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Tag: ¶ 27

In Re K.K. – 2023 UT App 14 – Abuse and Neglect Adjudication

In re K.K. – 2023 UT App 14

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF K.K., S.K., AND S.K.,

PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

B.K.,

Appellant,

v.

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20220051-CA

Filed February 9, 2023

Second District Juvenile Court, Farmington Department

The Honorable Sharon S. Sipes

No. 1176751

Scott L. Wiggins, Attorney for Appellant

Sean D. Reyes, John M. Peterson, and Candace

Roach, Attorneys for Appellee

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

JUDGE MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER authored this Opinion,

in which JUDGE GREGORY K. ORME concurred. JUDGE RYAN M.

HARRIS concurred, with opinion.

CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge:

¶1        This is a companion case to and arises out of the same facts involved in In re K.K., 2023 UT App 13, which also issues today. In short,[1] B.K. (Mother) and D.K. (Father) are the parents of triplets K.K., S.K., and S.K. (collectively, the Children). When the Children were six years old, the State filed a petition for custody and guardianship on the grounds that the Children were neglected and abused by Mother and Father. The underlying facts giving rise to the petition were multiple acts of domestic violence, culminating in a physical and boisterous verbal altercation between the couple that occurred on June 22, 2021, and that took place in front of the Children and other witnesses.

¶2        Following an adjudication trial on the petition, during which the juvenile court heard testimony from Mother, Father, two neighbors who had witnessed the June 22 altercation, and two police officers who had responded to the neighbors’ 911 calls regarding the June 22 altercation, the court issued an order adjudicating the Children neglected and abused as to Mother.

¶3        In the adjudication order, the court found, among other things, that Mother and Father had engaged in numerous acts of domestic violence, some of which had occurred in the presence of the Children, including on June 22; that when Mother and Father fight they sometimes send the Children downstairs to wait with a roommate, which had occurred two or three times that year; that the Children are aware they are sent downstairs because Mother and Father fight; that “[a]ccording to the [C]hildren, [Father] and [Mother] fight and yell and hurt each other’s bodies”; and that “[t]he [C]hildren have experienced domestic violence with enough frequency that they appear calm during incidents between their parents . . . even though the parents ‘fight a lot and hurt’ each other.”

¶4        As to Mother, the court found she was not yelling back at Father during the June 22 altercation but that she did yell at him on another occasion during which officers were dispatched to the house on a “domestic” call. In addition, the court found that Mother “is not concerned” that the Children witness her and Father fight and that her “demeanor and testimony”—including her inability to recall much of what happened on June 22—“is in tune with her desire to protect [Father] rather than address the domestic violence that exists in her home.” Based on these findings, the court concluded that Mother “has failed to protect the [C]hildren from exposure to domestic violence in the home” and that “[Father] and [Mother’s] domestic violence in their home has harmed the[] [C]hildren.”

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶5        Mother now appeals the juvenile court’s neglect and abuse adjudications, asserting the court erred in determining that she neglected and abused the Children. We review the juvenile court’s factual findings deferentially, reversing the court’s findings only if they are clearly erroneous. In re E.R., 2021 UT 36, ¶ 15, 496 P.3d 58. A finding is clearly erroneous when the court either “failed to consider all of the facts or reached a decision against the clear weight of the evidence.” Id. ¶ 32 (quotation simplified). And we review the juvenile court’s underlying legal determinations nondeferentially for correctness. See In re A.B., 2022 UT 39, ¶¶ 27–28.

ANALYSIS

¶6        Mother argues the juvenile court erred in determining that the State had proved by clear and convincing evidence that she neglected and abused the Children “by exposing them to domestic violence.” 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.” Essential Botanical Farms, LC v. Kay, 2011 UT 71, ¶¶ 21, 24, 270 P.3d 430 (quotation simplified). “For a matter to be clear and convincing to a particular mind it must at least have reached the point where there remains no serious or substantial doubt as to the correctness of the conclusion.” In re S.Y.T., 2011 UT App 407, ¶ 42, 267 P.3d 930 (quotation simplified).

¶7        Because neglect and abuse are distinct, with different statutory definitions, we address Mother’s challenge to the juvenile court’s adjudications separately. With regard to Mother’s neglect adjudication, we conclude the court did not err in determining that she neglected the Children. As to the court’s abuse adjudication, we conclude that Mother, like Father, cannot show prejudice resulting from the abuse adjudication where the underlying facts giving rise to both adjudications are the same. Accordingly, we decline to address the merits of Mother’s challenge to the abuse adjudication.

I. Neglect

¶8        To prove that Mother neglected the Children, the State needed to present clear and convincing evidence that Mother’s “action[s] or inaction[s]” caused the Children to experience a “lack of proper parental care . . . by reason of the fault or habits of” Mother or that Mother “fail[ed] or refus[ed] . . . to provide proper . . . care necessary for [the Children’s] health, safety, morals, or well-being.” See Utah Code § 80-1-102(58)(a)(ii)–(iii). Mother argues the juvenile court’s conclusion that she neglected the Children by “‘allowing’ them to be exposed to her abuse at Father’s hands” does not satisfy the statutory definition of neglect. She further contends that the court “engaged in unwarranted assumptions that are contrary to the well-settled notions underlying the Battered Woman Syndrome” by concluding that Mother’s “behavior constituted ‘nonaccidental’ conduct or that her behavior was due to her ‘faults or habits.’” We disagree.

¶9        The evidence presented at trial included testimony from six witnesses who detailed Father and Mother’s history of engaging in domestic disputes with each other and specifically described the altercation that occurred on June 22. The testimony indicated that two of the children were present during the June 22 altercation and were observed “clinging” to Mother outside in the front yard while Father argued with her, punched her, and threw objects at her. One of the officers who responded to the June 22 altercation testified that the two children who had witnessed the altercation “seemed calm” and were not “distraught or flustered at all.”[2] The officers acknowledged they had been called to Mother and Father’s house prior to the June 22 altercation on a “domestic” call after neighbors reported Mother and Father were screaming at each other.

¶10 Mother also testified that on many occasions she tried to prevent the Children from observing her and Father fight. To accomplish this, “as soon as any argument started” she would send the Children downstairs with her roommate, where they would wait until the fight was over. Despite making this effort, Mother testified that she believed the Children were aware they were sent downstairs to avoid hearing any fighting. Moreover, the evidence also showed that Mother repeatedly allowed Father to return home after the court issued a criminal no contact/protective order and that she minimized the severity of the domestic violence. Mother was also largely unwilling to testify at trial about the June 22 altercation, claiming that she had “trouble remembering” much of what happened. Based on this evidence, the juvenile court found, “[Mother] is not concerned that the [C]hildren are subjected to the argument[s] between [Mother] and [Father]. [Mother’s] demeanor and testimony is in tune with her desire to protect [Father] rather than address the domestic violence that exists in her home.”

¶11      As described above, in its adjudication order, the juvenile court made several findings in support of its determination of neglect as to Mother. Those findings address Mother’s ongoing relationship with Father and the violent dynamic of their relationship, Mother’s knowledge that the Children were aware of her fights with Father despite her attempts to shield them from the violence, and Mother’s apparent lack of concern or desire to extricate herself from future interactions with Father. Under Utah law, a parent “ha[s] a statutory duty not to knowingly place [their] child in harm’s way.” In re C.B., 1999 UT App 293, ¶ 9, 989 P.2d 76. By voluntarily returning to the abusive relationship with Father, Mother ignored this duty by “potentially subjecting the [Children] to witness, or be the victim of, further abuse.” See id. Moreover, as discussed in In re C.C.W., 2019 UT App 34, 440 P.3d 749, a parent’s act of domestic violence can have adverse impacts on a child, even if there is no evidence of violence toward the child and even if the child does not directly witness the violence. Relying on “both common sense and expert opinion,” this court recognized that children who are exposed to domestic violence may suffer “direct physical and psychological injuries,” regardless of whether they are physically harmed. Id. ¶¶ 20–21 (quotation simplified). Among other things, children who observe domestic violence “may be taught that violence is an acceptable way to handle issues with loved ones,” which “breeds a culture of violence in future generations. . . . Abused children are at great risk of becoming abusive parents.” Id. ¶ 20 (quotation simplified). Although it is unfortunate that Mother is a victim of domestic violence, her decision to knowingly return to Father and to protect him rather than to protect the Children despite her knowledge that the Children are aware of the abuse in the home satisfies the statutory definition of neglect.

¶12      We recognize that most, if not all, of the domestic violence at issue in this case was committed by Father against Mother and that Mother was therefore often the victim rather than the perpetrator. But under Utah’s statutory definition of neglect, under certain circumstances, even victims of domestic violence can “neglect” their children if they fail to take sufficient steps to protect them from the domestic violence present in the home or if they choose to prioritize their relationship with the perpetrator of the violence over the need to protect their children. After all, neglect can stem from either “action or inaction” on the part of a parent, see Utah Code § 80-1-102(58)(a), as long as the “inaction” in question causes either “lack of proper parental care of a child by reason of the fault or habits of the parent” or “failure or refusal of a parent . . . to provide . . . care necessary for the child’s health, safety, morals, or well-being,” see id. § 80-1-102(58)(a)(ii)–(iii). Here, the juvenile court found that Mother was “not concerned” about protecting the Children from domestic violence and that Mother had a “desire to protect [Father] rather than address the domestic violence that exists in her home.” These findings were supported by substantial evidence presented at trial. And these facts, as found by the court, constitute “neglect” as our legislature has defined that term. In short, Mother’s “inaction” in failing to protect the Children from exposure to domestic violence and prioritizing her toxic relationship with Father resulted in a failure to provide the “care necessary for [the Children’s] health, safety, morals, or well-being” and caused the Children to experience a “lack of proper parental care.” See id.

¶13      Mother resists this conclusion by contending the juvenile court improperly relied on In re C.C.W. for “the proposition that children are harmed by domestic violence in the home.” She asserts the court’s reliance on In re C.C.W. was unwarranted because that case concerned a proceeding to terminate parental rights whereas this case concerns abuse and neglect adjudications. While Mother is correct that the two proceedings are different, those differences do not bear on whether the court could properly rely on the research and studies cited in In re C.C.W. supporting the general proposition that domestic violence is harmful to children. See 2019 UT App 34, ¶ 20. Termination proceedings and abuse and neglect adjudications are both governed by the Utah Juvenile Code, see Utah Code § 80-4-301 (termination of parental rights); id. § 80-3-201 (abuse or neglect proceedings), and the statutory definitions of “neglect,” “abuse,” “harm,” and “threatened harm” are the same in both proceedings, see id. § 80­1-102(1), (37), (58)(a), (92) (providing definitions applicable to provisions of Title 80, Utah Juvenile Code). Accordingly, it does not follow that the court may properly consider the effect of domestic violence in finding neglect in one proceeding but not the other.

¶14      In addition, Mother asserts that the juvenile court “rel[ied] on the unfounded presumption that Mother’s decision to maintain a relationship with Father constituted a conscious failure to protect the Children from exposure to domestic violence.” In so doing, Mother posits that the juvenile court ignored the directive offered in In re C.C.W. cautioning courts “to avoid unnecessarily drawing negative inferences from a battered spouse’s decision to maintain a relationship with the batterer, or from a battered spouse’s decision to decline to immediately seek help.” See 2019 UT App 34, ¶ 19 n.4. But that is not what happened here.

¶15      In this case, the juvenile court analyzed the evidence before it in adjudicating Mother for neglect. Thus, the court’s conclusion was not based on an unfounded presumption. As previously discussed, the evidence the court considered included testimony that Father had engaged in multiple acts of domestic violence in the presence of the Children. And based on Father’s multi-year track record of assaulting Mother, even after services were provided to him, the court could reasonably conclude that Father is likely to continue perpetrating acts of domestic violence against Mother in the future and that the Children will continue to be exposed to the violence if Mother fails to take action. In short, the court’s determination that Mother failed to provide the proper care for the Children’s health, safety, morals, or well-being by failing to protect them and prioritizing her relationship with Father was based on the evidence presented at trial and not on an unwarranted presumption.

¶16      Finally, Mother misconstrues the directive offered in In re C.C.W. cautioning courts to “avoid unnecessarily drawing negative inferences from a battered spouse’s decision to maintain a relationship with the batterer.” See id. Mother contends that by adjudicating her for neglect, the juvenile court made an “automatic determination that both the batterer and victim are responsible as a unit,” which in turn results in the victim being blamed for the domestic violence. While we are sympathetic to Mother and acknowledge that extricating oneself from an abusive relationship can often prove difficult, see In re L.M., 2019 UT App 174, ¶ 9, 453 P.3d 651 (per curiam); In re C.C., 2017 UT App 134, ¶¶ 46–48, 402 P.3d 17 (Christiansen, J., concurring), we cannot say that a parent’s status as a domestic violence victim excuses the parent’s duty to protect the children or provides the parent with license to elevate the relationship with the abuser over the safety of the children. Indeed, the directive offered in In re C.C.W. merely cautions courts to “avoid unnecessarily drawing negative inferences” about a victim’s decision to stay in an abusive relationship. 2019 UT App 34, ¶ 19 n.4. It does not prevent the court from considering domestic violence issues in their entirety, nor does it provide absolution for a parent who continues to expose a child to domestic violence. To find otherwise would be contrary to precedent. See, e.g.In re L.M., 2019 UT App 174, ¶ 8 (“A parent who maintains a relationship with an abusive partner jeopardizes a child’s safety.”); In re T.M., 2006 UT App 435, ¶ 20, 147 P.3d 529 (collecting cases and observing that “Utah case law indicates that courts have minimal empathy for parents whose strong emotional ties to their spouses or significant others jeopardize their children’s safety”).

¶17      Accordingly, we affirm the court’s neglect adjudication.

II. Abuse

¶18      The juvenile court determined that Mother both neglected and abused the Children by failing to protect them from exposure to domestic violence and that Father and Mother’s “domestic violence in their home has harmed the[] [C]hildren.” Mother argues the court’s abuse adjudication was in error because the State failed to produce clear and convincing evidence of abuse as it is statutorily defined. See Utah Code § 80-1-102(1)(a)(i)(A)–(B), (37)(a)–(b) (defining abuse as including “nonaccidental harm of a child” and “threatened harm of a child” and defining harm as “physical or developmental injury or damage” and “emotional damage that results in a serious impairment in the child’s growth, development, behavior, or psychological functioning”). Mother raises a fair point that other than applying the general principles set forth in In re C.C.W. to infer harm, the State did not present specific evidence that the Children had sustained harm, and the court made no specific findings—other than that the Children appeared calm during incidents of domestic violence between their parents—that the Children were developmentally harmed or suffered the sort of emotional damage that constituted serious impairment to their growth, development, behavior, or psychological functioning.[3]

¶19      But even if we were to agree with Mother that the juvenile court erred in adjudicating the Children as abused as to Mother, Mother cannot show she was prejudiced by any such error. See In re N.M., 2018 UT App 141, ¶ 27, 427 P.3d 1239 (“An error is prejudicial only if a review of the record persuades the appellate court that without the error there was a reasonable likelihood of a more favorable result for the appellant.” (quotation simplified)); In re. J.B., 2002 UT App 268, ¶¶ 8–12, 53 P.3d 968 (affirming the termination of a father’s parental rights despite the juvenile court’s reliance on improper findings because such reliance did not result in “prejudicial error”). Mother claims that being labeled an abuser “negatively affect[s] her ability—going forward—to perform the primary caretaking responsibilities to [the] Children.” But Mother does not demonstrate how the court’s abuse adjudication will affect her more severely or more negatively as this case proceeds than the neglect adjudication will. See In re G.B., 2022 UT App 98, ¶ 34, 516 P.3d 781 (declining to reach the merits of a challenge to an abuse adjudication where the parent did not challenge a neglect adjudication based on the same facts because the parent did not demonstrate that the abuse adjudication carried “some collateral consequences . . . that [did] not follow from a neglect determination”). Indeed, post-adjudication dispositions turn on the factual circumstances that bring a family into court rather than on the category of adjudication and are implemented based on concern for the child’s health and safety and remedying the underlying issues resulting in the adjudication. See Utah Code § 80-3-405. Here, as found by the juvenile court, whether her inaction is labeled as abuse or neglect, Mother failed to protect the Children from exposure to domestic violence and prioritized her relationship with Father over the well-being of the Children. The services that will be offered to Mother and the Children to remedy these circumstances are not likely to differ based on whether the adjudication is for neglect or abuse. We agree with the guardian ad litem’s assertion that “any or all three categories of adjudication (abuse, neglect, dependency) trigger the same dispositional provisions.” Accordingly, because Mother has not demonstrated how the court’s abuse adjudication will affect her any differently than the neglect adjudication, she cannot show prejudice.[4] See In re K.K., 2023 UT App 13, ¶ 28 (concluding, based on the same facts as the current case, that Father could not show prejudice stemming from the court’s abuse adjudication because the abuse adjudication was based on the same underlying facts supporting the neglect adjudication).

CONCLUSION

¶20 We are cognizant that Mother is a victim of domestic violence, not a perpetrator. Nevertheless, the primary purpose of the State’s petition alleging neglect was to protect the Children, not to punish Mother. Based on the foregoing, we conclude the evidence presented by the State was sufficient to support the juvenile court’s neglect adjudication as to Mother. And even if the juvenile court erred in its abuse adjudication, Mother has not persuaded us that she was prejudiced by any such error because she has not shown how she will be negatively affected by the abuse adjudication over and above the effect of her neglect adjudication. Accordingly, we affirm.

_____________

HARRIS, Judge (concurring):

¶21      I concur fully in the majority opinion. I write separately to offer a word of caution to juvenile courts when it comes to finding that a parent who is a victim of domestic violence has “abused” or “neglected” his or her children by allowing them to be exposed to domestic violence in the home. In my view, Utah’s statutory definitions of the terms “abuse” and “neglect” are broad enough to make it possible, in certain situations, for courts to determine that a domestic violence victim has committed abuse or neglect. But courts should exercise caution in doing so, and should make these rather striking findings only in appropriate cases.

¶22 With regard to neglect, we hold today that the juvenile court’s determination was appropriate in this case, because Mother’s “inaction” in failing to protect the Children from the domestic violence occurring in the home constituted a lack of proper parental care, as well as a failure to provide care necessary for the Children’s health, safety, or well-being. See supra ¶¶ 8–16; see also Utah Code Ann. § 80-1-102(58)(a)(ii)–(iii) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022). In my view, the key to affirming this determination, in this case, was the court’s finding that Mother had prioritized her relationship with her abuser over the safety and well-being of the Children. Evidence presented at trial indicated that Mother repeatedly allowed Father to return to the home despite the existence of protective orders making it unlawful for him to be there, and that she was less than fully cooperative with DCFS and law enforcement officials who were investigating the situation. This sort of evidence, to my way of thinking, is critical to any determination that a domestic violence victim has neglected his or her children. Absent evidence like this, domestic violence victims will likely not have committed actions or inactions significant enough to constitute “neglect” of their children.

¶23      And given the differing statutory definitions, it is even more difficult for domestic violence victims to be considered to have “abused” their children than it is for them to be considered to have “neglected” their children. The statutory definition of “abuse” is (justifiably) narrower than the statutory definition of “neglect.” In order to find that abuse has occurred, a court in most cases (that is, in cases not involving sexual exploitation, sexual abuse, human trafficking, or the child’s death) must find either (a) “nonaccidental harm of a child” or (b) “threatened harm of a child.” See id. § 80-1-102(1)(a)(i)(A), (B); see also In re K.T., 2017 UT 44, ¶ 9, 424 P.3d 91 (“To find abuse under Utah law, a court must find harm.”).

¶24 A finding that a child has sustained nonaccidental harm involves a backward-looking determination, one that must be supported by evidence that the child has already been harmed. And the kind of harm at issue—according to strict statutory definition—must be either “physical or developmental injury or damage” or the sort of “emotional damage that results in a serious impairment in the child’s growth, development, behavior, or psychological functioning.” See id. § 80-1-102(37)(a), (b). I can envision a court, in many cases, being able to make a finding of physical harm without the necessity of expert testimony, but in my view a finding of already-sustained “developmental injury or damage” or emotional damage severe enough to cause “a serious impairment in the child’s growth, development, behavior, or psychological functioning” will often require expert testimony. I think this will nearly always be the case where the question presented is whether a child has already sustained non-physical “harm” as a result of a victim parent failing to protect the child from violence in the home.

¶25      A finding that a child has sustained “threatened harm” is— by contrast—more of a forward-looking inquiry, under the applicable statutory definition. As our legislature has defined it in this context, “threatened harm means actions, inactions, or credible verbal threats, indicating that the child is at an unreasonable risk of harm or neglect.” See Utah Code Ann. § 80-1­102(92) (emphasis added). A child can sustain “threatened harm” even if the child has not yet sustained actual “harm.” Pursuant to statutory definition, a child sustains “threatened harm” when, through the “actions” or “inactions” of a parent, the child is placed at “unreasonable risk” of future “developmental injury or damage” or “emotional damage” severe enough to seriously impair the “child’s growth, development, behavior, or psychological functioning.” See id. § 80-1-102(37)(a)–(b), 102(92). In cases involving parents who are victims of domestic violence, a juvenile court could perhaps more easily make a finding of “threatened harm” than already-sustained past harm. Indeed, we have already recognized that “domestic violence can have adverse impacts on a child, even if that child is not the direct object of such violence, and even if the child does not directly witness the violence.” See In re C.C.W., 2019 UT App 34, ¶ 20, 440 P.3d 749. A parent victim’s failure to adequately protect a child from violence in the home could—if the violence was frequent and severe enough, and likely to continue in the future—lead to a supported finding that the parent, through inaction, has placed the child at an unreasonable risk of future developmental damage. It may even be possible, in appropriate cases, for such a finding to be made without expert testimony.

¶26      But in order to reach “abuse” through “threatened harm” in cases involving victims of domestic violence, a court must make specific and supported findings regarding each of the elements of the statutory definition. First, a court must specify that it is finding “abuse” by way of “threatened harm” (as opposed to through a finding of already-sustained “nonaccidental harm”). Second, the court must make a detailed finding of threatened harm on the facts of the case at hand, including specific identification of the “action or inaction” taken by the parent that leads to the “unreasonable risk” of future harm, as well as a satisfactory explanation of why the risk of future harm is “unreasonable.” Third, the court must specify the type of future harm it believes the child is at risk of sustaining, whether it be developmental injury or severe emotional damage, and should explain—with reference to specific evidence in the record—why the court believes the child is likely to sustain that particular type of harm.

¶27 In short, Utah’s statutory definitions of “neglect” and “abuse” are broad enough to allow courts, in appropriate cases, to find that a parent who is the victim of domestic violence has committed neglect or abuse by failing to protect his or her child from domestic violence in the home. But courts should exercise caution in so doing, and should reserve such findings for those cases in which the domestic violence is severe and sustained and in which the victim parent has taken specific actions or inactions aimed at prioritizing his or her relationship with the abuser over care and protection of the children.

¶28      In this case, I concur in the majority’s view that the court made appropriate findings of neglect with regard to Mother. I also concur in the majority’s decision not to reach the merits of the propriety of the court’s findings regarding abuse as to Mother, but I register serious reservations about the adequacy and sufficiency of those findings, and urge courts to exercise caution in making neglect and abuse determinations in situations like this one.

 

______________

[1] A more fulsome description of the relevant facts and procedural history can be found in In re K.K., 2023 UT App 13, the case in which we adjudicated Father’s appeal. In this case, we adjudicate Mother’s appeal.

[2] The juvenile court did not take this evidence to mean that the Children had not been adversely affected by their parents’ inappropriate behavior. Rather, the inference drawn by the court was that the parental conflict had been so pervasive that the Children had become somewhat numb to it.

[3] We do not intend to suggest the State could never demonstrate that a parent who is the victim of domestic violence has “abused” his or her children, as that term is statutorily defined. We agree with the general sentiments expressed in the concurring opinion that such a path is possible but is more difficult than demonstrating “neglect” and would require specific evidence and findings. See infra ¶¶ 22–27.

[4] In fact, a review of the underlying docket in Mother’s case reveals that Mother and the Children have done so well in their treatment and services that the juvenile court released the Children from DCFS’s protective supervision and terminated the court’s jurisdiction last fall.

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In re K.K. – 2023 UT App 13

In re K.K. – 2023 UT App 13

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF K.K., S.K., AND S.K.,

PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

D.K.,

Appellant,

v.

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20220050-CA

Filed February 9, 2023

Second District Juvenile Court, Farmington Department

The Honorable Sharon S. Sipes

No. 1176751

Freyja Johnson, Emily Adams, and Hannah K.

Leavitt-Howell, Attorneys for Appellant

Sean D. Reyes, John M. Peterson, and Candace

Roach, Attorneys for Appellee

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

JUDGE MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and RYAN M. HARRIS

concurred.

CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge:

¶1        D.K. (Father) and B.K. (Mother) are the parents of triplets K.K., S.K., and S.K. (collectively, the Children). When the Children were six years old, the State filed a child welfare petition for custody and guardianship on the grounds that the Children were neglected and abused by Father and Mother. Following an adjudication hearing on the petition, the juvenile court issued an order adjudicating the Children as neglected and abused.

¶2        Father now appeals the juvenile court’s abuse adjudication, arguing that the State failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that he abused the Children. We affirm.

BACKGROUND

¶3        In 2019, when the Children were four years old, the State filed a petition seeking protective supervision services based on allegations that Father and Mother had engaged in repeated acts of domestic violence in front of the Children. Thereafter, Father and Mother agreed to engage in services voluntarily, and the State eventually dismissed its petition.

¶4        Two years later, however, Father and Mother again engaged in a series of domestic violence incidents that involved law enforcement. In May 2021, Father called the police and told them that Mother had “beat him up.” When officers arrived on scene and talked to Father, he told them he and Mother were “fighting about money” and that Mother “swung to hit him but never touched him.” On June 10, officers were again dispatched to the family home on a “domestic” call because Father and Mother were “screaming at each other with the [C]hildren in the home.” When officers arrived, they could hear the screaming. Father was uncooperative with the officers, but he eventually left the home. However, Father returned to the home later that same night.

¶5        On June 22, Father and Mother were involved in an altercation that led the State to seek custody and guardianship of the Children. During this altercation, Father and Mother were arguing inside the home. Mother was sitting on the couch, and Father sat on top of her demanding that she give him the keys to the car. Father then “head butted” Mother and told her to get out of the home, which she did. Once Mother was outside, Father followed her and began punching her “with a closed fist on the side of her stomach.” Father proceeded to grab a large rock and chase Mother around the car, “acting like he was going to throw the rock at her.” The Children were outside of the home for the duration of the altercation and witnessed Father chasing Mother and hitting her. Several neighbors also witnessed the altercation and called the police. When officers arrived, Father was arrested and taken to jail.

¶6        After Father’s arrest, Mother completed a lethality assessment, an evaluation given to assess the level of danger an abused person faces, which resulted in a score of high risk. Mother did not seek a protective order for herself or for the Children during the eight days Father was in jail. However, due to the severity of the prior altercation, the district court entered a criminal no contact/protective order on July 1. The order prohibited Father from residing with Mother and the Children.

¶7        On July 8, a caseworker from the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) went to the home for an unannounced visit. During the visit, the caseworker found Father outside; Father reported that Mother was inside sleeping. Father allowed the caseworker to interview the Children. During the interview, the Children reported that Father and Mother “fight and yell” and “hurt each other’s bodies.” Father was subsequently arrested for violation of the criminal no contact/protective order. Thereafter, the caseworker attempted to talk to Mother, who had been inside sleeping, but Mother refused to speak with the caseworker.

¶8        Based on the foregoing, the State filed a petition for custody and guardianship of the Children on the grounds that they were neglected and abused based on Father and Mother engaging in domestic violence in the home. Following a shelter hearing, the juvenile court determined the Children should remain in Mother’s custody for the time being but ordered Mother and the Children to have “absolutely no contact” with Father and that Mother “immediately notify law enforcement” if Father appeared at the home.

¶9        Following a series of pretrial hearings, the matter proceeded to an adjudication trial in December 2021. At trial, the State presented the testimony of six witnesses: Mother, Father, two neighbors who had witnessed the June 22 altercation, and two police officers who had responded to the neighbors’ 911 calls regarding the June 22 altercation.

¶10 According to the neighbors, Father and Mother were arguing about car keys. As Father approached Mother, “she put her arms out to stop him . . . and he slapped her hands aside.” Father then began punching Mother “haymaker style” to her side and stomach. The punching continued “for a minute or two,” and Father connected “five to ten” times. After the punching stopped, Father chased Mother around the front yard, “throwing rocks” and “bikes and other toys” in the direction of Mother, although the neighbors did not see any of the objects hit Mother.

¶11      The neighbors testified that during the altercation, two of the Children were in the front yard “standing behind [Mother]” and “clinging” to her. Mother was positioned between Father and the two children, acting as a “buffer” between them. One neighbor opined that he did not “believe any [of Father’s] aggression was towards the children,” and that “at no[] point did [he] think [the two children] were in any sort of danger.” However, the two children were outside the entire time, “seeing everything.”

¶12      In addition, one neighbor testified that she had witnessed Father and Mother “screaming” at each other multiple times in the presence of the Children prior to the June 22 altercation. Moreover, the neighbor had witnessed Father yelling at the Children twice and had observed that the Children “are terrified and trying to do whatever [Father] says to not be in trouble.”

¶13      The responding officers testified next. One officer testified that after arriving at the scene on June 22, he interviewed Mother, who told him that she had been arguing with Father over car keys. During the argument, Father “sat down on her” to keep her from leaving, headbutted her in the forehead, and “punched her in the back of the leg.” After Mother jumped out the window to the front yard, Father followed her and the two continued arguing. Father chased Mother around a vehicle parked in the front yard; once he caught her, he began “punching her in the side underneath her arms with a closed fist.” Mother was able to break away, but Father chased her with a rock in his hands. Mother told the officer the Children were outside with her during the altercation.

¶14      The officer also interviewed Father about the altercation. Father said he was “upset” because Mother hid the car keys from him but that “nothing got physical.” Father told the officer he and Mother had argued and run around the vehicle in the front yard. Father indicated that he had picked up a rock and held it over his head, but he did not throw it, nor did he intend to.

¶15      Lastly, the officer testified regarding his observations of the Children. When the officer arrived at the scene, the Children were inside the house. The officer interviewed Mother while she was standing at the front door. During the interview, the officer saw “at least two” of the Children standing by the front door behind Mother and “one of the kids popped his head outside” and asked for stickers. Officer opined that the Children’s demeanor “seemed calm.” The Children seemed “a little upset that some toys were . . . strewn about the front yard,” but otherwise they did not seem “distraught or flustered” by the altercation.

¶16      Mother testified that the June 22 incident started when she refused to give Father the keys to the car. Mother explained that she could not remember all the details about the altercation because she has “trouble remembering things.” However, she did remember that the altercation began when Father headbutted her in the house. After the headbutt, Father and Mother went outside to the front yard. Although Mother did not remember whether Father hit her in the yard, she recalled that he “didn’t follow [her] around the yard,” that he picked up a basket and “threw it up in the air” but not “at” her, and that he “picked up a rock” but did not chase her while holding it. Mother maintained that the Children had not observed the altercation because they were downstairs inside the house with a roommate where they stayed until the officers arrived.

¶17      Mother also testified that the Children “were never present for full on arguments or yelling.” She explained that “as soon as any argument started,” her roommate would take the Children downstairs so they would not be able to hear the fighting. Although Mother did not believe the Children had been impacted by the fighting, she did believe the Children were aware that they were sent downstairs to avoid hearing any fighting.

¶18 Father testified last. When asked about the June 22 altercation he invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to testify because criminal charges were pending against him regarding that incident. But Father explained that “before” he and Mother would engage in any verbal arguments, the Children would go downstairs.

¶19      After considering all the evidence, the juvenile court issued an adjudication order. In the order the court found, among other things, that Father and Mother had engaged in numerous acts of domestic violence, some of which had occurred in the presence of the Children, including the one on June 22; that when Father and Mother fight they sometimes send the Children downstairs to wait with a roommate, which had occurred two or three times that year; that the Children are aware that they are sent downstairs because Father and Mother fight; that “[a]ccording to the [C]hildren, [Father] and [Mother] fight and yell and hurt each other’s bodies”; and that “[t]he [C]hildren have experienced domestic violence with enough frequency that they appear calm during incidents between their parents . . . even though the parents ‘fight a lot and hurt’ each other.”

¶20 As to Father, the court drew a number of adverse inferences based on his decision to invoke his constitutional right to silence when asked specific questions about the June 22 altercation. And as to Mother, the court found that she “is not concerned” about the Children witnessing her and Father fighting and that her “demeanor and testimony”—including her inability to recall much of what happened on June 22—“is in tune with her desire to protect [Father] rather than address the domestic violence that exists in her home.” Based on these findings, the court concluded that Father “failed to provide proper care necessary for the health, safety, morals and well-being of the children in that he has engaged in domestic violence with [Mother], and [both Father and Mother] failed to protect the [C]hildren from exposure to domestic violence in the home.” The court also concluded that “[Father] and [Mother’s] domestic violence in their home has harmed [the Children]” and, accordingly, adjudicated the Children as neglected and abused as to Father.

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶21 Father now appeals only the juvenile court’s abuse adjudication, arguing that the court’s ruling was in error because the State failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that he had harmed or threatened harm to the Children. “We apply differing standards of review to findings of fact, conclusions of law, and determinations of mixed questions of law and fact.” In re E.R., 2021 UT 36, ¶ 14, 496 P.3d 58. We review the juvenile court’s factual findings deferentially, reversing the court’s findings only if they are clearly erroneous. Id. ¶ 15. A finding is clearly erroneous when the court either “failed to consider all of the facts or reached a decision against the clear weight of the evidence.” Id. ¶ 32 (quotation simplified). However, the question of whether the juvenile court properly applied the governing law to the facts of the case presents “a law-like mixed question subject to nondeferential review.” In re A.B., 2022 UT 39, ¶ 27.

ANALYSIS

¶22      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.” Essential Botanical Farms, LC v. Kay, 2011 UT 71, ¶¶ 21, 24, 270 P.3d 430 (quotation simplified). Put differently, this standard requires “the existence of facts that make a conclusion very highly probable.” Id. ¶ 24 (quotation simplified).

¶23      As relevant here, “abuse” is defined as the “nonaccidental harm of a child” or the “threatened harm of a child.” Utah Code § 80-1-102(1)(a)(i)(A), (B). Thus, “[t]o find abuse under Utah law, a court must find harm.” In re K.T., 2017 UT 44, ¶ 9, 424 P.3d 91. “Harm” includes “physical or developmental injury or damage” and “emotional damage that results in a serious impairment in the child’s growth, development, behavior, or psychological functioning.” Utah Code § 80-1-102(37)(a), (b). And “[t]hreatened harm” is defined as “actions, inactions, or credible verbal threats, indicating that the child is at an unreasonable risk of harm or neglect.” Id. § 80-1-102(92).

¶24      As applied to this case, to satisfy the clear and convincing standard, the State “needed to present evidence that would allow the [juvenile] court to conclude that it was very highly probable that the [C]hildren had been harmed.” See In re K.T., 2017 UT 44, ¶ 9 n.3 (quotation simplified). In reaching this conclusion the court may properly “infer harm” based on the evidence presented. Id. ¶ 14. However, the court may not “speculate” about the existence of harm absent clear and convincing evidence demonstrating the actions actually resulted in harm. Id. ¶¶ 14–17.

¶25 After considering the evidence presented during the adjudication trial, the juvenile court concluded the Children were abused because “[Father] and [Mother’s] domestic violence in their home has harmed [the Children].” Father argues the court’s conclusion was in error because the State failed to produce clear and convincing evidence that he physically harmed the Children or that the Children were developmentally harmed or emotionally damaged by observing Father assault Mother and Father and Mother argue. But even if we were to agree with Father that the State failed to present sufficient evidence that Father harmed the Children and were to agree that the juvenile court erred in adjudicating Father as abusing the Children, Father has not demonstrated that he was prejudiced by the alleged error. See In re N.M., 2018 UT App 141, ¶ 27, 427 P.3d 1239 (“An error is prejudicial only if a review of the record persuades the appellate court that without the error there was a reasonable likelihood of a more favorable result for the appellant.” (quotation simplified)); In re. J.B., 2002 UT App 268, ¶¶ 8–12, 53 P.3d 968 (affirming the termination of a father’s parental rights despite the juvenile court’s reliance on improper findings because such reliance did not result in “prejudicial error”). As noted above, the court adjudicated the Children as both neglected and abused, and Father appeals only the court’s abuse adjudication. Although Father is correct that “[a]buse and neglect are statutorily defined and given ‘distinct statuses’” and that “[u]nder the statutory definitions . . . abuse requires a higher level of improper conduct from a parent than neglect,” that distinction has no bearing in this case—and Father has not shown that it is likely to have any bearing in the future—because the court’s adjudications of neglect and abuse were based on the same underlying incidents of domestic violence.

¶26 When a juvenile court adjudicates a child as either neglected or abused, that determination brings the child within the jurisdiction of the court and allows the court to enter dispositional orders. See Utah Code § 80-3-402. The dispositions available to the court do not hinge on whether the child was adjudicated as neglected or abused. Instead, dispositions are tied to the factual findings about what is going on in the case and are implemented based on concern for the child’s health and safety and remedying the underlying issues resulting in the adjudication. See id. § 80-3-405.

¶27 Here, the juvenile court’s disposition is governed by the need to address Father’s commission of domestic violence in the presence of the Children and the risk such behavior will continue. Services to address this behavior will not differ whether the underlying adjudication is labeled as neglect or abuse because the court’s neglect determination was based on the same underlying facts as the abuse determination: here, Father’s failure to protect and to provide proper care for the Children as a result of his engaging in acts of domestic violence.[1]

¶28      Father cites this court’s decision in In re C.M.R., 2020 UT App 114, 473 P.3d 184, for the proposition that Father was harmed by the court’s abuse adjudication, asserting that the findings of abuse in the adjudication order “will form the basis for whether [Father] is able to comply with the requirements of [any service plan] going forward and whether [Father] can be reunited with the Children.” See id. ¶ 28. But unlike the mother in In re C.M.R., who was potentially prejudiced by entering admissions to allegations regarding a specific additional incident of abuse at the adjudication hearing, Father’s abuse adjudication was based on the exact same underlying set of facts as his neglect adjudication. In this case, Father has not challenged the juvenile court’s neglect adjudication, nor has he challenged the court’s underlying factual findings—which support both the neglect and the abuse adjudications—that he assaulted Mother in the presence of the Children and repeatedly engaged in heated verbal arguments with her. Those underlying actions, which form the foundation for both adjudications, are the reason why he “can only have supervised visitation with [the] Children” and why “[h]e is not allowed in the home,” and not because the court adjudicated the Children as abused in addition to neglected. Because Father has not challenged the neglect adjudication or demonstrated how the ramifications flowing from this unchallenged adjudication would be less severe than those resulting from an abuse adjudication, he has not demonstrated that he has sustained any prejudice as a result of the court’s abuse adjudication.[2] See In re G.B., 2022 UT App 98, ¶ 34, 516 P.3d 781 (declining to reach the merits of a challenge to an abuse adjudication where the parent did not challenge a neglect adjudication based on the same facts because the parent did not demonstrate that the abuse adjudication carried “some collateral consequences . . . that [did] not follow from a neglect determination”).

 

CONCLUSION

¶29 On appeal, Father does not challenge the juvenile court’s findings that he committed domestic violence in the presence of the Children or that those actions resulted in him neglecting the Children by failing to provide them proper care and to protect them from exposure to domestic violence. Under these circumstances, even if the juvenile court erred in its separate abuse adjudication—a conclusion we stop short of reaching—Father has not demonstrated he was prejudiced by any such error because he has not challenged the court’s neglect adjudication or the facts underlying it, which are the same facts underlying the court’s abuse adjudication, and any court-ordered disposition will be based upon Father’s own acts and not the adjudication of abuse.

¶30 Affirmed.

______________

[1] In his reply brief Father argues he was harmed by the juvenile court’s abuse adjudication because “an abuse adjudication goes into a central abuse registry system managed by DCFS” and “the information in that registry is used for licensing purposes and prevents individuals who have been adjudicated of abuse from holding licenses in certain professions.” But this argument misses the mark. While Father correctly notes that the abuse registry system—called the Management Information System (the MIS)— can be accessed by the State for all future cases involving Father, see Utah Code § 80-2-1001, he conflates the MIS with a “sub-part” of the MIS called the Licensing Information System (the LIS), see id. § 80-2-1002(1)(a)(i). Information on the MIS includes facts relevant to each child welfare case, whereas the LIS is maintained for “licensing purposes.” See id. § 80-2-1002(1)(a)(i). Although an individual on the LIS may be prohibited from, among other things, holding licenses in certain professions, see id. § 80-2-708(2)(a)(v), inclusion on the LIS is not automatic in every child welfare case. Rather, the LIS identifies only individuals found to have committed a “severe type of child abuse or neglect.” See id. § 80-2-708(1). Because the court did not adjudicate Father as severely abusing the Children, inclusion on the LIS does not automatically follow, and Father has not asserted that he has been—or is likely to be—included therein. Accordingly, Father has not demonstrated that, in this case, he has sustained any prejudice as a result of the juvenile court’s abuse determination.

[2] Indeed, in the juvenile court’s dispositional order, entered approximately two months after the adjudication order, Father’s primary responsibility is to “complete a domestic violence/mental health assessment . . . and follow any and all of the recommendations made.”

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Myers v. Myers 2023 UT App 20 – Alimony Modification

Myers v. Myers 2023 UT App 20

2023 UT App 20

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

AMY R. MYERS, Appellee, v. JACOB W. MYERS, Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20220002-CA

Filed March 2, 2023

Sixth District Court, Richfield Department

The Honorable Brody L. Keisel

No. 184600056

Benjamin L. Wilson, Attorney for Appellant

Douglas L. Neeley, Attorney for Appellee

JUDGE RYAN M. HARRIS authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER and JOHN D. LUTHY

concurred.

HARRIS, Judge:

¶1        After more than two decades of marriage, Jacob and Amy Myers divorced in 2018, and mutually agreed to the terms of their divorce. In particular, they agreed that Jacob[1] would pay Amy $916 per month in child support and $2,300 per month in alimony. Less than two years later, Jacob filed a petition to modify the divorce decree, asserting that both his and Amy’s income had changed since the divorce. The district court, after holding a trial, denied Jacob’s petition to modify, and Jacob appeals that denial, asserting that the court erred in determining that Amy’s ability to earn had not changed and in failing to make findings regarding Amy’s reasonable expenses. We find merit in Jacob’s positions, and therefore reverse and remand.

BACKGROUND

¶2        Jacob and Amy Myers married in 1995, but divorced in 2018 after some twenty-three years of marriage. When they divorced, one of their children (born in 2001) was still a minor, but all their children are now adults. Throughout most of their marriage, Jacob worked in oil production as a rig manager. His position paid relatively well—at the time of the divorce, he was earning $8,233 per month—but required him to work a nontraditional schedule (two weeks on, two weeks off), and in addition the job was sometimes dangerous and often involved the operation of heavy machinery.

¶3        While Jacob worked in the oil fields, the couple decided that Amy would—at least until the children were grown—forgo steady employment outside the home in order to care for the children. Amy did, however, run a small “foot zoning” business from which she earned approximately $250 per month.

¶4        In April 2018, Amy filed for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences. Jacob did not contest Amy’s petition; instead, the parties—neither of which were, at the time, represented by counsel—filed a joint stipulation, using forms provided by the court’s self-help center, agreeing to resolve all matters related to the divorce petition. As amended, the stipulation provided that Jacob would pay Amy $916 per month in child support—at least for another year or two until the parties’ youngest child reached the age of majority—and $2,300 per month in alimony. Jacob’s obligation to pay alimony was to last twenty-three years—until April 2041—unless Amy remarried or cohabited before that.

¶5        In the stipulation, the parties agreed that Jacob’s income was $8,233 per month, and that Amy’s income was $250 per month, and those figures were apparently used to calculate Jacob’s child support obligation according to applicable guidelines. But the stipulation contained no indication of how Jacob’s alimony obligation was calculated; in particular, the stipulation was silent as to what Amy’s reasonable monthly expenses might be.

¶6        Using court-approved forms, the parties incorporated the terms of their stipulation into proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law, as well as a proposed divorce decree, and the district court signed the documents, thus finalizing the parties’ divorce, in May 2018. The final documents, like the parties’ amended stipulation, provided that Jacob would pay $916 per month in child support and $2,300 per month in alimony, but contained no findings about Amy’s reasonable monthly expenses.

¶7        About eighteen months later, in November 2019, Jacob— now represented by an attorney—filed a petition to modify the alimony award contained in the decree. In the petition, Jacob alleged that “the income of both parties has significantly changed since their divorce was finalized.” With regard to his own income, Jacob alleged that he was “no longer working in the oil fields” because he was “no longer able to work the same work schedule and the same type of work because of how it was negatively affecting him.” He asserted that he was “going back to school” in an effort to begin a different career, and that he was “currently not working.” With regard to Amy’s income, Jacob alleged that Amy had become employed and earned $1,200 per month, and that her “self-employment income” had increased to $1,500 per month, such that Amy’s total monthly income was $2,700. Jacob alleged that the changes in the parties’ respective incomes constituted a “substantial change in circumstances that warrants a modification” of the alimony award.

¶8        Just a few weeks later, in January 2020, Amy—also now represented by an attorney—filed a motion for an order to show cause, asserting (among other things) that Jacob had failed to fully comply with his child support and alimony obligations. The court issued an order commanding Jacob to appear and show cause why he should not be held in contempt of court, and later held an evidentiary hearing to consider the matter. At that hearing, the court found that Jacob had “voluntarily quit his employment” in the oil fields and that, “if he hadn’t, he would have been able to pay what was ordered.” The court thus found Jacob in contempt and ordered him to pay Amy more than $22,000 in back child support and nearly $6,000 in unpaid alimony.

¶9        In the meantime, Jacob’s petition to modify remained pending, and the parties exchanged updated financial declarations in anticipation of an eventual trial. Amy’s first updated financial declaration, signed in December 2019, listed total annual income of nearly $11,000 (or about $889 per month) from three different sources: a new job, her foot zoning business, and teaching yoga classes. In this same declaration, Amy set forth monthly expenses of $4,084, with some of the expenses being at least partially attributable to her youngest child, who was still living in the home with Amy at that point. Then in August 2021, on the day of trial, Amy submitted a second updated financial declaration. According to this new declaration, Amy had recently obtained a different job, this one full-time, that paid her $45,000 per year ($3,750 per month). In addition, Amy stated that she earned $241 per month from her foot zoning business and $22 per week teaching yoga. She also asserted that her monthly expenses had increased to $4,795 (although the line-items listed in the declaration add to only $4,613), even though no children were living with her any longer. Among the changes from the 2019 declaration were a $500 increase in healthcare expenses, a $175 increase in real estate maintenance, a $100 increase in entertainment expenses, and an $88 increase in utilities.

¶10      In August 2021, the district court held a one-day bench trial to consider Jacob’s petition to modify. The only two witnesses to testify were Jacob and Amy. During his testimony, Jacob explained that he voluntarily left his position in the oil fields because he was no longer able to focus on his job duties to the degree he wanted, and he was worried that—due to the dangerous nature of the work—he would injure himself or someone else. However, he acknowledged, on cross-examination, that he was still physically able to perform the duties of the job; that his employer had not asked him to leave; that he had not received mental health counseling to address his concerns about the stress of his work; that he could have taken a leave of absence to address those issues and “gone back to” his job after that; and that if he had done so, he would still “be able to . . . pay the $2,300 a month in alimony.” He testified that, as of the time of trial, he was working at a home improvement warehouse earning $14 per hour, or $2,426 each month.

¶11      During her testimony, Amy testified that she had recently obtained full-time employment with the local chamber of commerce, in which she earned a salary of $3,750 per month. In response to direct questioning about this job, Amy conceded that she has “the ability to earn at least $3,750 a month,” and that she would be able to “do that moving forward.” In addition, she acknowledged that she earned additional income from her foot zoning business and her work as a yoga instructor. Amy testified that she earned some $100 per month from teaching yoga. With regard to her foot zoning business, she testified that she averaged ten treatments per month and charges $50 per treatment, and therefore earns $500 per month in revenue. But she testified that she must pay certain expenses associated with the business that eat up most of the revenue, resulting in her making only some $90 per year (or $7.50 per month) in profit. On cross-examination, she acknowledged that her total gross income from all sources, before expenses, was approximately $4,350 per month.

¶12 Amy testified that she was still living in the same house that the couple had been living in during the marriage, but that now—at the time of trial—she was living there alone because her children were grown and gone. With regard to expenses, she testified that her total monthly expenses were $4,084 in 2019 but had increased to $4,795 at the time of trial, despite the fact that, by the time of trial, she was living alone. She explained that new health insurance and home maintenance costs were largely responsible for the increase. But then, in response to a direct question about how her expenses at the time of the 2018 divorce compared to her expenses at the time of the 2021 modification trial, she testified that her expenses had “stayed the same.”

¶13      After trial, the parties (through counsel) submitted written closing arguments. Amy argued that, for purposes of the alimony computation, the court should impute to Jacob the same income he had made in the oil fields, find there to be no material and substantial change in circumstances, and on that basis dismiss the petition to modify. For his part, Jacob argued that the court should modify (or even terminate) his alimony obligation because Amy was now employed full-time and had the ability to provide for her own needs. In particular, Jacob argued that Amy’s reasonable expenses were in actuality less than the amounts reflected on her recent financial declaration and in her testimony, and that her increased income was sufficient to meet those needs.

¶14      A few weeks later, the district court issued a written ruling denying Jacob’s petition to modify. In its ruling, the court found that Jacob had voluntarily quit his job in the oil fields, and that his monthly income had decreased from $8,233 to $2,427. The court also found that Amy “currently works” for the local chamber of commerce “earning $45,000 annually,” and that Amy “also has side businesses doing foot treatments and teaching yoga.” But the court made no specific finding regarding Amy’s total income.

¶15      Building on these findings, the court concluded that Jacob’s change in income constituted “a substantial material change in circumstances that was not expressly stated in the decree.” The court did not separately analyze whether the change in Amy’s income also constituted such a change in circumstances.

¶16      Having concluded that there existed a substantial material change in circumstances, the court proceeded to “consider whether modification [of the alimony award] is appropriate.” The court began its analysis by examining Jacob’s income situation, and concluded that, because Jacob had left his job voluntarily and had not sustained any loss in earning capacity, Jacob “remains able to earn income at the level he was earning at the oil fields.” Accordingly, the court imputed to Jacob an income of $8,233 per month for purposes of the alimony calculation.

¶17 With regard to Amy’s expenses, the court found that her “financial needs . . . [have] not changed since” 2018, when “the stipulated decree was entered,” but made no specific finding as to the exact amount of those expenses.

¶18 And with respect to Amy’s earning capacity, the court offered its view that the “determinative factor[]” was not Amy’s income but, instead, her “ability to provide” for herself. On that score, the court found that “[n]o evidence was presented that [Amy] has obtained extra education or has otherwise increased her ability to earn since the time of the divorce,” and therefore concluded that—despite her increased income—her earning capacity had not changed. In so ruling, the court observed that it was Jacob’s “unilateral decision” to leave his job that compelled Amy to “obtain employment to provide for herself,” and stated that reducing Jacob’s alimony obligation where the precipitating event “was [Jacob’s] decision to leave his employment would set a precedent allowing parties who have stipulated to pay alimony to renege on that stipulation by taking a much lower paying job and forcing receiving parties to find additional employment by stopping alimony payments.”[2]

ISSUE AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶19 Jacob now appeals the court’s denial of his petition to modify. In this context, “we review the district court’s underlying findings of fact, if any, for clear error,” Peeples v. Peeples, 2019 UT App 207, ¶ 11, 456 P.3d 1159, and we review its determination regarding the presence or absence of a substantial change of circumstances, as well as its ultimate determination regarding the petition to modify, for an abuse of discretion, see id.see also Armendariz v. Armendariz, 2018 UT App 175, ¶ 6, 436 P.3d 294. The district court’s choice of, and application of, the appropriate legal standard, however, “presents an issue of law that we review for correctness.” Peeples, 2019 UT App 207, ¶ 11.

ANALYSIS

¶20 We begin our analysis with a general discussion of petitions to modify alimony awards and the process courts are to follow when adjudicating such petitions. We then address Jacob’s claim that the court failed to follow the correct process in this case.

I

¶21      After a district court has made an award of alimony, the court “retains continuing jurisdiction to” modify that award “when it finds that there has been a substantial material change in circumstances.” See Nicholson v. Nicholson, 2017 UT App 155, ¶ 7, 405 P.3d 749 (quotation simplified); see also Utah Code § 30-3-5(8)(i)(i) (2019).[3] If the court determines that no substantial material change in circumstances has occurred, then the court’s analysis ends, and the petition to modify the alimony award is properly denied. See Moon v. Moon, 1999 UT App 12, ¶ 27, 973 P.2d 431 (“As a threshold issue, before modifying an alimony award, the court must find a substantial material change in circumstances . . .” (quotation simplified)); see also Peeples v. Peeples, 2019 UT App 207, ¶ 32, 456 P.3d 1159 (affirming a district court’s denial of a petition to modify on the ground that there existed no substantial material change in circumstances).

¶22      If, however, the court finds that a substantial material change in circumstances has occurred, the court must conduct a complete analysis regarding whether the alimony award remains appropriate. See Nicholson, 2017 UT App 155, ¶ 7 (stating that, once a finding of changed circumstances “has been made, the court must then consider” the alimony factors (emphasis added) (quotation simplified)); accord Moon, 1999 UT App 12, ¶ 29. This analysis should include examination of the statutory alimony factors, see Utah Code § 30-3-5(8)(a) (2019), including the factors commonly referred to as “the Jones factors,” see Jones v. Jones, 700 P.2d 1072, 1075 (Utah 1985); see also Nicholson, 2017 UT App 155, ¶ 7 (stating that, after finding that circumstances have changed, “the court must then consider at least the following factors in determining a new alimony award: (i) the financial condition and needs of the recipient spouse; (ii) the recipient’s earning capacity or ability to produce income; (iii) the ability of the payor spouse to provide support; and (iv) the length of the marriage” (quotation simplified)). “These factors apply not only to an initial award of alimony, but also to a redetermination of alimony during a modification proceeding.” Williamson v. Williamson, 1999 UT App 219, ¶ 8, 983 P.2d 1103.

¶23      “Consideration of these factors is critical to achieving the purposes of alimony,” Paulsen v. Paulsen, 2018 UT App 22, ¶ 14, 414 P.3d 1023, which are “(1) to get the parties as close as possible to the same standard of living that existed during the marriage; (2) to equalize the standards of living of each party; and (3) to prevent the recipient spouse from becoming a public charge,” Miner v. Miner, 2021 UT App 77, ¶ 14, 496 P.3d 242 (quotation simplified). “The core function of alimony is therefore economic— it should not operate as a penalty against the payor nor a reward to the recipient.” Roberts v. Roberts, 2014 UT App 211, ¶ 14, 335 P.3d 378.

¶24      “Regardless of the payor spouse’s ability to pay more, the recipient spouse’s demonstrated need must constitute the maximum permissible alimony award.” Id. (quotation simplified); see also Barrani v. Barrani, 2014 UT App 204, ¶ 30, 334 P.3d 994 (“An alimony award in excess of the recipient’s need is a basis for remand”). Because a recipient spouse’s demonstrated need constitutes an effective “ceiling” on an alimony award, see Fox v. Fox, 2022 UT App 88, ¶ 19, 515 P.3d 481, courts often begin their analysis by assessing whether recipient spouses are able to meet their reasonable needs through their own income. See Vanderzon v. Vanderzon, 2017 UT App 150, ¶ 42, 402 P.3d 219 (stating that, in determining alimony, courts will generally “first assess the needs of the parties, in light of their marital standard of living” (quotation simplified)). If the recipient spouse is able to meet his or her own needs, then the analysis ends, and no award should be made, but if “the recipient spouse is not able to meet [his or] her own needs, then [the court] should assess whether the payor spouse’s income, after meeting his [or her] needs, is sufficient to make up some or all of the shortfall between the recipient spouse’s needs and income.” See id. (quotation simplified).

¶25      When considering the relevant alimony factors, courts are “required to make adequate factual findings on all material issues, unless the facts in the record are clear, uncontroverted, and capable of supporting only a finding in favor of the judgment.” Bukunowski v. Bukunowski, 2003 UT App 357, ¶ 9, 80 P.3d 153 (quotation simplified). When a district court fails to enter specific findings regarding “the needs and condition of the recipient spouse, making effective review of the alimony award impossible, that omission is an abuse of discretion.” Id. ¶ 10.

II

¶26 With these principles in mind, we turn our attention to Jacob’s assertion that the court failed to follow the correct process in adjudicating his petition to modify. In particular, Jacob asserts that the court—once it determined that there had been a substantial material change in circumstances—was required to conduct a complete analysis of all the alimony factors, and that it failed to properly do so.[4] We find merit in Jacob’s argument.

¶27      The district court started its analysis in the proper place, and assessed whether Jacob had demonstrated that there had been a substantial material change in circumstances that would justify reopening the alimony inquiry. Looking just at the change in Jacob’s own income, the court made a finding that there had been a “substantial change in circumstances.” And neither party takes issue with this finding on appeal; both appear to acknowledge the correctness of the court’s initial determination that circumstances affecting these parties had changed enough to justify a second look at the alimony situation.[5]

¶28 From there, though, the court’s analysis strayed from the proper path. After determining that the change in Jacob’s income constituted a substantial material change in circumstances, the court did not conduct a full analysis of the relevant alimony factors. With regard to Amy’s needs, the court’s analysis, in full, was simply this: “[Amyl testified that her monthly expenses have not increased from the time the parties were divorced in May 2018 until the time of trial in August of 2021.” The court made no finding that Amy’s testimony on that point was credible, see Rehn v. Rehn, 1999 UT App 41, ¶ 7, 974 P.2d 306 (“A trial court may not merely restate the recipient spouse’s testimony regarding her monthly expenses.” (quotation simplified)), and did not make any effort to assess what Amy’s reasonable monthly needs actually were; the court’s comparison to the 2018 divorce decree is especially unhelpful, in context, because that decree contained no specific determination regarding Amy’s expenses.

¶29 With regard to the parties’ earning capacity, the court acknowledged that Amy had obtained a full-time job that paid her $3,750 each month, and that Amy “earns additional income from a foot zoning business and teaching yoga.” But the court made no finding as to what Amy’s total income actually was, stating that “[n]o evidence was presented that [Amy] has obtained extra education or has otherwise increased her ability to earn since the time of the divorce, only that her actual income has increased.”

¶30 And with regard to Jacob, the court found that he had voluntarily left his job in the oil fields, and that he “remains able to earn income at the level he was earning” before. On that basis, the court imputed to Jacob income of $8,233 per month, despite the fact that Jacob was no longer earning that amount. Jacob takes no issue with this imputation determination on appeal.

¶31      The court then completed its analysis by stating as follows: “[Amy’s] financial needs and both parties’ ability to earn has not changed since the time the stipulated decree was entered. Therefore, [Jacob’s] Petition to Modify the alimony ordered in the decree is DENIED.”

¶32 In our view, the court was, at least to some extent, conflating the “changed circumstances” part of the analysis with the “Jones factors” part of the analysis. Its first mistake was failing to make a specific finding regarding Amy’s reasonable monthly needs. As noted, no such finding had been made in connection with the 2018 decree, and Amy had submitted two conflicting financial declarations since then. In order to complete the multi-factor alimony analysis mandated by the court’s unchallenged conclusion that circumstances had materially changed, the court needed to make an actual finding regarding Amy’s expenses.[6]

¶33 The next error the court made was in determining that Amy’s earning capacity had not changed, even though her income had. And here, it is important to differentiate between situations in which a spouse’s income goes down from situations in which a spouse’s income goes up. Certainly, where a spouse’s income goes down, it does not necessarily follow—indeed, it often does not follow—that the spouse’s earning capacity has also gone down; in such situations, courts retain the discretion to determine that, even though a spouse’s income has gone down, his or her earning capacity has not been diminished, and to impute to the spouse— for instance, on the basis of a finding of voluntary underemployment—an income in line with the unchanged earning capacity. See, e.g.Olson v. Olson, 704 P.2d 564, 566 (Utah 1985) (stating that where parties “experience[] a temporary decrease in income, [their] historical earnings must be taken into account in determining the amount of alimony to be paid”); Pankhurst v. Pankhurst, 2022 UT App 36, ¶¶ 14–15, 508 P.3d 612 (noting that “a finding of voluntary underemployment is not a prerequisite to imputing income,” and affirming a trial court’s determination to assess the payor spouse’s income at a higher level than his current income because the current lower income was “temporary” (quotation simplified)); Gerwe v. Gerwe, 2018 UT App 75, ¶ 31, 424 P.3d 1113 (crediting a trial court’s skepticism about a payor spouse’s sudden drop in income where the spouse “came into trial making a huge amount of money . . . and then all of a sudden is making no money because, you know, now it’s time to pay somebody” (quotation simplified)). Indeed, the district court made precisely such a finding with regard to Jacob, and no party takes issue with that finding here on appeal.

¶34 But the fact that a spouse’s income has gone up is very strong evidence that the spouse’s earning capacity has also risen. A party who is actually earning $45,000 per year will nearly always properly be deemed to have the capacity to earn at least that amount. There are, of course, exceptions: in some isolated instances, an increase in income is temporary and does not reflect an overall or long-term increase in earning capacity. See English v. English, 565 P.2d 409, 412 (Utah 1977) (stating that, when parties “experience[] unusual prosperity during one year,” that unusual income figure is not necessarily indicative of earning capacity); see alsoe.g.Woskob v. Woskob, 2004 PA Super 37, ¶ 28, 843 A.2d 1247 (holding that a spouse’s earning capacity, moving forward, was not reflected by three “retroactive salary bonuses” that were not likely to occur in the future, and stating that, since the spouse’s “elevated salary during [the] period [in which he received those bonuses] is totally disproportionate to his actual earning capacity, his support obligation should reflect his earning capacity rather than his actual earnings”). But before concluding that a spouse’s earning capacity is less than the spouse’s actual income, a court should have evidence that the spouse’s higher income is truly ephemeral and not indicative of long-term earning capacity.

¶35      No such evidence is present here. Amy has obtained a full-time salaried position that pays her a steady income of $45,000 per year. There is no indication that this job is only temporarily available to her. The evidence was undisputed that Amy’s earning capacity, moving forward, has increased, as exemplified by her new job; indeed, she testified that she has “the ability to earn at least $3,750 a month” at that job, and that she would be able to “do that moving forward.” The district court’s observation that Amy had not “obtained extra education” in an effort to grow her earning capacity is true as far as it goes. But even in the absence of any extra education or training, a spouse’s earning capacity can rise, and a spouse’s ability to obtain and maintain a salaried job is an extremely strong piece of evidence so indicating.

¶36      We certainly take the court’s point that the reason Amy felt compelled to find additional employment was because Jacob made the decision to quit his job and pay her less in alimony. In the court’s view, Jacob’s decision “forc[ed]” Amy “to find additional employment.” We take no issue with the court’s observation that the law should not incentivize payor spouses to become voluntarily underemployed. But we do not think the law contains any such incentive; indeed, the customary (and presumably adequate) remedy for such behavior is for the court— where appropriate, and as the court did here—to find the payor spouse underemployed and impute to that spouse an income commensurate with the previous salary.[7]

¶37 Thus, we conclude that the district court erred in its analysis of Amy’s earning capacity. It erroneously determined that Amy’s earning capacity had not changed. And based on this determination, it stopped short of making a specific finding as to what Amy’s new earning capacity was, taking into account her new full-time job and, if appropriate, her part-time side endeavors. See Degao Xu v. Hongguang Zhao, 2018 UT App 189, ¶ 31, 437 P.3d 411 (“When determining an alimony award, it is appropriate and necessary for a trial court to consider all sources of income that were used by the parties during their marriage to meet their self-defined needs, including income from a second job.” (quotation simplified)). The court should remedy these errors on remand, and should complete the calculation regarding Amy’s expenses and earning capacity, thus answering the question Jacob raises, namely, whether Amy has the ability to take care of her own needs through her own income.

¶38      Finally, the court’s analysis regarding Jacob’s ability to provide support was also incomplete, and will require additional analysis in the event the court concludes that Amy is not completely able to pay for all of her reasonable monthly needs. See Vanderzon v. Vanderzon, 2017 UT App 150, ¶ 42, 402 P.3d 219 (“[I]f the court finds that the recipient spouse is not able to meet her own needs, then it should assess whether the payor spouse’s income, after meeting his needs, is sufficient to make up some or all of the shortfall between the recipient spouse’s needs and income.” (quotation simplified)). As already noted, the court imputed to Jacob a monthly income of $8,233, based on a finding of voluntary underemployment, and that determination is not challenged on appeal. But in order to compute Jacob’s ability to provide support to Amy to cover any determined shortfall, the court will need to compute Jacob’s reasonable monthly expenses, see Rehn, 1999 UT App 41, ¶ 10 (“To be sufficient, the findings should also address the obligor’s needs and expenditures, such as housing, payment of debts, and other living expenses.” (quotation simplified)), which the court did not endeavor to do in its order.

¶39      As to whether a shortfall exists, the parties take divergent positions on appeal. Jacob asserts that no shortfall exists, and that Amy is able to pay all of her own reasonable monthly expenses. Amy, for her part, contends that even with her newly increased income she still has “a shortfall of over $1,800.” But Jacob’s alimony obligation ($2,300) apparently exceeds even Amy’s current calculation of her shortfall; under Amy’s computation of expenses, then, Jacob would still be entitled to at least some modification of his alimony obligation. On remand, the district court should run this complete calculation, making specific findings on each of the relevant factors, and should determine the extent to which Jacob’s alimony obligation should be modified.

CONCLUSION

¶40      The district court did not apply the proper legal analysis to Jacob’s petition to modify, and erred when it concluded that Amy’s earning capacity had not changed. We reverse the court’s denial of Jacob’s petition to modify, and remand this case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

 

 

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

[2] Amy does not argue that we should affirm the denial of Jacob’s petition to modify on the basis that the original award was derived from a stipulation, and therefore the district court’s comments about holding Jacob to his stipulation are not directly before this court. But we note, for clarity, that even stipulated alimony awards are subject to modification. See, e.g.Diener v. Diener, 2004 UT App 314, ¶ 5, 98 P.3d 1178 (noting that, while a court “is certainly empowered to consider the circumstances surrounding an existing stipulation when considering a petition to modify . . . , the law was intended to give the courts power to disregard the stipulations or agreements of the parties . . . and enter judgment for such alimony . . . as appears reasonable, and to thereafter modify such judgments when change of circumstances justifies it, regardless of attempts of the parties to control the matter by contract” (quotation simplified)); accord Sill v. Sill, 2007 UT App 173, ¶¶ 12–18, 164 P.3d 415.

[3] At the time Jacob filed his petition to modify, the relevant statute authorized modification of alimony awards when the movant could demonstrate that there had been “a substantial material change in circumstances not foreseeable at the time of the divorce.” Utah Code § 30-3-5(8)(i)(i) (2019) (emphasis added). In 2021, prior to the trial on Jacob’s petition to modify, our legislature amended that statutory provision; under current law, modification is authorized upon a showing that there has been “a substantial material change in circumstances not expressly stated in the divorce decree or in the findings that the court entered at the time of the divorce decree.” Id. § 30-3-5(11)(a) (2022) (emphasis added). In this appeal, the parties have not briefed the question of which version of the statute applies to Jacob’s petition to modify, nor has either side suggested that the outcome of this case turns on these differences in statutory text. Operating on the assumption that Jacob is entitled to application of the version of the statute in effect when he filed his petition, see State v. Clark, 2011 UT 23, ¶ 13, 251 P.3d 829 (stating that “we apply the law as it exists at the time of the event regulated by the law in question,” and that when that event is a motion, “we apply the law as it exists at the time the motion is filed”), we apply the 2019 version of the statute in this appeal, but follow the parties’ lead in presuming this application to have no effect on the outcome of the case.

 

[4] Amy characterizes Jacob’s appellate claims as assertions that the district court’s findings were inadequate, and argues based on this characterization that Jacob—by not asking the court to make more detailed findings—failed to preserve his claims for appellate review. See In re K.F., 2009 UT 4, ¶ 60, 201 P.3d 985 (stating that a party “waives any argument regarding whether the district court’s findings of fact were sufficiently detailed when the [party] fails to challenge the detail, or adequacy, of the findings with the district court” (quotation simplified)). While we acknowledge— as discussed herein—that the court did not make findings on several of the alimony factors, that was due to the court’s error (discussed herein) regarding Amy’s earning capacity, and its concomitant failure to complete the proper legal analysis. Thus, we disagree with Amy’s characterization of Jacob’s claims on appeal, and note that Jacob certainly preserved for our review the general question of whether the district court applied the correct legal analysis to his petition to modify, as well as the more specific question of whether Amy can meet her needs through her own income. Thus, we reject Amy’s assertion that Jacob’s contentions on appeal were not properly preserved for our review.

[5] We note that the court made this determination by looking solely at the change in Jacob’s income. Arguably, the change in Amy’s income would constitute a second basis for a determination that circumstances had changed significantly enough to revisit the appropriateness of the alimony award. Ultimately, however, it does not matter, for purposes of this appeal, which change the district court relied on to determine that a substantial material change had taken place.

[6] Amy argues that the “facts concerning [her] financial needs and conditions are clear from the record,” and on that basis urges us to excuse the court’s failure to make a specific finding. We disagree with the premise of Amy’s argument. At trial, Amy testified that her expenses had stayed the same since May 2018, but there was no 2018 figure to which Amy’s testimony could be compared. Moreover, after 2018, Amy submitted two conflicting financial declarations and, at trial, Jacob’s attorney established that Amy was then living alone rather than with one or more of the parties’ children. We therefore agree with Jacob that the evidence in the record regarding Amy’s expenses was sufficiently conflicting as to be significantly less than “clear.”

[7] Moreover, we do not think it inappropriate, in the abstract, for payee spouses to make an effort to enter the workforce, and thereby pursue a higher standard of living and a greater degree of independence from the payor spouse. We recognize that many spouses who have long been out of the workforce may find it difficult to reenter it, with or without additional education or training; generally speaking, our law does not require payee spouses in that situation to attempt to reenter the workforce in ways incongruous with their employment history. But a spouse who, whether by chance or perseverance, manages to gain a foothold in the workforce after a long absence may very well benefit from the experience; as we see it, our law should encourage self-sustainability and independence. Accordingly, we do not necessarily view—as the district court seemed to—the outcome of Amy’s employment journey to be an unfortunate one.

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