isaac alleged that he had a more “stable residence” and “flexible work schedule” than when the parties divorced; that he was also more able to “provide additional familial support” because he had recently remarried; and that Stashia, on the other hand, had violated several of the custody and parent-time provisions in the divorce decree. Based on these allegations, Isaac requested “increased parent time” and “joint physical custody.”

¶8        In support of modifying the decree’s child support order, Isaac alleged that Stashia had become employed full time and that her increased income, along with the parties’ joint physical custody of the children, if the court awarded it, merited a reduction in his child support obligation.

¶9        In her answer to Isaac’s petition, Stashia alleged, among other things, that Isaac was “not current in his child support obligation.” She then asserted, as one of several affirmative defenses, that Isaac’s “claims [were] barred, in whole or in part, because of [his] unclean hands in not being current in his child support obligation.”

¶10 During discovery, the parties exchanged financial declarations outlining their incomes, assets, and expenses, but neither party produced documents or information regarding Isaac’s past child support payments or alleged arrears.

¶11      In October 2018, the parties participated in mediation and stipulated to a temporary modification of the divorce decree. The stipulation, the terms of which were incorporated into an order, contained temporary parent-time provisions and an agreement to participate in a custody evaluation. It did not mention or modify child support, and it concluded by saying: “All issues not specifically addressed herein that have been raised or could have been raised by the parties are, hereby, reserved.”

¶12      After the agreed-upon custody evaluation was completed, the parties again participated in mediation, in May 2019. Later the same day, the district court commissioner held a settlement conference at which the parties orally presented stipulated terms to be incorporated into an amended divorce decree.

¶13      As to custody, the parties’ attorneys told the commissioner that the parties had agreed to “a joint legal, joint physical custody arrangement,” and the attorneys then explained the details of that arrangement. As to child support, they said that the parties had agreed that “[c]hild support would be 600 per month effective June 1st, 2019.” The attorneys then said that the parties had agreed that “all prior orders that are not specifically modified here . . . would remain in full force and effect.”

¶14 Toward the end of the settlement conference, the commissioner asked Isaac and Stashia if they were “willing to accept those terms as a final resolution of the issues that [were] currently pending in [the] matter.” Each responded, “Yes.”

¶15 In October 2019, the court issued an amended divorce decree incorporating the terms the parties had orally agreed to during the settlement conference. The amended decree sets forth the parties’ custody arrangement; contains provisions regarding parent-time; restates the parties’ parenting plan; provides that Isaac’s “child support obligation shall be modified to $600.00 per month effective June 1, 2019”; contains provisions regarding claiming the minor children for tax purposes; and states the parties’ responsibilities regarding medical and childcare expenses. It then provides: “This order shall be a consolidated order on custody, parent-time, and child related financial matters.”

Stashia’s Motion for an Order to Show Cause

¶16 In February 2020, Stashia filed a motion for an order to show cause,[2] alleging that Isaac owed child support arrears that had accrued between September 2016 and February 2020.

¶17 Isaac opposed Stashia’s request for unpaid child support. He noted that in response to his petition to modify the original divorce decree, Stashia “had raised the issue that [Isaac] had child support arrearage.” He pointed to the parties’ statements during the May 2019 settlement conference that they were willing to accept the terms outlined at that conference “as a final resolution of the issues that [were] currently pending in [the] matter.” (Emphasis omitted.) And he pointed to the language of the amended decree that says that the amended decree is “a consolidated order on custody, parent-time, and child related financial matters.” The district court commissioner “reviewed the pleadings on file and . . . considered the evidence and arguments presented” and disagreed with Isaac, finding that “[Stashia] did not waive [Isaac’s] child support arrears at the [May 2019] mediation between the parties or by stipulating to the Amended Decree of Divorce.”

¶18      Isaac objected to the commissioner’s recommendation. He argued that, based on “the principles of the ‘claim preclusion’ prong of the doctrine of res judicata,” the modification proceedings and amended divorce decree had “a preclusive effect” on a claim for child support arrears that accrued before entry of the amended decree. The district court overruled Isaac’s objection and entered judgment against Isaac for child support arrears “in an amount to be determined . . . based on the accountings submitted by the Parties.” After the parties submitted their accountings, the court found that Isaac’s child support arrears totaled $2,835.40.[3]

Isaac’s Certificate of Readiness for Trial

¶19      Isaac then filed, in March 2021, a certificate of readiness for trial, in which he asserted: “This case is ready for trial on the reserved issue of [whether] the June 1, 2019 child support adjustment should be backdated to the date of the filing of the Petition to Modify (June 2018).” Isaac had not previously asked the court to backdate the modified child support order to June 2018.

¶20      The district court ruled that “[t]here [were] no issues to certify for trial” and entered judgment against Isaac in the amount of $2,835.40 plus interest. Isaac now appeals.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶21      Isaac asks us to reverse the district court’s judgment against him for unpaid child support. He contends that Stashia’s claim for unpaid child support is barred by the claim preclusion branch of res judicata.[4] Ultimately, “[w]hether a claim is barred by res judicata is a question of law that we review for correctness.” Gillmor v. Family Link, LLC, 2012 UT 38, ¶ 9, 284 P.3d 622.

¶22      Part of our claim preclusion analysis in this case, however, requires a determination of the intended scope of ambiguous language in the stipulated amended divorce decree. Where the language of a written stipulation is ambiguous, “the trial court ordinarily considers extrinsic evidence in an effort to resolve the ambiguit[y] and will make findings of fact to resolve any disputed evidence.” Christensen v. Christensen, 2018 UT App 53, ¶ 6, 420 P.3d 106 (footnote omitted). When a court looks outside the four corners of a written stipulation to determine its intended scope, that determination presents a question of fact, “which we review for clear error.” Fuller v. Bohne, 2017 UT App 28, ¶ 9, 392 P.3d 898, cert. denied, 398 P.3d 51 (Utah 2017).

¶23      Isaac also asks us to reverse the district court’s ruling, in response to his filing of a certificate of readiness for trial, that “[t]here [were] no issues to certify for trial.” The legal effect of a certificate of readiness for trial is a question of law, and “[w]e review questions of law for correctness, giving no deference to the ruling of the court below,” see Madsen v. Washington Mutual Bank FSB, 2008 UT 69, ¶ 19, 199 P.3d 898.

ANALYSIS

I. Stashia’s Claim for Unpaid Child Support
Is Not Barred by Res Judicata.

¶24 Isaac contends that the district court erred in allowing Stashia to bring a claim for unpaid child support. As we have noted, the substance of his argument is that Stashia’s claim for unpaid support is barred by the claim preclusion branch of res judicata. See supra note 3. This court has previously observed that, indeed, “[t]he principles of res judicata apply fully in the context of divorce proceedings.” Krambule v. Krambule, 1999 UT App 357, ¶ 13, 994 P.2d 210 (citing Jacobsen v. Jacobsen, 703 P.2d 303, 305 (Utah 1985)), cert. denied, 4 P.3d 1289 (Utah 2000). But this observation merits explanation.

¶25 Both res judicata and the law of the case doctrine can operate to give an earlier decision on a particular claim or issue preclusive effect when the same claim or issue is raised again. See Utah State Bar v. Rasmussen (In re Discipline of Rasmussen), 2013 UT 14, ¶¶ 17–18, 299 P.3d 1050. A key difference between the two doctrines, however, is that generally “[r]es judicata applies as between multiple cases while the law of the case doctrine applies to successive proceedings within one case.” State v. Waterfield, 2014 UT App 67, ¶ 39 n.12, 322 P.3d 1194, cert. denied, 333 P.3d 365 (Utah 2014).

¶26 This distinction could suggest that in a single divorce case—over which a district court has continuing jurisdiction to enter orders modifying the original decree, see Utah Code § 30-3-5(5)—only the law of the case doctrine would ever apply. To the contrary, however, we have held that res judicata applies as between “[original] divorce actions and subsequent modification proceedings.” Smith v. Smith, 793 P.2d 407, 410 (Utah Ct. App. 1990). Accordingly, in Krambule v. Krambule, 1999 UT App 357, 994 P.2d 210, cert. denied, 4 P.3d 1289 (Utah 2000), we concluded that a petition to modify a divorce decree to require an ex-husband to pay support for a child conceived through artificial insemination without the ex-husband’s knowledge was “barred under the principles of res judicata” since that claim “could and should have been asserted in the original divorce action.” Id. ¶ 16. And in Throckmorton v. Throckmorton, 767 P.2d 121 (Utah Ct. App. 1988), we upheld on res judicata grounds the denial of a petition to modify a divorce decree to give an ex-wife an interest in her ex-husband’s retirement benefits, which had not been included in the original decree. See id. at 123.

¶27 In other words, we treat an original divorce proceeding and each subsequent proceeding to modify the divorce decree as separate “cases” for res judicata purposes. At the same time, we treat a divorce proceeding leading to a decree or an amended decree and any subsequent proceeding to enforce that decree or amended decree as successive proceedings within the same case. Thus, in this second context, we apply the law of the case doctrine. See Robinson v. Robinson, 2016 UT App 32, ¶¶ 26–29, 368 P.3d 147 (holding, in a proceeding to enforce a stipulated divorce decree, that law of the case barred a husband from relitigating a factual issue decided previously), cert. denied, 379 P.3d 1185 (Utah 2016).[5]

¶28      This appeal is somewhat unusual in that the “first case” for

purposes of res judicata is the modification proceeding and the “second case” is the order to show cause proceeding to enforce the child support order from the original decree. But because the order to show cause proceeding is based on the original decree, it is a separate “case” from the modification proceeding that resulted in the amended decree. We therefore apply the principles of res judicata as we analyze the potential preclusive effect of the amended decree in the order to show cause proceeding.[6]

¶29      “The doctrine of res judicata embraces two distinct branches: claim preclusion and issue preclusion.” Macris & Assocs., Inc. v. Neways, Inc., 2000 UT 93, ¶ 19, 16 P.3d 1214. “[C]laim preclusion corresponds to causes of action[;] issue preclusion corresponds to the facts and issues underlying causes of action.” Oman v. Davis School Dist., 2008 UT 70, ¶ 31, 194 P.3d 956.

¶30      “Claim preclusion . . . is premised on the principle that a controversy should be adjudicated only once.” Pioneer Home Owners Ass’n v. TaxHawk Inc., 2019 UT App 213, ¶ 41, 457 P.3d 393 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 466 P.3d 1073 (Utah 2020). It “bars a party from prosecuting in a subsequent action a claim that has been fully litigated previously.” Hansen v. Bank of N.Y. Mellon, 2013 UT App 132, ¶ 5, 303 P.3d 1025 (cleaned up). “Whether a claim is precluded from relitigation depends on a three-part test.” Mack v. Utah State Dep’t of Com., 2009 UT 47, ¶ 29, 221 P.3d 194.

First, both cases must involve the same parties or their privies. Second, the claim that is alleged to be barred must have been presented in the first suit or be one that could and should have been raised in the first action. Third, the first suit must have resulted in a final judgment on the merits.

Id. (cleaned up).

¶31 Here, it is undisputed that Stashia and Isaac were the parties to both the proceeding on Isaac’s petition to modify the divorce decree—the “first case”—and the proceeding on Stashia’s subsequent claim for unpaid child support under the original decree—the “second case.” It is also undisputed that Isaac’s petition to modify the divorce decree resulted in a final judgment on the merits, in the form of the amended divorce decree. Thus, we focus our analysis on the second requirement of the claim preclusion test: whether Stashia presented or was required to present her claim for unpaid child support during the proceeding on Isaac’s petition to modify the decree.

A. Stashia did not present a claim for unpaid child support in the modification proceedings.

¶32 The second requirement of the claim preclusion test is satisfied if the claim at issue was presented in a prior action. See Mack, 2009 UT 47, ¶ 29. Isaac argues that Stashia’s answer to his petition to modify the divorce decree presented a claim for unpaid child support. Specifically, he points to Stashia’s allegation that Isaac was “not current in his child support obligation” and to her assertion, as an affirmative defense, that Isaac’s “unclean hands in not being current in his child support obligation” should bar modification of his support obligation.[7]

¶33      However, while Stashia alleged that Isaac was in arrears in

his child support payments, neither that allegation nor the affirmative defense based on that allegation presented a “claim.” “An original claim, counterclaim, cross-claim or third-party claim must contain a short and plain: (1) statement of the claim showing that the party is entitled to relief; and (2) demand for judgment for specified relief.” Utah R. Civ. P. 8(a). Stashia’s answer to Isaac’s petition to modify the divorce decree did not allege how much Isaac owed in unpaid child support or make a demand for relief. We cannot, therefore, say that Stashia’s affirmative defense presented a claim for res judicata purposes. See Airfreight Express Ltd. v. Evergreen Air Center, Inc., 158 P.3d 232, 237 (Ariz. Ct. App. 2007) (holding that “affirmative defenses are not claims” for purposes of “[t]he doctrine of claim preclusion”); cf. Norman A. Koglin Assocs. v. Valenz Oro, Inc., 680 N.E.2d 283, 288 (Ill. 1997) (“A counterclaim differs from an . . . affirmative defense. A counterclaim is used when seeking affirmative relief, while an . . . affirmative defense seeks to defeat a plaintiff’s claim.”).

¶34      This is consistent with our analysis in Berkshires, LLC v. Sykes, 2005 UT App 536, 127 P.3d 1243. In that case, the plaintiffs were poised to purchase and develop multiple parcels of land when the defendants recorded a document purporting to grant an easement that would significantly hinder the anticipated development. Id. ¶ 4. The plaintiffs sued “for slander of title and interference with economic relations, claiming that [the defendants] had intentionally fabricated the [e]asement [d]ocument.” Id. ¶ 6. Late in the litigation, the defendants moved for partial summary judgment, asserting that as a matter of law under the undisputed evidence “Hope Lane, a road running [across the parcels at issue], was a public road.” Id. ¶ 9. The trial court denied the motion on the ground that the defendants had not presented a claim for Hope Lane to be declared a public road because their “original answer merely stated that ‘[a]s a separate and affirmative defense, [the] [d]efendants . . . allege that Hope Lane is a public road,’ without making any further affirmative claim for relief.” Id. (first alteration and omission in original).

¶35 On appeal, the defendants argued that the trial court improperly refused to treat their Hope Lane affirmative defense as a counterclaim. See id. ¶¶ 16–17. We said that among the factors a court could consider when deciding whether to treat an affirmative defense as a counterclaim was “whether the defense as argued or articulated in the pleadings sufficiently states a claim for relief and a demand for judgment as required by rule 8(a) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure.” Id. ¶ 18. In concluding that the trial court had not abused its discretion by refusing to treat the Hope Lane affirmative defense as a counterclaim, we explained:

At the heart of the matter here is whether Plaintiffs should have recognized that Defendants’ statement “Hope Lane is a public road” was in reality a counterclaim, though labeled an affirmative defense. Here, the statement on its face is not readily identifiable as a counterclaim; it requests no relief and does not demand judgment. . . . Defendants did not properly plead a counterclaim . . . .

Id. ¶ 19. In sum, although it was in a different context, we have previously concluded that an affirmative defense that requests no relief and does not demand judgment does not present a claim. Our reaching the same conclusion here in the res judicata context “is not much of a jurisprudential leap.” Atkinson v. Stateline Hotel Casino & Resort, 2001 UT App 63, ¶ 19 n.6, 21 P.3d 667.

B. The district court’s finding that the amended divorce decree did not preclude Stashia’s claim for unpaid child support was not clearly erroneous.

¶36      Even if a party does not present a claim in her pleadings or otherwise during litigation, she might still agree to settle that unpled claim with the intent to foreclose its future litigation. If such an agreement becomes the basis of a stipulated decree, the second requirement of claim preclusion is met, and claim preclusion may apply to the settled but unpled claim. See Keith v. Aldridge, 900 F.2d 736, 741 (4th Cir. 1990) (holding, in the context of a “consent judgment,” that “[i]f the parties intended to foreclose through agreement litigation of a claim, assertion of that claim in a later suit, whether or not formally presented in the earlier action, is precluded”); 18A Charles Alan Wright, Arthur R. Miller & Edward H. Cooper, Federal Practice and Procedure § 4443 (3d ed. April 2022 update) (“[Following a consent judgment,] [i]f it is clear that the parties agreed to settle claims that were not reflected in the original pleadings, preclusion may extend to claims that were not even formally presented.”).[8]

¶37      Isaac relies on this principle. He contends that the amended

divorce decree, which was the product of a settlement agreement and stipulation, “expressly and unambiguously resolved” any claim for child support arrears that predated the amended decree. In support, he points to the provision of the amended decree that states: “This order shall be a consolidated order on custody, parent-time, and child related financial matters.” (Emphasis added.) Isaac interprets the phrase “child related financial matters” to mean that the amended decree was an order resolving all child related financial matters, including his child support arrears. But this is not the only plausible reading of this provision.

¶38 The amended decree addresses several child-related financial matters explicitly: the modified child support award, income tax deductions related to the children, health insurance and medical expenses for the children, and childcare expenses. It never mentions child support arrears. Thus, the phrase “child related financial matters” can plausibly be read as encompassing only the child-related financial matters explicitly addressed in the amended decree. Because this provision of the amended decree supports two plausible readings, it is ambiguous. See Moon v. Moon, 1999 UT App 12, ¶ 19, 973 P.2d 431 (“Language in a written document is ambiguous if the words may be understood to support two or more plausible meanings.” (cleaned up)), cert. denied, 982 P.2d 89 (Utah 1999).

¶39 “Ordinarily, we interpret a divorce decree as we would any other written instrument, construing it in accordance with its plain meaning and according no deference to the district court’s interpretation.” Christensen v. Christensen, 2018 UT App 53, ¶ 6,

420 P.3d 106. “But where, as here, the agreement is ambiguous, the trial court ordinarily considers extrinsic evidence in an effort to resolve the ambiguit[y] and will make findings of fact to resolve any disputed evidence . . . .” Id. (footnote omitted).

¶40      The district court here considered extrinsic evidence to determine whether Stashia’s claim for unpaid child support was encompassed within the amended decree, and it made a factual finding that the claim for unpaid child support was not encompassed within the decree. Among the evidence considered were the oral representations the parties made during their May 2019 settlement conference and a declaration provided by Isaac, both of which Isaac directed the court to when he opposed Stashia’s motion for an order to show cause. The district court considered this evidence and found that Stashia did not waive her claim for unpaid child support.

¶41      When, as here, a court looks outside the four corners of a stipulated judgment to determine its intended scope, that determination is a determination of fact, which we review for clear error. See Noel v. James, 2022 UT App 33, ¶ 11, 507 P.3d 832 (“The scope of a stipulation presents a question of fact, which we review for clear error.” (cleaned up)); Fuller v. Bohne, 2017 UT App 28, ¶ 9, 392 P.3d 898 (same), cert. denied, 398 P.3d 51 (Utah 2017). And “[f]indings of fact are clearly erroneous only if no reasonable factfinder could review the evidence presented and arrive at the disputed finding.” Blackhawk Townhouses Owners Ass’n Inc. v. J.S., 2018 UT App 56, ¶ 23, 420 P.3d 128.

¶42      We see no clear error in the district court’s finding that the parties’ amended decree was not intended to be preclusive of Stashia’s claim for child support arrears. Isaac’s child support arrears were not mentioned at all during the May 2019 settlement conference. A reasonable factfinder might therefore believe it a stretch to assume that when Stashia and Isaac told the commissioner they were “willing to accept [the] terms [that had been outlined in the settlement conference] as a final resolution of the issues that [were] currently pending in [the] matter,” they would have thought that those issues included Isaac’s alleged child support arrears.

¶43 Moreover, after the parties said that the modified child support obligation would become effective June 1, 2019, they told the commissioner that “all prior orders that are not specifically modified [as outlined in the settlement conference] . . . would remain in full force and effect.” A reasonable view of this evidence is that when the parties accepted the terms of the stipulation “as a final resolution of the issues that [were] currently pending in this matter,” these were the terms that they intended to accept: that the child support order prior to June 1, 2019, as well as any outstanding obligations under it, “would remain in full force and effect.”

C. Stashia was not required to present her claim for unpaid child support in the modification proceeding.

¶44      Even if a claim was not presented or settled in an initial action, the second requirement of the claim preclusion test can be met by showing that the subsequently raised claim “could and should have been raised in the first action.” Mack v. Utah State Dep’t of Com., 2009 UT 47, ¶ 29, 221 P.3d 194 (cleaned up). A subsequent claim could and should have been brought in an earlier action “if [both claims] arise from the same operative facts, or in other words from the same transaction.” Id. ¶ 30. To determine if two claims arise from the same transaction, a court may consider “whether the facts [of each] are related in time, space, origin, or motivation, whether they form a convenient trial unit, and whether their treatment as a unit conforms to the parties’ expectations.” Gillmor v. Family Link, LLC, 2012 UT 38, ¶ 14, 284 P.3d 622 (cleaned up). But “no single factor is determinative.” Id. (cleaned up). “Therefore, every consideration need not be addressed or considered in every case.” Id.

¶45      Here, Isaac’s claims for modification of the divorce decree were not related in origin to Stashia’s later claim for unpaid child support. Isaac’s claims to modify the divorce decree originated from alleged changes to his work and home life since the entry of the original decree (including his recent remarriage), alleged violations by Stashia of the divorce decree’s custody and parent-time provisions, and Stashia’s recent full-time employment. In contrast, Stashia’s claim for unpaid child support originated from Isaac’s alleged failure to abide by the divorce decree’s child support order. These differing origins suggest that the parties’ respective claims do not arise from the same transaction. See In re Marriage of Potts, 542 N.E.2d 179, 181–82 (Ill. App. Ct. 1989) (observing that “[t]here [was] no significant evidentiary overlap” between a father’s claim for unpaid child support and the mother’s claim for modification of the support obligation and, thus, holding that res judicata did not bar the father’s separate action for unpaid support); Zickefoose v. Muntean, 399 N.W.2d 178, 180–81 (Minn. Ct. App. 1987) (concluding that a stipulation to amend a divorce decree to reduce the father’s child support obligation was “a totally different and distinct action” from the mother’s later “motion to compel payment of child support arrearages” and, thus, that res judicata did not bar the mother’s later action for arrearages).

¶46 Additionally, neither Isaac nor Stashia conducted discovery related to Isaac’s alleged child support arrears during the modification proceeding, which suggests that it was not their expectation that Isaac’s claims for modification of the original decree and Stashia’s claim for unpaid child support under the original decree would be treated as a single trial unit.

¶47      Moreover, Utah Code section 78B-12-210(9)(a) provides for the filing of a petition to modify a child support order based on a substantial change of circumstances, while our rules require a motion—previously a motion “for an order to show cause,” see Utah R. Civ. P. 7(q) (2020), and now “a motion to enforce order,” see Utah R. Civ. P. 7B—to recover unpaid child support. By providing different procedures for modifying a child support order and enforcing a child support order, our code and rules also implicitly recognize that these two types of actions generally do not arise from the same transaction. Cf. In re P.D.D., 256 S.W.3d 834, 842, 844 (Tex. App. 2008) (reasoning in part that because the Texas Family Code “does not require their joinder,” actions for “delinquent child support” and actions for “modification of . . . future child support obligations” are “separate and definable questions” and the one is not barred by the other under a “transactional approach” to res judicata).

¶48      The differing origins of Isaac’s and Stashia’s respective claims, the apparent expectations of the parties, and the procedural scheme set forth in our code and rules demonstrate that Isaac’s claim for modification of the original child support order and Stashia’s claim for enforcement of the original order did not arise from the same transaction. Thus, Stashia was not required to present her claim for unpaid child support during the proceeding on Isaac’s petition to modify the divorce decree.

¶49      Because Stashia neither presented nor settled her claim for unpaid child support during the proceeding on Isaac’s petition to modify the divorce decree, and because she was not required to present her claim for unpaid child support during that proceeding, the doctrine of claim preclusion does not apply to bar Stashia’s claim.[9]

II. The District Court Did Not Err by Concluding that There
Were No Issues to Certify for Trial.

¶50      Isaac also argues that “[t]he district court erred when it

refused to allow [him] to counter Stashia’s Order to Show Cause with his request to retroactively apply the child support modification.” His request to retroactively apply the child support modification took the form of a certificate of readiness for trial filed nearly a year and a half after the modification proceeding to which it related had concluded. Because the modification proceeding had concluded, and because Isaac filed no rule 59 or 60(b) motion to alter or relieve him from the resulting judgment—i.e., the amended divorce decree, with its June 1, 2019 effective date for the modified support order—Isaac’s certificate of readiness for trial landed in a legal vacuum and had no legal effect.[10] With no pending proceeding to which retroactive application of the modified support order applied, the district court was correct to conclude that “[t]here [were] no issues to certify for trial.”

CONCLUSION

¶51      Stashia did not present an affirmative claim for child support arrears during the modification proceeding. The district court did not clearly err in finding that Stashia’s claim for those arrears was not encompassed within the modified divorce decree. And Stashia’s claim for those arrears did not arise out of the same transaction as the claims Isaac made in his petition to modify the decree. Accordingly, Stashia’s claim for unpaid child support is not barred by res judicata. Additionally, the district court’s ruling in response to Isaac’s certificate of readiness for trial—that there were no issues to certify for trial—was not in error.

¶52 Affirmed.

 

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

 

[1] As is our practice, because the parties share the same last name, we use their first names, with no disrespect intended by the apparent informality.

[2] The “motion to enforce order” procedure outlined in rule 7B of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure has now “replace[d] and supersede[d] the prior order to show cause procedure” in the context of “domestic relations actions, including divorce.” Utah R. Civ. P. 7B(a), (i), (j). A similar “motion to enforce order” procedure outlined in rule 7A now applies in the context of other civil proceedings. See id. R. 7A. In recommending rule 7B, the Utah Supreme Court’s Advisory Committee on the Rules of Civil Procedure left untouched rule 101(k), which addresses motion practice before district court commissioners and still recites requirements for “[a]n application to the court for an order to show cause.” Id. R. 101(k). The committee may wish to revise rule 101(k) to conform rule 101(k)’s provisions to those of rule 7B.

 

[3] Our resolution of this appeal makes determining the portion of this amount that accrued before entry of the amended divorce decree unnecessary.

[4] Isaac does not always frame his argument in terms of “claim preclusion” or “res judicata.” In one section of his principal brief, he asserts that the claim for unpaid child support was “resolved” by the amended divorce decree. In another, he argues that “the issues to which the parties have stipulated [have] become ‘settled’ and ‘not reserved for future consideration.’” And at one point he does explicitly invoke “the ‘claim preclusion’ prong of the doctrine of res judicata.” Regardless of their phrasing, each of these arguments is, in substance, an argument for application of the doctrine of res judicata. See infra ¶¶ 26-28; Mel Trimble Real Estate v. Monte Vista Ranch, Inc., 758 P.2d 451, 453 (Utah Ct. App.) (explaining that res judicata “bars the relitigation . . . of a claim for relief previously resolved” (emphasis added)), cert. denied, 769 P.2d 819 (Utah 1988); Res judicata, Black’s Law Dictionary (abridged 6th ed. 1991) (defining res judicata as “a thing or matter settled by judgment” (emphasis added)).

Because Isaac never uses the terms “issue preclusion” or “collateral estoppel” and never cites a case applying that branch of res judicata, and because he did not do so in the district court, we address only the claim preclusion branch of res judicata. See generally 438 Main St. v. Easy Heat, Inc., 2004 UT 72, ¶ 51, 99 P.3d 801 (“Issues that are not raised at trial are usually deemed waived.”); State v. Sloan, 2003 UT App 170, ¶ 13, 72 P.3d 138 (declining to address an inadequately briefed issue).

[5] Application of res judicata in the divorce context might be seen as “distinguish[able]” from its application in other contexts in another way as well. See Smith v. Smith, 793 P.2d 407, 410 (Utah Ct. App. 1990). That is because in the divorce context the preclusive effect of res judicata can be avoided based on “the equitable doctrine that allows courts to reopen [prior] determinations if the moving party can demonstrate a substantial change of circumstances.” Id. In fact, some prior determinations in divorce cases may be reopened on a showing of a material change of circumstances that is less than substantial. See, e.g.Miller v. Miller, 2020 UT App 171, ¶ 18, 480 P.3d 341 (observing that “when modifying parent-time (as opposed to custody), the petitioner is required to make only some showing of a change in circumstances, which does not rise to the same level as the substantial and material showing required when a district court alters custody” (cleaned up)). Though this might be seen as a distinguishing feature of res judicata in the divorce setting, it is consistent with our statement that “[t]he principles of res judicata apply fully in the context of divorce proceedings,” Krambule v. Krambule, 1999 UT App 357, ¶ 13, 994 P.2d 210, cert. denied, 4 P.3d 1289 (Utah 2000), because a decision based on a changed set of material facts is not a decision on the same question as the one presented previously.

[6] We are not alone in this approach. See, e.g.In re Marriage of Potts, 542 N.E.2d 179, 180–82 (Ill. App. Ct. 1989) (applying res judicata principles to hold that, under the facts of the case, an amended divorce decree that modified a child support obligation did not bar a claim for child support arrears that accrued under the prior decree); Zickefoose v. Muntean, 399 N.W.2d 178, 180–81 (Minn. Ct. App. 1987) (same).

[7] “The doctrine of unclean hands expresses the principle that a party who comes into equity for relief must show that his conduct has been fair, equitable, and honest as to the particular controversy in issue.” Goggin v. Goggin, 2013 UT 16, ¶ 60, 299 P.3d 1079 (cleaned up).

[8] “In Utah, . . . the rules of claim preclusion are ‘virtually identical’ to the federal rules . . . .” Haik v. Salt Lake City Corp., 2017 UT 14, ¶ 9, 393 P.3d 285 (citation omitted).

[9] The district court expressed its ruling against Isaac’s claim preclusion argument by finding that Stashia “did not waive” her claim for unpaid child support. Our ruling is that Stashia neither waived nor forfeited her right to assert that claim. “Though principles of waiver and forfeiture are often used interchangeably, the two concepts are technically distinct.” Reller v. Argenziano, 2015 UT App 241, ¶ 30, 360 P.3d 768 (cleaned up). “Forfeiture is the failure to make the timely assertion of a right, whereas waiver is the intentional relinquishment or abandonment of a known right.” Id. (cleaned up). Stashia did not waive her known right to bring a claim for unpaid support since, as we have concluded, she did not intentionally relinquish it through settlement or otherwise. Nor did she forfeit that right by the issue of failing to timely assert it since, as we have concluded, she was not required to present her claim during the modification proceeding. See id. ¶ 31 (holding that failure to timely amend a complaint to assert a claim for retroactive child support amounted to a forfeiture). We leave for another day the question of whether or how a claim for unpaid child support may be settled without running afoul of the statutory limitation on the waiver of child support claims. See generally Utah Code § 78B-12-109(1) (“Waiver and estoppel [of child support] shall apply only to the custodial parent when there is no order already established by a tribunal if the custodial parent freely and voluntarily waives support specifically and in writing.”); Cahoon v. Evans, 2011 UT App 148, ¶ 3, 257 P.3d 454 (holding that Utah Code section 78B-12-109 “rules out waiver and estoppel in all instances where there is a child support order already in place”).

[10] Isaac makes no attempt to address this procedural reality. Instead, he uses the certificate of readiness for trial as a vehicle to argue that he stipulated to a June 1, 2019 effective date for the modified child support order only “[i]n exchange” for Stashia giving up the right to pursue her claim for child support arrears. But the district court found that the parties did not intend such an exchange, and we have affirmed that finding. See supra ¶¶ 36–43.

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Widdison v. Widdison – 2022 UT App 46 – custody modification

Widdison v. Widdison – 2022 UT App 46
 

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS 

NICOLE WIDDISON,
Appellant, 

LEON BRYANT WIDDISON, 

Appellee. 

Opinion 

No. 20200484-CA 

Filed April 7, 2022 

Third District Court, Salt Lake Department 

The Honorable Robert P. Faust 

No. 144906018 

Julie J. Nelson and Alexandra Mareschal, Attorneys
for Appellant 

Todd R. Sheeran, Attorney for Appellee 

JUDGE RYAN D. TENNEY authored this Opinion, in which
JUDGES DAVID N. MORTENSEN and DIANA HAGEN concurred. 

TENNEY, Judge: 

¶1 By statute, a district court must ordinarily find that a material and substantial change in circumstances occurred before modifying the custody provisions in a divorce decree. In this appeal, we’re asked to answer two main questions about this statute. 

¶2 First, if a decree is silent about whether one of the parents has legal custody of a child, is the district court later required to find that there was a material and substantial change in circumstances before determining whether that parent has legal custody in the first instance? We conclude that a material and substantial change in circumstances is not required in such a scenario. 

¶3 Second, in situations where the custody modification statute is applicable, can a custodial parent’s attempt to sever a years-long relationship between the noncustodial parent and a child legally qualify as a material and substantial change? We conclude that it can. 

¶4 Based on these two conclusions, we affirm the modifications at issue. 

BACKGROUND [10]
The Divorce Decree 

¶5 Nicole and Bryant Widdison were married in June 2004. They had two children during their marriage, Daughter and Son. Bryant is Daughter’s biological father, but Nicole conceived Son with another man during a brief separation from Bryant. Nicole and Bryant reconciled before Son’s birth, however, and Bryant was in the delivery room when Nicole gave birth to Son. Bryant is listed on Son’s birth certificate, and Son bears Bryant’s surname. 

¶6 Nicole and Bryant divorced in July 2015. Daughter was ten years old at the time, and Son was about three and a half. The divorce decree (the Decree) was largely based on a stipulation between Nicole and Bryant. 

¶7 In the portions relevant to this appeal, the Decree provided: 

  1. Physical Custody: Nicole shall have physical custody of both said minor children. Bryant will remain on Son’s birth certificate unless or until he is challenged by some other legitimate party who prevails in a court of law.

. . . . 

  1. Legal Custody: The parties shall have “joint legal custody” of Daughter.

. . . . 

  1. Parent-Time/Visitation: Bryant shall be entitled to reasonable parent-time with Daughter. Reasonable parent-time shall be defined as the parties may agree. However, if the parties are not able to agree, Bryant shall be entitled to the following parent-time:

. . . . 

2) . . . Bryant may have two (2) overnights each week to coincide with the days that he is off work with the parties’ oldest child, Daughter[,] during the school year. . . . During the Summer months Bryant may have three overnights every other week and two overnights on the alternating weeks. . . . As for the youngest child, Son, parent-time will be at Nicole’s sole discretion . . . . 

3) Bryant shall also be entitled to holidays and summer parent-time as articulated in U.C.A. § 30-335 . . . . 

. . . . 

  1. Child Support: . . . Based on [the parties’] incomes, and a sole custody worksheet (even though the parties have a different parent-time arrangement and with the benefit and consent of counsel after being informed and involved), Bryant shall pay Nicole child support in the amount of $450.00 each month for the one female child (Daughter). . . . Any reference to a financial obligation[] or child support in this document shall be interpreted as applying only to the older child (Daughter).

(Emphases added.) 

¶8 As noted, the Decree gave Nicole “sole discretion” over whether Bryant could spend parent-time with Son. During the first three years after the divorce, Nicole “regularly and consistently allowed Son to exercise time with Bryant.” Her usual practice was to allow Son to accompany Daughter whenever Daughter visited Bryant. Since the Decree entitled Bryant to spend a little over 30 percent of the time with Daughter, this meant that Bryant spent a little over 30 percent of the time with Son during those years too. 

The Modification Petitions 

¶9 In November 2016, the State filed a petition to modify the Decree to require Bryant to pay child support for Son. The State’s petition noted that Son was born during Nicole and Bryant’s marriage, and it asserted that Bryant was Son’s presumptive legal father under Utah Code § 78B-15-204(1)(a) (LexisNexis 2018)11, which states that a “man is presumed to be the father of a child if,” among others, “he and the mother of the child are married to each other and the child is born during the marriage.” The State noted that “[n]o child support has been ordered for this child.” It accordingly asked the court to “find[] Bryant to be the legal father of Son” and order him to pay child support for Son. 

¶10 In his answer to the State’s petition, Bryant agreed that he “is the presumptive father” of Son and expressed his “desire[]” to “be treated as the natural father of Son” “for all intents and purposes.” Bryant also asked the court for an order granting him joint legal and physical custody of Son, as well as a “clarification of his rights and duties, namely parent-time with Son.”12  

¶11 In September 2018, Bryant filed his own petition to modify the Decree. There, Bryant asserted that he “has been the only father figure that Son has known,” and he argued that he “should be presumed and considered the legal father of Son.” Bryant also argued that “[t]here has been a significant, substantial and material change in circumstances that has occurred since the parties’ Decree of Divorce concerning custody, parent-time, and child support, such that modification of the Decree of Divorce is in the best interests of the minor children.”13  

Motion for Temporary Relief 

¶12 About two months after Bryant filed his petition to modify, Nicole suddenly cut off Bryant’s parent-time with Son. After she did, Bryant filed a motion for temporary relief, asking the court to award him “his historical/status quo parent time with both the minor children” until his petition to modify was resolved. 

¶13 The matter went before a court commissioner, and a hearing was held in which Bryant and Nicole and their respective attorneys were present. During the hearing, the commissioner heard how often Son accompanied Daughter during her visits with Bryant. At the close of the hearing, the commissioner ordered Nicole to “immediately resume Bryant’s historical/status quo parent time with both minor children” and to “allow Son to follow the parent-time schedule of Daughter, consistent with the historical parent-time exercised by Bryant.” 

¶14 Nicole objected to the commissioner’s recommendation, but the district court overruled that objection. The court instead agreed to temporarily “modify the stipulation to reflect what the parties themselves were actually doing regarding parent time.” The court surmised that “reducing the visitation the parties themselves were doing” might “be harmful to the child.” The court continued that it “could also be argued that such visitation is helpful and beneficial to the child, especially since both children will be doing visitation together and parents have the right of visitation with their children.” Nicole was thus ordered to give Bryant “the same parent-time with Son, consistent with Bryant’s parent time with Daughter,” while Bryant’s petition to modify was pending. 

The Relocation Proceedings 

¶15 A short time later, Nicole requested an expedited phone conference with the court, explaining that the company she worked for was requiring her to relocate to California. After a hearing, the commissioner recommended that “[t]he children . . . remain in Utah until the Court changes the Order regarding custody and parent time.” 

¶16 During the hearing, the commissioner further noted that “[c]onspicuously absent from Nicole’s argument [was] anything—from this Court’s perspective—showing she’s considering the child’s perspective.” In particular, the commissioner explained that 

Son has shared time with the older sibling going to Bryant’s home. Nicole has regularly and consistently allowed this child to exercise time with Bryant. In [November] of 2018, Nicole disagreed. And I agree, she does have the discretion to make decisions with regard to Son. From the child’s perspective, however, one child goes with Dad and the other doesn’t, because Bryant stepped on Nicole’s toes. She says, I’m establishing boundaries; you don’t get to see this child. That’s fine if this child is a car or a refrigerator. Son [is] a person who has Bryant’s surname, who has been exercising time—from what I can see—[a] full seven years. 

The commissioner further explained that “there’s been enough of a change, enough consistency for this younger child, that he has followed the older child, has the same surname [as Bryant], [Bryant’s] name’s on the birth certificate that has not been changed, to follow [Daughter’s parent-time] schedule.” 

¶17 Nicole did not object to the commissioner’s recommendation, and she hasn’t relocated in the meantime. 

The District Court’s Ruling on Bryant’s Petition to Modify 

¶18 A bench trial was held in November 2019 to settle the issues raised in Bryant’s petition to modify and Nicole’s request to relocate. The district court later entered an order titled “Amended Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law on Petitioner’s Relocation Request,” which addressed both the relocation request and the broader issues regarding Bryant’s legal and physical custody. 

¶19 In its order, the court first concluded that the petition to modify was “appropriate in that there have been material changes in circumstances warranting modification of the parties’ Decree in the children’s best interests, which have not previously been adjudicated.” The court did not, however, more specifically identify what those “changes in circumstances” were. 

¶20 Second, the court concluded that Nicole had “failed to rebut the presumption of paternity that exists in this case.” In the court’s view, Nicole had not shown by a “preponderance of the evidence that it would be in the best interest of Son to disestablish the parent-child relationship that has been created and substantiated by both of the parties over many years.” The court then “enter[ed] an adjudication that Bryant is the father of Son” and modified the Decree to “impose as to Son parental obligations” on Bryant, “including the obligation to pay child support for Son.” 

¶21 Third, the court “award[ed] Bryant joint legal custody of Son on the same terms as the Decree provide[d] for Daughter.” 

¶22 And finally, the court ruled that Nicole was “free to relocate.” If she did, the court awarded Bryant parent-time with both children under the terms set forth in Utah Code section 303-37(6) (Supp. 2021). If Nicole stayed in Utah, however, the court awarded Bryant “parent time with Son on the same terms as was occurring with Daughter.” 

¶23 That same day, the court issued a separate “Order Modifying Decree of Divorce.” This order reiterated that Bryant is “adjudicated to be the legal father of both Daughter and Son,” that Bryant now bore “all parental obligations in accordance with Utah law,” including the “obligation to pay child support” for both children, and that Bryant had “joint legal custody of both children on the same terms set forth in the [original] Decree with respect to Daughter.” The court further repeated the parent-time schedule that was set forth in its ruling on the relocation request—i.e., it awarded Bryant parent-time with Son on the same terms that he had with Daughter. It then declared that, “[e]xcept as modified by this Order, the parties’ Decree remains in full force and effect.” 

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW 

¶24 Nicole challenges the district court’s decisions to give Bryant (1) legal custody of Son and (2) parent-time with Son. We review a district court’s decision to modify a divorce decree, as well as a court’s parent-time determination and custody award, for abuse of discretion. See Stephens v. Stephens, 2018 UT App 196, ¶¶ 20–21, 437 P.3d 445; MacDonald v. MacDonald, 2017 UT App 136, ¶ 7, 402 P.3d 178. 

¶25 As discussed below, we regard one portion of the ruling in question as a determination of custody in the first instance. “A district court’s award of custody is reviewed for abuse of discretion.” Taylor v. Elison, 2011 UT App 272, ¶ 8, 263 P.3d 448. As also discussed below, another portion of Nicole’s argument turns on whether the circumstances at issue can legally qualify as a change in circumstances. We review that decision for correctness. See Toone v. Toone, 952 P.2d 112, 114 (Utah Ct. App. 1998) (“[I]n this case, we are presented with a question of law regarding what constitutes a substantial change of circumstances, which is reviewed for correctness.”). 

ANALYSIS 

¶26 “While there are several tools that can generally be used to modify final judgments, one tool that is specific to family law cases is the petition to modify.” McFarland v. McFarland, 2021 UT App 58, ¶ 25, 493 P.3d 1146 (quotation simplified); see also Ross v. Ross, 2019 UT App 104, ¶ 11, 447 P.3d 104 (“[R]ule 106 establishes a general rule . . . that any changes to divorce decrees must be brought about by the filing of a petition to modify.”). “Parties in family law cases may use this tool, in accordance with applicable statutes and rules, to seek modification of various provisions of decrees.” McFarland, 2021 UT App 58, ¶ 25. 

¶27 “On the petition of one or both of the parents,” the governing statute allows a court to “modify or terminate an order that established joint legal custody or joint physical custody” if “the circumstances of the child or one or both parents . . . have materially and substantially changed since the entry of the order to be modified” and the modification “would be an improvement for and in the best interest of the child.” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10.4(1) (LexisNexis 2019). This is a “bifurcated procedure,” Hogge v. Hogge, 649 P.2d 51, 53 (Utah 1982), and Utah courts have consistently referred to it as a “two-step” process, Doyle v. Doyle, 2011 UT 42, ¶ 24, 258 P.3d 553. See also Becker v. Becker, 694 P.2d 608, 610–11 (Utah 1984). Notably, it’s also a sequential process, in that a court cannot “reopen[] the custody question until it has first made a threshold finding of substantially changed circumstances.” Doyle, 2011 UT 42, ¶ 25 (quotation simplified).14  

¶28 As explained above, the district court made a number of changes to the Decree, and Nicole now challenges two of them on appeal: the decision to award Bryant legal custody of Son and the decision to grant Bryant parent-time with Son. We address each in turn.

I. Legal Custody

¶29 Nicole first challenges the district court’s decision to award Bryant joint legal custody of Son. Nicole claims that, “[u]nder the decree, [she] had sole . . . legal custody of Son,” and she then argues that under the two-step process described above, the district court erred by granting legal custody to Bryant without first providing any “analysis regarding a change in circumstances.” In her view, “[t]he district court disregarded the custody . . . arrangements from the decree and awarded joint [legal] custody of Son as if the decree had never been entered.” 

¶30 Nicole’s argument, however, is based on a false premise— namely, that the Decree had awarded her sole legal custody of Son. But it hadn’t. The Decree had a separately enumerated “Legal Custody” subsection. That subsection stated that “[t]he parties shall have ‘joint legal custody’ of Daughter.” (Emphasis added.) This provision said nothing about Son, and no other provision in the Decree purported to establish whether Nicole had legal custody of Son (let alone sole legal custody), or instead whether Bryant did (or didn’t) have any form of legal custody of Son himself. Instead, on this, the Decree was silent.15  

¶31 But the court was legally required to make a legal custody determination for Son. The Utah Code states that courts “shall enter . . . an order of custody”—both legal and physical—when a “married couple’s marriage is declared void or dissolved.” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(1) (2019) (emphasis added). The term “shall,” of course, has long been regarded as a command. See, e.g., Lay v. Lay, 2018 UT App 137, ¶ 12, 427 P.3d 1221.16  

¶32 The Decree’s silence impacts how we view Nicole’s arguments on appeal. Again, the Decree is silent about whether Bryant (or any other putative father) had legal custody of Son, and it likewise said nothing about whether Nicole (or any other mother) had legal custody of Son. So the question here is whether the court could correct this oversight without having to first determine that there had been a sufficient change in circumstances to warrant modification. 

¶33 We conclude that a change in circumstances was not required for the court to correct the Decree in this manner. As noted, the change-in-circumstances requirement is set forth in Utah Code section 30-3-10.4. This requirement “serves multiple interests.” Doyle, 2011 UT 42, ¶ 25. “First, because a custody decree is predicated on a particular set of facts, that decree is res judicata,” so “the changed-circumstances requirement prevents an unnecessary drain on judicial resources by repetitive litigation of the same issue when the result would not be altered.” Miller v. Miller, 2020 UT App 171, ¶ 17, 480 P.3d 341 (quotation simplified). “Second, the changed-circumstances requirement protects the custodial parent from harassment by repeated litigation.” Id. (quotation simplified). And third, “the requirement protects the child from ‘ping-pong’ custody awards,” id. (quotation simplified), thus emphasizing “the importance of a stable and secure homelife for children who are shifted from one parent figure to another” and ensuring that custody issues are not frivolously or infinitely “reopen[ed],” Hogge, 649 P.2d at 53–54 (quotation simplified). 

¶34 None of these concerns are implicated here. To the contrary, since the question of whether Bryant had legal custody of Son was unaddressed in the Decree, there was nothing for the court to “reopen” or change. Id. at 53. Thus, properly understood, Nicole isn’t really challenging a decision to modify a prior determination that Bryant should (or shouldn’t) have legal custody of Son. Rather, what Nicole is actually challenging is a decision that, in effect, decided legal custody in the first instance. Because of this, we conclude that no change in circumstances could reasonably be required. After all, if it were true that a court couldn’t correct an omission of a required determination without pointing to a change in circumstances, divorce decrees like this one would be left indeterminate about key issues such as who had legal custody of a child. And the effect of such omissions would be felt by both the children and the parents, all of whom would be left without the guidance and certainty that custody determinations are intended and required to provide. We decline to create, let alone endorse, such an approach. 

¶35 Our determination thus leaves the remaining question of whether the court exceeded its discretion when it awarded joint legal custody of Son to Bryant in the first instance. We conclude that it didn’t. 

¶36 “Under both the United States Constitution and the constitution of [Utah], a parent possesses a fundamental liberty interest in the care, custody, and management of the parent’s child.” Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-104(1) (Supp. 2021). Because of this, legal custody is linked to the fact of parentage. Our supreme court, for example, has held that a father has “legal custody of [his] [c]hild by virtue of his paternity,” In re adoption of B.B., 2017 UT 59, ¶ 81, 417 P.3d 1, and the same would of course be true for mothers by virtue of their maternity. Indeed, by statute, Utah law “presume[s] that a parent automatically enjoys legal custody” of his or her child, and this is so because of “the fundamental liberty interest of a parent concerning the care, custody, and management of the parent’s child.” Id. (quotation simplified). The legislature has also established “a rebuttable presumption that joint legal custody” “is in the best interest of the child.” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(3) (2019). 

¶37 Here, Son was born during Nicole and Bryant’s marriage, so Bryant was legally “presumed to be” Son’s father. Id. § 78B15-204(1)(a) (2018). And while this presumption of paternity can be overcome, the district court concluded that it was not. Instead, in the same ruling at issue on appeal, the court declared Bryant to be Son’s legal father, and Nicole has not challenged that paternity decision on appeal. 

¶38 As also noted, however, Bryant’s now-established paternity of Son presumptively gave him joint legal custody of Son too, based in part on Bryant’s own constitutional interests in the care and raising of Son, who is his child. See In re adoption of B.B., 2017 UT 59, ¶ 81. In her arguments to us, the only reason that Nicole gives for overcoming this presumption is the fact that the initial Decree was silent about whether Bryant had legal custody of Son. But as we’ve explained, that omission was a legal error. And when the district court was alerted to that error, it appropriately fixed it. Once the court did, the result was that Bryant—who was present at Son’s birth, was listed on Son’s birth certificate, and has acted as Son’s father since birth—was now Son’s legal father, which meant that he was presumptively entitled to legal custody of Son too. 

¶39 In short, under these circumstances, no change in circumstances was required, and we see no abuse of discretion in the court awarding legal custody of Son to Bryant in the first instance.

II. Physical Custody

¶40 Nicole next challenges the district court’s decision to modify the Decree’s provisions regarding parent-time with Son. As set forth below, we first clarify (A) the nature of the modification, (B) the district court’s reasons for it, and (C) the standard of review applicable to Nicole’s particular challenge. We then hold that (D) the change in circumstance at issue can legally support a modification of custody. 

A. The Nature of the Modification

¶41 The Decree was silent about legal custody of Son, but it wasn’t silent about physical custody. Instead, it affirmatively gave Nicole “physical custody of both said minor children”—i.e., both Daughter and Son. And while the Decree then set forth a delineated parent-time schedule for Daughter, it left Bryant’s parent-time with Son to “Nicole’s sole discretion.” 

¶42 In the ruling at issue, the district court modified this. The court removed Nicole’s “sole discretion” over parent-time for Son and set forth two alternative parent-time schedules. If Nicole remained in Utah, Bryant would have parent-time with Son “on the same terms as was occurring with Daughter.” If she moved to California, however, Bryant would have one weekend per month with both children as well as additional time with them during the summer. See Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-37(6) (2019). 

¶43 Although this ruling was couched in terms of parent-time, the parties have both suggested in their briefing that this amounted to a modification of physical custody of Son. We agree. 

¶44 Physical custody and parent-time “are conceptually distinct.” Ross, 2019 UT App 104, ¶ 14 n.3. “Physical custody has long been understood to involve much more than actual possession and care of a child,” instead implicating the right and “legal responsibility to provide supervision and control” of a child. Hansen v. Hansen, 2012 UT 9, ¶ 15, 270 P.3d 531. By contrast, the term “parent-time” more narrowly refers to the amount of time that a parent is entitled to spend with the child. See generally Utah Code Ann. §§ 30-3-34 to -36 (2019 & Supp. 2021) (setting forth minimum, optional, and equal parent-time schedules as well as parent-time considerations for special circumstances). 

¶45 That said, the terms are intertwined because, “[b]y statutory definition, there are two kinds of physical custody— sole physical custody and joint physical custody,” and “the dividing line” between the two is largely “based on the number of overnight visits enjoyed by each parent.” McFarland, 2021 UT App 58, ¶ 36. When a child “stays with each” of his or her “parent[s] overnight for more than 30% of the year, and both parents contribute to the expenses of the child in addition to paying child support,” each of the parents has joint physical custody of the child. Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10.1(3)(a) (2019). But when a child stays with one parent overnight for less than 30% of the year, the parent who has over 70% of the overnights is considered to have sole physical custody of the child. See id.; Utah Code Ann. § 78B-12-102(15) (Supp. 2021); McFarland, 2021 UT App 58, ¶ 36. 

¶46 Here, the Decree did not specifically determine whether Nicole had “sole” or “joint” physical custody of either of the children. But at least with regard to Son, the Decree effectively awarded Nicole sole physical custody because it gave her “sole discretion” whether Son would spend any parent-time with Bryant at all. And, critically for this appeal, the Decree also awarded Bryant what amounted to joint physical custody of Daughter. After all, the dividing line is 30% of the overnights, and 30% of the 365 days in a year is roughly 110. In the proceedings below, the commissioner reviewed the Decree and determined that the parent-time schedule gave Bryant more “than the 110 overnights,” which accordingly meant that Bryant had “joint physical custody” of Daughter. Thus, when the district court later equalized Bryant’s parent-time with Son to match the parent-time he had with Daughter, it in effect modified the Decree to give Bryant joint physical custody of Son too.17  

B. The Basis for the District Court’s Change-in-Circumstance

Determination 

¶47 As noted, the district court determined that “there have been material changes in circumstances warranting modification of the parties’ Decree in the children’s best interests, which have not previously been adjudicated.” But the court did not specifically delineate what those changes were. Because of this, Nicole initially asks us to reverse the modification based on the court’s failure to provide any “analysis as to why a custody modification was justified” under the required change-in-circumstances test. 

¶48 We acknowledge that the district court’s ruling on this could have been more clear. But even so, “a trial court’s failure to make explicit findings supporting its decision does not, alone, warrant reversal so long as the basis for the trial court’s ruling is readily apparent from the record.” In re A.S., 2014 UT App 226, ¶ 7, 336 P.3d 582; cf. State v. Pecht, 2002 UT 41, ¶ 34, 48 P.3d 931 (explaining that “where the record as a whole sufficiently” indicates the basis for the court’s ruling, “an absence of written findings will not invalidate the trial court’s conclusions”). 

¶49 Here, the court expressly concluded that there had been a change in circumstances, so the court was plainly cognizant of the requirement and believed that it had been met. And from our review of the record, we believe that the basis for the court’s determination is sufficiently apparent. In its ruling regarding the temporary orders, the court temporarily “modif[ied] the stipulation to reflect what the parties themselves were actually doing regarding parent time.” The court surmised that “reducing the visitation the parties themselves were doing” might “be harmful to the child” and that “visitation is helpful and beneficial to the child, especially since both children will be doing visitation together and parents have the right of visitation with their children.” It thus ordered Nicole to give Bryant “the same parent-time with Son, consistent with Bryant’s parent time with Daughter,” while Bryant’s petition to modify was pending. This initial decision demonstrated two key things: (1) the court intended to equalize Bryant’s parent-time with Daughter and Son, and (2) it more specifically intended to prevent Nicole from “reducing” Bryant’s parent-time with Son. 

¶50 The court’s ruling on Nicole’s relocation request (which, again, accompanied the modification ruling) was consistent with these goals. There, the court ruled that Bryant should be declared Son’s father—a determination that, again, Nicole has not challenged on appeal. Notably, in doing so, the court expressed its intention to not allow Nicole to “disestablish the parent child relationship” between Bryant and Son “that has been created and substantiated by both of the parties over many years.” 

¶51 Together, these orders reflect the court’s intention to formally recognize and now protect Bryant’s relationship with Son. From all this, we believe it is “readily apparent from the record,” In re A.S., 2014 UT App 226, ¶ 7, that the change in circumstances found by the court to support modification included: (i) the changes in Bryant’s relationship with Son (namely, the three years of additional parent-time bonding, as well as Bryant’s new status as Son’s legally recognized father), and (ii) Nicole’s recent attempts to cut off Bryant’s access to Son. 

C. Standard of Review

¶52 Nicole next argues that Bryant’s further-developed relationship with Son and her decision to cut off parent-time between the two could not legally qualify as a change in circumstances under the custody modification statute. As noted in the Standard of Review section above, supra ¶ 25, we regard this as a legal question that is reviewed for correctness. In light of our past caselaw, this warrants some explanation. 

¶53 This court has previously held that a district court’s “determination regarding whether a substantial change of circumstances has occurred is presumptively valid, and our review is therefore limited to considering whether the [district] court abused its discretion.” Nave-Free v. Free, 2019 UT App 83, ¶ 8, 444 P.3d 3 (quotation simplified); accord Christensen v. Christensen, 2017 UT App 120, ¶ 10, 400 P.3d 1219; Doyle v. Doyle, 2009 UT App 306, ¶ 7, 221 P.3d 888, aff’d, 2011 UT 42, 258 P.3d 553. We reaffirm our adherence to this general rule here. 

¶54 On occasion, however, we have held that the abuse-of-discretion standard applies to a district court’s “ultimate determination regarding the presence or absence of a substantial change in circumstances.” Peeples v. Peeples, 2019 UT App 207, ¶ 11, 456 P.3d 1159 (emphasis added); accord Harper v. Harper, 2021 UT App 5, ¶ 11, 480 P.3d 1097. But when we have been presented with an argument that didn’t challenge the court’s “ultimate determination” of whether certain facts constituted a material and substantial change in circumstances, but instead contended that particular facts or developments simply couldn’t be legally considered as part of the court’s analysis, we have treated those questions as questions of law for which we give the district court’s ruling no appellate deference. 

¶55 Our decision in Toone v. Toone, 952 P.2d 112 (Utah Ct. App. 1998), is illustrative. There, after a divorce had been finalized, federal laws regarding military pensions changed; and if those new laws were applied to the parties’ divorce, they would have allowed the ex-wife a larger share of her ex-husband’s military pension. See id. at 113–14. The ex-wife accordingly filed a petition to modify, asserting that the change in laws amounted to a change in circumstances that justified modification of the divorce decree. Id. We disagreed. See id. at 114. Notably, while reaffirming the rule that a district court’s “modification determination” is reviewed “for an abuse of discretion,” we regarded the particular question before us as being “a question of law regarding what constitutes a substantial change of circumstances, which is reviewed for correctness.” Id. 

¶56 Another case proceeded similarly. In Davis v. Davis, 2011 UT App 311, ¶ 6, 263 P.3d 520, we construed a party’s argument that certain events “could not be used as evidence” in the change-in-circumstances analysis as a legal question that we reviewed for correctness. 

¶57 This distinction, though perhaps subtle, is important, and it accords with how standards of review operate. The “primary function of a standard of review is to apportion power and, consequently, responsibility between trial and appellate courts for determining an issue.” State v. Levin, 2006 UT 50, ¶ 19, 144 P.3d 1096 (quotation simplified). In this sense, the standard of review determination “allocate[s] discretion between the trial and appellate courts” based on an assessment of “the relative capabilities of each level of the court system.” Id. (quotation simplified). 

¶58 Again, the statute in question here requires a court to determine whether there was a material and substantial change in circumstances. See Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10.4(2)(b)(i) (2019). The evaluation of whether a particular change was material or substantial enough calls for a weighing of facts and circumstances. District courts are in a better position than we are to do such weighing, which is why those ultimate determinations receive discretionary deference. But if a party instead makes a threshold argument that a particular kind of fact or development can’t legally be used in the weighing at all, that argument essentially asks us to establish the permissible boundaries of the district court’s discretionary decision-making authority. Such a question is legal in nature, which is why that aspect of the ruling is reviewed for correctness. 

¶59 In her opening brief, Nicole argues that the change in circumstances identified by the district court “is not the sort of ‘change’ that justifies modification under Utah law.” (Emphasis added.) In her reply brief, Nicole similarly asserts that the district court “did not find[] changed circumstances that qualify under Utah law.” (Emphasis added.) She accordingly asks us to review the district court’s decision for correctness, rather than an abuse of discretion. So viewed, we don’t understand Nicole to be challenging the court’s weighing of the permissible facts. Rather, we understand Nicole to be making a legal argument about whether the court could even consider the change in relationship between Son and Bryant in the intervening years and Nicole’s subsequent, unilateral decision to cut off their parent-time as a material change in circumstances. Because her argument is legal in nature, we review this aspect of the ruling for correctness. 

D. The Change in Circumstances

¶60 Properly understood, the question, then, is whether the change in circumstances identified above can legally qualify as a change in circumstances under Utah law. We conclude that it can.18  

¶61 As noted, the statute requires a determination that “a material and substantial change in circumstance has occurred.” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10.4(2)(b)(i) (2019). A chief “goal” of this required determination is to give children “some measure of certainty and stability” after their parents or guardians have separated. In re E.H., 2006 UT 36, ¶ 2, 137 P.3d 809. Indeed, the supreme court has suggested that children are “entitled” to “permanence and stability” moving forward. Id. ¶ 16. 

¶62 For good reason. The “emotional, intellectual, and moral development of a child depends upon a reasonable degree of stability in the child’s relationships to important people and to its environment.” Elmer v. Elmer, 776 P.2d 599, 602 (Utah 1989). Both the supreme court and this court have recognized that stability is paramount with respect to “custody arrangements.” Hogge, 649 P.2d at 54; see also Kramer v. Kramer, 738 P.2d 624, 626 (Utah 1987) (recognizing that “stable custody arrangements are of critical importance to the child’s proper development”); Taylor v. Elison, 2011 UT App 272, ¶ 22, 263 P.3d 448 (recognizing the “general policy of maintaining custodial stability to the extent it is reasonable and wise to do so while [a child’s] parents seek to resolve their differences” and that “it is generally in the best interests of the child to remain with his or her existing custodial parent”). 

¶63 This stability interest is one of the driving forces behind the change-in-circumstances requirement, which “provide[s] stability to children by protecting them from ‘ping-pong’ custody awards.” Chaparro v. Torero, 2018 UT App 181, ¶ 39, 436 P.3d 339 (quotation simplified). “Absent such a requirement, a decree of divorce would be subject to ad infinitum appellate review and readjustment.” Foulger v. Foulger, 626 P.2d 412, 414 (Utah 1981). Thus, the understood “rationale” for this requirement is “that custody placements, once made, should be as stable as possible unless the factual basis for them has completely changed.” Kramer, 738 P.2d at 627 (quotation simplified). 

¶64 But this leads to the problem that the district court was confronted with here. Again, the parent-child relationship between Bryant and Son had existed since birth, had solidified in the several-year period after the divorce, and had just now been officially recognized as a matter of law. Despite this, Nicole had recently invoked her authority under the Decree to cut off Bryant’s access to Son entirely, thus amounting to something akin to complete custodial interference. 

¶65 The legislature, however, has recognized that “each divorcing, separating, or adjudicated parent is entitled to . . . frequent, meaningful, and continuing access with the parent’s child consistent with the child’s best interest,” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-32(2)(b)(ii) (Supp. 2021) (emphases added), and that, absent evidence of abuse or harm to the child, “it is in the best interests of the child to have both parents actively involved in parenting the child,” id. § 30-3-32(2)(b)(iii) (emphasis added). True, such relationships can be altered or even severed by operation of law. But here, the Decree was the product of a stipulation, not a court determination, and no court has ever determined that it was not in the best interests of Son to have a relationship with Bryant. 

¶66 Given that Bryant has now been adjudicated to be Son’s father, we believe that the court could legally conclude that this change, coupled with Nicole’s concomitant attempt to undermine their ability to have any relationship at all, warranted a modification of the Decree to protect the father-son relationship moving forward. 

¶67 Nicole, however, resists this conclusion. She argues that her decision “to allow (or not allow) parent-time” is not “the type of change in circumstances that justifies modification under Utah law.” We disagree. 

¶68 As a starting point, we note that Nicole’s argument has no support in the controlling statutory text. Section 30-3-10.4(2)(b)(i) requires a court to find that “a material and substantial change of circumstance has occurred.” There is nothing in the text of this statute that creates the limit suggested by Nicole—i.e., the statute doesn’t prevent a district court from concluding that a custodial parent’s efforts to cut off a years-developed relationship between a child and the noncustodial parent qualifies as such a change. 

¶69 Nicole nevertheless points to two cases that, in her view, support her proposed limitation. But we don’t find either case to require a different result here. 

¶70 First, Nicole relies on a passage from Doyle in which the supreme court “adopted a general rule” under which “the asserted change” in circumstances must be related to the “parenting ability or the functioning of the presently existing custodial relationship,” rather than the “parenting of the noncustodial parent.” 2011 UT 42, ¶ 41 (quotation simplified). 

¶71 But while Doyle referred to this as a “general rule,” it never said it was an “exclusive” one. Indeed, in the very next sentence, Doyle recognized “an exception to the general rule” that was based on a prior Utah case. Id. Doyle itself thus shows that this “general rule” is subject to judicially recognized exceptions. 

¶72 Moreover, section 30-3-10.4(1)(a) itself provides that, in a petition to modify, the petition or affidavit must “allege[] that admissible evidence will show that the circumstances of the child or one or both parents . . . have materially and substantially changed since the entry of the order to be modified.” (Emphasis added.) By allowing a modification to be based on a change in the circumstances of “the child or one or both parents,” the legislature directly contemplated that a change in circumstances of any of the parties—the child or either parent—can provide the basis for a modification. So while Doyle’s statement provides some guidance, we do not understand it to be an inviolable limitation of the sort proposed by Nicole. 

¶73 Second, Nicole claims that in Crouse v. Crouse, 817 P.2d 836 (Utah Ct. App. 1991), we adopted a rule under which a noncustodial parent’s strengthened relationship with a child cannot qualify as a change in circumstances for purposes of a subsequent modification request. We disagree with Nicole’s interpretation of Crouse. 

¶74 In Crouse, the mother had been given primary physical custody of the children after the divorce, but she had then allowed the children to “spen[d] almost equal time” with their father in the ensuing years. Id. at 837. Based in part on this allowance of extra time, the father later requested a modification of the decree to give him “primary physical custody” over the children. Id. The district court denied his modification request, and we affirmed that decision. Id. at 837, 840. 

¶75 Nicole points to a passage from our affirmance in which we recognized that the “fact that Mrs. Crouse has been generous in sharing physical custody with Mr. Crouse is not a ground to change physical custody; if anything, it supports leaving primary physical custody with Mrs. Crouse, as it shows that she has lived up to the responsibilities of a custodial parent.” Id. at 839. 

¶76 In contrast to Nicole, however, we don’t read this passage as having determined that, as a matter of law, a district court cannot consider such facts in its analysis. It’s significant that we were affirming the district court’s denial of a petition to modify in Crouse. It’s also significant that the same section of the opinion began with a reminder that a “trial court’s decision concerning modification of a divorce decree will not be disturbed absent an abuse of discretion,” id. at 838, and that we then referred to the court’s “discretion” three more times in that section, id. at 838– 39. Thus, properly understood, Crouse was not establishing rules about the facts that a court could legally consider. Rather, Crouse was giving deference to the district court’s determination that the facts before it were not enough to satisfy the requisite standard. 

¶77 Moreover, we also note that the district court’s use of its discretion in Crouse was consistent with the understood purpose behind the change-in-circumstances requirement. The mother there had originally been awarded primary physical custody, and after she let the children “spen[d] almost equal time” with their father over a period of a few years, the father asked the court to grant him “primary physical custody” as a result. Id. at 837. In this sense, the father’s request, if granted, would have created instability in the children’s lives by changing their primary caregiver. 

¶78 The opposite is true here. Again, Bryant had acted as Son’s father since birth. After Nicole then allowed Son to continue developing this relationship with Bryant over the course of several post-divorce years, Nicole changed her mind and decided to cut off their relationship, thus essentially leaving Son fatherless. Put simply, the effect of our decision here is consistent with Crouse, not inconsistent with it. There, we affirmed a district court decision that preserved stability in the children’s lives. And here, we’re likewise affirming a district court decision that preserved stability in the affected child’s life. 

¶79 In sum, the statute does not impose the limitation proposed by Nicole, and we think that doing so ourselves would be inconsistent with Utah caselaw, the importance of parent-child relationships, the protections given to those relationships by constitution and statute alike, and the modification statute’s recognized goal of promoting stability in children’s lives. We therefore conclude that a district court can legally determine that a unilateral attempt by a custodial parent to sever a child’s years-developed relationship with his or her noncustodial parent can constitute a substantial and material change in circumstances, thereby allowing the court to proceed to the best interests step of the modification analysis. We accordingly affirm the district court’s conclusion that a change in circumstances occurred here. 

¶80 Having done so, we add two cautionary notes to this decision. First, Nicole suggests that a ruling like this one will essentially penalize a custodial parent for being generous with the noncustodial parent’s ability to exercise parent-time. We’re sensitive to this concern. But again, a district court can’t proceed to the best-interests step of the analysis based on just any change in circumstances. Rather, the court must first determine that the change is “material and substantial.” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10.4(2)(b)(i). Whether a particular increase or decrease in parent-time is enough to qualify will be circumstance-dependent, and we have no need to more specifically cabin the district courts’ discretionary authority here. But in light of Nicole’s concern, we do note that the change in question in this case was from something akin to 30% of the time to 0%. We’re simply holding that a court can regard such a dramatic alteration of the existing parent-child relationship to be a material and substantial change in circumstances. 

¶81 Second, we again note that, even when a district court concludes that a change in circumstances has occurred, this does not mean that the court must modify the decree. Again, this is a two-step analysis, and under the second step, a court can only modify a decree if it finds that the modification “would be an improvement for and in the best interest of the child.” Id. § 30-3-10.4(2)(b)(ii). Thus, even in a circumstance like this one, a district court could still determine that modification is not appropriate if it concludes that the proposed modification would not be in the best interests of the child. 

¶82 In this sense, our decision today does not restrict the district courts’ options. Rather, it keeps them open. We simply hold that, in a case like this one, a district court can determine that a material and substantial change in circumstances has occurred—not that it must, and not that it must then make any particular ruling regarding the best interests of the child.19  

CONCLUSION 

¶83 For the foregoing reasons, we affirm the district court’s decision to give Bryant joint legal and physical custody of [decision ends here inexplicably]. 

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

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In re Adoption of E.M.F. – 2022 UT App 43 time in which to appeal

In re Adoption of E.M.F… – 2022 UT App 43

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

IN THE MATTER OF

THE ADOPTION OF E.M.F. AND M.S.F.,

PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

S.S. AND B.S.,

Appellants,

v.

J.F.,

Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20200490-CA

Filed March 31, 2022

Second District Court, Ogden Department

The Honorable Joseph M. Bean

No. 182900024

Jason B. Richards, Attorney for Appellants

Emily Adams and Sara Pfrommer, Attorneys

for Appellee

JUDGE JILL M. POHLMAN authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER and RYAN D. TENNEY concurred.

POHLMAN, Judge:

¶1        In this stepparent adoption case, B.S. (Mother) and S.S. (Stepfather) appeal the district court’s order denying their petition to terminate the parental rights of J.F. (Father), with whom Mother shares two children, E.M.F. and M.S.F. (collectively, the Children). We do not reach the merits of the case, however, because we dismiss this appeal for lack of jurisdiction. Although Mother and Stepfather contend that the court rule dictating this result is unconstitutional on its face and as applied, we conclude that Mother and Stepfather have not demonstrated that exceptional circumstances exist for us to consider their constitutional argument.

BACKGROUND

¶2        Mother and Father were involved in a relationship between 2009 and 2014, during which time the Children were born. Mother has always had full physical custody of the Children since her separation from Father. Later, Mother married Stepfather. Mother and Stepfather then petitioned for Stepfather to adopt the Children and to terminate Father’s parental rights.

¶3        The matter proceeded to a two-day bench trial in December 2018. After hearing the evidence, the district court concluded that Mother and Stepfather had “not met their burden by clear and convincing evidence of any of the statutory requirements for terminating [Father’s] rights,” and the court accordingly denied the petition for adoption. The court announced its findings of fact and conclusions of law in court, explaining, “That will be the order of the Court.” It further announced that it did not “inten[d] to do written findings of fact and conclusions of law” but that “[c]ertainly anybody who would like to can do it themselves and submit it to the Court for approval.”[1] Similarly, the court’s December 11, 2018 minute entry from trial states, “The court does not intend on issuing written findings of facts and conclusions of law, either party may submit their own consistent with the court’s ruling for approval if they wish.” That minute entry was signed electronically and designated as an order of the court on December 13, 2018.

¶4        Neither side chose to submit findings and conclusions consistent with the court’s decision,[2] and neither side submitted a proposed judgment pursuant to rule 58A(c)(1) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. Aside from the court’s exhibit tracking record filed a few days after trial, nothing more was filed in the case until Father, acting pro se, moved to release the trial transcripts on March 11, 2019. In his motion, Father asserted that the “records and transcripts [were] required for [him] to prepare findings of fact and conclusions of law requested by [the district court judge].” One month later, the court entered a certificate of destruction, stating that the court clerk had destroyed the exhibits on April 4, 2019.

¶5        Nothing else was entered on the court’s docket until December 2019, when Mother and Stepfather’s attorneys withdrew, and then Mother and Stepfather, acting pro se, filed an objection to a proposed findings of fact, conclusions of law, and order prepared by Father.[3] Among other objections, Mother and Stepfather complained that Father “failed to properly provide a copy of the proposed order to [them] before filing the document with the Court.” The court held a telephone conference the next month during which it indicated that the proposed findings “will be held due to the pending objection.” At a later hearing, the court decided to “sustain[]” Mother and Stepfather’s objection and ordered Father to submit amended findings with two specific revisions.

¶6        As ordered, Father then filed a proposed amended findings of fact, conclusions of law, and order. Finally, on June 9, 2020, the district court signed the amended findings of fact, conclusions of law, and order. The court reiterated its conclusion—rendered 546 days earlier—that, as a matter of law, Mother and Stepfather had “not met their burden to show by clear and convincing evidence any of [the] statutorily required bases for terminating [Father’s] parental rights,” and the court thus denied the petition for adoption. On June 22, 2020, Mother and Stepfather filed a notice of appeal.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶7        On appeal, Mother and Stepfather challenge the district court’s denial of their adoption petition. But Father contends that this court lacks jurisdiction to consider the merits of the appeal, arguing that Mother and Stepfather did not timely file a notice of appeal in light of rule 58A of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. In response, Mother and Stepfather insist that they timely appealed under their view of the relevant timeline and rule 58A. “Whether appellate jurisdiction exists is a question of law.” Greyhound Lines, Inc. v. Utah Transit Auth., 2020 UT App 144, ¶ 22, 477 P.3d 472 (cleaned up). Likewise, the interpretation of a rule of civil procedure is a question of law. See Ghidotti v. Waldron, 2019 UT App 67, ¶ 8, 442 P.3d 1237.

¶8        In the event that this court agrees with Father on the correct operation of rule 58A, Mother and Stepfather assert that the rule is unconstitutional on its face and as applied to the facts of this case. Constitutional challenges present “questions of law.” Menzies v. State, 2014 UT 40, ¶ 27, 344 P.3d 581, abrogated on other grounds by McCloud v. State, 2021 UT 51, 496 P.3d 179. But when, as here, an issue was not preserved in the district court, “the party must argue that an exception to preservation applies.” State v. Johnson, 2017 UT 76, ¶ 27, 416 P.3d 443.

ANALYSIS

¶9        We begin by addressing Father’s contention that this court lacks appellate jurisdiction over this matter. We then address Mother and Stepfather’s constitutional argument aimed at defeating Father’s jurisdictional contention.

I. Appellate Jurisdiction

¶10 Father contends that this court does not have appellate jurisdiction to consider this appeal. According to Father, because a separate judgment was not filed after the district court announced its findings and order from the bench on December 11, 2018, the decision was considered final and appealable 150 days after that date under rule 58A(e)(2)(B) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure and any notice of appeal should have been filed within thirty days of May 10, 2019. Father asserts that the court’s amended findings of fact, conclusions of law, and order—entered on June 9, 2020—could not “restart the period for filing a notice of appeal” and that Mother and Stepfather’s June 22, 2020 notice of appeal was therefore untimely. In contrast, Mother and Stepfather contend that the June 9, 2020 order constituted the required separate judgment and that they timely filed their notice of appeal from that order.[4] We agree with Father.

¶11      This case turns on the application of rule 58A of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure to determine when the time to appeal began to run. Rule 58A(a) provides that “[e]very judgment and amended judgment must be set out in a separate document ordinarily titled ‘Judgment’—or, as appropriate, ‘Decree.’” Utah R. Civ. P. 58A(a). Of particular import here, rule 58A(e) states,

(e) Time of entry of judgment.

(e)(1) If a separate document is not required, a judgment is complete and is entered when it is signed by the judge and recorded in the docket.

(e)(2) If a separate document is required, a judgment is complete and is entered at the earlier of these events:

(e)(2)(A) the judgment is set out in a separate document signed by the judge and recorded in the docket; or

(e)(2)(B) 150 days have run from the clerk recording the decision, however designated, that provides the basis for the entry of judgment.

Id. R. 58A(e). This provision “makes explicit the time of entry of judgment” and resolves the problem of “endlessly hanging appeals.” Griffin v. Snow Christensen & Martineau, 2020 UT 33, ¶¶ 12, 14, 467 P.3d 833 (cleaned up).

¶12 The parties agree that “a separate document” was required in this case, so they therefore agree that rule 58A(e)(1) does not apply here. See Utah R. Civ. P. 58A(a); see also Griffin, 2020 UT 33, ¶ 17 (stating that a judgment “must be set out in a separate document that is prepared by the prevailing party and signed and docketed by the court”). Accordingly, this case falls under rule 58A(e)(2).

¶13      Rule 58A(e)(2) sets forth two events, the earlier of which will trigger the time when a judgment becomes complete and entered. The first occurs when “the judgment is set out in a separate document signed by the judge and recorded in the docket.” Utah R. Civ. P. 58A(e)(2)(A). In Griffin, the Utah Supreme Court explained that when rules 58A(a) and 58A(e)(2)(A) are “properly implemented, the separate judgment signals clearly that the case is over and the appeal and post-judgment motion clock has started to run.”[5] 2020 UT 33, ¶ 17.

¶14      Alternatively, “when the prevailing party fails to prepare a separate judgment, rule 58A(e)(2)(b) creates a backstop by establishing that the ‘entry of judgment’ occurs once ‘150 days have run from the clerk recording the decision, however designated, that provides the basis for the entry of judgment.’” Id. (quoting Utah R. Civ. P. 58A(e)(2)(B)); see also id. ¶ 25 n.5; Utah R. Civ. P. 58A advisory committee notes to 2015 amendments (“[I]f a separate document is required but is not prepared, judgment is deemed to have been entered 150 days from the date the decision—or the order confirming the decision—was entered on the docket.”). Indeed, the current version of rule 58A(e)(2) was adopted in response to the supreme court’s direction for the rule to “set a maximum time . . . for filing an appeal in cases where the district court’s judgment has not otherwise been finalized.” Central Utah Water Conservancy Dist. v. King, 2013 UT 13, ¶ 27, 297 P.3d 619; see also Utah R. Civ. P. 58A advisory committee notes to 2015 amendments (explaining that the current rule addressed “the ‘hanging appeals’ problem” that the supreme court identified in King); Griffin, 2020 UT 33, ¶¶ 9–11, 14.

¶15      Here, at the end of the bench trial, the district court ruled in favor of Father and announced its findings of fact and conclusions of law on the record on December 11, 2018. Neither side prepared a separate judgment, and thus rule 58A(e)(2)(A) did not apply. See Griffin, 2020 UT 33, ¶ 17. Nevertheless, the clerk “record[ed] the decision, however designated, that provides the basis for the entry of judgment” when the clerk recorded the court’s December 11, 2018 minute entry. See Utah R. Civ. P. 58A(e)(2)(B). The “backstop” of rule 58A(e)(2)(B) therefore kicked in to “establish[] that the ‘entry of judgment’ occur[red] once ‘150 days ha[d] run from the clerk recording the decision.’” See Griffin, 2020 UT 33, ¶ 17 (quoting Utah R. Civ. P. 58A(e)(2)(B)). We thus agree with Father that the court’s judgment was complete and entered in May 2019—after 150 days had transpired since the clerk recorded the court’s minute entry in December 2018. See Utah R. Civ. P. 58A(e)(2)(B).

¶16      Further, because a party’s notice of appeal “shall be filed . . . within 30 days after the date of entry of the judgment or order appealed from,” Utah R. App. P. 4(a), and because Mother and Stepfather’s June 22, 2020 notice of appeal was filed more than thirty days after May 2019, we conclude that their appeal was untimely,[6] see Serrato v. Utah Transit Auth., 2000 UT App 299,

¶ 11, 13 P.3d 616 (indicating that deadlines for notices of appeal “must be adhered to in order to prevent cases from continually lingering and to ensure finality in the system”). “Where an appeal is not properly taken, this court lacks jurisdiction and we must dismiss.” Bradbury v. Valencia, 2000 UT 50, ¶ 8, 5 P.3d 649. Accordingly, we have no choice but to dismiss Mother and Stepfather’s appeal without reaching its merits. See id.

II. The Constitutionality of Rule 58A

¶17 Notwithstanding, Mother and Stepfather contend that if rule 58A operates to deprive this court of jurisdiction over their appeal, rule 58A is unconstitutional on its face and as applied to the facts of this case because the rule “fails to provide notice to parties when an order is final for the purposes of appeal.” At the outset, Mother and Stepfather concede that they did not preserve this issue and that they are thus raising it for the first time on appeal. Given this lack of preservation, Mother and Stepfather further recognize that this court “generally will not consider an issue, even a constitutional one, which the appellant raises on appeal for the first time.” (Quoting State v. Webb, 790 P.2d 65, 77 (Utah Ct. App. 1990).) Yet they suggest this court should reach the constitutional issue under either the plain error or the exceptional circumstances exception to the preservation rule.

¶18 Mother and Stepfather “must establish the applicability” of an exception to the preservation rule to raise the issue on appeal. See State v. Johnson, 2017 UT 76, ¶ 19, 416 P.3d 443. But appellants will not carry their burden of persuasion on an unpreserved issue if they do not supply “a plain error or exceptional circumstances analysis because, in failing to do such an analysis, [they] will have necessarily failed to explain why we should reach the issue of which [they] complain[].” Baumann v. Kroger Co., 2017 UT 80, ¶ 25, 416 P.3d 512. We conclude that Mother and Stepfather have not established that either exception applies, and thus we decline to reach this constitutional issue on its merits.

¶19      Although Mother and Stepfather mention the plain error exception to the preservation rule, they have not applied the elements of plain error to this case. See Johnson, 2017 UT 76, ¶ 20 (“To demonstrate plain error, a defendant must establish that (i) an error exists; (ii) the error should have been obvious to the trial court; and (iii) the error is harmful.” (cleaned up)). They thus have not engaged in a plain error analysis, much less shown that the district court plainly erred by not sua sponte declaring rule 58A unconstitutional. As a result, they have not carried their burden to establish the applicability of this exception. See Baumann, 2017 UT 80, ¶ 25; State v. Padilla, 2018 UT App 108, ¶ 19, 427 P.3d 542 (rejecting a plain error claim when the appellant “made no attempt to develop or establish” the claim).[7]

¶20 Mother and Stepfather alternatively suggest that the exceptional circumstances exception should apply, warranting our consideration of the constitutional issue for the first time on appeal. But they similarly offer little analysis on this score. They contend only that the constitutionality of rule 58A presents “a unique constitutional question, because it directly pertains to the time set to appeal” and “there is no method to preserve a constitutional challenge that only becomes an issue of controversy on appeal.” We are not persuaded.

¶21 Our supreme court has directed that the “exceptional circumstances doctrine is applied sparingly, reserving it for the most unusual circumstances where our failure to consider an issue that was not properly preserved for appeal would have resulted in manifest injustice.” Johnson, 2017 UT 76, ¶ 29 (cleaned up). Courts “apply this exception . . . where a rare procedural anomaly has either prevented an appellant from preserving an issue or excuses a failure to do so.” Id. (cleaned up). And once a party shows that a rare procedural anomaly exists, it “opens the door to a deeper inquiry” in which “additional factors must be considered to determine whether an appellate court should reach an unpreserved issue.” Id. Such factors include whether our failure to consider the issue “would result in manifest injustice,” whether “a significant constitutional right or liberty interest is at stake,” and judicial economy. Id. ¶ 37 (cleaned up). This exception thus requires a “case-by-case assessment.” Id. ¶ 38. But it cannot be used “as a free-floating justification for ignoring the legitimate concerns embodied in the preservation and waiver rules.” Id.

¶22 Mother and Stepfather have not met their burden of establishing that exceptional circumstances are present here. This is so because they have not analyzed whether they encountered a rare procedural anomaly and they have not engaged in any “deeper inquiry” of the additional factors relevant to this exception. See id. ¶ 29.

¶23      Without putting it in terms of a rare procedural anomaly, Mother and Stepfather suggest that the constitutional question regarding rule 58A became relevant only on appeal and that they were unable to complain to the district court about notice not being built into the rule. But rule 58A was in operation and became applicable once the district court announced its ruling in court on December 11, 2018.

¶24      Rule 58A(a) requires that “[e]very judgment . . . be set out in a separate document ordinarily titled ‘Judgment,’” and, as the prevailing party, Father should have, “within 14 days . . . after the court’s decision,” “prepare[d] and serve[d] on the other parties a proposed judgment for review and approval as to

form.” See Utah R. Civ. P. 58A(c)(1). But when Father did not timely serve a proposed judgment, rule 58A(c) gave Mother and Stepfather the option of preparing a proposed judgment themselves. See id. (“If the prevailing party or party directed by the court fails to timely serve a proposed judgment, any other party may prepare a proposed judgment and serve it on the other parties for review and approval as to form.”). They did not exercise that option.

¶25 Because the parties did not avail themselves of the opportunity to prepare a proposed judgment that would lead to the judgment being entered under rule 58A(e)(2)(A), the parties’ inaction meant that, by default, the backstop of rule 58A(e)(2)(B) applied, meaning that a judgment was entered once “150 days ha[d] run from the clerk recording the decision, however designated, that provides the basis for the entry of judgment.” See id. R. 58A(e)(2)(B). In other words, time was ticking toward the second event—entry of judgment under rule 58A(e)(2)(B). If Mother and Stepfather wished to appeal the district court’s decision and were concerned that they did not know when judgment would be entered (and thus when they could file a notice of appeal), they had reason to raise that concern with the district court. Parties “cannot sleep on [their] rights and just hope for a favorable outcome.” See Dahl v. Harrison, 2011 UT App 389, ¶ 28, 265 P.3d 139, abrogated on other grounds by R.O.A. Gen., Inc. v. Chung Ji Dai, 2014 UT App 124, 327 P.3d 1233.

¶26      And while it would have been unusual, it is not obvious to us that Mother and Stepfather could not have asked the district court for a declaration that rule 58A(e)(2) was unconstitutional on the ground that it did not provide for enough notice of the events relating to entry of judgment. See State v. Van Huizen, 2019 UT 01, ¶ 27, 435 P.3d 202 (stating that appellants “[have] the burden to show that [they were] unable to object . . . at the proper time”). Mother and Stepfather contend that their constitutional challenge only became “an issue of controversy on appeal.” But their complaint lies with an alleged uncertainty that materialized once the district court recorded its decision without entering a separate document to memorialize its finality, and that complaint materialized long before Mother and Stepfather filed their appeal. Under these circumstances, it is inadequate for them to simply assert that they were unable to preserve their constitutional claim. See In re X.C.H., 2017 UT App 106, ¶ 31, 400 P.3d 1154 (requiring parties invoking the exceptional circumstances exception to “demonstrate how the actual circumstances [they] encountered in the [district] court process prevented [them] from raising the [unpreserved] claim”); see also Kelly v. Timber Lakes Prop. Owners Ass’n, 2022 UT App 23, ¶ 21 n.3 (refusing to apply the exceptional circumstances exception when the appellant did “not discuss the threshold inquiry of the exceptional circumstances exception” and thus did not establish that a rare procedural anomaly existed).

¶27      Moreover, Mother and Stepfather have not engaged in the “deeper inquiry” this court must carry out to determine whether to reach an unpreserved issue under the exceptional circumstances exception. See Johnson, 2017 UT 76, ¶ 29. For example, they have not explained why our failure to consider the constitutional issue “would result in manifest injustice.” See id. ¶ 37 (cleaned up). And based on the record before us, it is far from apparent that it would be unjust for us not to consider Mother and Stepfather’s constitutional challenge to the application of rule 58A, for a couple of reasons.

¶28 First, Mother and Stepfather cannot demonstrate on this record that they did not receive notice of the entry of the district court’s decision. There is a signed minute entry in the court’s docket dated two days after the court announced its decision from the bench. Yet Mother and Stepfather make no mention of this order on appeal; instead, they focus on an unsigned minute entry and ask us to assume they did not receive notice of its entry because no certificate of service is attached. Because Mother and Stepfather do not account for the court’s signed minute entry, and because their argument depends on assumptions, the alleged injustice about which they complain is far from manifest.[8]

¶29 Additionally, even if we were to accept Mother and Stepfather’s invitation to assume they did not receive notice of the minute entry recording the district court’s decision, Mother and Stepfather (while still represented by counsel) had ways to easily resolve their claimed problem of lacking notice of when the clerk recorded the court’s decision. They were present when the court announced its decision from the bench and informed the parties that its pronouncement would stand as the order of the court. Surely, counsel understood that the court’s decision would be recorded in the docket within a few days. But if Mother and Stepfather desired even more certainty, they could have submitted a proposed judgment and, upon its entry, been confident that their time to appeal was running. See Utah R. Civ. P. 58A(e)(2)(A). And at any time during the months following the court’s announcement of its decision from the bench, Mother and Stepfather could have checked the docket[9] or called the court clerk to determine the date on which the court’s decision was recorded. But Mother and Stepfather forwent all these opportunities. In light of these missed opportunities, we do not believe that it would be manifestly unjust for us to decline to reach the unpreserved constitutional issue.[10] Cf. Dahl, 2011 UT App 389, ¶ 28 (stating that parties “cannot sleep on [their] rights”). For these reasons, we will not apply the exceptional circumstances exception here.

CONCLUSION

¶30 We agree with Father that we lack jurisdiction over this appeal, and we thus dismiss it. We also conclude that Mother and Stepfather have not established the applicability of any exception to the preservation rule and that we therefore may not reach the merits of their constitutional challenge to rule 58A of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure.


 

[1] Mother and Stepfather filed proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law on the second day of trial, prior to the court announcing its decision. Their filing did not reflect the district court’s announced decision, and the court did not sign that document.

[2] Rule 52(a)(1) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure provides, “In all actions tried upon the facts without a jury or with an advisory jury, the court must find the facts specially and state separately its conclusions of law. The findings and conclusions must be made part of the record and may be stated in writing or orally following the close of the evidence. Judgment must be entered separately under Rule 58A.” And rule 54(a) specifies that “‘Judgment’ as used in these rules includes a decree or order that adjudicates all claims and the rights and liabilities of all parties or any other order from which an appeal of right lies.” Utah R. Civ. P. 54(a).

[3] This proposed document is not in the record. Mother and Stepfather assert that Father submitted this proposed order to the court on or about December 16, 2019—more than a year after the court announced its ruling from the bench.

[4] Mother and Stepfather assert that Father’s “failure to oppose the entry of the [June 2020] order should be deemed a waiver” of Father’s challenge to appellate jurisdiction. But “because subject matter jurisdiction goes to the heart of a court’s authority to hear a case, it is not subject to waiver and may be raised at any time, even if first raised on appeal.” In re adoption of Baby E.Z., 2011 UT 38, ¶ 25, 266 P.3d 702 (cleaned up); see also Widdison v. State, 2021 UT 12, ¶ 100 n.26, 489 P.3d 158 (Lee, J., concurring in judgment) (“Jurisdiction is not an argument that can be waived or ignored by the parties.”). We therefore reject this argument.

[5] We recognize that because Griffin v. Snow Christensen & Martineau, 2020 UT 33, 467 P.3d 833, was not issued until June 10, 2020, the parties did not have the benefit of its analysis until then. Nevertheless, the parties still should have been aware of the relevant court rules bearing on the events that would trigger the thirty-day period for filing an appeal. Cf. Serrato v. Utah Transit Auth., 2000 UT App 299, ¶ 9, 13 P.3d 616 (stating that “inadvertence, ignorance of the rules, or mistakes construing the rules do not usually constitute excusable neglect” (cleaned up)).

[6] Father originally raised his jurisdictional argument in a motion for summary disposition, which a judge on this court denied on the ground that the June 2020 order was “the proper order used for determining appellate jurisdiction.” Mother and Stepfather now assert that because this court already rejected Father’s “exact same argument” when his motion for summary disposition was denied, the doctrine of claim preclusion bars Father from raising the issue again in his appellate brief. We disagree.

The doctrine of claim preclusion “bars a party from prosecuting in a subsequent action a claim that has been fully litigated previously.” Haskell v. Wakefield & Assocs. Inc., 2021 UT App 123, ¶ 13, 500 P.3d 950 (emphasis added) (cleaned up); see also IHC Health Services, Inc. v. D & K Mgmt., Inc., 2008 UT 73, ¶ 26 n.20, 196 P.3d 588 (explaining that res judicata, of which claim preclusion is a branch, “is more appropriately used to describe the binding effect of a decision in a prior case on a second case”). Because Father is not seeking to prosecute a claim that was adjudicated in a prior action, the doctrine of claim preclusion does not apply. Instead, Father seeks reconsideration of the conclusion, rendered in this case, that this court has jurisdiction over this appeal. This panel has the discretion to entertain Father’s request.

This court’s previous order was signed by a single judge, and rule 23(e) of the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure “allows a panel of this court to review the actions of the single judge.” Envirotech Corp. v. Callahan, 872 P.2d 487, 501 n.12 (Utah Ct. App. 1994); see also Utah R. App. P. 23(e)(3) (“[T]he action of a single justice or judge may be reviewed by the court.”). Further, while an appeal is pending, this court “remains free” to reconsider its decisions. Cf. IHC Health Services, 2008 UT 73, ¶¶ 26–27 (explaining that the law of the case doctrine generally “allows a court to decline to revisit issues within the same case once the court has ruled on them”). Under the law of the case doctrine, this court enjoys the discretion not to reconsider a prior ruling, id. ¶ 26, but the doctrine “does not prohibit a judge from catching a mistake and fixing it,” Gillmor v. Wright, 850 P.2d 431, 439 (Utah 1993) (Orme, J., concurring).

Here, we exercise our discretion to reconsider the fundamental issue of appellate jurisdiction. See State v. Brown, 2021 UT 11, ¶ 10, 489 P.3d 152 (“Jurisdiction is the blood in our judicial system. Because of its vitalness, we have an independent obligation to ensure that we have it over all matters before us.” (cleaned up)).

[7] After this case was briefed and argued, this court issued Kelly v. Timber Lakes Property Owners Ass’n, 2022 UT App 23, in which we held that plain error review is not available in ordinary civil cases. Id. ¶ 44. Whether plain error review is available in this adoption proceeding is an unanswered question. Mother and Stepfather have not engaged on that question, and for purposes of our analysis, we assume, without deciding, that plain error review is available in this case.

[8] Preserving an issue in the district court is important because, among other things, “it allows an issue to be fully factually, procedurally, and legally developed in the district court.” Baumann v. Kroger Co., 2017 UT 80, ¶ 25, 416 P.3d 512. And “[w]ithout the benefit of a fully developed record illustrating both the district court’s thinking and the factual development bearing on the issue at hand, an appellate court is necessarily handicapped in reaching a well-considered decision.” True v. Utah Dep’t of Transp., 2018 UT App 86, ¶ 25, 427 P.3d 338. Here, the parties dispute whether the district court “ever provided notice or a copy of the clerk’s minute entry to the parties.” This is the type of factual dispute that could and should have been fleshed out in the district court, and the fact that it wasn’t hinders our ability to analyze the merits of Mother and Stepfather’s constitutional argument. See id.cf. Diversified Equities, Inc. v. American Sav. & Loan Ass’n, 739 P.2d 1133, 1136 (Utah Ct. App. 1987) (“Whether a party should be charged with ‘actual notice,’ either in the sense of having actual knowledge or being on inquiry notice, turns on questions of fact.”).

[9] Mother and Stepfather contend that “pursuant to Utah Code Ann. § 78B-6-141(2),” adoption cases are “sealed upon decision and the docket is not readily available on the Utah court’s Xchange system.” Thus, they suggest, they could not have reviewed the docket to determine when the clerk recorded the court’s decision. But section 78B-6-141 does not, by its terms, apply to the court’s docket. And even if it did, it states that any sealed documents are “open to inspection and copying . . . by a party to the adoption proceeding (i) while the proceeding is pending; or (ii) within six months after the day on which the adoption decree is entered.” Utah Code Ann. § 78B-6-141(3)(a) (LexisNexis 2018). Here, where no separate judgment was entered by the court and the court’s signed minute entry is not designated as private or sealed on the docket, it is not apparent that Mother and Stepfather could not have accessed the docket within the 180 days before their appeal was due to ascertain the exact date on which the court’s decision was recorded.

[10] It is also not apparent that if we were to reach the unpreserved issue, we would conclude rule 58A is unconstitutional as written. Mother and Stepfather contend that rule 58A is unconstitutional because it does not require notice of when the court records the decision, and the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure do not otherwise “provide for the service of signed orders through the E-Filing system.” Although we do not resolve this constitutional challenge expressly, we note that Mother and Stepfather are mistaken. Rule 5(b)(3)(A) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure provides that “except in the juvenile court,” “[a] paper is served . . . by . . . the court submitting it to the electronic filing service provider, if the person being served has an electronic filing account.”

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Noel v. James – 2022 UT App 33 – civil stalking injunction

Noel v. James – 2022 UT App 33

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

MICHAEL EARL NOEL,

Appellee,

v.

WILLIAM THOMAS JAMES,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20200565-CA

Filed March 10, 2022

Sixth District Court, Kanab Department

The Honorable Marvin D. Bagley

No. 190600053

William Thomas James, Appellant Pro Se

Frank D. Mylar, Attorney for Appellee

JUDGE DIANA HAGEN authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES JILL M. POHLMAN and RYAN D. TENNEY concurred.

HAGEN, Judge:

¶1        To obtain a civil stalking injunction, a petitioner must establish by a preponderance of the evidence that the alleged stalker’s “course of conduct . . . would cause a reasonable person: (a) to fear for the person’s own safety or the safety of a third person; or (b) to suffer other emotional distress.” Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-106.5(2) (LexisNexis Supp. 2021); see id. §§ 78B­7-102(21), -701(1), -701(5). In this case, the district court granted a stalking injunction against Appellant William James, but it made no finding as to whether James’s course of conduct would have caused a reasonable person in Appellee Michael Noel’s position to fear for his safety or suffer emotional distress. Because the basis for the injunction is not apparent in the record, we vacate the injunction and remand for additional proceedings consistent with this opinion.

BACKGROUND[1]

¶2        Noel sought a stalking injunction after he and James were kicked out of a Kanab City Council meeting. Noel is an experienced public official who previously served as a state legislator for sixteen years and now serves as the executive director of the Kane County Water Conservancy District. James is a member of a local conservancy group. Both had attended the meeting to give public comment on a controversial permitting issue.

¶3        Noel “got up and got in line” once the comment period opened. James then “got up from the corner” and joined Noel in line. As Noel later testified, “[James] came right at me in kind of a burly manner . . . requiring me to move over for him to get by in an intimidating way. . . . I’m not saying I was fearful, but he came at me and forced me” to move aside. “If I wouldn’t have moved, he would have banged into me.”

¶4        While waiting in line, Noel decided he wanted to be the last person to address the council. Accordingly, he left his place in line and moved to the back. James, however, “wanted to prevent [Noel] from having the last word on [him]”—so he, too, gave up his spot and moved to the back of the line. Noel eventually gave up waiting in line altogether. But when he turned to leave, James stood in his way “to stop [Noel] from getting behind” him once again. And so Noel and James “jockeyed” for a few moments, with Noel unable to get past James and James unwilling to let Noel through. Noel testified, I wanted him to get out of the way, and he was blocking me, and it did anger me to do that. But I was also wondering if there was going to be a confrontation here. I was actually fearful that he might, you know, . . . take a shot at me.

¶5        Noel called James “a worthless piece of garbage.” James, in turn, shouted to the audience, relaying what Noel had just called him. At this point, law enforcement intervened and asked both men to leave the meeting. Noel went home, and James was arrested after he refused to comply. At the encouragement of the chief of police, Noel later petitioned for a civil stalking injunction against James.

¶6        The district court held a full-day evidentiary hearing on the petition. At the hearing, James sought to admit videos of both the city council meeting and a chamber of commerce meeting earlier that day through a witness who had attended both meetings. The videos had not been previously disclosed.

¶7        When the issue first arose, the court and counsel for both parties were under the impression that there were only two videos—one of the chamber of commerce meeting recorded by the witness herself and one of the city council meeting recorded by a videographer hired by the conservancy group. Noel stipulated to the admission of the first video, but he objected to the second video because the videographer was not present to lay foundation. Specifically, Noel’s counsel explained, “If there’s a woman here [who] says she videoed this on her camera, and it accurately depicts what she videoed on her camera, and she was there at the meeting, and she’s subject to cross-examination, and she made the video, I think that that’s proper. But the other one I don’t.”

¶8        But when the witness was called to testify, she explained that there were actually three videos: one video from each of the two meetings that she recorded with her personal cell phone, and a third video from the city council meeting recorded by the videographer. At that point, Noel’s counsel objected to the admission of all three videos because they had not been disclosed and he was “surprised” that they were being offered as evidence. James’s counsel did not dispute that the videos had not been disclosed in advance but claimed that, when the matter was discussed earlier, Noel “had stipulated to anything that [the witness] had personally recorded.” In response, Noel’s counsel argued that he had merely stipulated to the chamber of commerce video: “That’s all we were discussing at the time.” The court agreed with Noel’s counsel that the stipulation was limited to the chamber of commerce video. And because Noel “didn’t make the objection before about not having [the chamber of commerce video] in advance,” the court held him to that stipulation. The court received the chamber of commerce video into evidence per the stipulation, but excluded the other two based on the objection.

¶9        At the conclusion of the hearing, the district court determined that James had engaged in a course of conduct directed at Noel, as required under the civil stalking statute. The court found that the course of conduct consisted of two component acts, each committed at the city council meeting: (1) when James approached Noel “in a kind of burly manner,” and (2) when James “blocked [Noel] from going back to his seat.” The court did not make an express finding that James’s conduct would cause a reasonable person in Noel’s circumstances to fear for his safety or suffer emotional distress. Nonetheless, the court granted the requested stalking injunction.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶10 James now appeals, contending that the district court erred in imposing a civil stalking injunction against him.[2] James primarily argues that his course of conduct would not have caused a reasonable person in Noel’s circumstances to fear for his safety or suffer emotional distress. Although the question of whether “a reasonable person would suffer fear or emotional distress” under the circumstances “is a question of fact that we review for clear error, we review the district court’s interpretation [and application] of the underlying legal standard for correctness.” Ragsdale v. Fishler, 2021 UT 29, ¶ 16, 491 P.3d 835; see also Baird v. Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 16, 322 P.3d 728 (“The proper interpretation and application of a statute is a question of law which we review for correctness, affording no deference to the district court’s legal conclusion.” (cleaned up)).

¶11 James also challenges the district court’s decision to exclude video evidence of the city council meeting. Specifically, he contends that the “videos met the [parties’] stipulation for new video evidence” and that, therefore, the district court erred by excluding them. “The scope of a stipulation presents a question of fact, which we review for clear error.” Fuller v. Bohne, 2017 UT App 28, ¶ 9, 392 P.3d 898 (cleaned up).

ANALYSIS

I. Civil Stalking Injunction

¶12 To obtain a civil stalking injunction, the petitioner “must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that ‘an offense of stalking has occurred.’” Ragsdale v. Fishler, 2021 UT 29, ¶ 25, 491 P.3d 835 (quoting Utah Code Ann. § 77-3a-101(7) (LexisNexis 2017)).[3] “The crime of stalking consists of two elements. First, a person must ‘intentionally or knowingly engage in a course of conduct directed at a specific person.’” Id. (cleaned up) (quoting Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-106.5(2) (LexisNexis 2017)). By statute, a “‘[c]ourse of conduct’ means two or more acts directed at or toward a specific person.” Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-106.5(1)(a) (LexisNexis Supp. 2021) (listing several examples of qualifying acts). Second, the respondent “must ‘know or should know that the course of conduct would cause a reasonable person’ to ‘fear for the person’s own safety’ or ‘suffer other emotional distress.’” Ragsdale, 2021 UT 29, ¶ 25 (quoting Utah Code Ann. § 76-5­106.5(2)). A “reasonable person” is statutorily defined as “a reasonable person in the victim’s circumstances.” § 76-5­106.5(1)(d).

¶13      Although the district court recited both elements, it made findings on the first element only. It identified an intentional course of conduct consisting of two acts: approaching Noel in a “burly manner” and later blocking Noel from returning to his seat. But the court did not make a factual finding on the second element, that is, whether James knew or should have known that his course of conduct would have caused a reasonable person in Noel’s circumstances to fear for his safety or suffer emotional distress. “When confronted with questions of fact, this court will only rule as a matter of law if the evidence is so clear and persuasive that all reasonable minds would find one way.” See Baird v. Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 29, 322 P.3d 728 (cleaned up). Otherwise, “remand is appropriate” to allow the district court to make that determination. See id.

¶14      Noel acknowledges that the district court never addressed the second element on the record, but he argues that James failed to preserve the issue for appeal. We disagree. To issue a stalking injunction, “the district court necessarily had to consider whether [Noel] had established each element of a stalking offense.” See id. ¶ 20. Thus, the court had an opportunity to rule on whether the statutory elements were met, and that issue is “adequately preserved” for appeal. See id. In any event, James specifically argued to the court that “[t]his [was] not a situation where a reasonable person . . . in [Noel’s] position” would have been “afraid of physical harm or . . . in emotional distress.” And he moved “essentially for a directed verdict” on that basis. Therefore, we are confident that James presented this issue “to the district court in such a way that the court ha[d] an opportunity to rule on it.” See State v. Johnson, 2017 UT 76, ¶ 15, 416 P.3d 443 (cleaned up).

¶15      Alternatively, Noel contends that we can affirm on appeal because the district court “had evidence to determine that James acted in a threatening manner that would have made a reasonable person fearful or suffer some emotional distress over the two encounters.” When the district court does “not explicitly make a necessary finding,” we may still affirm “if the evidence and statements contained in the record make the evidentiary basis for this finding sufficiently clear.” See Sheeran v. Thomas, 2014 UT App 285, ¶ 8, 340 P.3d 79 (cleaned up); see also State v. Bingham, 2015 UT App 103, ¶¶ 28–29, 348 P.3d 730 (explaining that a reviewing court may “assume that the [district] court found the facts in accord with its decision,” unless “the ambiguity of the facts makes this assumption unreasonable” (cleaned up)). But here, the evidentiary basis for finding that Noel satisfied the second element is not sufficiently clear from this record.

¶16 To determine whether the petitioner has met the second element required for a civil stalking injunction, we apply “an individualized objective standard.” Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 26. Under this standard, the “subjective effect of the respondent’s conduct on the petitioner is irrelevant.” Ragsdale, 2021 UT 29, ¶ 45. Instead, the relevant question is whether the conduct would have caused fear or emotional distress to “a reasonable person in the petitioner’s circumstances.” Id. (quoting Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 25). “In applying this standard, courts must consider the entire context surrounding a respondent’s conduct” and “must consider the conduct cumulatively, accounting for the facts and circumstances of the individual case.” Id. (cleaned up).

¶17      Our supreme court has suggested a non-exhaustive list of factors that may be relevant to this assessment. Those factors include “the victim’s background, the victim’s knowledge of and relationship with the defendant, any history of abuse between the parties, the location of the alleged stalking and its proximity to the victim’s children, if any, and the cumulative effect of defendant’s repetitive conduct.” Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 27 (cleaned up). “Furthermore, under an individualized objective standard, a court may consider whether the defendant had knowledge of a particular vulnerability of the victim and then acted with full knowledge of the victim’s vulnerability.” Id. (cleaned up).

¶18 Under this standard, it is far from obvious that a reasonable person in Noel’s circumstances would have feared for his safety or suffered emotional distress, given the context in which James’s conduct took place. See Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-106.5(2)(a)–(b) (LexisNexis Supp. 2021). The encounter occurred in a public place—a city council meeting—and in full view of a room packed with witnesses. Law enforcement officers were stationed at the meeting and ready to intervene. And Noel is an experienced public official accustomed to dealing with members of the public. See Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 27 (indicating that the individualized objective standard considers “the victim’s background”). Although Noel testified that James was “a loose cannon” and “a different guy than [Noel had] dealt with in [his] years of public service,” the district court made no finding that a reasonable person in Noel’s circumstances would have found James particularly threatening. And even though James was ultimately arrested, his arrest was based not on his conduct toward Noel, but on his refusal to comply when law enforcement ordered both men to leave the meeting.

¶19 Noel argues that a reasonable person would fear for his safety under these circumstances. He suggests that the district court’s finding that James approached in a burly manner “could mean that James was acting tough or flexing his muscles or puffing his chest in a manner that would suggest physical aggression.” Perhaps it could, but we have no findings to that effect. Nor do we have a finding that such a display would cause a reasonable person to fear for his safety in the context in which it occurred—a well-attended, public meeting, with law enforcement officers standing by.

¶20 Noel also argues that the evidence supported a finding that James’s conduct would have caused “some emotional distress,” but that is not the standard. The stalking statute defines “emotional distress” as “significant mental or psychological suffering, whether or not medical or other professional treatment or counseling is required.” See Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-106.5(1)(b) (emphasis added). Noel has pointed to no evidence in the record that would have clearly supported a finding that James knew or should have known that his course of conduct would cause a reasonable person in Noel’s circumstances to suffer “emotional distress,” as defined by statute.

¶21      If the district court applied the correct legal standard and implicitly found the second element satisfied, the evidentiary basis for that ruling is not clear on this record. Although the interaction that occurred at the city council meeting was certainly uncivil, it is not the type of conduct that would ordinarily cause a reasonable person to fear for his physical safety or experience “significant mental or psychological suffering”—at least not without other contextual facts not apparent from the record. See id.

¶22 Having heard the evidence firsthand, the district court is in an advantaged position to make factual findings as to whether Noel has proved the second element by a preponderance of the evidence. We ordinarily rely on the district court to make those kinds of assessments, because it has “personally observed the quality of the evidence, the tenor of the proceedings, and the demeanor of the parties.” Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 30. “This is particularly true in a case like this one where the record consists almost entirely of evidence presented at an evidentiary hearing.” See id. Therefore, we vacate the injunction and remand for the district court to determine whether Noel has proved the second element under the legal standard explained in this opinion.

II. Scope of the Stipulation

¶23 Because we are remanding for further findings, we must also reach the question of whether the district court properly excluded video of the interaction between James and Noel at the city council meeting. James argues on appeal that the district court abused its discretion by excluding both videos of the city council meeting, because Noel had stipulated to the admission of late-disclosed videos so long as James laid sufficient foundation by calling the person who recorded each one.

¶24 But in excluding the videos of the city council meeting, the district court found that the parties’ stipulation was limited to the chamber of commerce video. James’s counsel asserted that Noel “had stipulated to anything that [the witness] had personally recorded,” but Noel’s counsel pointed out that, at the time of the stipulation, he was unaware of the existence of the third video and that the only thing counsel had discussed was the chamber of commerce video. The court agreed with Noel’s counsel, saying, “That’s the way I understood the stipulation.”

¶25 The district court’s finding that the stipulation was limited to the chamber of commerce video was not clearly erroneous. At the time of the stipulation, the parties were discussing only two videos. Noel stipulated to the admission of the chamber of commerce video taken by the witness and objected to the admission of the city council video taken by the videographer based on lack of foundation. His stipulation to the chamber of commerce video cannot fairly be read as a stipulation to a third video that he did not know existed.

¶26 James has not argued that the videos were timely disclosed, that the disclosure violation could be excused for good cause, or that the failure to disclose was harmless. See Utah R. Civ. P. 26(d)(4) (“If a party fails to disclose or to supplement timely a disclosure or response to discovery, that party may not use the undisclosed witness, document, or material at any hearing or trial unless the failure is harmless or the party shows good cause for the failure.”). Therefore, he has not established any basis on which to reverse the district court’s exclusion of the city council videos.

CONCLUSION

¶27 James has not established that the district court erred in excluding the late-disclosed videos of the city council meeting, but he has established that the injunction was entered without the necessary findings. Specifically, the district court made no express finding as to whether James knew or should have known that his course of conduct would have caused a reasonable person in Noel’s circumstances to fear for his safety or suffer emotional distress. Because the record does not provide a clear evidentiary basis for the court’s decision, we vacate the stalking injunction against James and remand for additional proceedings consistent with this opinion.


[1] “On appeal, when a trial court has made findings of fact to support a civil stalking injunction, we will recite the facts in a light most favorable to the trial court’s findings.” Sheeran v. Thomas, 2014 UT App 285, ¶ 2 n.1, 340 P.3d 797.

[2] James, a non-attorney, represents himself in this appeal. We hold him “to the same standard of knowledge and practice as any qualified member of the bar,” but accord him “every consideration that may reasonably be indulged.” See State v. Winfield, 2006 UT 4, ¶ 19, 128 P.3d 1171 (cleaned up).

[3] Although the 2018 amendment of the civil stalking statute governs this case, we cite the most recent version of the civil stalking statute for convenience—unless a prior version is quoted by a different source. Regardless of the version quoted throughout this opinion, the statutory language at issue is the same.


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What to do when child won’t comply with the custody award?

What will happen if the court ruled in favor of a mother to have the custody of her child but the child refuses to go with her and she prefers to stay with the father?

This situation (and this question) comes up a lot. I will answer the question as it applies in my experience to the jurisdiction where I practice divorce and family law (Utah).

SHORT ANSWER: The general rule of thumb is that if the child is a teenager and has the guts and the will to defy the court’s custody orders, then that child is going to live with the parent with whom he or she wants to live because the court is essentially powerless to force the child to comply with the child custody order, i.e., the court finds it more trouble than it is worth to enforce a child custody order against a defiant teen.

LONGER ANSWER:

Technically, the child has no choice in the matter, once the court has issued its child custody ruling and resulting orders. In other words, just because somebody doesn’t want to follow court orders doesn’t mean that he or she is free to disregard them or to act as a law unto himself or herself. This proves to be true of court orders pertaining to adults. Child custody orders, and the children affected by them, however, are in reality a different matter.

In the law we have two terms that help to describe the situation: de jure and de factoDe jure means that which is which applies as a matter of law. For example, as a matter of law, your child is ordered to spend most of his/her time in the custody of mother, with the father spending time the child on alternating weekends and a few odd holidays. De facto means that which is or that which applies as a matter of fact (in reality, and not as the court may artificially require). So while as a matter of law your child is required to live with mother, if in reality (as a matter of “fact”—this is where the “facto” in “de facto” comes from) the child refuses to live with mother and stays at the father’s house, that is the de facto child custody situation.

When A) the de jure and de facto situations conflict in a child custody situation, and B) the child is old enough, strong enough, and willful enough to continue to the court’s custody orders, the court often (not always, but usually) feels that they are practicably powerless to force children to live with a parent with whom they do not wish to live.

Normally, when an adult will not comply with the court’s order, One of the tools a court can use to enforce compliance is its contempt powers. Those powers include finding and jailing the noncompliant person. But with children, that power is, for all intents and purposes, nonexistent. Children usually have no money with which to pay a fine, and Utah does not allow courts to jail minors for mere contempt of court.

Some courts try to get creative and impose sanctions on a noncompliant child by essentially ordering them “grounded”, but again, if the child chooses not to comply, there is little the court can do or feels is wise to do to the child. I’ve seen a court try to get a child to comply by ordering her barred from participating in her beloved dance classes and driver education courses (so that she can’t get her driver license unless she lives with the court ordered custodial parent) as long as the child refused to live with the court-ordered custodial parent. In that case, however, the child outlasted the court, i.e., she kept living with the noncustodial parent and stopped attending dance and driver’s ed. classes. Then the court found itself in the awkward position of preventing the child from getting exercise and driving to and from her job and other worthwhile, even necessary activities, so the court relented (both in the best interest of the child and to save face). This is a lesson that most courts learn when they try to use the coercive powers of the court against children to enforce child custody orders.

Courts don’t want to dedicate their own resources and law enforcement resources to 1) literally dragging a child out of one parent’s home and literally stuffing the child into some other home; and 2) doing so repeatedly when the child refuses to stay put. It’s a waste of law enforcement resources and the fear is the child will eventually run away (and act out in other self-destructive and dangerous ways), if not allowed to live with the parent of his/her choosing.

And courts don’t want to punish a parent for the misconduct of a child. Some courts have tried to punish noncustodial parent by holding them responsible for their children’s noncompliance with the court orders, but that doesn’t work when the noncustodial parent truly isn’t at fault. Courts realize that a noncustodial parent cannot simply, for example, 1) push the child out the door, lock it behind the child, and wish the child well in subzero degree weather; or 2) manhandle the child into the custodial parent’s car, then be charged with child abuse. And punishing the noncustodial parent often only serves to lead the child to be more determined to defy court orders.

As you can imagine, a child’s “power” to choose where he/she lives usually does not arise until the child is old enough and strong enough and willful enough to exercise some degree of autonomy over which parent with whom he/she lives. That doesn’t usually happen until children reach approximately the age of 12 or 14, although some children may start younger. Children under that age are typically unable or too afraid to exert their own preferences and wills.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

https://www.quora.com/What-will-happen-if-the-court-ruled-in-favor-of-a-mother-to-have-the-custody-of-her-child-but-the-child-refuses-to-go-with-her-and-she-prefers-to-stay-with-the-father/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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2021 UT 33 – Gillman v. Gillman

IN THE SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF UTAH

 

BROOKELYN GILLMAN, CINDY MAUGHAN, CHANCELOR MAUGHAN,
AND JOHN MAUGHAN,

Appellants,
v.

GARY WALKER GILLMAN AND LANCE FINN GILLMAN,

Appellees.

No. 20190404

Heard November 9, 2020
Filed July 22, 2021

On Interlocutory Appeal

Fourth District, Spanish Fork
The Honorable Jared Eldridge
No. 180300090

Attorneys:

James K. Tracy, James C. Dunkelberger, and Hyrum J. Bosserman,

Salt Lake City, for appellants

Michael F. Skolnick, Jeremy R. Speckhals, and Calvin C. Curtis,
Salt Lake City, for appellees

JUSTICE PETERSEN authored the opinion of the Court, in which
CHIEF JUSTICE DURRANT, ASSOCIATE CHIEF JUSTICE LEE, JUSTICE
HIMONAS, and JUSTICE PEARCE joined.

JUSTICE PETERSEN, opinion of the Court:

INTRODUCTION

¶1 The defendants in this case missed the deadline to file an answer. The court clerk entered their default and the plaintiffs moved for default judgment. The defendants quickly opposed the motion and requested that the default certificate be set aside under Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 55(c). The district court granted the defendants’ request, concluding they had shown “good cause” under the rule. The plaintiffs then filed this interlocutory appeal, arguing the district court abused its discretion in setting aside the default certificate.

¶2 We affirm.

BACKGROUND

¶3 Decedents Glade and Betty Gillman left behind trusts for the benefit of their children: appellees Gary Walker Gillman and Lance Finn Gillman (collectively, the uncles), along with two other siblings who are deceased. The deceased siblings’ share was to pass to their children: appellants Brookelyn Gillman, Cindy Maughan, Chancelor Maughan, and John Maughan (collectively, the cousins), along with two additional non-party cousins. After becoming concerned with their uncles’ handling of the trusts, the cousins sued Gary Gillman for alleged mismanagement of the trusts and both uncles for unjust enrichment. The cousins also sought an accounting of trust funds and a declaratory judgment establishing their rights under the trusts.

¶4 The cousins filed their complaint in May 2018. The uncles timely moved for dismissal or, in the alternative, for summary judgment on each claim. The cousins opposed the motion to dismiss and moved the court to convert the motion to one for summary judgment under rule 56 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. They also requested that the summary judgment disposition be delayed so the parties could conduct discovery.

¶5 On October 10, 2018, the district court heard argument on the matter and orally granted the motion to convert. The court deferred ruling on the summary judgment motion and ordered a period of discovery. At the end of the hearing, the court ordered the cousins to prepare an order memorializing its decision. Over a month later, on November 16, 2018, the cousins’ counsel sent the uncles’ counsel, Calvin Curtis (Curtis), a proposed order.

¶6 Two weeks later, Curtis emailed the cousins’ counsel, informing them he had been away for the Thanksgiving holiday and would look at the order and respond the following Monday. But he did not follow up. Just over five weeks later, on January 8, 2019, the cousins’ counsel emailed Curtis again to inform him they would file the order on January 11 if Curtis did not respond. Counsel also wrote that they anticipated the uncles’ answer would be due by the end of January.

¶7 On January 10, Curtis responded that the order was “fine,” that the uncles consented to entry, and that he would “be back in touch shortly on the remainder” of the email. The cousins’ counsel filed the order and the court entered it on January 16, 2019. The order specified that the uncles’ answer was due within fourteen days of the entry of the order, which was January 30.

¶8 On February 1, two days after the answer deadline, Curtis emailed the cousins’ counsel and informed them that the uncles were going to engage separate litigation counsel and Curtis expected to “have word on that within a couple days.” A week later, on February 8, the cousins’ counsel emailed Curtis and asked if he would be filing an answer. Curtis did not immediately respond.

¶9 On February 14, the cousins filed a proposed order entering the uncles’ default. It was entered the next day. Four days later, Curtis emailed the cousins’ counsel and informed them that the uncles had engaged separate litigation counsel, who would be in touch about the answer and proposed litigation schedule. The cousins’ counsel did not respond. Instead, on February 20, they filed a motion for default judgment.

¶10 Five days later, the uncles filed a motion opposing default judgment, which included a footnote requesting “that the Court set aside [the] default certificate.”1 It included an affidavit from Curtis, which stated that: (1) on or about February 1, he advised the cousins’ counsel that he would “be engaging separate litigation counsel”; (2) he had interacted with litigation counsel and their firm on other matters but first contacted them about the instant case on January 31, 2019; (3) he had “experience in litigating trust and estate matters,” but had reduced his litigation practice, and because the previous motion hearing had been “focused . . . on procedural rules,” the advisability of hiring separate counsel was “reinforced in [his] mind”; (4) between January 31 and February 19, he communicated with litigation counsel about the mechanics of their involvement in the matter but never discussed a due date for the answer; and (5) both parties had previously sought and received extensions in the case, but Curtis had never requested an extension for the answer, nor did he “envision or foresee the possibility of entry of default based on a three week delay” in filing the answer.

¶11 Also included as an exhibit to the opposition was the uncles’ proposed answer, in which they asserted the following defenses: (1) failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted; (2) expiration of the statute of limitations on one or more claims; (3) waiver, release, and estoppel; and (4) unclean hands.

¶12 The district court denied the cousins’ motion for default judgment and granted the uncles’ request to set aside the default certificate. In its written order, the court noted that the case was “a close call.” To determine whether the uncles had shown “good cause” to set aside the default certificate under rule 55(c), the court considered factors that have been outlined by the court of appeals in Pierucci v. U.S. Bank, NA, 2015 UT App 80, ¶ 9, 347 P.3d 837, and Roth v. Joseph, 2010 UT App 332, ¶ 16, 244 P.3d 391. Specifically, the court analyzed “whether the default was willful, whether defendant alleges meritorious defenses, whether defendant acted expeditiously to set aside the default certificate, any prejudice to plaintiff and the existence of a public interest in the outcome.”

¶13 First, the court found that, while Curtis “could have been more diligent,” it was “not convinced that [his] omissions r[ose] to the level of willfulness.” Next, the court recognized that the uncles had asserted meritorious defenses and had acted expeditiously to set aside the default certificate and oppose the motion for default judgment. The court rejected the cousins’ contention that they would be prejudiced if the default certificate were set aside. And it found that the public interest weighed in favor of deciding the case on the merits because “Utah courts disfavor default judgments.”

¶14 The cousins sought this interlocutory appeal of the court’s decision. We exercise jurisdiction under Utah Code section 78A-3-102(3)(j).

STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶15 We review a district court’s decision to set aside a default certificate for an abuse of discretion. Lund v. Brown, 2000 UT 75, ¶ 9, 11 P.3d 277. While the “court has broad discretion in deciding whether to set aside a default [certificate],” a “decision premised on flawed legal conclusions . . . constitutes an abuse of discretion.” Id. (citation omitted).

ANALYSIS

¶16 The cousins contend that the district court abused its discretion in setting aside the entry of default in this case. Their primary argument is that to show “good cause” to set aside a default certificate under rule 55(c), the moving party must establish as a threshold matter that some event, exigency, or other cause beyond the party’s own inaction caused the default. They argue that if the defaulting party cannot proffer some reasonable justification for the default along these lines, the party has necessarily not shown “good cause.” And they assert that because the uncles did not offer any explanation for their late filing other than their counsel’s inaction, the uncles did not demonstrate good cause as a matter of law, and the district court should not have proceeded to consider whether other equitable factors—such as the ones identified by the court of appeals in Roth and Pierucci— weighed in favor of setting aside the default.

¶17 As we will explain, this is an incorrect reading of rule 55(c).

I. THE RULE 55(C) “GOOD CAUSE” STANDARD

¶18 When a party fails “to plead or otherwise defend as provided by” our rules of civil procedure, the opposing party may request that the clerk of court enter default—sometimes called a default certificate—against the defaulting party. UTAH R. CIV. P. 55(a). This is “an interlocutory step” taken before the opposing party moves for default judgment under rule 55(b). 10A CHARLES ALAN WRIGHT & ARTHUR R. MILLER, FEDERAL PRACTICE & PROCEDURE § 2692 (4th ed. 2021).2 Obtaining an entry of default is not an onerous task. “[A]ll that must be shown . . . is that the defendant has failed to answer . . . in a timely fashion.” Skanchy v. Calcados Ortope SA, 952 P.2d 1071, 1076 (Utah 1998).

¶19 Once a default certificate is entered, the defaulting party may move for it to be set aside under rule 55(c). A district court may grant such a request “[f]or good cause shown.” UTAH R. CIV. P. 55(c).

¶20 “Good cause” is not defined by our rules of civil procedure. Black’s Law Dictionary defines “good cause” as a “legally sufficient reason”—“often the burden placed on a litigant . . . to show why a request should be granted or an action excused.” Good Cause, BLACK’S LAW DICTIONARY (11th ed. 2019). Accordingly, rule 55(c) requires only that a movant make a showing that is sufficient to persuade the district court that the default should be set aside. Nowhere does the rule require the movant to show that the default was caused by an event, exigency, or other external cause.

¶21 The cousins essentially read rule 55(c) to require the moving party to show good cause for the default. But that is not what the rule says. It provides: “For good cause shown the court may set aside an entry of default.” UTAH R. CIV. P. 55(c). And as discussed above, good cause is the burden placed on the movant to show why a request should be granted. Thus, in this context, the movant must show why there is good cause to set aside the default—not why there is good cause for the default. Of course, a party might argue that a default certificate should be set aside because the late filing was caused by events beyond the party’s control. Indeed, a party could proffer any fact or factor that is relevant to determining whether there is good cause to set aside a default. But the cousins’ reading of rule 55(c) inserts particular requirements that are simply not found in the text of the rule. See Bryner v. Cardon Outreach, LLC, 2018 UT 52, ¶ 21, 428 P.3d 1096 (“We will not infer substantive terms into the text that are not already there.” (citation omitted)).

¶22 The cousins also argue that their reading of the rule is supported by our appellate case law. They assert that “Utah appellate courts have consistently required some event, exigency, or other cause to justify setting aside default or default judgment.” This may be an accurate observation of the factual circumstances that are often involved in such appeals. But the cousins have not cited any case involving rule 55(c) in which we or the court of appeals have held that “good cause” encompasses the mandatory threshold showing they urge.

¶23 Further, the cousins rely heavily on case law interpreting the “excusable neglect” standard found in rule 60(b)(1). In those cases, we have held that “excusable neglect requires some evidence of diligence in order to justify relief.” Jones v. Layton/Okland, 2009 UT 39, ¶ 20, 214 P.3d 859; see also Sewell v. Xpress Lube, 2013 UT 61, ¶ 29, 321 P.3d 1080 (“To qualify for relief under rule 60(b)(1), a party must show he has used due diligence. Due diligence is established where the ‘failure to act was the result of . . . the neglect one would expect from a reasonably prudent person under similar circumstances.’” (alteration in original) (citation omitted)).

¶24 The cousins assert that our analysis of the excusable neglect standard applies equally here because the standard for setting aside a default certificate under rule 55(c) is the same as the standard for vacating a default judgment under rule 60(b). But that is incorrect.

¶25 While a default certificate may be set aside for “good cause shown,” UTAH R. CIV. P. 55(c), a court is given discretion to vacate a default judgment only upon a showing of, among other things, “mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect,” id. 60(b)(1). And “the vacation of a default judgment is subject to the explicit provisions of Rule 60(b), which places additional restraints upon the court’s discretion.” 10A WRIGHT & MILLER, FEDERAL PRACTICE & PROCEDURE § 2692; see UTAH R. CIV. P. 60(c) (establishing a filing deadline applicable to a motion under rule 60(b)(1)). Thus, the standard to set aside a default certificate is lower than the standard necessary to set aside a default judgment. See 10A WRIGHT & MILLER, FEDERAL PRACTICE & PROCEDURE § 2696 (“Any of the reasons sufficient to justify the vacation of a default judgment under Rule 60(b) normally will justify relief from a default entry and in various situations a default entry may be set aside for reasons that would not be enough to open a default judgment.”).

¶26 “Th[e] distinction [between relief from a default certificate and a default judgment] reflects the different consequences of the two events and the different procedures that bring them about.” Id. § 2692. A default certificate is but a step on the way to a default judgment. See UTAH R. CIV. P. 55; Skanchy, 952 P.2d at 1076; Roth v. Joseph, 2010 UT App 332, ¶¶ 15, 17, 244 P.3d 391. In contrast, a default judgment generally ends the litigation and requires a more onerous showing. See UTAH R. CIV. P. 55(b)(2) (providing, for example, that a court may hold a hearing to establish damages or “the truth of any averment, . . . or to make an investigation of any other matter” before entering a default judgment). Thus, a party seeking relief from a default judgment bears a higher burden than a party seeking only to set aside a default certificate.

¶27 The federal courts interpret their rules similarly. See, e.g., Let’s Go Aero, Inc. v. Cequent Performance Prods., Inc., 78 F. Supp. 3d 1363, 1371 (D. Colo. 2015) (“The good cause required for setting aside an entry of default ‘poses a lesser standard for the defaulting party than the excusable neglect which must be shown for relief from judgment under Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b).’” (citation omitted)); Insituform Techs., Inc. v. AMerik Supplies, Inc., 588 F. Supp. 2d 1349, 1352 n.2 (N.D. Ga. 2008) (“The ‘excusable neglect’ standard . . . is more rigorous than the ‘good cause’ standard.” (citation omitted)).

¶28 This is not to say that cases involving rule 60(b)(1) are irrelevant to the rule 55(c) analysis. While the standards vary, we note that oftentimes the reasons for relief from either type of default will be similar. See 10A WRIGHT & MILLER, FEDERAL PRACTICE & PROCEDURE §§ 2694, 2696. So, rule 60(b)(1) cases may shed light on circumstances and factors that will often be relevant to a rule 55(c) analysis. However, these cases have not grafted additional requirements onto rule 55(c).3

¶29 Accordingly, we reject the cousins’ argument that the good cause standard requires a movant to make an initial showing that the default was caused by some event, exigency, or other external cause before considering any other relevant factors.

¶30 Because we have not previously had occasion to interpret rule 55(c), we take this opportunity to identify some guiding principles to assist district courts in analyzing whether to set aside a default certificate. Vacatur of a default is an equitable remedy that necessarily requires the district court to exercise its discretion and consider the facts unique to each case. “By their nature, equitable inquiries are designed to be flexible, taking into account all relevant factors in light of the particular circumstances.” Jones, 2009 UT 39, ¶ 17. In other words, the movant can assert, and the court may consider, any fact relevant to the decision to set aside a default because “the question is always whether the particular relief sought is justified under principles of fundamental fairness in light of the particular facts.” Id.

¶31 With that in mind, any doubts should be resolved in favor of setting aside a default certificate and allowing the case to proceed on the merits. See, e.g., Helgesen v. Inyangumia, 636 P.2d 1079, 1081 (Utah 1981) (noting that courts should exercise discretion “in furtherance of justice and should incline towards granting relief in a doubtful case to the end that the party may have a hearing”). The policy that “courts should be liberal in granting relief against default judgments so that cases may be tried on the merits” is equally applicable to default certificates. See Erickson v. Schenkers Int’l Forwarders, Inc., 882 P.2d 1147, 1149 (Utah 1994). So, underlying any inquiry into whether a default certificate should be set aside is the principle that defaults generally are disfavored and cases should be tried on the merits where possible.

¶32 But we recognize the competing need for judicial efficiency and adherence to deadlines. “In exercising discretion under Rule 55(c), the court will be very cognizant of the competing policies and values that are relevant to entering defaults and setting them aside. Both the default entry and judgment play an important role in the maintenance of an orderly, efficient judicial system.” 10A WRIGHT & MILLER, FEDERAL PRACTICE & PROCEDURE § 2693 (footnote omitted). If parties were able to miss deadlines without recourse, it would delay the litigation process and place unnecessary strain on the judicial system. Thus, the entry of default can be “a useful remedy to a good faith litigant who is confronted by an obstructionist adversary” and “a means of encouraging an unwilling or uncooperative party to honor the rules established for . . . litigation.” Id.

¶33 These competing policies illustrate why the district court is granted wide discretion in its rule 55(c) determination: the court is in the best position to know whether the conduct of a defaulting party is such that the need to enforce deadlines in a particular case outweighs the general policy that cases should be adjudicated on the merits.

¶34 Our court of appeals has identified several factors that could be relevant to this determination in a given case: “whether the default was willful, whether the defendant alleges a meritorious defense, whether the defendant acted expeditiously to correct the default, whether setting the default aside would prejudice the plaintiff, and the extent, if any, to which the public interest is implicated.” Roth, 2010 UT App 332, ¶ 16; see also Pierucci v. U.S. Bank, NA, 2015 UT App 80, ¶ 9, 347 P.3d 837. These factors have also appeared frequently in federal case law applying rule 55(c). See, e.g., In re OCA, Inc., 551 F.3d 359, 369 (5th Cir. 2008); Let’s Go Aero, 78 F. Supp. 3d at 1371; Peoples v. Fisher, 299 F.R.D. 56, 59 (W.D.N.Y. 2014); Insituform Techs., 588 F. Supp. 2d at 1352.

¶35 We agree that these considerations could be relevant in an appropriate case. However, we make clear that these factors do not form a “test” that must be applied in all circumstances. Rather, we reiterate that “[e]quitable inquiries defy distillation into any formal legal test; instead, the question is always whether the particular relief sought is justified under principles of fundamental fairness in light of the particular facts.” See Jones, 2009 UT 39, ¶ 17. We caution that not every principle will weigh equally or be relevant in a particular case. And the factors identified are not an exhaustive list. A district court can consider anything that is relevant to determining whether the default certificate should be set aside. But because the factors identified in Roth may often be relevant to a rule 55(c) inquiry, we briefly discuss each one and offer related considerations that could be relevant in individual cases.

¶36 First, a court could consider whether the defaulting party’s failure to answer was willful. “A willful default is an ‘intentional failure’ to respond to litigation.” In re OCA, Inc., 551 F.3d at 370 n.32 (citation omitted). “Mere negligence or carelessness is insufficient to support a finding of willfulness. Willfulness requires egregious conduct that is not satisfactorily explained,” such as “when a defendant ignores a complaint without action and fails to offer an explanation for its failure to respond to a motion or pleading,” Peoples, 299 F.R.D. at 59 (citations omitted), or “cho[oses] to play games,” Lacy v. Sitel Corp., 227 F.3d 290, 292 (5th Cir. 2000) (citation omitted).

¶37 Likewise, a court could consider more generally the defaulting party’s conduct throughout the litigation—assuming some litigation has taken place, as it has here. For example, if a party has been actively engaged or otherwise diligent in the case and the default appears to be an anomaly, that would weigh in favor of vacating the entry of default. But if the party has been repeatedly dilatory or otherwise noncooperative, the court may decide default is warranted and decline to set it aside. See 10A WRIGHT & MILLER, FEDERAL PRACTICE & PROCEDURE § 2693 (“The default procedure offers a useful remedy to a good faith litigant who is confronted by an obstructionist adversary.”).

¶38 Next, a court could consider whether the defaulting party acted promptly to cure the default. There is no hard-and-fast rule to determine what constitutes prompt action in every case. Courts should look at the response to the default in relation to the overall context of the litigation.

¶39 Further, a court could consider whether the non-defaulting party would be unduly prejudiced if the default certificate were vacated. Some courts have held that delay by itself is insufficient to show prejudice. See Enron Oil Corp. v. Diakuhara, 10 F.3d 90, 98 (2d Cir. 1993) (recognizing that “delay standing alone does not establish prejudice”). These courts require a showing that the delay will “result in the loss of evidence, create increased difficulties of discovery, or provide greater opportunity for fraud and collusion.” Peoples, 299 F.R.D. at 61 (citation omitted).

¶40 But although we agree that delay can be especially pernicious when it leads to loss of evidence or witnesses, or otherwise influences litigation, we decline to categorically disqualify delay itself as a sufficient basis for a finding of prejudice. Instead, we leave to the district court’s discretion whether delay in a particular case has become sufficiently egregious to constitute prejudice on its own. And it is appropriate for the court to consider whether, if any harm was done to the non-defaulting party, the harm can be remedied with a sanction less drastic than default. See Jones, 2009 UT 39, ¶ 22 n.15 (“The district court’s equitable discretion extends to fashioning the remedy as well as granting it. In other words, a district court may, as part of exercising its equitable discretion, in appropriate cases, condition the relief from judgment on the moving party’s payment of attorney fees incurred by the nonmoving party as a result of the moving party’s neglect or satisfaction of any other equitable condition.”).

¶41 Additionally, it could be relevant whether the defaulting party has a meritorious defense. This is a low bar. “A defense is meritorious if it is good at law so as to give the factfinder some determination to make.” Am. All. Ins. Co., Ltd. v. Eagle Ins. Co., 92 F.3d 57, 61 (2d Cir. 1996) (citation omitted). This does not mean the court must consider whether the defendant will ultimately succeed on the merits. A meritorious defense is merely an indication of the defendant’s ability and desire to litigate the case on the merits. Conversely, “if the defendant fails to present a meritorious defense sufficient to support a finding on the merits for the defaulting party,” the court may exercise its discretion not to allow the case to proceed. Lacy, 227 F.3d at 293. In such an instance, setting aside the default would be futile. Our policy favoring adjudication on the merits would be overcome because there would be no real legal issues to adjudicate.

¶42 We again emphasize that district courts have wide discretion in determining whether a party has shown good cause. The considerations we have discussed here are by no means a complete list, and they may not be relevant in every case. Courts should take the unique circumstances of each case into consideration and determine “whether the particular relief sought is justified under principles of fundamental fairness in light of the particular facts.” See Jones, 2009 UT 39, ¶ 17.

II. THE DISTRICT COURT’S RULE 55(C) ORDER

¶43 To prevail on appeal, the cousins must demonstrate that the district court abused its discretion in vacating the default certificate. “Though broad, the court’s discretion is not unlimited. As a threshold matter, a court’s ruling must be ‘based on adequate findings of fact’ and ‘on the law.’” Lund v. Brown, 2000 UT 75, ¶ 9, 11 P.3d 277 (citation omitted). In light of the principles and considerations we identify today and the district court’s findings, the cousins have not carried their burden.

¶44 We find no error of law in the district court’s ruling. In analyzing whether to set aside the default certificate, the district court considered the factors previously identified by the court of appeals, specifically: “whether the default was willful, whether the defendant alleges a meritorious defense, whether the defendant acted expeditiously to correct the default, whether setting the default aside would prejudice the plaintiff, and the extent, if any, to which the public interest is implicated.” See Roth v. Joseph, 2010 UT App 332, ¶ 16, 244 P.3d 391; see also Pierucci v. U.S. Bank, NA, 2015 UT App 80, ¶ 9, 347 P.3d 837. As we have discussed, a court is not required to apply these factors. But where they are relevant, it is certainly not legal error to do so. A court may consider any relevant factor.

¶45 And the court’s decision was supported by adequate findings. The district court determined that the uncles’ default was not willful. It recognized that the answer the uncles filed as an exhibit alleged four defenses, all of which it categorized as “meritorious.” The court found that the uncles acted expeditiously in moving to set aside the default and oppose the motion for default judgment. The court determined setting aside the default certificate would not prejudice the cousins. And it awarded the cousins attorney fees to compensate for the cost incurred in moving for the default certificate and default judgment. Finally, the court recognized that although the case was a “close call,” the public interest weighed in favor of adjudicating the case on the merits.

¶46 The cousins argue that the case before us is like Jones v. Layton/Okland, in which we affirmed a district court’s refusal to vacate a default judgment because the defaulting party failed to show “even a minimum level of diligence” prior to default entering. 2009 UT 39, ¶ 29, 214 P.3d 859. In Jones we noted that in the realm of a rule 60(b) motion to vacate a default judgment, “excusable neglect requires some evidence of diligence in order to justify relief.” Id. ¶ 20. Upon examination of the record, we found it to be “utterly devoid of any diligence by Jones that would justify his neglect.” Id. ¶ 28. So we were able to affirm that district court’s decision because there was “simply no basis in the record for us to conclude that the district court abused its discretion by refusing to set aside” the default judgment in that case. Id. ¶ 30.

¶47 We disagree with the cousins’ comparison. The uncles’ conduct is not akin to the defendant’s behavior in Jones, which was “utterly devoid” of diligence.4 The record shows that the uncles were actively involved in the case—they filed a timely motion to dismiss, participated in oral argument, and communicated with opposing counsel. And when Curtis determined he was out of his element, he sought to engage litigation counsel and informed the cousins’ counsel of this fact. When the default certificate was entered, the uncles responded within days. It is arguable that a court could find this level of diligence sufficient to warrant vacation of a default judgment, not to mention a default certificate. “Even where a course of events does not make it strictly impossible for a party to meet its legal obligations, the party’s choice to attend to another matter, or even its simple failure to attend to its legal obligation, may be sufficiently diligent and responsible, in light of the attendant circumstances, to justify excusing it from the full consequences of its neglect.” Id. ¶ 22. So while the court in Jones was within its discretion to deny relief from a default judgment under the circumstances before it, so too is the court here within its discretion to grant relief from a default certificate in light of the facts here.

¶48 Further, we note that the delay caused by the uncles’ failure to respond was not substantial in the context of the litigation—considering the extensions the parties had given each other and the time it took for the cousins to file their proposed order. Indeed, the cousins’ briefing to this court acknowledges that “[t]he parties, through counsel, communicated for months leading up to the deadline to answer.”

¶49 The district court determined these circumstances constituted good cause to set aside the default. And it did not abuse its discretion in doing so.5

CONCLUSION

¶50 In determining whether there is good cause to set aside a default certificate under rule 55(c), a district court should weigh any relevant facts and circumstances of the case before it and decide whether it would be fundamentally fair to grant the requested equitable relief. Adjudication on the merits is preferred, and courts should err on the side of granting rule 55(c) motions where it is appropriate. We conclude the district court did not abuse its discretion in finding there was good cause to set aside the default certificate here. We affirm.

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Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

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How hard did you have to fight to get custody of your child after divorce as a father? What was the biggest problem you faced?

Allow me to start this answer by clearing the air a bit:

First, there are many fathers who are clearly unfit fathers but who nonetheless believe the only or the “real” reason they are denied sole or even joint custody is because of unchecked corruption and/or sexual discrimination in the legal system. Such fathers are deluded but get a lot of attention, compensating for their lack of credibility by being extraordinarily vocal.

That stated, no intellectually honest legal professional can deny that there is a bias against fathers when it comes to the child custody and parent time award. The evidence is overwhelming.

That stated, the discrimination against fathers in child custody award cases is slowly but surely being remedied. That, however, is cold comfort to fathers who are suffering current bias and discrimination.

I exaggerate only slightly when I state that in child custody disputes mothers are more or less presumes to be not only fit parents, but superior parents to fathers. The child custody fight is the mother’s fight to lose. Fathers, on the other hand, are often presumed to be uncaring, unprincipled, and thus unfit to exercise custody of their children, pegged as seeking sole or joint custody only for the purpose of avoiding or reducing their child support obligations.

Like the proverbial minority (whether that be a racial or sexual minority) who has to be 10 times better than the majority candidates just to get a seat at the table (whether that be in business or athletics or politics or any other worldly endeavor), fathers confront a lopsided double standard in child custody disputes.

SOP (standard operating procedure) in a child custody dispute consists of a mother asserting herself to be that only fit to exercise custody of the children, but the only parent fit to exercise custody, followed by the court accepting that assertion and then burdening the father with rebutting it if he is to have any chance at obtaining sole or even joint custody of his children. It simply not enough for the father to demonstrate that he is and always has been a law-abiding and otherwise responsible person (and parent) of good character.

Perversely, fathers must demonstrate that they are super parents (that anything Mom can do I can do just as well or better) before they will be treated as worthy of the custody of their children. But even if a father meets this impossible standard, he’s written off as a liar, and egotist, or both.

Never mind that the social science overwhelmingly proves that children do best when reared by a mother and a father, and that exposure to and experience with the differences between one’s mother and a father are one of the material reasons why a child develops to his or her fullest potential.

No, in the family law realm fathers are second-class parents. Like a limited use spare tire. Better

than nothing, but clearly not on par with mothers when it comes to parental value and importance. This is why so many court still inexplicably believe (or say they believe) that children need to be reared primarily by their mothers and that fathers can fulfill their parental obligation sufficiently by visiting with their children a few hours a week, every other weekend, and every other major holiday.

Consequently, fathers are marginalized in their children’s lives. Children—having no understanding of why they see so little of Dad now—feel rejected. Both fathers and children drift apart both physically and emotionally as a consequence. It is as pointless as it is heartbreaking.

So how hard do fathers have to fight for solar physical custody of their children? For far too many fathers, it’s a trick question. In many jurisdictions, it doesn’t matter how hard a father fights and how much proof he presents. He can’t win. More accurately, the culture of the legal system predestines him to lose.

If you are a father and you don’t want to be marginalized or erased by your child custody court proceedings, you may very well have to spend every last penny you have hiring the best lawyer(s) (yes, you may need more than one) and experts in an effort to build and present a case so strong that it is impossible to refute. I am not exaggerating. Even then, that may not be enough.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

https://www.quora.com/How-hard-did-you-have-to-fight-to-get-custody-of-your-child-after-divorce-as-a-father-What-was-the-biggest-problem-you-faced/answer/Eric-Johnson-311?prompt_topic_bio=1

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After a divorce, should my kids be with me or with the mom?

First, you need to understand that you’re asking the wrong question.

Child custody is not a zero-sum game; otherwise stated, when parents divorce, or when unmarried parents separate, where you get the idea that the children must be in the custody of one parent or the other, but not in the joint custody of both?

Perhaps it has come from the idea you been taught most of your life that children of divorced or separated parents must spend the majority of their time in the custody of one parent. I’m 52 years old at the time I write this, and throughout my youth I was taught that very thing.

Not only were we taught the children should spend most of their time in the custody of just one parent, but we were taught that the parent that should be the “custodial” or primary custodial” parent was the mother. Almost always the mother. The mother, unless it could be proven that the mother was heinously unfit to have custody of the children. It was not uncommon to hear about perfectly good and decent fathers not being awarded custody or not being awarded joint physical custody of their children even when mom had a substance abuse problem or was physically and/or emotionally abusive.

The idea that children could be or should be cared for equally or as near to equally as possible by both parents was in the not so distant past unthinkable. The idea of children being cared for by their fathers was believed to be emotionally and psychologically damaging to children, especially very young children. The more research that is conducted on the subject, however, the more we learn that such thinking is wrong. I’ll be the first to admit that, especially in American culture, it seemed somewhat intuitive to believe that children might need or fare better in the care of their mothers instead of their fathers, but it turns out that’s false.

Unfortunately, the legal profession and the courts have been very slow to accept, let alone embrace, this fact. But things are changing in the legal profession and the courts, and at a comparatively rapid pace.

Now (I write this May 27, 2021), things are different, or I should say they are becoming different. As well they should be. Just as this country realized it made no sense to make the black man or woman sit at the back of the bus and that all citizens deserve fair and equal treatment under the law, it makes no sense to deny children of as much love and care and companionship of both of their loving, fit parents as possible.

To crib from C.S. Lewis a bit, asking which fit parent the children are better off with is like asking which blade of the scissors we’re better off with.

When children have to loving, caring parents who are physically and emotionally and financially capable of providing the minimally necessary levels of care their children require, there is no to deny children the benefits of being reared by both parents equally. Period.

I am a divorce lawyer in Utah. For those of you who are currently facing or who are contemplating a possible divorce or child custody dispute in Utah, you may find these statutory criteria that the courts are supposed to apply when making child custody determinations:

Utah Code:


Section 10
. Custody of a child — Custody factors.

Section 10.1. Definitions — Joint legal custody — Joint physical custody.

Section 10.2. Joint custody order — Factors for court determination — Public assistance.

And these sections are worth reviewing to get an idea of what the definitions of child custody are, whether that be legal custody or physical custody:


Section 33
. Advisory guidelines.

Section 34. Parent-time — Best interests — Rebuttable presumption.

Section 34.5. Supervised parent-time.

Section 35. Minimum schedule for parent-time for children 5 to 18 years old.

Section 35.1. Optional schedule for parent-time for children 5 to 18 years of age.

Section 35.2. Equal parent-time schedule.

Section 35.5. Minimum schedule for parent-time for children under five years of age.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

https://www.quora.com/After-a-divorce-should-my-kids-be-with-me-or-with-the-mom/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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Are older lawyers better?

Are older lawyers better?

If by “older” you mean lawyers who are not fresh out of law school, the answer is: almost always yes.

They don’t teach you how to practice law in law school, they teach you how to read, research, understand, and interpret the law in law school. Law schools are getting better at providing more “clinical” experiences to law students, but law students fresh out of law school typically don’t know how to draft pleadings, prepare a case, negotiate a good settlement, and argue a case in court. I didn’t when I passed the bar. I had to learn all that through “on the job training”.

Some law students get clerkships or internships during law school that do a superb job of showing these student the ropes, so that by the time they pass the bar they have one or two years’ real-world experience in the practice of law. And some other law students are just so naturally talented and driven and autodidactic that they take to learning the practice of law like a duck takes to water.

Some say that attorneys need about 5-7 years in full-time practice before they really know what they are doing. I think that’s a good rule of thumb. Don’t pass over the less experienced prodigies if you can find them, however (and finding them will take some effort on your part). Exceptional newbies are the best value because they’re skilled yet priced lower than attorneys who have been in practice longer (notice my choice of words here: “been in practice longer” is not synonymous with “more experienced”; simply having a law license year over year doesn’t make you a skilled lawyer, so find out how active an attorney is before choosing on the basis of how long he/she got his/her law license. An attorney who has been licensed for 15 years and has no clients isn’t likely a good choice).

If by “older” you mean lawyers who are a few years short of retirement or death, then the answer is: almost always no. As with many activities, the effective practice of law is not for the old and infirm. If you don’t have the stamina to do the reading and writing and court appearances, you’re almost surely going to lose the case. Attorneys who are so old they’re forgetting details are not going to do your case any favors. Moreover, a lot of very old attorneys get jaded or complacent, lacking that fire in the belly that they need to have to motivate them to do their best work. They start coasting on their “experience,” letting their paralegal and office staff handle more and more of a case, rather than putting in the work your case needs to succeed.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

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Why do pro se litigants fail so often?

Why do pro se litigants fail so often? And if you’re wondering what a pro se litigant is, here’s the definition:

someone who argues his/her own case in a lawsuit, rather than having a lawyer represent him/her and do the legal work for him/her. “Pro se” is Latin for “on behalf of oneself”.

So why do pro se litigants fail so often? This is a great question and one that you should ask, if you haven’t already. You may be wondering if you should go the pro se route yourself. It’s a perfectly fair question for your to ask. Many lawyers will “answer” this question with an Emperor’s New Clothes kind of response, i.e., “Oh, come on, are you really thinking representing yourself? That’s crazy. Surely you see that.”

Others are little more sophisticated and give you that “You wouldn’t try to remove your own appendix, would you? No, you’d hire a pro!” But that doesn’t really answer your question either.

Is it too hard to represent yourself in court in a divorce case? Is it more trouble than it’s worth? Is it a question of “yes, I could do it myself, but should I?”

See, with rare exception, virtually every divorce attorney won’t tell you what you really want to know because they are afraid you will determine that once you know you will decide not to hire an attorney. I am not afraid of that. With that stated, here is the truth:

No matter how well prepared you are and how well you know the argument and how good your argument is, there’s a very good chance that your arguments will fall fully or partially on deaf ears. Why?

Because pro se litigants generally do such a terrible job that courts have low and negative expectations of pro se litigants generally. As a result, courts often just put up mental and emotional walls at the very mention of “pro se litigant”. That’s too bad. It’s unfair to the pro se litigants who know what they’re doing and do it well.

But the fact of the matter is that so many crazy and ill-prepared, rambling, incoherent pro se litigants have passed through the courthouses that they’ve spoiled it for everyone else.

If you’re a well prepared well-versed pro se litigant, you’re just not going to be received as well and taken as seriously as someone who shows up in court with a competent lawyer.

Wait, am I saying that sometimes you need a lawyer, if only as a prop? Yes. Exactly. That’s what I’m saying (now don’t get the idea that it’s because law is easy–it’s not; while I concede it is not rocket science it still takes a lot of time, effort, brains, patience, and thick skin to learn, understand, and apply effectively). It might even be better for you simply to prepare a script for your prop lawyer to read if you want to ensure that your argument is heard and understood and taken seriously. It’s a reason for why you need a lawyer (and need to pay that lawyer) that most lawyers and courts don’t want to admit, but it’s no less true.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

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Janson v. Janson – 2019 UT App 106 – setting aside settlement agreement

2019 UT App 106 – Janson v. Janson – setting aside stipulation
THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

DEIDRE SUE JANSON,
Appellant,
v.
JEFFREY ALAN JANSON,
Appellee.

Opinion No. 20170541-CA
Filed June 20, 2019

Third District Court, Salt Lake Department
The Honorable Andrew H. Stone
No. 164906327
Jamie Carpenter, Attorney for Appellant
Kara L. Barton and Ashley Wood, Attorneys for Appellee

JUDGE MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and DIANA HAGEN concurred.

CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge:

¶1        Deidre Sue Janson appeals the district court’s order denying her motion to set aside a written stipulation (the Stipulation) entered in her divorce action against Jeffrey Alan Janson. We affirm.

BACKGROUND

¶2        The parties entered into the Stipulation following mediation on November 14, 2016, to resolve the issues in their divorce. As part of the Stipulation, Deidre[1] agreed to pay Jeffrey alimony of $2,500 per month for eighteen months and $1,500 per month for an additional eighteen months.

¶3        The Stipulation awarded the marital home to Jeffrey.

Deidre was awarded half of the equity in the home, less $45,000 that constituted Jeffrey’s inherited funds. The Stipulation also divided the equity in the parties’ vehicles, requiring Deidre to pay Jeffrey $13,178 from her share of the parties’ bank accounts to equalize the vehicle equity disparity.

¶4 The parties had a number of retirement funds and accounts. Regarding the retirement, the parties agreed as follows:

  1. [Deidre] has the following retirement accounts: Utah Retirement in the amount of approximately $72,440; General Electric in the approximate amount of $100,435; Roth IRA in the approximate amount of $18,252; FDIC in the approximate amount of $16,719 and $17,431; and Utah Pension in the amount of $15,281.
  2. [Jeffrey] has the following retirement accounts: Fidelity in the approximate amount of $22,012; Bernstein in the approximate amount of $18,305.
  3. The above retirement accounts will be divided equally between the parties. In addition [Deidre] has a premarital IRA in the approximate amount of $17,682 which is her separate property.
  4. [Jeffrey’s] Alliant Technical Systems Pension plan which will be divided pursuant to the Woodward formula.
  5. The parties will share equally the cost of any qualified domestic relation order.

¶5        On January 12, 2017, Deidre moved to set aside the Stipulation on the ground that there was not a meeting of the minds regarding various provisions in the agreement. She asserted that she “did not receive [Jeffrey’s] financial disclosures until the morning of mediation and was not able to consult with her attorney prior to mediation.” She asserted that because her Utah pension was listed with its approximate value alongside the other retirement accounts, her understanding was that Jeffrey was to receive only half of the listed $15,281 partial lump sum value of that pension rather than half of the entire monthly payment amount as determined by a qualified domestic relations order (QDRO). According to Deidre, the total value of Jeffrey’s half of the pension if the monthly payment option were utilized would amount to approximately $80,000. Deidre claimed that had she understood that Jeffrey would be entitled to half of the entire Utah pension, she would not have agreed to provisions granting Jeffrey premarital equity in the home. She pointed to the lack of specific dates for the accounts to be divided and the impracticality of preparing a QDRO for every retirement account as support for her assertion that the Stipulation should be interpreted as granting Jeffrey only half of the stated partial lump sum value of her Utah pension account.[2]

¶6        Jeffrey opposed the motion to set aside the Stipulation, pointing out that his financial declaration was provided to Deidre well in advance of mediation and that she was represented by counsel at the mediation. He also explained the discrepancy between how the Stipulation described the division of his pension account and how it described the division of Deidre’s—his account had been partially accrued prior to the marriage, whereas Deidre’s had been accrued entirely during the period of the marriage. He asserted that Deidre was aware that an equal division of her pension could result in him receiving half of the monthly payments rather than half of the partial lump sum payout value because her own financial declaration included a summary of the various payout options. Jeffrey also asserted that only three QDROs, at maximum, were necessary to divide the retirement accounts.

¶7        In responding to Jeffrey’s memorandum in opposition to her motion, Deidre raised additional issues impacting the Stipulation’s alimony award—she indicated that after filing the motion to set aside, she was involuntarily terminated from her job without notice, that the loss of her job precluded her from continuing to pay alimony, and that Jeffrey had become eligible to draw on his social security and retirement accounts to support himself. She asserted that these changes in circumstances justified setting aside the Stipulation.

¶8        Following a hearing, the district court denied Deidre’s motion. The court found that both parties understood that Deidre’s Utah pension had the potential for an annuitized benefit. The court determined that the language in the Stipulation dividing the pension equally was clear as to how the retirement accounts would be treated and contained sufficient detail to enforce the Stipulation. The court stated that it was reasonable to anticipate that additional details would be filled in when the QDROs were prepared. The court also determined that issues related to Deidre’s alleged change in circumstances should be handled separately as a petition to modify.

¶9        Deidre now appeals.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶10 Deidre asserts that the Stipulation is unenforceable because there was no meeting of the minds regarding various aspects of the Stipulation.[3]

Whether the parties had a meeting of the minds sufficient to create a binding contract is an issue of fact, which we review for clear error, reversing only where the finding is against the clear weight of the evidence, or if we otherwise reach a firm conviction that a mistake has been made.

LD III, LLC v. BBRD, LC, 2009 UT App 301, ¶ 13, 221 P.3d 867 (quotation simplified).

¶11 Deidre also asserts that the district court erred in declining to consider her substantial change in circumstances argument as a basis for setting aside the Stipulation and instead determining that a petition to modify was the necessary route for her to pursue this argument. Whether a district court erred in accepting and enforcing a proffered stipulation is reviewed for an abuse of discretion. See In re N.M., 2018 UT App 141, ¶ 17, 427 P.3d 1239.

ANALYSIS

  1. The District Court Did Not Clearly Err in Rejecting Deidre’s Assertion That There Was No Meeting of the Minds.

¶12 “It is a basic principle of contract law there can be no contract without a meeting of the minds.” Granger v. Granger, 2016 UT App 117, ¶ 14, 374 P.3d 1043 (quotation simplified). “A binding contract exists where it can be shown that the parties had a meeting of the minds as to the integral features of the agreement and that the terms are sufficiently definite as to be capable of being enforced.” LD III, LLC v. BBRD, LC, 2009 UT App 301, ¶ 14, 221 P.3d 867 (quotation simplified). “Whether there is a meeting of the minds depends on whether the parties actually intended to contract, and the question of intent generally is one to be determined by the trier of fact.” Terry v. Bacon, 2011 UT App 432, ¶ 21, 269 P.3d 188 (quotation simplified).

¶13 “[I]n divorce cases, the ability of parties to contract is constrained to some extent by the equitable nature of the proceedings . . . .” Granger, 2016 UT App 117, ¶ 15. “Because retirement funds are prospectively marital property if acquired or contributed to during the marriage, the distribution of such marital funds must fit within the overarching principle of equity unless the parties have freely and knowingly agreed to a different result that has been appropriately sanctioned by the court.” Id. ¶ 16. Nevertheless, “it is not the court’s prerogative to step in and renegotiate the contract of the parties. Instead, courts should recognize and honor the right of persons to contract freely and to make real and genuine mistakes when the dealings are at arms’ length.” Id. ¶ 14 (quotation simplified).

A. Retirement Funds

1. The Court Did Not Err in Accepting Jeffrey’s Interpretation of the Stipulation.

¶14 At the evidentiary hearing, the district court considered both parties’ testimonies regarding their understanding of the Stipulation and their intent regarding the division of their retirement funds. Having considered this evidence, the district court found that both parties understood that Deidre’s Utah pension had the potential for an annuitized benefit and that the Stipulation was clear that the listed retirement accounts were to be divided equally between the parties. Deidre asserts that this conclusion was clearly erroneous because it is inconsistent with the principle that retirement funds that can be “presently valued” should be equally divided.

¶15 As a general matter, equitable division of a defined benefit plan is accomplished by the Woodward formula[4] and equitable division of a defined contribution plan is accomplished by dividing the value contributed during the marriage. Granger Granger, 2016 UT App 117, ¶ 23, 374 P.3d 1043. While Deidre’s pension fund had a “partial lump sum” payout option—which was listed as the “approximate value”[5] in the Stipulation—it also had a monthly payment option. Because pension funds are presumptively divided according to the Woodward formula, an interpretation of the Stipulation that requires dividing the entire fund rather than only the partial lump sum amount is more consistent with equity. It is also the most logical approach in light of Deidre’s own financial declaration, which acknowledged that her Utah pension had a monthly payment option.

¶16 Deidre also asserts that Jeffrey himself testified that he believed the “approximate” amount listed for Deidre’s pension, rather than the entire pension, would be divided equally. But the record does not support Deidre’s characterization of Jeffrey’s testimony. At the hearing, Jeffrey was asked, “So it was your understanding that [the] specific value you listed would be, at least with 401-Ks or whatnot, would be divided. You would get half of that value?” (Emphasis added.) Jeffrey responded, “It would be half the value as identified by the amounts listed in the stipulation.” Jeffrey was asked specifically about the division of the 401(k)s, not the pension. Thus, his answer to this question cannot be construed as a statement that he expected and agreed that the pension would be divided only according to the amount listed in the Stipulation.

¶17 Indeed, Jeffrey testified that based on the document Deidre produced in her financial declaration outlining the various options for the distribution of the Utah pension, he understood that Deidre’s pension could be taken either “as a partial lump sum” or as “monthly payments” and that he “would have a choice” either to take half of the monthly payments or to add half of the partial lump sum to his share of the distributions of the other IRA and 401(k) accounts. Deidre also testified that she knew that a monthly payment could be an option for payout of her pension. Thus, the court’s interpretation of the Stipulation is supported by the evidence and is not clearly erroneous.

2. The Court Did Not Err in Enforcing the Stipulation.

¶18 Deidre also asserts that the Stipulation should not be enforced because it was not equitable. She argues that the district court should have considered the Stipulation as a whole and recognized that she had given up other valuable assets in exchange for treating the pension as a lump sum rather than as a monthly benefit calculated by utilizing the Woodward formula. However, there is nothing on the face of the Stipulation to indicate that such an exchange was made. The Stipulation states that Jeffrey was granted an extra $45,000 of equity in the home because he had contributed inherited funds to the home, not in exchange for the retirement.

¶19      Even if the court had accepted Deidre’s argument, it is by no means clear that she gave up anything in exchange for the pension, let alone something of comparable value such that the court should have recognized the retirement division as inequitable. Presumably, Jeffrey would have contested Deidre’s assertion that the inheritance funds were comingled, and she has not established that she was equitably entitled to share in the portion of the equity gained by investing the inheritance funds. Further, her half of that portion of the equity was significantly smaller than the amount of the pension Jeffrey would be giving up by accepting half of the partial lump sum value rather than half of the monthly payments. Additionally, Deidre herself asserted only that her belief regarding the pension made her “a little more flexible” on the issue of the allegedly comingled inheritance, not that she bargained for an exchange of one for the other.

¶20 To require the district court to examine and evaluate the Stipulation to the degree recommended by Deidre would be to undermine the parties’ right to contract freely. While courts should ensure that the provisions of a divorce stipulation comply with “the overarching principle of equity,” Granger v. Granger, 2016 UT App 117, ¶ 16, 374 P.3d 1043, they are also to “respect[] and give[] considerable weight” to the parties’ agreement, Maxwell v. Maxwell, 796 P.2d 403, 406 (Utah Ct. App. 1990). Thus, weighing every provision of a stipulation against every other to ensure that the parties have reached a perfectly fair agreement is beyond the scope of the court’s mandate.

¶21      Indeed, the court’s equity analysis generally focuses “not on the contract’s subject matter, but rather on whether the contract was fairly negotiated and does not result in an outcome so severely one sided that it prevents the district court from fulfilling its equitable obligations.” Ashby v. Ashby, 2010 UT 7, ¶ 21, 227 P.3d 246. We see nothing in the record to suggest that the district court was presented with such a situation. Both parties were represented by counsel, and the terms of the Stipulation were not so one-sided as to give the court reason to believe that the parties’ agreement had violated the principles of equity. Thus, the court did not exceed its discretion in determining that the Stipulation’s division of the retirement funds was enforceable.

B. Deidre’s Arguments Regarding Alimony and Vehicles Were Not Preserved for Appeal.

¶22 On appeal, Deidre renews the arguments made in her motion to set aside that there was no meeting of the minds with respect to the Stipulation’s provisions regarding alimony and the division of equity in the vehicles. However, the district court made no ruling on these issues.[6]

¶23      “[I]n order to preserve an issue for appeal the issue must be presented to the trial court in such a way that the trial court has an opportunity to rule on that issue.” Brookside Mobile Home Park, Ltd. v. Peebles, 2002 UT 48, ¶ 14, 48 P.3d 968. “[O]nce trial counsel has raised an issue before the trial court, and the trial court has considered the issue, the issue is preserved for appeal.” Id. (emphasis added).

¶24 We agree with Jeffrey that Deidre’s reference to the alimony and vehicle issues in her motion to set aside was not sufficient to preserve them for appeal when she did not present evidence or argue these issues to the district court at the evidentiary hearing and the district court did not rule on them. “[T]he mere mention of an issue in the pleadings, when no supporting evidence or relevant legal authority is introduced at trial in support of the claim, is insufficient to raise an issue at trial and thus insufficient to preserve the issue for appeal.” LeBaron & Assocs., Inc. v. Rebel Enters., Inc., 823 P.2d 479, 483 (Utah Ct. App. 1991). Further, a party may waive an issue by relinquishing or abandoning it before the district court, either expressly or impliedly. State v. Johnson, 2017 UT 76, ¶ 16 n.4, 416 P.3d 443.

¶25      “The fundamental purpose of the preservation rule is to ensure that the district court had a chance to rule on an issue before an appellate court will address it.” Helf v. Chevron U.S.A. Inc., 2015 UT 81, ¶ 42, 361 P.3d 63. Because the district court did not rule on the alimony and vehicle issues, and Deidre made no attempt to remedy that omission before raising the issues on appeal, her arguments regarding these issues are unpreserved, and we will not consider them for the first time on appeal. See Vandermeide v. Young, 2013 UT App 31, ¶¶ 8–9, 296 P.3d 787 (holding that a challenge to a district court’s failure to rule on an issue raised in the pleadings was not preserved for appeal, because the appellants did not object to the court’s findings or file a post-judgment motion requesting additional findings).

II. Deidre Will Have the Opportunity to Pursue Her Change of Circumstances Argument in the Context of a Petition to Modify.

¶26 Deidre also argues that the district court erred in declining to consider the change in her employment status as a basis for setting aside the Stipulation before a final order was entered. Although Deidre filed her motion to set aside prior to the entry of the final Decree of Divorce (the Decree), the court declined to consider whether the Stipulation should be modified based on a change of circumstances, stating, “[O]ur procedural rules contemplate that a petition to modify has to be made when the parties reached this state of the proceeding. The Parties reached a resolution in this case and new situations are handled differently.”

¶27 The district court has the discretion to reconsider a prior ruling any time before a final judgment is entered. See Utah R. Civ. P. 54(b); see also Hafen v. Scholes, 2014 UT App 208, ¶ 3, 335 P.3d 396 (per curiam); Durah v. Baksh, 2011 UT App 159, ¶ 5, 257 P.3d 458 (per curiam). However, to seek a modification of a divorce decree, a movant must show “a substantial change of circumstances occurring since the entry of the decree and not contemplated in the decree itself.” Gardner v. Gardner, 2012 UT App 374, ¶ 38, 294 P.3d 600 (emphasis added) (quotation simplified).

¶28      The change in Deidre’s employment status occurred after the Stipulation was signed but before the Decree was entered. Thus, Deidre asserts that the district court’s refusal to reconsider the alimony portion of the Stipulation as part of her motion to set aside was an abuse of discretion because it put her in a catch-22—the court would not let her seek a modification prior to the entry of the Decree, but she would be precluded from seeking one afterward because her alleged change in circumstances occurred before the entry of the Decree.

¶29 We agree with Deidre that the district court, contrary to its own assertion, had the discretion to reconsider whether to accept the parties’ Stipulation as to alimony prior to the entry of the Decree, since the alleged change in circumstances occurred prior to a final judgment being entered. This issue was relevant to the court’s consideration of whether the Stipulation complied with the “overarching principle of equity.” See Granger v. Granger, 2016 UT App 117, ¶ 16, 374 P.3d 1043. The court may have determined that the Stipulation as to alimony was no longer equitable in light of the change in circumstances and that the parties would not have entered into the Stipulation as to alimony had they been aware that Deidre would lose her employment.

¶30 However, while considering Deidre’s alleged substantial change of circumstances at an earlier stage of the proceedings may have been desirable as a matter of judicial economy, Deidre has not been prejudiced by the district court’s refusal to do so. Deidre filed a Petition to Modify on January 9, 2018, which is currently pending in the district court. The district court gave Deidre leave to pursue her substantial change of circumstances argument subsequent to the entry of the Decree, and Jeffrey has conceded that she should be allowed to do so. These circumstances avoid the catch-22 scenario Deidre feared. Because Deidre has not actually been precluded from raising her substantial change of circumstances claim, any error on the part of the district court in declining to consider her motion to set aside the alimony portions of the Stipulation on that basis was harmless.

CONCLUSION

¶31 The district court’s interpretation of the Stipulation’s retirement provisions is supported by the evidence presented at the evidentiary hearing. Deidre’s arguments concerning other aspects of the Stipulation were not preserved, and we therefore do not consider them. Further, while the district court could have considered Deidre’s arguments concerning her alleged change in circumstances in the context of the motion to set the Stipulation aside, the court’s refusal to do so was not prejudicial. Deidre will be permitted to pursue her claim in the context of the petition to modify already filed with the district court. Accordingly, we affirm the district court’s denial of Deidre’s motion to set aside the Stipulation.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

———————————————————–

[1] Because the parties share the same last name, we refer to them by their first names to avoid confusion, meaning no disrespect by the apparent informality.

[2] Deidre also challenged other provisions of the Stipulation that she asserted were inartfully drafted. Specifically, she claimed that there was a mathematical error in the calculation of the vehicle equity and that a lack of language regarding the parties’ incomes and needs in the alimony provision had the potential to preclude a future modification. However, she did not present argument or evidence on these issues at the evidentiary hearing, and the district court ultimately made no ruling on them. See infra ¶¶ 22–25.

[3] Deidre also asserts that the district court erred in determining that the Stipulation was unambiguous. Although the court stated that it considered the Stipulation’s language to be “clear,” it did not make an explicit ruling regarding whether the Stipulation was ambiguous. In fact, the district court’s consideration of extrinsic evidence suggests that the court actually did consider the Stipulation to be ambiguous, since the purpose of considering extrinsic evidence is to clarify ambiguous terms in the contract. See Ward v. Intermountain Farmers Ass’n, 907 P.2d 264, 268 (Utah 1995) (explaining that if a court determines that a contract is ambiguous, the next step is to admit extrinsic evidence “to clarify the ambiguous terms”). We therefore review only the district court’s evaluation of the extrinsic evidence and its determination that Jeffrey’s interpretation of the Stipulation was more reasonable, that there was a meeting of the minds regarding how the retirement was to be divided, and that the

Stipulation was enforceable.

[4] The Woodward formula grants a spouse one-half of the “portion of the retirement benefits represented by the number of years of the marriage divided by the number of years of the [acquiring spouse’s] employment.” Woodward v. Woodward, 656 P.2d 431, 433–44 (Utah 1982).

[5] Incidentally, the fact that the parties listed only the “approximate” values of the various retirement funds also undermines Deidre’s assertion that the parties intended to effectuate the division based on the listed values rather than the actual values of the funds.

[6] Deidre asserts that the court’s ruling that “[i]n order to have a contract, the Court doesn’t need perfect clarity on every factual point” constituted a ruling on all the issues she raised. However, Deidre omits vital language from the court’s ruling. The court actually stated, “In order to have a contract, the Court doesn’t need perfect clarity on every factual point that might fill in a QDRO here.” (Emphasis added.) Thus, it is clear from the context that the court’s ruling contemplated only the issues Deidre raised with respect to the retirement, not the alimony and vehicle issues.

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As a divorce lawyer, what is the most petty thing one of your clients had you do?

QUESTION: As a divorce lawyer, what is the most petty thing one of your clients had you do?

ANSWER: Thanks for the question. The answer is: nothing. Legal whores do petty things for clients.

FOLLOW UP QUESTION: So what happens if you and your client have a difference of opinion about how to proceed, and you feel s/he is being petty? I understand that if court is in the distant future, you could drop the client, but what if you’re physically in court and s/he instructs you to do something you feel is petty? Are you ultimately obligated to do what your client wishes, or can you refuse, be paternalistic, and do what you think is best for the client?

ANSWER: Great follow up question, and I am happy to respond.

When I’m in court and a client wants me to do or say something that is, in my opinion, A) foolish or counterproductive and/or B) malicious or petty, that is an extremely difficult position for both the client and me to be in. I don’t want the client to suffer, but the client doesn’t see it the same way (indeed the client often thinks that my reluctance means I don’t care). My client and I don’t have time to discuss the merits and weigh the risks; a snap judgment has to be made.

Is it my decision because I represent the client and I have the legal expertise the client paid me to apply? Or is it the client’s decision because it’s his/her case? What if what I think’s a bad idea would have been well-received by the court and meant the difference between victory and defeat? It’s agonizing. It really is.

Fortunately (and this is going to sound arrogant, but it’s sincere), in the overwhelming majority of these situations it is glaringly obvious when the client’s idea is good or bad, so I can feel confident about doing the good things the client suggests and confident about putting my foot down and telling the client “no, that’s not allowed” or “no, that won’t do you any good at all.”

Examples of things client often want a lawyer to do that are either not allowed by the court or that will do more harm than good:

  • “I want to make a statement, Eric.” This is death 99% of the time. Clients see a crappy case heading south and think, “I know, I’ll get up and give an impassioned speech. That’ll turn things around.” Falser words were never spoken.
  • “Tell the court what the witness who isn’t here to testify said.” That’s hearsay. That’s inadmissible.
  • “Ask the witness this question” (and the question is usually something complete immaterial and irrelevant). For example, if the case is a property damage case (his tree branch fell on my barbecue grill) the plaintiff client may suggest that I ask the defendant whether he’s an alcoholic or an ex-con. The client believes that by painting the defendant in an unflattering light that the judge/jury will side with the plaintiff. No. Just the opposite. This kind of thing only serves to make my client look like an ass and to sway sympathies toward the other party.
  • “Tell the judge that I think he/she is biased.” This is—rarely, but on occasion—actually a request that may be worth fulfilling for a client IF, and only if, there’s plenty of evidence of bias in the record. But usually the client is just angry that he/she isn’t winning and attributes that (falsely) to the judge being biased against the client. So the client’s anger, disappointment, grief, fear, etc. overrides the client’s reason to the point that he thinks bad-mouthing the judge will improve the situation.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

https://www.quora.com/As-a-divorce-lawyer-what-is-the-most-petty-thing-one-of-your-clients-had-you-do/answer/Eric-Johnson-311#

Can I sue for the child support I paid after our child started living with me?

QUESTION: Can I sue my child’s mother for the child support that was deducted from my pay after our child started living with me, in my home?

ANSWER: Utah Code § 78B-12-108 provides (in part), that except in cases of joint physical custody and split custody, when physical custody changes from that assumed in the original order, the parent without physical custody of a child shall be required to pay support, without the need to modify the order for the parent who has physical custody of the child.

Here is the text of the entire code section:

§ 78B-12-108. Support follows the child.

(1) Obligations ordered for child support and medical expenses are for the use and benefit of the child and shall follow the child.

(2) Except in cases of joint physical custody and split custody as defined in Section 78B-12-102, when physical custody changes from that assumed in the original order, the parent without physical custody of a child shall be required to pay the amount of support determined in accordance with Sections 78B-12-205 and 78B-12-212, without the need to modify the order for:

(a) the parent who has physical custody of the child;

(b) a relative to whom physical custody of the child has been voluntarily given; or

(c) the state when the child is residing outside of the home in the protective custody, temporary custody, or custody or care of the state or a state-licensed facility for at least 30 days.

Unfortunately, though the Code would appear to provide that you don’t have to go back to court to get the child support order modified, unless and until you do go back to court to seek the modification of the order the court will not know of the change in custody and the existing child support order will remain in full force and effect.[1] So you will need to go to the court (or, if ORS is collecting child support, in some situations you can go to ORS) to notify it of the change in custody and to ask the court (or ORS, if applicable) to modify the support order.

Whether you need to move (file a motion) to modify or sue (file a petition) to modify is not clear to me, so when in doubt, I file a petition, then file a motion and see which one the court deems appropriate.

And bear in mind that if you move/petition to modify child support by claiming there’s been a de facto change in custody (being in effect though not legally recognized constituted or authorized), then your ex will likely retaliate respond by accusing you of custodial interference, kidnapping, and/or non-compliance with the court’s child custody order.

Otherwise stated: get a good lawyer, if you want to undertake this.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

[1] Because:

Utah Code § 78B-12-112.  Payment under child support order — Judgment.

(3) Each payment or installment of child or spousal support under any support order, as defined by Section 78B-12-102, is, on and after the date it is due:

(a) a judgment with the same attributes and effect of any judgment of a district court, except as provided in Subsection (4);

(b) entitled, as a judgment, to full faith and credit in this and in any other jurisdiction; and

(c) not subject to retroactive modification by this or any other jurisdiction, except as provided in Subsection

(4) A child or spousal support payment under a support order may be modified with respect to any period during which a modification is pending, but only from the date of service of the pleading on the obligee, if the obligor is the petitioner, or on the obligor, if the obligee is the petitioner. If the tribunal orders that the support should be modified, the effective date of the modification shall be the month following service on the parent whose support is affected. Once the tribunal determines that a modification is appropriate, the tribunal shall order a judgment to be entered for any difference in the original order and the modified amount for the period from the service of the pleading until the final order of modification is entered.

Why do Utah divorce courts rarely award attorney fees to the prevailing party?

Why do Utah divorce courts so rarely award attorney’s fees to the prevailing party?

Such a great question, and one that I have to answer with every case, every client. I’m happy to answer it, even if you may not like the answer much. While a court an award you attorney’s fees in certain circumstances, and while courts do on occasion award attorney’s fees, rarely do courts award attorney’s fees or make big attorney’s fees awards.[1]
You have the law and the facts on your side. The court agrees with you. You win the argument! Now it’s time for your spouse to concede victory by paying your attorney’s fees you incurred. It’s only fair, right? I can’t blame you for feeling this way, but that’s just not how the courts usually operate. Why?

Number 1 answer on the board:

Because courts are reluctant to burden either party with a big judgment if and when both husband and wife are in dire financial straits. This is why, if a court determines that sticking your spouse with an attorney’s fee award will seriously hinder or even cripple him/her financially and make it difficult to impossible to meet his/her basic living expenses going forward, a divorce court will often order that each party pay his/her own respective attorney’s fees.

Number 2 answer on the board:

I phrase it as “nobody likes a sore winner.” I get the distinct impression that many judges and commissioners don’t want to add insult to injury by ruling against the losing party and then rubbing his/her nose in the loss by ordering him/her to pay the winning party’s attorney’s fees award on top of that.

Don’t get greedy

So keep these two concerns in mind whenever you contemplate asking your lawyer to file a motion for something AND including a request for an award of attorney’s fees with it. Because of these considerations your lawyer may be happy to file the motion seeking the relief you desire, but try to talk you out of requesting attorney’s fees or requesting a high attorney’s fee award amount.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

[1] See Utah Code Sections:

30-3-3.  Award of costs, attorney and witness fees — Temporary alimony.

(1) In any action filed under Title 30, Chapter 3, Divorce, Chapter 4, Separate Maintenance, or Title 78B, Chapter 7, Part 1, Cohabitant Abuse Act, and in any action to establish an order of custody, parent-time, child support, alimony, or division of property in a domestic case, the court may order a party to pay the costs, attorney fees, and witness fees, including expert witness fees, of the other party to enable the other party to prosecute or defend the action. The order may include provision for costs of the action.

(2) In any action to enforce an order of custody, parent-time, child support, alimony, or division of property in a domestic case, the court may award costs and attorney fees upon determining that the party substantially prevailed upon the claim or defense. The court, in its discretion, may award no fees or limited fees against a party if the court finds the party is impecunious or enters in the record the reason for not awarding fees.

(3) In any action listed in Subsection (1), the court may order a party to provide money, during the pendency of the action, for the separate support and maintenance of the other party and of any children in the custody of the other party.

(4) Orders entered under this section prior to entry of the final order or judgment may be amended during the course of the action or in the final order or judgment.

78B-5-825.  Attorney fees — Award where action or defense in bad faith — Exceptions.

(1) In civil actions, the court shall award reasonable attorney fees to a prevailing party if the court determines that the action or defense to the action was without merit and not brought or asserted in good faith, except under Subsection (2).

(2) The court, in its discretion, may award no fees or limited fees against a party under Subsection (1), but only if the court:

(a) finds the party has filed an affidavit of impecuniosity in the action before the court; or

(b) the court enters in the record the reason for not awarding fees under the provisions of Subsection (1).

Tags:

Can a Child Be Held in Contempt of Court for Non-compliance with Child Custody and Parent-time Orders?

A minor child of divorced parents need not be a party to the divorce action to be subject to the court’s contempt power. See Crank v. Utah Judicial Council, 20 P.3d 307, 314-315 (Supreme Court of Utah 2001) (accord Iota, LLC v. Davco Management Co., LC, 284 P.3d 681, fn. 9 (Court of Appeals of Utah 2012)): 

¶ 25 Clearly, a trial court has the power to hold non-parties in contempt if those parties conspire to frustrate a lawful order of the court. See id.[1] Specifically, a person may be held in contempt for “[d]isobedience of any lawful judgment, order or process of the court,” id.[2] § 78–32–1(5)[3], or “[a]ny other unlawful interference with the process or proceedings of a court,” id. § 78–32–1(9). However, a court’s power to hold any person in contempt, whether a party to a case before that court or a non-party, is subject to constitutional and statutory restraints regarding the process due to any person so accused. See Von Hake v. Thomas, 759 P.2d 1162, 1169–70 (Utah 1988).

¶ 26 The basic constitutional requirement for due process is that “the person charged be advised of the nature of the action against him [or her], have assistance of counsel, if requested, have the right to confront witnesses, and have the right to offer testimony on his [or her] behalf.” Burgers v. Maiben, 652 P.2d 1320, 1322 (Utah 1982). The Utah Code seeks to implement this mandate by “set[ting] out two distinct procedures to be followed in contempt adjudications, one when the contempt is direct, i.e., committed in the presence of the judge, and the other when the contempt is indirect, i.e., committed outside the presence of the judge.” Thomas, 759 P.2d at 1169.

¶ 27 . . . “Indirect contempt . . . can properly be adjudged only in a proceeding more tightly hedged about with procedural protections.” Thomas, 759 P.2d at 1170. In such cases, the Utah Code amplifies upon the basic due process requirements of notice and opportunity to defend. See id. Section 78–32–3[4], in pertinent part, provides as follows:

When the contempt is not committed in the immediate view and presence of the court or judge at chambers, an affidavit shall be presented to the court or judge of the facts constituting the contempt, or a statement of the facts by the referees or arbitrators or other judicial officers.

¶ 28 Thus, in Utah, the statutory requirement of an affidavit is a procedural prerequisite to the imposition of any sanctions for indirect contempt. See Thomas, 759 P.2d at 1171; see also Khan v. Khan, 921 P.2d 466, 468 (Utah Ct.App.1996); Boggs v. Boggs, 824 P.2d 478, 481–82 (Utah Ct.App.1991).

Clearly a non-party to a Utah State district court action can be subject to contempt proceedings and sanctions where the acts or omissions of a non-party or parties frustrate(s) a lawful order of the court. There is no “non-party” basis for the court’s refusal to issue an order to show cause for failure to comply with a court’s child custody and parent-time orders. Even if, arguendo, the minor child is not a party to a parents’ divorce proceedings, the child is nevertheless clearly subject to the jurisdiction of this court for contempt.[5]

A court’s child custody and parent-time orders are clearly directed to both to the parents and to the minor children, and simply by virtue of either 1) a child following the custody and/or parent-time schedule; or 2) a parent making attempts to communicate with and engage with a child in the exercise of the custody and parent-time schedule, a child is not on notice of, and possesses knowledge as to the nature and contents of, the court’s child custody and parent-time order,

Crank v. Utah Judicial Council clearly establishes that the power of a court to hold a person in contempt is not limited by the formal designation of the parties. As shown in footnote 5 herein, common law principles further bolster the fact that the trial court has the power to hold in contempt a minor child subject to a divorce court’s child custody and parent-time orders.

I am not aware of any authority for the propositions A) that a minor child can be (for lack of a more exacting term) “exempted” from contempt of court proceedings or B) that a court has the discretion to deny an order to show cause movant relief in the form of an issuance of an order to show cause when the motion for order to show cause is duly made in compliance with Utah law.

Parents are, as are all Utah residents, entitled to the equal protection of the law and to enforcement of the court’s orders. Refusal to issue an order to show cause to a child who refuse to comply with a court’s child custody and parent-time orders could and almost certainly would result in denying the parent of due process of law (Utah Constitution, Article 1, Section 7), denial of his right to the redress of injuries (Id., Section 11), denial of the uniform operation of laws (Id., Section 24), and denial of fundamental rights (Id., Section 27).

Given that Utah law clearly and inarguably shows that a child is subject to the court’s contempt power in regard to noncompliance with child custody and parent-time orders:

  1. an order to show cause to a child for noncompliance with the court’s custody and parent-time orders (to show the child, the parents, and the public at large that law shall be obeyed); and
  2. use of an order to show cause to enforce the court’s order (and thus uphold the principle that a court has the actual power to enforce its own orders) through the civil courts process (as opposed to a party taking the law into his/her own hands and/or flouting the rule of law),

is entirely suitable and proper.

————————————-

[1] Citation was to Utah Code § 78-32-3, which was renumbered as Utah Code § 78B-6-302:

(1) When a contempt is committed in the immediate view and presence of the court, or judge at chambers, it may be punished summarily. An order shall be made, reciting the facts occurring in the immediate view and presence of the court. The order shall state that the person proceeded against is guilty of a contempt and shall be punished as prescribed in Section 78B-6-310.

(2) When the contempt is not committed in the immediate view and presence of the court or judge, an affidavit or statement of the facts by a judicial officer shall be presented to the court or judge of the facts constituting the contempt.

[2] Citation was to Utah Code § 78-32-3, which was renumbered as Utah Code § 78B-6-302. See fn. 1 supra.

[3] Utah Code § 78-32-1 was renumbered as Utah Code § 78B-6-301:

78B-6-301. Acts and omissions constituting contempt.

The following acts or omissions in respect to a court or its proceedings are contempts of the authority of the court:

*****

(5) disobedience of any lawful judgment, order or process of the court[.]

[4] Utah Code § 78-32-3 was renumbered as Utah Code § 78B-6-302. See fn. 1 supra.

[5] Note: The following arguments are adapted from a decision from the Appellate Court of Illinois, In re Marriage of Marshall, 663 N.E.2d 1113 (1996), a divorce action in which children were held in contempt of court for violating the trial court’s visitation orders:

If a child is subject to the control of each of her joint legal and physical custodial parents, she is bound by the court’s child custody and parent-time orders. Furthermore, the district court also possesses jurisdiction over the child under Utah Code §§ 30-3-5(3) and 78B-13-202. Given that jurisdiction over a person is the court’s power to bind a particular person to its orders, and given that the court clearly has the power to bind the child to its child custody and parent-time orders (and in fact has done just that with its child custody and parent-time orders) the district court has jurisdiction over the child; thus the child could very well be deemed one of the parties to the divorce action.

Rule 65A(d) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure provides, in pertinent part, that every order “granting an injunction shall” . . . “be binding only upon the parties to the action, their officers, agents, servants, employees, and attorneys, and upon those persons in active concert or participation with them who receive notice, in person or through counsel, or otherwise, of the order.”

Rule 65A’s provisions cited above are derived from the common law doctrine that a decree of injunction not only binds parties defendant but also those identified with them in interest, in “privity” with them, represented by them or subject to their control. See Golden State Bottling Co. v. NLRB, 414 U.S. 168, 94 S.Ct. 414, 38 L.Ed.2d 388 (1973); Regal Knitwear Co. v. National Lab. Rel. Bd., 324 U.S. 9, 65 S.Ct. 487, 89 L.Ed. 661 (1945).

See also Petersen v. Fee Intern., Ltd., 435 F.Supp. 938, 941-942 (United States District Court, W. D. Oklahoma, 1975):

“The essence of the doctrine is that defendants may not nullify a decree by carrying out prohibited acts through aiders and abettors although they were not parties to the original action. Regal Knitwear Co. v. National Lab. Rel. Bd., supra. In the older cases a decree of injunction was generally directed to the party defendant, his officers, agents, servants and employees. The object of this generalization was to prevent defendants from doing by others that which the Court had forbidden them to do personally; from accomplishing indirectly a result prohibited by the Court. The full effect of such an order was that the defendant shall not do the prohibited act himself, neither shall his agent, servant, or employees do it for him, nor shall the defendant do it as the agent, servant, or employee of another. Dadirrian v. Gullian, 79 F. 784 (D.N.J.1897).

Thus under this concept a child is also bound by the court’s child custody and parent-time orders. Joint custodial parents are parties bound by the terms of the court’s child custody and parent-time orders. The joint legal and physical custodial parent or parents exercise(s) control over the minor child, and the child is subject to the control of her parent(s), the child is thus bound by the court’s child custody and parent-time orders.

Smith v. Smith 2017 UT 77 Utah Supreme Court

 

 

This opinion is subject to revision before final publication in the Pacific Reporter This opinion is subject to revision before final publication in the Pacific Reporter

Smith v. Smith 2017 UT 77

IN THE SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF UTAH

A. S., Appellant,

v.

R. S., Appellee.

No. 20151023

Filed November 14, 2017

On Certification from the Court of Appeals

Fourth District, Provo Dep’t

The Honorable Fred D. Howard No. 084401555

Attorneys:

F. Lavar Christensen, Draper, for appellant

Ronald D. Wilkinson, Nathan S. Shill, Orem,

Sara Pfrommer, Salt Lake City, for appellee

JUSTICE DURHAM authored the opinion of the Court in which CHIEF JUSTICE DURRANT, ASSOCIATE CHIEF JUSTICE LEE, JUSTICE HIMONAS, and JUSTICE PEARCE joined.  JUSTICE DURHAM, opinion of the Court:

INTRODUCTION

¶1 A.S. (Father) appeals the district court order awarding R.S. (Mother) attorney fees and costs for the underlying juvenile court proceedings. We do not reach the merits of this case because we hold that we lack jurisdiction.[1] Mother is awarded reasonable attorney fees and costs on appeal. We remand this case to the district court for a determination of those fees and costs.

BACKGROUND

¶2 Mother and Father petitioned for divorce in the district court in 2008. In 2012, Father petitioned to terminate Mother’s parental rights based on unsubstantiated allegations of her sexual abuse of their two children. Mother counter-petitioned the court to terminate Father’s parental rights or to award her physical custody of the children. As a result of the exclusive original jurisdiction of the juvenile court over matters concerning “the termination of the legal parent-child relationship,” Utah Code section 78A-6-103(1)(g), and “mak[ing] a finding of substantiated, unsubstantiated, or without merit,” id. section 78A-6-103(6), on matters of “a severe type of child abuse or neglect,” id. section 78A-6-323(1), the juvenile court heard the petition rather than the district court. The juvenile court and the district court maintained concurrent jurisdiction under id. section  78A-6-104 until the exclusive original jurisdiction of the juvenile court was extinguished. Id. § 78A-6-104(1)(b). (“The district court or other court has concurrent jurisdiction with the juvenile court: . . . with regard to proceedings initiated under Part 3, Abuse, Neglect, and Dependency Proceedings, or Part 5, Termination of Parental Rights Act.”). Therefore, while the district court had continuing jurisdiction over the divorce proceedings, including a determination “of support, custody, and parent-time . . . incidental to the determination of a cause in district court,” the juvenile court could “change the custody . . . support, parent-time, and visitation rights previously ordered in the district court as necessary to implement the order of the juvenile court for the safety and welfare of the child. . . . so long as the jurisdiction of the juvenile court continues.” Id. § 78A-6-104(3)–(4)(b). “The juvenile court has jurisdiction over questions of custody, support, and parent-time, of a minor who comes within the court’s jurisdiction . . . .” Id. § 78A-6104(5). The juvenile court denied Father’s petition to terminate Mother’s parental rights, granted Mother custody of the minor children, cited both Father and J.S. (Stepmother) for contempt, and ordered Father and Stepmother to pay all legal fees, costs, and expenses incurred by Mother.

¶3 Father and Stepmother prematurely appealed the juvenile court’s order before it became a final order, because the award for attorney fees and costs had not yet been reduced to a judgment. See DFI Props. LLC v. GR 2 Enters. LLC, 2010 UT 61, ¶ 20, 242 P.3d 781 (2010) (“This case represents another in the line of cases where we have held that a judgment awarding attorney fees in a yet-to-bedetermined amount is not final for purposes of appeal. . . . [and] we lack jurisdiction over appeals from such judgments . . . .”). But the court of appeals, apparently unaware that the order appealed from was not a final order, failed to dismiss the notice of appeal and instead issued an opinion affirming “[t]he juvenile court’s order . . . in all respects except for the determination of contempt,” which it vacated because of lack of notice and hearing and remanded to the juvenile court for a hearing on the contempt allegations. In re E.S. & N.S., 2013 UT App 222, ¶ 9, 310 P.3d 744. Because the time to petition for writ of certiorari on the court of appeals’ opinion has lapsed, the parties are foreclosed from arguing that the court of appeals lacked jurisdiction, and we treat it as a final judgment.[2]

¶4 During the pendency of the first appeal, the juvenile court continued to have jurisdiction over, and hold status hearings regarding, the welfare of the children. On remand from the court of appeals, the juvenile court held contempt proceedings on December 13, 2013, issuing its contempt order against Father and Stepmother on January 23, 2014. A child welfare status hearing was held on January 16, 2014 with a follow-up phone conference on February 20, 2014. The juvenile court, having determined that the outstanding motions regarding the child welfare case were resolved as of its March 17, 2014 order, released the Guardian ad Litem from the matter and terminated the juvenile court’s jurisdiction, noting that a separate order regarding the contempt charges was issued and that the outstanding order for attorney fees would be referred to the district court for entry of a judgment, because that court now had exclusive jurisdiction. See UTAH CODE § 78A-6-103 to -104. The findings and order of the juvenile court are “binding on the parties to the divorce action as though entered in the district court” when “a copy . . . has been filed with the district court.” Id.  § 78A-6-104(4)(c) (emphasis added). However, once the district court again has exclusive continuing jurisdiction, the district court is able to make changes to those orders to ensure the appropriate needs of the children and the parties are met. See Id. § 30-3-5(3)–(4) (“The [district] court has continuing jurisdiction to make subsequent changes or new orders for the custody of the children and their support, maintenance, health, and dental care, and for distribution of the property and obligations for debts as is reasonable and necessary. . . . Child support, custody, visitation, and other matters related to children born to the mother and father after entry of the decree of divorce may be added to the decree by modification.”).

¶5 As jurisdiction over the case had been transferred to the district court, Mother filed a motion for a judgment on the attorney fees and costs ordered by the juvenile court, with accompanying memorandum and affidavit. Father opposed the motion, arguing that the court did not have authority to award attorney fees and costs, but not addressing the specific validity of the amount requested. The case first came before a commissioner, who ended the proceedings when Father’s counsel began to argue the lack of authority of the juvenile court to award attorney fees. The commissioner correctly noted that a juvenile court judge, with the equivalent authority of a district court judge, had made the ruling and that the commissioner did not have authority to change the ruling of “a higher judicial authority . . . [that says Mother] gets attorney’s fees.” “[A commissioner] cannot decide that a higher judicial authority got it wrong.” The matter then came before the district court, which granted Mother’s motion for attorney fees, found that the fees requested were reasonable, and entered a judgment in the amount of $180,780.47 against Father. This judgment and order was dated April 6, 2015.

¶6 Father then had 14 days[3] to file a motion for a new trial under Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 59. UTAH R. CIV. P. 59(b) (2014)

(“A motion for a new trial shall be served not later than 14 days after the date of entry of the judgment.”). Thus, the deadline for filing a rule 59 motion in this case was April 20, 2015. Father admits in his brief that “[o]n April 20–21, 2015” he filed “documents associated with a U.R.C.P. Rule 59 motion.” In the district court’s order denying Father’s rule 59 motion, the court correctly stated that the Father’s motion was filed on April 21, 2015. Father attempts to overcome this timeliness issue in his brief to this court with the following explanation: “(NOTE: That date [April 21st] is in error. It was filed electronically the day before.)” However, the docket shows that although the memorandum and its exhibits were filed on April 20, 2015, just before midnight, the electronic time stamp shows that the rule 59 motion along with several other supporting documents were filed just after midnight on April 21, 2015, ranging from three to sixteen minutes after midnight.

¶7 Because counsel for Father was not able to account for this procedural defect at oral arguments, we ordered supplemental briefing from both parties regarding the timeliness of the rule 59 motion and whether, if the rule 59 motion was untimely, the filing of the memorandum was sufficient to confer jurisdiction. Father did not meet his burden of persuasion in his supplemental brief, and we therefore hold that we do not have jurisdiction to rule on the merits.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶8 The timeliness of a rule 59(e) motion is a matter of law reviewed for correctness. A district court judge “err[s] as a matter of law in granting [an] untimely rule 59 motion.” Sanpete Am., LLC v. Willardsen, 2011 UT 48, ¶ 66, 269 P.3d 118. Whether jurisdiction to reach the merits of an appeal “exists is a question of law which we review for correctness, giving no deference to the court below.” Pledger v. Gillespie, 1999 UT 54, ¶ 16, 982 P.2d 572. Jurisdiction is a question that may be raised by the court or a party at any time during the proceedings. See Workers Comp. Fund v. Argonaut Ins. Co., 2011 UT 61, ¶ 8, 266 P.3d 792 (“Because we agree that [Father] did not file a timely notice of appeal, we are without jurisdiction to address the issues . . . raise[d] and therefore dismiss this appeal.”). This court has jurisdiction to hear this appeal under Utah Code section 78-3-102(3)(b).

ANALYSIS

¶9 Because the jurisdictional issue is controlling in this case, we will only address the rule 59 motion filed by Father and its lack of timeliness, thereby divesting this court of jurisdiction. See State v. Sun Sur. Ins. Co., 2004 UT 74, ¶ 7, 99 P.3d 818 (“Because this case is fully resolved by our analysis of the jurisdiction question, we do not address the [case on its merits].”). We first examine the rules that govern electronic filing and the rules’ requirements. We then discuss the untimely filing of the Rule 59 motion in this case and determine that we lack jurisdiction to address the merits.

I. THE UTAH TRIAL COURT SYSTEM ELECTRONIC FILING GUIDE ESTABLISHES THE FILING DATE AND TIME OF DOCUMENTS

¶10 The Judicial Council has mandated that all documents in district, juvenile, and justice courts be filed electronically, with rare exceptions.[4] See UTAH CODE JUD. ADMIN. Rules 4-503 (district civil, probate, and domestic cases required as of April 1, 2013); 4-603 (district criminal cases required as of March 31, 2014); 4-901 (juvenile courts required as of December 1, 2015 for existing cases and as of August 1, 2016 for new cases); and 9-302 (justice courts required as of January 1, 2017). The Judicial Council has also provided a guide to assist attorneys and courts with these transitions and establish guidelines and requirements for the e-filing system. See STATE OF UTAH JUDICIAL COUNCIL, UTAH TRIAL COURT SYSTEM ELECTRONIC FILING GUIDE (2013) [hereinafter E-FILING GUIDE].

¶11 Utah Code of Judicial Administration Rule 4-503(1) (2013) requires that “pleadings and other papers filed in civil cases in the district court on or after April 1, 2013 shall be electronically filed using the electronic filer’s interface.”[5] Additionally, under its “authority for establishing and representing the official position of the judiciary on issues within the jurisdiction of the Council,” id. 1102(2), the Judicial Council has published the e-Filing Guide to set requirements and assist attorneys with electronic filing. “Electronic filing is subject to the rules of the Utah Judicial Council and the Utah Supreme Court. In the event of a conflict between the electronic filing system requirements and the rules of the Judicial Council or the Utah Supreme Court, the rules of the council or court will prevail.” E-FILING GUIDE, supra ¶ 10, at 2. The e-Filing Guide defines the official filing date: “The filing date and time is not when the filer submits the document to their Service Provider. For purposes of electronic filing, the file date will be the date and time recorded when the filing was received and was posted by the court’s electronic filing manager.” Id. at 3. The e-Filing Guide also states that technical failures will not excuse a late filing. Id. (“The filer is responsible for a timely filing and should take appropriate action if the electronic filing system is inoperable or fails to notify the filer that the court has received the filing.”).

¶12 The Board of District Court Judges published the E-filing in Utah’s State Courts: Frequently Asked Questions for Attorneys to answer procedural questions regarding e-filing. STATE OF UTAH DISTRICT

COURTS, E-FILING IN UTAH’S STATE COURTS: FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS FOR ATTORNEYS (2013) [hereinafter E-FILING FAQS]. This document further clarifies that “if the efiling system is temporarily unavailable or [the] filing fails because of a technical problem,” it will not excuse a late filing. Id. at 2–3. “The filer is responsible for a timely filing. Best practice is to allow adequate time to file a timesensitive document.” Id. The e-Filing FAQs also recommends that “[i]f a technical failure of the efiling system interferes with a case deadline, [the filer] may wish to file a stipulation or motion,” recommending that the filer “[c]ontact the efiling specialist at the court for direction.” Id.

II. THE RULE 59 MOTION TO ALTER OR AMEND WAS NOT TIMELY FILED

¶13 It is undisputed that the rule 59 motion in this case was filed after the deadline established by the electronic filing system docket. The Judicial Council has placed the burden of ensuring timely filing on the filer. “The filer is responsible for a timely filing and should take appropriate action if the electronic filing system is inoperable or fails to notify the filer that the court has received the filing.” E-FILING GUIDE, supra ¶ 10,  at 3.

¶14 Father argues that the timely filed memorandum in support of his untimely rule 59 motion “is a ‘de facto’ equivalent” that “has a sufficient caption and label to fairly and equitably meet the appropriate standard.” “If the Rule 59 motion was somehow to be treated as untimely, the prior filing of the supporting memorandum and all that it expressed, represents and incorporates, is sufficient to confer appellate jurisdiction.” However, the only legal support he offers for deeming the memorandum as a motion is a line of cases concerning motions to reconsider that was abrogated by Gillett v. Price, 2006 UT 24, 135 P.3d 861.

¶15 Additionally, Father argues that his untimely rule 59 motion should be considered “minimal, excusable and harmless error, because it was “submitted in good faith” and was “excusable neglect,” which is “a flexible standard.” Unfortunately, he supports this theory with cases that do not address the mandate in Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 6(b)(2) that divests the district court of authority to allow an untimely rule 59 motion because of excusable neglect. The plain language in rule 6(b)(2) gives no discretion to the district court in deciding whether to accept an untimely filed rule 59 motion. Therefore, his rule 59 motion cannot be remedied by an equitable plea of excusable neglect.

¶16 Father’s exclusive reliance on cases that are easily distinguishable or have been abrogated instead of citing valid legal authority and his failure to address rule 6(b)(2)’s proscription on a district court’s ability to accept untimely rule 59 motions renders his briefing on the relevant issues of the supplemental brief inadequate. “Appellants have the burden to clearly set forth the issues . . . and to provide reasoned argument and [valid] legal authority.” ASC Utah, Inc. v. Wolf Mountain Resorts, L.C., 2013 UT 24, ¶ 16, 309 P.3d 201 (citing UTAH R. APP. P. 24(a)(9)); see also 2010-1 RADC/CADC Venture, LLC v. Dos Lagos, LLC, 2017 UT 29, ¶ 30, ___ P.3d ___ (“[I]t is not the size of an argument that matters. Some parties adequately brief an argument in a well-crafted paragraph. Others manage to inadequately brief an argument in fifty pages.”)  Arguments, like gardens, take work, and a party who hopes to prevail on appeal should be willing to dig in the dirt and not expect that opposing counsel or the court will do that work for them.

A. The Timely Filed Memorandum in Support of the Rule 59 Motion to Alter or Amend Is Insufficient to Cure the Late Filing of the Rule 59 Motion

¶17 Father seeks to use the timely filed memorandum as a substitute for the untimely filed “formal” rule 59 motion. This we cannot do because the plain language of rule 59 requires that “a motion to alter or amend the judgment . . . be filed no later than 28 days after entry of judgment.” UTAH R. CIV. P. 59(e) (2014) (emphasis added). Therefore, a timely memorandum in support of an unfiled motion will not act as a substitute for an untimely filed rule 59 motion. Father’s argument that Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 7 was amended to require merger of the motion and the memorandum at a later date than when he filed his rule 59 motion is also of no avail, nor is his claim that rule 61 grants him leeway if the untimely filing of the motion was due to “harmless error.”

¶18 Motions are defined in the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. UTAH R. CIV. P. 7(b)(1) (2014)[6] (defining a written motion as “[a]n  application to the court . . . [that] shall . . . state  succinctly and with particularity the relief sought and the grounds for the relief  sought”). The requirements for initial memoranda are listed separately.

All motions, except uncontested or ex parte motions, shall be accompanied by a supporting  memorandum. . . . Initial memoranda shall not exceed 10 pages of argument without leave of the court. . . . The court may permit a party to file an over-length memorandum upon ex parte application and a showing of good cause. . . . A memorandum with more than 10 pages of argument shall contain a table of contents and a table of authorities with page references. A party may attach as exhibits to a memorandum relevant portions of documents cited in the memorandum, such as affidavits or discovery materials.

UTAH R. CIV. P. 7(c)(1)–(3) (2014).[7] These definitions and requirements use “shall,” indicating that they are mandatory.

¶19 Rule 7 clearly distinguishes between a motion and a memorandum. Motions are required to be a succinct document, stating “with particularity the relief sought and the grounds for the relief sought.” UTAH R. CIV. P. 7(b)(1) (2014). Moreover, a rule 59 motion also requires a separate, supporting memorandum. UTAH R. CIV. P. 7(c)(1) (2014). Here, the only timely filed document was the supporting memorandum. Without a timely filed motion, the supporting memorandum is of no value. We note that even if the motion had been timely filed, the acceptance of the supporting memorandum would have been at the court’s discretion because Father filed an overlength memorandum without seeking leave of the court. The memorandum was 20 pages instead of the 10 allowed. See UTAH R. CIV. P. 7(c)(2) (2014). And, notwithstanding its overlength, it did not contain the mandatory “table of contents and . . . table of authorities with page references” required for overlength memoranda. UTAH R. CIV. P. 7(c)(3)(C) (2014).

¶20 We have held that where a party timely filed an insufficient motion that is barred from untimely filing by rule 6(b)(2), the district court does have discretion to allow that party “to supplement the originally insufficient motion,” because “sufficiency is not a logically necessary component of timeliness.” Menzies v. Galetka, 2006 UT 81, ¶ 68, 150 P.3d 480; see also Blosch v. Natixis Real Estate Capital, Inc., 2013 UT App 214, ¶¶ 15–18, 311 P.3d 1042. However, these cases dealt with timely filed, albeit insufficient, motions and not timely filed memoranda in support of untimely filed motions. In the instant case, Father did not file a timely motion, sufficient or insufficient, and district courts do not have discretion to allow a party to supplement an untimely motion barred by rule 6(b)(2).

¶21 Historically, we have held that an “incorrect title placed upon the pleading was not a bar,” Watkiss & Campbell v. Foa & Son, 808 P.2d 1061, 1064 (Utah 1991), and allowed district courts to treat motions to reconsider as the appropriate motion that would toll the time to appeal. See Bair v. Axiom Design, LLC, 2001 UT 20, ¶ 9, 20 P.3d 388 (“[I]t is the substance, not the labeling, of a motion that is dispositive in determining the character of the motion.”); Watkiss, 808 P.2d at 1064–65. (An incorrectly titled pleading is not necessarily a bar, and where the court has treated it as a motion that will toll the time to file an appeal, “the time period to file an appeal beg[ins] to run . . . when the judge sign[s] the order of denial”); Gallardo v. Bolinder, 800 P.2d 816, 817 (Utah 1990) (“If the nature of the motion can be ascertained from the substance of the instrument, we have heretofore held that an improper caption is not fatal to that motion.” (citations omitted)). Father relies heavily on these cases for support of the idea that “substance over form is controlling.” Unfortunately for him, this entire line of cases was abrogated by Gillett eleven years ago, when we stated “that it [was] time this practice [came] to an end.” 2006 UT 24, ¶¶ 7–8 (“We . . . hold that, regardless of the motion’s substance, postjudgment motions to reconsider and other similarly titled motions will not toll the time for appeal because they are not recognized by our rules.”); accord Radakovich v. Cornaby, 2006 UT App 454, ¶¶ 5–6, 147 P.3d 1195.

¶22 Notwithstanding that “[t]he filing of postjudgment motions to reconsider ha[d] become a common litigation practice,” Gillett, 2006 UT 24, ¶ 1, despite not being authorized by the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure, we determined that we would no longer “treat[] motions to reconsider as rule-sanctioned motions based on the substance of the motion,” id. ¶ 8. “Motions to reconsider are not sanctioned by our rules and therefore do not toll the time for appeal under any circumstance.” Id. ¶ 5. While Gillett is instructive, its particular bar applies specifically to “postjudgment motions and other similarly titled motions,” which are not at issue in this case concerning a motion for a new trial under Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 59. Id. ¶¶ 7–8 (“We . . . hold that, regardless of the motion’s substance, postjudgment motions to reconsider and other similarly titled motions will not toll the time for appeal because they are not recognized by our rules.”). Father’s argument that we should accept his untimely filed rule 59 motion based on the cases regarding motions to reconsider that Gillett abrogated is inapt.

¶23 “In our system, the rules provide the source of available relief. They ‘[are] designed to provide a pattern of regularity of procedure which the parties and the courts [can] follow and rely upon.’” Id. ¶ 8 (alterations in original) (citation omitted). “The rules of court are intended to refine and explain the procedure set forth in the statutory scheme . . . .” 21 C.J.S Courts § 166 (2017). Gillett requires that “when a party seeks relief from a judgment, it must turn to the rules to determine whether relief exists, and if so, direct the court to the specific relief available.” 2006 UT 24, ¶ 8. Despite Father’s assertions to the contrary, “the form of a motion does matter,” id., insofar as improper form often leads to insufficient substance.[8] “’[T]he form of the motion does matter’ when determining whether the motion tolls the time for appeal ‘because it directs the court and litigants to the specific, and available, relief sought.’” Workers Comp. Fund v. Argonaut Ins. Co., 2011 UT 61, ¶ 11, 266 P.3d 792 (citation omitted). Therefore, Father’s timely filed memorandum, even were it to be accepted by the court despite its structural and procedural flaws, cannot be a substitute for a timely filed rule 59 motion: not only was its form improper, being titled and structured as a supporting memorandum, but also it failed in substance to succinctly state “with particularity the relief sought and the grounds for the relief sought.” UTAH R. CIV. P. 7(b)(1) (2014); see also Id. R. 6(b)(2); UTAH R. APP. P. 4(b).

¶24 Father’s assertion that the amendment of rule 7(c)(1) seven months later renders his error “innocent, harmless and insignificant” is without merit. He cannot rely on a rule that was amended after his untimely filing. His obligation was to file within the constraints of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure as they existed at the time of filing. Future amendments do not remedy past failures. Furthermore, his memorandum would still fail to qualify as sufficient even under the new scheme. The 2015 version of rule 7 requires that “[a] request for an order must be made by motion. The motion . . . must state the relief requested, and must state the grounds for the relief requested.” UTAH R. CIV. P. 7(b) (2015). Nor does it comply with requirements of form or substance detailed in rule 7(c)(1). Father also attempts to shore up his late filing by citing the harmless error standard in Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 61. While this rule provides that courts should “disregard any error or defect” that “does not affect the substantial rights of the parties” during proceedings, this rule is not intended to provide lawyers grounds to seek “a new trial or otherwise disturb[] a judgment or order” by a finding that a mistake was “harmless error.” Id. R. 61. Rather, it allows for the remedy of “harmless error” in these circumstances only when “refusal to take such action appears to the court inconsistent with substantial justice.” Id. Regardless, Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 6(b)(2) forecloses remedying a late rule 59(e) motion by a court’s finding the tardiness to be “harmless error.”

¶25 In summary, the timely filed memorandum is not sufficient in form or substance to substitute for a rule 59(e) motion. It did not “state succinctly and with particularity the relief sought and the grounds for the relief sought.” UTAH R. CIV. P. 7(b)(1) (2014). A subsequent amendment of a procedural rule regarding the filing of motions does not affect the procedural requirements that existed at the time a motion is filed. Regardless, Father’s memorandum would fail to meet the requirements of the amended version of rule 7 as well as the 2014 version of rule 7. An untimely rule 59 motion is not “harmless error” under rule 61 and is specifically prohibited from being considered by the district court by Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 6(b)(2).

B. Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 6(b)(2) Prohibited the District Court from Extending Time to File a Motion Under Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e)

¶26 Utah Rule of Appellate Procedure 4(b)(1) extends the 30-day time to file an appeal to 30 days from the “entry of the dispositive order” of any of several listed timely filed motions. See Blosch, 2013 UT App 214, ¶ 17 (“Tolling of the time to appeal under rule 4 is triggered when a party ‘timely files in the trial court’ one of the motions enumerated under rule 4(b), such as a rule 59 motion for a new trial.” (citation omitted.)). This extension applies to Utah Rules of Civil Procedure 50(b) (“motion for judgment [notwithstanding the verdict]”); 52(b) (“motion to amend or make additional findings of fact, whether or not an alteration of the judgment would be required if the motion is granted”); 59(e) (“motion to alter or amend the judgment”); 59(b) (“motion for a new trial”); 60(b) (motion for relief “from a judgment, order, or proceeding” that occurs because of “mistakes; inadvertence; excusable neglect; newly discovered evidence; fraud, etc.”(UTAH R. CIV. P. 60(b)); and 73 (“motion or claim for attorney fees”).[9] UTAH R. APP. P. 4(b)(1). The court “must not extend the time to act under” the civil procedure motions that extend the time to appeal under Utah Rule of Appellate Procedure 4(b)(1). UTAH R. CIV. P. 6(b)(2) (emphasis added).

¶27 In this case, Father filed a rule 59 motion to alter or amend the judgment, but he filed it after the deadline of midnight on April 20, 2015. Father quotes Arches Condominium Association v. Robinson,[10] for the proposition that “trial courts may consider an untimely posttrial motion, so long as it still has jurisdiction, absent an objection from the opposing party that sets forth how it will be prejudiced . . . .” 131 A.3d 122, 129 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2015) (emphasis added). This argument fails for two reasons. Not only is the decision of a lower court in Pennsylvania not binding, it is not even persuasive or relevant in this case. Moreover, within the quotation itself, the opinion requires that the trial court “still ha[ve] jurisdiction.” In the present case, the district court was divested of jurisdiction by Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 6(b)(2). “A court must not extend the time to act under Rules 50(b) and (d), 52(b), 59(b), (d) and (e), and 60(c).” UTAH R. CIV. P. 6(b)(2). In Arches, the trial court had not yet made a final judgment, and so “the trial court, acting in its discretion, [could] accept[] the untimely post-trial motion[],” 131 A.3d at 129 requesting the court “to reconsider awarding . . . attorney’s fees,” id. at 126. In the present case, the district court had already issued a final, appealable judgment and did not have discretion to consider an untimely rule 59 motion. See UTAH R. CIV. P. 6(b)(2).

¶28 Father also cites Burdick v. Horner, Townsend & Kent, Inc. for the proposition that the district court did not err as a matter of law in ruling on the merits of the untimely rule 59 motion. 2015 UT 8, 345 P.3d 531. In Burdick, before a final judgment was entered, the United States Supreme Court decided a case that might “impact the grant of summary judgment against the [plaintiffs]. The court asked the parties to brief the [statute of limitations] issue.” Id. ¶ 12. The plaintiffs filed a motion for reconsideration that addressed not only the [statute of limitations] issue on which the court asked for briefing, but also “seeking a review of all claims previously granted summary judgment and raising new claims for the first time.” Id. ¶ 13. The district court refused to admit new evidence that could have been entered during the initial proceedings for summary judgment, but did modify its order “to read that there were genuine issues of material fact regarding the statute of limitations.” Id. ¶¶ 15– 16. In our review of the Burdick court’s ruling, we restated that “motions to reconsider are not recognized anywhere in either the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure or the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure,” and held that “’trial courts are under no obligation to consider motions for reconsideration’ and ‘any decision to address or not to address the merits of such a motion is highly discretionary.’” Id. ¶ 34 (citations omitted). Once again, a final judgment had not been entered in Burdick when the motion for reconsideration was filed, and the trial court still had jurisdiction, distinguishing it from the present case. Therefore, the court was not barred in Burdick from considering the merits according to its discretion. However, in the case before us, Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 6(b)(2) deprived the district court of jurisdiction to hear the untimely rule 59 motion. This was not an abuse of discretion because the court did not have discretion to accept the untimely motion. This was error.

¶29 Next, Father cites a United States Supreme Court case, Pioneer Investment Services, Co. v. Brunswick Associates Ltd. Partnership, 507 U.S. 380 (1993), to delineate factors to be considered when analyzing “excusable neglect.” He “submits that these [factors] and other applicable considerations are fully met and satisfied.” Under Utah Rules of Civil Procedure, a “court may, for good cause, extend the time . . . . on motion made after the time has expired if the party failed to act because of excusable neglect,” except that “[a] court must not extend the time to act under Rule[] . . . 59(e).” UTAH R. CIV. P. 6(b) (emphasis added). Therefore, “excusable neglect” is not available as a remedy for an untimely rule 59 motion, and Pioneer Investment Services is inapplicable.

¶30 This court has held that an untimely rule 59(e) motion is a complete bar for the district court to do anything other than to deny the motion. See Sanpete Am., LLC v. Willardsen, 2011 UT 48, ¶ 67, 269 P.3d 118 (“A district court ‘may not extend the time for taking any action under [rule 59(e)] except to the extent and under the conditions stated in [the rule].’ Rule 59(e) contains no conditions extending the timeliness of service beyond the ten-day limit. Consequently, when a rule 59 motion is served later than ten days after entry of judgment, ‘the trial court’s only alternative is to deny the motion.’”[11] (alterations in original) (citations omitted)); see also Burgers v. Maiben, 652 P.2d 1320, 1321 (Utah 1982) (“When such an untimely motion is made, the trial court’s only alternative is to deny the motion”). An untimely rule 59(e) motion will not toll the deadline for filing an appeal. See Burgers, 652 P.2d at 1321 (“An untimely motion for a new trial has no effect on the running of the time for filing a notice of appeal.”); accord Garcia-Velazquez v. Frito Lay Snacks Caribbean, 358 F.3d 611 (1st Cir. 2004) (basing its opinion on Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (which our Utah Rules of Civil Procedure mirror) and holding “that a late-filed motion under rule 59(e) did not toll the running of the notice of appeal period even though the district court adjudicated the motion on its merits”).

¶31 Absent a timely-filed rule 59 motion, the district court lacked the authority to rule on the merits of the untimely rule 59 motion. The district court’s order of October 27, 2015 is thus void and the judgment and order of April 6, 2015 is the final judgment on the underlying matter of attorney fees and costs.

III. THIS COURT LACKS JURISDICTION TO RULE ON THE MERITS OF THIS CASE

¶32 Father argues that this court has jurisdiction because the trial court properly exercised its discretion in considering the untimely rule 59 motion and because neither the trial court nor Mother raised the issue of jurisdiction in the proceedings below. Both arguments fail.

¶33 Father declares that “[i]t is a very significant fact and equitable element of this issue and case that the district court itself identified and found harmless and immaterial the alleged untimeliness.” According to his theory, “court[s] ha[ve] inherent authority to address prior misstatements in its rulings at any time and no matter how the error might come to its attention. . . . to maintain and protect the integrity of the courts.” Father cites Burdick in support of his theory that trial courts have discretion whether to consider a motion. Burdick v. Horner Townsend & Kent, Inc., 2015 UT 8, ¶ 50, 345 P.3d 531 (noting that “trial courts are under no obligation to consider motions for reconsideration,” but “if a trial court decides, in its discretion, to address the merits of a claim for the first time in the motion to reconsider, that claim is preserved”). Because the district court in the present case allegedly used its discretion in allowing and considering the untimely rule 59 motion, Father argues it was also “preserved,” and as a result the notice of appeal was timely.

¶34 He also claims that because “[t]here was no objection by Appellee or the district court,” this court should “find no abuse of discretion in the district court accepting and ruling upon [the] Rule 59 Motion.” To buttress his argument, he cites to Warner v. Warner, 2014 UT App 16, 319 P.3d 711, and to Barnard v. Wassermann, 855 P.2d 243, 249 (Utah 1993) (“It is undoubtedly true that courts of general and superior jurisdiction possess certain inherent powers not derived from any statute. . . . Such inherent powers of courts are necessary to the proper discharge of their duties.” (citation omitted).

¶35 But Father’s arguments are ineffective. Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 6(b)(2) strips a district court of authority to hear an untimely rule 59 motion, operating as a bar that prevents the district court from considering the motion. Further, neither the district court’s ruling on the untimely rule 59 motion, nor the lack of objection by Mother in the underlying procedure, constitute a proper waiver. The mandate of rule 6(b)(2) cannot be waived. It is not open to discretion but is required, and failure to follow its mandate constitutes error. It is irrelevant whether the district court treated the motion as timely filed, because the issue before us is whether Father appealed the district court’s final order as required by Utah Rule of Appellate Procedure 4(b)(1)(C), thereby establishing the jurisdiction of this court.[12]

¶36 The district court erred as a matter of law in treating the rule 59 motion as timely because the court’s only option according to the procedural rules was to deny the motion because it was untimely. We therefore vacate the October 27, 2015 order of the district court. Because the rule 59 motion was untimely filed, the deadline to file a notice of appeal was not tolled, and the 30-day window to file an appeal began to run on April 6, 2015, the date of the district court’s judgment and order. The notice of appeal filed on November 25, 2015, was therefore also untimely and does not establish jurisdiction.

IV. MOTHER IS AWARDED REASONABLE ATTORNEY FEES AND COSTS ON APPEAL

¶37 In Smith v. Smith, the court of appeals noted that “[i]n domestic cases, when a party has prevailed below and the trial court has awarded attorney fees, we will generally award the same party attorney fees when he or she prevails on appeal.” 1999 UT App 370, ¶ 18, 995 P.2d 14, rehearing denied (Utah Ct. App. 2000), cert. denied, 4

P.3d 1289 (Utah 2000); see also Gray v. Gray, 2001 UT App 274, 2001 WL 1097716 (Utah Ct. App. 2001) (awarding attorney fees to party who was awarded attorney fees in the district court and prevailed on appeal); Rosendahl v. Rosendahl, 876 P.2d 870, 875 (Utah Ct. App. 1994), cert. denied, 883 P.2d 1359 (Utah 1994) (same); Moore v. Moore, 872 P.2d 1054, 1056 (Utah Ct. App. 1994) (same).

¶38 The juvenile court found that

Mother substantially prevailed on all of her claims and defenses to the abovementioned litigation tactics, as well as the underlying actions. The attorney fees incurred were reasonable and necessary to protect the Mother’s custody and visitation rights. The Mother has substantially prevailed on her claims that the Father did not abide by the terms of their Decree of Divorce and Amended Decree of Divorce, and is therefore entitled to compensation for legal expenses from the Father.

Consequently, the juvenile court awarded Mother attorney fees and costs incurred in “establish[ing]” and “enforce[ing] an order of custody, parent-time, child support, alimony, or division of property in a domestic case, the court may award costs and attorney fees upon determining that the party substantially prevailed upon the claim or defense.” UTAH CODE § 30-3-3(1)–(2). Additionally, the juvenile court awarded Mother attorney fees and costs pursuant to the provision in the Decree of Divorce, stating that “[i]n the event either party fails to perform his or her obligations under the Decree of Divorce, such person shall pay all costs and attorney fees of the other party incurred in enforcing the terms of the Decree of Divorce.”

¶39 As mandated by Utah Rule of Appellate Procedure 24(a)(9), Mother, “seeking to recover attorney’s fees incurred on appeal,” has “state[d] the request explicitly and set forth the legal basis for such an award.” As Mother has prevailed in the domestic case in the juvenile court and the district court below and has prevailed on appeal, we award attorney fees and costs.

CONCLUSION

¶40 The e-Filing Guide establishes the filing date and time of documents filed in Utah courts. Father’s rule 59(e) motion was untimely. Father’s timely filed memorandum is not a substitute for an untimely filed motion. Father’s untimely motion was barred under rule 6(b)(2). Consequently, the district court did not have the authority to rule on the untimely motion, and we vacate the district court’s October 27th order denying Father’s rule 59 motion. This leaves the April 6, 2015 judgment and order as the operative order.

¶41  An untimely motion under rule 59(e) does not extend the time for filing a notice of appeal. Thus, Father’s notice of appeal filed November 25, 2015, is also untimely, and this court lacks jurisdiction to rule on the merits of this case. Mother, as the prevailing party on appeal, is awarded reasonable attorney fees and costs on appeal. We remand this case to the district court for a determination of those fees and costs.

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[1] See infra ¶ 35 n.12.

[2] Although the proper action for the court of appeals in this case would have been to reject the appeal for lack of jurisdiction because the judgment was not final, there is now no remedy for the error. We have held that “jurisdiction is a threshold issue, which can be raised at any time and must be addressed before [turning to] the merits of other claims.” Am. W. Bank Members, L.C. v. State, 2014 UT 49, ¶ 10, 342 P.3d 224 (alteration in original) (citation omitted). “Generally speaking, the [final judgment] rule prevents a party from prematurely appealing a non-final judgment, and thereby preserves scarce judicial resources.” Loffredo v. Holt, 2001 UT 97, ¶ 11, 37 P.3d 1070. However, the ability to raise questions of jurisdiction expires after the last available opportunity to appeal final judgments on a particular set of issues has passed. This comports with our res judicata doctrine precluding claims after “a ‘final judgment on the merits in [a] previous action.’” Jordan Constr., Inc. v. Fed. Nat’l Mortg. Ass’n, 2017 UT 28, ¶ 43, ___ P.3d ___ (alteration in original) (citations omitted).

[3] Prior to the 2014 amendment of Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 59, parties only had 10 days to file a motion. It was amended again in 2016 to allow 28 days to file a rule 59 motion.

[4] These exceptions include “[a] self-represented party who is not a lawyer” and “[a] lawyer whose request for a hardship exemption from this rule has been approved by the Judicial Council.” UTAH CODE JUD. ADMIN. Rule 4-503(2)(A)–(B).

[5] The current version, rule 4-503(1) (2016), contains the same language. See supra n.4 for exceptions to this rule.

[6] Rule 7 was substantially altered in November 2015, with additions in 2017 “addressing limits on orders to show cause. . . . initiated by parties” and “clarify[ing] the discretion the court retains to manage its docket.” UTAH R. CIV. P. 7(b)(1) (2017) advisory committee’s note. We will refer to the 2014 version of rule 7 in this opinion as that was the version of the rule in operation at the time of the rule 59 motion under consideration.

[7] Sections (c)(3)(A) and (c)(3)(B) are related to memoranda supporting and opposing summary judgment and are not relevant or included. However, sections (c)(3)(C) and (c)(3)(D) are relevant and the language is included here.

[8] We do not hold that any clerical error or defect in form would render a motion invalid, but the substance of the filed document must be in accord with the substantive requirements of the intended motion.

[9] It also applies to “[a] motion for a new trial under Rule 24 of the Utah Rule of Criminal Procedure.” UTAH R. APP. P. 4(b)(1)(G). However, the rules of criminal procedure are not at issue in this case.

[10] A case decided by a court he repeatedly mistakenly refers to as the “Pennsylvania Supreme Court.”  He also fails to provide pincites for most of the quotations or citations from this case and others in his brief.

[11] The ten-day limit was changed to 14 days in 2014, and then to 28 days in 2016.

[12] We note that the terminology used to state which form of jurisdiction is revoked by failure to comply with rules of procedure has been imprecise in our precedent. The federal courts, in which jurisdiction is an even more complicated issue have noted the difficulty in categorizing jurisdiction. “As for ‘jurisdiction’: the word is a many-hued term. Courts may have jurisdiction for some purposes but not others.” United States v. Wey, 895 F.2d 429, 431 (7th Cir. 1990) (citation omitted). Similarly, state courts across the nation have grappled with the precise terminology to use. See, e.g., Zajac v. Trail Cty Water Res. Dist., 881 N.W.2d 666, 668 (Mem) (N.D. 2016) (“We have recognized ‘[t]imely filing of an appeal from a decision of a [local governing body] is mandatory to invoke a district court’s appellate subject matter jurisdiction over the appeal.’” (alterations in original) (citation omitted); State v. Maldonado, 223 P.3d 653, 655 (Ariz. 2010) (“In current usage, the phrase ‘subject matter jurisdiction’ refers to a court’s statutory or constitutional power to hear and determine a particular type of case. Jurisdiction in this sense cannot be conferred by the consent of the parties and a court that lacks subject matter jurisdiction cannot adjudicate the action. [State v.] Smith, however, employed a more expansive concept of ‘subject matter jurisdiction.’ . . . [State v.] Smith’s remarks about jurisdiction must have referred instead to the superior court’s inability to enter a valid judgment of conviction based upon a defective information. But concluding that a court cannot enter a valid judgment because of a procedural error does not mean that the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction.” (citing State v. Smith, 189 P.2d 205 (Ariz. 1948), abrogated by Maldonado, 223 P.3d)). Our own case law offers some guidance as to how this court has interpreted the difference between “appellate jurisdiction” and “subject matter jurisdiction.”

In general, when we refer to “appellate jurisdiction,” we have spoken in terms of the authority established in the Utah Constitution or by statute of the appellate court to review the decision of a lower court. See State v. Smith, 2015 UT 52, ¶ 3, 374 P.3d 1 (“The framework for allocation of appellate jurisdiction between this court and the court of appeals is set forth in, respectively sections 78A-3-102 and 78A-4-103 of the Utah Code.”); Pledger v. Gillespie, 1999 UT 54, ¶ 17, 982 P.2d 572 (“In its sua sponte decision, however, the court of appeals overlooked Cigna’s proffered basis for appellate jurisdiction, i.e., the Utah Arbitration Act, which states that ‘an appeal may be taken . . . from any court order: (1) denying a motion to compel arbitration.’ (alteration in original) (citing UTAH CODE ANN. § 78-31a19(1) (1996)); Holden v. N L Indus., Inc., 629 P.2d 428, 431 (Utah 1981) (“This Court has never defined the term ‘appellate jurisdiction’ as it is used in Article VIII, Section 4 of the Utah Constitution, but there are ample authorities defining the term as used in other constitutions. . . . ‘Appellate jurisdiction’ obviously connotes review of the action of an inferior court. ‘Inferior court’ has been appropriately defined as ‘any court subordinate to the chief appellate tribunal in the particular judicial system.’ (citations omitted)); Peatross v. Bd. of Comm’rs of Salt Lake Cty., 555 P.2d 281, 284 (Utah 1976) (“The standard rule is that appellate jurisdiction is the authority to review the actions or judgments of an inferior tribunal upon the record made in that tribunal, and to affirm, modify or reverse such action or judgment.”); State v. Johnson, 114 P.2d 1034, 1037 (Utah 1941), overruled on other grounds by Boyer v. Larson, 433 P.2d 1015 (Utah 1967) (“Appellate jurisdiction is the jurisdiction to review the decision or judgment of an inferior tribunal, upon the record made in that tribunal, and to affirm, reverse or modify such decision; judgment, or decree. . . . In the first place, it may not be without use to ascertain what is here meant by appellate jurisdiction, and what is the mode in which it may be exercised. The essential criterion of appellate jurisdiction is, that it revises and corrects the proceedings in a cause already instituted, and does not create that cause. In reference to judicial tribunals, an appellate jurisdiction, therefore, necessarily implies that the subject-matter has been already instituted in and acted upon by some other court, whose judgment or proceedings are to be revised.”). Only recently has that construction of “appellate jurisdiction” been altered to include substantive defects in an appeal. See Matter of Adoption of B.B., 2017 UT 59, ¶ 106, ___ P.3d ___ (“An order not identified in the notice of appeal falls beyond our appellate jurisdiction. And the failure to identify an order is a non-waivable (jurisdictional) defect.”); In re Adoption of Baby E.Z., 2011 UT 38, ¶ 28, 266 P.3d 702 (holding that subject matter jurisdiction can be limited by statute); Johnson v. Johnson, 2010 UT 28, ¶ 8, 234 P.3d 1100 (defining subject matter jurisdiction in terms of the authority granted by law).

On the other hand, “subject matter jurisdiction” has been used when determining whether a court has jurisdiction to reach the merits of a particular case because of procedural defects even though it has appellate jurisdiction to review the appeal under statute. This is a determination that courts should consider at the outset of every case. See In re Adoption of Baby E.Z., 2011 UT 38, ¶ 36 (“[C]ourts have an independent obligation to . . . . raise and decide jurisdictional questions that the parties either overlook or elect not to press.” (omission in original) (citation omitted)). See also Gudmondson v. Del Ozone, 2010 UT 33, ¶¶ 11–17, 232 P.3d 1059 (holding that timeliness of filing the appeal was determinative of whether this court has subject matter jurisdiction over the appeal).

The foregoing discussion is intended for context because it does not have an impact on the issues that must be decided in this case. Because there is no doubt that the timeliness of an appeal raises jurisdictional questions, we need not determine whether this is a matter of “appellate jurisdiction” or “subject matter jurisdiction.” “It is axiomatic in this jurisdiction that failure to timely perfect an appeal is a jurisdictional failure requiring dismissal of the appeal.” Workers Comp. Fund v. Argonaut Ins. Co., 2011 UT 61, ¶ 10, 266 P.3d 792 (citation omitted).

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