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Category: Utah Code

2024 UT App 91 – In re R.D. – Juvenile Court Jurisdiction – Parental Presumption

2024 UT App 91 – In re R.D.

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

IN THE INTEREST OF R.D. AND Z.J., PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

K.J., Appellant, v. N.J. AND A.J., Appellees.

Opinion No. 20220798-CA Filed June 27, 2024, Second District Juvenile Court, Ogden Department

The Honorable Debra J. Jensen No. 1174368

K. Andrew Fitzgerald, Attorney for Appellant, Jason B. Richards, Attorney for Appellees Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

JUDGE DAVID N. MORTENSEN authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and AMY J. OLIVER concurred.

MORTENSEN, Judge:

¶1 A mother and her children were in the company of the mother’s boyfriend as he allegedly robbed a business. The children had recently been adjudicated as abused by their father, who was living with the mother at the time of the abusive events, and were thus under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court. Fearing that this latest incident might result in the children being placed in foster care, the mother sent the children to her parents in Texas. The children have been in Texas ever since. After the children moved in with them, the grandparents intervened in the juvenile court case and petitioned the court for guardianship and custody, which the court granted. The mother now appeals, asserting, in addition to other claims of error and ineffective assistance of counsel, that the juvenile court lacked jurisdiction to grant the guardianship and custody. We affirm on all grounds.

BACKGROUND[1]

¶2 K.J. (Mother) has two children (the Children) by the same man (Father)—a girl born in December 2015 and a boy born in January 2018.

¶3 In October 2018, law enforcement was dispatched to a disturbance at the family home. Father was intoxicated, had become “destructive,” and was “not making much sense.” Father transported to the hospital. Within a few days of this incident, Mother sent the Children to live with her parents, N.J. and A.J. (Grandparents), in Texas, where they stayed about three months.

¶4 In February 2019, law enforcement was again dispatched to the family home. Father was again found intoxicated, and he had locked Mother out of the residence. It was reported that Father would “jump on” Mother and “shake her.”

¶5 In April 2019, law enforcement responded to a call involving aggravated assault at the family home. Father was yet again intoxicated, and he had pushed Mother into a wall of their apartment, an action that knocked her to the ground. Father had then grasped Mother from behind and had begun hitting her, giving her a bloody nose. Father had also choked Mother, causing her to nearly lose consciousness. The Children were present during this assault.

¶6 A few days after this incident, having received a referral regarding the Children, the Utah Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) initiated a home visit. Mother admitted that law enforcement had been called to the home due to Father’s “drinking and getting out of control.” But she “minimized the domestic violence incidents,” noting that that she could usually get the Children to bed and sleeping so they would not hear any of the parents’ arguments. Mother asked the DCFS caseworker to tell Father that she still wanted “to be with him,” but the caseworker advised Mother that doing so would be a violation of a no contact order that was in place. And as the caseworker was leaving the home, Mother said, “So what [you are] saying is the best thing I can do is go to court next week and ask for the no contact order to be dropped?” The caseworker responded that was not what was being communicated, and she discussed with Mother “the concerns of her failure to protect the [C]hildren from the ongoing domestic violence.” Mother responded that she just wanted to speak with Father.

¶7 About a week later, DCFS spoke with Father, who was at this point incarcerated. He admitted that there had been a “scuffle” in which he had “knocked” Mother in the nose but claimed there had only been one physical altercation between the two of them.

¶8        In May 2019, DCFS initiated proceedings, pursuant to Utah Code section 80-3-201(1), by filing a petition for protective supervision services (PSS petition) that alleged the Children were abused, neglected, or dependent.[2] Mother and Father both entered rule 34(e) pleas in response to the allegations contained in the PSS petition. See Utah R. Juv. P. 34(e) (“A respondent may answer by admitting or denying the specific allegations of the petition, or by declining to admit or deny the allegations. Allegations not specifically denied by a respondent shall be deemed true.”).

¶9 In July 2019, the juvenile court determined that the Children were subject to the jurisdiction of the juvenile court and adjudicated them “abused children” by Father in that they “suffered non-accidental harm or threatened harm” when Father “committed domestic violence” in their presence by assaulting Mother. Accordingly, the court appointed a guardian ad litem (GAL) to represent the best interests of the Children; ordered DCFS to provide protective supervision services; ordered Mother and Father to comply with a family plan that included mental health assessments, a domestic violence assessment, completion of a parenting course, and maintenance of stable housing and income; and ordered Father to complete drug and alcohol assessment and treatment. The juvenile court further ordered Mother and Father to “have no contact with each other in the presence” of the Children.

¶10 Notably, the court made a custody determination at this juncture in two respects. First, at least impliedly, it determined that the Children would remain in the custody of Mother, albeit subject to the jurisdiction of the court pursuant to the provisions of the family plan. Second, it placed severe restrictions on Father’s parent-time with the Children. Specifically, the court ordered that Father “shall not return to the family home until further order” of the court. And the court specified that “[v]isitation between [Father] and the [C]hildren shall be reasonable and supervised as approved by the [GAL], until further order of the [c]ourt.”

¶11 Not long after the adjudication, Mother began a relationship with another man (Boyfriend). This relationship too was marked by incidents of domestic violence. In one instance, Boyfriend called police claiming that Mother tried to hit him with her car, while a witness said it was Boyfriend who jumped on the hood of Mother’s car. But a more serious incident—at least insofar as it concerned the safety of the Children—happened when Boyfriend allegedly robbed an oil-change shop while Mother and the Children were with him in Mother’s car. This prompted Mother, in October 2019, to arrange for the Children to go to Texas to live with Grandparents again. Mother was apparently “afraid that the [Children] would go to foster care if [authorities] thought [she] was involved in the robbery.” The Children have been in Texas ever since.

¶12 In June 2020, Grandparents moved to intervene in the Children’s welfare action and petitioned the juvenile court for temporary child custody. The court granted the motion and awarded them temporary custody. In an October 2020 hearing, the court changed the Children’s permanency goal to permanent custody with a relative and terminated reunification services with Mother and Father. Also in October 2020, Grandparents petitioned for permanent custody and guardianship, which was supported by the GAL. Mother and Father opposed

Grandparents’ petition. As relevant here, Mother argued that there had been a substantial and material change in her circumstances and requested the Children be returned to her custody. In December 2020, the court released DCFS from the case.

¶13 In August 2022, the juvenile court entered detailed findings, concluding that Mother had not changed her circumstances and that it was necessary for the welfare of the Children that Grandparents be awarded permanent custody and guardianship.[3]

¶14      Mother appeals.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶15 Mother first contends that the juvenile court lacked jurisdiction under the Utah Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA), see generally Utah Code §§ 78B13-101 to -318, to enter custody orders in favor of Grandparents. Whether a court has jurisdiction is a matter of law reviewed for correctness. In re adoption of B.B., 2017 UT 59, ¶ 16, 417 P.3d 1.

¶16 Next, Mother argues that the juvenile court violated the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children (ICPC), see generally Utah Code §§ 80-2-901 to -910, by failing to ensure that Grandparents were fit for custody of the Children prior to placement. “The proper interpretation and application of a statute is a question of law which we review for correctness.” In re adoption of B.H., 2019 UT App 103, ¶ 9, 447 P.3d 110 (cleaned up), aff’d, 2020 UT 64, 474 P.3d 981.

¶17 Mother next asserts that her trial counsel (Counsel) was ineffective for failing to call her therapist to testify on her behalf regarding her current mental health status. “An ineffective assistance of counsel claim raised for the first time on appeal presents a question of law.” In re C.M.R., 2020 UT App 114, ¶ 11, 473 P.3d 184 (cleaned up).

¶18 Mother lastly maintains that the juvenile court erred in applying an incorrect standard of proof, arguing that the custody dispute should have been governed by the parental presumption. The application of the correct standard of proof, including the juvenile court’s “interpretation of the parental presumption, presents a legal issue, which we review for correctness.” In re A.T., 2020 UT App 50, ¶ 11, 464 P.3d 173.

ANALYSIS

I. Jurisdiction

¶19 Mother argues that the juvenile court lacked jurisdiction to consider Grandparents’ custody petition because the Children had been residing in Texas for more than six months prior to the petition. Mother’s argument is grounded in the UCCJEA, which states, in pertinent part, that

a court of this state has jurisdiction to make an initial child custody determination only if . . . this state is the home state of the child on the date of the commencement of the proceeding[] or was the home state of the child within six months before the commencement of the proceeding and the child is absent from this state but a parent or person acting as a parent continues to live in this state.

Utah Code § 78B-13-201(1)(a). In developing this argument, Mother points to the definition of a child custody proceeding found in the Utah Code:

“Child custody proceeding” means a proceeding in which legal custody, physical custody, or parenttime with respect to a child is an issue. The term includes a proceeding for divorce, separation, neglect, abuse, dependency, guardianship, paternity, termination of parental rights, and protection from domestic violence, in which the issue may appear.

Id. § 78B-13-102(4).

¶20 From these statutory provisions, Mother argues that the PSS petition filed by DCFS did not indicate that “legal custody” or “physical custody” of the Children was at issue, asserting “the PSS petition was arguably not a ‘child custody proceeding’ for purposes” of the UCCJEA. Mother further argues that because the Children had been in Texas for more than six months by the time Grandparents petitioned for custody in June and August 2020, “Texas was the ‘home state’ of the Children under” the UCCJEA and Utah did not have jurisdiction to consider Grandparents’ custody petition.

¶21 Mother is mistaken. The statutory language makes it clear that the Utah juvenile court had jurisdiction over the custody petition. Under the plain language of the UCCJEA, Utah was the “home state” of the Children “on the date of the commencement of the proceeding” that determined child custody. See id. § 78B-13201(1)(a) (“[A] court of this state has jurisdiction to make an initial child custody determination only if . . . this state is the home state of the child on the date of the commencement of the proceeding . . . .”). And a “child custody proceeding” includes “a proceeding in which . . . parent-time with respect to a child is an issue.” See id. § 78B-13-102(4) (emphasis added).

¶22 Here, the “child custody proceeding” commenced when the juvenile court adjudicated the PSS petition. While it is true that the PSS petition—filed in May 2019 when the Children were living in Utah—did not mention legal custody, physical custody, or parent-time, it did recount three incidents of domestic violence, one of which was committed in the presence of the Children, perpetrated by Father. Based on these allegations, DCFS asked the juvenile court to adjudicate the Children “abused, neglected and/or dependent” because they had “suffered non-accidental harm or threatened harm . . . [w]hen [Father] committed domestic violence in the presence of the [C]hildren by hitting [Mother,] causing her a bloody nose, choking her, and knocking her to the ground.”

¶23 In adjudicating the PSS petition, the court specifically found that the Children were “abused” by Father in that the Children had “suffered non-accidental harm or threatened harm” when Father “committed domestic violence” in their presence.

And, as it was allowed to do given the finding of abuse,[4] the juvenile court also made a “custody” determination—at least according to the terms of the UCCJEA—when it limited Father’s parent-time. Specifically, the juvenile court ordered that Father “shall not return to the family home until further order” of the court. And it further specified that “[v]isitation between [Father] and the [C]hildren shall be reasonable and supervised as approved by [DCFS] and the [GAL], until further order of the [c]ourt.”

¶24 The Utah juvenile court obtained jurisdiction as soon as it entertained the PSS petition because two conditions were met. First, the PSS petition resulted in a “proceeding for . . . abuse . . . and protection from domestic violence.” Id. § 78B-13-102(4). Second, in that proceeding, “parent-time with respect to [the Children was] an issue.” Id. Accordingly, under the terms of the UCCJEA, the PSS petition gave rise to a child custody determination because parent-time—specifically with respect to Father—was “an issue.” Id. And the juvenile court had jurisdiction from that time on because Utah was the “home state of the [Children] on the date of the commencement” of the PSS petition and resulting proceeding. See id. § 78B-13-201(1)(a).

¶25 Once jurisdiction attached at the commencement of proceedings by the filing of the PSS petition, it remained intact. Mother argues the opposite—that while Utah may have had jurisdiction of the initial matters in the PSS petition, jurisdiction switched to Texas for the custody matters related to

Grandparents. We rejected a similar argument in In re A.J.B., 2017 UT App 237, 414 P.3d 552, where we stated that “once a state makes an initial child custody determination, that state obtains exclusive, continuing jurisdiction, which exists until that state relinquishes or is divested of its exclusive jurisdiction in accordance with the UCCJEA or a similar act.” Id. ¶ 16 (cleaned up). Because the juvenile court never relinquished its jurisdiction over the case here, “whether pursuant to section 207 of the UCCJEA or any other statute,” it retained jurisdiction over the Children. See id.see also Utah Code § 78B-13-207(1) (“A court of this state that has jurisdiction under this chapter to make a child custody determination may decline to exercise its jurisdiction at any time if it determines that it is an inconvenient forum under the circumstances and that a court of another state is a more appropriate forum.”).

¶26 In sum, the Utah juvenile court’s jurisdiction commenced on the filing of the PSS petition—which alleged abuse, neglect, and dependency due to domestic violence—and resulted in limitations on Father’s parent-time. Accordingly, Mother’s first claim of error fails.

II. ICPC Violation

¶27 Mother next contends that the juvenile court also violated the ICPC by failing to ensure that Grandparents were fit for custody before placing the Children with them.[5]

¶28 The purpose of the ICPC is to ensure that “[e]ach child requiring placement” receives “the maximum opportunity to be placed in a suitable environment and with persons or institutions having appropriate qualifications and facilities to provide necessary and desirable care.” Utah Code § 80-2-905 art. I(1). The ICPC also allows the “appropriate authorities in a state where a child is to be placed [to] have full opportunity to ascertain the circumstances of the proposed placement, thereby promoting full compliance with applicable requirements for the protection of the child.” Id. § 80-2-905 art. I(2). Moreover, the ICPC ensures that the “proper authorities of the state from which the placement is made may obtain the most complete information on the basis of which to evaluate a projected placement before it is made.” Id. § 80-2-905 art. I(3).

¶29 By its own terms, the ICPC is oriented toward facilitating interstate placements in the context of anticipated adoptions coordinated by state authorities or private agencies, a point that it makes explicitly clear:

This compact shall not apply to . . . [t]he sending or bringing of a child into a receiving state by [the child’s] parent, step-parent, grandparent, adult brother or sister, adult uncle or aunt, or . . . guardian and leaving the child with any such relative or nonagency guardian in the receiving state.

Id. § 80-2-905 art. VIII(1). Thus, the ICPC exempts parents from the requirement of ascertaining the suitability of the placement if the parent is sending the child to one of the identified relatives or guardians.

¶30 Here, Mother is the one who sent the Children to stay with Grandparents, a point about which there is no disagreement. Mother sent the Children to live with Grandparents after a criminal episode allegedly committed by Boyfriend in the presence of the Children because she was concerned that her alleged involvement in the incident might lead to the placement of the Children in foster care. Thus, the sending of the Children to live with Grandparents was voluntarily and directly done by Mother while the Children were in her custody. It was only later, after Grandparents petitioned for custody due to Mother’s persistent instability and ongoing involvement in relationships plagued by domestic violence, that the juvenile court entered custody orders for Grandparents. And by this time, the Children were physically living in Texas.

¶31 The provisions of the ICPC that work to ensure the suitability of the placement to which a child is sent simply do not apply here because Mother herself sent the Children to live with Grandparents long before they petitioned for custody. Accordingly, Mother’s second claim of error fails.

III. Ineffective Assistance

¶32 Mother’s next claim is that she received ineffective assistance when Counsel failed to call her therapist to testify “as to her current mental health status in terms of her ability to parent the Children effectively.” Mother argues that having her therapist testify would have shown that “she was actively engaged in and had never stopped working on her mental health issues/concerns,” thus allowing the juvenile court “to make better informed decisions” about her parenting abilities.

¶33 Parents are entitled to the effective assistance of counsel in child welfare proceedings. See In re. E.H., 880 P.2d 11, 13 (Utah Ct. App. 1994) (recognizing an implicit guarantee of effective assistance of counsel in a proceeding to terminate the fundamental right of parenting one’s children); see also Utah Code § 78B-22-201(1)(b). “To prevail on an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, Mother must show that (1) Counsel’s performance was deficient and (2) this deficient performance prejudiced the defense. Because failure to establish either prong of the test is fatal to an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, we are free to address Mother’s claims under either prong.” In re C.M.R., 2020 UT App

114, ¶ 19, 473 P.3d 184 (cleaned up). For the deficiency prong, Mother must demonstrate “that, considering the record as a whole, Counsel’s performance was objectively unreasonable.” In re R.G., 2023 UT App 114, ¶ 16, 537 P.3d 627. “In other words, Mother must show that . . . Counsel rendered a deficient performance in some demonstrable manner, and that Counsel’s performance fell below an objective standard of reasonable professional judgment.” In re C.M.R., 2020 UT App 114, ¶ 20 (cleaned up).

¶34 Here, Counsel had an easily discernable strategic reason to refrain from calling Mother’s therapist to report on her current mental health progress. The record indicates that the juvenile court made findings that Mother had been untruthful throughout the proceedings and was not taking her mental health treatment seriously. Specifically, the court found that Mother (1) had not “internalized her treatment”; (2) was not “truthful with [DCFS], her treatment providers, her parents, or the [c]ourt”; (3) did not disclose domestic violence incidents involving Father; (4) claimed that she “was fully engaging in her individual counseling and being honest with her therapist” while also admitting through her testimony that she was “not fully honest [with her therapist] about the extent of her contact” with Boyfriend; and (5) was “vague” in stating that she did not know if she was present when Boyfriend committed the robbery with the Children in the car. The court also stated that “[b]ecause of [Mother’s] dishonesty to the [c]ourt for nearly two years,” it had no way of knowing whether Mother was currently in contact with Boyfriend. And it concluded, “She has continued to violate [c]ourt orders, . . . and she continues to not understand the dangerous situation she puts [the Children] in when bringing people around them with violence and drug use problems.”

¶35 Knowing of Mother’s serious credibility problems— problems obviously well known to the court—Counsel had a sound strategic reason not to call her current therapist as a witness. Mother’s ongoing pattern of lying, not following court orders, and failing to internalize her therapy would have given Counsel little reason to suspect that anything had changed with respect to her behavior. Counsel might well have feared that calling her current therapist would have, at best, done nothing to help Mother’s case or, more likely, compounded the honesty concerns that already plagued her.

¶36 Moreover, Counsel would have legitimate concerns about what might be revealed on cross-examination. While limiting exposure of inconsistencies that would exacerbate Mother’s credibility issues might be possible on direct examination, Counsel would have no such control over the direction of questioning on cross-examination, where opposing counsel would certainly take the opportunity to highlight Mother’s already glaring credibility issues.

¶37 Because Counsel had a strategically reasonable basis for not calling the therapist as a witness, Mother’s ineffective assistance claim necessarily fails.

IV. Burden of Proof

¶38 Mother’s final assertion is that the juvenile court applied the incorrect standard for the post-adjudication hearing. More specifically, Mother argues that the court “applied the wrong standard by requiring proof” from Grandparents of what was necessary for the welfare of the children, see Utah Code § 78A-6357(4)(a), rather than considering the more demanding parentalpresumption standard. The parental presumption means that “where one party to [a custody dispute] is a nonparent, there is a presumption in favor of the natural parent, even if an ordinary best-interest inquiry would come out in favor of the nonparent.” In re A.T., 2020 UT App 50, ¶ 12, 464 P.3d 173 (cleaned up).

Parental Presumption

¶39 Mother was not entitled to the parental presumption. Our supreme court has expressly stated that “the parental presumption does not apply . . . to cases brought before the juvenile court on abuse, neglect, or dependency petitions. In such cases, the petition alone is sufficient to overcome the parental presumption for purposes of adjudicating the allegations in the petition.” In re K.F., 2009 UT 4, ¶ 69, 201 P.3d 985 (cleaned up); accord In re A.S.A., 2012 UT App 151, ¶ 3, 279 P.3d 419. And “in cases in which abuse, neglect, or dependency is established, the usual parental presumption that prevents the State (a nonparent) from intervening in parental decision-making no longer applies, and the State (supervised by the juvenile court) may take custody of children, even over their parents’ objections, and place them appropriately.” In re A.T., 2020 UT App 50, ¶ 14.

¶40 Here, not only had DCFS filed a petition alleging abuse, neglect, or dependency, but the juvenile court had actually adjudicated the Children as abused. This court long ago observed that “the legislature has determined, as evidenced by the statutory scheme, that in cases involving a petition alleging the abuse, neglect, or dependency of a child, the parental presumption does not apply. . . . The legislature has determined that abuse or neglect of a child at the hands of a parent, or dependency of a child, is incompatible with the presumption that the child is best served by being in the parent’s custody.” In re J.M.V., 958 P.2d 943, 948 (Utah Ct. App. 1998). Since the Children had been so “adjudicated and the court had continuing jurisdiction over them, it was also within the court’s dispositional authority to vest legal custody” in DCFS or in another appropriate person. See In re S.F., 2012 UT App 10, ¶ 44, 268 P.3d 831 (cleaned up); see also Utah Code § 80-3-405(1)– (2) (“Upon adjudication . . . , [t]he juvenile court may vest custody of an abused, neglected, or dependent minor in [DCFS] or any other appropriate person . . . .”). Thus, Mother’s parental presumption didn’t apply because the juvenile court exercised continuing jurisdiction over the Children after the adjudication, which allowed the court “to impose any of the dispositional choices available to it.” See In re M.J., 2011 UT App 398, ¶ 56, 266 P.3d 850; see also In re S.A., 2016 UT App 191, ¶ 6, 382 P.3d 642 (“The adjudication of a child as dependent, neglected, or abused forms the basis for juvenile court jurisdiction, thereby making all of the dispositional options . . . available to that court.”).

¶41 In sum, after the juvenile court’s adjudication pursuant to Mother’s entry of a rule 34(e) plea in response to the allegations of abuse, neglect, or dependency contained in the PSS petition, Mother was not entitled to invoke the parental presumption.

Burden of Proof

¶42 Even deprived of the parental presumption, Mother argues that the juvenile court held her “to a higher standard than required under the rules for her to modify a temporary order of custody,” thereby shifting the burden to her rather than keeping it with Grandparents. It appears that Mother is arguing that the juvenile court erred not in applying the wrong burden of proof to Grandparents—namely “by clear and convincing evidence”—but that it applied that same standard to her as well. But because Mother was not entitled to the parental presumption, the question becomes what standard of proof the juvenile court should have applied to Mother’s petition to modify or restore custody.

¶43 Mother’s petition to modify or restore custody was considered along with Grandparents’ petition for custody. The juvenile court recognized that modifications to custodial orders are generally “treated as disposition hearings and subject to the preponderance of the evidence standard.” However, because DCFS was no longer a party to this case at this point, the juvenile court determined that it was “more similar to a custody dispute between a parent and non-parent.” And given this circumstance, the court concluded that the dispute “should proceed at the clear and convincing standard of proof for all parties.”

¶44 It appears that the juvenile court applied the wrong standard of proof to Mother’s petition to modify or restore custody. Modifications of an interim order, which was the procedural situation here, are governed by rule 47 of the Utah Rules of Juvenile Procedure. See Utah R. Juv. P. 47(b)(2)–(3), (c) (providing the process for modification of prior dispositional orders). And the burden of proof employed in imposing “any of the dispositional choices” available to the juvenile court, In re M.J., 2011 UT App 398, ¶ 56, is the preponderance of the evidence standard, cf. Utah R. Juv. P. 41(c) (“[M]atters regarding child custody, support, and visitation certified by the district court to the juvenile court must be proved by a preponderance of the evidence . . . .”).

¶45 While Mother may be right that the clear and convincing standard should not have been applied to her petition to modify, she has made no showing that an application of the correct standard of proof—preponderance of the evidence—would have resulted in a better outcome. Thus, any error of the juvenile court as to the standard of proof has not been shown to have prejudiced Mother. Cf. In re L.B., 2015 UT App 21, ¶ 6, 343 P.3d 332 (per curiam) (“Harmless error is an error that is sufficiently inconsequential that there is no reasonable likelihood that it affected the outcome of the proceedings.” (cleaned up)); accord In re A.M., 2009 UT App 118, ¶ 21, 208 P.3d 1058.

¶46 First, Mother makes no showing that Grandparents failed to demonstrate that it was in the Children’s best interest to award them permanent custody and guardianship. Thus, the application of the wrong standard of proof—which was more rigorous in any case—was largely irrelevant to Grandparents’ ability to prove their case.

¶47 Moreover, the juvenile court entered extensive factual findings. Based on these findings, the court concluded that Mother had “not changed her circumstances,” making it unnecessary to conduct an examination of the Children’s best interests with regard to Mother’s petition to modify custody. Such an examination was unnecessary because a change of circumstance is necessary to restore custody to a parent whose legal custody has been transferred by the juvenile court. See Utah Code § 78A-6-357(3)(b) (“A parent or guardian may only petition the juvenile court [for restoration of custody] on the ground that a change of circumstances has occurred that requires modification or revocation in the best interest of the child or the public.”). Mother has not challenged the court’s finding that she has not changed her circumstances. Nor has she made any attempt to show how the court’s application of a less rigorous burden of proof would have made a difference in its determination that a consideration of the Children’s best interests was unnecessary given the lack of the change in circumstances.

¶48 Because Mother has not demonstrated how this alleged error regarding the increased burden of proof prejudiced her, this claim fails.

CONCLUSION

¶49 Mother’s challenge to the jurisdiction of the Utah juvenile court fails because the court’s jurisdiction commenced with the filing of the PSS petition, which resulted in limitations on Father’s parent-time and the continued jurisdiction of the juvenile court. Mother’s claim that the juvenile court violated the ICPC fails because she voluntarily sent the Children to live with Grandparents. Mother’s ineffective assistance claim falls short for lack of deficient performance. And the parental presumption was unavailable to Mother owing to the juvenile court’s jurisdiction over the Children, so Mother has not demonstrated prejudice on her burden-of-proof claim.

¶50      Affirmed.

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


[1] We limit our discussion to “those background facts necessary to resolve the issues on appeal.” Blosch v. Natixis Real Estate Cap., Inc., 2013 UT App 214, ¶ 2 n.2, 311 P.3d 1042 (cleaned up). And we recite the evidence in a light most favorable to the juvenile court’s findings. See In re adoption of B.H., 2020 UT 64, n.2, 474 P.3d 981.

[2] While courts and practitioners frequently refer to a petition for protective supervision services, see, e.g., In re M.J., 2011 UT App 398, ¶ 2, 266 P.3d 850; In re T.M., 2003 UT App 191, ¶ 2, 73 P.3d 959, the term does not formally exist in the juvenile code. Instead, Utah Code section 80-3-201(1) states that “any interested person may file an abuse, neglect, or dependency petition.” The PSS petition filed by DCFS in this case referenced section 78A-6-304, which has since been renumbered and amended as section 80-3201. See Act of Mar. 3, 2021, ch. 261, § 64, 2021 Utah Laws 1752, 1799–800.

[3] The court found that while Father had met the burden of proof showing a change in circumstances, a change of custody was nevertheless in the best interest of the Children.

[4] A custody determination is implicit in a petition asking a juvenile court for a finding of abuse, which is precisely what DCFS presented here. The statute does not require a talismanic invocation of the words “custody” or “parent-time,” because it is presumed that once a finding of abuse is reached, custody or parent-time will naturally be addressed. Indeed, section 80-3-405 states that the “juvenile court may vest custody of an abused, neglected, or dependent minor in [DCFS] or any other appropriate person.” See Utah Code § 80-3-405(1)–(2).

Moreover, that DCFS did not mention “custody” or “parent-time” in the PSS petition did not deprive the juvenile court of jurisdiction, because the petition is not where the issue (continued…) must arise for a proceeding to become a “[c]hild custody proceeding.” See id. § 78B-13-102(4). The statute merely says that a child custody proceeding “includes a proceeding for,” among other things, “neglect, abuse, dependency,” or “protection from domestic violence, in which the issue” of “legal custody, physical custody, or parent-time with respect to a child . . . . may appear.”

Id.

[5] Grandparents argue that this challenge is unpreserved, an assertion that has some merit. However, “if the merits of a claim can easily be resolved in favor of the party asserting that the claim was not preserved, we readily may opt to do so without addressing preservation.” State v. Kitches, 2021 UT App 24, ¶ 28, 484 P.3d 415 (cleaned up). “[B]ecause we can easily dispose of” Mother’s ICPC claim on its “merits, we choose to exercise our prerogative to simply assume that [it was] preserved and proceed to consideration of the merits.” Id.

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I Have a Court Date Coming Up, but I Don’t Speak English (Or Don’t Speak or Understand It Well). What Can I Do?

Did you know that if you are not fluent in English and have a court date coming up, the court will provide you with an interpreter IF you make the request timely and through the proper procedure?

To ensure you get an interpreter on time, you must request a court interpreter on time, meaning at least 3 days before the proceeding, or the proceeding may have to be postponed. You can request a court interpreter either by calling the clerk of the court that is assigned your case or by filing a “Request a Court Interpreter” form with that court. You can obtain the form through this website:  Request a Court Interpreter (utcourts.gov)

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

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People Who Are Getting an Extremely-Contested Divorce W/O Paying for Lawyers, Need Step-By-Step Directions in Their State! If There Were Uncontested Divorces, There Would Be No Divorces at All, Because Both Partners Would Be Getting Along Perfectly?

Sure, they need that. It is a great idea.

Where there is a demand to be filled, markets arise to fill them.

It would be a great benefit to people going through an highly contested divorce to have free step-by-step directions, so that they would not have to pay for a lawyer’s help and representation as they navigate the divorce process, but for such things to exist requires someone to do an incredible amount of work (more than you’d think), and few people can or want to do that much work free of charge. Which is why such a thing does not really exist.

Cheesy/sleazy divorce lawyers will put this quotation attributed to Willie Nelson on their office walls and websites, but that makes it no less true for most people: “You know why divorces are so expensive? They are worth it.”

There are many self-help resources for people who want to go through the divorce process pro se (that means unrepresented by an attorney; also known as pro per), but none of them (at least none that I know of) can produce results of the same accuracy, completeness, and high quality that a good (a good) lawyer can. That is the hard truth.

Frankly, some people can file for and obtain a fair decree of divorce without an attorney’s help, but few have that ability (few have the guts, the time, the smarts, the physical, mental, and emotional stamina, and the patience to represent themselves successfully), and the more complex the case is, the harder it is for one to process such a case to a successful completion.  That is the hard truth too.

It is not that getting a divorce is all that hard procedurally, it is just that to those who do not know what they are doing, it can be intimidating at best and prone to committing ignorant errors that can be irreparable. If one has time on one’s hands and a cooperative spouse, they could pull off a reasonable and fair DIY divorce, but such circumstances in divorce are extraordinarily rare.

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

https://www.quora.com/People-who-are-getting-an-extremely-contested-divorce-w-o-paying-for-lawyers-need-step-by-step-directions-in-their-state-If-there-were-uncontested-divorces-there-would-be-no-divorces-at-all-because-both-partners/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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Do You Lose Parental Rights Automatically When You Get Divorced if You Do Not File for Visitation or Custody?

Make sure you understand the terms you and others may be using in asking and discussing this question.

If you are a parent of minor children, and you are involved in a divorce action, and you do not petition the court for an award of a child custody and parent time schedule, then at least in the jurisdiction where I practice divorce and family law (Utah), you would not have your parental rights terminated (meaning that you no longer have any legal status, rights, or obligations as a parent). But if your spouse sought an award of custody that resulted in him or her having the children in his slash her care and custody at all times, leaving you with no visitation or parent time periods to spend with the children, then it is possible that a court could make such an award to your spouse. If a parent does not bother to seek shared custody or at least an award of visitation or parent time with his/her children in a divorce or child custody case, A court may reason that this parent does not want shared custody or does not want to exercise any visitation or parent time, in which case the court would not award it.

It is possible, though not likely, in my opinion, that even if a parent did not make a request in his/her divorce or child custody action for shared custody or for a visitation or parent time award, the court might still order a minimal visitation or parent time schedule for that parent to exercise, so that if the parent is so inclined, he or she can do so. Such an award might be grounded in the courts belief that children should have contact with both of their parents, and to order that the parent cannot have any visitation or parent time with his/her children would be contrary to and fail to subserve the best interest of the children. Any parent, however, who counts on a court doing this for him or her, and then not making a request for a specific custody award or parent time award as a result of this expectation, would be taking a needless risk of ending up with nothing.

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

Eric Johnson’s answer to Do you lose parental rights automatically when you get divorced if you do not file for visitation or custody? – Quora

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What Can Be Done if a Prenuptial Agreement Does Not Meet the Requirements for Validity in Your State? What Are the Available Options for Handling This Situation?

While I am a divorce and family lawyer (licensed in Utah), I do not claim to be an expert on the subject of prenuptial agreements. That stated (and acknowledging that specific questions about specific prenuptial agreements need to be taken to your own attorney and not to Quora for a definitive answer), even if a court finds a prenuptial agreement to be invalid, it may have some value as evidence of the parties’ intent as to what should happen in the event of divorce. An invalid prenuptial agreement may still provide the court with an idea of who makes claims to what property (and why) and how well a soon to be ex-spouse can support himself/herself (and why).

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

Eric Johnson’s answer to What can be done if a prenuptial agreement does not meet the requirements for validity in your state? What are the available options for handling this situation? – Quora

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Can My Spouse Take out a Loan Using Our House as Collateral After I File for a Divorce?

This is a good question and one that often comes up in divorce cases.

I cannot speak for the law in all jurisdictions, but as this question applies in the jurisdiction where I practice law (Utah), these are my observations (my discussion of a general question on Quora does not constitute legal advice, so anyone who has this particular question needs to consult with an attorney personally):

In Utah, can a spouse take out a loan using the marital home as collateral after the other spouse files for a divorce?

First, we need to know what “marital home” means in this context. Even if the house is in your spouse’s name alone, if the house was purchased by one spouse during the marriage, it is (unless the spouses contracted otherwise) still considered marital property because it was purchased by your spouse while he/she was married to you.

So, is it possible for your spouse to borrow against the marital home after a divorce action has been filed in Utah? Yes, but not likely, and even if the loan/credit was made, a Utah court would almost surely void the loan/credit contract.

Yes, if by “possible” we mean that your spouse was able to find a lender who is willing to contract with your spouse to borrow against the marital home’s value without your consent. This does not mean that the loan/credit contract is necessarily enforceable. This does not mean that the loan/credit contract could not be set aside by the divorce court as a fraudulent conveyance under the right circumstances (see below).

Not likely because 1) I don’t know of an institutional lender who would agree to accept as collateral all or a portion of a marital home without obtaining the consent of both spouses first; 2) such unilateral action on the part of your spouse to encumber marital property without your consent could be set aside as a fraudulent conveyance (See Bradford v. Bradford, 993 P.2d 887, 1999 UT App 37 (Court of Appeals of Utah 1999)); and 3) Utah Rules of Civil Procedure 109 provides, in pertinent part:

Rule 109. Injunction in certain domestic relations cases. Effective: 1/1/0021

(a) Actions in which a domestic injunction enters. Unless the court orders otherwise, in an action for divorce, annulment, temporary separation, custody, parent time, support, or paternity, the court will enter an injunction when the initial petition is filed. Only the injunction’s applicable provisions will govern the parties to the action.

(b) General provisions.

(1) If the action concerns the division of property then neither party may transfer, encumber, conceal, or dispose of any property of either party without the written consent of the other party or an order of the court, except in the usual course of business or to provide for the necessities of life.

And so, if your spouse attempted, after a divorce action was filed, to encumber marital property without your written consent, the court would likely void the transaction as fraudulent and/or penalize your spouse for violating the Rule 109(b) prohibition against a spouse encumbering marital property without his/her spouse’s written consent.

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

(61) Can my spouse take out a loan using our house as collateral after I file for a divorce? – Mother-in-Law Mysteries and Conflicts – Quora

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Wilson v. Wilson, 2024 UT App 87 – civil stalking injunction, appeals

Wilson v. Wilson – 2024 UT App 87

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

TKS CO-PACK MANUFACTURING, LLC AND TROY WILSON, Appellants and Cross-appellees, v. DOUG WILSON, Appellee and Cross-appellant.

Opinion No. 20210855-CA Filed June 6, 2024 Fourth District Court, Provo Department

The Honorable Robert A. Lund

The Honorable James R. Taylor

No. 200401547

Michael D. Stanger, Scarlet R. Smith, and R. Jesse Davis, Attorneys for Appellants and Cross-appellees Brady Brammer and Brenton Ranck, Attorneys for Appellee and Cross-appellant, assisted by law student Annie Carmack[1]

JUDGE JOHN D. LUTHY authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and RYAN M. HARRIS concurred, with the exception of Part II.B.2.b. JUDGE HARRIS authored a separate opinion regarding Part II.B.2.b, which JUDGE ORME joined.

LUTHY, Judge:

¶1        This opinion addresses a number of issues related to civil stalking injunctions. It also addresses the requirements for judgments as set forth in rule 58A of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure and the range of discretion given to district courts when deciding whether voluntary dismissal under rule 41(a) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure should be granted with or without prejudice.

¶2        Troy Wilson is the president and co-owner of TKS Co-Pack Manufacturing, LLC (TKS). He hired his brother Doug Wilson to work at TKS. After a time, Doug[2] left TKS. Subsequently, Troy and TKS (collectively, the TKS parties) filed a complaint against Doug, which contained several tort claims as well as a request for a civil stalking injunction. With their complaint, the TKS parties also filed a motion for an ex parte civil stalking injunction, an ex parte temporary restraining order, and a preliminary injunction. The district court granted a temporary stalking injunction, and Doug then filed an answer and counterclaims. Doug later asked that his counterclaims be dismissed, and they were dismissed without prejudice.

¶3        After an evidentiary hearing, the district court issued a permanent civil stalking injunction (the Stalking Injunction) against Doug and in favor of Troy. The Stalking Injunction also protected “[a]ny customer of TKS” and “[a]ny employees of TKS.” Subsequently, Doug posted on Facebook about the Stalking Injunction and communicated with a prior TKS customer (Prior Customer). The TKS parties then filed a motion requesting that Doug be held in contempt for violating the Stalking Injunction. The district court held another evidentiary hearing, applied the standard for criminal contempt, found that Troy had not established the alleged violations beyond a reasonable doubt, and denied Troy’s motion.

¶4        In the meantime, the TKS parties had also moved to dismiss their tort claims without prejudice. Doug opposed the motion and moved for dismissal of the claims with prejudice. The court dismissed the tort claims without prejudice.

¶5        The TKS parties appeal the district court’s decision not to hold Doug in contempt. Doug also appeals, asserting that the Stalking Injunction was not properly granted in the first place and that the district court erred by dismissing the TKS parties’ tort claims without prejudice.[3]

¶6        As to Doug’s appeal, we conclude that the district court did not err in issuing the Stalking Injunction and that the court did not abuse its discretion in dismissing the TKS parties’ tort claims without prejudice. As to the TKS parties’ appeal, we unanimously affirm the district court’s determinations to apply the criminal standard in the contempt proceedings and to not hold Doug in contempt for communicating with Prior Customer. Additionally, based on Judge Harris’s separate opinion, which is joined by Judge Orme, we also affirm the district court’s determination to not hold Doug in contempt based on the allegation that his Facebook post and related comments violated the Stalking Injunction.

BACKGROUND
Pre-litigation History

¶7        Troy offered Doug, who was then living in California, a job at TKS, a business in which Troy held a 50% interest. Doug moved to Utah and began working at TKS as a production manager. After about a year and a half, Doug left TKS in mid-2020. Following Doug’s departure, Troy received reports from TKS employees that Doug had allegedly behaved inappropriately toward multiple employees while he worked there.

¶8        Doug then began working for TKS’s landlord (Landlord), a company that had its office in the same building as TKS. In his new role, Doug continued to have interactions with TKS employees that the TKS parties believed were harassment. Thus, Troy emailed Landlord to request that it appoint another of its employees as a point of contact for TKS. TKS also terminated the employment of several of its employees who it believed were attempting to sabotage TKS at Doug’s request.

The TKS Parties’ Complaint

¶9        In October 2020, the TKS parties filed a complaint against Doug, requesting a civil stalking injunction and asserting seven tort claims: tortious interference with employment relationships, tortious interference with customer relationships, tortious interference with government relationships, tortious interference with the landlord-tenant relationship, defamation, tortious infliction of emotional distress, and trespass. The TKS parties alleged, among other things, that after Doug left TKS, he had

·        driven a forklift “into TKS’s roll up door”;

·         convinced several TKS employees to help him fabricate safety violations by TKS by doing such things as staging pictures to make it look like TKS was violating workplace safety regulations;

·         convinced several TKS employees to sabotage TKS by doing such things as putting “grease on a brand new filter that was being used in production”;

·         attempted to falsely “blow the whistle” on TKS by reporting that TKS was transporting CBD without a permit when TKS had such a permit;

·         persuaded Landlord that TKS “was dumping paint and other toxic items into the sewer,” resulting in Landlord terminating TKS’s lease and then reinstating it after another company was identified as the source of the dumping; and

·         continued to harass TKS employees by confronting them for speeding and using a roundabout improperly, “overzealously monitor[ing]” them, “sexually harass[ing] female employees, both on site . . . and via text and phone,” and telling “an employee of TKS that he now knows ‘why Cain killed Abel.’”

The TKS parties asserted that “[t]hese actions by Doug [had] caused Troy and other employees of TKS to fear for their safety and alter their commuting patterns in an attempt to avoid a confrontation with Doug.”

Temporary Civil Stalking Injunction

¶10 With their complaint, the TKS parties also filed a motion for an ex parte civil stalking injunction, an ex parte temporary restraining order, and a preliminary injunction. In that motion, the TKS parties alleged many of the details recounted above and requested that the district court “issue a stalking injunction against Doug and issue an injunction in the form of a Temporary Restraining Order and preliminary injunction enjoining Doug from having any contact with any TKS employee (including Troy) or customer, and to stay away from Troy’s home, and to stay out of TKS’s facilities.” The district court issued an ex parte civil stalking injunction on October 27, 2020.

Doug’s Suicide Attempt

¶11 Three days later, Doug attempted suicide, prompting the TKS parties to move to modify the temporary stalking injunction in light of Doug’s alleged actions during that episode. Specifically, the TKS parties alleged that Doug had come with a shotgun in his car to the building that housed TKS and Landlord, that he had gone into the building and left a suicide note, and that he had “then [gone] to the mountains with the intent of taking his own life.” The TKS parties further alleged that Doug had “eventually [been] talked out of killing himself, . . . placed in police custody, and then transferred to a hospital.” They continued, “After being released from the hospital, Doug has returned to work. This is problematic as Doug and Troy both work in the same building and the [temporary stalking injunction] specifically orders Doug to ‘stay away’ from Troy’s work.” The TKS parties explained that law enforcement had “declined” to remove Doug from his workplace because the temporary injunction identified as protected premises “the suite . . . of the building instead of the building itself.” Accordingly, the TKS parties sought an amendment that would clarify that the term “‘stay away’ includes but is not limited to staying away from the building and the parking lot.” They also requested “language specifically stating that Doug is prohibited from possessing a firearm.”

Doug’s Answer and Counterclaims

¶12      In November 2020, Doug filed both an answer to the TKS parties’ complaint and several counterclaims. He asserted that the allegations against him were based on “speculation and rumors” and that he “was distraught over being accused of sexual misconduct.” He also recited the severe impact the allegations were having on his health, job, and marriage. Doug’s complaint then recounted Doug’s attempt to end his life:

On October 30, 2020[,] Doug Wilson left a suicide note at his . . . desk [in Landlord’s office]. The note read:

“To my family I love you all with everything I have. I feel like there is no other way out of where Troy has put me. I do not have the will or strength to fight. I have come to the end of the line. Forgive me. I want no funeral and no burial. Cremate me and take my ashes anywhere. Kids I love you so much. Everything I own I give to my wife, the house, the belongings, everything.” —Douglas Wilson.

He did not have any shotgun at the time he left the note. He left [Landlord’s office], obtained a shotgun and went to the mountains with intent to take his own life.

Doug’s complaint relayed how he encountered hunters in the mountains, he voluntarily surrendered the gun to them, and they called the police to help him. It further stated that the police had noted, “Douglas believes [his family] would be better off without him because his brother Troy is going to make him lose his job so he can’t support them.” (Alteration in original.) Doug’s complaint then asserted counterclaims of intentional infliction of emotional distress, defamation/libel/slander, interference with economic and employment relations, and wrongful use of civil proceedings. Doug later voluntarily dismissed his counterclaims, purportedly at the behest of his mother. His counterclaims were dismissed without prejudice.

Permanent Civil Stalking Injunction

¶13 In December 2020, the district court held an evidentiary hearing on the motion for a civil stalking injunction. After hearing evidence and arguments, the court first identified incidents that it felt did not provide grounds for making the stalking injunction permanent. Specifically, it said that the allegation that Doug left the suicide note with the intent to harm Troy was “extreme” and “unlikely” and that “[t]he placement of the note at [Doug’s] work” did not evidence “an intent to direct that note or the activity that was . . . intended toward either . . . [TKS] or [Troy].” The court also said that it did not interpret Doug’s reference to Cain and Abel “as a threat to commit bodily harm.” And it reasoned that Doug’s efforts to “enforce parking restrictions” were not “necessarily retaliatory toward . . . the company . . . or Troy . . . or directly committed in a way that intended . . . either physical harm or emotional distress to Troy.”

¶14      The district court then identified evidence that it felt did support a permanent stalking injunction. It first pointed to conversations that Doug had engaged in with his and Troy’s sister (Sister). The court characterized those conversations as Doug communicating, “I will ruin Troy. I will contact customers. I will bring the company down. . . . [T]hey will lose the business. They’ll lose everything.” The court said, “That’s personal, that’s harmful; and that evinces an intent to . . . cause emotional distress to a specific person, which is what’s required by the statute.” The court then pointed to a text message Doug sent to a person (Vendor) who works for another company owned by Troy and is frequently on site for TKS. After Vendor had a conversation with a TKS employee while at the TKS plant, Doug texted Vendor asking what the pair had been talking about. The court observed, “[Doug] create[d] the impression that he’s all-knowing, that . . . he sees. He create[d] a sense of unease and discomfort. And that is fearful, and that is emotionally frightening. And that can upset the workings of a company and . . . create a cloud of suspicion and distrust for the company.” Finally, the court pointed to a conversation between Doug and Vendor during which Doug “suggested that he was going to go to . . . [a] customer [of TKS] and tell them how their . . . product [was] being handled,” which the court said “undermine[d] the wellbeing of the company.” The court concluded by saying that these incidents showed that “Doug engaged in this conduct in order to bring . . . [Troy] down” and “in order to cause distress and ruin the company.” Based on these incidents, the court said, “[I’m] satisfied to a preponderance that there is a course of action, that it was directed in such a way that although it was aimed at the company, [it] was aimed at the company in a particularly harmful way and that it satisfies the requirements of the stalking [statute].”

¶15      The district court further explained that because it did not consider the suicide-related incident to be part of the “course of conduct” required by the stalking statute, see generally Utah Code § 76-5-106.5(2)(a),[4] it was denying the TKS parties’ request that the injunction include “the firearms prescription.” The court also denied the TKS parties’ request that Doug be restricted from the building housing TKS and Landlord’s offices. Instead, it clarified that the permanent stalking injunction would restrict Doug from being involved in any direct interactions between Landlord and TKS, from entering TKS’s premises within the building, and from acting inappropriately on the surrounding premises, such as repeatedly driving around in circles, hovering, or acting with the intent to intimidate.

¶16      The district court thereafter issued the Stalking Injunction, which did not detail the facts giving rise to its issuance but stated, “For the reasons stated on the record, the Court finds that there is reason to believe that Doug Wilson has stalked Troy Wilson.” The Stalking Injunction contained both a “Personal Conduct Order” and a “No Contact Order.” The Personal Conduct Order read:

Doug is not to stalk Troy. This means that Doug must not do things such as follow, threaten, annoy, or harass Troy in a way that could cause a reasonable person to suffer emotional distress or to be afraid for the person’s safety or the safety of another person. For a legal definition of stalking, see Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-106.5.

The No Contact Order read:

Doug must not contact, phone, text, mail, email, or communicate with, either directly or indirectly in any way with Troy and any other person listed below.

The Stalking Injunction was issued in favor of Troy (not TKS) and listed as additional protected persons Troy’s spouse and children, Vendor, three named TKS employees, “[a]ny customer of TKS,” and “[a]ny employee of TKS.”

Motion for Contempt Sanctions

¶17      In March 2021, the TKS parties filed a motion to hold Doug in contempt for violating the Stalking Injunction. The judge who received and adjudicated the contempt motion was not the one who had presided over the proceedings related to the issuance of the temporary stalking injunction and the Stalking Injunction. In their contempt motion, the TKS parties alleged that Doug had violated the Stalking Injunction by making a Facebook post along with subsequent comments related to the post and by communicating with Prior Customer.

¶18      As to the Facebook post, the TKS parties identified a post by “John Dough” that read verbatim:

I have kept my mouth shut for far to long. I have listened to some of my family member bear false witness against me all in a attempt to cover up wrong doing. Had family members try to hurt me to the point to drive me to take my life. They hoped for it. Being sued because I stood up and talked out. For the first time I am appalled to be part of this family. To have family members turn their backs on me. So Christ like to take one side of a story and make it true. All that evil needs to prevale in this world is that good people do nothing. I am so glad you act like Christians.

In response to comments on this post, “John Dough” also posted two comments:

There was a law suite filed against me. I have the document. The stalking injunction was filed against me as well in court. [Sister] mislead and lied in court about what was going on and about what was said. This is why I sent out the post in the first place. You have only one side of a truth which is based in lies.

and

I am just so glad my family has both sides of the story. Oh wait they don’t. Thanks for getting my side of the story so you you have all the information.

Doug admitted that he “uses the name John Dough on Facebook.”

¶19 As to Doug’s communication with Prior Customer, the TKS parties alleged that Doug had informed Prior Customer, “[B]ecause you are a customer of Troy, I am not allowed to talk to you.” The motion ended with the TKS parties’ request that the court “impose a fine and/or incarceration.”

Dismissal of the TKS Parties’ Tort Claims

¶20      By June 2021 and before a hearing on the contempt motion, the parties had engaged in little to no discovery on the TKS parties’ tort claims, and the TKS parties moved to voluntarily dismiss those claims, stating, “Having prevailed on their 8th Cause of Action (Civil Stalking), and having been granted [the] Stalking Injunction against Doug . . . , the TKS [p]arties have obtained the primary relief sought and needed to protect Troy, his family and TKS’[s] employees and customers from Doug.”

¶21      Doug opposed granting a dismissal of the TKS parties’ tort claims without prejudice, and he moved for dismissal of the claims with prejudice. He contended that the TKS parties never “offered any initial disclosures or proof of the . . . devastating smears on Doug’s moral character,” that they did not participate in discovery though the fact discovery period would end in “less than twenty days,” and that they “should not be allowed to raise these serious allegations, idle away their time before the court, and then withdraw their claims with the intent of bringing them again some other time.”

¶22      The court held a hearing on this matter in July 2021. At the conclusion of the hearing, the court stated,

I would have found excusable delay on such a short time frame. I find that the [TKS parties] were involved with other stuff in the case even if they weren’t doing that disclosure. Had they sought additional time from me, I would have granted it. I am loath to dismiss cases. I routinely grant more time . . . for the public policy reasons [the TKS parties’ counsel] outlined about cases being resolved on the merits. So if Doug intends to re-pursue his claims, then I think that it is going to open up the necessity to hear a lot of the evidence that Troy alleges in his claims.

On September 14, 2021, the court issued a written “Order Granting Petitioners’ Motion to Dismiss and Denying Respondent’s Motion to Dismiss,” in which it dismissed the TKS parties’ tort claims without prejudice.

Hearing and Decision on the Motion for Contempt Sanctions

¶23 The following week, the court held a hearing on the contempt matter, with the judge who had not conducted the original stalking injunction proceedings presiding. The court informed the parties that “any of the facts that gave rise to” the Stalking Injunction were “beyond the scope” of the contempt proceeding. Thus, the court limited the witnesses to giving “testimony in regards to the allegations in the contempt proceeding.” The TKS parties contended that “the question of . . . whether [Troy] suffered emotional distress [from the alleged violations of the Stalking Injunction] is context specific” and that evidence of events that occurred before the contempt action was necessary to establish “what a reasonable person in Troy’s shoes looks like.” The court indicated that it would “take judicial notice of the fact that there were prior proceedings” and “of the order that was issued by [the previous judge] and the findings that [the previous judge] made in relation to” the initial proceedings. The TKS parties noted their concern that “there was testimony underlying those orders” and “some of the facts that . . . came out [were not] necessarily memorialized in [the Stalking Injunction] itself, or in [the prior] ruling.” Doug also stated his contrary concern that Troy not be allowed to testify about matters the previous judge “found irrelevant or unpersuasive for purposes of [the Stalking Injunction].” The court then reiterated its view that “the scope of [the contempt] proceeding” was the “limited allegations of the order [to show cause].”

¶24      During the hearing, Doug did not dispute that he authored the Facebook post and related comments that the TKS parties contended violated the Stalking Injunction, nor did he dispute their contents. Also during the hearing, the court received evidence of an email Doug sent to Prior Customer in March 2021 asking Prior Customer to tell him the last date he did any business with TKS. Prior Customer responded by saying he was not a current TKS customer but that he had purchased some products from TKS a few months earlier. Prior Customer also testified that when he had initiated contact with Doug in the past, Doug had said, “[I]f you’re a TKS customer, I can’t talk to you . . . .”

¶25 The court issued an order on the contempt motion on October 13, 2021. Therein the court first explained that it was applying the standard for criminal contempt:

Because Doug Wilson has substantially complied with the [Stalking Injunction], were the court to sanction Doug Wilson, the [principal] reason would be to vindicate the court’s authority, rather than to compel future compliance. Because the court’s primary purpose would be punitive in nature, the criminal standard of proof beyond a reason[able] doubt applies to the proceeding.

¶26 The court then addressed Doug’s Facebook post and comments by turning to the language of the Stalking Injunction’s Personal Conduct Order and noting that it “contain[ed] a citation” to Utah Code section 76-5-106.5 “for the legal definition of stalking” and that “the statute contains a provision precluding an enjoined party from communicating ‘about’ the protected party.” But the court also noted that the Stalking Injunction did “not contain that language, and no evidence exist[ed] in the record that Doug Wilson ever consulted the statute.” The court then determined that “because no evidence exist[ed] [that] Doug knew speaking indirectly about Troy would violate the order, a reasonable doubt exist[ed] as to whether Doug intended the message to violate[] the order.” The court highlighted that “[n]either Troy Wilson nor any other protected party were friends on the Facebook platform with Doug Wilson at the time of his . . . posting, and Doug deleted the post and his account shortly thereafter.” “Moreover,” the court continued, “the post does not reference Troy Wilson by name, such that acquaintances unfamiliar with the details of the lawsuit would not associate Troy with the content of the post.” And the court observed that “[i]n the subsequent comments to the original post, Doug Wilson asserted that his reference to ‘my family member’ who bore ‘false witness against me’ related to [Sister]” and Sister was not “among the protected parties” of the Stalking Injunction. The court concluded that “because Troy was not a Facebook friend of Doug and because the message [did] not reference Troy by name, a reasonable doubt exist[ed] as to whether Doug intended the message to reach Troy and cause Troy emotional distress.”

¶27      The court also considered “the circumstances surrounding the case at bar,” which involved “great turmoil in the extended Wilson family” as “Doug and Troy are the youngest of 11 siblings, and the controversy was causing division and divided loyalties in the family.” Given this, the court concluded that “a reasonable doubt exist[ed] as to whether the [Facebook] post was designed to harass or annoy Troy, rather than Doug’s stated intention of determining who in the family supported him.” Also of note, the court found “that all of the witnesses from [the] Wilson family possess[ed] such significant biases that the court [could not] credit any of their testimony beyond a reasonable doubt.”

¶28 The court further determined that “a reasonable doubt exist[ed] as to whether a reasonable person in Troy Wilson’s position, rather than any inordinately sensitive person, would suffer emotional distress because of that singular Facebook post, even if the post would cause some lesser degree of annoyance.” On this front, the court stated that “[t]he only persons who commented on Doug’s Facebook post were immediate Wilson family members, and the only persons who spoke to Troy about the post were family members and a small number of employees and old family friends.” The court indicated that the evidence suggested that “all of the family members and acquaintances who viewed or learned about the post [held] Troy in high esteem and the post did not influence their perception of him.”

¶29 As to Doug’s communication with Prior Customer, the court stated that “the content” of Doug’s messages to Prior Customer raised “a reasonable doubt as to whether Doug intentionally violated the order by sending those messages or whether he merely attempted to comply with the order, by obtaining written confirmation that [Prior Customer] was not a current customer, after [Prior Customer] initiated contact with Doug.”

¶30 Ultimately, as to both the Facebook post and Doug’s communication with Prior Customer, the court ruled that the TKS parties “failed to meet the heavy burden of establishing the alleged violations beyond a reasonable doubt” and thus denied the motion to find Doug in contempt.

The Appeals

¶31 In November 2021, the TKS parties appealed the district court’s decision declining to hold Doug in contempt. Later that same month, Doug appealed the Stalking Injunction and the district court’s decision to dismiss the TKS parties’ other claims without prejudice.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW
Doug’s Appeal

¶32 As an initial matter, the TKS parties assert that this court lacks jurisdiction over Doug’s appeal. “Whether this court has jurisdiction over [an] appeal is a question of law that we review for correctness.” Ashton v. Learnframe, Inc., 2008 UT App 172, ¶ 7, 185 P.3d 1135, cert. denied, 199 P.3d 970 (Utah 2008).

¶33      Besides jurisdiction, Doug’s appeal raises three issues. First, Doug asserts that the district court erred by employing a legally incorrect interpretation and application of the stalking statute when it ruled that Doug’s actions “aimed at [TKS]” could form the basis of the Stalking Injunction in favor of Troy. “The proper interpretation and application of a statute is a question of law which we review for correctness . . . .” Baird v. Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 16, 322 P.3d 728 (cleaned up); see also Ragsdale v. Fishler, 2021 UT 29, ¶¶ 15, 20, 491 P.3d 835 (reviewing “for correctness” the district court’s determination of whether particular actions by the respondent legally qualified as a course of conduct “directed at” the petitioner (cleaned up)).

¶34      Second, Doug challenges the district court’s finding that he knew or should have known that his actions constituting a “course of conduct” under the stalking statute would cause a reasonable person in Troy’s position to experience emotional distress. “On review of both criminal and civil proceedings, we accept the trial court’s findings of fact unless they are clearly erroneous.” Von Hake v. Thomas, 759 P.2d 1162, 1172 (Utah 1988) (cleaned up), superseded on other grounds as recognized in State v. Hurst, 821 P.2d 467 (Utah Ct. App. 1991); see also Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 16 (“When reviewing factual determinations, [appellate] court[s] will only rule as a matter of law if the evidence is so clear and persuasive that all reasonable minds would find one way.” (cleaned up)).

¶35 Finally, Doug argues that the district court erred by dismissing the TKS parties’ tort claims without prejudice. “A trial court has discretion to determine whether to grant a motion for voluntary dismissal,” and it is “entitle[d] . . . to grant or dismiss the motion upon such terms and conditions as the court deems proper.” H&H Network Services, Inc. v. Unicity Int’l, Inc., 2014 UT App 73, ¶ 4, 323 P.3d 1025 (cleaned up). Accordingly, “we review a trial court’s decision” as to granting a voluntary dismissal with or without prejudice “for an abuse of discretion.” Id. (cleaned up).

The TKS Parties’ Appeal

¶36      In their appeal, the TKS parties assert that the district court erred when it applied “the criminal standard” for contempt. They further contest the court’s determination not to hold Doug in contempt. When, as here, the alleged “contempt is not committed in the immediate view and presence of the court or judge, we review a district court’s findings of fact for clear error and apply a correction of error standard to our review of the district court’s legal determinations.” Valerios Corp. v. Macias, 2015 UT App 4, ¶ 10, 342 P.3d 1127 (cleaned up). Once a court finds the existence of facts necessary to support a contempt sanction, “the decision to hold a party in contempt of court rests within the sound discretion of the trial court and will not be disturbed on appeal unless the trial court’s action is so unreasonable as to be classified as capricious and arbitrary, or a clear abuse of discretion.” Anderson v. Thompson, 2008 UT App 3, ¶ 11, 176 P.3d 464 (cleaned up). “That discretion includes not just the power to decide whether a party should be held in contempt, but the power to determine whether the purpose of a particular contempt order is civil or criminal.” Dickman Family Props., Inc. v. White, 2013 UT App 116, ¶ 3, 302 P.3d 833 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 312 P.3d 619 (Utah 2013).

¶37      The TKS parties also challenge the district court’s decision to exclude from the contempt proceedings evidence of the full circumstances surrounding the incidents that gave rise to the Stalking Injunction. We review the district court’s “determinations regarding the admissibility of evidence under an abuse of discretion standard.” Anderson, 2008 UT App 3, ¶ 25.

ANALYSIS

I. Doug’s Appeal

¶38 We first address Doug’s appeal. Doug challenges the district court’s decision to issue the Stalking Injunction in the first instance. He also challenges the district court’s decision to dismiss the TKS parties’ tort claims without prejudice. For their part, the TKS parties contend that “this court lacks jurisdiction to consider [Doug’s] appeal because it was not made timely.” We begin by addressing the threshold issue of jurisdiction. We then address, in turn, Doug’s challenges to the district court’s orders.

A.        Whether This Court Has Jurisdiction

¶39 The TKS parties contend that Doug did not file a timely notice of appeal and, therefore, that this court lacks jurisdiction over his appeal. According to the TKS parties, the court’s order dismissing the TKS parties’ claims without prejudice on September 14, 2021, was a final judgment that triggered the thirty-day deadline for Doug to file a notice of appeal. Thus, the TKS parties assert, “Doug’s appeal of the principal action was due October 14, 2021—more than a month before Doug filed a notice of appeal.” We hold that the September 14 order was not a final judgment and, therefore, that it did not trigger the thirty-day deadline for Doug to file a notice of appeal. Instead, the thirty-day deadline for Doug to file a notice of appeal was triggered 150 days after the court entered the September 14 order.[5]

¶40      Rule 4 of the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure provides that, with a few exceptions not applicable here, “in a case in which an appeal is permitted as a matter of right from the trial court to the appellate court, the notice of appeal . . . must be filed with the clerk of the trial court within 30 days after the date of entry of the judgment or order appealed from.” Utah R. App. P. 4(a). Rule 58A of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure requires that, again with some exceptions that are not applicable here, “[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)—(b). Rule 58A also provides that when “a separate document is required, a judgment is complete and is entered at the earlier of” (A) when “the judgment is set out in a separate document signed by the judge and recorded in the docket” or (B) when “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)(2).

¶41      In Griffin v. Snow Christensen & Martineau, 2020 UT 33, 467 P.3d 833, our supreme court analyzed an “Order of Dismissal with Prejudice” entered by the trial court in that case to determine whether it met the requirements of rule 58A(a) and was thus a “judgment” under that rule. Id. ¶¶ 23–28. The order had been prepared in response to a directive from the trial court to the defendant’s counsel to “draft[] a proposed order confirming the court’s oral ruling” on the defendant’s motion to dismiss. Id. ¶ 23. The supreme court held that the order did not qualify as a “judgment” under rule 58A(a). Id. ¶ 28.

¶42 The supreme court first explained that “the goal of Utah rule 58A(a) is to impose a clear line of demarcation between a judgment and an opinion or memorandum” and that “to distinguish a judgment from an order or ruling, it should be identified accordingly.” Id. ¶ 22 (cleaned up). The court then observed that the order at issue “was not titled ‘Judgment,’ but was instead named ‘Order of Dismissal with Prejudice’” and that this was “not a mere technical deviation” from the rule. Id. ¶ 23. Rather, the title “accurately described” the document’s purpose, which was to confirm the trial court’s oral ruling, not to be “a separate judgment documenting the resolution of all claims in the district court.” Id.

¶43      The supreme court next emphasized the rule’s requirement that a “judgment be set out in a ‘separate document.’” Id. ¶ 24 (cleaned up). It noted that “separate means individual; distinct; particular; disconnected” and declared that “a separate judgment, by definition, must be self-contained and independent from any other document in the case, including the decision that gave rise to it.” Id. (cleaned up). Even if a particular decision “disposes of all claims in the action” and the trial court “directs a party to prepare an order confirming [that] decision,” the court explained, “a separate judgment is required” in order to comply with rule 58A(a). Id. ¶ 26 (cleaned up). Although the order at issue in Griffin was “separate from the [trial] court’s oral ruling and accompanying minute entry, that [was] beside the point.” Id. To be a “judgment,” it needed to be wholly separate from the decision giving rise to the judgment. See id.

¶44 Finally, and “[m]ost importantly,” the Griffin court observed that the order in that case “serve[d] a different function than a 58A(a) judgment.” Id. ¶ 27. The purpose of “a separate 58A(a) judgment” is not to “operate at the decision level” but, rather, to “operate[] at the case level to signal that all claims involving all parties have been resolved.” Id. The fact that the order at issue in Griffin “contain[ed] procedural history, legal reasoning, and factual content” indicated that it operated at the decision level, not the case level. Id. ¶ 28.

¶45 In sum, because the document in Griffin was not “clearly identified as a judgment,” was not “separate from the court’s decision on the relevant motion,” and was not “limited to only that information relevant to a judgment,” it was “not a separate 58A(a) judgment.” Id.

¶46 The reasoning of Griffin applies here, compelling the conclusion that the September 14 order is not a separate rule 58A(a) judgment either. Like the order in Griffin, the September 14 order is not titled “Judgment” but, instead, is titled “Order Granting Petitioners’ Motion to Dismiss and Denying Respondent’s Motion to Dismiss.” Also like the order in Griffin, the September 14 order does not amount to a self-contained judgment that is independent from the decision that gave rise to it. Finally, the September 14 order operates primarily at the decision level, not at the case level. It states, in full:

This case came on for hearing on July 13, 2021[,] on: (1) the Motion to Dismiss filed by [the TKS parties], which sought voluntary dismissal of Causes of Action 1–7 contained in the Verified Complaint & Petition for Civil Stalking Injunction (“the Complaint”), without prejudice; and (2) [Doug’s] Motion to Dismiss, which sought dismissal of the same claims with prejudice. . . . The [c]ourt, having considered the motions and corresponding memoranda, and the oral argument of counsel, for the reasons stated on the record, HEREBY ORDERS THAT:

1. [The TKS parties’] Motion to Dismiss is GRANTED;

2. [Doug’s] Motion to Dismiss is DENIED;

3. Claims 1–7 in the Complaint are dismissed without prejudice; [and]

4. With Claim 8 having resulted in the issuance of a civil stalking injunction, and [Doug] having previously dismissed his counterclaim, all claims in this case have now been resolved.

While the order does not wax long on “procedural history, legal reasoning, and factual content,” id., it does address the procedural posture of the motions, recount details of the hearing, and incorporate the reasoning the court stated at the hearing—all decision-level information. Admittedly, the last sentence of the order says that “all claims in this case have now been resolved,” which is a case-level statement. But because the order predominantly operates at the decision level, it does not qualify as a judgment under rule 58A(a). Cf. In re Cendant Corp., 454 F.3d 235, 241 (3d Cir. 2006) (explaining that to qualify as a judgment under federal rule 58(a), an order “must omit (or at least substantially omit) the [d]istrict [c]ourt’s reasons for disposing of the parties’ claims”).[6]

¶47      The TKS parties ask us to conclude that the September 14 order qualifies as a judgment because “the parties exchanged emails about and edited the document to clarify that the case was over with nothing left to be litigated.” After the TKS parties’ counsel emailed the proposed order to Doug’s counsel for approval, Doug’s counsel responded with an email saying, “What is your position as to [cause of action] #8 (injunction)[?] We probably need to make it clear as to whether the case is over or not through this. It seems that this ends the case, but I am not sure if you are of the same opinion.” Counsel for the TKS parties wrote back, “We are of that opinion. Each of the claims in the Verified Complaint has been resolved, and with this dismissal and Doug’s earlier dismissal of his counterclaim, there is nothing left to be litigated in this case. For clarity, I’ve added a sentence in the attached.” From this exchange, it does appear that the parties intended for the September 14 order to serve as a judgment under rule 58A(a). But because this court’s jurisdiction is tied to a timing determination that depends on when a final judgment is entered, the question of whether a document complies with rule 58A(a) cannot turn on the parties’ subjective intent. Cf. Duke Cap. LLC v. Proctor, 2023 UT App 59, ¶ 25, 531 P.3d 745 (recognizing that “parties cannot create, by contract, jurisdiction that would not otherwise exist” (cleaned up)). Instead, rule 58A(a) compliance is determined by whether the document at issue objectively satisfies the requirements of the rule.

¶48 The September 14 order objectively does not satisfy the requirements of rule 58A(a), and it therefore did not trigger a thirty-day deadline to appeal. Instead, that deadline was triggered 150 days after the clerk recorded the September 14 order. See Utah R. Civ. P. 58A(e)(2)(B). Thus, Doug’s appeal, which was filed before those 150 days had run, was timely. See Utah R. App. P. 4(c) (“A notice of appeal filed after the announcement of a decision, judgment, or order but before entry of the judgment or order will be treated as filed after such entry and on the day thereof.”). We therefore have jurisdiction to consider it.

B.        Whether the Stalking Injunction Was Proper

¶49      Having determined that we have jurisdiction to consider Doug’s appeal, we now address his first contention, which is that the district court should not have granted the Stalking Injunction in the first instance. “Under Utah’s civil stalking [injunction] statute, a person who believes that he or she is the victim of stalking may obtain an injunction against an alleged stalker” by “prov[ing] by a preponderance of the evidence that an offense of stalking has occurred.” Ragsdale v. Fishler, 2021 UT 29, ¶ 25, 491 P.3d 835 (cleaned up); see also Utah Code § 78B-7-701. At the time of Doug’s alleged stalking, to prove that an offense of stalking had occurred, a person was required to show that (1) the alleged stalker “intentionally or knowingly engage[d] in a course of conduct directed at [the] person” and (2) the alleged stalker knew or should have known “that the course of conduct would cause a reasonable person to fear for the person’s own safety or suffer other emotional distress.” Ragsdale2021 UT 29, ¶ 25 (cleaned up); see also Utah Code § 76-5-106.5(2) (2020). Doug asserts that (1) the district court committed legal error when it ruled that Doug had engaged in a course of conduct and (2) even if Doug had engaged in a course of conduct, the evidence does not support a finding that Doug knew or should have known that the course of conduct would cause a reasonable person to suffer emotional distress. We disagree with each of Doug’s assertions.

1.         Course of Conduct

¶50      Doug asserts that the court committed legal error when it ruled that he had engaged in a course of conduct. The stalking statute’s definition of a “[c]ourse of conduct” is broad. See Utah Code § 76-5-106.5(1)(a)(i). It defines a course of conduct as “two or more acts directed at or toward a specific individual,” id., and it says that those acts may include “acts in which the actor . . . communicates to or about an individual, or interferes with an individual’s property . . . directly, indirectly, or through any third party,” id. § 76-5-106.5(1)(a)(i)(A). It also says that the acts may include instances when the actor “appears at the individual’s workplace or contacts the individual’s . . . coworker”; “enters property owned, leased, or occupied by an individual”; or “sends material . . . for the purpose of . . . disseminating information about . . . the individual to a . . . coworker, friend, or associate of the individual.” Id. § 76-5-106.5(1)(a)(i)(B)(II)–(IV). Any of the foregoing types of conduct qualifies to be part of a course of conduct even if the actor “uses a computer, the Internet, text messaging, or any other electronic means to commit [the] act.” Id. § 76-5-106.5(1)(a)(i)(B)(VI).

¶51      In this case, Doug agrees that the district court identified three instances of stalking behavior that the court said amounted to a course of conduct. First, the court identified the conversations during which Doug essentially told Sister, “I will ruin Troy. I will contact customers. I will bring the company down. . . . [T]hey will lose the business. They’ll lose everything.” Second, the court identified the text message Doug sent to Vendor asking what he had been talking about with a TKS employee, even though Doug had not been visibly present during the conversation and the participants would not, therefore, have had reason to know that Doug was aware the conversation had occurred. Third, the court identified a conversation between Doug and Vendor wherein Doug “suggested that he was going to go to . . . [a] customer [of TKS] and tell them how their . . . product [was] being handled.”

¶52      After identifying these instances of stalking behavior, the district court said, “[I’m] satisfied to a preponderance that there is a course of action, that it was directed in such a way that although it was aimed at the company, [it] was aimed at the company in a particularly harmful way and that it satisfies the requirements of the stalking [statute].” Based on this statement, Doug contends that the court’s finding of a course of conduct was “mistaken as a matter of law” because “[n]owhere in the stalking statute does it suggest that a harm can be directed at a company” and qualify as part of a course of conduct but, rather, “harms to companies, as opposed to specific individuals, are simply not contemplated by the statute.” Restated, we understand Doug’s argument to be that conduct that the court acknowledges was “aimed at [TKS]” cannot at the same time legally qualify as conduct “directed at” Troy for purposes of finding a course of conduct under the stalking statute.[7]

¶53 Our supreme court considered a related question in Ragsdale v. Fishler, 2021 UT 29, 491 P.3d 835. There, the director of “an inpatient treatment facility for young women recovering from severe depression and anxiety” sought a civil stalking injunction protecting her from a neighbor living on the same street as the facility. Id. ¶¶ 1, 6–7. The neighbor “feared [the facility] would increase noise and traffic in the neighborhood,” and he “began protesting the facility directly” by placing “signs in his yard” that disparaged the facility. Id. ¶¶ 6–7. “He also began flipping off and swearing at employees, clients, and anyone else involved with [the facility].” Id. ¶ 7. Eventually, after the neighbor routinely flipped off the director and began “coming out of his garage to say things” to her directly, the director sought a stalking injunction against the neighbor. Id. ¶¶ 7–9. The district court issued an ex parte temporary injunction, but following an evidentiary hearing, it declined to issue a permanent stalking injunction, reasoning that the neighbor had “not direct[ed] his conduct at [the director] but toward [the facility] as a business.” Id. ¶¶ 9, 12.

¶54      On appeal, the supreme court ruled that the district court had “erred in concluding that because [the neighbor] claimed to subjectively target only [the facility], he did not direct his conduct at [the director].” Id. ¶ 24. The supreme court observed that “nothing in the statute defines the term ‘directed at’” or “expressly indicate[s] that [a stalking] petitioner must be the ‘ultimate target’ of a respondent’s course of conduct.” Id. ¶ 31. Instead, the court explained, “regardless of whether a petitioner is a respondent’s ultimate target, the fact that the respondent engaged in any act proscribed by the statute two or more times makes his or her conduct ‘directed at’ the petitioner.” Id. ¶ 32. Thus, the Ragsdale court concluded, “the person toward whom a respondent’s behavior is ‘directed at’ . . . is determined by an objective assessment of whether the respondent engaged in conduct prohibited by the stalking statute.” Id. ¶ 37. “And this is true even where a respondent directs his or her conduct at a petitioner indirectly or through a third party.” Id. (cleaned up). Accordingly, “[t]he fact that [the facility] was allegedly [the neighbor’s] ultimate target [did] not shield him” from a finding that his actions constituted a course of conduct toward the director. Id. ¶¶ 39, 42. “It simply mean[t] [that the facility] could potentially obtain an injunction against [the neighbor] as well.” Id. ¶ 39; see also supra note 7. Based on this holding, the supreme court remanded the Ragsdale case to the district court for a course-of-conduct determination under a proper understanding of the statute. 2021 UT 29, ¶ 43.

¶55 Another case merits mention in this context as well. In Carson v. Barnes, 2016 UT App 214, 385 P.3d 744, a petitioner sought a stalking injunction based on an alleged course of conduct that included an incident where the respondent had taken “a handgun from his vehicle and confronted” two business associates of the petitioner when the petitioner was not present. Id. ¶¶ 3, 9, 16. The respondent contended that reliance on this incident was “problematic because [the petitioner] was not present, and therefore [the respondent’s] actions on that day were not ‘directed at’ [the petitioner] as the statute requires.” Id. ¶ 16. We disagreed and held that “the statute does not require the victim to be physically present for an act to be considered in the course of conduct” because “the plain language of the statute . . . includes situations in which the actor comes to the person’s workplace or contacts the person’s . . . coworkers, without requiring the presence of the victim.” Id. ¶¶ 16–17 (cleaned up).

¶56 The Ragsdale and Carson holdings apply to this case. Specifically, under the Ragsdale holding, the district court’s acknowledgment that Doug’s conduct “was aimed at [TKS]” is not legally at odds with a determination that Doug had engaged in a course of action directed at Troy. That is because an objective assessment reveals that each of the three instances of stalking behavior the court identified qualify as conduct prohibited by the statute. Doug’s conversations with Sister wherein he said, among other things, that he would ruin Troy amounted to acts in which Doug “communicate[d] . . . about [Troy] . . . directly, indirectly, or through any third party.” Utah Code § 76-5-106.5(1)(a)(i)(A)(I). And Doug’s text message to Vendor about a conversation Doug had not been visibly present for as well as Doug’s conversation with Vendor wherein he suggested that he was going to tell a TKS customer how their product was being handled each amounted to Doug “contact[ing] [Troy’s] . . . coworker,” id. § 76-5-106.5(1)(a)(i)(B)(II), and perhaps also to Doug “send[ing] material . . . to a . . . coworker” of Troy “for the purpose of . . . communicating with [Troy],” id. § 76-5-106.5(1)(a)(i)(B)(IV). Additionally, under the Carson holding, none of these actions by Doug are disqualified from contributing to a course of conduct directed at Troy by virtue of the fact that Troy was not present for or the direct recipient of the conduct. Because an objective assessment reveals that each of the three instances of stalking behavior the court identified qualify as conduct prohibited by the stalking statute as against Troy, the court committed no legal error by ruling that these three instances constituted a course of conduct directed at Troy, even if the same instances might also have been aimed at TKS.

2.         Emotional Distress

¶57      Doug also asserts that, even if he engaged in a course of conduct directed at Troy, the evidence does not support the district court’s implicit finding that Doug knew or should have known that the course of conduct would cause a reasonable person to suffer emotional distress.[8] At the time of Doug’s alleged conduct, a determination that stalking had occurred required a finding that the actor “[knew] or should [have known] that the course of conduct would cause a reasonable person . . . to fear for the person’s own safety or the safety of a third person” or “to suffer other emotional distress.” Utah Code § 76-5-106.5(2) (2020).[9] The statute defines “[e]motional distress” to mean “significant mental or psychological suffering.” Id. § 76-5-106.5(1)(a)(ii)(A) (2024). And it defines “[r]easonable person” to mean “a reasonable person in the victim’s circumstances.” Id. § 76-5-106.5(1)(a)(v). “By including ‘in the victim’s circumstances’ as part of the reasonable person definition, the statute provides for an individualized objective standard, meaning that a court must consider the entire context surrounding the defendant’s conduct.” Richins v. Weldon, 2023 UT App 147, ¶ 67, 541 P.3d 274 (cleaned up). “Courts applying this individualized objective standard have considered such factors as 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 the cumulative effect of the defendant’s repetitive conduct.” Id. (cleaned up). “Another consideration could be whether the behavior might cause damage to one’s reputation, relationships, or livelihood.” Id. (cleaned up).

¶58 With regard to the consideration of whether a course of conduct might cause damage to one’s reputation, relationship, or livelihood, the stalking case of Richins v. Weldon, 2023 UT App 147, 541 P.3d 274, is instructive. There, this court emphasized that the respondent “was saying very negative things” about the petitioner, a vice president of a company, to the petitioner’s “fellow employees and boss, including telling [the boss] that he should fire” the petitioner. Id. ¶¶ 2, 69. Because the respondent’s “behavior could have damaged [the petitioner’s] work relationships and reputation as well as his livelihood,” we determined that “ample evidence existed for the district court to conclude that a reasonable person in [the petitioner’s] circumstances would feel emotional distress.” Id. ¶ 69.

¶59      Here, Doug was a former production manager of TKS who was familiar with TKS’s operations and employees. After leaving TKS, he was employed by Landlord and continued to work in the same building that housed TKS. Thus, Doug was well positioned to harm Troy by harming TKS. And that’s exactly what he told Sister he intended to do. Doug asserts that “[e]xpressing an intent to sue is not emotionally distressing” and that “[w]anting to ‘ruin’ someone is more so an expression of frustration or anger rather than a phrase intended to cause significant stress or suffering.” We agree that a threat of civil litigation by itself would not satisfy the emotional distress component of stalking. But Doug did not simply threaten to file a lawsuit, and we do not agree that, under the circumstances, the court was required to interpret Doug’s express desire to “ruin” Troy and cause both TKS and Troy to “lose everything” to be a mere expression of frustration. Actions undermining TKS could certainly undermine Troy’s livelihood where Troy held a 50% interest in TKS. And if TKS employees felt targeted by Doug in his effort to get at Troy, that could certainly interfere with Troy’s work relationships. Indeed, the district court specifically found that the sum of Doug’s communications to Sister “evince[d] an intent to . . . cause emotional distress to a specific person,” namely Troy; that the text from Doug to Vendor “create[d] the impression” that Doug was “all-knowing” and “create[d] a sense of unease and discomfort” that could “upset the workings of a company and . . . create a cloud of suspicion and distrust for the company”; and that the conversation wherein Doug “suggested that he was going to go to . . . [a] customer and tell them how their . . . product [was] being handled” “undermine[d] the wellbeing of the company.” All of these findings were reasonable under the circumstances, and they amply support the overarching finding that Doug knew or should have known that his course of conduct would cause emotional distress to a reasonable person in Troy’s position.

¶60 Accordingly, Doug has failed to demonstrate that the district court erred in issuing the Stalking Injunction.[10]

C.        Whether the TKS Parties’ Tort Claims Were Properly Dismissed Without Prejudice

¶61    Apart from challenging the Stalking Injunction, Doug also argues that the district court abused its discretion when it dismissed the TKS parties’ tort claims without prejudice, as opposed to with prejudice. Rule 41 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure indicates that “[u]nless the order states otherwise, a [voluntary] dismissal [by court order] is without prejudice.” Utah R. Civ. P. 41(a)(2). This provision confirms that the default for voluntary dismissals is dismissal without prejudice. The rule also directs a court to grant a motion for voluntary dismissal “only on terms the court considers proper.” Id. In Rohan v. Boseman, 2002 UT App 109, 46 P.3d 753, cert. denied, 59 P.3d 603 (Utah 2002), we adopted the Tenth Circuit’s analysis in Ohlander v. Larson, 114 F.3d 1531, 1537 (10th Cir. 1997), which includes a list of “relevant factors the trial court should consider” when determining “proper” terms of dismissal under rule 41(a)(2). Rohan, 2002 UT App 109, ¶¶ 20–22 (cleaned up). The Ohlander factors include “the opposing party’s effort and expense in preparing for trial; excessive delay and lack of diligence on the part of the movant; insufficient explanation of the need for a dismissal; and the present stage of the litigation.” Id. ¶ 21 (cleaned up). These factors have since been employed in analyzing a district court’s decision to grant or deny a motion for voluntary dismissal, see, e.g.Keystone Ins. Agency v. Inside Ins., 2019 UT 20, ¶¶ 25‒26, 445 P.3d 434, and in analyzing a district court’s decision to grant a motion for voluntary dismissal with or without prejudice, see H&H Network Services, Inc. v. Unicity Int’l, Inc., 2014 UT App 73, ¶ 5, 323 P.3d 1025. These factors “are by no means exclusive[,] and any other relevant factors should also be considered.” Id. (cleaned up).

¶62      Doug frames his argument in terms of the factors set forth in Westinghouse Electric Supply Co. v. Paul W. Larsen Contractor, Inc., 544 P.2d 876 (Utah 1975), which are used when determining whether a dismissal with prejudice for failure to prosecute should be granted: “the length of time since the suit was filed,” “the conduct of both parties,” “the opportunity [the parties have] had to move the case forward and what they have done about it,” “what difficulty or prejudice may have been caused to the other side,” and “whether injustice may result from the dismissal.” Id. at 879. These factors are similar to the Ohlander factors, and we agree that some of them are also relevant here.

¶63      Under the Ohlander and Westinghouse factors that we deem to be relevant here, we conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion in dismissing the TKS parties’ tort claims without prejudice. First, as to whether injustice resulted from a dismissal without prejudice, we note that Doug’s claims—which he raised as counterclaims to the TKS parties’ complaint—were also voluntarily dismissed without prejudice, leaving Doug able to bring his claims again in the future if he so desires. On this score, the court’s dismissal of the TKS parties’ claims without prejudice preserved parity between the parties regarding possible future litigation, an outcome that appears just on its face. Cf. Clear Creek Dev., LLC v. Peterson Pipeline Ass’n, 2024 UT App 22, ¶ 24, 545 P.3d 306 (stating, in the context of determining when a counterclaim is compulsory under rule 13(a) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure, that an outcome “allowing both parties the option to bring their claims anew in a subsequent action . . . is certainly the more just outcome”).

¶64      Doug argues that the district court abused its discretion by dismissing the TKS parties’ claims without (as opposed to with) prejudice because “[t]he case had been on the court’s docket for almost eight months,” “fact discovery was set to end [in] less than three weeks,” and “the TKS parties had done nothing to litigate any of their [tort] claims.” These facts implicate the Ohlander factor regarding excessive delay and lack of diligence on the part of the movant. But we believe that these factors ultimately weigh neutrally or in the TKS parties’ favor here. During the eight months that their tort claims were pending, the TKS parties did not exhibit a lack of diligence generally; they were actively litigating their request for a stalking injunction as well as their motion for contempt sanctions. Additionally, we credit the district court’s indication that, in its view, the eight-month delay in discovery was a relatively “short time frame” under the circumstances and that an allowance of “additional time” for discovery would have been merited if the TKS parties had sought it.

¶65      As to the factor regarding the opposing party’s expense in preparing for trial, we do not have reason to doubt Doug’s claim that his litigation expenses “amounted to over a third of his yearly salary.” Yet those expenses were nevertheless limited by the TKS parties’ decision not to initiate depositions and other costly discovery related to their tort claims while they litigated the Stalking Injunction. Thus, we believe that this factor weighs out neutrally when it comes to evaluating the propriety of dismissing the TKS parties’ claims without prejudice.

¶66 Finally, Doug argues that dismissal with prejudice was required because the TKS parties’ “unsubstantiated claims have cost [him] his personal relationships and led him to try and commit suicide.” While we are not unsympathetic to the emotional and relationship costs that are often incurred through litigation, Doug provides no support for the proposition that this type of prejudice is properly within the scope of our inquiry. Without such authority, we are unconvinced that emotional and relationship costs constitute the type of “legal prejudice” that the Ohlander factors are designed to prevent. See 114 F.3d at 1537 (explaining that “[t]he parameters of what constitutes ‘legal prejudice’ are not entirely clear” but providing factors to guide this inquiry, which speak in terms of “effort,” “delay,” “expense,” and “diligence”). Indeed, although to this point the TKS parties’ tort claims have not been substantiated, there has been no contention that they are frivolous, and our system does not condition the ability to maintain potentially meritorious litigation on a showing that the process will not cause stress to the opposing party.

¶67 In sum, in light of the factors that are relevant here, we determine that the district court did not abuse its discretion by dismissing the TKS parties’ tort claims without prejudice.

II. The TKS Parties’ Appeal

¶68 We now turn to the TKS parties’ appeal. The TKS parties first challenge the district court’s decision to treat their motion for contempt sanctions as a motion to hold Doug in criminal contempt rather than civil contempt. The TKS parties also challenge, for several reasons, the court’s decision not to hold Doug in criminal contempt. We address the TKS parties’ various arguments in turn.

A.        Whether the District Court Applied the Correct Standard for Contempt

¶69 The TKS parties assert that the district court erred by “applying the criminal standard” for contempt. We disagree.

¶70      Whether a contemplated contempt order is civil or criminal determines the standard of proof a court must apply to find that the elements of contempt have been met: for civil contempt, the standard is clear and convincing evidence; for criminal contempt, it is proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Koehler v. Allen, 2020 UT App 73, ¶ 14 & n.3, 466 P.3d 738. “The primary determinant of whether a particular contempt order is to be labeled civil or criminal is the trial court’s purpose in entering the order.” Von Hake v. Thomas, 759 P.2d 1162, 1168 (Utah 1988), superseded on other grounds as recognized in State v. Hurst, 821 P.2d 467 (Utah Ct. App. 1991). “A criminal contempt order is punitive in nature, whereas a civil contempt order has a remedial purpose.” Koehler, 2020 UT App 73, ¶ 14 n.3. “A remedial purpose is indicated when the contemner is allowed to purge him- or herself of the contempt by complying with the court’s orders.” Von Hake, 759 P.2d at 1168. Accordingly, “a contempt order is criminal if the fine or sentence imposed is fixed and unconditional, but [it] is civil if the fine or imprisonment is conditional such that the contemner can obtain relief from the contempt order merely by doing some act as ordered by the court.” Id. at 1168 n.5. For example, in the stalking injunction context, this court has found a contempt order civil when its sanctions included “a jail term of 10 days and a fine of $300” because “these sanctions were stayed to allow [the contemner] an opportunity to purge his contempt . . . by having no further contact . . . with [the protected party] for a period of two years.” Koehler, 2020 UT App 73, ¶ 14 n.3 (cleaned up).

¶71 The district court determined that the contemplated contempt order in this case was criminal, explaining:

Because Doug Wilson has substantially complied with the [Stalking Injunction], were the court to sanction Doug Wilson, the [principal] reason would be to vindicate the court’s authority, rather than to compel future compliance. Because the court’s primary purpose would be punitive in nature, the criminal standard of proof beyond a reason[able] doubt applies to the proceeding.

This determination was not an abuse of discretion.

¶72 First, the TKS parties did not indicate in their motion for contempt that they were seeking a civil contempt adjudication. Their motion asked the court to “impose a fine and/or incarceration,” without any mention of giving Doug an opportunity to purge his contempt. That the relief the TKS parties requested was not conditional suggests that the contempt they sought was not civil. See id. (“Because this order was conditional such that [the contemner] could obtain relief by staying away from [the protected party], the contempt order is not criminal but civil.”).

¶73 Moreover, regardless of what the TKS parties requested, the court gave sound reasons for its application of the criminal standard. Its finding that Doug had “substantially complied” with the terms of the Stalking Injunction—a finding that the TKS parties do not challenge on appeal—supports the court’s determination that the chief reason for it to hold Doug in contempt “would be to vindicate the court’s authority, rather than to compel future compliance.” This finding supports the court’s determination that a contempt sanction in this case would be “punitive in nature.” The court employed the correct standard in approaching this issue, and it provided sound reasoning for its determination that the proceeding was criminal in nature. Thus, the court did not abuse its discretion related to this issue.

B.        Whether the District Court Erred in Not Holding Doug in Contempt

¶74      The TKS parties next challenge the district court’s decision, even under the criminal standard, not to hold Doug in contempt. Relatedly, the TKS parties also assert that the court abused its discretion by excluding certain evidence during the contempt hearing. The TKS parties’ motion for contempt sanctions was based on two sets of alleged violations of the Stalking Injunction: Doug’s communications with Prior Customer and Doug’s Facebook post and related comments. We first review the court’s determination that Doug’s communications with Prior Customer did not satisfy the elements of contempt. We then review the court’s determination that Doug’s Facebook post did not satisfy the elements of contempt. We address the evidentiary issue as part of our review of the court’s determination that Doug’s Facebook post did not satisfy the elements of contempt.

1.         Doug’s Communications with Prior Customer

¶75 The TKS parties identified Doug’s communications with Prior Customer as violative of the Stalking Injunction’s No Contact Order. “As a general rule, in order to prove contempt for failure to comply with a court order it must be shown that the person cited for contempt knew what was required, had the ability to comply, and intentionally failed or refused to do so.” Von Hake v. Thomas, 759 P.2d 1162, 1172 (Utah 1988), superseded on other grounds as recognized in State v. Hurst, 821 P.2d 467 (Utah Ct. App. 1991). The district court found that the TKS parties failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that by communicating with Prior Customer Doug intentionally failed to comply with the Stalking Injunction. The TKS parties challenge that finding. We determine that this finding is not clearly erroneous and, therefore, that Doug’s communications with Prior Customer cannot be a basis for holding Doug in contempt.

¶76 The Stalking Injunction’s No Contact Order stated that “Doug must not contact, phone, text, mail, email, or communicate . . . either directly or indirectly in any way with . . . [a]ny customer of TKS.” While there was evidence that Doug spoke with and emailed Prior Customer, who had at some point been a customer of TKS, the district court was also presented with evidence that Prior Customer had been the one to initiate contact with Doug and that when he had initiated contact, Doug told him, “[I]f you’re a TKS customer, I can’t talk to you . . . .” The court also received evidence that Doug subsequently sent Prior Customer an email asking for the last date on which he had done business with TKS. Prior Customer responded by saying he was not a current TKS customer but that he had purchased some products from TKS a few months earlier. The court found that “the content” of Doug’s communications with Prior Customer raised “a reasonable doubt as to whether Doug intentionally violated the order by sending those messages or whether he merely attempted to comply with the order, by obtaining written confirmation that [Prior Customer] was not a current customer, after [Prior Customer] initiated contact with Doug.”

¶77      The TKS parties acknowledge that if Prior Customer was the one who initiated contact with Doug, “it is unclear how Doug could have handled [the situation] differently” and that when Doug subsequently emailed Prior Customer, Doug “was apparently trying to determine whether [he] was a ‘current’ customer or a prospective customer.” Yet the TKS parties appear to argue that because Doug’s email asking Prior Customer “how long he had been working with TKS” was sent three days after Doug was served with the motion for contempt sanctions, the email must have amounted to an intentional failure by Doug to comply with the Stalking Injunction. Specifically, they apparently contend that because “Doug knew Troy considered his communications with [Prior Customer] to be a violation of the Stalking Injunction” yet “reached out to him anyway,” it was clear error for the court not to find that Doug intentionally violated the No Contact Order when he emailed Prior Customer. We are not convinced.

¶78      Nothing in the record suggests that Doug trusted Troy or the assertions of Troy’s counsel. Accordingly, the fact that Doug learned that Troy and Troy’s counsel considered communications with Prior Customer to be a violation of the Stalking Injunction does not definitively establish that Doug intentionally violated the Stalking Injunction by inquiring of Prior Customer himself whether he was a current customer of TKS, especially where he told Doug that he was not a current customer. Given the evidence that Doug repeatedly told Prior Customer that Doug could not speak with him if he was a TKS customer and the evidence that Doug’s email to Prior Customer was merely to confirm whether he was a current customer, we see no clear error in the district court’s finding that the TKS parties failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that by communicating with Prior Customer Doug intentionally violated the Stalking Injunction. That alleged violation of the Stalking Injunction cannot serve as a basis for holding Doug in contempt.

2.         Doug’s Facebook Post and Related Comments

¶79      We now consider the TKS parties’ challenge to the court’s determination that Doug’s Facebook post and related comments did not satisfy the elements of contempt. While the Stalking Injunction was in place, Doug made a series of communications on Facebook. The full text of those communications is quoted above. See infra ¶ 18. We address, in turn, the district court’s determination that these communications did not violate the No Contact Order and its determination that they did not violate the Personal Conduct Order.

a.         Whether Doug’s Facebook Post and Comments Violated the No Contact Order

¶80      The Stalking Injunction’s No Contact Order forbade Doug from communicating with Troy, even indirectly. For the district court to impose contempt sanctions based on the allegation that the Facebook communications violated the No Contact Order, the TKS parties had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that, among other things, Doug intended the Facebook post and comments to be a direct or indirect communication with Troy or that he knew they were a direct or indirect communication with Troy. See Von Hake v. Thomas, 759 P.2d 1162, 1172 (Utah 1988), superseded on other grounds as recognized in State v. Hurst, 821 P.2d 467 (Utah Ct. App. 1991). The district court determined that it could not find beyond a reasonable doubt that the Facebook post was an intentional or knowing violation of the No Contact Order, and we see no clear error in that finding.

¶81      On this point, the court reasoned that “because Troy was not a Facebook friend of Doug and because the message [did] not reference Troy by name, a reasonable doubt exists as to whether Doug intended the message to reach Troy.” Indeed, there was evidence that Troy was not a Facebook friend with Doug, which does support a finding that the post was not a knowing or intentional attempt by Doug to communicate with Troy directly. And there is no evidence that any of Doug’s Facebook friends routinely shared Doug’s posts with Troy, which supports a finding that the post and related comments did not amount to a knowing or intentional attempt to communicate with Troy indirectly.

¶82 Admittedly, we have held in the context of a no-contact order that “a factfinder could readily infer that calls [an ex-husband] placed to [his ex-wife’s new husband] . . . would routinely and predictably be conveyed to [the ex-wife]” and, therefore, that by making those calls, the ex-husband “intentionally or knowingly” contacted his ex-wife at least indirectly. State v. Fowers, 2023 UT App 128, ¶ 13, 538 P.3d 1274 (cleaned up). Similarly, we have held that a factfinder could infer that an estranged husband intended to communicate with or contact his wife, who had obtained a protective order against him, by sending letters with language directed to his wife to the address of the wife’s “sister who lived next door.” State v. Fouse, 2014 UT App 29, ¶¶ 3, 41, 43, 319 P.3d 778, cert. denied, 329 P.3d 36 (Utah 2014). But in neither of those cases did we say that the evidence required a finding that the defendant knowingly or intentionally communicated indirectly with the protected person. See Fowers, 2023 UT App 128, ¶ 13; Fouse, 2014 UT App 29, ¶ 43. And we are unwilling here to hold that a person who is subject to an order not to contact his or her sibling indirectly necessarily violates that order any time he or she communicates about the sibling with any other family member or friend of the sibling.

¶83 In short, we affirm the district court’s determination that Doug’s Facebook post and related comments did not violate the No Contact Order.

b.         Whether Doug’s Facebook Post and Comments Violated the Personal Conduct Order

¶84 The TKS parties allege that Doug’s Facebook communications violated the Stalking Injunction’s Personal Conduct Order because he was thereby communicating “about” Troy. On this issue, Judge Harris’s opinion, joined in by Judge Orme, is the majority opinion; my views in this Part II.B.2.b constitute a dissenting opinion on this issue.

¶85 As to the allegation that Doug’s Facebook post and comments violated the Stalking Injunction’s Personal Conduct Order, I address each of the elements of contempt in turn. Again, those elements include that Doug “knew what was required [of him by the Personal Conduct Order], had the ability to comply, and intentionally failed or refused to do so.” Von Hake v. Thomas, 759 P.2d 1162, 1172 (Utah 1988), superseded on other grounds as recognized in State v. Hurst, 821 P.2d 467 (Utah Ct. App. 1991).

(i) Whether Doug Knew What Was Required

¶86      The Personal Conduct Order said:

Doug is not to stalk Troy. This means that Doug must not do things such as follow, threaten, annoy, or harass Troy in a way that could cause a reasonable person to suffer emotional distress or to be afraid for the person’s safety or the safety of another person. For a legal definition of stalking, see Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-106.5.

The district court found that “no evidence exists [that] Doug knew speaking indirectly about Troy would violate the order.” In making this finding, the court reasoned that while the Personal Conduct Order “contains a citation” to Utah Code section 76-5­106.5 “for the legal definition of stalking” and while “the statute contains a provision precluding an enjoined party from communicating ‘about’ the protected party,” the Stalking Injunction “does not contain that language, and no evidence exists in the record that Doug Wilson ever consulted the statute.” I believe this approach was erroneous.

¶87 The Personal Conduct Order prohibited Doug from stalking Troy. The supplied list of actions that constitute stalking was not exhaustive, as evidenced by the order’s use of “such as.” See State v. Green, 2023 UT 10, ¶ 70, 532 P.3d 930 (explaining that a rule’s “use of ‘such as’ indicates that the list” following that phrase is “illustrative and not exclusive” (cleaned up)); State v. Verde, 2012 UT 60, ¶¶ 14–15, 296 P.3d 673 (discussing a list following “such as” as “illustrative and not exclusive”), abrogated on other grounds by State v. Thornton, 2017 UT 9, 391 P.3d 1016. Thus, the fact that communicating about Troy was not among the listed examples of stalking is not dispositive.

¶88      Furthermore, the Personal Conduct Order unambiguously stated that the legal definition of stalking could be found in Utah Code section 76-5-106.5. I have some doubt as to whether Doug could successfully claim ignorance on the meaning of stalking even if the stalking statute had not been explicitly cited in the Personal Conduct Order, because “citizens are generally presumed to know what the law is.” Laker v. Caras, 2023 UT App 125, ¶ 21, 538 P.3d 926. At any rate, however, Doug’s argument that he only knew of the listed examples of stalking and not the full definition of stalking is unavailing given that he was plainly forbidden from stalking and told where to find the definition of that term. Cf. State v. Barlow, 153 P.2d 647, 653 (Utah 1944) (“Ignorance of a fact may sometimes be taken as evidence of a want of criminal intent, but not ignorance of the law.”). I reject the district court’s position that a person subject to a court order not to engage in certain conduct does not know what is required if the person elects not to read a statute that defines the forbidden conduct that is expressly identified in the order. Accordingly, I would vacate the district court’s finding that “no evidence exists [that] Doug knew speaking indirectly about Troy would violate the [Personal Conduct Order],” remand the case, and instruct that the court make a new finding on this issue.

(ii) Whether Doug Was Able to Comply

¶89      As the TKS parties point out, the district court did not make a finding regarding Doug’s ability to comply with the Personal Conduct Order’s restriction against communicating about Troy. However, while it is true that a “district court must make explicit findings, whether written or transcribed, on the three elements of contempt,” Koehler v. Allen, 2020 UT App 73, ¶ 14, 466 P.3d 738 (cleaned up), I would find the lack of an explicit finding on this element to be harmless, see generally Green, 2023 UT 10, ¶ 101 (“[W]hen an error is harmless, we do not disturb the district court’s decision.”). Because there is simply no evidence to suggest that Doug would have been unable to refrain from posting about Troy on Facebook, the only supportable finding on this point is that Doug could have complied with the Personal Conduct Order.

(iii) Whether Doug Intended Noncompliance

¶90 On the element of whether Doug knowingly or intentionally violated the Personal Conduct Order, the district court found that “because no evidence exists [that] Doug knew speaking indirectly about Troy would violate the order, a reasonable doubt exists as to whether Doug intended the [Facebook post and related comments] to violate[] the order.” I have already expressed my view that the court’s finding of no evidence that Doug knew communicating about Troy would violate the Personal Conduct Order was the product of legal error. See supra ¶¶ 86‒88. Because I would have thus vacated this basis for the court’s finding that Doug did not knowingly or intentionally violate the Personal Conduct Order through his Facebook post and related comments, I would vacate the court’s finding on this point as well.

¶91 Doug contends that there is evidence apart from his professed ignorance of the restrictions imposed by the Personal Conduct Order that supports a finding that he did not knowingly or intentionally violate that order with his Facebook communications. Specifically, he asserts that the post and comments were not knowingly or intentionally “about” Troy but, instead, “only about” Sister. I am skeptical on this point. While the Facebook post and comments may have been, in part, about Sister, that does not necessarily mean they were not also about Troy. They refer to the lawsuit and the request for the Stalking Injunction, neither of which was filed by Sister. Additionally, the Facebook post declares, “I have . . . [h]ad family members try to hurt me to the point to drive me to take my life.” And Doug’s suicide note stated: “I feel like there is no other way out of where Troy has put me. I do not have the will or strength to fight.” Doug explicitly blamed Troy for his suicidal thoughts, so I am doubtful that his Facebook reference to the “family members” who prompted such thoughts was not intended to be about Troy. For these reasons, I do not believe that we can say that the evidence supported only the district court’s finding that Doug did not knowingly or intentionally violate the Personal Conduct Order through his Facebook post and related comments. I would instruct the court to make a new finding on this issue on remand as well.

¶92      In the context of stalking, this third element of contempt—that the stalker intentionally failed or refused to comply with the court’s order, see Von Hake v. Thomas, 759 P.2d 1162, 1172 (Utah 1988), superseded on other grounds as recognized in State v. Hurst, 821 P.2d 467 (Utah Ct. App. 1991)—required the TKS parties to also prove that, to the extent the Facebook post and comments were about Troy, the communications would have caused “emotional distress to a reasonable person in [Troy’s] circumstances,”[11] Baird v. Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 25, 322 P.3d 728; see also Utah Code § 76-5­106.5(2). The district court found that “a reasonable doubt exists as to whether a reasonable person in Troy Wilson’s position, rather than an inordinately sensitive person, would suffer emotional distress because of that singular Facebook post.” I would conclude that the court’s approach that led to this finding suffered from a legal error and that the court exceeded its discretion when it excluded certain evidence related to this finding.

¶93 A determination of whether Doug’s Facebook post and comments would have caused emotional distress involves an “objective inquiry into whether [Doug’s] conduct would have caused a reasonable person in [Troy’s] circumstances emotional distress.” Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 21. This objective inquiry is “an individualized objective” inquiry, “meaning that a court must consider the entire context surrounding the [alleged stalker’s] conduct,” Anderson v. Deem, 2023 UT App 48, ¶ 29, 530 P.3d 945 (cleaned up), including, as we have already noted, “such factors as 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, . . . the cumulative effect of the defendant’s repetitive conduct[, and] whether the behavior might cause damage to one’s reputation, relationships, or livelihood,” Richins v. Weldon, 2023 UT App 147, ¶ 67, 541 P.3d 274 (cleaned up); see also State v. Miller, 2023 UT 3, ¶¶ 84, 86, 527 P.3d 1087; Ragsdale v. Fishler, 2021 UT 29, ¶ 45, 491 P.3d 835; Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 27. “In this context, acts that seem perfectly innocent or even well intentioned may constitute stalking. For example, conduct such as sending the victim a dozen roses may seem benign and loving to the casual observer, but could mean a very different thing when understood in the context of the victim’s experience.” Ragsdale, 2021 UT 29, ¶ 45 (cleaned up). Moreover, courts “must consider the conduct cumulatively.” Id. (cleaned up).

¶94 At the outset of the contempt hearing, the district court expressly stated its view that “the facts that gave rise to” the Stalking Injunction were “beyond the scope” of the contempt proceeding. As the majority opinion on this issue points out, the court thereafter did say that it would “take judicial notice of the [Stalking Injunction] and the findings that [the previous judge] made in relation to . . . issuing” it, and the court admittedly had before it evidence of many of the circumstances surrounding the controversy in general. However, after the court expressed its willingness to take judicial notice of the Stalking Injunction and the findings that the previous judge had made in relation to it, the court again affirmed its view that “the scope of [the contempt] proceeding” allowed it to consider only the “limited allegations of the order [to show cause],” not the circumstances surrounding the issuance of the Stalking Injunction in the first place. If we take the district court at its word—and I do—even if it took judicial notice of the findings that the previous judge made in relation to the Stalking Injunction, it did not consider those facts when ruling on the contempt motion.

¶95 A conclusion that the district court did not properly consider the entire context surrounding Doug’s conduct is further supported by an evidentiary ruling the court made at the contempt hearing. Specifically, the court limited testimony at the hearing to “testimony in regards to the allegations in the contempt proceeding.” While a judge who presides over both a stalking injunction hearing and a subsequent contempt hearing may not need to rehear evidence of the events leading to the stalking injunction to be able to fulfill its charge to consider the entire context surrounding the stalker’s conduct when deciding the contempt issue, in this case the same judge did not preside over both hearings. And because the first judge’s findings fell far short of telling the whole story of the parties’ history, the second judge’s willingness to take judicial notice of those findings was insufficient to demonstrate that it met its charge. For example, the TKS parties alleged various misdeeds by Doug that the first judge did not discuss when determining whether there was a course of conduct justifying issuance of the Stalking Injunction. See supra ¶¶ 9, 13–16. Accordingly, I believe the court abused its discretion by excluding from the contempt hearing evidence of the events surrounding the issuance of the Stalking Injunction on the basis that it was irrelevant to the contempt proceeding. And that abuse of discretion further confirms that the district court did not properly consider the entire context surrounding Doug’s conduct when it ruled on the contempt issue.

¶96 The majority opinion on this issue begins by correctly reciting “a few background concepts,” including the standard of review related to a district court’s factual findings and the burden of proof related to criminal contempt. Infra ¶¶ 103‒05. But as the majority opinion on this issue recognizes, those concepts come into play only if “a district court applies the correct legal standard.” Infra ¶ 103. And the correct legal standard was whether, considering the entire context, Doug’s Facebook post and comments would have caused a reasonable person in Troy’s position emotional distress. And, as explained, it is the district court’s repeatedly expressed intention not to consider the entire context that undergirds my opinion on this issue.

¶97      The majority opinion on this issue also states, alternatively, that, even assuming the district court did not consider the entire context surrounding Doug’s Facebook post and comments, no reasonable factfinder who had considered the entire factual context could conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Doug’s Facebook post and comments were more than a “blip on the radar screen” and were capable of causing a person in Troy’s position emotional distress. Infra ¶¶ 107, 113. I disagree. As already noted, even the “seem[ingly] . . . innocent” or “well intentioned” “sending [of] . . . a dozen roses” might, in some circumstances, constitute a violation of a stalking injunction “when understood in the context of the victim’s experience.” Ragsdale, 2021 UT 29, ¶ 45 (cleaned up). In light of that, and given the established context of “division,” “escalated” tensions, and “great turmoil” into which the Facebook post and comments were placed, I am not prepared to hold as a matter of law that no reasonable factfinder considering the entire context could determine that the post and comments would cause an ordinary person in Troy’s position emotional distress.

¶98 For the foregoing reasons, I would vacate the court’s finding as to whether Doug’s Facebook post and comments would cause a reasonable person in Troy’s position emotional distress and direct that the court make a new finding on this issue as well.[12]

CONCLUSION

¶99      We have jurisdiction over Doug’s appeal. As to his appeal, the district court did not interpret or apply the stalking statute erroneously when it found a course of conduct directed at Troy. The court’s finding that Doug knew or should have known that his course of conduct would cause a reasonable person in Troy’s position emotional distress was not clearly erroneous. And the court did not abuse its discretion by dismissing the TKS parties’ tort claims without prejudice.

¶100 As to the TKS parties’ appeal, we unanimously affirm the district court’s determinations to apply the criminal standard in the contempt proceedings and to not hold Doug in contempt for communicating with Prior Customer. Additionally, based on Judge Harris’s opinion, joined by Judge Orme, we also affirm the district court’s determination to not hold Doug in contempt based on the allegation that his Facebook post and comments violated the No Contact Order.

HARRIS, Judge (concurring in part and authoring the Opinion of the Court as to Part II.B.2.b, in which ORME, J., joined):

¶101 Judge Orme and I join the first 83 paragraphs of the lead opinion without reservation. That is, we agree that this court has jurisdiction over Doug’s appeal—as a direct appeal and not as a cross-appeal—and that, on the merits of that appeal, the district court did not err in issuing the Stalking Injunction, nor did it abuse its discretion in dismissing the TKS parties’ tort claims without prejudice. We also agree that, with regard to the TKS parties’ appeal, the district court correctly treated the motion for contempt sanctions as a motion to hold Doug in criminal contempt rather than civil contempt, and we further agree that the court did not commit reversible error either (a) in finding that Doug’s communication with Prior Customer was not contemptuous or (b) in determining that Doug’s Facebook communications did not violate the No Contact Order. To that extent, we concur fully in the lead opinion.[13]

¶102 We disagree, however, with the lead opinion’s conclusion that the district court committed reversible error in determining that the TKS parties had not proved, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Doug’s Facebook communications violated the Personal Conduct Order. In particular, we take issue with the lead opinion’s assessment regarding the emotional distress component of the analysis. On that score, we agree wholeheartedly with the district court’s determination that “reasonable doubt exists as to whether a reasonable person in Troy Wilson’s position, rather than any inordinately sensitive person, would suffer emotional distress because of that singular Facebook post.” On that basis, we affirm the judgments of the district court in their entirety, a result that will bring this case to a well-deserved conclusion and present no need for further proceedings on remand.

¶103 Let us begin with a few background concepts, starting with the applicable standard of review. Assuming that a district court applies the correct legal standard—an “individualized objective standard,” see Baird v. Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 26, 322 P.3d 728—its determination regarding whether a claimant suffered the sort of emotional distress the stalking statute contemplates is a factual finding that we review only for clear error. See Richins v. Weldon, 2023 UT App 147, ¶ 42, 541 P.3d 274 (reviewing an emotional distress finding, in this context, “for clear error” (cleaned up)). In this case, the district court applied the correct standard, expressly asking whether “a reasonable person in Troy Wilson’s position, rather than any inordinately sensitive person,” suffered emotional distress. Accordingly, the court’s ultimate finding regarding emotional distress is, in this case, a determination we review only for clear error.

¶104 Moreover, the overarching standard of review generally applicable in contempt cases is quite deferential. Indeed, the lead opinion, supra ¶ 36, acknowledges that—regardless of whether the case involves civil or criminal contempt—a district court’s “decision to hold a party in contempt of court rests within the sound discretion of the trial court and will not be disturbed on appeal unless the trial court’s action is so unreasonable as to be classified as capricious and arbitrary, or a clear abuse of discretion.” Anderson v. Thompson, 2008 UT App 3, ¶ 11, 176 P.3d 464 (cleaned up).

¶105 We also note that the TKS parties were seeking criminal contempt, not civil contempt, and therefore they were required to prove Doug’s contempt beyond any reasonable doubt. See supra ¶¶ 69–73. This is the most stringent burden of proof found in the law, and the district court recognized this concept in its ruling.

¶106 Furthermore, the type of emotional distress at issue here is something far greater than mere annoyance. Utah’s stalking statute—incorporated into the Personal Conduct Order—defines “[e]motional distress” to mean “significant mental or psychological suffering.” Utah Code § 76-5-106.5(1)(a)(ii)(A) (2021). This court has previously noted that this definition requires claimants to demonstrate that they have suffered more than just “some emotional distress.” See Noel v. James, 2022 UT App 33, ¶ 20, 507 P.3d 832; see also Meyer v. Aposhian, 2016 UT App 47, ¶ 16, 369 P.3d 1284 (affirming a district court’s determination that the incidents in question, while “upsetting, intimidating, and annoying,” were not sufficient to cause the sort of emotional distress contemplated by the stalking statute).

¶107 With these foundational principles in mind, we see no error at all—let alone a clear one—in the district court’s determination that “reasonable doubt exists as to whether a reasonable person in Troy Wilson’s position, rather than any inordinately sensitive person, would suffer emotional distress because of that singular Facebook post.” In the grand scheme of this family’s lengthy dispute, this Facebook post was merely a blip on the radar screen, and the district court was well within its contempt-case discretion to determine that the TKS parties hadn’t proved, beyond a reasonable doubt, that—of all things in this case’s history—it was these rather innocuous Facebook communications that tipped Troy over the emotional edge into “significant mental or psychological suffering.”

¶108 The lead opinion’s inclination to reverse and remand on this point appears largely driven by the district court’s (perhaps somewhat ill-considered) remarks that “any of the facts that gave rise to” the Stalking Injunction were “beyond the scope” of the contempt proceeding. In our view, one reasonable reading of the court’s remarks is simply that it did not want to unduly elongate the evidentiary hearing by having witnesses come in and rehash the same testimony they’d given under oath some nine months earlier. Indeed, at one point the court referred to its request—made previous to the contempt hearing—that “the parties . . . provide declarations of any witnesses,” and it stated that it had made that request in an attempt “to avoid going back to other proceedings and trying to listen to the” audio recording of the previous hearing. Nevertheless, the lead opinion has decided to “take the district court at its word” and assume that, because of these remarks, the court “did not properly consider the entire context surrounding” Doug’s Facebook communications. See supra ¶¶ 94–95.

¶109 Our reading of the record is different from the lead opinion’s. As we see it, the district court actually did consider the entire context of the case in making its contempt ruling, even if it refused to allow additional testimony and evidence to be re­presented at the hearing. At the contempt hearing, during the debate over the scope of the witnesses’ testimony, the court noted that “there is a record with regard to” what had happened at the previous hearing that could be reviewed and consulted. The court then expressly took “judicial notice of the fact that there were prior proceedings” and “judicial notice of the [Stalking Injunction] and the findings” the prior judge made in entering it. Our reading of this exchange is that the court was not just taking judicial notice of the Stalking Injunction and related findings made by the previous judge, but of the “record with regard to” the previous hearing. Indeed, in its contempt order, the district court expressly stated that it had considered “the circumstances surrounding the case at bar” that had “created great turmoil in the extended Wilson family.”

¶110 Moreover, during that same debate, Troy’s counsel noted that Troy had submitted a lengthy declaration in advance of the contempt hearing, with the intent of informing the court about “what [Troy] had experienced prior to” the entry of the Stalking Injunction. That declaration was just one of many exhibits submitted by the parties with their briefing in advance of the contempt hearing; that briefing, including the exhibits, contained a whole lot of context and descriptions of past underlying events. Unless this court is aware of some indication to the contrary, it should presume that lower courts read the relevant briefing, including the submitted exhibits, before rendering a decision. See, e.g.Merrick Young Inc. v. Wal-Mart Real Estate Bus. Trust, 2011 UT App 164, ¶ 29, 257 P.3d 1031 (noting the lower court’s statement that it had “fully reviewed this matter” before making its ruling, and “presum[ing]” therefrom that the court “closely examined all of the documents filed in support of the parties’” positions). Here, the district court stated, at the hearing, that it had “received and reviewed all the declarations” submitted by the TKS parties, and it indicated in its final written ruling that it “took evidence and received briefing from the parties” and that it was “fully advised in the premises” before making its ruling. We therefore presume that the district court read all the material Troy submitted in support of his motion.

¶111 In addition, at the contempt hearing, the court heard live testimony not only from Troy but also from several other witnesses, including at least four other members of the family. Two of those witnesses—Troy and his sister—offered testimony about Troy’s reaction to Doug’s Facebook communications.

¶112 In our view, it is nigh on impossible to read the file in this case well enough to be able to rule on a contempt motion and not be fully aware of the circumstances surrounding the controversy in general and the Facebook communications in particular. Here, the district court not only read the file but then presided over an evidentiary hearing at which live testimony was presented and these matters were further discussed. We therefore reach a different conclusion than the lead opinion; as we see it, the district court considered all the relevant contextual circumstances before concluding that the TKS parties had not met their burden of proving that Troy had suffered emotional distress.

¶113 But be all of that as it may, even if we were to assume for purposes of the discussion that the district court truly did not consider the entire context surrounding Doug’s Facebook communications, the parties have—in this appeal—provided this court with all of that context, through briefing and citations to the record, and we have certainly considered that contextual evidence. After undertaking that consideration, we are of the view that—to the extent the district court actually failed to consider the underlying circumstances—any error on the part of the court here was harmless. In our view, no reasonable factfinder, after considering the contextual evidence to which the TKS parties now point, could conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Doug’s “John Dough” Facebook posts caused a reasonable person in Troy’s position to suffer the sort of significant emotional distress contemplated by the stalking statute.

¶114 Accordingly, for all these reasons, we part ways with the lead opinion’s analysis in paragraphs 90 through 98. On this record, reasonable doubt exists as to whether a reasonable person in Troy’s shoes would have sustained significant mental or psychological suffering from Doug’s Facebook posts. The district court’s contempt ruling was sound, and we therefore affirm it. Because we agree with the lead opinion’s analysis affirming the court in all other respects, the court’s rulings are affirmed across the board.

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


[1] See Utah R. Jud. Admin. 14-807 (governing law student practice in the courts of Utah).

[2] Because the parties share a surname, we use their given names, with no disrespect intended by the apparent informality.

[3] As explained in more detail below, although Doug’s appeal has been designated as a cross-appeal for ease of reference, the two appeals in this matter are separate and distinct appeals. See infra note 5.

[4] The stalking statute was amended after the events relevant to this appeal. Compare Utah Code § 76-5-106.5 (2020), with id. (2024). Because the changes to the relevant text are mostly minor and do not affect our analysis, we cite the current version of the statute except where the text has materially changed. See infra note 9.

[5] We are not unaware of rule 4(d) of the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure, which states that “[i]f a timely notice of appeal is filed by a party, any other party may file a notice of appeal within 14 days after the date on which the first notice of appeal was filed.” If rule 4(d) applied here, Doug would have had fourteen days from the date the TKS parties filed their notice of appeal to file his notice of appeal, and Doug in fact did file his notice of appeal within fourteen days of when the TKS parties filed theirs. But rule 4(d) does not apply here. This matter involves both the TKS parties’ original lawsuit and a subsequent criminal contempt proceeding, see infra ¶¶ 69‒73 (concluding that the district court did not abuse its discretion in classifying the contempt proceeding as criminal), and a criminal contempt proceeding is an action “separate and apart from the [principal] action,” Robinson v. City Court, 185 P.2d 256, 258 (Utah 1947). Because the original lawsuit and the contempt proceeding are separate actions, the appeal deadlines for those separate actions operate independently. See Burgers v. Maiben, 652 P.2d 1320, 1322 (Utah 1982) (per curiam) (holding that a notice of appeal that was untimely to perfect an appeal from the original action was timely and conferred appellate jurisdiction to review a related criminal contempt proceeding). Thus, notwithstanding that they have been designated cross-appeals for ease of reference and share a common appellate case number, the two appeals in this matter are separate, and the deadline for Doug to perfect his appeal from the TKS parties’ original lawsuit was thirty days after entry of the final judgment in that lawsuit, see Utah R. App. P. 4(a).

[6] Our supreme court has said that In re Cendant Corp., 454 F.3d 235 (3d Cir. 2006), “provides a helpful description of what a proper separate judgment should look like.” Griffin v. Snow Christensen & Martineau, 2020 UT 33, ¶ 21, 467 P.3d 833.

[7] We understand this to be Doug’s argument because the Stalking Injunction was entered in favor of Troy and not in favor of TKS. Because the Stalking Injunction was not entered in favor of TKS, this case cannot implicate or resolve the issue of whether a stalking injunction may be issued in favor of a company. With our supreme court, “we note that at least one court has found its state’s civil stalking statute to ‘protect[] institutions as well as people.’” Ragsdale v. Fishler, 2021 UT 29, ¶ 39 n.29, 491 P.3d 835 (quoting Board of Regents-UW System v. Decker, 2014 WI 68, ¶ 26, 850 N.W.2d 112 (alteration in original)). But again, this case does not raise that issue, and we, like the supreme court before us, do not address it. See id.

[8] We see in the record no explicit finding that Doug knew or should have known that his course of conduct would cause a reasonable person to suffer emotional distress. Generally, however, “unstated findings can be implied if it is reasonable to assume that the trial court actually considered the controverted evidence and necessarily made a finding to resolve the controversy, but simply failed to record the factual determination it made.” Uhrhahn Constr. & Design, Inc. v. Hopkins, 2008 UT App 41, ¶ 23, 179 P.3d 808 (cleaned up). And here, the necessary finding regarding emotional distress is implicit in the court’s statement that “although [the course of conduct] was aimed at the company, [it] was aimed at the company in a particularly harmful way and . . . satisfies the requirements of the stalking [statute].” At a minimum, Doug makes no argument to the contrary.

[9] In contrast, the current version of the code requires a finding that the actor “[knew] or [wasreckless as to whether the course of conduct would cause a reasonable person . . . to fear for the individual’s own safety or the safety of a third individual” or “to suffer other emotional distress.” Utah Code § 76-5-106.5(2)(a) (emphasis added).

[10] While we have concluded that the district court correctly interpreted the stalking statute and that its findings here are supported by the evidence, courts should remain cautious about allowing civil stalking injunctions to be used as tools in commercial litigation.

[11] The TKS parties do not argue that the Facebook post and comments would have caused a reasonable person in Troy’s position to fear for his or her safety or the safety of a third person.

[12] The TKS parties also contend that “[t]he district court erred in categorically finding that ‘all of the witnesses from [the] Wilson family possess such significant biases that the court cannot credit any of their testimony beyond a reasonable doubt.’” However, “the factfinder serves as the exclusive judge of both the credibility of witnesses and the weight to be given particular evidence.” State v. Jok, 2021 UT 35, ¶ 28, 493 P.3d 665 (cleaned up). This includes when the trial court is the factfinder. See In re J.R.H., 2020 UT App 155, ¶ 17, 478 P.3d 56 (“Trial courts . . . have wide latitude to make credibility determinations, and we defer to such determinations . . . .”). Hence, I believe the TKS parties have not demonstrated error on this point.

[13] Moreover, we take no issue with the lead opinion’s analysis in paragraphs 86 through 88, in which the lead opinion expresses a desire to “vacate the district court’s finding that ‘no evidence exists [that] Doug knew speaking indirectly about Troy would violate the [Personal Conduct Order].’” But our affirmance of the court’s emotional distress determination is, by itself, sufficient to conclude our analysis on the overarching question of whether Doug’s Facebook communications violated the Personal Conduct Order; thus, Judge Orme and I do not need to specifically assess the other elements contained in Part II.B.2.b of the lead opinion.

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McKell v. McKell – 2024 UT App 72 – tolling of statute of limitations

McKell v. McKell – 2024 UT App 72
THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

SUMMER TATIANA MCKELL AND MICHELLE TISCHNER, Appellants, v. ROBERT C. MCKELL, Appellee.

Opinion No. 20220315-CA Filed May 9, 2024 Fourth District Court, Provo Department

The Honorable M. James Brady No. 210400528

Christopher M. Ault and Chad A. Tengler, Attorneys for Appellants Barry N. Johnson, James K. Tracy, J. Jacob Gorringe, and Bradley C. Johnson, Attorneys for Appellee

JUDGE JOHN D. LUTHY authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and RYAN M. HARRIS concurred.

LUTHY, Judge:

¶1        Summer Tatiana McKell, through her legal guardian Michelle Tischner, brought suit against Robert C. McKell, her adoptive father and former legal guardian, for claims related to sexual abuse he committed against her. Robert[1] moved to dismiss Summer’s claims on the ground that they were untimely under the relevant statute of limitations. Summer contended that the limitations period was statutorily tolled while she was incompetent, until the time of Tischner’s appointment as her guardian. Before the district court issued a decision on the motion, our supreme court issued an opinion clarifying that the relevant statute tolls limitations periods throughout a person’s incompetency, regardless of whether the person has an appointed guardian. See Zilleruelo v. Commodity Transporters, Inc., 2022 UT 1, ¶ 24, 506 P.3d 509. However, neither party brought this decision to the district court’s attention, and the court dismissed Summer’s claims on the grounds that the limitations period was not tolled while she had guardians appointed and that the combined time of the guardianships exceeded the limitations period.

¶2        Summer appeals, arguing that the district court improperly dismissed her claims as time-barred. She asserts that, as Zilleruelo clarifies, the limitations period was statutorily tolled even when she had guardians. Robert contends that Summer did not preserve this argument and that she invited any error in the court’s ruling on timeliness. Alternatively, he asks us to affirm on the ground that Summer did not sufficiently plead incompetence. We reject Robert’s preservation argument, we conclude that Summer did not invite the error leading to the dismissal of her claims, and we determine that Summer sufficiently pled incompetence. Accordingly, we conclude that the district court erred in dismissing Summer’s claims, and we reverse.

BACKGROUND[2]

Summer’s Birth and Adoption

¶3        Summer was born in Russia in 1994 and was later brought to Utah by her adoptive mother (Mother). Summer purportedly suffered traumatic injuries at birth that caused “a variety of mental, emotional, and behavioral developmental disabilities, including cognitive impairment.” Mother married Robert in 2007, and Robert subsequently adopted Summer.

Summer’s Guardianships and Robert’s Criminal Charges

¶4        In January 2013, after Summer had turned eighteen, Mother and Robert petitioned to be jointly appointed as Summer’s limited guardians and conservators. They were appointed as such on February 15, 2013.

¶5        Soon after this appointment, Summer reported that Robert had sexually assaulted her on multiple occasions. Criminal charges were filed against Robert in April 2013. Robert and Mother resigned as Summer’s legal guardians and conservators on January 7, 2014.

¶6        Michelle Tischner, Summer’s sister, was appointed as Summer’s legal guardian on October 2, 2017. In November of that year, Robert pled guilty to four counts of sexual battery for his conduct toward Summer.

Summer’s Complaint and Robert’s Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings

¶7        On April 22, 2021, Summer, through Tischner, brought this suit against Robert. In her complaint, Summer alleged, among other things, that Robert had sexually assaulted her.

¶8        In his answer, Robert asserted as an affirmative defense that Summer’s claims were “barred by the applicable statutes of limitations.” Robert then filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings, contending that “[t]he four-year statute of limitations governing each of [Summer’s] claims [had] expired several years [previously].”

¶9        Summer opposed this motion, arguing that it “ignore[d] the tolling provisions of Utah law that apply to disabled and incapacitated victims like Summer” and that “[b]ecause the statutes of limitation were tolled until Ms. Tischner was appointed guardian, the action was timely filed.” Summer pointed to Utah Code section 78B-2-108 (the Tolling Statute), which provides, “During the time that an individual is underage or mentally incompetent, the statute of limitations for a cause of action other than for the recovery of real property may not run.” Utah Code § 78B-2-108(2). Summer stated that “[t]he statute of limitations on [her] claims was tolled until the appointment of her guardian” and that “her claims were timely filed within the applicable statutes of limitation” because she “brought this action within four years of” the appointment of Tischner and “the curing of her legal incapacity.”

¶10 Robert replied that Summer’s complaint did not adequately plead incompetence and that even if it did, Summer’s incompetence was cured more than four years prior when Mother became Summer’s guardian and conservator.

Summer’s Amended Complaint and Robert’s Motion to Dismiss

¶11 Summer then sought and obtained leave to amend her complaint. Her amended complaint stated that “Robert signed and filed a ‘Verified Consent to Conservatorship’ wherein he affirmed that . . . ‘Summer suffers from a disability that has impeded her ability to progress mentally and intellectually, and on information and belief, has only attained the intellectual age of approximately 12 years, though she is 18 years old.’” It asserted that “Robert and [Mother’s] 2013 limited guardianship is void ab initio due to fraud upon the court in prosecuting the petition, bad faith, violating public policy against using court-appointed guardianship to accomplish unlawful ends, failing to discharge obligations or responsibilities, etc.” Additionally, it declared that “Summer remained under a disability and was therefore legally incompetent until the appointment of her current limited guardian.”

¶12 Robert filed a motion to dismiss Summer’s amended complaint. He again argued that Summer’s claims were time-barred because “she had a legal guardian in place for well over four years before asserting her sexual assault claims.”

¶13 Summer opposed Robert’s motion. She reiterated her position that she was incompetent until Tischner’s appointment as guardian, and she stated that “at that point the statute of limitations began to run.”

¶14 Robert replied by explaining that his calculations as to timeliness included Mother’s time as Summer’s guardian such that “between [Mother’s] and Tischner’s guardianships combined, Summer waited too long to assert her sex abuse claims.”

Zilleruelo v. Commodity Transporters, Inc.

¶15      In January 2022, our supreme court issued an opinion in Zilleruelo v. Commodity Transporters, Inc., 2022 UT 1, 506 P.3d 509, interpreting the Tolling Statute. Therein, the court provided the following analysis:

The Tolling Statute has two relevant subsections. The first prohibits a mentally incompetent individual from initiating a claim without a legal guardian. With this language— “without a legal guardian”—the Legislature has decreed that a mentally incompetent person cannot bring suit unless that person has a legal guardian.

The second subsection speaks to a different question. It guarantees that a statute of limitations will not run against a mentally incompetent individual during the time that the individual is mentally incompetent. However, the Legislature omitted the language “without a legal guardian” from the second subsection. . . . We presume omissions to be purposeful.

Taking note of this omission and deeming it purposeful, the language of the Tolling Statute is plain. A statute of limitations is tolled during a person’s mental incompetency, whether or not that person has a legal guardian.

[The appellee] argues for a reading of the Tolling Statute where the second subsection would parallel the first. In other words, [the appellee] wants us to read the Tolling Statute to provide: “During the time that an individual is underage, or mentally incompetent and without a legal guardian, the statute of limitations for a cause of action other than for the recovery of real property may not run.” Without a doubt, the Legislature could have written the Tolling Statute in this way. But also without a doubt, it did not. And it is not our job to second guess the Legislature and insert substantive terms into the statute’s text.

Simply stated, the Tolling Statute provides that the statute of limitations is tolled while a person is mentally incompetent, whether or not that person is represented by a legal guardian.

Id. ¶¶ 20–24 (cleaned up). Neither party brought Zilleruelo to the district court’s attention.

Oral Argument and the Ruling on Robert’s Motion to Dismiss

¶16      In February 2022, the district court heard oral argument on Robert’s motion to dismiss. During this hearing, Summer’s position remained consistent with her earlier statements regarding the effect of her incompetency to toll the statute of limitations until the time of Tischner’s guardianship. Summer’s counsel stated that “a person does gain competency when there is a guardian that is appointed” and that Summer’s “incapacity was cured by the appointment of Michelle Tischner as her guardian.” Again, neither party raised Zilleruelo at the hearing or in subsequent briefing to the district court.

¶17 In March 2022, the district court granted Robert’s motion and dismissed Summer’s claims. The court noted that Robert had argued “that the standard for legal incompetency is different than the standard for a disability that would apply to the appointment of a guardian,” but the court did not “rule on the parties’ argument regarding the differences between competency and disability” because it reasoned that “even assuming that [Summer was] correct that her incapacitation was sufficient to deem her mentally incompetent and that it triggered the tolling of the statute of limitations, the appointment of guardians for her removed the tolling while she had guardians appointed.” The court calculated that between Mother and Tischner, Summer “had guardians appointed for a total of four years and 133 days after the alleged sexual assault and before she filed the present lawsuit.” Accordingly, the court concluded that Summer’s “causes of action [were] barred by the statute of limitations” and dismissed them. Summer now appeals.

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶18 Summer argues that the district court erroneously dismissed her claims as time-barred because the Tolling Statute renders them timely. “Because a trial court’s grant or denial of a motion to dismiss is a question of law, the standard of review is correctness.” State v. Arguelles, 2020 UT App 112, ¶ 6, 473 P.3d 170 (cleaned up).

ANALYSIS

¶19      Summer asserts that the district court “err[ed] as a matter of law in holding that statutes of limitation for an incompetent person’s claims . . . begin to run upon the judicial appointment of a legal guardian.” She argues that our supreme court’s opinion in Zilleruelo v. Commodity Transporters, Inc., 2022 UT 1, 506 P.3d 509, demands the conclusion that the statute of limitations has been tolled throughout the duration of Summer’s alleged ongoing incompetence—regardless of guardianship status—such that her claims were timely. We agree that Zilleruelo does demand that conclusion. The holding in Zilleruelo clearly establishes that if Summer was incompetent, her claims were not time-barred because the relevant statute of limitations was tolled under the Tolling Statute for the duration of Summer’s incompetency, regardless of guardianship status. See id. ¶ 24.

¶20 Robert responds not by asserting that the court’s legal conclusion on tolling during incompetency or its application of the Tolling Statute were correct but, rather, by contending that Summer’s argument on appeal is unavailing because she did not preserve it or argue an exception to preservation and because she invited any error on this point. Robert additionally asserts that we should affirm on the alternative ground that Summer did not sufficiently plead incompetence. We address these contentions in turn.

  1. Preservation

¶21 Robert contends that we should not consider Summer’s appeal because Summer failed to preserve the issue of whether “statutes of limitation for an incompetent person’s claims . . . begin to run upon the judicial appointment of a legal guardian.” (Omission in original.) In support of this argument, Robert points to caselaw establishing that Utah appellate courts “view issues narrowly” and “recognize that an appellant raises a new issue when the appellant raises a legal theory entirely distinct from the legal theory the appellant raised to the district court.” Ahhmigo, LLC v. Synergy Co. of Utah, 2022 UT 4, ¶ 18, 506 P.3d 536 (cleaned up).

¶22 We first note that the issue of the impact of the Tolling Statute was before the district court. Robert raised the issue of whether Summer’s claims were time-barred in his answer and motion for judgment on the pleadings, and Summer responded by quoting the Tolling Statute and arguing that it rendered her claims timely. Whether we define the issue broadly as the timeliness of Summer’s claims or more narrowly as the effect of the Tolling Statute on the timeliness of Summer’s claims given her guardianships, these issues were preserved.[3] Either issue was “presented to the trial court in such a way that the trial court ha[d] an opportunity to rule on that issue.” 438 Main St. v. Easy Heat, Inc., 2004 UT 72, ¶ 51, 99 P.3d 801 (cleaned up). That Summer agreed to an interpretation of the Tolling Statute that was legally incorrect does not change the reality that the court was presented with and ruled on these issues. See Cottam v. IHC Health Services, Inc., 2024 UT App 19, ¶ 18 n.2, 544 P.3d 1051 (“The court was not required to hold the [defendants] to their apparent legal concession; it was required to reach its own conclusion on the [legal question presented].”). And once an issue has been raised in the trial court, “new arguments” as to that issue, including “citing new authority or cases supporting an issue that was properly preserved,” “do not require an exception to preservation.” State v. Johnson, 2017 UT 76, ¶ 14 n.2, 416 P.3d 443. What Summer has done on appeal is to cite a new case—namely, Zilleruelo—in support of an issue that was properly preserved— namely, the timeliness of her claims in light of the Tolling Statute and her guardianships.

¶23      We recognize that, as Robert asserts, Summer is relying on appeal on a Tolling Statute theory—that the Tolling Statute tolls the running of the statute of limitations during all of her incompetency, regardless of whether she has a guardian—that is distinguishable from the Tolling Statute theory she relied on below—that the Tolling Statute tolls the running of the statute of limitations for periods during which she was incompetent and without a guardian and that Mother should not be deemed to have been her guardian. However, based on the same considerations that guided our supreme court’s decision in Patterson v. Patterson, 2011 UT 68, 266 P.3d 828, we decline to characterize these as entirely distinct legal theories for preservation purposes.

¶24 In Patterson, the defendant had asserted below that an existing Utah Supreme Court opinion that arguably controlled the key issue in the case should be either distinguished or overruled. See id. ¶ 4. The defendant had failed to bring to the district court’s attention the fact that legislation subsequent to the relevant supreme court opinion had overruled that opinion already. See id. ¶¶ 18, 20. The district court determined that the supreme court opinion at issue was controlling, and in reliance on that opinion, it granted partial summary judgment against the defendant. See id. ¶ 5.

¶25 On appeal, the defendant asked the supreme court to overrule its prior opinion or, alternatively, to apply the subsequently enacted statute, which the defendant newly argued had itself overruled the prior opinion already. See id. ¶ 8. The plaintiff responded by asserting that the prior opinion “remain[ed] good law and should not be overruled.” Id. He further contended that the subsequent statute had not overruled the prior opinion and that, in any event, the court should not consider the statutory argument because the defendant raised it for the first time on appeal. See id.

¶26 The supreme court began its analysis by considering whether the defendant was barred from arguing the applicability of the subsequent statute where he had not cited it in the district court. Id. ¶ 10. After explaining the “two primary considerations underlying the [preservation] rule”—“judicial economy and fairness”—the court concluded that the preservation rule did not prevent the defendant from raising on appeal what it deemed to be “controlling legislation.” Id. ¶¶ 15‒16, 18. Simply stated, where the statute was relevant to “a properly preserved issue,” the court was “unwilling to disregard controlling authority that [bore] upon the ultimate resolution of [the] case solely because the parties did not raise it below.” Id. ¶ 18.

¶27 The court acknowledged that its decision might “undermine some of the policies underlying the preservation requirement.” Id. ¶ 19. Specifically, it said that judicial economy might not be served since the district court “may have ruled in [the defendant’s] favor and [the] appeal [may] have been avoided” if the defendant had raised the controlling authority in the district court. Id. And it explained that fairness was not being fully served since it was “not entirely fair to characterize the district court’s ruling as ‘error’ because it did not have the statute before it.” Id. But the court emphasized that there were “other important [policy] considerations that cut against application of the preservation rule in [that] situation.” Id. ¶ 20.

¶28      First, the court noted that consideration of the controlling statute was “necessary to a proper decision” and that “[a]s the state’s highest court, [it has] a responsibility to maintain a sound and uniform body of precedent and must apply the statutes duly enacted into law.” Id. Second, the court observed that “the issue of whether and how” the statute applied was “one that [could] be resolved purely as a matter of law.” Id. Third, the court then pointed out that the defendant’s “failure to raise the argument below appear[ed] to have been inadvertent, rather than tactical, because [the court could] conceive of no way in which [the defendant] would [have] derive[d] an advantage from reserving the statutory argument for appeal rather than raising it in the district court.” Id. Finally, the court highlighted the parties’ “ethical obligation to disclose adverse authority to the court,” explaining, “[T]he failure to raise the controlling statute in the district court is a failure that can be appropriately assigned to counsel for both parties. Were we to refuse to apply the [controlling statute] here, it could incentivize attorneys to disregard their ethical obligation to point out controlling adverse authority.” Id.

¶29      Almost all of these important policy considerations that cut against application of the preservation rule in Patterson likewise cut against application of the preservation rule here. As an initial matter, where newly cited authority is relevant to a narrow, preserved issue, we, like the Patterson court, are “unwilling to disregard controlling authority that bears upon the ultimate resolution of [the] case solely because the parties did not raise it below.” Id. ¶ 18. Additionally, the impact of the Tolling Statute here “can be resolved purely as a matter of law.” Id. ¶ 20. Moreover, Summer’s “failure to raise the [Zilleruelo] argument below appears to have been inadvertent, rather than tactical, because we can conceive of no way in which [Summer] would derive an advantage from reserving [this] argument for appeal rather than raising it in the district court.” Id. Finally, because both parties had “an ethical obligation to disclose adverse authority to the court,” “the failure to raise [Zilleruelo] in the district court is a failure that can be appropriately assigned to counsel for both parties.” Id. And like our supreme court, we have no desire to “incentivize attorneys to disregard their ethical obligation to point out controlling adverse authority.”[4] Id.

¶30 Admittedly, the distance between the argument made in the district court in Patterson (that prior precedent should be overruled) and the alternative argument made on appeal in Patterson (that prior precedent had already been statutorily overruled) was less than the distance between Summer’s argument below (that Mother should not be deemed to have been Summer’s guardian) and Summer’s argument on appeal (that it does not matter whether Summer had a guardian as long as Summer was mentally incompetent). But as close cases like this one reveal, there is no bright line between a new argument and an entirely distinct legal theory. Therefore, we have been counseled “to look at the underlying policies to determine whether new arguments are actually entirely new issues.” State v. Johnson, 2017 UT 76, ¶ 14 n.2, 416 P.3d 443. That is what we have done here. And in light of the policy considerations identified above, we conclude that Summer’s reliance on Zilleruelo does not present an entirely new issue but, rather, a new argument under the narrow, preserved issue of whether her claims were timely in light of the Tolling Statute and her guardianships. We therefore reject Robert’s argument that our preservation doctrine prevents us from considering the applicability of Zilleruelo.

  1. Invited Error

¶31 Robert also argues that Summer invited any error in the district court’s ruling related to the Tolling Statute because she affirmatively represented to the court “the very legal principle she now challenges on appeal.” We disagree and conclude that the invited error doctrine is inapplicable here.

¶32      “Under the doctrine of invited error, an error is invited when counsel encourages the trial court to make an erroneous ruling.” State v. Popp, 2019 UT App 173, ¶ 23, 453 P.3d 657 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 485 P.3d 943 (Utah 2021). “To invite an error, a party must do more than simply fail to object; the party must manifest some sort of affirmative representation to the trial court that the court is proceeding appropriately.” Id.

Application of the invited error doctrine serves three important purposes. First, it discourages parties from intentionally misleading the trial court so as to preserve a hidden ground for reversal on appeal. Second, it encourages counsel to actively participate in all proceedings and to raise any possible error at the time of its occurrence. Finally, it fortifies our long-established policy that the district court should have the first opportunity to address a claim of error.

State v. Moa, 2012 UT 28, ¶ 25, 282 P.3d 985 (cleaned up).

¶33 There is no denying that Summer’s counsel stated to the court that “a person does gain competency when there is a guardian that is appointed”; this statement conceded a legal rule that was wrong, which the district court erroneously applied when it determined that “the appointment of guardians for [Summer, including Mother,] removed the tolling” of the relevant statute of limitations. However, Summer never encouraged the court’s ultimate decision dismissing her claims as untimely under the Tolling Statute. Nor did she affirmatively represent that the district court was “proceeding appropriately” by dismissing her claims. Popp, 2019 UT App 173, ¶ 23. To the contrary, Summer steadfastly maintained that her claims were timely under the Tolling Statute by adamantly denying that Mother’s guardianship cured her incompetency.

¶34 Moreover, Summer’s actions in the district court fulfilled the first purpose of the invited error doctrine and at least partially fulfilled its second purpose. Specifically, there is no indication that Summer intentionally misled the trial court where, as we have already observed, there was no way in which she would have derived an advantage by waiting to raise Zilleruelo until appeal. And her counsel was actively participating in the proceedings and raised the possible error he perceived at the time of its occurrence.

¶35 We acknowledge that a decision to not apply the invited error doctrine in this circumstance may undermine the other purposes of the doctrine, including to encourage counsel to raise any possible error at the time of its occurrence and to thereby fortify the “long-established policy that the district court should have the first opportunity to address a claim of error,” Moa, 2012 UT 28, ¶ 25 (cleaned up)—the identical judicial economy purposes that undergird the preservation rule, see Patterson v. Patterson, 2011 UT 68, ¶ 15, 266 P.3d 828. However, the same important counter-considerations that led us to not apply the preservation rule in this situation, see supra ¶ 29, also lead us to not apply the invited error doctrine in this situation. Much like we said with regard to preservation, “we are unwilling to disregard controlling authority that bears upon the ultimate resolution of a case solely because the parties did not [discover] it below,” Patterson, 2011 UT 68, ¶ 18, and, thus, agreed to a misstatement of the law. Instead, we hold that the invited error doctrine does not apply when, as here, there is controlling authority that counsel for both sides—as well as the trial court—wholly failed to recognize and the appealing party did not acquiesce in the ultimate decision that is rendered erroneous by that controlling authority. In such circumstances, only an affirmative disavowal of the controlling authority itself will constitute invited error.

III. Sufficiency of Pleadings Regarding Incompetence

¶36 Finally, Robert argues that we should “affirm on the alternate ground that the [a]mended [c]omplaint fails to allege that Summer is mentally incompetent, which means that her claims are barred by the statute of limitations.” Robert asserts that the threshold for a person to be deemed “mentally incompetent” for purposes of the Tolling Statute is a high bar that Summer failed to sufficiently plead.

¶37 Our supreme court has explained that “tolling statutes based on mental incompetency are enacted to relieve from the strict time restrictions people who are unable to protect their legal rights because of an overall inability to function in society.” O’Neal v. Division of Family Services, 821 P.2d 1139, 1142 (Utah 1991) (cleaned up). “Courts generally hold that a person is incompetent for the purposes of a provision tolling a statute of limitations when the disability is of such a nature to show him or her unable to manage his or her business affairs or estate, or to comprehend his or her legal rights or liabilities.” Id. (cleaned up).

¶38      Summer’s amended complaint alleged that “Robert signed and filed a ‘Verified Consent to Conservatorship’ wherein he affirmed that . . . ‘Summer suffers from a disability that has impeded her ability to progress mentally and intellectually, and on information and belief, has only attained the intellectual age of approximately 12 years, though she is 18 years old.’” The amended complaint also alleged that “Summer remained under a disability and was therefore legally incompetent until the appointment of her current limited guardian.” Additionally, in both her original complaint and her amended complaint, Summer alleged that she “suffers from a variety of mental, emotional, and behavioral developmental disabilities, including cognitive impairment” due to her birth injuries and that “she has profound difficulties in seeking out and processing information on her own.” These allegations are more than sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss on the issue of mental incompetency under the Tolling Statute.

¶39      Of particular relevance are the allegations that, although of an adult age, Summer had attained the intellectual age of only a twelve-year-old and that she suffers from mental disabilities and cognitive impairment that make it profoundly difficult for her to seek out and process information. These allegations and permissible inferences that can be drawn from them paint a picture of someone who is unable to manage her own business affairs and to comprehend or protect her legal rights because of an overall inability to function in society. See generally Alpine Homes, Inc. v. City of West Jordan, 2017 UT 45, ¶ 7 n.2, 424 P.3d 95 (“In determining whether a lawsuit survives a motion to dismiss, we assume that the factual allegations in the complaint are true and we draw all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” (cleaned up)). Indeed, where the Tolling Statute operates to relieve from the strict time restrictions of applicable statutes of limitation a person who is actually twelve years old, we find it difficult to conclude that the Tolling Statute would not similarly relieve an adult with the mental capacity of a twelve-year-old. Accordingly, we do not affirm on this alternative ground.

CONCLUSION

¶40      Zilleruelo clarifies that the Tolling Statute applies during the duration of a person’s incompetency, regardless of guardianship status. See Zilleruelo v. Commodity Transporters, Inc., 2022 UT 1, ¶ 24, 506 P.3d 509. Summer’s claims were therefore timely filed. Because we decline to conclude that this issue was unpreserved, to apply the doctrine of invited error, or to affirm on the alternative ground that Summer failed to sufficiently plead her incompetence, we reverse the district court’s decision and remand this matter to the district court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

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


[1] “Because the parties share the same last name, we use their given names with no disrespect intended by the apparent informality.” Rosser v. Rosser, 2021 UT 71, ¶ 1 n.1, 502 P.3d 294.

[2] “In reviewing a district court’s grant of summary judgment, we view the facts and all reasonable inferences drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and recite the facts accordingly.” Ockey v. Club Jam, 2014 UT App 126, ¶ 2 n.2, 328 P.3d 880 (cleaned up).

[3] Counsel for Robert stated during oral argument before this court, “The issue in front of the district court was this: Do we, for purposes of Summer’s statute of limitations, apply all of the time that she had a legal guardian in place? So do we count both the time that Michelle Tischner was the legal guardian and do we count the time that [Mother] was her legal guardian?” Such a framing is consistent with our conclusion that the district court had an opportunity to rule on the issue of whether Summer’s claims were timely under the Tolling Statute in light of her guardianships.

[4] The only Patterson policy consideration not applicable here is the responsibility of appellate courts to “maintain a sound and uniform body of precedent,” which cannot be done if an appellate court is required “to issue an opinion in contravention of” controlling authority. Patterson v. Patterson, 2011 UT 68, ¶ 20, 266 P.3d 828. This was an active consideration in Patterson because the defendant there made alternative arguments on appeal, which required the supreme court to address the merits of the key issue in any event. See id. ¶ 8. In contrast here, Summer’s appellate argument is based solely on Zilleruelo v. Commodity Transporters, Inc., 2022 UT 1, 506 P.3d 509. Thus, if we were to determine that her argument was precluded by the preservation rule, we could simply affirm the district court’s decision without reaching the merits of the timeliness issue and thereby avoid issuing an opinion in contravention of controlling authority. We are not convinced, however, that the inapplicability here of this one policy consideration compels a different conclusion as to preservation.

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Your Divorce Lawyer is Serious About Deadlines By Braxton Mounteer, Legal Assistant

Throughout the divorce process you will have to meet many deadlines.

The court will even provide you with a list of due dates known as a notice of event due dates. If your lawyer does not provide you with a copy, ask for a copy, so that you know the deadlines for yourself.

The consequences for failing to meet the deadlines set by the court and the rules of court in your case can be damaging, even fatal to your case.

When a petition for divorce is filed and served, there is a deadline by which you must file and serve responsive pleadings, meaning your answer or answer and counterclaim. If you don’t respond by the set deadline, default judgment could be entered against you.

If you do not complete discovery or provide your initial disclosures by the deadlines, you may be barred from gathering or presenting evidence or witnesses at trial.

What about extensions of time? You might get an extension on a deadline if you have a legitimate reason to ask for one and if the opposing party agrees to grant you an extension or the court grants your request for an extension. Be careful when asking for extensions, however. If you get an extension on one deadline, the opposing party will almost surely expect a favor from you too in the future.

You are better off (and better for it) by religiously adhering to deadlines. Complying with the deadlines set by the court and the rules of court results in the fewest errors and setbacks and in the fairest and most equitable treatment from the court. And that results in your greatest changes of success.

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

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What Do We Do When Equal (50/50) Physical Custody Is Awarded but One Parent Isn’t Bearing the Responsibilities Equal Custody Requires of That Parent?

Recently a Quora.com reader commented on my answer to this question: Is there a primary parent in joint custody in Utah which is also known as “equal” or “50/50” custody?

They were good comments that reflect the frustrations of many parents in equal custody situations. To summarize them:

  • Equal physical custody should not be awarded unless each parent exercises equal parental responsibility
    • Or at the very least, if one equal custodial parent does more of the work of caring for the children during his/her time when the children are in his/her care, award that parent some (or more) child support for his/her trouble.
  • Equal custody should not be awarded or exercised if an equal custodial parent who is ordered to pay child support does not pay it.

It is absolutely and indisputably correct that for a parent to merit an award to him or her of equal physical child custody that parent must bear parental responsibility equally as well.

The question, then, is: what is equal parental responsibility?

While bearing parental responsibility equally could mean that the parents perform each and every parental task equally and in equal amounts (“if I take the child to the doctor this time, you have to take the child to the doctor the next time”), it does not necessarily require it. Pulling equal weight doesn’t mean pulling the same particular weight at the same particular time. If one parent is happier helping with homework than with athletics or club activities, then it may not be a bad idea for that parent to help with most of the homework and for the other parent to take care of getting the kids to and from soccer practices and games. You get the idea.

You mentioned that your ex-husband can pay but chooses not to pay the $40 he is court-ordered to pay each month for homeschooling costs. That’s inexcusable, if you were awarded sole custody, that wouldn’t magically cause Dad to pay you $40 every month either. So not paying money isn’t a reason not to award equal custody. THAT STATED, I know that some parents who were awarded equal custody want all the benefits of equal custody without meeting any of the associated responsibilities. The only way to keep some (some, not all) of these types honest is to hit them in the pocketbook.

We all know that if spending time with the children were conditioned on paying child support in full and on time (when able, of course), we’d see a lot more child support being paid. Not always, but a lot more. We also all know that if receiving child support were conditioned on ensuring that you showed up for every custody and parent-time exchange on time (when able, of course), we’d see a lot more child support being paid as well.

Unfortunately*, Utah’s law is “If a parent fails to comply with a provision of the parenting plan [i.e., the physical custody and parent-time awards] or a child support order, the other parent’s obligations under the parenting plan or the child support order are not affected.” (Utah Code § 30–3–10.9(9)) and “A parent may not withhold parent-time or child support due to the other parent’s failure to comply with a court-ordered parent-time schedule.” (Utah Code § 30–3–33(9))

You also referred to the situation in which Dad never attends health care appointments. This is a hard question to analyze, but here’s my reasoning:

  • If Dad can take the kids to these appointments without placing his job in jeopardy, he should. That way, neither parent is burdened too much with appointments and each parent stays apprised of their children’s health and health care.
  • But if Dad works a 9 to 5 job, and if the appointments take place during the 9 to 5 work day and you’re a stay-at-home parent who homeschools the kids, doesn’t it make more sense for you to take the kids to these appointments? Why make Dad do it just to make him do it? Why make Dad do it when you can do it easier and without placing Dad’s job in jeopardy?
  • On the other hand, if Dad could bear the health care appointments burdens with you equally, but refuses to do so, resulting in you spending all the time and making all the effort required to take care of this important custodial responsibility, that may justify awarding you sole physical custody of the children.

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

https://utahdivorceandfamilylaw.quora.com/Is-there-a-primary-parent-in-joint-custody-in-Utah-which-is-also-known-as-equal-or-50-50-custody-Utah-like-many-s?__nsrc__=4&__snid3__=70639966822&comment_id=98421161&comment_type=3


*Again, and in fairness (and while I don’t have any data to support this), I’d bet that conditioning custody and parent-time on paying child support and conditioning the payment of child support on the child support recipient complying with custody and parent-time exchanges causes more problems than it solves. Maybe it doesn’t. If there is no data, I think it’s worth experimenting with to find out.

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What Would I Say, if I Were a Judge or Commissioner Hearing a Protective Order Request Case and I Denied the Request for the Protective Order?

I would say this:

By law I cannot grant a request for a protective order unless a preponderance of the evidence supports the request.

If the request lacks the support of a preponderance of the evidence, then the law prohibits me from granting it, even if I desired to grant it in spite of the law. I have no desire to act in spite of the law.

It is tempting to grant a protective order unsupported by a preponderance of evidence on a “better safe than sorry” basis, but that temptation’s ultimate end is, as is true of all temptations, evil. Abusing the law to provide protection from ostensible cohabitant abuse would be rank hypocrisy.

Finding a petitioner has not met the burden of proof does not mean either 1) the petitioner is or is not, in fact, a victim of cohabitant abuse; or 2) the respondent did or did not, in fact, commit cohabitant abuse.

If any protective order petitioner is in fact a victim of cohabitant abuse, then I suggest that the petitioner take all reasonable, necessary, and legally permissible measures available to the petitioner for the petitioner’s protection. A protective order is certainly not the only or the most effective protective measure a cohabitant abuse victim can or should take. A sheet of paper or an image on a screen cannot deflect fists, feet, clubs, knives, or bullets. A protective order is only as effective as it is duly enforced, but unfortunately, “When seconds count, the police are just minutes away.” For your own sake be resourceful. Do not become a victim of your own inaction.

If a protective order respondent is, in fact, innocent of the allegations made against the respondent, then I extend to all such respondents this court’s apologies for the stigma that may, and almost certainly will, attach to and dog the respondent for who knows how long as the result of being falsely accused. Fraudulently sought protective orders are all too common, and everyone in the legal system knows it.

If a protective order respondent is, in fact, a cohabitant abuse perpetrator whom the preponderance of evidence standard unwittingly abetted, then I hope and suggest you seize on this opportunity to sin no more. You may not be so lucky next time.

The first courtroom I set foot in as a lawyer had these two statements written on its walls: “Know thyself. – Socrates” and “Control thyself. – Cicero”. I commend this advice both to the petitioner and to the respondent.

Having reviewed the admissible evidence presented to me on the petitioner’s request for a protective order and having found that the petitioner has not met the preponderance of evidence burden of proof, the request must, therefore, necessarily be and is denied.

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

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Kouri Richins’ Defense Files a Motion to Disqualify Prosecution, Alleging That Her 6th Amendment Rights Were Violated.

According to KUTV, Kouri Richins’ defense filed a motion on Friday, May 17, to disqualify the prosecution from the case.

To read more about this, click on this link:

https://kutv.com/news/local/kouri-richins-defense-skye-lazaro-ray-quinney-nebeker-files-motions-disqualify-prosecution-brad-bloodworth-eric-richins

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What Are the Standards for Appeal That Usually Apply in a Utah Case?

See 2024 UT App 54 – Tilleman v. Tilleman, which recites many of them:

¶26 . . . Generally, we review a trial court’s custody award for an abuse of discretion. See T.W. v. S.A., 2021 UT App 132, ¶ 15, 504 P.3d 163. “This discretion is broad; indeed, as long as the court exercises it within the confines of the legal standards we have set, and the facts and reasons for the decision are set forth fully in appropriate findings and conclusions, we will not disturb the resulting award.” Id. (quotation simplified). But whether the court correctly interpreted the legal standards set forth in sections 30-3-10 and 30-3-10.2 is a question of law that we review for correctness. See Ross v. Ross, 2019 UT App 104, ¶ 8, 447 P.3d 104. See also State v. De La Rosa, 2019 UT App 110, ¶ 4, 445 P.3d 955 (stating that because “trial courts do not have discretion to misapply the law,” “the abuse-of-discretion standard of review will at times necessarily include review to ensure that no mistakes of law affected a lower court’s use of its discretion”) (quotation simplified).

¶26 . . . We review the trial court’s findings of fact for clear error. See T.W., 2021 UT App 132, ¶ 15. Under this standard, “the factual findings of the district court will not be disturbed unless they are clearly erroneous by being in conflict with the clear weight of the evidence. But the existence of conflicting evidence is not sufficient to set aside a district court’s finding.” Hinds v. Hinds-Holm, 2022 UT App 13, ¶ 28 n.4, 505 P.3d 1136 (quotation simplified).

¶27  . . . In reviewing the admissibility of evidence, we review the underlying legal questions for correctness and the “court’s decision to admit or exclude evidence and [its] determinations regarding the admissibility of expert testimony” for an abuse of discretion. Smith v. Volkswagen SouthTowne, Inc., 2022 UT 29, ¶ 41, 513 P.3d 729 (quotation simplified). “However, error in the district court’s evidentiary rulings will result in reversal only if the error is harmful.” Anderson v. Larry H. Miller Commc’ns Corp., 2015 UT App 134, ¶ 17, 351 P.3d 832.

¶28  “We review the district court’s interpretation of statutory requirements for correctness” and “the court’s ultimate imputation of income . . . for abuse of discretion.” Burggraaf v. Burggraaf, 2019 UT App 195, ¶ 23, 455 P.3d 1071 (quotation simplified).

¶29  “We review a district court’s decision to award attorney fees pursuant to this statute (Utah Code § 30-3-3) for an abuse of discretion,” Gardner v. Gardner, 2019 UT 61, ¶ 16, 452 P.3d 1134, but review its underlying legal conclusions for correctness, see De La Rosa, 2019 UT App 110, ¶ 4.

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

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Is There Anything I Can Do for Winning Custody After the Gal Report Is Favoring My Ex? Is Paying More to My Attorneys Worth It or No?

After you ask, “Is there anything I can do for winning custody after the GAL report is favoring my ex? Is paying more to my attorneys worth it or no?,” then you need to ask these questions:

Is the GAL’s report favoring my ex accurate? Otherwise stated, “Am I unfit to be awarded custody (whether that be sole custody or joint custody or equal custody?” If you are unfit to be awarded the custody you want or any kind of custody, you may have different and bigger obstacles than the GAL’s report standing in your way.

If the GAL’s report favoring you ex is inaccurate and/or biased, are the inaccuracies and biases significant and relevant?

If so, can you prove it? Otherwise stated, do you have admissible evidence that conclusively establishes the the GAL’s report is inaccurate and/or biased? If you have evidence of some minor or irrelevant inaccuracies, that likely won’t be enough to persuade the court to disregard the report and recommendations of the GAL. If, however, you can show the GAL is incompetent, did shoddy work, and/or indulged personal biases irrespective of the facts, that might (might) be enough to get the report thrown out or at least to get the court to give the report less credence.

So, in response to the question of whether it is worth it to pay your attorneys more money in an effort to discredit the GAL’s reports and recommendations, if you conclude (honestly) that 1) you are fit to be awarded the custody award you seek AND you can prove it; 2) the GAL’s report and recommendations are significantly inaccurate and/or biased AND you can prove it; 3) you have the money and a good attorney necessary to make a winning presentation to the court; AND 4) you conclude it’s worth risking the money and effort to make the attempt, then the answer is yes.

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

https://www.quora.com/Is-there-anything-I-can-do-for-winning-custody-after-the-GAL-report-is-favoring-my-ex-Is-paying-more-to-my-attorneys-worth-it-or-no/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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2024 UT App 54 – Tilleman v. Tilleman – custody factors, income, fees

2024 UT App 54 – Tilleman v. Tilleman

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

MICHAEL ROBERT TILLEMAN, Appellant, v. MICHAL CHRISTINE TILLEMAN, Appellee.

Opinion No. 20210637-CA Filed April 11, 2024

Fourth District Court, Provo Department

The Honorable M. James Brady No. 164402522

Julie J. Nelson, Attorney for Appellant, Douglas B. Thayer, Andy V. Wright, and Jessica Griffin Anderson, Attorneys for Appellee

JUDGE GREGORY K. ORME authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES DAVID N. MORTENSEN and RYAN M. HARRIS concurred.

ORME, Judge:

¶1        Michael Robert Tilleman (Father) and Michal Christine Tilleman (Mother) were married and share one child (Child). Following rather contentious divorce proceedings, the trial court awarded sole legal custody of Child to Mother but awarded the parties joint physical custody. The court also imputed federal minimum wage income to Mother for child support purposes, and it awarded her attorney fees and costs.

¶2        On appeal, Father makes various arguments challenging the court’s legal custody award. He also contends that the court abused its discretion in imputing federal minimum wage income to Mother and in awarding her attorney fees and costs. Although we affirm several aspects of the court’s legal custody award, we nevertheless hold that the court abused its discretion in applying the wrong legal standard and accordingly reverse and remand for the court’s consideration of all the statutorily mandated custody factors. We also reverse the court’s imputation of Mother’s income and its attorney fee award and remand for further proceedings.

BACKGROUND[1]

¶3        Mother and Father married in 2013, and Child was born a little over a year later. In 2016, following a separation, Father filed a petition for divorce. This was soon followed by Mother’s counter-petition for divorce. The trial court characterized the ensuing litigation as “contentious” and the parties as “unusually accusatory, intransigent, and uncooperative.” We limit our recounting of the divorce proceedings to facts relevant to the issues raised on appeal.

¶4        In 2018, the court entered a stipulated, bifurcated decree of divorce reserving for trial, in relevant part, the issues of custody, parent-time, child support, and attorney fees. Although the parties each initially sought sole physical custody and joint legal custody of Child, by the time of trial they had each amended their pleadings to request sole physical and sole legal custody of Child.

¶5        In conjunction with her counter-petition for divorce, Mother also filed a motion asking that the court order Father to undergo a psychological examination under rule 35 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure “to properly address his ability to parent” Child.[2] The motion alleged that Father “has exhibited intense anger toward [Mother] and has engaged in mental and emotional abuse,” that “such anger has been exhibited toward” Child, and that he “may be suffering from mental health conditions.”

¶6        Father opposed Mother’s rule 35 motion and denied its allegations. In turn, he asked the court to order that Mother undergo a rule 35 evaluation, alleging that she “has been verbally and physically abusive towards” him, that she “is unable to control her anger and aggressions towards” him, and that “recent irrational and inappropriate actions, behaviors, and instability indicate that she may be suffering from some form of mental illness.”

¶7        In 2017, at a hearing on temporary orders, Mother’s counsel informed the trial court that the parties had stipulated, among other things, “that either party can request and . . . the other party will participate in a Rule 35 mental health exam as long as the requesting party pays the cost up front.” Accordingly, the court’s temporary order included a provision stating that “[e]ither party may request the other party to participate in [a] Rule 35 examination at the requesting party’s expense.”

¶8        Mother subsequently provided Father with a list of three potential rule 35 evaluators, of which Father selected one (First Expert) to conduct his exam. When First Expert requested that Father sign medical releases for his psychological health records, Father refused. In response, Mother filed a motion requesting that the court order Father “to sign and execute all necessary medical releases, upon presentation by [First Expert], so that [Father’s] Rule 35 mental examination can proceed as expeditiously as possible.” At a hearing before a commissioner on the matter, Father argued that he never agreed to sign medical releases and that his understanding of the stipulation was “that he was agreeing to an independent, objective, standardized psychological test.” He also argued that releasing his medical records “prejudices him down the road” because “it allows information that would not otherwise be admissible to become admissible.”

¶9        In ruling on the motion, the commissioner first stated that because the trial court—and not a jury—would be the finder of fact in this case, he did not consider prejudice “to be a significant issue.” Next, in addressing the scope of the rule 35 exam, the commissioner stated that based on his decades of experience interacting with mental health professionals, “the one thing that they all assure me is true [is that] the best predicter of future behavior is past behavior.” The commissioner also noted that the parties had not submitted affidavits from professionals indicating what their usual practice is for such evaluations. Thus, the commissioner recommended, “If it is the Rule 35 examiner’s professional opinion that certain information would assist him in completing his evaluation/report, then both parties shall cooperate in good faith and sign whatever releases for records or information the evaluator wants[.]” Father objected to the commissioner’s recommendation, but the trial court overruled his objection and ordered him to sign the requested medical releases.

¶10 Upon completion of the rule 35 evaluation, First Expert reached the following conclusions, as summarized by the trial court. First Expert noted that “Father was so guarded and defensive when he took the psychological testing that credible information from testing is not available.” First Expert did not observe Father with Child as part of the evaluation. Nevertheless, First Expert concluded, among other things, that Father exhibited “varying degrees” of several negative personality traits; that he “is a very persistent person,” which when “utilized to intimidate and control others” can cause substantial harm to himself and others; and that he “tends to place his own interests before those of others and is not invested in cooperative relationships.” See also infra note 5. First Expert also recommended against joint legal custody of Child.

¶11      In anticipation of trial, Father filed a motion in limine to exclude First Expert’s testimony, contending that his “report and his corresponding testimony have not been shown by [Mother] to be reliable, based on sufficient facts or data, and reliably applied to the facts as required by rule 702 of the Utah Rules of Evidence.” See Utah R. Evid. 702(b). In support of his motion, Father included a report from his own expert (Second Expert) who reviewed the rule 35 evaluation. Second Expert opined, among other things, that “the methodology employed” by First Expert “did not comport with generally accepted standards of practice.” He further stated that First Expert’s “recommendation against joint legal custody is concerning because there is no indication the purpose of the evaluation was to aid the Court in determining custody.”

¶12 Following a hearing, the court ruled that First Expert would be permitted to testify at trial because his “report and his . . . procedures, his methodology, and his data gathering and his qualifications meet that low threshold of showing an indicia of reliability.” But because First Expert’s “qualifications and methodology don’t meet the requirements for a custody evaluation,” the court limited his testimony by precluding him from offering his opinion on that subject at trial.

¶13 Toward the end of 2020, the court held a ten-day bench trial, after which it entered thirty-three pages of findings of fact and conclusions of law. In addressing custody, the court prefaced its findings by discussing Utah Code sections 30-3-10(2) and 30-3-10.2(2), which govern child custody determinations. Section 30-3-10(2) states, with our emphasis, that “[i]n determining any form of custody and parent-time . . . , the court shall consider the best interest of the child and may consider among other factors the court finds relevant, the following for each parent” and then lists various factors. The court interpreted that section to mean that it “is not required to make findings on all factors listed in” that section. Further, section 30-3-10.2(2) provides, again with our emphasis, that “[i]n determining whether the best interest of a child will be served by ordering joint legal custody or joint physical custody or both, the court shall consider the custody factors in Section 30-3-10 and” additional factors listed in section 30-3-10.2(2). The court stated that it understood the interplay between the two sections to mean that when considering joint legal or physical custody of a child, it is “obligated to address the enumerated factors in” section 30-3-10.2(2), but that its consideration of each factor listed in section 30-3-10(2) is not mandatory.

¶14      The trial court then proceeded to make extensive findings pertaining to custody and parent-time, as summarized below. The court found that “[a] primary condition that permeated the marriage was Father’s underlying hostility,” which also “affected the first few years of [Child’s] life and [Father’s] early relationship with, and care for” Child. Throughout Child’s life, Mother has been Child’s primary caregiver. Although “Father rarely, if ever, held, fed, changed, or played with” Child during the marriage, since the separation he has cared for Child during his parent-time. Father and Mother have “demonstrated a strong desire for parent-time since their separation,” and Father “has rearranged work schedules and career goals to accommodate as much time as possible with” Child. His interactions with Child have “significantly improved,” and he “has bonded more with her.” But his “anger towards Mother occasionally interferes with his ability to see, understand, and meet the needs of” Child. Child “has a strong bond with Father” and “enjoys spending time with” him.

¶15 The court found that Mother consistently demonstrated the ability to meet Child’s developmental needs and that Father had demonstrated an improvement in his ability to do so, although the court was unsure whether this was a long-term change. Each parent was able to meet Child’s physical needs and to function as an effective parent, although Father’s “apparent lack of insight of how his anger towards Mother, and his efforts to embroil Mother in allegations of abuse,” see infra ¶ 17, “have physically impacted” Child and have interfered with his parenting abilities. The court determined that both parents have negatively impacted Child’s emotional wellbeing—albeit Mother to a lesser extent—through their poor responses and behaviors when in each other’s presence.

¶16      The court found that although “each parent has shown that they have the capacity and willingness to function as a parent to” Child, “[t]he difficulty lies in their inability to co-parent and properly interact with the other parent,” particularly during drop-off and pick-up, as well as when communicating about Child. Regarding drop-off and pick-up, the court stated that “[t]he difficulty comes about by actions of both parents, although Father more consistently causes [Child’s] transitions to be difficult” by not encouraging her to transition to Mother’s care and by saying things that “weigh negatively on [Child’s] emotions in a manipulative and passive aggressive manner.” Mother also occasionally expressed displeasure about Father’s behavior in Child’s presence. Concerning the parents’ communication, the court stated that in 2017, “[d]ue to the high level o[f] conflict,” it ordered Mother and Father to communicate through a third-party service that reviewed and, if necessary, edited and revised the messages they sent each other. The third-party service had to make substantial edits to many of Father’s messages and advised him that it would “not send emails that are threatening.” Because Father also became adversarial with the third-party service, it withdrew, and the parties had to find another communication intermediary. But in the months leading up to trial, communication between the parties had “been relatively civil.”

¶17 The court next expressed concern regarding Father’s “emotional and sometimes indirect physical abuse of” Child through his repeated claims, “without sufficient justification,” that Mother was physically abusive toward Child. Specifically, between 2017 and 2020, Father made multiple reports of abuse to various police departments, the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS), and medical providers. This “exposed [Child] to unnecessary emotional trauma and invasive physical examinations” and never resulted in criminal charges being filed against Mother or in DCFS taking enforcement action against her. “When the agencies did not confirm his opinion, [F]ather became overly focused, argumentative, and belligerent” and “was unwilling to accept the many conclusions of DCFS.” The court found that “Father’s reports of abuse were vexatious and were calculated and designed to harm Mother,” and he either “was not aware of, or did not care about the emotional harm he was causing [Child] through the continuous filing of unsupported claims of abuse.”

¶18      The court then addressed Father’s rule 35 evaluation.[3] At trial, First Expert, Second Expert, and another expert (Third Expert) testified about the evaluation. The court noted that based on First Expert’s own testimony, it appeared that First Expert “primarily identified personality traits of [Father] from testing which [First Expert himself] considered invalid.” The court also agreed with many of Second Expert’s critiques of First Expert’s opinions, including that First Expert’s “opinions based on testing should not be considered” because First Expert “testified that the test results were unreliable due to Father’s high degree of defensiveness”; that First Expert “did not utilize many of the standard tests and methods for determining parenting capacity and therefore his opinions on parenting capacity are not helpful”; and that First Expert did not observe Father interact with Child. Accordingly, the court “found little value in much of [First Expert’s] diagnostic expert opinions,”[4] but it noted that, based on other trial testimony and on its own review of some of the records that First Expert examined that were also submitted into evidence, it agreed with his conclusions regarding Father’s negative characteristics and personality traits. Specifically, the court noted Father’s “historical demonstration of grandiosity, entitlement, interpersonal exploitativeness, lack of empathy, high levels of persistence, rigidity, lack of agreeableness, vexatious intimidation, along with a tendency to resort to arrogant and intimidating behaviors toward others, particularly when encountering others whom he believes stand in his way.” The court, however, rejected several of First Expert’s other opinions.[5]

¶19 The court also found Third Expert to be “qualified,” “credible,” and “an unbiased witness.” Third Expert testified that in counseling sessions, he “worked with Father to understand how to modify his behavior” and that Father had demonstrated improvement. Third Expert described Father’s current character traits as “[p]ersistent,” “[i]ntelligent,” “[e]ven keeled,” “[c]onstant in demeanor,” and “[a]ble to rise and process issues and disagreement more effectively.”

¶20      Turning to the question of legal custody, the court held that the presumption that joint legal custody is in the child’s best interest was rebutted in this case by the parties’ inability “to set aside their personal differences and focus on the needs of” Child, and it awarded sole legal custody to Mother. The court based this decision on several things: the difficulties the parties had in setting aside their personal differences to attend to Child’s needs, although it noted that Mother was better able to do so; Father’s emotional abuse of Child “by subjecting her to repeated interviews and physical examinations when he repeatedly raises allegations of abuse against Mother without sufficient cause”; “Father’s need to control and dominate Mother” and to disrespect her; Father’s “inability to recognize the value of input from others, including Mother”; Father’s history of being unable to effectively communicate with Mother; Father’s aggressive and passive-aggressive behavior during pick-up and drop-off and his failure to make it a less emotionally draining experience for Child; Father’s lack of encouragement that Child “equally share time, love and affection with Mother”; and Mother’s constant meaningful participation in raising Child, while Father did not do so for the first few years of Child’s life due to “his anger issues” and university studies.

¶21 Regarding physical custody, the court determined that it was in Child’s best interest “that Father be actively involved in her life” and that he “should have frequent and consistent time with” her so long as there were orders in place enforcing respectful communication between Mother and Father and reducing their interactions during pick-up and drop-off. Accordingly, the court awarded the parties joint physical custody, with Mother as the primary physical custodian and with Father having “frequent and expanded rights of parent time.”

¶22 The court then considered child support, the main issue of which was the income to be imputed to Mother. The court noted that Mother had left full-time employment when Child was born and that she was not employed at the time of trial, but she was attending university classes. The court found that Mother had the experience and skills to find employment in the fields of marketing and public relations with a likely starting income of between $2,500 and $2,800 per month. But the court also found that as a result, Mother would necessarily incur childcare costs and either have to terminate or significantly modify her studies. Ultimately, the court determined that Mother was voluntarily underemployed. But because there was insufficient evidence presented regarding childcare costs or whether current employment was “available in either of her experience categories, or what the current rate of pay would be,”[6] the court imputed to Mother “the federal minimum wage of $1,257 per month.” And based on Father’s actual income and Mother’s imputed income, the court ordered Father to make $666 monthly child support payments to Mother.

¶23      Finally, the court awarded Mother $161,066.94 in attorney fees and costs pursuant to Utah Code section 30-3-3, holding that Mother had substantially prevailed and finding, among other things, that Father had a greater ability to pay.[7]

¶24      Father appeals.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶25      Father raises five primary issues on appeal. First, Father argues that the trial court erred in awarding sole legal custody of Child to Mother.[8] Specifically, he contends that the “court’s analysis of Utah Code sections 30-3-10 and 30-3-10.2 does not comply with Utah law.” Generally, we review a trial court’s custody award for an abuse of discretion. See T.W. v. S.A., 2021 UT App 132, ¶ 15, 504 P.3d 163. “This discretion is broad; indeed, as long as the court exercises it within the confines of the legal standards we have set, and the facts and reasons for the decision are set forth fully in appropriate findings and conclusions, we will not disturb the resulting award.” Id. (quotation simplified). But whether the court correctly interpreted the legal standards set forth in sections 30-3-10 and 30-3-10.2 is a question of law that we review for correctness. See Ross v. Ross, 2019 UT App 104, ¶ 8, 447 P.3d 104. See also State v. De La Rosa, 2019 UT App 110, ¶ 4, 445 P.3d 955 (stating that because “trial courts do not have discretion to misapply the law,” “the abuse-of-discretion standard of review will at times necessarily include review to ensure that no mistakes of law affected a lower court’s use of its discretion”) (quotation simplified).

¶26 Second, Father contends that the court abused its discretion when it found that he had emotionally abused Child. We review the trial court’s findings of fact for clear error. See T.W., 2021 UT App 132, ¶ 15. Under this standard, “the factual findings of the district court will not be disturbed unless they are clearly erroneous by being in conflict with the clear weight of the evidence. But the existence of conflicting evidence is not sufficient to set aside a district court’s finding.” Hinds v. Hinds-Holm, 2022 UT App 13, ¶ 28 n.4, 505 P.3d 1136 (quotation simplified).

¶27      Third, Father argues that the trial court erred in allowing First Expert to testify at trial.[9] In reviewing the admissibility of evidence, we review the underlying legal questions for correctness and the “court’s decision to admit or exclude evidence and [its] determinations regarding the admissibility of expert testimony” for an abuse of discretion. Smith v. Volkswagen SouthTowne, Inc., 2022 UT 29, ¶ 41, 513 P.3d 729 (quotation simplified). “However, error in the district court’s evidentiary rulings will result in reversal only if the error is harmful.” Anderson v. Larry H. Miller Commc’ns Corp., 2015 UT App 134, ¶ 17, 351 P.3d 832.

¶28      Fourth, Father challenges the court’s imputation of federal minimum wage income to Mother for child support purposes. “We review the district court’s interpretation of statutory requirements for correctness” and “the court’s ultimate imputation of income . . . for abuse of discretion.” Burggraaf v. Burggraaf, 2019 UT App 195, ¶ 23, 455 P.3d 1071 (quotation simplified).

¶29      Fifth, Father takes issue with the court’s award of attorney fees and costs to Mother under section 30-3-3 of the Utah Code. “We review a district court’s decision to award attorney fees pursuant to this statute for an abuse of discretion,” Gardner v. Gardner, 2019 UT 61, ¶ 16, 452 P.3d 1134, but review its underlying legal conclusions for correctness, see De La Rosa, 2019 UT App 110, ¶ 4.

ANALYSIS

I. Legal Custody Factors

¶30      Utah law establishes “a rebuttable presumption that joint legal custody . . . is in the best interest of the child.”[10] Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(3) (LexisNexis Supp. 2023). This presumption “may be rebutted by a showing by a preponderance of the evidence that [joint legal custody] is not in the best interest of the child.” Id. § 30-3-10(4)(b). The Utah Code also provides several factors to aid in the best interest analysis. See id. §§ 30-3-10(2), -10.2(2) (2019).

¶31      In challenging the trial court’s award of sole legal custody to Mother, Father argues that (A) the court wrongly interpreted Utah Code sections 30-3-10(2) and 30-3-10.2(2) to mean that its consideration of the factors listed in section 10(2) was discretionary; (B) the court’s application of the wrong legal standard resulted in its failure to consider certain relevant factors in its custody analysis; and (C) the court “analyzed certain factors only as they related to Father but not to Mother.”[11] We address each argument in turn.

A.        Statutory Interpretation

¶32 At issue is the interplay between Utah Code sections 30-3-10(2) and 30-3-10.2(2). Section 10(2) provides that “[i]n determining any form of custody and parent-time . . . , the court shall consider the best interest of the child and may consider among other factors the court finds relevant, the following for each parent[.]” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(2) (LexisNexis 2019) (emphasis added). There then follows a list of factors, (a) through (r), several of which have subparts. See id. Taken in isolation, section 10(2) suggests that while the trial court must consider the child’s best interest when determining custody, the court has discretion as to which specific factors are appropriate for consideration in making that key determination.

¶33      But when joint legal or physical custody is at issue, section 10.2(2) also comes into play. That section provides that “[i]n determining whether the best interest of a child will be served by ordering joint legal custody or joint physical custody or both, the court shall consider the custody factors in Section 30-3-10, and the following factors[.]” Id. § 30-3-10.2(2) (emphasis added). And here again, a number of factors are then listed, (a) through (i), several of which include subparts. See id.

¶34      The parties are at odds on whether, when joint custody is at issue, the court’s consideration of the section 10(2) factors is discretionary or mandatory. We agree with Father that, in undertaking any joint custody determination, courts are required to consider, in some fashion, all the section 10(2) factors and all the section 10.2(2) factors.

¶35 “Our primary goal when interpreting a statute is to ascertain the legislature’s intent,” the best evidence of which “is the plain language of the statute itself.” McKitrick v. Gibson, 2024 UT 1, ¶ 31, 541 P.3d 949 (quotation simplified). In this pursuit, “where the statute’s language marks its reach in clear and unambiguous terms, it is our role to enforce a legislative purpose that matches those terms, not to supplant it with a narrower or broader one.” Id. (quotation simplified). See Brindley v. Logan City, 2023 UT App 46, ¶ 22, 530 P.3d 557 (“When the meaning of a statute can be discerned from its language, no other interpretive tools are needed.”) (quotation simplified). Furthermore, to determine legislative intent “when two statutory provisions conflict in their operation, the provision more specific in application governs over the more general provision.” Taghipour v. Jerez, 2002 UT 74, ¶ 11, 52 P.3d 1252 (quotation simplified). With this charge, we look to the directives our Legislature mandated regarding determinations of joint custody.

¶36      Section 10(2) provides that when “determining any form of custody,” the court may consider, among other things, the factors listed in that section. Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(2) (emphasis added). Section 10.2(2), on the other hand, applies when the court is tasked with “determining whether the best interest of a child will be served by ordering joint legal custody or joint physical custody or both.” Id. § 30-3-10.2(2) (emphasis added). Thus, although both section 10(2) and section 10.2(2) purport to govern custody determinations, because section 10(2) applies more generally to “any form of custody,” id. § 30-3-10(2), and because section 10.2(2) “is tailored precisely” to address joint custody—the type of custody at issue here—section 10.2(2) is the more specific of the two provisions and thus governs, see Taghipour, 2002 UT 74, ¶ 14.

¶37 Therefore, based on the plain language of section 10.2(2) that “the court shall consider the custody factors in Section 30-3-10 and” additional factors listed in section 10.2(2), see Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10.2(2) (emphasis added), our Legislature has deemed it necessary to impose additional requirements and heightened sensitivities regarding a court’s decision to order joint custody. In simple terms, this means that in cases where joint custody is under consideration, trial courts lose much of their discretion about which factors to consider. In other words, when considering the best interest of the child under section 10.2(2), the court is required to consider all the custody factors identified by both section 10(2) and section 10.2(2). Cf. Martinez v. Sanchez-Garcia, 2023 UT App 60, ¶ 21, 532 P.3d 105 (stating that under Utah Code section 30-3-10.4(2), which similarly states that when considering whether modifying a custody order is in the child’s best interest, the trial court shall consider the factors listed in section 10(2) and section 10.2(2), courts “are statutorily required to consider, at least in some form, twenty-five enumerated factors, as well as any other relevant factor”) (quotation simplified).

¶38 We note, however, that “not all [the section 10(2) and section 10.2(2)] factors are on equal footing, and a district court generally has discretion to determine, based on the facts before it and within the confines set by the appellate courts, where a particular factor falls within the spectrum of relative importance and to accord each factor its appropriate weight.” Id. ¶ 22 (quotation simplified). “Some factors might not be relevant at all to the family’s situation, and others might be only tangentially relevant or will weigh equally in favor of both parents.” Id. For example, among the other custody factors, section 10(2) indicates that the court must consider “the relative benefit of keeping siblings together.” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(2)(o). But in some cases, such as the one currently before us, the child does not have any siblings. In such circumstances, it is obviously unnecessary to analyze this factor because it is inapplicable to the court’s ultimate decision, although best practice suggests that the court should at least make a note of the factors it considers inapplicable in a given case. See Martinez, 2023 UT App 60, ¶ 22 n.6 (“Even with factors not relevant to the situation or factors that do not move the needle one way or the other, a court is well-served to at least mention those factors in its ruling and briefly indicate that it deems them irrelevant or of equal weight for each party. By mentioning them, even if only to say that they are irrelevant, a court ensures that the parties—and, significantly, a reviewing court—will be able to tell that the court at least considered them.”) (quotation simplified).

¶39 In sum, the trial court erred when it interpreted the relevant statutes to mean that its consideration of the section 10.2(2) factors was mandatory, while its consideration of the section 10(2) factors was discretionary. The court was required to consider, at least to some degree, all factors listed under both sections, and its failure to do so constituted an abuse of discretion. But “unless an appellant demonstrates that an error is prejudicial, it will be deemed harmless and no appellate relief is available.” See Huish v. Munro, 2008 UT App 283, ¶ 8, 191 P.3d 1242 (quotation simplified). We consider this question in conjunction with Father’s argument addressed in the next section of this opinion.

B.        Consideration of All Relevant Factors

¶40      Father argues that the trial court’s misinterpretation of the governing statutes resulted in its failure to consider a number of relevant factors. Specifically, he asserts that the court abused its discretion when it did not consider the parent’s “ability to provide personal care rather than surrogate care”; “the past conduct and demonstrated moral character of the parent”; and “previous parenting arrangements in which the child has been happy and well-adjusted in the home, school, and community,” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(2)(c)(iii), (d), (n) (LexisNexis Supp. 2023), even though he presented evidence at trial relevant to each of these factors.

¶41 As an initial matter, we commend the trial court for providing thirty-three pages of detailed findings in this matter, in which it addressed the majority of the section 10(2) and section 10.2(2) factors. But even given these extensive findings, the court expressly stated that it did not consider certain statutorily mandated factors in making its legal custody determination. Instead, it stated that it would consider the 10(2) factors “if it elects to do so.” Furthermore, because at least one of the three factors Father identifies, i.e., each parent’s “past conduct and demonstrated moral character,” id. § 30-3-10(2)(d), carries some weight in the legal custody determination,[12] we cannot say that the court’s failure to consider all the section 10(2) factors was harmless.

¶42 We therefore vacate the trial court’s legal custody determination and remand the case for consideration of all section 10(2) factors, and for such adjustment in the court’s legal custody determination, if any, as may then become appropriate. See Twitchell v. Twitchell, 2022 UT App 49, ¶ 25, 509 P.3d 806.

C.        Comparative Findings

¶43 A best-interest determination is “based on a number of factors that compare the parenting skills, character, and abilities of both parents in light of a realistic and objective appraisal of the needs of a child.” Woodward v. LaFranca, 2013 UT App 147, ¶ 22, 305 P.3d 181 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 312 P.3d 619 (Utah 2013), abrogated on other grounds by Zavala v. Zavala, 2016 UT App 6, 366 P.3d 422. See Twitchell, 2022 UT App 49, ¶ 23 n.4 (noting that a trial court’s findings should compare both parents’ “relative character, skills, and abilities” and not just that of one parent in particular). In other words, the court is required to undertake a comparative analysis whereby the court must consider the evidence relating to each parent.[13]

¶44 Father argues that the court’s comparative analysis and subsequent findings on a number of factors addressed only him and did not adequately compare the evidence as it related to Mother. Specifically, Father asserts that the court failed to make findings relating to Mother’s emotional stability, Child’s bond with her, her maturity and willingness to protect Child from parental conflict, and her ability to cooperate with Father. See Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(2)(e), (q) (LexisNexis Supp. 2023); id. § 30-3-10.2(2)(g), (h) (2019). Although Father acknowledges that the court made certain findings relating to these factors, he contends that the findings did not account for specific pieces of evidence he identifies on appeal.[14] But the trial court is not required to recite all evidence presented at trial in its findings of fact; just the evidence that is key to its custody decision. See Twitchell, 2022 UT App 49, ¶ 21 (highlighting that “courts are not required to render a global accounting of all evidence presented or to discuss all aspects of a case that might support a contrary ruling” and instead must present sufficiently detailed findings and “include enough subsidiary facts to disclose the steps by which the ultimate conclusion on each factual issue was reached”) (quotation simplified).

¶45      We address each of the factors Father challenges on appeal and ultimately reject his suggestion that a court’s comparative analysis must proceed in a point-by-point, side-by-side comparison of each piece of evidence presented at trial in the context of each custody factor. Overall, the court’s comparative analysis in this case was sufficient.

¶46 Emotional Stability. Father contends that the court included specific findings regarding his emotional stability but did not include similar findings related to Mother despite evidence he presented at trial reflecting negatively on her in that respect. But Father misinterprets the trial court’s charge. The court is required to make only sufficient findings to support its decision. And the trial court is in the best position to weigh the evidence.

¶47      The court found that each parent had shown “the capacity and willingness to function as a parent” but that they both demonstrated an “inability to co-parent and properly interact with the other parent” and that they had “shown [a] limited ability to communicate effectively about [Child] over the years.” The court also found Third Expert to be credible and made findings consistent with his opinion that Father had improved his character traits since the parties’ separation. But despite Father’s improvement, the court also found that Father “says things to [Child] which weigh negatively on her emotions in a manipulative and passive aggressive manner.” Comparatively, the court found that “Mother occasionally expresses her displeasure of Father’s behavior openly in front of [Child] either by word or by her actions.” Based on its charge to make sufficient findings necessary to support its decision, the trial court’s findings are sufficiently comparative as concerns the parties’ emotional stability, particularly as concerns the issue of legal custody.

¶48 Child’s Bond with Parent. Father argues that the court specifically found that Child “has a strong bond with” and “enjoys spending time with” him but made no comparative findings regarding Mother’s bond with Child. He further asserts that the court did not consider evidence he presented that Mother and Child have a weak bond. But the court’s findings demonstrate that the court at least implicitly considered the strong bond between Child and Mother. The court found that “Mother has been the primary caregiver of [Child] from the time she was born, both during the marriage and after separation” and that although Father seemed uninterested in Child during the marriage, since the separation Father’s bond with Child had improved through his beginning to care for her during his parent-time. With the court’s recognition that Child’s bond with Father had improved and became “strong” as he began to show interest in and to care for Child, which Mother has done from the very beginning of Child’s life, the court sufficiently compared Child’s bonds with each parent.

¶49 Maturity and Willingness to Protect Child. Father next contends that the court made findings relating to his maturity and willingness to protect Child from parental conflict but did not make such findings relating to Mother. We disagree. The court specifically found that each parent showed an “inability to co-parent and properly interact with the other parent,” resulting in difficulty surrounding parenting decisions and custody handoffs. The court also found that Mother “occasionally expresses her displeasure of Father’s behavior openly in front of [Child] either by word or by her actions.” Similarly, the court found that Father displayed “inappropriate interactions with [Child] and Mother during pickup and drop off,” demonstrated an “insistence on addressing speculative and false allegations of abuse at the expense of [Child’s] emotional well-being,” did not encourage Child to look forward to being with Mother, and “is either unaware of the emotional upset his behavior causes [Child] or he is aware but prefers to upset her.” Thus, because the court addressed both parents’ interactions on custody handoffs and the like, the court’s findings are sufficiently comparative as to the parties’ maturity and willingness to protect Child from parental conflict.

¶50      Ability to Cooperate. Lastly, Father challenges the court’s findings regarding his inability to cooperate with Mother. He does not assert that the court did not make comparative findings regarding Mother’s ability to cooperate with him. Instead, Father’s argument is limited to asserting that the court’s findings on this point did not reflect evidence he presented at trial regarding his cooperation with Mother and her lack of cooperation with him. But, as discussed above, the trial court is not required or expected to make a finding on every bit of evidence presented. The litigation in this matter comprised numerous motion hearings and a ten-day trial with multiple witnesses, resulting in an appellate record in excess of 6,000 pages. The court made thirty-three pages of specific findings and those findings sufficiently show how the court arrived at its decision.

¶51 For these reasons, while the court did not undertake granular comparisons of each piece of evidence deemed problematic by Father, the court did adequately consider Child’s best interest by making appropriate comparisons. From the court’s extensive findings, it appears that the court made the difficult decision concerning the best interest of Child, who obviously has two very loving parents. See Tucker v. Tucker, 910 P.2d 1209, 1215 (Utah 1996) (“A trial court need not find one parent inadequate before awarding custody to the other.”).

¶52      In conclusion, because the court abused its discretion in not considering every factor it was statutorily required to, we remand this matter with instructions that the court reconsider its joint legal custody award in light of all the factors listed in section 10(2) and section 10.2(2), and in particular each parent’s “past conduct and demonstrated moral character,” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(2)(d), as explained in Part I.B.

II. Emotional Abuse

¶53      Father argues that the court’s finding of his “substantial emotional abuse of [Child] through false allegations” was against the clear weight of the evidence. He primarily asserts that the court did not address the evidence of Child’s repeated injuries (cuts, bruises, and welts) that prompted him to alert authorities, and that “Mother presented little to no evidence that Child was [harmed], or even affected by the reports.”

¶54      As discussed above, under section 30-3-10.2(2) of the Utah Code, the court must address all the factors included in section 30-3-10(2) and make comparative findings for those factors. This includes consideration of “evidence of domestic violence, neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, or emotional abuse, involving the child, the parent, or a household member of the parent.” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(2)(a) (LexisNexis Supp. 2023). Here, the trial court expressed concern about “Father’s use of emotional and sometimes indirect physical abuse of [Child] by claiming [Mother] has harmed [Child] without sufficient justification” that “exposed [Child] to unnecessary emotional trauma and invasive physical examinations.” The court then provided three pages of findings concerning this factor, including a list of some, but not all, of the reports of physical abuse Father made to the authorities about Mother and their outcomes.[15] But because neither party presented expert testimony at trial to establish or rebut whether Father’s many reports amounted to emotional abuse in a diagnostic sense, the court’s reference to emotional abuse is properly understood as usage in a more colloquial sense with a rather limited purpose.

¶55 The court limited its findings relating to emotional abuse to its legal custody award. Although emotional abuse resulting in harm to Child would absolutely play a significant role in a physical custody determination, the court made no mention of it when it awarded the parties joint physical custody of Child. Instead, the court concluded that it was in Child’s best interest that “Father be actively involved in her life” and “have frequent and consistent time with” her.

¶56 And in addressing legal custody, the court discussed its emotional abuse findings in the limited context of discussing the issue of Mother and Father being unable “to set aside their personal differences and focus on the needs of” Child, which formed the basis for the court’s determination that the presumption in favor of joint legal custody had been rebutted. The court awarded Mother sole legal custody because she was better able to set aside her differences, while “Father is not able to set aside his differences with Mother to give first priority to the welfare of [Child] and reach shared decisions in [Child’s] best interests.” Father’s “subjecting [Child] to repeated interviews and physical examinations when he repeatedly raises allegations of abuse against Mother without sufficient cause” was one such example of this.

¶57 Also notable is that the trial court applied the statutory presumption in favor of joint custody in its analysis (holding that it had been rebutted) when such a presumption does not apply in cases involving emotional abuse. See id. § 30-3-10(3)(a) (stating that the presumption in favor of joint legal custody does not apply in cases involving, among other things, “emotional abuse”). This further illustrates the very limited purpose for which the court applied its findings on “emotional abuse,” focusing on how it reflected that Father’s hostility toward Mother was paramount even if it entailed exposing Child to repeated interviews and physical exams—and not on any harm Child actually suffered as a result.

¶58 With this limited view in mind, we conclude that the court’s findings were sufficiently supported by the evidence. Even in light of all the evidence Father presented at trial supporting the various cuts, bumps, and bruises that prompted him to alert authorities, the court’s finding that his “reports of abuse were vexatious and were calculated and designed to harm Mother” is supported by the sheer number of reports Father made that never resulted in criminal charges being filed against Mother or in DCFS taking enforcement action against her. Several different agencies all investigated Mother and each investigation produced the same result. Although, as Father points out, they could not conclusively rule out the possibility that Mother abused Child, the many investigations did not produce sufficient evidence of abuse to cause intervention by the authorities. After multiple reports of such injuries to various authorities and medical professionals did not produce the desired intervention, it was not unreasonable for the court to find that Father’s primary motivation in continuing to file such reports was his desire to harm Mother.[16]

¶59 For these reasons, and given the limited role the court’s findings related to “emotional abuse” served in the legal custody analysis, we do not disturb those findings.

III. First Expert’s Testimony

¶60      Father argues that the trial court abused its discretion in not excluding First Expert’s testimony as unreliable under rule 702 of the Utah Rules of Evidence. In support of this argument, he points to the court’s ultimate agreement with Second Expert’s testimony that, among other things, First Expert’s “opinions based on testing should not be considered” and that First Expert “did not utilize many of the standard tests and methods for determining parenting capacity and therefore his opinions on parenting capacity are not helpful.” But even assuming, without deciding, that the court’s decision to allow First Expert to testify amounted to an abuse of discretion, such error was harmless here.

¶61      “Not every trial error requires reversal.” State v. Leech, 2020 UT App 116, ¶ 42, 473 P.3d 218 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 481 P.3d 1039 (Utah 2021). “Unless an appellant demonstrates that an error is prejudicial, it will be deemed harmless and no appellate relief is available.” Huish v. Munro, 2008 UT App 283, ¶ 8, 191 P.3d 1242 (quotation simplified). “An error is harmless and does not require reversal if it is sufficiently inconsequential that we conclude there is no reasonable likelihood that the error affected the outcome of the proceedings.” State v. Reece, 2015 UT 45, ¶ 33, 349 P.3d 712 (quotation simplified).

¶62 Here, after agreeing with several of Second Expert’s concerns and critiques of First Expert’s rule 35 evaluation of Father, the court stated that it ultimately “found little value in much of his diagnostic expert opinion” and that it agreed with only some of his “conclusions regarding characteristics and personality traits” of Father. But even here, the court stated that First Expert’s opinions with which it agreed “are consistent with other evidence presented to the Court regarding Father’s historical demonstration of” certain negative personality traits, specifically records submitted into evidence and other trial testimony. Thus, First Expert’s testimony did not serve as the sole basis for the court’s findings regarding some of Father’s characteristics and personality traits. Indeed, the court seemed to emphasize that its agreement with First Expert in that regard was based on the corroboration furnished by the court’s own review of some of the records First Expert examined and on other trial testimony.

¶63 For these reasons, Father has not demonstrated a reasonable likelihood that First Expert’s testimony affected the outcome of the trial, and this argument therefore fails.

IV. Mother’s Imputed Income

¶64 Father contends that the court abused its discretion by imputing Mother’s income at only the federal minimum wage, when a higher income was in order given the evidence before the court. Because the trial court misapplied the controlling legal standard, we agree.

¶65      “Because income imputation itself is primarily focused on a spouse’s ability to produce income, it is not unusual for courts to impute income to a spouse who has not worked during the marriage (or who has not worked for a number of years preceding the divorce) but who is nevertheless capable of producing income.” Petrzelka v. Goodwin, 2020 UT App 34, ¶ 26, 461 P.3d 1134 (quotation simplified). “The purpose of such imputation is to prevent parents from reducing their child support or alimony by purposeful unemployment or underemployment.” Connell v. Connell, 2010 UT App 139, ¶ 16, 233 P.3d 836 (quotation simplified).

¶66 Section 78B-12-203 of the Utah Code establishes the guidelines by which income may be imputed. It provides that in contested cases, a trial court may not impute income to a party without first holding a hearing on the matter and entering “findings of fact as to the evidentiary basis for the imputation.” Utah Code Ann. § 78B-12-203(8)(a) (LexisNexis 2022). The statute further provides that the court’s imputation of income “shall” be based on the following ten factors, “to the extent known”: “(i) employment opportunities; (ii) work history; (iii) occupation qualifications; (iv) educational attainment; (v) literacy; (vi) age; (vii) health; (viii) criminal record; (ix) other employment barriers and background factors; and (x) prevailing earnings and job availability for persons of similar backgrounds in the community.”[17] Id. § 78B-12-203(8)(b).

¶67 Here, the trial court deemed Mother voluntarily underemployed and found that she “has experience and skills in the workforce that would enable her to find employment in marketing and public relations work.” The court further found that “[i]f Mother were able to find employment as either a PR Specialist or in Advertising Sales her likely income would start around $2,500 to $2,800” per month. But the court opined that to become employed full-time, “Mother would necessarily incur childcare costs for a six (6) year old with transportation to and from school and would need to terminate or significantly modify her current study program” and that the evidence presented at trial “does not provide a calculation of the costs of day care expense necessary for Mother to become full time employed.” The court further stated that “the evidence provided is insufficient for the Court to determine that there is current employment available in either of her experience categories, or what the current rate of pay would be,” presumably given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Based on those considerations, the court imputed to Mother “the federal minimum wage of $1,257 per month.”

¶68      The court’s reasons for reducing Mother’s imputed income from between $2,500 and $2,800 per month to the federal minimum wage go against the legal standard set forth in section 78B-12-203. As an initial matter, the reasoning that Mother would need to make adjustments to her schooling in order to pursue full-time employment has no legal basis. “[T]he pursuit of a higher education simply does not preclude employment.” Mancil v. Smith, 2000 UT App 378, ¶ 17, 18 P.3d 509. Although section 78B-12-203 provides that a trial court may not impute an income to a parent who “is engaged in career or occupational training to establish basic job skills” when such training “is not of a temporary nature,” Utah Code Ann. § 78B-12-203(8)(d)(iii), this is not the case here. Mother already had a bachelor’s degree and was pursuing a graduate program. Moreover, the court already found that she possessed skills and experience in the field of marketing and public relations. See Fish v. Fish, 2010 UT App 292, ¶ 18, 242 P.3d 787 (“The basic job skills training envisioned by the statute is training which can aid a person in achieving an income beyond the minimum wage job which can be had with no training at all, i.e., training for the starting point on a consecutive progressive career track.”) (quotation simplified). Thus, the court incorrectly based its reduction in Mother’s imputed income on her pursuit of higher education.

¶69 As for daycare expenses, at age six, Child would begin school soon, thus drastically reducing childcare costs as well. In any event, Utah law provides that “[t]he child support order shall require that each parent share equally the reasonable work-related child care expenses of the parents.” See Utah Code Ann. § 78B-12-214(1) (LexisNexis 2022). Accordingly, the child support order—and not Mother’s imputed income—was the appropriate means by which to address childcare costs.

¶70      Lastly, section 78B-12-203(8) mandates that the trial court base its imputation of income on “employment potential and probable earnings” by evaluating the ten enumerated factors, “to the extent known.” Id. § 78B-12-203(8)(b) (emphasis added). The statute thus expressly provides for possible uncertainty regarding the factors. Here, the vocational expert, whom the trial court found to be “qualified and credible,” provided a projection of future job openings in the field and stated that the unemployment rate in the area had doubled from the previous year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Insofar as the court felt that additional information regarding current employment opportunities in the area was necessary, the uncertainty regarding this factor did not support a reduction of the already determined likely beginning wage of between $2,500 and $2,800 per month to the federal minimum wage. To be sure, the trial court has discretion when weighing the statutory factors, but because the statute expressly allows for uncertainty regarding the factors, that uncertainty cannot rationalize the court’s somewhat speculative decision.

¶71      For these reasons, the trial court abused its discretion by applying the wrong legal standard when imputing Mother’s income. See T.W. v. S.A., 2021 UT App 132, ¶ 15, 504 P.3d 163. We therefore reverse the trial court’s imputation of federal minimum wage income to Mother and remand for recalculation of her imputed income consistent with this opinion.

V. Attorney Fees and Costs

¶72      Finally, Father contends that in awarding attorney fees and costs to Mother, the trial court misapplied Utah law by incorrectly applying the “substantially prevailed” standard and by basing its decision, in part, on Father’s greater ability to pay. We agree.

¶73      A trial court may award attorney fees in a divorce action pursuant to section 30-3-3 of the Utah Code. “Both the decision to award attorney fees and the amount of such fees are within the district court’s sound discretion.” Lobenduhn v. Lobenduhn, 2023 UT App 137, ¶ 44, 540 P.3d 727 (quotation simplified). But the court must still “make detailed findings of fact supporting its determination.” Connell v. Connell, 2010 UT App 139, ¶ 27, 233 P.3d 836.

¶74      Section 30-3-3 “creates two classes of attorney fees—those incurred in establishing court orders and those incurred in enforcing court orders.” Id. ¶ 28 (emphasis in original). Subsection (1) provides,

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.

Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-3(1) (LexisNexis Supp. 2023) (emphasis added). “[T]he party to be awarded attorney fees under this [subsection] has the burden to prove (1) that the payee spouse has a financial need, (2) that the payor spouse has the ability to pay, and (3) that the fees requested are reasonable.” Lobendahn, 2023 UT App 137, ¶ 44.

¶75      Subsection (2) provides,

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.

Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-3(2) (emphasis added). In contrast to subsection (1), when “awarding fees under subsection (2), the court may disregard the financial need of the moving party” using the “substantially prevailed” standard as “the guiding factor.” Connell, 2010 UT App 139, ¶ 28 (quotation simplified).

¶76 The differing standards of the two subsections are attributed to the different purposes each subsection serves. See id. ¶ 29. “Attorney fees are granted under subsection (1) to enable a party to prosecute or defend the action.” Id. (quotation simplified). Otherwise, “a spouse lacking a separate income would be unable to meaningfully participate in divorce proceedings.” Id. “Consequently, the moving spouse’s need is a sine qua non of a subsection (1) award.” Id. Conversely, “fee awards under subsection (2) serve no equalizing function but allow the moving party to collect fees unnecessarily incurred due to the other party’s recalcitrance.” Id. ¶ 30.

¶77      Here, in addressing the question of attorney fees and costs, the trial court prefaced its findings with the observation that the litigation in this matter “was contentious and relied on a significant amount of documents, which caused a significant amount of fees to be incurred by the parties.” The court first denied Father’s request for attorney fees “as a sanction for [Mother’s] unreasonableness in requiring these proceedings to go to trial,” ruling that “[a]ttorney’s fees as sanctions are not applied because a party has been unreasonable in requiring disputes to go to trial.” The court then turned to Mother’s competing request premised on her “having ‘substantially prevailed.’” The court stated that Mother “did substantially prevail, not only at trial, but at interim hearings on motions prior to trial.”

¶78 Following this preface, the court entered findings regarding the parties’ need and ability to pay. The court found that Mother “has limited income, if any, at this time,” and it noted Father’s annual salary. The court then proceeded to make findings on the parties’ expenses and disposable income, prefacing its findings by stating that it “has limited information regarding each party’s monthly expenses.” The court found that Father has “approximately $44,500 in disposable funds annually.” Turning to Mother next, the court first noted that neither party provided any evidence of her expenses, leaving the court “with no basis to find Mother has any expenses beyond those which are covered by her need for child support.”[18] The court thus found that Mother “has no income and no evidence of expenses.” The court also noted that “it received no evidence that Mother can pay for her costs and attorney fees.” Based on this, the court found that “[a]s between Father and Mother, Father has the greater ability to pay attorney’s fees” and held that “Mother should be awarded her reasonable costs and attorney fees.”

¶79      The court then addressed the reasonableness of Mother’s attorney fees. It again prefaced its findings by stating that “[a]lthough the issues of custody, parent time, and child support are routinely dealt with in our courts, this case is not a ‘usual’ case” because “[t]he parties have been unusually accusatory, intransigent, and uncooperative which has significantly raised the costs of this litigation to both parties.” The court noted that “Father’s decisions caused Mother to successfully bring multiple orders to show cause, motions to compel, and statements of discovery issues,” and have “forced Mother to incur otherwise unnecessary legal costs.” Against this backdrop, the court found that not all Mother’s requested costs and fees, totaling almost $410,000, were “reasonable and necessary,” and it ultimately awarded her $161,066.94 in attorney fees and costs. The court largely based this reduction on Mother’s “duplication of legal services, unnecessary review and consultation between multiple attorneys, and inefficiencies in presenting evidence at trial,” which the court deemed to be unreasonable.

¶80      There are two problems with the trial court’s award. First, the court conflated the two distinct bases for awarding fees under section 30-3-3, resulting in an undifferentiated attorney fees award. See Connell, 2010 UT App 139, ¶ 31. The court began its analysis by stating that Mother “substantially prevail[ed], not only at trial, but at interim hearings on motions prior to trial.”[19] This statement in and of itself is concerning as the purpose of the ten-day bench trial was largely “to establish an order of custody, parent-time, [and] child support,” thereby implicating subsection (1). See Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-3(1). But subsection (1) does not apply a “substantially prevailed” standard. See Lobendahn, 2023 UT App 137, ¶ 44; Connell, 2010 UT App 139, ¶ 29.

¶81      Although some pre-trial motions dealt with enforcing the court’s temporary orders regarding “custody, parent-time, child support, alimony, or division of property,” thereby falling under the ambit of subsection (2), see Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-3(2), the court did not distinguish between the two distinct statutory bases for awarding attorney fees. Rather, the court took the total amount of attorney fees Mother sought and reduced the amount to the sum it considered reasonable based on multiple inefficiencies on Mother’s part.

¶82 The second problem is that in awarding attorney fees under subsection (1), the court did not expressly find that Father “has the ability to pay” the requested attorney fees. Lobendahn, 2023 UT App 137, ¶ 44. Instead, the court found that between the two, “Father has the greater ability to pay attorney’s fees.” Whether Father is in a better position than Mother to pay attorney fees and whether Father has an actual ability to pay both his and Mother’s attorney fees are two different inquiries. Although the answer to both questions may, on remand, end up being the same, the court nonetheless did not make the required finding when awarding Mother attorney fees. See Connell, 2010 UT App 139, ¶ 27 (stating that as part of its attorney fees award, the court “must make detailed findings of fact supporting its determination”).

¶83      In sum, we reverse the trial court’s award of attorney fees and costs and remand with instructions that the court distinguish the fees that fall under subsection (1) and subsection (2) of section 30-3-3, and that it apply the corresponding legal standard to each group of fees. In the course of this effort, the court also needs to make a specific finding regarding Father’s ability to pay Mother’s attorney fees as to any fees awarded under subsection (1).

CONCLUSION

¶84      There remain issues that require additional attention and must be revisited on remand. Although we affirm certain of the trial court’s findings of fact and evidentiary rulings relating to its award of sole legal custody of Child to Mother, we reverse and remand with instructions that the court reevaluate its legal custody award by considering all the statutorily mandated custody factors, in particular the one focused on past conduct and moral character. We likewise reverse and remand for further consideration of Mother’s imputed income and the award of attorney fees and costs in Mother’s favor.[20]

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


[1] “On appeal from a bench trial, we view the evidence in a light most favorable to the trial court’s findings, and therefore recite the facts consistent with that standard.” Chesley v. Chesley, 2017 UT App 127, ¶ 2 n.2, 402 P.3d 65 (quotation simplified).

[2] As relevant here, rule 35(a) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure states, When the mental or physical condition or attribute of a party or of a person in the custody or control of a party is in controversy, the court may order the party to submit to a physical or mental examination by a suitably licensed or certified examiner or to produce for examination the person in the party’s custody or control. The order may be made only on motion for good cause shown.

[3] Mother also underwent a rule 35 examination, but it does not appear that those results were admitted into evidence at trial.

[4] The trial court initially found First Expert “to be credible although not entirely unbiased.” But following Father’s post-trial motion, the court did not include that statement in the amended findings of fact and conclusions of law that it later issued.

[5] Specifically, the court rejected First Expert’s opinion that Father “is prone to bouts of depression”; that he “appears to have a disconnect between his emotions and his cognitive abilities, which impedes his ability to utilize constructive feedback and an inability to learn from his experience and mistakes”; and that “[i]t is likely that Father has not emotionally separated, or moved on from his relationship with Mother.”

[6] A vocational expert, whom the court found to be “qualified and credible,” opined at trial that Mother could earn “approximately $2,800 to $3,750 gross per month” as a public relations specialist. But the court stated that the expert’s calculations did not take the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the job market into consideration, and although the expert provided a projection of future job openings in the field, he did not identify any current job openings or pay rates.

[7] We recount the relevant details of the trial court’s attorney fees award in Part V.

[8] Father does not challenge the trial court’s physical custody award on appeal.

[9] Father also contends that the trial court erred in ordering him to sign medical releases for his mental health records without first undertaking the analysis set forth in Debry v. Goates, 2000 UT App 58, 999 P.2d 582, cert. denied, 9 P.3d 170 (Utah 2000). See id. ¶ 26. But because Father did not raise this issue below, and instead opposed the release of the records only on prejudice and scope-of-the-stipulation grounds, this argument is not preserved, and we do not address it further.

[10] The presumption in favor of joint legal custody does not apply in cases that include, among other things, “emotional abuse.” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(3)(a) (LexisNexis Supp. 2023). Although the trial court in this case did make several findings regarding emotional abuse, the court nonetheless applied the presumption but found that it was rebutted by the parties’ inability “to set aside their personal differences and focus on the needs of” Child.

[11] Father also argues that the trial court made unsupported findings concerning Mother’s financial stability, Father’s involvement in Child’s life, and the parties’ communications. But because Father has not marshaled the evidence in support of these findings, he has not carried his burden of persuasion. See Pankhurst v. Pankhurst, 2022 UT App 36, ¶ 15, 508 P.3d 612 (“A party will almost certainly fail to carry its burden of persuasion on appeal if it fails to marshal the evidence sufficient to overcome the healthy dose of deference owed to factual findings.”) (quotation simplified).

[12] The other two factors, the “ability to provide personal care rather than surrogate care” and the “previous parenting arrangements in which the child has been happy and well-adjusted in the home, school, and community,” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(2)(c)(iii), (n) (LexisNexis Supp. 2023), are more germane to a physical custody rather than to a legal custody determination, and Father conceded as much during oral argument before this court.

[13] The case of Allen v. Allen, 2014 UT App 27, 319 P.3d 770, provides a good example of how appropriate comparison between the parents works in practice. After considering the applicable factors and concluding that “both parents appeared nearly equally capable of caring for” their child, the district court in that case determined that, with respect to two factors where the parents were not equally strong, “the stability offered by [the father] outweighed the apparent empathy of [the mother].” Id. ¶ 5 (quotation simplified). See id. ¶ 12 (holding that given the district court’s observation that the parties were “nearly equally capable of caring for” the child and its findings of fact supporting that determination, the court had adequately considered the “character and quality of [the child’s] bonds with both parents”). The deciding factors in the district court’s view were the father’s stability and the mother’s immaturity, “with a tendency to put her needs above those of others, including” the child. Id. ¶ 10. On appeal, this court concluded that the district court’s “discussion of the parties’ relative maturity, stability, and ability to care for [the child] constitutes adequate consideration of both parties’ ‘past conduct and demonstrated moral standards.’” Id. ¶ 11 (quoting Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(2)(d) (LexisNexis 2013)).

[14] On this point, Father contends that our decision in Twitchell v. Twitchell, 2022 UT App 49, 509 P.3d 806, requires a trial court to make a finding on all evidence presented by either party. Father misinterprets that decision. In Twitchell, we determined that “to ensure that the trial court’s custody determination, discretionary as it is, is rationally based, it is essential that the court set forth in its findings of fact not only that it finds one parent to be the better person to care for the child, but also the basic facts which show why that ultimate conclusion is justified.” Id. ¶ 24 (quotation simplified). The premise of Twitchell is not that a court must make a specific finding regarding each piece of evidence, but simply that a court must make findings on the “basic facts” that support its ultimate conclusion.

[15] The trial court acknowledged that its list was not a comprehensive one. Mother asserts that she presented evidence at trial that Father instigated a total of 28 investigations against her.

[16] In any event, although Father argues that the trial court’s findings are against the clear weight of the evidence given the evidence of Child’s various injuries presented at trial, he has not marshaled the evidence supporting the court’s findings. To successfully challenge a finding, it is not enough to focus only on “evidence that points to an alternate finding or a finding contrary to the trial court’s finding of fact.” Taft v. Taft, 2016 UT App 135, ¶ 19, 379 P.3d 890 (quotation simplified). Accordingly, Father has also not carried his burden of persuasion on appeal. See Pankhurst v. Pankhurst, 2022 UT App 36, ¶ 15, 508 P.3d 612 (“A party will almost certainly fail to carry its burden of persuasion on appeal if it fails to marshal the evidence sufficient to overcome the healthy dose of deference owed to factual findings.”) (quotation simplified).

[17] The statute further provides that in cases where “a parent has no recent work history,” a court may impute “an income at the federal minimum wage for a 40-hour work week,” and that “[t]o impute a greater or lesser income, the judge in a judicial proceeding . . . shall enter specific findings of fact as to the evidentiary basis for the imputation.” Utah Code Ann. § 78B-12-203(8)(c) (LexisNexis 2022). Although Mother was not working at the time of trial, this did not form the basis for the trial court’s decision to impute the federal minimum wage to her. Rather, it found that she had the potential of earning between $2,500 and $2,800 per month but reduced this amount based on other factors as explained in paragraph 67.

[18] Father argues that Mother bore the burden of establishing her expenses and that the court incorrectly faulted him for not providing evidence of her expenses. But the inability to establish Mother’s expenses only benefitted Father—admittedly to a very limited degree—as the court ultimately did not attribute any expenses to Mother apart from those that are covered by her need for child support in its calculation of disposable funds available to her.

[19] The court awarded some attorney fees to Mother for her success in pre-trial motions along the way. The court also reserved for later determination the issue of attorney fees on certain other pre-trial motions.

[20] Father recently asked that we take judicial notice of developments in legal proceedings involving other parties that he believes are germane to this case. Mother opposes Father’s motion. We are not persuaded that the matters we are asked to take notice of bear on the issues presented in this appeal and so deny the motion. If relevant to the issues the trial court will address on remand, Father may renew his request in that forum.

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2024 UT App 52 – In re A.S. – child neglect, photographing genitals

2024 UT App 52 – In re A.S.

 

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF A.S. AND J.S.,

PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE. V.S., Appellant, v. STATE OF UTAH, Appellee.

Opinion No. 20230338-CA Filed April 11, 2024 Third District Juvenile Court, Summit Department

The Honorable Elizabeth M. Knight No. 1214949

Julie J. Nelson and Alexandra Mareschal, Attorneys for Appellant

Sean D. Reyes, Carol L.C. Verdoia, and John M. Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

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

TENNEY, Judge:

¶1        On the basis of a set of stipulated facts, the juvenile court adjudicated A.S. and J.S. as being neglected as to V.S. (Mother). Mother now challenges that adjudication on appeal, arguing that the stipulated facts did not support the neglect adjudication. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm.

BACKGROUND
Initial Proceedings

¶2        This is a child welfare case concerning two children: A.S., who was 16 years old at the time of this appeal, and J.S., who was 9 years old. A.S. and J.S. (collectively, the Children) are the biological children of Mother and J.S. (Father).[1] Mother and Father divorced in March 2018, and they’ve had an “ongoing” and “contentious” custody dispute in district court ever since.

¶3        In August 2022, the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) filed a petition for protective supervision services, alleging that the Children were “abused, neglected, or dependent children” pursuant to Utah Code section 80-1-102. The petition alleged a range of conduct to support this—most of it by Mother, though with one allegation relating to Father. This appeal is brought by Mother, so we’ll focus on the allegations, proceedings, and rulings relating to her.[2]

¶4        On March 10, 2023, DCFS filed an amended petition relating to Mother, and the amended petition realleged some (but not all) of the allegations from the original petition. Based on the amended set of allegations, DCFS again alleged that the Children were abused, neglected, or dependent. That same day, the juvenile court held a “merged pretrial and adjudication hearing” relating to Mother, and Mother was represented by counsel at that hearing. Mother acknowledged under oath that she understood that she had a right to a trial, that DCFS bore the burden of proving the allegations against her by clear and convincing evidence, and that she had the right to present evidence in her defense. Mother then waived her right to a trial, affirmatively admitted to a specified list of the allegations from the amended petition, and, pursuant to rule 34(e) of the Utah Rules of Juvenile Procedure, “neither admitted nor denied” certain other specified allegations from the amended petition.

¶5        On the basis of Mother’s affirmative admissions and the allegations deemed to be true by virtue of her rule 34(e) response, the juvenile court later issued a ruling that found a list of facts to be “true by clear and convincing evidence.” We now recount those facts here, with any quotations being drawn directly from the court’s precise verbiage.[3]

The Stipulated Facts

¶6        Since filing for divorce, Mother has sought four protective orders against Father: one in 2016, one in 2020, and two in 2022. Also, Child Protective Services (CPS) has received twelve reports accusing Father of neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence-related child abuse, and other miscellaneous complaints which were not child welfare related. “All but one of these reports were either unaccepted because they did not meet CPS minimum requirements for investigation or unsupported because there was inadequate evidence to support the allegation after the matter was investigated.” Only two of the twelve reports affirmatively identified Mother as the person who made the report, and though a touch unclear, a third suggested that she was likely the reporter.

¶7        Sometime in 2020, certain pictures were taken of J.S. at Wasatch Pediatrics. These pictures showed “mild inflammation” of J.S.’s “inner labia,” “mild peri-anal erythema,” and a “superficial linear abrasion in the crease of [her] right thigh and perineum.” In August 2020 and again in April 2022, Mother shared medical records with DCFS that included those photographs, and she did so in both instances “as part of an abuse investigation.” In April 2022, Mother “forwarded all communications with DCFS to the Ombudsmen’s office at [its] request,” again including these photographs.

¶8        In June 2022, Mother also “began documenting pictures of [J.S.’s] stool under the medical advice of” a gastroenterology specialist (Specialist) who was treating J.S. “for a chronic gastrointestinal issue.”

¶9        On June 28, 2022, Mother took photographs of “bruises on [J.S.’s] knee, leg, and abdomen.” One of these photographs was “taken in the bathtub when [J.S.] was naked,” but J.S.’s “genitalia were not visible in the picture,” and the other photographs taken on this occasion “were taken when [J.S.] was clothed.”

¶10      Based on Mother’s concerns about these bruises and about “additional vaginal redness,” Mother took J.S. to the Redstone Clinic on June 30, 2022. A medical professional at the clinic “took pictures of the bruises and vaginal and anal redness” and then instructed Mother to take J.S. to the Emergency Department at Primary Children’s Hospital. In an effort to avoid a further genital exam, a doctor at the hospital accessed and viewed the photographs that had been taken at the Redstone Clinic. While at the hospital, Mother also spoke to the Safe and Healthy Families Clinic over the phone. Mother was advised to call the clinic back during normal clinic hours.

¶11 The next day, a doctor (Doctor) at the Safe and Healthy Families Clinic “indicated that the pattern of bruising [was] unusual and that in the absence of a history of accidental injury, inflicted injury, or physical abuse, the bruises would be a reasonable concern,” but Doctor further opined “that sexual abuse of a child is most often recognized when a child makes a disclosure.” Doctor also said that “constipation . . . is a common manifestation of childhood stress and only rarely associated with sexual abuse.” As to the vaginal redness in question, Doctor said that it was “not an indicator of sexual contact,” “particularly with swimming and warm weather.” Doctor saw “no reason to have specific concern for sexual abuse in this case,” and Doctor did not believe that J.S.’s symptoms met “the threshold for suspected abuse or neglect.” Doctor therefore “did not make a report to either DCFS or law enforcement,” and she saw “no need for follow up in the Safe and Healthy Families Clinic based on” the information that had been provided to her.

¶12 That same day, Mother spoke with an officer from the Summit County Sheriff’s Office, again “reporting the bruises and vaginal and anal redness.” When the officer offered to come to the home and take “pictures of the bruising,” Mother declined. Instead, she sent him the pictures that she had taken of the bruising on J.S.’s knee, leg, and abdomen.

¶13 Sometime later that day, Mother called the Safe and Healthy Families Clinic. A nurse (Nurse) received a page regarding the call. Before calling Mother back, Nurse contacted DCFS and was informed “that there had been several calls over the last few years, but all of them were closed unsupported.” DCFS also informed Nurse that Mother had texted photos to DCFS and a detective. After receiving this information, Nurse called Mother. During that conversation, Mother “requested that Safe and Healthy Families conduct a forensic examination and take photographs of [J.S.’s] genitals due to a request from law enforcement.” The juvenile court’s subsequent finding recounts the following about what happened next:

According to [Nurse], the mother told her that she had taken photographs of [J.S.’s] genitals before and after she went to see her father on the advice of a pelvic floor physical therapist. [Nurse] asked the mother three times for the name of the physician that advised her to take photographs and the mother refused to provide it. [Nurse] states that the mother eventually reported that she was documenting what [J.S.’s] genitals looked like before and after parent-time with her father. The mother indicates that she felt pressured and interrogated and was unable to provide the name of [Specialist] to [Nurse]. Mother states that she had trouble communicating with [Nurse] and was unable to explain everything.

The court’s findings also note that “[n]o one has received” the “before and after” photographs described in the conversation Mother had with Nurse.

¶14      Doctor later shared her professional opinion that “she would have substantial concerns about repeated photography” of a child’s genitals. In Doctor’s view, children are “told repeatedly that these are private parts of our body,” but because children would understand that photographs are “usually show[n] to all sorts of people,” repeated photographing of genitals would undermine this messaging. Doctor also expressed her view that subjecting a child to “multiple forensic exams” would improperly “normalize[] certain amounts of touching and manipulation of the genital region.”

¶15 With respect to Mother, “[m]ultiple police reports and DCFS records indicate that [Mother] may be difficult to understand.” It is “documented” that Mother has “POTS (post orthostatic tachycardia syndrome) which causes forgetfulness and trouble focusing (brain fog) making it difficult for [Mother] to think and speak clearly under stress.”[4]

The Neglect Adjudication

¶16      Based on the stipulated facts, the juvenile court found that the Children “are neglected as to [Mother], as it is lack of proper parental care to subject a child to having her genitals photographed before and after visits with [Father], as well as sending other photographs to various agencies.” The juvenile court then ordered that “[c]ustody and guardianship shall continue with the parents with protective supervision services with DCFS,” and Mother was also ordered to “comply with the requirements of the DCFS service plan.” Mother now appeals that ruling.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶17 The juvenile court ruled that Mother neglected the Children by (i) taking “before and after” photographs of J.S.’s genitals, as well as (ii) “sending other photographs” to various agencies. As explained below, we need consider only the court’s conclusions relating to the “before and after” photographs. With respect to those, Mother raises two challenges: first, Mother challenges the finding that she actually took the photographs; and second, Mother argues that even if she did, this did not constitute neglect. Although Mother’s first challenge is to a factual finding, that finding was based on stipulated facts. When “the facts are stipulated, we review the conclusions drawn by the juvenile court for correctness.” In re K.T., 2023 UT App 5, ¶ 7, 524 P.3d 1003 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 528 P.3d 327 (Utah 2023). We also review the court’s interpretation of the neglect statute for correctness. See In re M.S., 2023 UT App 74, ¶ 23, 533 P.3d 859 (holding that the determination of “whether the statutory criteria for neglect have been met” is “primarily a law-like endeavor” that is accordingly reviewed for correctness) (quotation simplified).

ANALYSIS

¶18      The juvenile court concluded the Children are neglected as to Mother because “it is a lack of proper parental care to subject a child to having her genitals photographed before and after visits with [Father], as well as sending other photographs to various agencies.” Because we determine that the “before and after” photographs alone are enough to support the neglect adjudication, we need not consider whether Mother also neglected the Children by sending the photographs to “various agencies.”[5]

¶19      Mother makes two arguments relating to the “before and after” photographs: first, she argues that there was not clear and convincing evidence that she actually took them; and second, she argues that even if she did take the photographs, this did not constitute neglect.

I. There Was Sufficient Evidence to Support the Court’s
Conclusion that Mother Took These Photographs.

¶20 Mother first argues that there was not “clear and convincing evidence that Mother took photos of [J.S.’s] genitals before and after visits with Father.” We disagree.[6]

¶21 At an adjudication trial, the juvenile court must determine whether “the allegations contained in the abuse, neglect, or dependency petition are true” by “clear and convincing evidence.” Utah Code § 80-3-402(1). “Clear and convincing evidence is an intermediate standard of proof that implies something more than the usual requirement” of a preponderance of the evidence and “something less than proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” In re K.K., 2023 UT App 13, ¶ 22, 525 P.3d 519 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 531 P.3d 731 (Utah 2023). As noted, because the juvenile court made this finding on the basis of stipulated facts, we afford no deference to its conclusion that DCFS had satisfied the clear and convincing evidence standard. But even so, we conclude that this standard was satisfied.

¶22      The clearest indication that Mother took these photographs is the stipulated finding that Mother told Nurse that she took these photographs. The law has of course long recognized that admissions from a party can carry substantial evidentiary weight. As a result, once Mother told Nurse that she took these photographs, the court had a solid evidentiary basis for concluding that she had indeed taken them.

¶23      In a footnote of her brief, Mother nevertheless argues that the court should not have credited this admission. As an initial matter, Mother points out that “[n]o one has received” these particular photographs. And this seems to be true. But again, Mother told Nurse that she had taken them. From this, even without the actual photographs, the juvenile court could take Mother at her word and find that she had taken them.

¶24 More significantly, Mother suggests that her seeming admission was actually the product of a misunderstanding. As noted, the stipulated facts include that “Mother state[d] that she had trouble communicating with [Nurse] and was unable to explain everything.” They also include that “[m]ultiple police reports and DCFS records indicate that [Mother] may be difficult to understand,” and that it is “documented” that Mother has “POTS (post orthostatic tachycardia syndrome),” a condition that “causes forgetfulness and trouble focusing (brain fog) making it difficult for [Mother] to think and speak clearly under stress.” But even accounting for these facts, the juvenile court could still take Mother’s admissions to Nurse at face value. This is so for several reasons.

¶25      The first is the specificity of Nurse’s account. Nurse didn’t say that Mother had made a passing or unclear comment to this effect. Rather, Nurse recalled Mother telling her that “she had taken photographs of [J.S.’s] genitals before and after she went to see [Father] on the advice of a pelvic floor physical therapist.” On its own, the specificity of Nurse’s account belies the suggestion that Nurse had simply misunderstood Mother.

¶26 Second, Mother seems to have reiterated her initial admission as the conversation with Nurse continued. According to Nurse, after Mother made her initial comment about taking these photographs, Nurse “asked [Mother] three times for the name of the physician” who had recommended taking them, but Mother “refused to provide it.” If Mother had not meant to say that she was taking “before and after” photographs of J.S.’s genitals (or, instead, if she hadn’t said it at all and Nurse had misheard her), Nurse’s repeated questioning about which doctor had asked for the photographs would have given Mother the opportunity to clarify that she had misspoken (or that she had been misunderstood) and that she hadn’t actually taken these photographs. But this wasn’t Mother’s response.

¶27      Instead, Nurse claimed that as the conversation continued, Mother “eventually reported that she was documenting what [J.S.’s] genitals looked like before and after parent-time with [Father].” Nurse’s statement that Mother “eventually” told Nurse that she was “documenting” the condition of her daughter’s genitals indicates that Mother reiterated that she had indeed taken them. And the fact that Mother then added the detail that she was “documenting” the “before and after” look of her daughter’s genitals functioned as her explanation for why she thought this was appropriate to do.

¶28      Finally, there’s no place in either the court’s ruling or even in the record as a whole where Mother has ever denied taking these photographs. Even when confronted with a specific allegation from DCFS about an instance in which a witness said that Mother admitted to taking them, Mother chose to respond with a non-admission/non-denial pursuant to rule 34(e).

¶29 Thus, the evidence before the juvenile court was that Mother had told Nurse that she had taken these photographs, that even with the benefits of further conversation and even subsequent litigation, Mother never retracted that admission, and that Mother had instead chosen to justify taking them. In light of all this, we see no basis for overturning the court’s implicit finding that Mother personally took these photographs.

II. The “Before and After” Photographs Were Enough to Establish Neglect.

¶30      “Neglect is statutorily defined,” and it “can be proved in any one of several ways.” In re G.H., 2023 UT App 132, ¶ 28, 540 P.3d 631; see also Utah Code § 80-1-102(58)(a). The juvenile court here concluded that Mother’s actions constituted neglect because “it is a lack of proper parental care to subject a child to having her genitals photographed before and after visits with [Father].” This was an apparent reference to Utah Code section 80-1-102(58)(a)(ii), which defines neglect as “action or inaction causing . . . lack of proper parental care of a child by reason of the fault or habits of the parent.”

¶31      In her brief, Mother points out that the legislature has not further defined the phrase “lack of proper parental care.” Drawing on various textual, structural, and even constitutional sources, Mother now asks us to take the opportunity to fill in the gap and provide further definition of what this phrase means. While we need not create a definitive one-size-fits all definition, we do agree with Mother on a few broad points that inform our analysis below.

¶32      First, the word “proper” is commonly understood to refer to something that is “marked by suitability, rightness, or appropriateness.”[7] Second and similarly, we think the phrase “proper parental care” would naturally incorporate notions of reasonableness. (After all, conduct that’s appropriate would likely be reasonable, and the converse would also be true.) In this vein, we note that Black’s Law Dictionary links the term “proper care” to notions of “reasonable care” that are commonly used in negligence cases, and Black’s defines “reasonable care” as “the degree of care that a prudent and competent person engaged in the same line of business or endeavor would exercise under similar circumstances.” Care, Black’s Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019). Third, because the statutory phrase at issue turns on notions of “proper parental care,” the relevant inquiry is appropriately focused on what would be proper (with all that the word entails) “under similar circumstances”—meaning, in the particular parenting circumstance at issue. And finally, we agree with Mother that, in light of the fundamental and constitutional rights that are associated with parenting, the neglect standard should not be applied to conduct that falls within an ordinary range of permissible parenting.

¶33      With those principles in mind, we think the contours of this phrase can then capably be fleshed out in the same way that most other phrases from constitutions or statutes are fleshed out— through the ordinary process of common law development. And while there doesn’t appear to be a Utah case that has comprehensively defined this phrase, the parameters of what constitutes neglect have been explored and applied in a number of cases. Among others, we note the following:

·         In In re G.H., we held that the neglect standard was satisfied where the mother “did not attend to the children’s basic health and welfare needs, such as feeding and bathing them, changing their diapers regularly, and obtaining medical care for them when they were sick,” where the mother “did not behave in a manner consistent with parenting a child,” and where the mother “would refuse to care for them when asked by the family members with whom she was living.” 2023 UT App 132, ¶¶ 29–31, 540 P.3d 631 (quotation simplified).

·         In In re K.K., we held that the neglect standard was satisfied based on the mother’s “inaction in failing to protect the children from exposure to domestic violence and prioritizing her toxic relationship” with the father. 2023 UT App 14, ¶ 12, 525 P.3d 526 (quotation simplified).

·         In In re K.D.N., we upheld a neglect determination that was based on “the lack of food,” the “profound lack of parenting skills,” and the presence of “violence” and “chaos” within the home. 2013 UT App 298, ¶ 11, 318 P.3d 768 (quotation simplified).

·         In In re D.T., we held that the neglect standard was satisfied based on the mother’s “admitted relapse” on illegal drugs, “her frequent absences, inconsistent housing, lack of stability, and other behaviors.” 2013 UT App 169, ¶ 5, 309 P.3d 248 (quotation simplified).

·         And in In re N.M., we held that “sufficient evidence support[ed] the juvenile court’s determination that the father “neglected [his child] by engaging in domestic violence.” 2013 UT App 151, ¶ 3, 305 P.3d 194.

In these and other cases, we held that the neglect standard was satisfied, not because of a failure of best-practices parenting, but instead because the behavior in question fell outside acceptable norms of proper parenting. To again use the phrase that we recently used in In re G.H., such cases involve a parent who simply “did not behave in a manner consistent with parenting a child.” 2023 UT App 132, ¶ 30.

¶34      So viewed, we agree with the juvenile court’s conclusion here that Mother’s behavior likewise reflected a “lack of proper parental care.” Utah Code § 80-1-102(58)(a)(ii). Again, while DCFS alleged that Mother had neglected the Children based on a number of things (including her excessive reporting of abuse, as well as her decision to submit the photographs taken by doctors to law enforcement and medical professionals), the conduct at issue in the court’s ruling was Mother taking photographs of a minor’s genitals “before and after parent-time” with Father, as well as Mother’s explanation that she was doing so to “document[] what” J.S.’s “genitals looked like before and after parent-time with” him.

¶35      The juvenile court had before it a statement from Doctor that she had “substantial concerns” about the “repeated photography” of a child’s genitals. Doctor opined that such behavior can be damaging to a child, in part, because it can undermine the messaging that children receive about the privacy relating to their genitals. Doctor’s concerns seem well-founded.

¶36 Moreover, we also note that the photographs in question here were taken by a parent who was in the midst of an “ongoing” and “contentious” custody dispute. By taking photographs of her young child’s genitals “before and after” that child’s visits with her father, Mother wasn’t just potentially desensitizing her daughter to photography of her genitals, but Mother was also communicating to her daughter that she should be concerned that Father was sexually abusing her or at least was likely to do so. This, too, carries obvious potential for harm, both to the child and to her relationship with Father.

¶37      We recognize, of course, that contextual questions such as the ones presented here can and often do turn on even small factual differences. And to be very clear, we don’t mean to suggest that a parent (even one who is involved in a contentious custody dispute) must sit idly by if the parent has a good-faith basis for suspecting that a child is being abused. As illustrated by our survey of the relevant cases above, children should always be protected, and on that front, their parents are indeed the first line of defense.

¶38 If a parent has suspicions that a child is being sexually abused, the parent should of course do something to protect the child, and as indicated, a failure to do anything may well constitute neglect in its own right. Among other things, a parent might respond by reaching out to medical, law enforcement, or other trained professionals, and such professionals may well be involved in documenting any observed abuse. But unlike some of the other photographs at issue in this case, the particular photographs in question here weren’t taken by professionals or in response to their recommendation, nor were they taken by Mother to document visible genital trauma.[8] Rather, according to the explanation that Mother “eventually” gave to Nurse during their conversation, Mother was trying to “document[] what [J.S.’s] genitals looked like before and after parent-time with her father.” It was on this basis that the juvenile court concluded that the neglect standard had been satisfied.

¶39      We have no need to determine whether it would ever be within the bounds of “proper parental care” for a parent to take photographs of a young child’s genitals without first involving trained professionals. And we note here too that, in addition to the suspected abuse scenario, there may be situations where such photography is in response to something more benign (such as diaper rash on an infant), and such contextual differences would likely place such photographs on different analytical footing. For purposes of this appeal, however, we simply conclude that it falls outside the realm of “proper parental care” for a parent to take photographs of a child’s genitals “before and after” visits with the other parent for “documentation” purposes. On this basis, we affirm the juvenile court’s conclusion that Mother neglected the Children.[9]

CONCLUSION

¶40      We agree with the juvenile court’s conclusion that, without something more, it constitutes a “lack of proper parental care,” Utah Code § 80-1-102(58)(a)(ii), for a parent to take photographs of a child’s genitals “before and after” visits with the other parent for “documentation” purposes. We affirm the adjudication of the juvenile court on that basis.

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


[1] Mother and Father also have another child who was not a minor during the proceedings in question.

[2] For background purposes only, we note that the juvenile court held a “merged pretrial, adjudication, and partial disposition hearing” relating to the one allegation made against Father. At the close of that hearing, the court concluded that the Children were “dependent children . . . in that they were without proper care through no fault of [Father].” Father was ordered to comply with protective supervision services through DCFS as a result. Father has not appealed that ruling.

[3] The parties in this case have all referred to these facts as “stipulated facts.” As indicated, however, Mother affirmatively admitted to certain facts, but for others, she invoked rule 34(e) of the Utah Rules of Juvenile Procedure and neither admitted nor denied them. Under that rule, when a party “declin[es] to admit or deny the allegations,” the “[a]llegations not specifically denied . . . shall be deemed true.” Id. Thus, in a technical sense, the facts the court relied on pursuant to rule 34(e) might not actually be “stipulated” (because Mother didn’t affirmatively agree to all of them), but by force of law, they might as well be. For ease of reference, we’ll follow the lead of the parties and refer to the court’s findings collectively as “stipulated facts.”

[4] Though the findings at issue don’t specifically draw the link, DCFS’s original petition in this case alleged that Mother has a “traumatic brain injury because a car hit her in December 2020,” and the juvenile court also included this finding in an order that it entered with respect to Father elsewhere in this litigation.

[5] The court found that Mother took photographs of J.S.’s genitals, but there’s no finding that she took similar photographs of A.S.’s genitals. Even so, the court found that both the Children are neglected. On appeal, Mother has not argued that this potential distinction provides a basis for reversing the adjudication as to A.S., and we therefore do not consider whether this is so.

[6] The juvenile court did not explicitly find that Mother personally took these photographs. Rather, in this portion of the ruling, the court stated that it is a “lack of proper parental care to subject a child to having her genitals photographed before and after visits with [Father].” “Unstated findings can be implied,” however, “if it is reasonable to assume that the trial court actually considered the controverted evidence and necessarily made a finding to resolve the controversy, but simply failed to record the factual determination it made.” Fish v. Fish, 2016 UT App 125, ¶ 22, 379 P.3d 882 (quotation simplified). Here, we conclude that the juvenile court did make an unstated finding that Mother took these photographs. As discussed in more detail below, Nurse claimed that Mother admitted to taking them. And of note, no one has claimed that anyone else took these particular photographs. Thus, when the court ruled that Mother had “subject[ed] a child to having her genitals photographed before and after visits with [Father],” the clear (and, indeed, only) implication that can be reasonably drawn from this record and the court’s ruling is that the court implicitly found that Mother took these photographs.

[7] Proper, Merriam-Webster Dictionary, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/proper [https://perma.cc/YGY2-MJXP].

[8] In contrast, the juvenile court noted that the photographs taken in 2020 showed “inflammation” of the labia and a small “abrasion” near the groin, while the 2022 photographs showed “vaginal and anal redness.”

[9] Mother also makes some allusion to the stipulated facts relating to certain photographs that she was taking on the advice of Specialist. It’s unclear from the briefing whether Mother means to assert this as something of an “advice of doctor” defense to this neglect allegation. See Utah Code § 80-1-102(58)(b)(ii) (stating that neglect “does not include . . . a health care decision made for a child by the child’s parent or guardian, unless the state or other party to a proceeding shows, by clear and convincing evidence, that the health care decision is not reasonable and informed”). In any event, those stipulated findings reflect that Specialist worked at a gastroenterology clinic, that Specialist was treating J.S. for “a chronic gastrointestinal issue,” and that Mother had been “documenting pictures of [J.S.’s] stool” in conjunction with that treatment. Mother has not specifically asserted that, in conjunction with this gastroenterology treatment, Specialist also told her to take photographs of her daughter’s genitals, much less that Specialist instructed her to “document[] what [J.S.’s] genitals looked like before and after parent-time with [Father].” We accordingly see no basis from this record to overturn the neglect finding on this potential ground.

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2024 UT App 47 – In re K.J. – removal, shelter hearing

2024 UT App 47 – In re K.J.

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF K.J., M.J., AND K.J.,

PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

D.F. AND K.J., Appellants, v. STATE OF UTAH, Appellee.

Opinion Nos. 20230102-CA and 20230103-CA Filed April 4, 2024

First District Juvenile Court, Logan Department The Honorable Bryan P. Galloway No. 1218130

Alexandra Mareschal, Kirstin Norman, and Jason B. Richards, Attorneys for Appellant D.F. Emily Adams, Attorney for Appellant K.J. Sean D. Reyes, Carol L.C. Verdoia, and John M. Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

JUDGE RYAN M. HARRIS authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and JOHN D. LUTHY concurred.

HARRIS, Judge:

¶1 In separate appeals that we consider together in this opinion, K.J. (Father) and D.F. (Mother) (collectively, Parents) challenge the juvenile court’s orders removing their three children (Children) from their home and, later, adjudicating the Children abused and neglected. Parents’ main challenge concerns the court’s adjudication that they abused and neglected the Children.          Parents also assert that, in one respect, they received ineffective assistance of counsel. For the reasons discussed, we find Parents’    arguments on these two topics unpersuasive.

¶2     But Parents also assert that, during the shelter hearing held at the beginning of the case, the juvenile court did not undertake a proper and complete analysis of the factors the governing statute required the court to consider. In this respect, Parents’ arguments have merit, and we remand the case so that the juvenile court can conduct the proper statutory analysis.

BACKGROUND

¶3 Parents are the legal and biological parents of three “medically complex” children: Kevin, Mia, and Kaleb.[1] The family moved to Utah in 2022, after having lived in Nevada and Arizona; at that time, Kevin was five years old, Mia was four, and Kaleb was not quite two. Parents believed that the Children suffered from a long list of various medical maladies; when the family arrived in Utah, all three Children—despite having largely different medical diagnoses—had surgically placed gastric feeding tubes (G-tubes), were developmentally delayed, and used wheelchairs for mobility.

¶4 In July 2022, Kevin was rushed to a local hospital by ambulance after Mother reported that he had suffered a seizure. Mia was hospitalized at the same time due to concerns about weight and dehydration. Kevin and Mia were transferred to Primary Children’s Medical Center (PCMC) in Salt Lake City; Kevin was treated with IV fluids to address “severe hypernatremia” due to dehydration. Kevin and Mia ended up staying at PCMC for nearly two weeks, and Kevin was even admitted to the pediatric intensive care unit. While Kevin and Mia were at PCMC, medical professionals there became concerned that they were being medically neglected. In particular, hospital personnel observed that Kevin and Mia were “severely underweight,” despite the presence of G-tubes, and “were considered a failure to thrive.”

¶5   After Kevin and Mia were discharged from PCMC, all three Children were referred to a pediatric nurse practitioner (Nurse Practitioner) for follow-up primary care. When the Children arrived at her medical clinic, Nurse Practitioner discovered that the Children—partly due to only recently having arrived in Utah—were not yet set up for medical insurance. But after examining the Children, Nurse Practitioner agreed to treat them anyway, despite their lack of insurance, because in her view “it was medically necessary to see them regardless of the insurance difficulties.” As she saw it, “these kids needed medical care whether [she] got paid” or not, because they were facing “significant medical issues” that she considered potentially “life and death” matters. The Children arrived at her clinic in wheelchairs and were developmentally delayed and nonverbal. None were toilet trained. Over the course of her treatment— which lasted several weeks—Nurse Practitioner also observed that the Children had not been “gaining [weight] as they [had been] in the hospital,” which made her wonder whether the Children might at some point need “to be rehospitalized.”

¶6 A few weeks later, a pediatrician (Pediatrician) was assigned to the Children. When he first saw the Children, he observed that they were all “nonverbal,” and while Kevin had some ability to walk on his own, Mia and Kaleb were “nonambulatory.” During the course of his treatment of the Children, he worked with them to improve their motor skills and their ability to walk, and he monitored their weight, which he indicated was the thing he was “following most closely.” Soon after Pediatrician took over primary care of the Children, Kaleb came in for his “two-year well[ness] visit.” During that visit, Mother indicated that Kaleb had spina bifida, which is “a neural defect at the base of the spine” that can often be fixed with surgery. Mother insisted that Kaleb had already had the surgery to correct the spina bifida, and she even pointed to Kaleb’s back where she indicated there was a scar from the surgery. But Pediatrician saw no scar.

¶7 At some point after Kevin and Mia were released from PCMC, a physician at Nurse Practitioner’s clinic contacted the Utah Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) to notify them about potential issues with the Children. Thereafter, DCFS assigned caseworkers to investigate the matter, and those caseworkers made some ten visits to Parents’ home, prior to removal, to check on the Children and to assess the situation. These visits occurred at different times of day, yet in every visit except for one, the Children were all confined in “Pack ‘n Play” playpens. Parents stated that the Children needed to be in the playpens so that their G-tubes could function properly, but caseworkers observed that Parents had—but were not using— portable devices that would have maintained a “continuous feed” from the feeding tubes without restricting the Children’s movement. On one visit, one of the caseworkers asked Mother to show her the Children’s medications, and in response Mother brought out a large “two feet by three feet” sized tote bag “full of prescription bottles and different ointments.” During this time, Kevin—who was five years old and eligible to begin kindergarten—was not enrolled in school and therefore was not receiving any of the services a school could potentially provide to a medically complex child.

¶8 In addition to receiving primary care from Nurse Practitioner and Pediatrician , the Children were also referred to and treated by the Pediatric Complex Care Clinic at PCMC. They missed their first scheduled appointment with the clinic, which caused the lead physician there (Physician) a great deal of concern, because she knew that “it was critical that [PCMC] follow up with” the Children. Physician notified DCFS of the missed appointment, which was eventually rescheduled for about three weeks later.

¶9       At that rescheduled visit, Mother reported to Physician that the Children were all suffering from “dysphagia,” which is the “inability to swallow food properly.” Physician observed that Kevin and Mia had “continued to lose weight” since their discharge from the hospital. This was troubling, because the Children all had G-tubes, which exist primarily to make sure the Children are receiving enough nutrition; as one member of the PCMC team testified, “a child with a G-tube whose caregiver is fully responsible for that nutrition intake should not be experiencing failure to thrive in the absence of a disease or pathology that could cause failure to thrive.”

¶10 PCMC doctors investigated whether there could be any medical reason for the Children’s continued malnutrition and failure to gain weight, and eventually concluded that “none of the [C]hildren [had] a pathology consistent with a disease process that could cause failure to thrive.” Indeed, the PCMC team eventually determined that the Children’s “malnourishment and poor growth [were] directly related to insufficient caloric intake,” despite their G-tubes, and that the Children’s “failure to thrive was not due to their medical conditions but due to [Parents’] neglect . . . in feeding them appropriately.”

¶11 In addition, after her examination of the Children, Physician was concerned “that the [medical] history being provided by” Parents was “not consistent with what” she was “seeing on physical exam.” Given these concerns, the PCMC team then set out to review the Children’s various medical diagnoses, as reported by Parents, with the goal of verifying or eliminating each of them. As reported by Parents, the Children suffered from the following medical maladies, among others:

·         Kevin had suffered a stroke either in utero or shortly after birth, and had Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, Erb’s palsy, a seizure disorder, hearing loss, premature birth, sleep apnea, and an “allerg[y] to the sun.”

·         Mia had DiGeorge syndrome, blindness, hearing loss, premature birth, cerebral palsy, and prediabetes.

·         Kaleb had spina bifida, gastroparesis, premature birth, clubfoot affecting both feet, urinary retention issues that required catheterization, and hydrocephalus.

In an effort to confirm these diagnoses, the PCMC team requested, obtained, and reviewed over 7,000 pages of medical records regarding the Children, including records from Nevada and Arizona. After completing their review, and after examining the Children both before and after removal, the PCMC team was able to confirm some of the diagnoses. For instance, Kaleb does suffer from clubfoot in both feet, and Mia does have a genetic disorder similar to DiGeorge syndrome. But with regard to most of the diagnoses, the PCMC team concluded that Parents’ assertions were simply unsupported by any medical evidence. In particular, they eventually determined that Kevin does not suffer from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome or any seizure disorder, and that he did not have a stroke either in utero or shortly after birth; that Mia was not legally blind; and that Kaleb did not have spina bifida or hydrocephalus and did not need catheterization.

¶12     Based on these conclusions, and on their examination of the Children, the PCMC team determined that Kevin and Kaleb “had been the victim[s] of” “medical child abuse,”[2] and that the team had “serious concerns” in that regard about Mia. They called for “hospital admission” for the Children to “de-escalate elements of [their] care that are unfounded” and to “restart crucial interventions that have been ignored,” with a focus on “nutrition and aiding age-appropriate development.” And they recommended “development of a long-term plan for trauma- informed counseling and adherence to broad therapies, including speech therapy, occupational therapy, and physical therapy.”

¶13 The PCMC team then met with DCFS caseworkers to explain their findings. Based in part on the information its agents learned at that meeting, the State determined to seek removal of the Children from Parents’ home, and the very next day the State sought and obtained a removal warrant.

¶14 After obtaining the warrant, DCFS caseworkers traveled to Parents’ home to remove the Children. When they arrived, the caseworkers again found the Children in their playpens. Parents were cooperative, however, and Mother changed the Children’s clothes in preparation for the drive to PCMC. One caseworker observed that the Children were “a little stinky” and “had an odor to them like they hadn’t bathed in a few days.” The drive to the hospital was uneventful; Kaleb “babbled . . . baby talk,” while Kevin and Mia were “lethargic” and had a “very flat affect.”

¶15 When the Children arrived at PCMC, hospital staff immediately noticed that the Children exhibited “very poor hygiene” and observed that the Children were each double or triple diapered and that the diapers were “sopping through.” After the wet diapers were removed, hospital staff discovered that the Children had “fairly extensive [skin] breakdown in the diaper area” that was severe enough to require the assistance of the hospital’s “wound clinic.” Hospital staff noted that these sorts of wounds do not occur “overnight” and were the result of “there being wetness on the skin without appropriate response for some period of time.” The Children also had “irritability and breakdown” around their G-tube sites; as with the diaper-area wounds, these wounds also required the assistance of the hospital’s wound clinic.

¶16 Medical personnel also observed that the Children were “malnourished and under expected weight for [their] ages.” Kevin was determined to be “severely malnourished,” while Mia and Kaleb were determined to be “moderately malnourished.” And blood tests on Kaleb “revealed abnormalities very concerning for chronic malnutrition.”

¶17 The doctors considered the Children’s malnutrition to be concerning, and they set about to discover why the Children were unable to regularly eat solid food. All three Children were administered “swallow studies” to determine their “ability to eat and drink by mouth.” Kevin had such a severe “oral aversion to food and drink” that hospital personnel were unable to complete the test, and he was referred to a “speech/language pathologist” to help him overcome the aversion. Mia was “found to have a significant oral aversion to liquids,” and was also referred to a “speech/language pathologist.” Kaleb, on the other hand, was determined to have no oral aversion and was “eager to eat and engaged with all thicknesses of feeds.” Doctors concluded that Kevin and Mia’s oral aversion was “likely the result of not being provided with solid food” at home, and that Kaleb’s test results indicated a “serious concern” that he “did not need a feeding tube” at all.

¶18 Following removal, the Children stayed in the hospital for six days “to medically stabilize them and properly diagnose their conditions” through further examination and testing. During this time, the PCMC team was (as noted above) able to confirm the conclusions it had reached based on the earlier records review.

¶19     Upon discharge from PCMC, the Children were placed into foster care. Kevin and Mia were placed in the same homes, a temporary one at first for a few weeks before being moved to a more permanent placement. Kaleb was placed with a different foster family. Once in foster care, the Children showed rapid and measurable improvement. After having Kevin and Mia for only about a month, their foster mother reported that, while Kevin could only “scootch around the house on his hiney” when he arrived, he eventually learned not only to walk but to run, and he could often be seen doing “laps” around the kitchen island. He also began to allow his teeth to be brushed (something he had refused to allow at first), had become “a lot more personable” and affectionate, and began attending kindergarten and “loves school.” Mia had some ability to walk when she arrived but was “[v]ery unstable”; over time, however, she had learned to “run really fast.” The foster mother obtained glasses for Mia, which helped her navigate the world better. In the beginning, Mia refused to bathe, and would start “screaming and rocking and shaking” when asked to do so, but over time had become accustomed to it and “now she loves bath time.” And Kaleb’s foster mother reported that Kaleb could not crawl, walk, or talk when he arrived, but within a few weeks he learned how to not only crawl but walk with the help of furniture, and he was able to say several words.

¶20 The foster parents also reported that they had enrolled the Children in appropriate schooling. Kevin was enrolled in kindergarten, where he began to receive speech and occupational therapy through the school. Mia was enrolled in preschool, where she was given an individualized education plan that included speech therapy. And Kaleb was enrolled in a state-run program known as “Up to Three,” where he was able to obtain physical and speech therapy.

¶21 With regard to nutrition and weight gain, all three Children demonstrated swift and marked improvement in foster care. It wasn’t long before the Children no longer required 24- hour G-tube feeding; soon, the Children were receiving feedings through the tube only at night and just two or three times during the day. All of them were soon eating solid foods; Kevin’s foster mother reported that he had “tried 20 new foods” and he liked “spaghetti and pasta and yogurt and ice cream.” Following an appointment about a month after foster placement, Physician noted that Kevin “looks to be doing great” and stated that, from “a weight perspective, he is gaining weight appropriately.” And she noted that Mia “looked to be in excellent physical health.”

¶22 Soon after the Children were removed from Parents’ care, Pediatrician set up a meeting to inform Parents of the Children’s condition and accurate diagnoses. Parents refused to accept the PCMC team’s conclusion that many of the previous diagnoses were inaccurate; indeed, Pediatrician described Parents’ reaction as one of “scoffing and disbelie[f] and unacceptance.” Pediatrician later stated that, because of Parents’ “blatant disregard of facts from medical tests and expert opinions from specialists,” he “would be very worried” about the Children if they were to be placed back in Parents’ care.

¶23 In the meantime, legal proceedings began in the juvenile court. One week after removal, the court held a shelter hearing, at which it heard testimony from Mother, Father, and one member of the PCMC medical team. At the conclusion of the hearing, the court stated that it was “convinced by a preponderance [of the evidence] that the [C]hildren were being neglected” by Parents. The court noted that daily oversight of the Children had been Parents’ responsibility, and that this “oversight was done in a way that was neglectful.” It specifically mentioned that, upon arrival at the hospital after removal, the Children all had “soiled” diapers and “open sores” in the diaper area as well as around the G-tube sites. The court noted that the Children “needed a great deal more medical oversight” than they had been getting, and that “at the very least” the case presented “medical neglect” with a “strong indication” that there was also “medical abuse.” The court stated that it had been “up to [Parents] to identify [the issues] and care for these [C]hildren,” who “were not thriving.”

¶24 After making its findings of neglect, the court finished its shelter analysis with the following remarks:

The [c]ourt does find that given the current state of the [C]hildren, exigent circumstances existed with regards to the removal. The removal was proper. At this particular time until there is a plan in place, the continued removal is necessary. Okay? At some point in time if a plan is in place and the parents have shown the ability to take into consideration the current medical condition of the [C]hildren and have shown the ability to work with the professionals that are providing that care for the [C]hildren, I don’t see why it cannot at least be considered that the ongoing continued removal would not be necessary. Okay?

At this point, I just don’t have enough with regards to that. The only thing I have is that there was testimony that if placed back in the care of [Parents], this is going to get worse and worse and worse. I don’t think that has to be the case really.

So I do find removal proper, . . . [a]nd I do find that exigent circumstances, emergency circumstances did exist with relation to the removal at the time the [C]hildren were removed which absolved [DCFS] of the need to provide reasonable efforts to keep the [C]hildren in the home.

¶25 Later, the court issued an order memorializing its oral ruling. It found that “[t]he lack of physical care that the [C]hildren received by [Parents] constitutes neglect,” and that the Children were “clearly not thriving.” The court found that “[r]emoval of the [C]hildren from the home was proper and in [their] best interest,” and that it was “contrary to [their] well-being . . . to remain in the home.” And it found that, “because an emergency situation . . . existed at the time of removal, . . . any lack of pre- placement preventative efforts was appropriate and justified.”

¶26 About six weeks later, the juvenile court held an adjudication trial. Over three trial days, the court heard from thirteen witnesses, including the involved DCFS caseworkers, Nurse Practitioner, Pediatrician, the foster parents, and various members of the PCMC medical team. They all testified about the events described above. At one point during the trial, the Children visited the courtroom, an event the court noted for the record, stating that it “was able to” see the Children and “watch them interact with” Parents. At the conclusion of the trial, the court took the matter under advisement.

¶27 Some ten days later, the court issued a lengthy written ruling in which it summarized the evidence presented at trial and then determined that the Children had been abused and neglected by both Parents. With regard to abuse, the court found that the Children had “suffered or been threatened with nonaccidental harm in that unnecessary medical interventions have been performed that have caused physical harm” to the Children. In support of this finding, the court pointed to six different “unnecessary medical interventions”: (1) a CT scan performed on Kaleb in 2022 that was against medical advice; (2) Mother’s “[i]ntermittent catheterization” of Kaleb; (3) various medical tests performed on Kevin that “expos[ed him] to radiation unnecessarily”; (4) various unnecessary blood draws on Mia;

“bronchoscopies and modified Barium swallow studies” performed on all three Children that “may not have been necessary”; and (6) Parents’ actions in “maintaining the [C]hildren on G-tubes” and “constant[ly] plac[ing]” them in playpens, actions the court found had “harmed the [C]hildren to the point that they became unable to eat food orally or develop the ability to walk.”

¶28     With regard to neglect, the court’s conclusion rested on two separate grounds. First, the court pointed to the Children’s condition upon arriving at the hospital, finding that they were “malnourished” without any “medical reason” and “[d]espite placement of feeding tubes and 24/7 feeding,” and that they were “nonverbal and unable to walk” because of parental neglect and not because of “their medical complexity.” Based on their condition at the time of removal, the court concluded that the Children were neglected because Parents had failed “to provide for their basic physical needs on a day-to-day basis.”

¶29 Second, the court pointed to Parents’ belief that the Children had various medical maladies, many of which did not appear to be borne out by medical evidence, noting by way of example that there is no evidence that Kaleb has spina bifida or hydrocephalus. In that same vein, the court found that the Children “have not received appropriate interventions for their developmental needs,” noting specifically that Mia had not received appropriate medical treatment for certain neurological conditions and that none of the Children had been “enrolled in any physical therapy, occupational therapy, feeding therapy, or speech therapy since the family arrived in Utah.” Accordingly, the court concluded that the Children were neglected because Parents had “failed or refused to provide proper and necessary subsistence [and] medical care when required.”

¶30 After finding both abuse and neglect, the court concluded that “continued removal” was “in the best interest” of the Children, and that DCFS had “made reasonable efforts to prevent the removal,” but that those efforts had been “unsuccessful.” The court ordered that the Children “be placed in [DCFS’s] custody and guardianship for appropriate placement.”

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶31 Parents now appeal, and they raise three issues for our review. First, Parents challenge the juvenile court’s determination, made after the adjudication trial, that they had abused and neglected the Children. In this context, “we apply differing standards of review to findings of fact, conclusions of law, and determinations of mixed questions of law and fact.” In re M.S., 2023 UT App 74, ¶ 23, 533 P.3d 859 (quotation simplified). The factual findings underlying an abuse or neglect adjudication are reviewed deferentially and are reversed only if clearly erroneous. See In re K.K., 2023 UT App 13, ¶ 21, 525 P.3d 519. But the court’s ultimate determination regarding abuse or neglect is reviewed for correctness, because making that determination, which involves applying a given set of facts to statutory criteria, “is primarily a law-like endeavor.” See In re M.S., 2023 UT App 74, ¶ 23 (quotation simplified).

¶32 Second, Parents assert that, in one respect, their attorneys rendered constitutionally ineffective assistance. “When a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel is raised for the first time on appeal, there is no lower court ruling to review and we must decide whether the [party] was deprived of the effective assistance of counsel as a matter of law.” State v. Kitzmiller, 2021 UT App 87, ¶ 14, 493 P.3d 1159 (quotation simplified).

¶33 Finally, Parents challenge the juvenile court’s earlier order following the shelter hearing, asserting that the court failed to engage in the proper statutory analysis before issuing its order finding that removal was necessary. In particular, Parents assert that the court did not properly analyze whether DCFS had made reasonable efforts to prevent removal, and that the court did not properly analyze whether there were services available, going forward, that might have prevented removal. At root, Parents’ assertion is that the juvenile court misapplied the shelter statute. “We review [a lower] court’s application of a statute for correctness.” Estate of Higley v. Utah Dep’t of Transp., 2010 UT App 227, ¶ 6, 238 P.3d 1089 (quotation simplified).

ANALYSIS

Adjudication Order

¶34 Parents’ main challenge is to the merits of the juvenile court’s adjudication order, in which the court determined that the  Children were abused and neglected as to both Parents. For the reasons discussed, we affirm the juvenile court’s determination that Parents neglected the Children. In light of that ruling, and given the posture of Parents’ arguments on appeal, we need not consider the merits of the court’s abuse adjudication.

Neglect

¶35 We first consider Parents’ challenge to the juvenile court’s neglect adjudication. In this context, “[n]eglect” includes parental “action or inaction causing” any one of six different results. See Utah Code § 80-1-102(58)(a). Yet not all six results are necessary for a neglect determination; when “the juvenile court [finds] neglect under several subsections, to affirm we need conclude only that neglect was established under one of the bases.” In re G.H., 2023 UT App 132, ¶ 28, 540 P.3d 631.

¶36 In this case, the juvenile court determined that Parents had neglected the Children under two of the six statutory subsections. First, based on the condition of the Children at removal, the court determined that Parents’ action or inaction caused a “lack of proper parental care of a child by reason of the fault or habits of the parent.” See Utah Code § 80-1-102(58)(a)(ii). Second, and alternatively, the court determined, based on the Children’s medical conditions, that Parents had failed or refused “to provide proper or necessary subsistence or medical care, or any other care necessary for the child’s health, safety, morals, or well-being.” Id.

§ 80-1-102(58)(a)(iii). For the reasons discussed, we conclude that the juvenile court’s first ground is supported by the evidence in this case, and we therefore need not reach the second.

¶37 In our view, the Children’s condition at removal alone was sufficient for the juvenile court to determine that the Children were neglected. The Children were all malnourished, one of them “severely” so. They were all underweight and failing to thrive. Moreover, they all had mobility problems; none of them could walk in an age-appropriate manner. And none were toilet-trained. In addition, they arrived at PCMC with open sores in their diaper areas and around their G-tube sites that were severe enough to require consultation with the hospital’s wound clinic.

¶38 Even though the Children are medically complex, the juvenile court found that there was no medical reason for their malnourishment, failure to thrive, or open wounds. That finding was not clearly erroneous. It should go without saying that allowing open wounds to develop or remain untreated is not medically necessary; certainly, Parents make no assertion to the contrary. And with regard to malnourishment and failure to thrive, PCMC doctors investigated whether there could be any medical reason for the Children’s continued malnutrition and failure to gain weight, and eventually concluded that no such medical cause existed here. Absent a medical cause, children with G-tubes should not be malnourished. Following examination and testing, the PCMC team eventually determined that the Children’s “malnourishment and poor growth [were] directly related to insufficient caloric intake,” despite G-tubes, and that their “failure to thrive was not due to their medical conditions but due to [Parents’] neglect . . . in feeding them appropriately.”

¶39   Parents resist the court’s neglect determination by pointing to the neglect statute’s exception for “reasonable and informed” health care decisions. See id. § 80-1-102(58)(b)(ii) (“Neglect does not include . . . a health care decision made for a child by the child’s parent or guardian, unless the state . . . shows . . . that the health care decision is not reasonable and informed.”). They assert, in essence, that their care of the Children has consisted of a series of health care decisions that the State has not shown to be unreasonable or uninformed. And on that basis they argue that the court’s neglect determination was incomplete and improper.

¶40 Parents’ arguments might have more force if the reason the State was asserting neglect had to do with a specific medical decision Parents made for the Children—say, for instance, their decision to place G-tubes in all three Children. But in this case, the juvenile court’s neglect determination was—at least in relevant part—not based on any specific health care decision but, instead, on the Children’s condition at the time of removal. On that score, Parents—unlike the parents in In re M.S., 2023 UT App 74, ¶¶ 41– 48, 533 P.3d 859, who asserted that their baby’s low weight was due to their decision to exclusively use breast milk rather than formula—make no effort to defend the Children’s malnutrition and failure to thrive by pointing to any particular health care decision, whether reasonable and informed or not. Indeed, as noted, PCMC doctors concluded, after examination and testing, that there was no medical justification for the Children’s malnutrition and failure to thrive. Under these circumstances, the statutory exception to “neglect” for “reasonable and informed” health care decisions simply has no application.

¶41 We therefore affirm the juvenile court’s determination that, based on the Children’s condition at removal, Parents—through their own “fault or habits”—had failed to provide “proper parental care” to the Children. See Utah Code § 80-1-102(58)(a)(ii). Because we affirm under subsection (a)(ii), we need not further discuss the court’s alternative neglect determination, made under subsection (a)(iii). See In re G.H., 2023 UT App 132, ¶ 28.

Abuse

¶42 Moreover, because we affirm the juvenile court’s neglect determination, we need not—in this case—consider the merits of the court’s abuse determination. Juvenile court jurisdiction over a child can be based on, among other things, either abuse or neglect. See In re G.B., 2022 UT App 98, ¶ 32, 516 P.3d 781 (“Importantly, jurisdiction could properly be based on either the abuse determination or the neglect determination.”). Our decision affirming the juvenile court’s neglect adjudication means that the court has continuing jurisdiction over the Children, regardless of the merits of Parents’ challenge to the court’s abuse adjudication.

¶43 In situations like this one, the propriety of the court’s abuse adjudication ends up being an inconsequential point, unless the affected parent can demonstrate that there will be “collateral consequences associated with an abuse determination that do not follow from a neglect determination.” Id. ¶ 34. In this case, Parents make no effort to articulate any collateral consequences that might follow from an abuse adjudication that are not already present from a neglect adjudication. And when asked during oral argument if we would need to address abuse if we were to affirm on neglect, Parents agreed that, in that situation, we would not need to address abuse. We therefore have no occasion to consider the merits of Parents’ challenge to the court’s abuse adjudication.

Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

¶44 Next, Parents assert that their attorneys provided ineffective assistance during the adjudication proceedings by failing to consult with or call an expert who could have testified about “medical child abuse” and about Parents’ state of mind and intentions regarding their care of the Children. Under the circumstances of this case, we reject Parents’ claim of ineffective assistance of counsel.

¶45 In child welfare cases, we employ the “Strickland test to determine a claim for ineffective assistance of counsel.” See In re E.H., 880 P.2d 11, 13 (Utah Ct. App. 1994) (citing Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984)), cert. denied, 890 P.2d 1034 (Utah 1994). Under that test, Parents “must show that (1) counsel’s performance was deficient and (2) this deficient performance prejudiced the defense.” In re C.M.R., 2020 UT App 114, ¶ 19, 473 P.3d 184 (quotation simplified). “To demonstrate deficient performance,” Parents “must persuade this court that, considering the record as a whole, [c]ounsel’s performance was objectively unreasonable.” In re R.G., 2023 UT App 114, ¶ 16, 537 P.3d 627. And to show prejudice, Parents “must demonstrate a reasonable probability that the outcome of [their] case would have  been different absent counsel’s error.” In re C.M.R., 2020 UT App 114, ¶ 21 (quotation simplified). “A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome of the proceeding.” Id. (quotation simplified). In this case, Parents cannot meet either element of the Strickland test.

¶46 In support of their ineffective assistance claim, Parents have submitted a declaration from a forensic pathologist (Expert) who indicates that he has experience in cases of medical child abuse. Expert offers his view that, in most cases of medical child abuse, the “responsible parent . . . receives some form of secondary benefit, either financial or psychologic, from the inappropriate and unwanted medical care the child receives.” But he states that, in other cases, the unnecessary medical care is the result of “miscommunication between medical providers and patients” and of “the unsophistication and/or limited cognitive resources” of the parents. Expert states that, in order to offer a useful opinion in this case, he would need to undertake “an adequate psychologic and cognitive assessment” of Parents. He has not yet undertaken any such assessment, although he notes that he has reviewed the reports of another examiner who assessed Parents, and he offers his view that these reports “appear to endorse mental functioning deficits” on Parents’ part “that could lead to inaccurate conceptualizations of [the Children’s] medical conditions and treatment needs,” and that nothing he sees in those reports “implies [that Parents] are putting [the Children] at risk for selfish or self-aggrandizing motives.”

¶47 Under the circumstances presented here, a reasonable attorney could have decided not to consult Expert. The opinions Expert offers speak only to medical child abuse, and not to whether Parents neglected the Children by not feeding them enough and not enabling them to grow and thrive despite their medical maladies. As noted above, we affirm the juvenile court’s neglect determination without reaching the merits of any questions about the propriety of the Children’s various medical diagnoses. Because Expert has nothing useful to say about Parents’ manifest neglect of the Children notwithstanding their diagnoses, a reasonable attorney could have determined that consultation with Expert was not necessary or helpful. Accordingly, we conclude that Parents have not demonstrated that their attorneys performed deficiently.

¶48 For much the same reason, Parents have also not shown prejudice. Even if their attorneys had consulted with and retained Expert, his testimony—given that it goes only to abuse and not to Parents’ neglect of the Children as evidenced by the Children’s condition at removal—would not have made a difference to the outcome of this case.

¶49 Thus, we conclude that Parents have not borne their burden of demonstrating that their attorneys rendered constitutionally ineffective assistance.

The Shelter Order

¶50 Finally, we consider Parents’ challenge to the juvenile court’s earlier shelter order. Before considering the merits of that challenge, we address one preliminary issue: whether Parents have properly appealed the shelter order. After concluding that Parents have properly mounted an appeal from the shelter order, we proceed to address the merits of Parents’ arguments.

Appealability

¶51 We do not see very many appeals from shelter orders. We suspect that this is because shelter hearings occur at the very beginning of any child welfare case, and because orders coming out of those hearings are not considered final orders that are immediately appealable as of right. We therefore take this opportunity to discuss the appealability of shelter orders, and we

conclude that Parents have properly appealed from the shelter order here.

¶52 “As a general rule, an appellate court does not have jurisdiction to consider an appeal unless the appeal is taken from a final order or judgment that ends the controversy between the litigants.” In re J.E., 2023 UT App 3, ¶ 17, 524 P.3d 1009 (quotation simplified). And, at least conceptually, “the finality of an order in juvenile proceedings is determined the same way as the finality of an order in other courts.” Id. ¶ 18 (quotation simplified). “But it is fair to say that, in appeals from juvenile court, finality is viewed somewhat more flexibly than in the district court context.” Id. ¶ 19. In juvenile court cases, “the determining factor” as to finality “is whether [the order in question] effects a change in the permanent status of the child.” Id. (quotation simplified). Using this “pragmatic analysis of the order itself,” Utah appellate courts have concluded that, in juvenile court cases, “appeals may be heard from more than one final judgment.” Id. (quotation simplified). In particular, adjudication orders and termination orders are considered final orders that are appealable as of right, while “shelter orders” are “not considered final.” Id. ¶ 20; see also In re S.A.K., 2003 UT App 87, ¶ 13, 67 P.3d 1037 (“An adjudication order is one such judgment that we have found to be final for purposes of appeal.”); In re M.V., 937 P.2d 1049, 1051 (Utah Ct. App. 1997) (per curiam) (holding that, because a shelter hearing only creates temporary orders, “a shelter hearing order . . . is not final and appealable as a matter of right”).

¶53 Because shelter orders are not considered to be final orders, they are not immediately appealable as of right.[3] To properly appeal such orders as a matter of right, the party wishing to challenge the shelter order must wait until the court has entered a final appealable order. At that point, the party may take an appeal from the final order, which appeal “may include challenges to interlocutory orders” issued by the court prior to entry of the final order. Jensen v. Jensen, 2013 UT App 143, ¶ 2 n.1, 304 P.3d 878 (per curiam); accord U.P.C., Inc. v. R.O.A. Gen., Inc., 1999 UT App 303, ¶ 13, 990 P.2d 945.

¶54 In this situation, the adjudication order was the first final and appealable order issued by the juvenile court following entry of the shelter order. Thus, Parents’ opportunity to appeal the shelter order as of right presented itself upon entry of the court’s adjudication order. And Parents seized that opportunity by filing their notices of appeal. In each notice, Parents specified that they were appealing from the court’s adjudication order; they did not specify that they also wanted to appeal from the court’s interim shelter order, but parties are not required to include such specification in the notice of appeal. See Wilson v. Sanders, 2019 UT App 126, ¶ 28, 447 P.3d 1240 (“The language of rule 3(d) [of the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure] does not require a party appealing from an entire final judgment to specify each interlocutory order of which the appellant seeks review.” (quotation simplified)), cert. denied, 456 P.3d 388 (Utah 2019). Parents then indicated in their appellate petition, filed a few months later, that they were challenging not only the adjudication order but also the interlocutory shelter order.

¶55 Thus, Parents took all the right steps to appeal the juvenile court’s shelter order. Such orders are not immediately appealable as of right, but a challenge to such orders may be included in any appeal from the next subsequently entered final order. Parents properly included their challenge to the shelter order in their appeal from the next final order entered by the juvenile court: the adjudication order.

B. Parents’ Challenge to the Shelter Order

¶56 Having concluded that Parents have properly mounted an appeal from the juvenile court’s shelter order, we proceed to consider the merits of Parents’ appellate challenge. In this case, Parents raise a very specific objection to the shelter order. They assert that the court did not properly address two of the required components of the statutorily mandated removal analysis:

“whether reasonable efforts were made to prevent or eliminate the need for removal,” and (2) “whether there are available services that would prevent the need for continued removal.” See Utah Code § 80-3-301(10)(a)(i). In considering the merits of Parents’ challenge, we first conclude that the juvenile court did indeed err in its application of the shelter statute. In a separate section, we then discuss the appropriate remedy in this situation.

1

¶57 Utah law requires juvenile courts, before removing a child from a parent’s home, to make several specific findings. At issue here are the requirements of subsection 10(a) of the shelter statute. That subsection states, in relevant part, as follows:

(i) The juvenile court shall make a determination on the record as to whether reasonable efforts were made to prevent or eliminate the need for removal of the child from the child’s home and whether there are available services that would prevent the need for continued removal.

(ii) If the juvenile court finds that the child can be safely returned to the custody of the child’s parent or guardian through the provision of the services described in Subsection 10(a)(i), the juvenile court shall place the child with the child’s parent or guardian and order that the services be provided by [DCFS].

Id. § 80-3-301(10)(a).

¶58 Thus, this statutory provision requires juvenile courts to make, “on the record,” two separate but related determinations. See id. § 80-3-301(10)(a)(i). The first one is a backward-looking inquiry that asks whether, prior to removal, DCFS has made “reasonable efforts” to “prevent or eliminate the need for removal.” Id. However, if DCFS’s “first contact with the family occurred during an emergency situation in which the child could not safely remain at home,” the juvenile court need not engage in a traditional reasonable-efforts analysis but, instead, “shall make a finding that any lack of preplacement preventive efforts . . . was appropriate.” Id. § 80-3-301(11).

¶59 The second—and related—determination requires analysis of “whether there are available services that would prevent the need for continued removal.” Id. § 80-3-301(10)(a)(i). As we understand it, this inquiry is different from the reasonable-efforts analysis, in that it looks forward rather than backward. As relevant here, the question is not whether reasonable efforts have been made in the past, but whether services are available, going forward, that could “prevent the need for continued removal.” Id.

¶60 With regard to the first part of this inquiry, the court in its oral ruling offered its view that “emergency circumstances did exist” at the time of removal “which absolved [DCFS] of the need to provide reasonable efforts.” And in its later written order, it found that, “because an emergency situation and aggravated circumstances existed at the time of removal, and the [C]hildren could not safely remain in [Parents’] home, any lack of pre- placement preventative efforts was appropriate and justified.”[4]

¶61 Parents assert that this analysis was erroneous because the “emergency” exception that absolves DCFS from making reasonable pre-removal efforts to prevent removal applies only in cases in which DCFS’s “first contact with the family occurred during an emergency situation,” see id. § 80-3-301(11) (emphasis added), a situation not applicable here. The State advances a broader interpretation of this statutory exception, but in our view Parents’ interpretation is the correct one.

¶62 The State agrees with Parents that, in situations in which DCFS’s first contact with the family is in an emergency situation, the statute requires the court to make a finding that any lack of reasonable efforts was appropriate. See id. But it asserts that this provision does not prevent a court from “mak[ing] a finding of exigency in any case where [DCFS] has already been working with the parents,” and it posits that a juvenile court has the authority to dispense with the pre-removal reasonable-efforts inquiry anytime it believes the situation is emergent. We disagree.

¶63 The previous subsection requires that a pre-removal reasonable-efforts finding be made. See id. § 80-3-301(10)(a)(i). There are no exceptions built into this subsection. To be sure, there is an exception built into the next statutory subsection, but that provision, on its face, applies only to situations in which DCFS’s first encounter with the family occurred in an emergency situation. We decline the State’s invitation to read a broader emergency exception into the statute. See St. Jeor v. Kerr Corp., 2015 UT 49, ¶ 13, 353 P.3d 137 (“[W]e will not read additional limitations into [a rule] that the language cannot bear.”); Greene v. Utah Transit Auth., 2001 UT 109, ¶ 15, 37 P.3d 1156 (“[W]e will not disturb explicit legislative requirements and read into the statute an actual notice exception.”). We conclude that subsections (10) and (11) of the shelter statute, when read together, contemplate an exception to the reasonable-efforts requirement that is applicable only when DCFS’s first encounter with the family occurs during an emergency situation.[5]

¶64   That narrow exception is not applicable here. DCFS was first notified of potential problems with the Children in August 2022, some three months before removal. Between DCFS’s first notification (in August) and removal (in November), DCFS assigned caseworkers to the family, and those caseworkers made at least ten visits to Parents’ home. This is simply not a situation in which DCFS’s “first contact with the family” occurred in an emergency situation, and therefore the “emergency” exception to the reasonable-efforts inquiry does not apply here. The juvenile court therefore erred in applying that exception in this case, and it should have proceeded, at the shelter hearing, to consider whether DCFS had made reasonable pre-removal efforts to avoid taking the Children out of Parents’ home.

¶65   The juvenile court’s error in this regard, however, appears to have been rendered moot by the court’s later finding, made after the adjudication trial, that DCFS had “made reasonable efforts to prevent the removal of the [C]hildren, but those efforts were unsuccessful.” While Parents complain that the court did not undertake this analysis after the shelter hearing, they do not make any effort to challenge the finding that the court eventually made just two months later after the adjudication trial. Under these circumstances, any error the court made by relying on the emergency exception at the shelter hearing, and by failing to make a “reasonable efforts” finding at that time, has been rendered inconsequential by the court’s later unchallenged finding that DCFS had indeed made reasonable efforts to prevent removal.

¶66 We turn now to the second part of the inquiry, the part that requires the court to determine, on a going-forward basis, “whether there are available services that would prevent the need for continued removal.” See Utah Code § 80-3-301(10)(a)(i). In this vein, the court stated, in its written order, as follows:

If, at some point, there is a plan in place and [Parents] have shown the ability to take into consideration the current medical condition of the [C]hildren, and have shown the ability to work with the professionals providing that care for the [C]hildren, the [c]ourt would re-consider whether ongoing and continued removal would be necessary.

This comment indicates that the court was of course aware that services do exist—such as physical, speech, and occupational therapy for the Children and medical education and in-home health care assistance for Parents—that are designed to improve situations like the one presented here. And it indicates that the court was making an effort to apply the second part of the statutory analysis.[6] But the court, in its analysis, did not take the next analytical step and assess whether specific services could be provided to the family, in that moment and going forward, that might obviate the need for removal. See id. Simply stating that, at some point in the future, the court might reconsider its removal order is not sufficient; indeed, in most child welfare cases, the initial permanency goal is reunification, and juvenile courts nearly always stand ready to reconsider removal orders in appropriate cases. The shelter statute requires a more exacting analysis prior to removal, and the court’s failure here to ask and answer the correct statutory question was error.

¶67 And unlike the court’s error regarding the backward- looking reasonable-efforts determination, this error was not later remedied by later findings made after the adjudication trial. The State points to no similar finding made after the trial, and we are aware of none.

¶68 We therefore conclude that the juvenile court made two errors in its attempt to comply with the shelter hearing statute. First, it misapplied the “emergency” exception to its obligation to make a backward-looking reasonable-efforts determination at the shelter hearing. Second, it failed to make a specific forward- looking determination about whether services could be provided to the family that would serve to obviate the need for removal. The first error was rendered inconsequential by later findings. But the second one wasn’t, and we must therefore consider what the proper remedy is, in this situation, to address the court’s error.

¶69 Before doing so, we take the opportunity to emphasize the importance of completing the proper statutory analysis at the shelter hearing. While such hearings take place early in the case and are generally not comprehensive trials, they can assume a position of great importance in the arc of a child welfare case. To be sure, removal orders are temporary nonfinal orders that can be—and in many cases are, see, e.g.In re M.S., 2023 UT App 74,

¶¶ 2–21, 533 P.3d 859 (considering a situation where a child was placed back into the parent’s home at a later hearing, after initial removal)—amended or modified, but removal orders nevertheless memorialize a seminal moment in a child welfare case. Such cases often proceed much differently after the shelter hearing depending on whether the child was (or was not) removed. It is therefore vital that courts undertake the analysis required by the shelter statute, and that, before removal, they engage with both the backward-looking reasonable-efforts analysis as well as the forward-looking services analysis.

¶70 The importance of getting shelter hearings right the first time is highlighted by the difficulty of putting the removal genie back in the proverbial bottle. As this case illustrates, by the time appellate review of a shelter order can take place, the family’s situation will often look much different than it did at the shelter hearing. While post-adjudication events are not part of the record submitted to us on appeal, we are nevertheless aware that, while    this appeal has been pending, significant events have taken place that might affect the way the juvenile court analyzes the question of whether services are available that could obviate the need for continued removal. For instance, we are aware that criminal child abuse charges have been filed against Parents. In addition, we are aware that, since the adjudication hearing, Parents have received certain services, and the court has had the opportunity—at a permanency hearing held in January 2024—to assess the efficacy of those services. And there have doubtless been other developments that have occurred in the previous sixteen months of which we are appropriately unaware.

¶71 In this case, by way of remedy, Parents ask us to vacate the initial removal order and remand the case so that the juvenile court can conduct an entirely new shelter hearing. We do not view this as an unreasonable request; indeed, when an error is made at a hearing, a common remedy is to remand the case for the court to conduct a new hearing. But even though we do not view Parents’ request as unreasonable, in this situation the request is not entirely practical. After all, the situation is much different now from what it was in November 2022, and in cases involving children, our usual remand instructions include an admonition to the court to conduct any new hearing, on remand, in present-tense fashion, as of the date of the renewed hearing, taking into account all that has happened in the child’s situation since. See In re   Z.C.W., 2021 UT App 98, ¶ 12, 500 P.3d 94.

¶72 Under the circumstances, we agree with Parents that the juvenile court’s error cannot go entirely unremedied, and that the case should therefore be remanded so that the juvenile court can complete the analysis required by the shelter statute and, in particular, consider “whether there are available services that would prevent the need for continued removal.” See Utah Code § 80-3-301(10)(a)(i). But this inquiry should not be undertaken as of the date of the initial shelter hearing; instead, this inquiry should, on remand, be conducted in present-tense fashion, taking into account all relevant existing developments. See In re Z.C.W., 2021 UT App 98, ¶ 12.[7] Moreover, we offer no specific instruction to the juvenile court as to whether, and to what extent, it must hold an evidentiary hearing on remand; we conclude only that the court must properly complete the required statutory analysis and that it “must—in some manner—consider and appropriately deal with proffered new evidence.” See id. ¶ 15. And we do not, in this opinion, order that the removal order be vacated; the juvenile court may order that relief, if it deems such relief appropriate, only after completing its analysis on remand.

¶73     Finally, we wish to make clear that we harbor no opinion as to how the juvenile court’s renewed analysis should come out; given the realities of chronology, the juvenile court (conducting a present-tense analysis) will have a lot more information than we do now, on this record, about how the Children are doing and how Parents have responded to the situation during the period between the shelter hearing and the permanency hearing. It may well be that the court reaches the same result, after conducting a more complete shelter analysis, that it reached at the permanency hearing in January 2024. On the other hand, it may be that the court, after conducting the proper shelter analysis, finds it appropriate to vacate or amend one or more of its previous orders. But either way, it is important that courts conducting shelter hearings, before they take the rather drastic step of removing children from a parent’s home, follow the requirements of the shelter statute. We remand the matter so that these requirements may be satisfied in this case, albeit belatedly.

CONCLUSION

¶74 We discern no error in the juvenile court’s determination that, based on the condition of the Children upon removal, the Children were neglected by both Parents. And we reject Parents’ assertion that their attorneys rendered ineffective assistance during the adjudication process.

¶75 However, we conclude that the juvenile court did not conduct the proper statutory analysis at the initial shelter hearing. We therefore remand this case to the juvenile court so that it can complete the required analysis and assess, in present-tense fashion, whether there are services available that can prevent the need for continued removal.

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


[1] For readability, we use pseudonyms (rather than initials) to      refer to the Children.

[2] In its reports regarding the Children, the PCMC team stated that “medical child abuse” is “a form of child maltreatment characterized by the fabrication or exaggeration of medical history, symptoms, and even exam findings and/or the induction of symptoms by a caregiver.” Medical child abuse “occurs when a child receives unnecessary and harmful or potentially harmful medical care at the instigation of the caregiver,” and it “results in manipulation of the medical system leading to child maltreatment in the form of unnecessary medical examinations, diagnostic [2]testing . . . , imaging, and invasive procedures.” Medical child abuse, in the past, was called “Münchausen syndrome by proxy.”

[3] Parties can, of course, request permission to appeal any interlocutory order (including shelter orders) under rule 5 of the [3]Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure. But parties are not required to seek review under rule 5, and such review is in any event completely discretionary with the appellate court. See Utah R. App. P. 5(a), (g). In this case, Parents did not seek permission to appeal the shelter order under rule 5, but this fact does not affect their ability to later appeal the shelter order following the eventual entry of a final order. See State v. Troyer, 866 P.2d 528, 530 (Utah 1993) (stating that “the scope of appellate review from a final judgment” is not “in any way affected or limited by the possibility that any one or more of the trial court’s rulings might have formed the basis of a petition for an interlocutory appeal”); see also In re S.F., 2012 UT App 10, ¶ 28, 268 P.3d 831 (stating that the fact that a parent “could have elected to petition for interlocutory appeal” from an earlier nonfinal order “does not eliminate our authority to review” the earlier order “once the neglect and termination proceedings were completed and an appeal timely filed”), cert. denied, 280 P.3d 421 (Utah 2012).

[4] There are other statutory provisions that, in specific cases, may operate to excuse or render irrelevant any lack of pre-removal reasonable efforts. See, e.g., Utah Code § 80-2a-201(6) (stating that, “in cases where sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, abandonment, severe abuse, or severe neglect are involved, the state has no duty to make reasonable efforts or to . . . maintain a child in the child’s home”); id. § 80-2a-302(4) (same); id. § 80-3-301(12) (same). No party asserts that any of these other Utah statutes are applicable here. In a supplemental authority letter submitted to us after oral argument, however, the guardian ad litem (GAL) asserts—for the first time—that the juvenile court’s allusion to “aggravated circumstances” was an implicit effort to resort to a provision of federal law, which provides that “reasonable efforts . . . shall not be required . . . if a court of competent jurisdiction has determined that the parent has subjected the child to aggravated circumstances.” 42 U.S.C. § 671(a)(15)(D)(i). As an initial matter, we note that parties may not raise new legal theories in post- argument supplemental authority letters. Cf. State v. Seat, 2022 UT App 143, ¶ 39 n.4, 523 P.3d 724 (stating that parties are “not permitted to raise a new question for the first time at oral argument” before this court). But more substantively, the GAL’s argument fails on its face; even if we assume, for purposes of the discussion, that the juvenile court’s comment was actually a reference to a federal statutory exception to the reasonable-efforts requirements, resort to the federal statute is unhelpful here because, at the time of the shelter hearing, no “court of competent [4]jurisdiction” had made any determination that Parents had done anything wrong.

[5] We can certainly envision policy concerns that might support a broader exception to the reasonable-efforts requirement that could apply in any emergency situation, regardless of whether DCFS had already been working with the affected family. We note here, as we sometimes do, that our legislature is free to amend the statute if it believes we have misinterpreted legislative intent.

[6] On this basis, we reject the State’s assertion, also advanced by the GAL, that Parents failed to preserve any objection to the court’s application of the shelter statute. Our supreme court has made clear that there is no preservation problem where the trial court “not only had an opportunity to rule on the issue . . . but in [6]fact did rule on it.” See Fort Pierce Indus. Park Phases II, III & IV Owners Ass’n v. Shakespeare, 2016 UT 28, ¶ 13, 379 P.3d 1218 (quotation simplified).

[7] In In re Z.C.W., 2021 UT App 98, 500 P.3d 94, our instruction that the renewed hearing be conducted, on remand, in present- tense fashion was a function of the applicable statute using a present-tense locution. See id. ¶ 13 (interpreting a statute requiring juvenile courts to assess “whether termination is in the best interest of the child” (quotation simplified)). The statute at issue here also uses a present-tense locution. See Utah Code § 80-3- [7]301(10)(a)(i) (requiring assessment of “whether there are available services that would prevent the need for continued removal” (emphasis added)). We therefore conclude that, in this situation, a present-tense perspective is required on remand.

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We Can Call It the “Presumption of Guilt Act”

Did you see this in the news in Utah (from the Salt Lake Tribune)?

A Utah man never hit his wife — until he tried to kill her. But how he treated her was a warning sign.

Saying that the proposed “coercive control” legislation is needed because of the “failure of the courts” to detect crime makes no sense. It’s not a judge’s job to detect crime. It’s the police and prosecutors’ jobs. The judge applies the law to the facts and the evidence and renders judgment.

Moreover, by its nature crime occurs in the shadows. It’s going to happen no matter how much anti-crime legislation is passed. Otherwise stated, crime does not occur due to a lack of laws on the books. Legislation might help to punish crime, but isn’t much a deterrent to crime (and never has been).

The idea that we “must work toward” zero domestic violence is absurd. Domestic violence has always occurred and always will in an imperfect world. Thus, domestic violence is going to occur regardless of how many laws are passed “in opposition to” it.

Proposed statutes like this can “work” only by having the public and law enforcement and the courts indulge in a mass group delusion.

Laws like this will result in a presumption of guilt as a way of getting rid of the pesky preponderance of evidence standard of proof and letting “better safe than sorry” and “abundance of caution” and “guilty until proven innocent” rule. Miraculously, this new not-a-real-standard standard will create a new class of abuser (i.e., those who self-proclaimed victims subjectively deem to be abusers and that the courts will treat as abusers unless and until the presumed abuser proves otherwise).

Perversely, proponents of such a bill will claim that it is reducing domestic violence by increasing arrests, prosecutions, and convictions–but at the cost of throwing the presumption of innocence and a preponderance of evidence and or beyond a reasonable doubt standards out the window. Not just thrown out the window, but shot at high velocity out the window beyond retrieval. This would create a net that will end up snaring innocent people who will be falsely accused and convicted in the name of “better” detection and prevention.

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

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My Husband Is Forcing Me to Get My Inheritance From Court From My Ex-husband’s (Deceased) Brothers, Otherwise He Will Divorce Me. What Should I Do?

Talk to a good (a good) lawyer about whether you even have the right to “inherit” from your ex-husband’s brothers. Unless there are bizarre circumstances at work here, odds are you have no rights to your ex-husband’s brothers’ decedents’ estates. Talk to a good lawyer who handles wills and probate matters to find out. Heck, bring your husband along to the meeting, so that he learns first-hand from the lawyer himself (that way he can’t tell you that “you don’t understand” if you come back from the lawyer’s office by yourself and tell your husband what the lawyer told you).

As for a husband who threatens to divorce you if you don’t try to obtain a portion of your ex-husband’s brothers brothers’ decedents’ estates, if this kind of behavior on his part is the norm in your marriage, you ought next to find out if this is mental illness, whether it’s behavior that can be corrected, whether he’ll recognize the behavior as wrong, or whether he’ll choose (regardless of why) to continue to conduct himself contemptibly. If your husband is chronically manipulating or emotionally abusing you without remorse, you may be better off without him.

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

https://motherinlawmysteriesandconflicts.quora.com/My-husband-is-forcing-me-to-get-my-inheritance-from-court-from-my-ex-husband-s-deceased-brothers-otherwise-he-will-div?__nsrc__=4

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2024 UT App 40 – State v. Heward – plea agreement, ineffective assistance

2024 UT App 40 – State v. Heward

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS, STATE OF UTAH, Appellee, v. BENJAMIN LEE HEWARD, Appellant.

Opinion No. 20221055-CA Filed March 28, 2024 Fourth District Court, Provo Department

The Honorable Robert A. Lund No. 201400462

Scott F. Garrett and Jessica Griffin Anderson, Attorneys for Appellant

Sean D. Reyes and Andrew F. Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee

JUDGE DAVID N. MORTENSEN authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER and RYAN M. HARRIS concurred.

MORTENSEN, Judge:

¶1        Benjamin Lee Heward pled guilty to two charges of aggravated sexual abuse of his two minor daughters. As part of his plea agreement, the State and the victims promised to “affirmatively recommend” a prison sentence of two concurrent terms of six years to life. At sentencing, the prosecutor argued against probation and recommended a sentence of six years to life, but the two victims testified they were having second thoughts about the arguably lenient sentence, a change that the prosecutor attempted to explain. Ultimately, the court followed the recommendation of Adult Probation and Parole (AP&P), sentencing Heward to fifteen years to life on each count, with the sentences to run concurrently. Heward now maintains that the prosecutor breached the plea agreement when he made statements about probation and the feelings of the victims, and he asserts that the district court should have acted sua sponte to remedy the situation. Heward also asserts that his attorney rendered ineffective assistance in failing to object to the prosecutor’s comments. We reject Heward’s claims of error and therefore affirm.

BACKGROUND

¶2          Heward was charged with ten counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a child and one count of rape of a child for the admitted abuse he inflicted on his two minor daughters over a number of years. Heward pled guilty to two of the aggravated sexual abuse charges: (1) rubbing his clothed genitals over the clothed genitals of his older daughter in an act of simulated sexual intercourse and (2) rubbing his younger daughter’s genitals skin to skin with his hand.

¶3          As part of the plea, the State agreed to dismiss the rape charge and the other eight aggravated sexual abuse charges. In addition, the plea agreement indicated that the “State and the victims” would “affirmatively recommend” a prison sentence of six years to life and lifetime sex-offender registration. In contrast, AP&P recommended that Heward be sentenced to fifteen years to life on each count.[1]

¶4          At sentencing, the prosecutor stated, “I know that based on . . . Heward’s statement and the recommendation from his sex offender treatment therapist he’s going to be asking for probation.” The prosecutor acknowledged there was a “very, very narrow exception” to the mandatory imprisonment required for aggravated sexual abuse of a child. See Utah Code § 76-5-404.3(7) (stating that imprisonment is mandatory). That exception allows a court to “suspend execution of sentence and consider probation to a residential sexual abuse treatment center only if,” along with numerous other conditions, the perpetrator’s offense “did not cause the child victim severe psychological harm.” Id. § 76-5­406.5(1)(b). To this point, the prosecutor argued,

Heward needs to show it’s in the best interest of the public and specifically the child victims that the Court should sentence him to probation instead. He can’t show that, Judge. He needs to show that these offenses did not cause the child victim severe psychological harm. He cannot show that, Judge. It’s clear based on the victim impact statements from both [of Heward’s daughters] that they are suffering severe psychological harm, continued psychological harm for what their father did to them.

¶5          The prosecutor then emphasized that Heward’s abuse would make it “extremely difficult” for his victims to have a “sense of peace” and that they were “going to be affected” for “the rest of their lives” because Heward “used them as sexual objects.” The prosecutor also pointed out that certain sex offenses involving children in Heward’s juvenile record indicated that he represented a danger to the community. The prosecutor concluded by saying, “He’s going to tell the Court right now that he should be granted probation because he’s not a threat to the community. The Court should disregard that.”

¶6          The prosecutor then gave Heward’s victims time to speak. The older daughter stated that Heward’s abuse had a “devastating impact” on her life, that she was “still suffering from his actions,” and that she was “always having to look over [her] shoulder making sure he’s not around” her. This daughter, after recounting the “painful memories” and her continuing trauma, stated that Heward was “being shown undue mercy . . . with a plea agreement.” She also noted that Heward had violated protective orders “[a]gain and again” and even at the sentencing hearing, he had “force[d]” and “manipulated” her and her sister “into an embrace with him.”

¶7          The younger daughter also spoke. She said that as a result of the abuse, she struggled with depression and anxiety. She shared that she continued to “feel uncomfortable leaving [her] room” because she was afraid that she would “get raped and sexually assaulted again.” She further revealed that whenever someone touches her “unexpectedly,” she is “startled” and “can physically feel it all happening again.”

¶8          After Heward’s victims finished speaking, the prosecutor expressed that he wanted “to talk about what the State’s recommendation [was] going to be.” He explained that “[i]n speaking with the victims through plea negotiations,” their “minimums were 6 to life” and “lifetime sex offender” registration. Then the following exchange took place:

Prosecutor: I spoke with [the victims] this morning, if they still feel the same way, understanding that I’m bound to the recommendation of 6 to life, that I thought it was important for the Court to know where the victims stand today. I asked them how they still felt about the 6 to life. They told me—

Court: May I say, . . . you bound yourself to 6 to life?

Prosecutor: Yes, sir, that is the State’s recommendation.

Court: Okay, . . . you need to be very careful you don’t say anything now that could be you trying to argue against that deal. So be circumspect in your comments.

Prosecutor: Judge, I’m not arguing that it should be anything else. I think the Court should be fully informed about where the victims are. The victims aren’t party to this agreement, but victims do have a right to be heard, and that can be through their own statements or through that of the prosecutor. They felt like they were manipulated by the defendant to feel sorry for him, and the Court did hear those statements today. They felt manipulated, and that’s why they wanted 6 to life. That’s the reason for the plea offer that was given, Judge. The State is still bound and still recommending 6 to life.

¶9          Heward’s attorney (Counsel) then spoke about mitigating factors that the court should consider in sentencing. Counsel agreed with the State that Heward “probably [was] not qualified” for the “statutory exception that allows for probation.” Counsel then concluded, “We would concur with the recommendation of the two concurrent 6 years. That’s what we’ve all agreed to, and that’s what I’d recommend.”

¶10 Other witnesses, including Heward’s mother and his therapist, spoke about various mitigating factors. And Heward himself spoke, stating that he was “not asking for probation.”

¶11        The court was not persuaded by the recitation of mitigating factors:

[I]t evidences a higher level of depravity when the victims are your biological children, and this conduct went on for years. . . . [T]hat’s also an aggravating circumstance. It’s an aggravating circumstance that you violated the protective order.

Frankly, based on the information that’s before me, it seems to me that you’ve minimized the conduct that you’ve been involved in. I’d be more inclined to accept the versions that [your daughters] provide in terms of what happened.

Based on all of that, I’m going to follow the AP&P recommendation. I don’t think that I have the discretion to sentence you to less than 15 years in prison. That’s the sentence of the Court. You’ll be sentenced to [two concurrent terms] of 15 years to life in the Utah State Prison.

¶12        Heward appeals.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶13        Heward first argues that the “prosecutor breached the plea agreement by failing to affirmatively recommend a prison sentence of six years to life and by implying the State regretted entering into the plea agreement.” Heward acknowledges that this claim was not preserved and asks that it be reviewed under both plain error and ineffective assistance of counsel. See State v. Shaffer, 2010 UT App 240, ¶ 9, 239 P.3d 285 (recognizing that an unpreserved alleged breach may be reviewed for plain error and ineffective assistance of counsel). To demonstrate plain error, Heward “must show that: (i) an error exists; (ii) the error should have been obvious to the trial court; and (iii) absent the error, there is a reasonable likelihood of a more favorable outcome.” State v. Samul, 2018 UT App 177, ¶ 10, 436 P.3d 298 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 432 P.3d 1233 (Utah 2018). And “when a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel is raised for the first time on appeal, there is no lower court ruling to review and we must decide whether the defendant was deprived of the effective assistance of counsel as a matter of law.” Id. ¶ 11 (cleaned up).

ANALYSIS
I. Plain Error

¶14 Heward complains that the prosecutor breached the plea agreement in two separate but related ways. First, Heward argues that the prosecutor failed to “affirmatively recommend” the prison sentence of six years to life as indicated in the plea agreement. Second, Heward argues that the prosecutor then “compounded” the breach by bringing up the victims’ apparent change of heart about the plea agreement, implying that the State regretted entering the plea agreement. And Heward asserts that the district court “should have been aware of the errors the prosecutor made.” In such cases, our court has focused on whether a prosecutor’s statements were egregious enough to require a district court to act sua sponte to remedy the situation. See State v. Hummel, 2017 UT 19, ¶ 119, 393 P.3d 314 (“[N]one of [the prosecutor’s] statements was so egregiously false or misleading that the judge had an obligation to intervene by raising an objection sua sponte.”); State v. Hosman, 2021 UT App 103, ¶ 38, 496 P.3d 1162 (questioning whether a prosecutor’s statements were so egregious that it constituted plain error for the court to fail to intervene sua sponte to remedy the harm), cert. denied, 502 P.3d 270 (Utah 2021).

¶15 To succeed on this claim, Heward “must prove that the State actually breached the plea agreement, that the breach should have been obvious to the district court, and that had the district court recognized and remedied the breach, there is a reasonable likelihood that [his] sentence would have been more favorable.” State v. Gray, 2016 UT App 87, ¶ 15, 372 P.3d 715, cert. denied, 379 P.3d 1185 (Utah 2016). And “if any one of these requirements is not met, plain error is not established.” Id. (cleaned up).

¶16        “[W]hen a plea rests in any significant degree on a promise or agreement of the prosecutor, so that it can be said to be part of the inducement or consideration, such promise must be fulfilled.” Santobello v. New York, 404 U.S. 257, 262 (1971); accord State v. Lindsey, 2014 UT App 288, ¶ 16, 340 P.3d 176. Accordingly, a “plea agreement is breached when the State fails to act in accord with its promise.” State v. Samulski, 2016 UT App 226, ¶ 13, 387 P.3d 595, cert. denied, 390 P.3d 725 (Utah 2017). However, “when a defendant alleges that the State violated a plea agreement by making inappropriate statements at sentencing, as [Heward] does here, we consider the prosecutor’s statements in the context of the entire hearing.” Gray, 2016 UT App 87, ¶ 16 (cleaned up).

  1. Affirmative Recommendation

¶17        Heward argues that the prosecutor failed to “affirmatively recommend” the prison sentence of six years to life agreed to in the plea. The gist of Heward’s argument is that “[i]n order to affirmatively recommend a sentence of six years to life, the prosecutor was required to make an effort to position the recommendation as one that is ‘in the interests of justice.’” (Quoting Utah Code § 76-5-404.3(4)(b).) Heward asserts that, instead, the prosecutor “utterly failed to make an argument or present the judge with any information that a sentence of six years to life was in the interests of justice.” Heward complains that the prosecutor “focused solely” on the limited discretion of the judge, certain aggravating factors (namely, the psychological harm suffered by the victims, Heward’s juvenile record, and Heward’s alleged violation of a protective order), and the victims’ alleged withdrawal of support for the plea agreement. “By emphasizing only aggravating factors in his argument,” Heward asserts, “the prosecutor failed to affirmatively recommend a sentence of six years to life,” resulting in “a clear breach.” We are not persuaded that any breach, let alone a clear one, occurred when the prosecutor highlighted these factors.

¶18        First, the prosecutor’s statements about aggravating factors were made not in reference to the plea agreement but in the context of arguing that Heward should not be offered probation under the limited statutory exception to mandatory imprisonment. By pointing to the severe psychological harm inflicted on the victims and Heward’s juvenile record, the prosecutor was explicitly arguing that Heward was not eligible for probation under the statute. And Heward’s violation of the protective order was also mentioned in the context of denying probation—specifically that Heward should start serving his sentence immediately. As the State points out, the prosecutor’s remarks about the protective order violations “weren’t about what Heward’s sentence should be, but when he should begin to serve it.” Arguing against probation and for immediate incarceration— even if it necessarily required the prosecutor to reference some aggravating factors relevant to other aspects of Heward’s sentencing—was consistent with the State’s recommendation of six years to life. After all, the plea agreement made it perfectly clear that the State would “affirmatively recommend” a prison term, a recommendation that obviously entitled the prosecutor to argue—even forcefully—against probation by highlighting specific reasons Heward did not qualify for probation.

¶19 Second, and more to the point, an “affirmative recommendation” does not require any particular measure of enthusiasm for an agreed-upon sentencing recommendation. While a prosecutor may not “undermine” a promised sentencing recommendation by expressing “personal reservations at the sentencing hearing,” the “prosecutor has no responsibility to make such recommendations enthusiastically.” State v. Shaffer, 2010 UT App 240, ¶ 26, 239 P.3d 285 (cleaned up); see also Gray, 2016 UT App 87, ¶ 18 (“[The prosecutor] described the circumstances of the crimes to underscore [the absence of mitigating factors], and at the conclusion of this discussion, he accurately, if not enthusiastically, described the recommendation the State had agreed to make for concurrent sentences . . . . [This] context supported a reasonable interpretation that comported with . . . the State’s obligations under the plea agreement.”).

¶20 Notably, the plea agreement does not contain any provisions regarding how the State was to fulfill its promise to “affirmatively recommend” the six-years-to-life sentence. It offers no guidance on how enthusiastically or forcefully the prosecutor had to argue in favor of the agreement. Nor does it indicate, as Heward argues on appeal that it should, any kind of obligation on the part of the prosecutor to highlight mitigating factors. And while it is true that the prosecutor did not approach the recommendation with gusto, it is even more clear that the prosecutor did affirmatively recommend the agreed-upon sentence two distinct times. The prosecutor explicitly declared that six years to life “is the State’s recommendation.” (Emphasis added.) And when cautioned by the court to “be circumspect” in his comments to avoid saying “anything” that “could be . . . trying to argue against that deal,” the prosecutor clarified that he was “not arguing that it should be anything else” and that the “State is still bound and still recommending 6 to life.” (Emphasis added.)

¶21 Moreover, these recommendations were “affirmative” in that the prosecutor did more than merely submit the matter without any argument against the defense’s recommendation; to the contrary, the State expressed its affirmative assent to the prison term agreed upon in the plea agreement. See State v. Samul, 2018 UT App 177, ¶¶ 13–17, 436 P.3d 298 (distinguishing between situations in which a plea agreement merely “secured the State’s promise not to oppose” the defense’s recommendation and situations in which a plea agreement requires the State to “affirmatively argue for” a particular sentence), cert. denied, 432 P.3d 1233 (Utah 2018). In this case, the prosecutor made an effort to positively express the State’s assent to the term of six years to life by declaring that the term “is the State’s recommendation.” (Emphasis added.) That the assent was expressed without great enthusiasm does not diminish that it was in the affirmative.

¶22 Thus, the prosecutor’s statements, especially when taken as a whole, represent a consistently unambiguous affirmation at sentencing that the State stood behind its recommendation of six years to life. We perceive no breach of the plea agreement in the manner in which the prosecutor recommended a six-years-to-life prison sentence.

  1. Implication of Regret

¶23 Heward next argues that in informing the court that the two victims apparently no longer supported the sentence of six years to life, the State breached the plea agreement by implying that it regretted entering it.

¶24 A prosecutor who “promises to recommend a certain sentence and does so” does not breach the bargain “by also bringing all relevant facts to the attention of the court, so long as the statements are neutral and do not imply that the information makes the State regret entering into the plea agreement.” Shaffer, 2010 UT App 240, ¶ 26 (cleaned up). The feelings of victims do not inherently reflect the position of the State, and victims are not authorized to communicate the State’s recommendations. Therefore, by sharing the victims’ feelings, the prosecutor was making a neutral statement, one that did not reflect the State’s position or recommendation. See id. ¶ 32 (“By repeating the victim’s statement, the prosecutor did not undermine the State’s recommendation or imply that the State regretted that recommendation.”). Thus, bringing to the court’s attention that the support of Heward’s victims for the plea agreement had perhaps waned does not imply that the State regretted entering the plea.

¶25        It is also important to note that the prosecutor made these comments immediately after Heward’s victims made statements that could admittedly cut against the sentence of six years to life. The older daughter seemed to explicitly oppose the plea agreement, saying that Heward was “being shown undue mercy . . . with a plea agreement.” And the younger daughter, while not overtly criticizing the plea agreement, described in detail how Heward’s abuse caused her to feel “numb,” depressed, anxious, “suicidal,” “unclean and dirty,” and untrusting. She further stated that she continued to have “very vivid nightmares and flashbacks” in which she could “physically feel his hands” on her. She also said, “I will never be able to forget how it felt when . . . Heward did the things he did to me. I’m afraid that wherever I go I will see him and he will hurt me in some type of way.” And she concluded by saying, “I want . . . Heward to learn from his actions, and I want him to know how badly he affected me . . . .” Given the graphic descriptions both victims provided of the ongoing harm they suffered, it certainly would not be a stretch to conclude that the victims thought Heward was being treated too leniently by the terms of the plea agreement.[2]

¶26 It was against this backdrop that the prosecutor spoke. As the State points out, the victims’ apparent “about-face on the plea agreement demanded an explanation” because the “court may have been confused by the disparity between the victims’ statements at sentencing and the plea agreement.” After all, the plea agreement stated that the “State and victims will affirmatively recommend” a sentence of six years to life. But after the victims spoke, the court could have easily concluded that the victims were no longer on board. It is in this milieu that the prosecutor assured the court that in “speaking with the victims through plea negotiations,” their “minimums were 6 to life” and “lifetime sex offender registry” and that was the offer the State gave Heward. Then the prosecutor explained that the victims had “wanted 6 to life” because “they felt manipulated” by Heward. We have made clear that a prosecutor conveying the views of the victim does not “undermine” or breach a plea agreement. Here, if anything, the prosecutor’s statements about how the victims felt represented an attempt to salvage the plea agreement after the victims’ statements could be taken as militating against it. And it was well within the prosecutor’s duty to assist the victims in making their views known. See State v. Casey, 2002 UT 29, ¶ 29, 44 P.3d 756 (“Prosecutors must assist victims in exercising their right to be heard at plea hearings and provide them with clear explanations regarding such proceedings.” (cleaned up)). The prosecutor appeared to be making the best of a delicate situation by juggling the interests of the various parties involved while trying to also honor the promises made in the plea agreement.

¶27        In sum, Heward’s complaint of plain error fails because the prosecutor did not breach the plea agreement at all, let alone commit a breach so obvious as to require the district court to intervene without an objection.

  1. Ineffective Assistance

¶28 Heward argues that Counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to object to the prosecutor’s alleged breach of the plea agreement.

¶29 To show ineffective assistance of counsel, Heward must prove that Counsel performed deficiently and that he suffered prejudice as a result. See Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984). “Because failure to establish either prong of the test is fatal to an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, we are free to address [Heward’s claim] under either prong.” Honie v. State, 2014 UT 19, ¶ 31, 342 P.3d 182. Since we conclude, for two reasons, that Counsel did not perform deficiently, we limit our analysis to the deficiency prong. We give “trial counsel wide latitude in making tactical decisions and will not question such decisions unless there is no reasonable basis supporting them.” State v. Heyen, 2020 UT App 147, ¶ 18, 477 P.3d 23 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 485 P.3d 943 (Utah 2021). So, to prevail on Strickland’s first prong, Heward “must overcome the strong presumption that trial counsel rendered adequate assistance and exercised reasonable professional judgment by persuading the court that there was no conceivable tactical basis for counsel’s actions.” State v. Samul, 2018 UT App 177, ¶ 15, 436 P.3d 298 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 432 P.3d 1233 (Utah 2018).

¶30 First, any objection would have been unlikely to succeed because, as we have explained above, it was far from clear that the prosecutor breached the plea agreement. See State v. Burdick, 2014 UT App 34, ¶ 34, 320 P.3d 55 (“It is well settled that counsel’s performance at trial is not deficient if counsel refrains from making futile objections, motions, or requests.” (cleaned up)), cert. denied, 329 P.3d 36 (Utah 2014). Under these circumstances, a reasonable attorney could have concluded that the prosecutor had made the required “affirmative recommendation” and had therefore not breached the plea agreement at all. See Samul, 2018 UT App 177, ¶ 16 (“Here, we can easily conceive of a reasoned basis for counsel’s decision not to object to the State’s remarks at sentencing: counsel may have believed that the State was accurately describing the terms of the plea agreement.”).

¶31        Second, even if we assume, for purposes of the discussion, that Counsel actually believed, in the moment, that the prosecutor’s sentencing remarks constituted a breach of the plea agreement, Counsel nevertheless had a solid strategic reason not to object to the prosecutor’s statements, namely, an objection could jeopardize the plea agreement and he very much wanted it to remain on the table owing to the favorable terms it offered Heward. Through the plea agreement, Heward would serve time for only two of his eleven charges—ten counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a child and one count of rape of a child. If Counsel had been successful in objecting that the prosecutor breached the plea agreement, one of two results would have likely happened. At its discretion, the district court could have ordered “either specific performance of the plea agreement or withdrawal of the guilty plea.” State v. Smit, 2004 UT App 222, ¶ 17, 95 P.3d 1203. If the court had ordered specific performance, the State would then have to reiterate that it was honoring the promises made in the plea agreement. But it would have been more likely (had a breach occurred) that the court would have allowed Heward to withdraw his plea—something he would be reluctant to do since the probability of getting an equally favorable offer later would be slim in light of the victims’ apparent reservations about the existing plea agreement. Competent counsel could easily conclude that the risk of objecting was simply too great considering the minimal benefit and likely downside. At the very least, competent counsel could have reasoned that there was no benefit in objecting because the existing agreement was the best Heward was going to receive. So, Counsel’s best course of action was to express Heward’s concurrence with the six-years-to-life sentence and hope that the court would agree.

¶32        Accordingly, Heward’s ineffective assistance claim fails because Counsel had sound strategic reasons for not lodging an objection to the prosecutor’s statements at sentencing.

CONCLUSION

¶33        Heward fails to establish that the district court plainly erred where he has not shown that the plea agreement was breached, much less obviously so. He has also failed to show that Counsel provided ineffective assistance in not objecting to the prosecutor’s statements.

¶34 Affirmed.

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


[1] For context, a court imposing a sentence for aggravated sexual abuse of a child may deviate downward from the presumptive upper range of fifteen years to life if the “court finds that a lesser term . . . is in the interests of justice.” See Utah Code § 76-5-404.3(4). The available lesser terms are ten years to life and six years to life. See id.

[2] In his reply brief, Heward explicitly states that he “does not object to the prosecutor facilitating the victims’ statements to the trial court.” Moreover, Heward does not claim in any way that the victims speaking up against the low-range sentence was a breach of the plea agreement, even where the plea agreement stated the victims would “affirmatively recommend” a sentence of six years to life along with the State.

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