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Thorup v. Thorup – 2024 UT App 93

Thorup v. Thorup – 2024 UT App 93
THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

MONA THORUP, Appellee, v. MARCUS THORUP, Appellant.

Opinion No. 20220583-CA Filed July 5, 2024

Third District Court, Salt Lake Department

The Honorable Amy J. Oliver

Commissioner Joanna Sagers

No. 204906416

Jonathan G. Winn, Attorney for Appellant, Jenna Hatch, 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        In this case, we are asked to consider whether the district court properly allocated—as between a divorcing couple—the equity in the house in which the couple lived during their marriage. In particular, Marcus Thorup challenges the court’s determination that substantial portions of the value of the house, which was originally his separate property, became commingled into the marital estate. We find merit in many of Marcus’s arguments, and therefore reverse the court’s equity allocation order and remand the case for further proceedings.

BACKGROUND

¶2        Marcus and Mona Thorup married in 1986.[1] Eleven years later, in 1997, they moved into a new house (the House) built—at the apparent cost of $445,000—by Marcus’s father’s construction company. For the next seven years, the House was titled in the name of Marcus’s father’s company, and Marcus and Mona lived there rent-free. During some of this time, Marcus and Mona obtained a homeowners insurance policy that listed both of them as “owners” of the House, even though that was not actually the case. And for a year or so around 1997, Mona’s mother lived in a separate apartment on the property, and she paid Marcus and Mona some $13,000 that went toward the costs associated with building the separate apartment.

¶3        In May 2004, Marcus’s father (through his company) “gifted” the House to Marcus “as an inheritance.” Thereafter, title to the House was in Marcus’s name; Mona was never placed on title. In December 2004, Marcus used the House as collateral for a $150,000 loan. Marcus later testified that the proceeds from the loan were not spent on the House but, instead, were spent on marital matters, such as medical bills, credit card bills, some other unspecified “investments,” and a payment on the couple’s “cabin lot.” Over the next ten years, the loan was fully repaid, entirely with marital funds.

¶4        Between 1997 and 2020, Marcus, Mona, and their children lived in and maintained the House. They also made some improvements to the House over that time. For purposes of this dispute, Marcus retained an expert who determined that the out-of-pocket cost of the family’s improvements had been $12,171, and that the family’s maintenance of and improvements to the House “contributed about $20,000 to its current value.”

¶5        In 2020, Mona filed this divorce action and asked (among other things) that the House and all its equity be awarded to her. Marcus responded by filing a counterclaim in which he contended that the House was an “inheritance from his father” and was his “separate property.” This dispute eventually worked its way to trial, and the parties agreed, by written stipulation, to resolve the issue by way of an “informal custody trial” before a domestic relations commissioner, a procedure usually limited to resolution of custody disputes and whose parameters are set forth in rule 4-904 of the Utah Code of Judicial Administration. Under this procedure, the parties agreed to “present[] their case[s]” to the commissioner, under oath, without questioning by attorneys. In addition to providing their own testimony, the parties agreed that they could each “present any documents they want[ed] the [c]ourt to consider” and that, “[a]fter the [c]ourt [had] heard from both parties,” only then would attorneys be allowed “to make legal argument.” In stipulating to this procedure, the parties agreed to “waive the normal question and answer manner of trial” and to “waive the rules of evidence,” and they agreed that “[t]he other party [could] tell the [c]ourt anything he or she feels is relevant.” The parties also waived their right to “challenge any of the documents or testimony that was considered” by the commissioner during the informal trial, and they agreed that “[t]he only issue on appeal [would] be whether the [c]ourt abused its discretion in reaching its findings and conclusions.”

¶6      During the course of the informal trial—which took place over parts of two trial days—the commissioner heard from Marcus and Mona, who testified (largely through proffer by counsel) about the events described above. In addition, the parties by stipulation submitted sworn declarations and other similar documents from other witnesses, which evidence the commissioner accepted and considered. And the parties’ attorneys made extensive arguments, both in written briefs filed prior to the trial and in oral arguments made during the trial.

¶7        Mona took the position that, even if the House was originally Marcus’s separate property, “the separate property converted into marital property during the marriage.” She made two specific arguments in this regard, asserting both (a) that she had contributed to the value of the House through maintenance and improvements, and had thereby acquired an equitable interest in it, and (b) that the House had been commingled into the marital estate. Marcus, on the other hand, took the position that the House was, and always had been, his separate property, and that it had not been commingled into the marital estate. He acknowledged that “Mona may have a contribution claim” regarding the House, but he pointed to evidence indicating that the family’s contributions had increased the value of the House by only $20,000, and he argued that, at most, Mona was therefore entitled to only $10,000 of the House’s total value.

¶8        At the conclusion of the trial, and after hearing the arguments, the commissioner made an oral ruling, determining that much of the House’s value—$150,000 of its original value, plus all of its appreciation—had been commingled into the marital estate. As support for this determination, the commissioner noted that the marital estate had repaid the $150,000 loan that used the House as collateral, and reasoned that the loan indicated “that the family in essence bought that mortgage and paid it back.” The commissioner also relied on the facts that, during the period before Marcus was gifted the House, the parties obtained homeowners insurance indicating that they were both owners of it and that Mona’s mother had paid $13,000 toward “the mother-in-law apartment being enhanced.” And the commissioner found relevant the fact that Mona had been “responsible for maintaining” the House and its “landscaping.” The commissioner also found—by averaging two appraisals—that the House was worth $312,500 in 2004 when it was gifted to Marcus and was worth $765,000 at the time of trial. The commissioner then concluded that Marcus should receive $162,500 ($312,500 minus $150,000) as his separate property, and that the parties would split the remaining $602,500 equally.

¶9        The commissioner’s oral ruling was later encapsulated in written findings of fact and conclusions of law and a decree of divorce, which documents were signed by the assigned district court judge.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶10 Marcus now appeals, and he challenges the specific portions of the commissioner’s ruling that concern allocation of the value of the House. In particular, he takes issue with the commissioner’s determination that much of the House’s value was commingled into the marital estate. And he challenges the finding that the House was worth $312,500 in 2004.

¶11      Mona asserts that, because this case comes to us from an “informal custody trial,” the applicable standard of review is deferential and the scope of appeal is “steep and constricted.” Mona is certainly correct that, when parties agree to resolve their issues through an informal trial, they waive their right to appeal certain evidentiary issues. See Utah R. Jud. Admin. 4-904(b)(7) (stating that parties may not appeal from an informal trial on “grounds that . . . rely upon the Utah Rules of Evidence”). In this case, Marcus and Mona agreed that they would “not be able to challenge any of the documents or testimony that was considered” during the proceeding, and neither party attempts to raise any evidentiary issues on appeal. But Mona is incorrect when she asserts that the appellate standards of review—on the issues that are appealable—are any different in appeals from informal trials than they are in other cases. The court’s ultimate ruling is appealable, see id. (stating that a “final order” from an informal trial “may be appealed on any grounds” other than grounds that “rely upon the Utah Rules of Evidence”), and will be reviewed under the same appellate standards of review that are applicable in appeals from formally tried cases.

¶12      Mona resists this conclusion by pointing to language in the parties’ stipulation stating that “[t]he only issue on appeal will be whether the [c]ourt abused its discretion in reaching its findings and conclusions.” She argues therefrom that all issues in this appeal—regardless of the usual standards of review—must be reviewed for abuse of discretion. We disagree. The form the parties used to encapsulate their stipulation is a form that—in keeping with the usual usage of the informal trial procedure—is designed for custody cases. We thus interpret the form’s reference to the “abuse of discretion” standard as simply indicating that the court’s ultimate ruling regarding custody will be reviewed as per usual: for abuse of discretion. See Lobendahn v. Lobendahn, 2023 UT App 137, ¶ 18, 540 P.3d 727 (“We review custody determinations under an abuse of discretion standard, giving the district court broad discretion to make custody awards.” (quotation simplified)). We do not interpret the form as indicating that—for issues that are appealable—the standards of appellate review are any different in cases coming to us after an informal trial than they are in cases coming to us in the usual manner.

¶13      Now that we have determined that the standards of review in this appeal will be the same as in an appeal from a formally tried case, we must determine what those standards of review are. Marcus contends that both of the court’s determinations that he is here challenging—regarding commingling and the House’s value in 2004—are conclusions of law properly reviewed for correctness. Mona, on the other hand, asserts that these determinations are factual and reviewed for abuse of discretion or clear error. We agree with Mona.

¶14      “[District] courts are in the best position to determine whether property is marital or separate, and we defer to their findings of fact [in this regard] unless clearly erroneous.” Thompson v. Thompson, 2009 UT App 101, ¶ 10, 208 P.3d 539; see also Lindsey v. Lindsey, 2017 UT App 38, ¶ 26, 392 P.3d 968 (“We generally defer to a [district] court’s categorization and equitable distribution of separate property and uphold its determinations in that regard unless a clear and prejudicial abuse of discretion is demonstrated.” (quotation simplified)). Thus, we review a district court’s factual findings in this regard for clear error, and we review for abuse of discretion its ultimate determination of whether a particular item is separate or marital property.

¶15      And this same standard of review also applies to the more specific question of whether the House was commingled into the marital estate. See Dahl v. Dahl, 2015 UT 79, ¶ 143, 459 P.3d 276 (reviewing a commingling ruling for abuse of discretion); Oliekan v. Oliekan, 2006 UT App 405, ¶¶ 18–19, 147 P.3d 464 (same). A court’s determination that a piece of originally separate property has been commingled into the marital estate is just a particular way of determining that the property is marital (rather than separate) property.

¶16      Finally, we also apply a deferential standard of review to Marcus’s challenge to the court’s finding regarding the value of the House in 2004. See Marroquin v. Marroquin, 2019 UT App 38, ¶ 10, 440 P.3d 757 (“We defer to [a] district court’s findings of fact related to property valuation and distribution unless they are clearly erroneous.” (quotation simplified)); see also Rothwell v. Rothwell, 2023 UT App 50, ¶ 33, 531 P.3d 225 (“A district court’s factual determinations are clearly erroneous only if they are in conflict with the clear weight of the evidence, or if this court has a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made.” (quotation simplified)), cert. denied, 537 P.3d 1011 (Utah 2023).

ANALYSIS

¶17 We first discuss Marcus’s challenge to the court’s ruling that much of the House’s value had been commingled into the marital estate. We then turn to Marcus’s challenge to the court’s finding that the House was worth $312,500 in 2004.

I. The House: Separate or Marital Property?

¶18      On the question of whether and to what extent the House constitutes marital property, we begin by discussing what is at issue in this appeal and—notably—what is not at issue in this appeal. Neither party challenges the court’s determination that the House was originally Marcus’s separate property when title was placed in his name in 2004. The court awarded Marcus $162,500, intended to represent the original value of the House in 2004, less the later loan amount. The basis for this award, as we understand it, was the commissioner’s (at least implicit) determinations that the House was Marcus’s separate property in 2004 and that Marcus is entitled to keep his separate property to the extent it was not commingled or subject to an equitable contribution made by Mona. No party challenges that portion of the commissioner’s ruling.

¶19 Marcus does challenge two other aspects of the commissioner’s ruling regarding the House’s status as separate or marital property. First, Marcus challenges the commissioner’s determination that $150,000 of the original value of the House— the amount of the December 2004 loan—had been commingled into the marital estate. Second, Marcus takes issue with the determination that the appreciation, over time, in the value of the House became commingled into the marital estate. We discuss these two challenges, in turn, after first setting forth applicable legal principles regarding separate property and commingling.

A. Background Legal Principles

¶20      One of the tasks courts often face in adjudicating divorce cases is making an equitable division of the marital estate between the divorcing spouses. Our supreme court has described this property-division process as follows:

Before a district court distributes marital assets, it must (1) identify the property in dispute and determine whether it is marital or separate property, (2) consider whether there are exceptional circumstances that overcome the general presumption that marital property be divided equally, (3) assign values to each item of marital property so that a distribution strategy can be implemented, and (4) distribute the marital assets consistent with the distribution strategy.

Dahl v. Dahl, 2015 UT 79, ¶ 121, 459 P.3d 276 (quotation simplified). Marcus’s first challenge concerns the first step in this process: assessing whether a particular piece of property—here, the House—is marital property that belongs to the marital estate or is instead separate property that belongs to him alone.

¶21 “Marital property ordinarily includes all property acquired during [the] marriage, whenever obtained and from whatever source derived.” Lindsey v. Lindsey, 2017 UT App 38, ¶ 31, 392 P.3d 968 (quotation simplified). Separate property, on the other hand, includes each spouse’s “premarital property”— that is, property owned by one spouse prior to the marriage—as well as “gifts[] and inheritances” received by a spouse during the marriage. See id.see also Mortensen v. Mortensen, 760 P.2d 304, 308 (Utah 1988) (stating that courts should “generally award property acquired by one spouse by gift and inheritance during the marriage . . . to that spouse”).

¶22      Property determined to be part of the marital estate will be divided equitably—and presumptively equally—between the divorcing spouses. See Lindsey, 2017 UT App 38, ¶ 32 (“The presumption is that marital property will be divided equally . . . .”). But separate property “will not be divided at all,” id., and will “generally” be awarded, “together with any appreciation or enhancement of its value,” to the spouse whose separate property it is, see Mortensen, 760 P.2d at 308; see also Lindsey, 2017 UT App 38, ¶ 32 (“Equity generally requires that each party retain the separate property he or she brought into the marriage, including any appreciation thereof.” (quotation simplified)).

¶23      In some situations, however, property that begins as one spouse’s separate property can lose its separate identity and become part of the marital estate. See Mortensen, 760 P.2d at 308; see also Lindsey, 2017 UT App 38, ¶ 33 (stating that, sometimes, “circumstances warrant an equitable override of the separate-property retention rule”). Our case law has identified three such situations: (1) where “separate property has been commingled” into the marital estate, Lindsey, 2017 UT App 38, ¶ 33; (2) where “the other spouse has by his or her efforts or expense contributed to the enhancement, maintenance, or protection of that property, thereby acquiring an equitable interest in it,” Mortensen, 760 P.2d at 308; and (3) “in extraordinary situations when equity so demands,” Lindsey, 2017 UT App 38, ¶ 33.

¶24 First, with regard to commingling, one rather obvious situation in which commingling occurs is where “one spouse has contributed all or part of the property to the marital estate with the intent that it become joint property.” See Dahl, 2015 UT 79, ¶ 143. But even short of an outright intended contribution, property that started out as separate property may be considered commingled if it becomes inextricably and untraceably intertwined with marital assets. See id. (“[P]remarital property may lose its separate character where the parties have inextricably commingled it with the marital estate . . . .”). Quite important to any commingling analysis, then, is whether the property in question has retained “its separate character.” See id. And this inquiry often turns on whether the property’s separate identity can still be traced or accounted for. See Mortensen, 760 P.2d at 307 (stating that property is commingled when it “completely loses its identity and is not traceable”); see also Pusey v. Pusey, 728 P.2d 117, 119 (Utah 1986) (upholding a district court’s determination that property was commingled because “it could not trace any assets to any source”). Indeed, in one case we phrased the relevant question as whether the property at issue “became so commingled that [it] could not be segregated” from the marital estate, and we determined that it had not, because “the marital and premarital interests were reasonably capable of being determined” and “it was still possible to trace and separately identify” the separate property. Oliekan v. Oliekan, 2006 UT App 405, ¶¶ 20–23, 147 P.3d 464. Thus, separate property will be considered commingled when it has been mixed in with marital assets to such a degree that it is no longer reasonably possible to distinguish between the separate and marital property. On the other hand, if “the marital and premarital interests” are still “reasonably capable” of being traced and identified, then the separate property retains its separate nature and will not be considered commingled. See id.

¶25 Second, “under the contribution exception, a spouse’s separate property may be subject to equitable distribution when the other spouse has by his or her efforts or expense contributed to the enhancement, maintenance, or protection of that property, thereby acquiring an equitable interest in it.” Lindsey, 2017 UT App 38, ¶ 35 (quotation simplified). “This exception may be satisfied when one spouse brings assets into the marriage and the other spouse’s prudent investment of those assets substantially increases their value, or when marital funds are expended or marital debt is incurred for the benefit of one spouse’s separate property.” Id. (quotation simplified). “Under such circumstances, one spouse’s effort or investment may render the other spouse’s underlying asset, its appreciated value, or some portion thereof subject to equitable distribution.” Id.

¶26      Third, there exists a catch-all exception for situations—not covered by either of the first two exceptions—in which “extraordinary circumstances . . . warrant a departure from the presumptive rule.” Henshaw v. Henshaw, 2012 UT App 56, ¶ 15, 271 P.3d 837. This exception is rarely applied; we have stated that the “bar for establishing an extraordinary situation is high, traditionally requiring that invasion of a spouse’s separate property is the only way to achieve equity.” Lindsey, 2017 UT App 38, ¶ 46 (quotation simplified).

¶27 During the informal trial, Mona made arguments under the first two of these exceptions, arguing that—even if the House was Marcus’s separate property in 2004 when it was gifted to him—at least part of the House’s value became part of the marital estate due to commingling or due to the family’s equitable contribution. The commissioner accepted Mona’s commingling argument, and therefore opted not to consider whether, or to what extent, Mona had acquired an equitable interest in the House through contributions.

B. The $150,000 Loan

¶28      The first part of the commissioner’s commingling analysis with which Marcus takes issue is the ruling that $150,000 of the House’s original value became commingled into the marital estate. In December 2004, some seven months after the House was gifted to Marcus, he used the House as collateral for a $150,000 loan, and that loan was fully repaid, over the next ten years, with marital funds. The commissioner determined that, given these facts, “the marital estate paid for that portion of the [H]ouse directly by paying off the mortgage,” and ruled that the amount of the House’s original value collateralized by the loan ($150,000) was marital property rather than Marcus’s separate property.

¶29 We acknowledge the facial appeal of the commissioner’s ruling: the fact that the marital estate paid the loan back certainly makes it look like the estate might have acquired an interest in the House. But our supreme court has made clear that a separate asset does not necessarily become marital property simply because a marital estate pays back a loan drawn from that asset. See Dahl v. Dahl, 2015 UT 79, ¶¶ 142–145, 459 P.3d 276. At a minimum, more analysis is required in order to reach that conclusion.

¶30 In Dahl, a husband had possessed certain retirement accounts (IRAs) “prior to his marriage” that were his “separate property.” Id. ¶ 142. During the marriage, the husband “withdrew funds from the IRA[s] to pay off a home equity loan secured by the marital home and then replenished the funds using a marital bank account.” Id. The wife contended that, by this action, the husband had “commingled” the IRAs with marital assets and thereby “converted [them] to marital property.” Id. ¶¶ 142, 144.

¶31      Our supreme court rejected the wife’s argument, holding that the husband’s actions did not cause the IRAs to lose “their separate identity.” Id. ¶ 144. In the court’s view, the transaction was “best characterized as a loan from [the husband] to the marital estate, which was in turn repaid with marital funds.” Id. On the facts presented in Dahl, there was “nothing . . . suggesting that [the husband] intended to commingle his IRA funds with the marital estate.” Id. And the court held that the IRAs “did not become so inextricably commingled into the marital estate that the district court was incapable of tracing [them].” Id. (quotation simplified). In summary, the court noted that the IRAs did not lose their “separate identity simply because [the husband] made a loan from [the IRAs] to pay off a home equity loan.” Id. ¶ 145.

¶32 The lesson of Dahl, as relevant here, is that when one spouse uses his or her separate property to facilitate a loan to the marital estate, the proceeds from that loan are used to benefit the marital estate, and the marital estate pays the loan back with marital funds, the separate property used to facilitate the loan does not, simply by virtue of the loan, become commingled into the marital estate.

¶33 Marcus asserts that Dahl is materially indistinguishable from this case. As he sees it, he facilitated a loan to the marital estate using his own separate property—the House—as collateral, and the marital estate was obligated to pay that loan back just like it would have needed to pay off a loan collateralized in any other way. He asserts that—just like the transaction in Dahl—nothing about this transaction indicates any intent on his part to commingle the House with the marital estate. And he notes— correctly—that this loan did not render a factfinder incapable of tracing his separate property. We find Marcus’s arguments at least potentially persuasive, and we note that Mona (in her appellate brief) did not cite Dahl and made no effort to rebut Marcus’s argument that Dahl is controlling here.

¶34      We agree with Marcus that the commissioner’s analysis is at odds with Dahl.[2] The commissioner’s analysis on this point was quite brief, and simply assumed that, because the marital estate repaid the $150,000 loan amount, it had “paid for that portion of the [H]ouse directly.” As noted, it does not necessarily follow, simply from the fact that the marital estate repaid the loan, that the asset that facilitated the loan—here, the House—became commingled into the marital estate. See id. ¶ 144.

¶35 The question of whether repayment of the loan by the marital estate resulted in commingling turns on whether the proceeds of the loan were used for marital-estate purposes unrelated to the House or were, instead, used to increase the value of the House. If the proceeds were used—as they were in Dahl— entirely for marital-estate purposes unrelated to the asset leveraged for the loan, then Marcus is correct that the situation here would be materially indistinguishable from Dahl, and the transaction would be “best characterized as a loan . . . to the marital estate” facilitated by Marcus’s separate property. See id. On the other hand, if the loan proceeds were used to improve the House, the marital estate’s repayment of that loan might accurately be said to have resulted in the marital estate “[paying] for that portion of the [H]ouse directly,” a situation that might support a determination that commingling (or, alternatively, acquisition of an equitable interest) had occurred.

¶36      On the question of what the loan proceeds were used for, the commissioner made no findings. Marcus testified that the loan proceeds were spent not on the House (or on any other personal endeavors of Marcus) but on marital things, such as medical and credit card bills, other unspecified “investments,” and a payment on the couple’s “cabin lot.” But neither in the oral ruling made at the conclusion of the informal trial nor in the written ruling issued thereafter did the commissioner make any specific findings about either the credibility of Marcus’s testimony on this point or about whether any of the loan proceeds were spent on the House.[3]

¶37 In the end, we view the commissioner’s analysis as incomplete. Because the reason the commissioner gave for determining that the loan amount had been commingled does not necessarily support that conclusion, and because the commissioner did not make certain factual findings necessary to complete the analysis, we must reverse the commissioner’s determination that $150,000 of the House’s original value was commingled into the marital estate, and we remand the matter to the district court for further proceedings on this point.

C. The House’s Appreciation

¶38 The second part of the commissioner’s commingling analysis with which Marcus takes issue is the ruling that all of the House’s appreciation since 2004—an amount the commissioner determined to be $452,500 ($765,000 minus $312,500)—was no longer Marcus’s separate property because it had been commingled into the marital estate. As support for this ruling, the commissioner cited (a) the homeowners insurance policies acquired before Marcus owned the House that listed both Marcus and Mona as “owners,” (b) Mona’s testimony that she was responsible for maintaining the House and its landscaping, and (c) the fact that Mona’s mother had paid $13,000 toward “a mother-in-law apartment” in the late 1990s. Even applying a deferential standard of review, we agree with Marcus that the commissioner committed an abuse of discretion in so ruling.

¶39 We begin our analysis by repeating the long-established legal principle that, ordinarily, appreciation on separate property belongs not to the marital estate but, rather, to the spouse whose separate property it is. Mortensen v. Mortensen, 760 P.2d 304, 308 (Utah 1988) (stating that separate property, “together with any appreciation or enhancement of its value,” belongs to the separate spouse); Keyes v. Keyes, 2015 UT App 114, ¶ 28, 351 P.3d 90 (“In most cases, equity requires that each party retain the separate property that he or she brought into the marriage, including any appreciation of the separate property.” (quotation simplified)); Thompson v. Thompson, 2009 UT App 101, ¶ 12, 208 P.3d 539 (“An award of separate property includes its appreciation during the marriage.”); Burt v. Burt, 799 P.2d 1166, 1169 (Utah Ct. App. 1990) (“Inherited or donated property, as well as its appreciated value, is generally regarded as separate from the marital estate and hence is left with the receiving spouse in a property division incident to divorce.”).

¶40      This general rule—that a spouse should receive his or her separate property, together with any appreciation—may be varied on the basis of commingling, but only when it is clear that the spouse intended to contribute the property to the marital estate, or when it becomes functionally impossible to trace or account for the separateness of the spouse’s property. See Oliekan v. Oliekan, 2006 UT App 405, ¶¶ 20–23, 147 P.3d 464 (stating that the question in commingling cases is whether the property “became so commingled that [it] could not be segregated” from the marital estate, and determining that commingling was not present because “the marital and premarital interests were reasonably capable of being determined” and because “it was still possible to trace and separately identify” the separate property); see also Dahl, 2015 UT 79, ¶ 143 (“[P]remarital property may lose its separate character where the parties have inextricably commingled it with the marital estate, or where one spouse has contributed all or part of the property to the marital estate with the intent that it become joint property.”).

¶41 Commingling occurs most commonly with money, because dollars are fungible and, when separate money is deposited into the same account as marital money, it can become difficult to tell which dollar is which. See, e.g.Pusey v. Pusey, 728 P.2d 117, 119 (Utah 1986) (affirming a district court’s finding “that throughout the marriage [the husband] had commingled corporate and personal funds so that [the court] could not trace any assets to any source”). Yet even money will not be considered commingled if the separate property funds can be identified and traced. See, e.g.Oliekan, 2006 UT App 405, ¶ 23 (affirming a district court’s determination that no commingling had occurred because “it was still possible to trace and separately identify the funds” at issue); accord Arnason v. Arnason, 2002 UT App 243U, para. 2.

¶42 Real property is easier to trace than money, and it is therefore perhaps not as common for commingling to occur with regard to real property as it is with money. Cf. Dahl, 2015 UT 79, ¶ 146 (“A spouse can maintain the separate identity of premarital [real] property by utilizing section 1031 exchanges to avoid commingling separate property with marital property.”). But it is at least conceivable that separate real property—or at least the proceeds therefrom—can become commingled into a marital estate. For instance, in one case we concluded that, where proceeds from the sale of separate property (including real property) had been “deposit[ed] into the parties’ joint accounts” and thereby lost its separate identity, commingling had occurred. Dunn v. Dunn, 802 P.2d 1314, 1321 (Utah Ct. App. 1990). And in other cases, we have observed that, where significant or substantial marital assets are invested to support, maintain, or improve separate real property, commingling may have taken place. Keiter v. Keiter, 2010 UT App 169, ¶ 23, 235 P.3d 782 (stating that “expending marital funds toward otherwise separate real estate supports a determination of commingling that may convert separate property into marital property”); Schaumberg v. Schaumberg, 875 P.2d 598, 603 (Utah Ct. App. 1994) (affirming a district court’s determination that commingling of the “appreciated portion” of a husband’s separate real property had occurred where the parties had “used substantial marital funds to maintain and augment” the property).

¶43 In this case, however, the House was never sold, and therefore no proceeds from any sale were ever deposited into a marital account. And there was no evidence presented that the parties invested significant sums of marital money into supporting, maintaining, or otherwise improving the House. Here, tracing the separate nature of the House, including the appreciation in its value, is fairly obvious, and we see no evidence indicating that the House ever lost its separate identity.

¶44 In particular, we find the evidence upon which the commissioner relied unpersuasive and entirely unsupportive of a determination that all appreciation of the House after 2004 was commingled into the marital estate. Two of the three items upon which the commissioner relied—that both Marcus and Mona appeared as “owners” on homeowners insurance policies, and that Mona’s mother paid $13,000—occurred prior to 2004, before Marcus even owned the House. These items therefore have extremely limited value in the analysis, and they simply do not point to any commingling of post-2004 appreciation.

¶45      The other item upon which the commissioner relied—the fact that Mona had been involved in some of the maintenance of the House, especially the landscaping—is likewise insufficient to support a determination that the entirety of the House’s appreciation was commingled into the marital estate. As noted above, the investment of substantial marital assets into separate real property can support a determination that the separate property was commingled. See Keiter, 2010 UT App 169, ¶ 23; Schaumberg, 875 P.2d at 603. But here, no such evidence was presented; Mona did not offer evidence of any specific monetary contributions, nor did she attempt to provide many particulars about the nature of her landscaping and other contributions.[4] One spouse’s residence at, and assistance with the day-to-day maintenance of, the other spouse’s separate real property will not usually be enough to render the entirety of that property’s appreciation commingled into the marital estate. Under the circumstances presented here, we conclude that Mona’s rather non-specific contributions to maintenance and landscaping are insufficient to support a determination that the entirety of the House’s appreciation was commingled into the marital estate.

¶46      That is not to say that such contributions are irrelevant to the ultimate separate-or-marital-property analysis. As noted, Mona also made an argument, at the informal trial, that she had made an equitable contribution to the value of the House that should be recognized under the contribution exception to the general rule that separate property goes to the individual spouse. While Mona’s evidence is insufficient to support a determination that the entirety of the House’s appreciation was commingled into the marital estate, such evidence might be sufficient to support a determination that Mona made an equitable contribution to the House that ought to be quantified and recognized in the distribution of marital property.

¶47 Accordingly, we conclude that the commissioner committed an abuse of discretion in determining, on this record, that the entirety of the House’s appreciation had been commingled into the marital estate, and we therefore reverse that determination. We remand the matter, however, so that the district court might have an opportunity to consider Mona’s alternative argument—not reached by the commissioner—that she made an equitable contribution to the value of the House that should be considered in the distribution of the marital estate.

II. The House’s 2004 Value

¶48      Marcus also challenges the court’s finding that the value of the House, when it was gifted to him in 2004, was $312,500. Marcus argues that the House’s value was actually $445,000—the amount his father’s construction company spent to build it. On this record, however, we conclude that the court’s finding is supported by competent evidence and that the commissioner therefore did not commit clear error in making it.

¶49      When a court is asked to value real property, it may do so in any one of several ways, depending on the evidence presented. Certainly, one way to value a house is to assess how much it cost to build it. See Carter v. Sorenson, 2004 UT 33, ¶ 2, 90 P.3d 637 (referring to the “traditional appraisal methods” as “the cost approach, the income approach, and the sales comparison approach”). But more commonly, appraisers value residential real property using a “comparable sales” approach, in which they attempt to “locate and analyze sales of ‘comparable’ properties . . . between a willing buyer and a willing seller in which the sale price is determined by market forces.” See Utah Dep’t of Transp. v. Admiral Beverage Corp., 2011 UT 62, ¶ 40, 275 P.3d 208.

¶50      During the informal trial, Marcus presented evidence that his father’s construction company spent $445,000 to build the House in the 1990s. Had that been the only evidence presented at trial, Marcus may have a credible argument that the court committed clear error by not adopting that methodology in assessing the House’s 2004 value. But that was not the only evidence presented at trial. Marcus also presented an appraisal of the House, as of May 2004, that applied a comparable-sales methodology; the first draft of that appraisal valued the House at $285,000, and an “amended draft” valued it at $340,000. The court found, based on this evidence, that the best indication of the value of the House in 2004 was an “averag[e] of the two values proposed by” Marcus’s appraiser, which is $312,500.

¶51      This finding is amply supported by evidence in the record and is therefore not clearly erroneous. See Kimball v. Kimball, 2009 UT App 233, ¶ 20 n.5, 217 P.3d 733 (“The pill that is hard for many appellants to swallow is that if there is evidence supporting a finding, absent a legal problem—a fatal flaw—with that evidence, the finding will stand, even though there is ample record evidence that would have supported contrary findings.” (quotation simplified)). We therefore reject Marcus’s challenge to the court’s finding that the House was worth $312,500 when it was gifted to him in 2004.

CONCLUSION

¶52      We reject Marcus’s challenge to the court’s factual finding regarding the value of the House in 2004. But we sustain Marcus’s challenges to the court’s commingling determination, and specifically to its rulings that (a) $150,000 of the House’s original value was commingled and (b) the entirety of the House’s post-2004 appreciation was commingled. We therefore reverse the court’s equity allocation order, and we remand the case to the district court for further proceedings, consistent with this opinion, regarding the use to which the parties put the 2004 loan proceeds and regarding Mona’s claim to an equitable interest in the appreciation of the House under the contribution exception.

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


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

[2] In fairness to the commissioner, Marcus did not cite Dahl during the informal trial. But this does not present a preservation problem, because litigants are permitted to cite new authority for the first time on appeal to support arguments regarding issues properly raised below. See Patterson v. Patterson, 2011 UT 68, ¶ 18, 266 P.3d 828 (“[W]e routinely consider new authority relevant to issues that have properly been preserved . . . .”). In this instance, the parties raised the relevant issue at the informal trial—whether $150,000 of the House’s original value was commingled into the marital estate—and are therefore entitled to bring new authority to our attention on appeal bearing on this preserved issue.

[3] At the conclusion of the informal trial, the commissioner stated that some of the loan proceeds were “used to pay some medical bills for” Mona. It is unclear from the record whether this statement constituted an oral factual finding or merely a musing on the part of the commissioner, and no such finding appears in the written ruling. In any event, we are unaware of any statements or findings, written or oral, made by the commissioner about whether any of the loan proceeds were used on the House.

[4] The best evidence of Mona’s contributions appears to be found in her answer to a written interrogatory from Marcus that asked her to “detail” all her contributions to the House. In that answer, she stated generally that she “maintained and upkept” the House and “was in charge of maintaining the yard.” She also described other remodeling and maintenance activities, such as helping to repaint, retile, and redecorate various rooms in the House. But she made no effort—whether in that interrogatory response or otherwise—to quantify her efforts in dollars, and she did not hire an appraisal expert to assess any increase in value to the House that her efforts might have brought about or to rebut Marcus’s appraisal expert’s conclusions in that regard.

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In re Adoption of P.P. – 2024 UT App 62 – ineffective assistance of counsel – adoption

In re Adoption of P.P. – 2024 UT App 62

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

IN THE MATTER OF THE ADOPTION OF P.P., A PERSON UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

B.P., Appellant, v. B.M. AND J.M., Appellees.

Opinion No. 20230486-CA Filed May 2, 2024 Third District Court, Salt Lake Department

The Honorable Kara PettitNo. 222900323

Sheleigh Harding, Attorney for Appellant Sierra D. Hansen, Attorney for Appellees

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

OLIVER, Judge:

¶1 B.P. (Father) appeals from a district court order terminating his parental rights to his daughter, Phoebe.[1] Father’s only claim on appeal is that his counsel (Counsel) provided ineffective assistance for failing to call certain witnesses to testify at trial. But because Father’s claim hinges on his request for a remand to develop the record, and because we deny the request, we affirm the district court’s order.

BACKGROUND

¶2        In 2014, two weeks after Phoebe was born, Father was arrested on a parole violation, and he remained incarcerated on various charges for “a big portion of her life.” Phoebe lived with her mother (Mother) until the summer of 2021, when Mother became seriously ill and was hospitalized with rapidly declining health. Two weeks before Mother’s eventual death, Father was released from prison.

¶3        Phoebe spent the day before Mother’s death with Father. But, on Mother’s wishes, B.M., Phoebe’s maternal grandmother (Grandmother), and Grandmother’s husband, J.M. (Step-Grandfather; collectively, Grandparents), retrieved her from Father.[2] The next day was an “extremely traumatic day,” as it became clear that Mother was dying. Father appeared at the hospital demanding to take Phoebe with him. His behavior was “intense,” “erratic,” and “scary” enough that security removed him from the hospital. That night, at a vigil in Mother’s honor, Grandmother refused to let Phoebe leave with Father, so he called the police to assist him. But the police declined to physically place Phoebe with Father.

¶4        Phoebe then went to live with Grandparents. Grandmother initiated guardianship proceedings and Father filed an objection. The case was referred to mediation, which was unsuccessful because Father failed to appear. The court found that Father’s failure to appear “amount[ed] to a default” and granted Grandmother permanent guardianship. The court noted Father’s parental rights had not been severed and recommended he seek services and parent-time, but because he was eventually incarcerated again, Father did not do so.

¶5        In August 2022, Grandparents petitioned to adopt Phoebe. The district court held a one-day bench trial. At trial, Step-Grandfather testified that Phoebe was “scared” of Father because of his behavior and had expressed fear that Father would try to take her. Step-Grandfather testified that Phoebe felt abandoned by Father, as he had never written her letters, called her on her birthday, or sent her gifts. Step-Grandfather stated he had a “very minimal” relationship with Father and believed “it wouldn’t be a safe environment” for Phoebe to live with him. Mother’s friend (Friend), who had been at the hospital on the day of Mother’s death, testified about Father’s “scary” and “intense” behavior in trying to take Phoebe with him against Mother’s wishes. Grandmother testified that Father called Phoebe only one time since Mother’s death and had not followed the court’s guardianship order to establish a relationship with her. Grandmother stated that she could not work well with Father because she did not have a relationship with him.

¶6        Although Father’s initial disclosures included a list of ten potential witnesses, Counsel called only one witness at trial— Father himself. Father testified that he had regular communication with Mother while Mother was still alive and he would talk to Phoebe whenever he could, but he admitted that these phone calls mostly consisted of his talking to Mother. He admitted he had been incarcerated for a “big portion” of Phoebe’s life and had not attended the guardianship proceedings, but he noted that Phoebe had spent “four or five days” with him before Mother died. And he testified that he had tried to contact Phoebe after Mother’s death, but Grandparents had given him a “bogus number” and he could not “get ahold of them.” He stated that Grandparents had a “vendetta” against him.

¶7        The court then issued its findings of fact and conclusions of law. First, the court found clear and convincing evidence of statutory grounds for termination, concluding Father had both abandoned Phoebe and made only token efforts to support or communicate with her. With respect to abandonment, the court found prima facie evidence that Father had no communication with Phoebe since shortly after Mother’s death, he had defaulted in the guardianship proceeding, and Grandparents were not aware of his location until they saw a news report that he had been arrested. And with respect to token efforts, the court found Father had, in fact, made no effort to support Phoebe “financially or emotionally”; he was incarcerated for “substantial periods” of her life and had made no attempt to communicate with her while incarcerated; and though he had “some communication with [Phoebe] while out of jail, these time periods were short.” The court also found that Father had “never provided a home” for Phoebe and had never lived with her.

¶8        The court then turned to what it called the “crux of this case”—whether termination was in Phoebe’s best interest. The court found the presumption of preserving “natural familial bonds” had been rebutted in this case because Father had never lived with Phoebe, did not fulfill “the normal parental obligations/responsibilities,” and “never had a positive, nurturing parent-child relationship” with her. The court also considered whether a permanent guardianship could equally protect and benefit Phoebe, but it found that Father and Grandparents “have a terrible relationship” and “will never be able to work together to ensure [Phoebe] has a healthy relationship” with both parties. And though Phoebe had some interaction with Father’s extended family, the court found this was “not substantial enough to outweigh the harms” to Phoebe resulting from a lack of permanence in her guardianship arrangement. The court also found that Father was unable to act in Phoebe’s best interest, demonstrated by his calling the police to remove Phoebe from Mother’s vigil, which was “highly traumatic” for Phoebe. The court found it likely that, should the guardianship remain intact, Phoebe would have to endure the fear of recurring traumatic events. Thus, the court found it strictly necessary from Phoebe’s point of view to terminate Father’s parental rights.

¶9        Father immediately filed a notice of appeal from the termination order. In the meantime, the court granted Grandparents’ petition for adoption. Father then filed a notice of appeal from the adoption decree. On the parties’ stipulation, this court then consolidated the two appeals. After his appeals were consolidated, Father filed a motion requesting a stay of briefing, alleging Counsel provided ineffective assistance and requesting a remand to the district court to develop the record in support of his claim. Father noted that because this was a civil case, remand under rule 23B of the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure was not available but urged that remand could nonetheless be granted under one of several other “procedural pathways.”

¶10 In support of his request for remand, Father attached declarations from six potential witnesses—his mother, sister, grandmother, uncle, aunt, and wife. Each declaration offered a variation on the same basic facts: Father’s extended family members were “heavily involved” with Phoebe’s and Mother’s lives, Father and Phoebe had “weekly” phone contact, Father and Phoebe “lived” together with Father’s mother and sister before Mother’s death, Father was a “regular dad” and had established a “loving and affectionate . . . father/daughter relationship” with Phoebe, and Grandparents were “difficult to contact” or had “completely blocked” Father’s extended family from contacting Phoebe after Mother’s death. Father argued this testimony would have changed the outcome of his trial—rendering Counsel’s failure to call the witnesses ineffective assistance. We denied the stay and deferred ruling on Father’s request for remand “pending briefing and plenary consideration of the appeal.”

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶11      Father’s only argument on appeal is that Counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to call several witnesses during the termination proceeding. “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).

ANALYSIS

¶12 Father argues Counsel provided ineffective assistance in failing to call several witnesses at the termination trial. To prevail on his claim, Father “must demonstrate both (1) that [Counsel’s] performance was deficient and (2) that [he] suffered prejudice as a result.” In re D.R., 2022 UT App 124, ¶ 16, 521 P.3d 545 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 525 P.3d 1264 (Utah 2023). But because the record does not support his claim, Father requests a remand for the district court to hold an evidentiary hearing regarding Counsel’s alleged ineffective assistance.

¶13      Father recognizes that remand here is not possible under rule 23B of the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure. See Utah R. App. P. 23B(a) (“A party to an appeal in a criminal case may move the court to remand the case to the trial court for entry of findings of fact, necessary for the appellate court’s determination of a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel.” (emphasis added)). But he urges we may nonetheless grant a remand patterned after two of our prior decisions, In re S.H., 2007 UT App 8, 155 P.3d 109, and In re C.M.R., 2020 UT App 114, 473 P.3d 184. In both cases we determined that—in the context of child welfare proceedings in juvenile court—parents who provided extra-record evidence alleging ineffective assistance on appeal were entitled to a remand similar to that provided by rule 23B to develop the record in support of their claims. See In re C.M.R., 2020 UT App 114, ¶¶ 31–32; In re S.H., 2007 UT App 8, ¶¶ 14–16. As this type of remand is “analogous to remand under rule 23B of the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure, it requires a nonspeculative allegation of facts, not fully appearing in the record on appeal, which, if true, could support a determination that counsel was ineffective.” In re D.R., 2022 UT App 124, ¶ 18 (cleaned up).

¶14      This procedure has not yet been applied in the context of private termination petitions filed in district court.[3] But we decline Father’s invitation to do so here because even were we to grant him such a remand, he would be unable to show that Counsel was ineffective. In order to terminate Father’s parental rights, the district court was required to find that (1) one or more of the statutory grounds for termination were present and (2) termination was in Phoebe’s best interest. See In re adoption of J.E., 2024 UT App 34, ¶ 10. The court made detailed findings on each step and, even accepting the facts asserted in the carefully worded witness declarations as true, they do not undermine these findings.

¶15      Several of the declarations asserted that Father had weekly phone contact with Phoebe before Mother’s death. But this does not contradict the court’s finding that Father’s last contact with Phoebe was shortly after Mother’s death and nearly two years prior to the trial. Several of the declarations stated that Phoebe had “lived” with Father before Mother’s death. But Father himself testified he had only spent “four or five days” with Phoebe during that time. And, regardless, this testimony would not have altered the court’s finding that Father had “never provided a home for [Phoebe], much less a permanent home, and has never lived with” her.

¶16 All six witness declarations suggested that Father was a “regular dad,” had a “loving and affectionate . . . father/daughter relationship” with Phoebe, and was attentive to her needs. But the court determined that there was strong evidence that Father “lacks the ability to act in [Phoebe’s] best interest” because, after never having custody of her, “he called the police to physically remove her from” the vigil on the day of Mother’s death, which was “highly traumatic” for her. Further, the court found that Father knowingly allowed guardianship to be granted to Grandparents and had never followed the court’s orders to develop a relationship with Phoebe pursuant to the guardianship order. Testimony about positive interactions between Phoebe and Father—observable for at most five days—does not dispel the court’s finding that Father had “never had a positive, nurturing parent-child relationship” with her.

¶17      Several of the potential witnesses stated that Grandparents had “abducted” Phoebe from Father. And several alleged that Grandparents had either been difficult to reach or had “completely blocked” them from contacting Phoebe. But the court found that Phoebe had interacted with Father’s extended family under the guardianship order, though this contact was “not substantial enough to outweigh the harms to” Phoebe from a lack of permanency. And, if anything, these apparent conflicts between Grandparents and Father’s family only seem to add support to the court’s finding that Grandparents and Father had a “terrible relationship” and would be unable to work together to facilitate a healthy relationship between all parties.

¶18 We fail to see how this testimony from Father’s family members would have changed the court’s conclusion that statutory grounds for termination existed and that termination was in Phoebe’s best interest. Thus, even were we to grant a remand to Father, he would be unable to show that Counsel’s failure to call these witnesses prejudiced him. And without a showing of prejudice, his ineffective assistance claim would fail. See In re D.R., 2022 UT App 124, ¶ 16 (noting a parent must show “both (1) that counsel’s performance was deficient and (2) that [the parent] suffered prejudice as a result” (emphasis added) (cleaned up)). Accordingly, we deny Father’s request for remand. Cf. State v. Griffin, 2015 UT 18, ¶ 20, 441 P.3d 1166 (stating that, in the rule 23B context, “[i]t stands to reason that if the defendant could not meet the test for ineffective assistance of counsel, even if his new factual allegations were true, there is no reason to remand the case, and we should deny the motion”).

CONCLUSION

¶19 Father’s appeal presented one issue: whether Counsel provided ineffective assistance. Because this argument is contingent on Father’s request for a remand, and because we deny this request, we affirm the district court’s order in all respects.

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


[1] We employ a pseudonym for the child.

[2] There is some dispute about how much time Phoebe spent with Father before Mother died. Father testified it was “four or five days,” but according to Grandparents, she spent just one day with him.

[3] Given the concern that the “rule 23B-like remand” procedure created in In re S.H., 2007 UT App 8, 155 P.3d 109, may conflict with the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure, see In re C.M.R., 2020 UT App 114, ¶¶ 36–37, 473 P.3d 184 (Harris, J., concurring), and because it has been applied only in the child welfare context in juvenile court, we urge the Supreme Court’s Advisory Committee on the Rules of Appellate Procedure to consider lending formality to the procedure and to provide for its application to district court private termination proceedings as well as to juvenile court termination proceedings.

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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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2024 UT App 43 – domestic violence appeal

State v. Arce – 2024 UT App 43

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, Appellee, v. JOSE FELIPE ARCE, Appellant.

Opinion No. 20220006-CA Filed March 28, 2024

First District Court, Logan Department The Honorable Brandon J. MaynardNo. 191100762

Freyja Johnson, Emily Adams, and Hannah Leavitt-Howell, Attorneys for Appellant, assisted by law student Ryder Seamons[1]

Sean D. Reyes and Marian Decker, Attorneys for Appellee, assisted by law student Rebecca Barker

JUDGE DAVID N. MORTENSEN authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES RYAN D. TENNEY and AMY J. OLIVER concurred.

MORTENSEN, Judge:

¶1        A domestic dispute ensued on an emotional evening after Jose Felipe Arce had returned home from attending the birth of a child he believed he fathered as a result of an affair. Arce does not dispute that an argument occurred. He denies, however, that he hit or choked his spouse (Wife). This appeal centers on Wife’s statements near the time of the event and her complete recantation at trial. Arce claims numerous errors, including that the trial court should not have allowed the State to compel Wife to invoke her Fifth Amendment right 47 times in front of the jury, a deputy should not have been allowed to vouch for a particular version of Wife’s testimony, the State and a witness should not have used the word “victim” 29 times, and these errors cumulatively prejudiced him. Although we do not endorse the approach taken by the trial court or the parties, we affirm the convictions.

BACKGROUND

¶2           The State charged Arce with, and the jury convicted him on, one count of aggravated assault (domestic violence) and five counts of domestic violence in the presence of a child. At the center of this appeal are the different versions of events as related by Wife. We recite the facts in a light most favorable to the jury’s verdict. See State v. Holgate, 2000 UT 74, ¶ 2, 10 P.3d 346.

Alleged Assault and Wife’s Statements in the Subsequent Hours and

Days

¶3           In July 2019, Arce visited the hospital for the birth of a child whom both Arce and Wife believed he may have fathered with another woman. Wife described the day as an emotional one filled with tears. When Arce returned from the hospital, the couple decided to take their kids swimming at a hot springs resort. The couple talked about the difficult situation on the drive there, with more crying from Wife. On the drive home, their conversation escalated into an argument while the children slept in the back seat. After Arce asked for forgiveness, Wife said she had forgiven him for “many things” but “this was just too much.” Arce pulled the car over, and Wife said that the two “couldn’t be together anymore.” Wife later told police and neighbors that after pulling over, Arce hit and choked her.

¶4          Arce then drove the family home, and he told the children to go inside. Wife later told police and neighbors that, as they continued arguing, Arce hit her, threw her to the ground, kicked her, pulled her hair, tried to choke her, and threatened to hit her with a beer bottle.

¶5          At this point, Wife ran to her neighbor’s (Neighbor) home. Neighbor could hear Arce yelling as she opened the door to find Wife out of breath, shaking, and crying. Wife was in a t-shirt with no pants. Neighbor and her husband (Neighbor’s Husband) believed Wife was seeking safety. Wife told them Arce was trying to hurt her. She also told the couple she wanted Arce out of the house. She then recounted the earlier fight that had happened during the drive home, including that after arriving home Arce had hit and kicked her and tried to choke her. Neighbor did not see any injuries on Wife. Neighbor’s Husband said that he saw “a red mark kind of on her collarbone on her left side.”

¶6          Neighbor’s Husband, a deputy sheriff, called police, who arrived fewer than ten minutes later. The responding officer (Deputy) interviewed Wife at Neighbor’s home that evening. Deputy testified that Wife appeared “extremely distraught,” “frantic,” and “emotionally distressed” and that she continuously wiped her eyes and nose from crying. During the interview, Wife told Deputy that Arce both struck and choked her. She also recounted that after returning home, Arce dragged her out of the car by her hair, threatened to hit her with a beer bottle, choked her, and slapped her. Deputy observed that the area under Wife’s right eye was “somewhat swollen” and that she had “some sort of reddish mark” on her collarbone that looked like it was beginning to bruise.

¶7          By that time, Arce had left the scene. Wife signed a request for a no-contact order and, with her children, went to emergency housing that the Deputy arranged. Wife also completed a lethality assessment. In the assessment, Wife indicated that she thought Arce might try to kill her. In an additional comment section, Wife noted that “having [Arce] at the home was a concern of safety for her.”

¶8          The following day, a police officer (Detective) interviewed Wife at her work. Wife again recounted the events, including Arce choking her, slapping her, grabbing her hair, throwing her to the ground, and threatening to hit her with a bottle. Wife also filled out a written statement during the interview with Detective recounting these same allegations. The top of the statement gave the following warning, “You are notified that the statements you are about to make may be presented to a magistrate or a judge in lieu of your sworn testimony at a preliminary examination. Any false statements you make and that you do not believe to be true may subject you to criminal punishment as a Class A Misdemeanor.” Wife signed the statement.

¶9          That same night, Deputy interviewed Arce by phone. Arce explained that he and Wife had taken the children to the resort “to have a good day” but Wife kept bringing up the infidelity and birth of the baby, so the two argued. Arce said that during the argument, he went through Wife’s phone, saw messages from another man, and asked, “[W]ho the f*** is this person?” When asked if he hit or choked Wife, Arce responded that he did not recall. Arce did, however, say that there was a miscommunication between them and that there was “some pushing and shoving.”

Wife’s Recantation and Testimony at Trial

¶10 The same day that Detective interviewed Wife, Deputy listened to a voicemail from Wife asking that all charges be dropped. When Wife later spoke with Deputy on the phone, she again asked that the charges be dropped. Wife explained that Arce “had a good job and that she needed help with the five children.”

¶11 At trial, Wife testified consistently with the prior statements she had made to law enforcement and her neighbors, however, she insisted that she made up the allegations of domestic violence against Arce. From the stand, Wife said, “This is why I wanted to just come up here because I hear all the charges and it’s really very selfish of me, you know. So this is why I’m sitting up here and I’m saying what really happened.” Wife testified that all the events occurred as she explained to law enforcement and the neighbors but that Arce never hit or choked her. Wife testified that after telling Arce they could not be together anymore, she told him to take her home, and he did. Wife testified that she opened the car door and sat on the edge of her seat while they continued arguing and yelling at one another but no physical altercation occurred.

¶12 When the State began asking her questions about police arriving the night of the incident and what she told them, the court stopped the questioning and excused the jury. The court explained to Wife that she had a right not to incriminate herself and that doing so would open her up to prosecution. The State asserted several times, “We won’t charge her.” The State also served Wife with a written notice of use immunity for purposes of the trial.[2] And the court provided her with the opportunity to speak with an attorney. Subsequently, Wife was appointed counsel.

¶13 Following a recess, the State asked that Wife be declared a hostile witness, allowing it to ask her leading questions, which the court granted. After speaking with his client, Wife’s counsel advised the court that Wife would be exercising her Fifth Amendment right moving forward. The State argued that the immunity it had offered Wife would protect her and that it was not the State’s intent “to ask the Court to hold [Wife] in this case in contempt” for refusing to testify. Wife’s counsel argued that the notice of use immunity was inadequate to protect her because it expressly did not grant immunity against a future perjury prosecution. The State again asked the court to treat Wife as a hostile witness. Arce’s counsel objected, arguing that the State knew weeks in advance that Wife might invoke her Fifth Amendment right. The State argued that knowing what Wife would do for weeks in advance was “a little bit of a stretch” and that its grant of use immunity was sufficient.

¶14        During further argument over whether to allow the State to treat Wife as a hostile witness, the State again said it would not seek to have the court hold her in contempt. The court ultimately granted the State’s request and received affirmation again from the State that it would not ask the court to hold Wife in contempt if she refused to testify.

¶15        The next day, the State retracted its written immunity offer and explained that it planned to ask Wife questions to which she could “choose to invoke the Fifth or to respond.” Wife’s counsel objected, arguing, “[T]he State’s going to try to . . . present their case by asking those questions and hearing the Fifth . . . . [T]hat’s just them trying to testify to the jury by the questions they’re asking.” The court disagreed, explaining that anything the State said was not evidence and that Wife could not make a “blanket” invocation of her Fifth Amendment right.

¶16 When Wife took the stand again, she invoked the Fifth Amendment 47 times in response to the State’s questions.[3] The State’s questions included asking Wife about the same things she had addressed the day before, prior to invoking her constitutional right to silence. Arce’s counsel did not object to or seek to limit the State’s leading questions or Wife’s invocations; neither did he request a mistrial.

Other Testimony at Trial

¶17 During the trial, the State called Neighbor, Neighbor’s Husband, Deputy, and Detective to the stand; each recounted the events and gave consistent testimony of the statements Wife made to them concerning the events during the evening in question— including the physical abuse she allegedly experienced at the hands of Arce.

¶18 During Deputy’s examination, the State asked, “And so ultimately what did your investigation lead you to believe happened that night?” Defense counsel made no objection. Deputy responded, “Based off all my observations and interview, I believe that the victim had been struck and choked and that there was a domestic violence assault that occurred.” The State then asked, “And I just want to emphasize, why is it that you believed that this truly happened?” Defense counsel again made no objection. Deputy answered,

I believe it truly happened given a number of things. Mainly, when I spoke to [Wife], she appeared to be honest and genuine in the emotion that she was describing things with was clearly emotional distress, upset that I’ve seen. And not every case is the same. I’ve seen other people who have been victims of assault act similar, so that’s why I believed it. She appeared to be honest and genuine.

¶19 During Detective’s testimony, the State moved to admit into evidence Wife’s written statement that was given under penalty of perjury, which the court allowed.

¶20 The State also called two expert witnesses. A clinical psychologist testified about patterns of domestic violence and that individuals experiencing abuse frequently stay in the relationship and/or recant their previous stories. And a pediatric nurse practitioner testified about strangulation, including that in over 50% of strangulation cases there are no visible injuries.

¶21 Throughout the trial, the State, Deputy, and Detective referred to Wife as “the victim” 29 times. And the State and its witnesses—primarily the clinical psychologist—used the term “victim” or “victims” generally an additional 45 times. The State also referred to Wife as the “alleged victim,” primarily during jury selection but also sporadically throughout the trial.

Closing Arguments and Verdict

¶22        In closing arguments, the State argued that the jury should believe Wife’s original statements to her neighbors and police as those were made instinctually to keep her family safe from a threat rather than out of “selfish[ness] or insincer[ity].” The defense argued that Wife had every reason to hate Arce but she wanted to set the record straight about her lies concerning the events of that night and that the State’s case fell apart without her lies.

¶23        During deliberation, the jury asked for access to the State’s “questions on day 2 to [Wife] when she pled the fifth.” The court did not grant the request.

¶24        The jury convicted Arce on all charges. Arce now appeals.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶25 Arce raises three issues on appeal. First, Arce argues that the trial court incorrectly allowed the State to compel Wife to invoke her Fifth Amendment right 47 times in front of the jury. We give trial courts “broad discretion to admit or exclude evidence, including lay witness testimony, and will disturb [a trial court’s] ruling only for abuse of discretion.” State v. Perea, 2013 UT 68, ¶ 31, 322 P.3d 624 (cleaned up). But the trial court must correctly interpret and apply the law. Id. ¶ 30. We review “the legal questions underlying the admissibility of evidence” for correctness. Dierl v. Birkin, 2023 UT App 6, ¶ 15, 525 P.3d 127 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 527 P.3d 1107 (Utah 2023).

¶26 Second, Arce argues that he received constitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel when his counsel (1) did not seek to limit or remediate the continued questioning of Wife by objecting, moving to strike both the questions and invocations, or asking for a curative instruction; (2) failed to object to Deputy improperly opining on and vouching for the credibility of Wife’s report the night of the incident; and (3) failed to object to the State and witnesses referring to Wife as “the victim” 29 times during the trial. “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.” State v. Reid, 2018 UT App 146, ¶ 17, 427 P.3d 1261 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 432 P.3d 1225 (Utah 2018).

¶27 Finally, Arce argues that under the cumulative error doctrine, the evidentiary error and ineffective assistance of counsel Arce received should undermine our confidence in the outcome of the trial. “We will reverse a jury verdict or sentence only if the cumulative effect of the several errors undermines our confidence that a fair trial was had.” State v. Lopez, 2019 UT App 11, ¶ 22, 438 P.3d 950 (cleaned up).

ANALYSIS

  1. Evidentiary Ruling

¶28 Arce argues that the trial court improperly overruled Wife’s counsel’s objection to the State questioning Wife despite knowing that she would invoke her Fifth Amendment right. Here, the trial court did not expressly say why it allowed the State, knowing Wife would invoke her constitutional privilege, to continually examine Wife. After Wife met with counsel and determined that she would invoke her Fifth Amendment right moving forward, the State asked the court to declare Wife a hostile witness and allow the State to continue examining her with leading questions. Wife’s counsel objected to declaring her hostile, arguing that the State already knew she would invoke her right for each question, which would allow the State, in Wife’s counsel’s words, to “present their case by asking those questions and hearing the Fifth” and to offer testimony “to the jury by the questions they’re asking.” The court responded that “anything [the State] says isn’t evidence, so it doesn’t matter.” And Wife’s counsel responded that the court should not allow it precisely because the State’s questions would not be evidence. The court disagreed and determined that the State could ask questions and that Wife could invoke her right to every question if she wanted to but she had to testify “if it [had] nothing to do [with a topic] that would incriminate her.” The court further determined that Wife’s invocation of her Fifth Amendment right could not be invoked in a blanket fashion and that she would have to invoke it for each question, as there may be some she could answer.

¶29 The State argues that regardless of the court’s reasoning, the court did not err because Wife waived her privilege by testifying earlier and recanting her story.[4] We note that the State did not make this argument during trial. Alternatively, the State argues that Wife never had the privilege to begin with because the State provided her with immunity.[5]

¶30 Notwithstanding each parties’ arguments, our review of the record indicates that Arce did not preserve this issue. It is “well within our prerogative to raise a preservation issue on our own initiative when it provides an alternative basis for affirmance, even if the State failed to brief the preservation argument.” State v. Malo, 2020 UT 42, ¶ 20 n.7, 469 P.3d 982. In Cook Associates, Inc. v. Warnick, 664 P.2d 1161 (Utah 1983), our supreme court confronted “[w]hether an objection by one party properly preserves an objection on appeal as to another party.” Id. at 1164. The supreme court followed what “[v]irtually every other jurisdiction that has considered the question has concluded,” which is that “an objection . . . by one or more parties at trial does not inure to the benefit of other parties who do not join in the objection.” Id. at 1164–65. In State v. Calliham, 2002 UT 86, 55 P.3d 573, two brothers charged with murder were tried together. Id. ¶¶ 1–3. Following their convictions, one brother (Brother 1) appealed. Id. ¶¶ 18–19. As part of his appeal, Brother 1 argued that the trial court’s decision to admit specific evidence was an error that violated his constitutional rights. Id. ¶ 32. However, our supreme court held that this issue was not preserved for appeal, as it was the other brother (Brother 2) who had objected—an objection which Brother 1 did not join at trial. Id. ¶ 33. “[Brother 1] did not join in [Brother 2’s] objections on the record or make any objection of his own,” thus preventing him from claiming on appeal that it prejudiced him or undermined his constitutional rights. Id.

¶31 Similarly, in the case before us, Arce was not the one who objected to Wife taking the stand, knowing she would invoke her Fifth Amendment right for every question—it was Wife’s counsel who made the objection. Arce did not join that objection.[6]

Therefore, as in Calliham, Arce has not preserved the right to now claim on appeal that the court erred in its decision to allow Wife to testify, which in turn allowed the jury to hear her invocations 47 times.[7]

¶32        And the issue needed to be “preserved in order to give the trial court an opportunity to address the claimed error, and if appropriate, correct it.” Kell v. State, 2012 UT 25, ¶ 11, 285 P.3d 1133 (cleaned up). Here, the trial court had no such opportunity. It is readily evident from our review of the record that the trial court was not focused on the impact these Fifth Amendment issues would have on Arce. Instead, the trial court ruled on this issue through the lens of its impact on Wife. Had Arce objected, the trial court may have fully engaged in an analysis of whether Wife’s Fifth Amendment right was waived or abandoned as the State suggests. But Arce made no such objection, and therefore the court engaged in no such analysis.

¶33        “As a general rule, claims not raised before the trial court may not be raised on appeal,” and it is “well-established” that this “preservation requirement applies to every claim, including constitutional questions.” Conner v. Department of Com., 2019 UT App 91, ¶ 48, 443 P.3d 1250 (cleaned up). Despite Arce’s arguments that he preserved this issue, the record does not support his assertions, as “a party must raise [the issue] before the [trial] court specifically, in a timely manner, and with support by evidence and relevant legal authority, such that the issue has been presented to the trial court in such a way that the trial court has an opportunity to rule on it.” Id. (cleaned up). As discussed, the record does not reflect an objection from Arce on the issue but instead from Wife, which did not allow the court to review the issue as it pertains to Arce. Therefore, the issue is not properly preserved, and we do not consider the merits of his claim.

  1. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

¶34        “To prevail on an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, a defendant must meet the two-prong Strickland test: (1) counsel’s performance was objectively deficient and (2) the deficient performance resulted in prejudice.” State v. Fleming, 2019 UT App 181, ¶ 9, 454 P.3d 862 (citing Strickland v. Washington, 466 US 668, 687–88 (1984)), cert. denied, 462 P.3d 803 (Utah 2020). “[D]eficient performance is not determined in a vacuum; rather, it involves asking whether the strategy [counsel] employed was that of a reasonable, competent lawyer in the real-time context” of a trial. State v. Wilkes, 2020 UT App 175, ¶ 24, 479 P.3d 1142, cert. denied, 485 P.3d 944 (Utah 2021). “However, even where a court cannot conceive of a sound strategic reason for counsel’s challenged conduct, it does not automatically follow that counsel was deficient. . . . [T]he ultimate question is always whether, considering all the circumstances, counsel’s acts or omissions were objectively unreasonable.” State v. Scott, 2020 UT 13, ¶ 36, 462 P.3d 350. And a defendant establishes prejudice by showing “that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” State v. Gonzalez, 2021 UT App 135, ¶ 8, 501 P.3d 1205 (cleaned up). “That is, the defendant’s showing must undermine our confidence in the outcome.” Id. (cleaned up). The impact of such alleged errors must “be a demonstrable reality.” Id. (cleaned up).

¶35        “Because both prongs of the Strickland test must be met to establish ineffective assistance of counsel, we need not always address both prongs.” Fleming, 2019 UT App 181, ¶ 9 (cleaned up). “And if it is easier to dispose of an ineffectiveness claim on the ground of lack of sufficient prejudice that course should be followed.” Gonzalez, 2021 UT App 135, ¶ 7 (cleaned up). Given the likelihood that similar events to those of this case can and will arise before the trial courts of this state, we address counsel’s alleged deficient performance, although we ultimately determine that Arce’s claims fail for lack of prejudice.

  1. Deficient Performance
  2. Invoking the Fifth Amendment

¶36 In addition to Arce’s arguments already discussed above regarding Wife’s invocation of her Fifth Amendment right, Arce argues that his counsel acted deficiently by not seeking to limit or remediate the State’s continued leading questions and Wife’s invocations by objecting, moving to strike both the questions and invocations, or asking for a curative instruction. Based on the reasoning in Mitchell v. United States, 526 U.S. 314 (1999), and In re Flint Water Cases, 53 F.4th 176 (6th Cir. 2022), competent counsel could reasonably choose not to take any of these actions, as Wife had waived her Fifth Amendment privilege by having voluntarily testified about the matter in question. A “witness . . . may not testify voluntarily about a subject and then invoke the privilege against self-incrimination when questioned about the details.” Mitchell, 526 U.S. at 321. “When the witness testifies, the privilege is waived for the matters to which the witness testifies.” In re Flint Water Cases, 53 F.4th at 193 (cleaned up). Thus, Arce’s counsel, and correspondingly the trial court, could have concluded that Wife did not have the right to invoke the privilege. Therefore, we determine that Arce fails to show deficient performance.[8]

¶37 Arce claims his counsel should have objected and pointed the court to rule 403 (excluding evidence which is substantially more prejudicial than probative), rule 510(c) (disallowing comment by a judge or counsel about, or a factfinder making an inference from, the invocation of a privilege), or rule 611(a) (allowing a court to control the examination of witnesses so as to avoid wasting time or the harassment or embarrassment of a witness) of the Utah Rules of Evidence. Arce makes no effort, however, to provide us with the context of Wife’s 47 invocations or the depth of her earlier testimony.[9] While Arce discusses Wife’s trial testimony prior to the court’s interruption to allow her to consult her counsel, he provides the court no comparison of that testimony with the subject matter of the questions asked on cross-examination when she began invoking the Fifth Amendment. As a result, the briefing leaves us with no understanding about whether all 47 invocations were directly addressing matters about which Wife had already testified—particularly her recantation. Assuming the questions were simply cross-examination of statements made earlier in trial, Arce’s counsel would have no basis for an objection because the privilege would be waived. Furthermore, without an understanding of the depth of Wife’s earlier testimony, we cannot gauge whether 47 invocations corresponded in an impermissible or potentially prejudicial way to Wife’s prior trial testimony. Within the confines of the briefing provided to us, we cannot fault Arce’s counsel for failing to object or make other efforts to limit the testimony.

¶38        Given that there is an obvious basis to believe that Wife no longer possessed a Fifth Amendment privilege and where the briefing does not delineate any context for the questions for which the privilege was invoked, Arce has not overcome the presumption that his counsel acted reasonably, and we cannot conclude that Arce’s counsel was objectively deficient in his representation. State v. Hart, 2020 UT App 25, ¶ 20, 460 P.3d 604 (stating that to prove deficient performance a defendant must overcome a “strong presumption that his trial counsel rendered adequate assistance” (cleaned up)), cert. denied, 462 P.3d 805 (Utah 2020). We acknowledge that there certainly could be circumstances where compelling a witness to invoke a privilege 47 times would be troubling, but we can reach no conclusion about counsel’s failure to object to these questions here.

  1. Witness Opining and Vouching

¶39        Arce further argues that his counsel performed deficiently by failing to object to Deputy opining on and vouching for the credibility of Wife’s statement the night of the incident. Rule 608(a) of the Utah Rules of Evidence “permits testimony concerning a witness’s general character or reputation for truthfulness or untruthfulness but prohibits any testimony as to a witness’s truthfulness on a particular occasion.” State v. King, 2010 UT App 396, ¶ 44, 248 P.3d 984 (cleaned up); see also State v. Adams, 2000 UT 42, ¶ 19, 5 P.3d 642 (detective testifying “he did not believe [the victim] was coached” was inadmissible vouching); State v. Jones, 2020 UT App 161, ¶ 14, 478 P.3d 1055 (per curiam) (“[A]dmission of testimony that bolsters the credibility of another witness’s testimony on a particular occasion is improper.”); id. ¶ 18 (officer testifying regarding interview techniques for domestic violence victims did not violate rule 608 because he did not opine on the victim’s truthfulness on a particular occasion); State v. Lewis, 2020 UT App 132, ¶ 26, 475 P.3d 956 (police sergeant describing variations he sees in victims’ statements when multiple accounts are given was not bolstering, as “he did not directly opine on [the victim’s] credibility”); State v. Cegars, 2019 UT App 54, ¶¶ 23–24, 440 P.3d 924 (school counselor testifying that she did not believe the victim would fabricate allegations was inadmissible bolstering); State v. Vail, 2002 UT App 176, ¶¶ 15, 17, 51 P.3d 1285 (detective testifying that two victims of child sexual abuse “exhibited the indicators that she equated with trustworthiness” was inadmissible bolstering); State v. Stefaniak, 900 P.2d 1094, 1095 (Utah Ct. App. 1995) (social worker testifying that a victim of abuse “seemed to be quite candid” in an interview was inadmissible vouching (cleaned up)). For example, an officer cannot comment on whether a witness appeared “to be genuine” during an interview, as it is a direct comment on the witness’s truthfulness and clearly violates rule 608. State v. Bragg, 2013 UT App 282, ¶ 31, 317 P.3d 452 (cleaned up). We emphasize again today that the State’s use of a law enforcement officer’s testimony for bolstering and vouching in this manner is inappropriate. We perceive no strategic reason that Arce’s counsel would reasonably fail to object to this testimony.

¶40 But even so, Arce can prevail only if he establishes both deficient performance and prejudice. And for the reasons set forth in Part II.B, we conclude that he was not prejudiced by this deficient performance.

  1. Referring to Wife as “the Victim”

¶41        Finally, Arce argues that his counsel performed deficiently by failing to object to the State and witnesses referring to Wife as “the victim” 29 times in front of the jury. Our supreme court “recognize[s] the gravity of referring to witnesses as victims during a trial.” State v. Vallejo, 2019 UT 38, ¶ 102, 449 P.3d 39. In cases, such as the one before us, “where a defendant claims that the charged crime did not actually occur, and the allegations against that defendant are based almost exclusively on the complaining witness’s testimony—the trial court, the State, and all witnesses should be prohibited from referring to the complaining witness as ‘the victim.’” State v. Devey, 2006 UT App 219, ¶ 17, 138 P.3d 90. Though in this case we do not exclusively rely on such testimony because there was a “sort of reddish mark” on Wife’s collarbone and Arce told Deputy there was “some pushing and shoving,” we still restate today that the action of referring to the complaining witness as “the victim” by anyone in front of the jury is inappropriate. Again, we perceive no strategic reason that Arce’s counsel would reasonably fail to object to this testimony.

  1. Prejudice

¶42        Ultimately, Arce has not shown that any of these alleged errors prejudiced him. There is not a reasonable probability that but for Arce’s counsel failing to object further to the State’s questioning of Wife, moving to strike, or asking for a curative instruction, the result of Arce’s trial would be different. As mentioned, the jury heard testimony from four witnesses, each of whom told the same story, namely, that Wife said Arce hit and choked her that night. The testimony of these four witnesses matched Wife’s own words in the statement she gave to Detective. Furthermore, the reason Wife provided to Deputy for dismissing the charges was not that she had lied but that she needed Arce to keep his job as well as his help with their children. As we point out above, even Arce in his statement to Deputy admitted there was “some pushing and shoving,” which is inconsistent with Wife’s recantation. And Arce did not explicitly deny that he hit, kicked, or choked Wife, instead stating only that he could not recall doing so. Most reasonable jurors would think that physical assault is something that one would remember having committed. Furthermore, and perhaps most convincingly, Wife’s own statement to Detective was entered into evidence for the jury to read. In short, finding that none of these alleged errors undermines our confidence in the outcome of this case, each of Arce’s claims of ineffective assistance of counsel fails for lack of prejudice. Moreover, because none of these alleged errors were sufficiently prejudicial alone, we, for the same reason, conclude that the errors do not cumulatively undermine our confidence in the outcome of the trial.[10]

CONCLUSION

¶43 Arce’s claim that the court erred by allowing the State to repeatedly compel Wife to invoke her Fifth Amendment privilege in front of the jury fails because the issue was not preserved. Furthermore, Arce’s claims of ineffective assistance of counsel fail because his counsel’s failure to object to Wife’s invocations, Deputy’s vouching for Wife’s credibility, and repeated references to Wife as “the victim” do not present a reasonable probability that but for Arce’s counsel’s failure the result of the proceeding would have been different. We therefore affirm Arce’s convictions.

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] A “grant of use immunity [prohibits] any prosecutorial use of [a witness’s] testimony or evidence gained from it” against the witness. State v. Morris, 2017 UT App 112, ¶ 17, 400 P.3d 1183, cert. denied, 409 P.3d 1049 (Utah 2017).

[3] The State argues that she invoked the Fifth Amendment 45 times, but the discrepancy of two invocations is not dispositive in this case, so we will use Arce’s number moving forward.

[4] Though we make our decision on preservation grounds, it appears the State is correct that a witness cannot testify about a subject and later invoke a Fifth Amendment privilege in order to avoid cross-examination on that same topic. See Mitchell v. United States, 526 U.S. 314, 321 (1999); In re Flint Water Cases, 53 F.4th 176, 193 (6th Cir. 2022). This issue is addressed further below. See infra ¶ 36.

[5] The State argues that a valid claim of privilege “turns in part on the likelihood of future prosecution.” A witness may not “employ the privilege to avoid giving testimony that he simply would prefer not to give,” Roberts v. United States, 445 U.S. 552, 560 n.7 (1980); instead, the witness must face real—not remote or speculative—dangers, Zicarelli v. New Jersey State Comm’n of Investigation, 406 U.S. 472, 478 (1972). Therefore, a grant of immunity nullifies the witness’s privilege as it forecloses the possibility of subsequent prosecution. State v. Morris, 2017 UT App 112, ¶ 18, 400 P.3d 1183, cert. denied, 409 P.3d 1049 (Utah 2017). Here, the State argues that while it did withdraw the written immunity offer, the offer was “irrelevant” as the State put on the record several times that it would not seek to have the court hold Wife in contempt for refusing to testify. We do not agree and fail to understand how a promise not to seek to have a trial court hold Wife in contempt is sufficient to rise to the level of granting her “effective blanket immunity,” as the State argues. Wife still faced the very real danger of prosecution for perjury, for which the State offered her no protection. Thus, the State did not provide Wife with immunity—either written or through promises not to charge her with contempt—and Wife’s Fifth Amendment privilege remained intact. However, the State is likely correct that the right had been waived for subjects about which she freely had already testified. And, as discussed, this issue was not preserved, so there is no need for further consideration of whether allowing the State to continue questioning Wife was an error and, if so, whether there was a reasonable likelihood of a more favorable outcome for Arce absent the questioning.

[6] Arce acknowledges that it was Wife’s counsel rather than his own who made the objection to Wife taking the stand knowing she would invoke her Fifth Amendment right. Despite this, Arce argues that the issue is preserved by primarily relying on Kell v. State, 2012 UT 25, 285 P.3d 1133. But Kell is distinguishable from the present case. In Kell, the question was whether an issue was preserved when the State opposed a criminal defendant’s rule 60(b) motion and the criminal defendant did not respond to the State’s arguments yet later sought to appeal the decision. Id. ¶¶ 9– 10. The State and a criminal defendant are not in an analogous adversarial position to the criminal defendant and nonparty witness, Wife, present here. Kell is simply inapposite.

[7] Arce does not claim the application of any exception to preservation.

[8] Arce points to State v. Bond, 2015 UT 88, 361 P.2d 104, for us to consider. But Bond is not particularly helpful here. The witness in Bond did not attempt to invoke his Fifth Amendment privilege to avoid answering a question regarding a subject about which he had testified previously. Id. ¶ 10Also, the analysis in Bond must be viewed in context. In Bond, the Utah Supreme Court was reviewing the denial of a motion for a mistrial—a trial court decision reviewed under an abuse of discretion standard—and an allegation of prosecutorial misconduct. Id. ¶¶ 13, 22. Thus, unlike the case before us, Bond does not address these issues as evidentiary rulings.

[9] We acknowledge that Arce has appended a transcript containing the invocations to his brief. But beyond the appendix, Arce’s brief makes no attempt to address the context of the invocations—referring to them only as a whole rather than providing any information as to the subject matter of the questioning that provoked them. Arce does not attempt to explain, for example, if one, two, or three questions might be permissible. Neither does he explain at which point the line would have been crossed to render his counsel’s inaction objectively unreasonable.

[10] “The cumulative-error doctrine requires us to reverse if (1) we determine, or assume without deciding, that two or more errors occurred and (2) we determine that the cumulative effect of those errors undermines our confidence that a fair trial was had.” ConocoPhillips Co. v. Utah Dep’t of Transp., 2017 UT App 68, ¶ 30, 397 P.3d 772.

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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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McFarland v. McFarland – 2024 UT App 31 – attorney’s fees awards

McFarland v. McFarland – 2024 UT App 31

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

BRUCE RAY MCFARLAND, Appellee, v. NICOLE S. MCFARLAND, Appellant.

Opinion No. 20221044-CA, Filed March 14, 2024

Second District Court, Farmington Department

The Honorable David J. Williams No. 084701533

Angilee K. Dakic, Attorney for Appellant, Jacob K. Cowdin, Attorney for Appellee

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

HARRIS, Judge:

¶1 This domestic dispute between Bruce Ray McFarland (Bruce) and Nicole S. McFarland (Nicole) comes before us for a second time. This time, we are asked to assess the propriety of two aspects of the district court’s most recent set of orders: the court’s decision to modify the parties’ divorce decree and award the house in which the parties lived while they were married (the Home) to Bruce instead of to Nicole, and the court’s decision to require Nicole to pay Bruce’s attorney fees incurred in litigating the petition to modify. We see no reversible error in the court’s award of the Home to Bruce, and we therefore affirm on that issue. But we agree with Nicole that the court erred in awarding attorney fees to Bruce, and we therefore reverse that fee award.

BACKGROUND

¶2        In our previous opinion, we set forth many of the relevant facts underlying the parties’ dispute. See McFarland v. McFarland, 2021 UT App 58, ¶¶ 2–18, 493 P.3d 1146. In the interest of brevity, we recite in this opinion only those facts necessary to our decision.

¶3        Bruce and Nicole’s divorce decree (the Decree) was entered in 2009 following a negotiated settlement. As relevant here, the Decree required Bruce to pay Nicole $1,700 per month in alimony, and it awarded the Home to Nicole “subject to” her “assumption” of the mortgage, tax, and insurance obligations associated with the Home as well as “a judicial lien in the sum of $12,034.24 payable to” Bruce. According to the Decree, Nicole was to pay Bruce the lien amount on the occurrence of the first of these events: (1) when Nicole remarries or cohabits; (2) when the Home is sold or rented; (3) when Nicole “moves from” the Home or no longer uses it as her primary residence; or (4) when the parties’ youngest child graduates from high school. Several of those events have long since occurred; indeed, the district court later found that Nicole “abandoned” the Home in 2010. At no point did Nicole ever make any of the mortgage, tax, or insurance payments on the Home, nor did she ever pay Bruce the lien amount.

¶4        Instead, after a brief period in which he did not live in the Home, Bruce moved back into the Home in 2009 and has lived there at all times since. And after entry of the Decree, Bruce— rather than Nicole—has made all mortgage, tax, and insurance payments on the Home, and he has also maintained and made improvements to the Home. But other than one single payment in January 2009, Bruce paid no alimony to Nicole. Thus, soon after the Decree was entered, both parties began to ignore many of the Decree’s important provisions. But for the next seven years, neither party seemed bothered by the other’s noncompliance, and neither sought to modify or enforce the terms of the Decree.

¶5        In 2017—apparently motivated by a desire to refinance the Home—Bruce filed a petition to modify (Bruce’s Petition), asking the court to modify the Decree to (among other things) award him the Home. Nicole responded not only by resisting Bruce’s Petition, but also by filing two motions asking the court to hold Bruce in contempt for (among other things) failing to pay alimony and for “willfully occup[ying Nicole’s] property,” namely, the Home. Concerning the Home, Nicole asked that the court “immediately restore[]” her “to the use and possession of” the Home. Later, in 2019, the court found Bruce in contempt for failing to pay alimony, and it ordered Bruce to pay Nicole over $150,000 in unpaid alimony. But the court declined to find Bruce in contempt for occupying the Home. The court made no ruling on Bruce’s Petition, however, because that matter had apparently not yet been certified for trial. But the court allowed Bruce to continue living in the Home “on a temporary basis” until the matter was finally resolved.

¶6        Both parties appealed several aspects of the court’s 2019 rulings and, in this case’s first trip to this court, we affirmed the court’s alimony award to Nicole and remanded “the case for further proceedings” regarding (among other things) Bruce’s Petition. Id. ¶¶ 46–47.

¶7        Following remand, the district court held a hearing to consider matters regarding the Home. Bruce asserted that any claim Nicole might make regarding possession of the Home was barred by several equitable doctrines, including waiver and laches. In particular, Bruce claimed that Nicole had waived any claim to the Home by moving out in 2010 and taking no action in the intervening years to challenge Bruce’s possession of it, and that Nicole’s claim was barred by laches because her “delay in bringing her claim” was “unreasonable” and “prejudicial to Bruce.” Nicole resisted all of these arguments and, in addition, claimed that Bruce’s Petition was barred by res judicata.

¶8        At the conclusion of the hearing, the court made an oral ruling granting Bruce’s Petition and denying Nicole’s motion regarding the Home. The court later issued a written ruling setting forth its findings and conclusions. In that ruling, the court found that Nicole’s abandonment of the Home in 2010 constituted “a material and substantial change in circumstances.” The court also rejected Nicole’s claim that Bruce’s Petition was barred by res judicata. And the court determined that modification of the Decree to award Bruce the Home was appropriate; the court found merit in several of Bruce’s equitable arguments. Specifically, the court determined that Nicole had waived any claim to the Home by moving out and failing to make any payments related to the Home since the Decree was entered. And the court concluded that laches also barred Nicole’s claim to the Home because she had delayed bringing any such claim and her delay had prejudiced Bruce because Bruce had made payments and improvements on the Home in the intervening years. The court noted that Bruce had also delayed in bringing his petition, but it found that Nicole had not been prejudiced by Bruce’s delay.

¶9        Bruce asked the court to award him attorney fees incurred in litigating his petition. As the district court interpreted it, this request was grounded not in the attorney fees statute found in the family law code, see Utah Code § 30-3-3, but, instead, in Utah’s bad-faith attorney fees statute, see id. § 78B-5-825. The court granted Bruce’s request, but it made no specific finding that Nicole’s claims and defenses regarding the Home had been “without merit.” It did make an express finding that “Nicole’s effort to pursue an award of [the Home] roughly eight (8) years after abandoning [it] was an act of bad faith” that Nicole undertook with a “retaliatory” motive in reaction to the filing of Bruce’s Petition. And the court noted that, during the intervening years, Nicole “had not satisfied the conditions in the Decree that allowed her to take possession of” the Home. Based on these findings, the court concluded that “law and equity call for an award of attorney fees in Bruce’s favor as it relates to the issue of” the Home. The court later quantified that attorney fee award, ordering that Nicole pay Bruce $7,390.67 for attorney fees he incurred litigating issues related to the Home.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶10      Nicole appeals two aspects of the court’s rulings. First, she challenges the court’s order modifying the Decree to award the Home to Bruce. “In this context, we review the district court’s underlying findings of fact, if any, for clear error,” and we review “its ultimate determination regarding the petition to modify[] for an abuse of discretion.” Myers v. Myers, 2023 UT App 20, ¶ 19, 526 P.3d 1253. Whether the court chose and applied the correct legal standard is a question of law “that we review for correctness.” Peeples v. Peeples, 2019 UT App 207, ¶ 11, 456 P.3d 1159.

¶11      As discussed below, our analysis on this point focuses on the court’s application of the doctrine of laches and, in particular, on its determination that Bruce was prejudiced by Nicole’s delay in asserting a right to possession of the Home. “The application of laches to a particular set of facts and circumstances presents a mixed question of law and fact.” Peterson v. Pierce, 2019 UT App 48, ¶ 9, 440 P.3d 833 (quotation simplified). While “[l]aw-like mixed questions are reviewed de novo,” mixed questions that are more “fact-like” are “reviewed deferentially.” Sawyer v. Department of Workforce Services, 2015 UT 33, ¶ 11, 345 P.3d 1253. For the reasons discussed more fully later, see infra ¶¶ 18–21, we conclude that a district court’s prejudice determination made in the laches context is more fact-like than law-like and, therefore, calls for a more deferential standard of review.

¶12 Second, Nicole challenges the court’s award of attorney fees to Bruce under the bad faith statute. “We review a trial court’s grant of attorney fees under the bad faith statute as a mixed question of law and fact.” Outsource Receivables Mgmt., Inc. v. Bishop, 2015 UT App 41, ¶ 11, 344 P.3d 1167 (quotation simplified).

“A finding of bad faith is a question of fact and is reviewed by this court under the ‘clearly erroneous’ standard,” but a “‘without merit’ determination is a question of law” that we review “for correctness.” Id. (quotation simplified).

ANALYSIS

I

¶13      We first address Nicole’s challenge to the district court’s grant of Bruce’s Petition and its accompanying order modifying the Decree to award the Home to Bruce. The court based its ruling on several distinct legal doctrines, including waiver and laches. Nicole challenges the application of these doctrines, asserting that none of them apply to the facts at hand. For the reasons discussed, we conclude that the court did not abuse its discretion when it concluded that Bruce was prejudiced by Nicole’s delay in asserting her claim to the Home, and that therefore the doctrine of laches operates to bar Nicole’s claim. Because we affirm the court’s laches determination, we need not reach the question of whether the court erred in its application of waiver or any other legal or equitable doctrine.

¶14 “Laches” is an equitable doctrine “founded upon considerations of time and injury.” Insight Assets, Inc. v. Farias, 2013 UT 47, ¶ 17, 321 P.3d 1021 (quotation simplified). The thing that the doctrine is concerned about “is not mere delay, but delay that works a disadvantage to another.” Id. (quotation simplified). “In Utah, laches traditionally has two elements.” Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints v. Horne, 2012 UT 66, ¶ 29, 289 P.3d 502. First, the party claiming laches must demonstrate that the other party “unreasonably delayed in bringing” a claim. See Veysey v. Nelson, 2017 UT App 77, ¶ 8, 397 P.3d 846 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 400 P.3d 1046 (Utah 2017). Second, the party claiming laches must demonstrate that it “was prejudiced by that delay.” Id. (quotation simplified); see also Laches, Black’s Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019) (defining “laches” as “[t]he equitable doctrine by which a court denies relief to a claimant who has unreasonably delayed in asserting the claim, when that delay has prejudiced the party against whom relief is sought”).

¶15      Nicole concedes that the first element of the laches test— unreasonable delay—is met here, given her eight-year delay in objecting to Bruce’s possession of the Home. Because of this concession, we need concern ourselves only with the second element of the laches test: whether Bruce was prejudiced by Nicole’s unreasonable delay.

¶16      On that point, the district court made a specific finding that Bruce would suffer “clear prejudice” if Nicole were allowed to claim possession of the Home. The court observed that Bruce had raised the parties’ children in the Home, had made “improvements” to the Home, and had taken care of “all financial obligations related to” the Home since 2009. In light of these undisputed facts, the court determined that Bruce would be prejudiced if Nicole were allowed to assert, after all these years, a right to exclusively use and possess the Home.

¶17 Nicole challenges the court’s prejudice determination, asserting that her delay in asserting her rights to the Home was actually “a benefit to Bruce” because it gave him a place to live and because he was able to take “significant amounts of equity out of” the Home “on multiple occasions.” But before we can address Nicole’s challenge to the court’s prejudice determination, we must first determine the appropriate standard of review.

¶18      As previously mentioned, see supra ¶ 11, a district court’s “application of laches to a particular set of facts and circumstances presents a mixed question of law and fact.” Peterson v. Pierce, 2019 UT App 48, ¶ 9, 440 P.3d 833 (quotation simplified). “Mixed questions fall somewhere in the twilight between deferential review of findings of fact and searching reconsideration of conclusions of law.” In re adoption of Baby B., 2012 UT 35, ¶ 42, 308 P.3d 382. The level of deference afforded to district courts in such situations thus depends on whether the determination at issue is more law-like or fact-like. See Sawyer v. Department of Workforce Services, 2015 UT 33, ¶ 11, 345 P.3d 1253. We must therefore assess whether a determination regarding prejudice, in the laches context, is more fact-like than law-like. As far as we are aware, no Utah court has yet rendered a specific ruling on this question.

¶19      When considering whether a question “should be deemed law-like or fact-like, we evaluate the marginal costs and benefits of conducting either a searching de novo review or a deferential review of a lower tribunal’s resolution of the mixed question.” Id. ¶ 12 (quotation simplified). To that end, our supreme court has instructed us to consider three relevant factors:

(1) the degree of variety and complexity in the facts to which the legal rule is to be applied; (2) the degree to which a trial court’s application of the legal rule relies on facts observed by the trial judge, such as a witness’s appearance and demeanor, relevant to the application of the law that cannot be adequately reflected in the record available to appellate courts; and (3) other policy reasons that weigh for or against granting discretion to trial courts.

Id. (quotation simplified).

¶20      The first two factors compare “the relative competencies” of “a fact-finding tribunal” and that of “an appellate court.” Id. ¶ 13. District courts and other fact-finding tribunals “are in a superior position to weigh facts that depend upon credibility determinations, the direct observation of witness testimony, and other evidence not fully captured in a written appellate record.” Id. On the other hand, appellate courts are in a better position to fashion “broad rules that can create a greater degree of consistency and predictability to future cases involving a particular mixed question.” Id. An inquiry that is highly “fact-intensive” is not one that “lend[s] itself to consistent resolution by a uniform body of appellate precedent.” Carbon County v. Workforce Appeals Board, 2013 UT 41, ¶ 7, 308 P.3d 477 (quotation simplified). Thus, a district court is “entitled to deference” where its determinations are “fact-intensive” because an appellate court “would be in an inferior position to review the correctness” of such a decision. Id. (quotation simplified).

¶21 Assessing whether a litigant’s unreasonable delay in bringing a claim has caused another party to sustain prejudice is a case-specific, fact-bound inquiry that will depend on the particular circumstances at hand, as well as—at least in many cases, including this one—on the district court’s perception of the progression of the litigation. Indeed, for this very reason, Utah appellate courts have concluded, in a number of analogous contexts, that appellate review of a district court’s prejudice determination should be deferential. See State v. De La Rosa, 2019 UT App 110, ¶ 9, 445 P.3d 955 (reviewing deferentially a district court’s “substantial adverse effect” determination, made in the context of assessing whether a new trial was warranted, “due to [the district court’s] advantaged position to judge the impact of legal errors on the total proceedings” (quotation simplified)); see also State v. Maestas, 2012 UT 46, ¶ 325, 299 P.3d 892 (stating that district courts “have discretion in granting or denying a motion for a mistrial . . . because of the[ir] advantaged position . . . to determine the impact of events occurring in the courtroom on the total proceedings” (quotation simplified)); Butler v. Mediaport Ent. Inc., 2022 UT App 37, ¶¶ 32, 48, 508 P.3d 619 (stating that “we review a district court’s harmlessness determination,” made in the discovery and disclosure context, deferentially “for abuse of discretion” because “a district court will almost always have a better vantage point than we do to make such a call”). We also observe that laches is an equitable doctrine, see Insight Assets, 2013 UT 47, ¶ 17, and “equitable inquiries are designed to be flexible, taking into account all relevant factors in light of the particular circumstances,” Jones v. Layton/Okland, 2009 UT 39, ¶ 17, 214 P.3d 859. “Because of the fact-intensive nature of equitable doctrines,” we generally grant district courts “broader discretion in applying the law to the facts.” Volonte v. Domo, Inc., 2023 UT App 25, ¶ 28, 528 P.3d 327 (quotation simplified). For all of these reasons, we conclude that a district court’s determination that a litigant has (or has not) sustained prejudice as a result of another party’s unreasonable delay in bringing a claim is entitled to deference from appellate courts and is a determination that should be reviewed for abuse of discretion.

¶22 We discern no abuse of discretion in the district court’s determination that Bruce sustained prejudice as a result of Nicole’s eight-year delay in asserting her right to the Home. The court’s ruling was well-reasoned and supported by evidence in the record. As noted, the court relied on the fact that Bruce had lived in the Home the entire time, raised the parties’ children there, and—perhaps most importantly—had taken care of all financial obligations related to the Home, including all maintenance and improvements.

¶23      We acknowledge Nicole’s point that Bruce enjoyed certain advantages as a result of living in the Home. As Nicole points out, Bruce would have had to pay for housing whether he lived in the Home or elsewhere, and Bruce was apparently able to take advantage of the equity in the Home. These facts could have led the district court to make a different determination with regard to whether Bruce was prejudiced by Nicole’s delay. But the presence of conflicting evidence does not compel reversal here. Given the applicable standard of review, the relevant question is not whether we would have made the same determination had we been sitting as the assigned trial-level arbiters in this case; rather, the relevant question is whether we discern an abuse of discretion in the decision the assigned judge made. See Stichting Mayflower Mountain Fonds v. United Park City Mines Co., 2017 UT 42, ¶ 49, 424 P.3d 72 (stating that “[t]he question presented is not whether we would have granted” the motion in question, but instead “whether we find an abuse of discretion in the district judge’s decision to deny the motion”). Where the court’s decision is supported by evidence in the record and free from legal error, we will not disturb it. And that is the case here.

¶24      Nicole resists this conclusion on three additional grounds. First, she points out that Bruce also delayed in asserting a right to the Home, and she complains that the district court applied the principles of laches in an uneven manner. But on this point, the district court made a specific determination that, although Bruce delayed the invocation of his claim to the Home, Nicole did not sustain any prejudice as a result of Bruce’s delay. The court noted that, during the time between her “abandonment” of the Home and the filing of Bruce’s Petition, Nicole “did not have to satisfy any financial obligations related to” the Home, “including those required by the Decree.” The court’s determination was therefore supported by evidence in the record and, while a different judge might have reached a different conclusion on these facts, we cannot say that the court’s ruling was an abuse of its discretion.

¶25      Second, Nicole asserts that Bruce should not be able to take advantage of equitable doctrines such as laches because, in her view, Bruce had “unclean hands” due to his failure to pay alimony and child support, as required by the terms of the Decree, during the years he lived in the Home. See Goggin v. Goggin, 2013 UT 16, ¶ 60, 299 P.3d 1079 (“The doctrine of unclean hands expresses the principle that a party who comes into equity for relief must show that his conduct has been fair, equitable, and honest as to the particular controversy in issue.” (quotation simplified)). But while Nicole (successfully, as it turned out) asked the district court to award her back alimony and child support, she never asked the district court to apply the doctrine of unclean hands, and her arguments in this regard are therefore unpreserved for appellate review. See State v. Johnson, 2017 UT 76, ¶ 18, 416 P.3d 443 (“A failure to preserve an issue in the trial court generally precludes a party from arguing that issue in an appellate court, absent a valid exception.”).

¶26      Nicole does not explicitly ask us to utilize any of the exceptions to our preservation requirement, but she does assert that the district court erred by failing to “sua sponte” apply the unclean hands doctrine. Certainly, a court may invoke that doctrine without being asked to do so. See 30A C.J.S. Equity § 116 (2023) (“A defense of unclean hands need not be pleaded. The doctrine may be applied by the court sua sponte.”). But the fact that a court may invoke the doctrine in a sua sponte manner does not relieve a party of its otherwise-applicable obligation to preserve issues for appellate review. Indeed, construed liberally, Nicole’s argument—that the district court erred by failing to sua sponte invoke the unclean hands doctrine—is an assertion that the court plainly erred by not concluding that Bruce’s unclean hands barred him from accessing equitable doctrines like laches. But this assertion fails because plain error review no longer exists in civil cases like this one. Kelly v. Timber Lakes Prop. Owners Ass’n, 2022 UT App 23, ¶ 44, 507 P.3d 357. Because plain error review is unavailable, and because Nicole does not ask us to employ any other exception to our preservation requirement, the fact that her “unclean hands” argument is unpreserved requires us to reject her argument without reaching its merits.

¶27      Finally, Nicole asserts that Bruce’s Petition was barred by the doctrine of res judicata. Essentially, she asserts that, because the parties already litigated the issue of entitlement to the Home, and because the Decree awarded the Home to her, Bruce is barred from relitigating that issue now. Nicole correctly asserts that res judicata is not categorically inapplicable in divorce cases. See Throckmorton v. Throckmorton, 767 P.2d 121, 123 (Utah Ct. App. 1988) (“The doctrine of res judicata applies in divorce actions.”). But “Fi]n the family law context, our legislature has given district courts the authority to revisit many of the provisions contained in a typical divorce decree, including provisions pertaining to child custody, child support, alimony, property distribution, and debts.” See Robertson v. Stevens, 2020 UT App 29, ¶ 7, 461 P.3d 323 (emphasis added); see also Utah Code § 30-3-5(5). In this context, a party may seek post-judgment modification of the property distribution provisions of a divorce decree, but in order to succeed in that endeavor the party “must demonstrate that a substantial change in circumstances has occurred since the entry of the decree.” See Toone v. Toone, 952 P.2d 112, 114 (Utah Ct. App. 1998) (quotation simplified); see also Throckmorton, 767 P.2d at 123 (“[T]he application of res judicata is unique in divorce actions because of the equitable doctrine which allows courts to reopen alimony, support, or property distributions if the moving party can demonstrate a substantial change of circumstances since the matter was previously considered by the court.”).

¶28 Thus, modification of the Decree’s property distribution provisions is appropriate—even post-judgment and even taking into account principles of res judicata—so long as Bruce can demonstrate that, since entry of the Decree, there has been a substantial change of circumstances that would justify the court taking a second look at the terms of the distribution. And on that point, Nicole raises no challenge; indeed, in her reply brief on appeal she makes clear that she “is not arguing lack of changed circumstance,” and she affirmatively acknowledges that, in this case, “there have been changed circumstances.” Thus, the court had the authority to revisit the property distribution provisions of the Decree, and we reject Nicole’s argument to the contrary.

¶29    For these reasons, we perceive no abuse of discretion in the district court’s determination that Bruce was prejudiced by Nicole’s unreasonable delay in asserting her right to possess the Home. Because Nicole does not contest the other element of laches—unreasonable delay—both elements are met. We therefore affirm the district court’s determination that the equitable doctrine of laches barred Nicole’s claim to the Home, and on that basis we affirm the court’s grant of Bruce’s Petition and its accompanying order awarding the Home to Bruce.

II

¶30      Next, we address Nicole’s challenge to the court’s award of attorney fees to Bruce, incurred in connection with litigating issues related to the Home. On this point, we find merit in Nicole’s arguments, and we therefore reverse the court’s fee award.

¶31 Bruce’s fee request was grounded in Utah’s bad-faith attorney-fees statute, which empowers courts to “award reasonable attorney fees to a prevailing party if the court determines that the action or defense to the action was without merit and not brought or asserted in good faith.” See Utah Code § 78B-5-825(1). Before awarding fees under this section, a district court—in addition to determining that the requesting party is the “prevailing party”—must make specific findings that the opposing party’s claim is (1) “without merit” and (2) “not brought or asserted in good faith.” Rocky Ford Irrigation Co. v. Kents Lake Reservoir Co., 2020 UT 47, ¶ 76, 469 P.3d 1003 (quotation simplified). These two findings “must be made independently” from one another. Still Standing Stable, LLC v. Allen, 2005 UT 46, ¶ 12, 122 P.3d 556. Nicole asserts that the court failed to make a specific finding that her claims and defenses regarding the Home were without merit, and she maintains that the fee award was therefore improper. We agree with Nicole.

¶32      While the court made a specific finding that Nicole’s claims and defenses regarding the Home were asserted in “bad faith” and on a “retaliatory” basis, it made no specific finding that Nicole’s claims were without merit. Bruce acknowledges the lack of an express finding on this point, but he asserts that we can infer such a finding from (a) the fact that the court rejected Nicole’s claims on their merits (i.e., that she lost) and (b) the court’s specific bad-faith finding. We see the matter differently.

¶33      First, a determination that a party lost on the merits is not equivalent to a determination that the party’s claims were without merit for purposes of the bad-faith statute. “Without merit” in this context means something worse than just having a losing claim. Indeed, our supreme court has stated that the term “without merit,” as used in the bad-faith statute, “implies bordering on frivolity,” with the term “frivolous” meaning “of little weight or importance having no basis in law or fact.” Cady v. Johnson, 671 P.2d 149, 151 (Utah 1983) (quotation simplified); see also Migliore v. Livingston Fin. LLC, 2015 UT 9, ¶ 31, 347 P.3d 394 (“To determine whether a claim is without merit, we look to whether it was frivolous or of little weight or importance having no basis in law or fact.” (quotation simplified)). And on at least one occasion, our supreme court has concluded that a losing claim was not “without merit,” because the claim—even though it was not the prevailing claim—involved a question of “first impression” and “had a basis in law and fact.” See In re Olympus Constr. LC, 2009 UT 29, ¶ 31, 215 P.3d 129. We therefore may not infer, merely from the district court’s rejection of Nicole’s claims on their merits, that the court considered those claims to be so meritless as to be “bordering on frivolity.” See Cady, 671 P.2d at 151.

¶34 Nor may we draw that inference from the court’s “bad faith” finding. As noted already, the two separate findings— without merit and bad faith—“must be made independently” from one another. Still Standing Stable, 2005 UT 46, ¶ 12. And this makes sense, because the two elements of the statutory test are aimed at two different things. The first element (“without merit”) is concerned with the objective quality of the claim itself, see Migliore, 2015 UT 9, ¶ 31, while the second element (“bad faith”) is concerned with the party’s subjective motivation for bringing it, see Blum v. Dahl, 2012 UT App 198, ¶ 9, 283 P.3d 963 (“A finding of bad faith turns on a factual determination of a party’s subjective intent.” (quotation simplified)). Both elements must be met before a court may award attorney fees under the bad-faith statute. And the presence of one element does not necessarily imply the presence of the other.

¶35 For instance, a party may have a completely frivolous claim that lacks any basis in law or fact, but that party may not be aware of the claim’s lack of merit at the time it was filed. In that situation, the first element of the test is met but, depending on the circumstances, the second might not be. Conversely, a party may have a solid (albeit losing) claim that has a basis in both law and fact, but the party might be bringing that claim for abusive or improper reasons. In that situation, the second element might be met but the first one wouldn’t be. In the case at hand, our review of the record indicates that this might be the situation: Nicole had in her corner a provision in the Decree awarding her the Home, and Bruce had not taken any action to seek modification of that provision in eight years. Given these facts, it is certainly not obvious to us that Nicole’s claims and defenses regarding the Home were “bordering on frivolity,” see Cady, 671 P.2d at 151, even if we take at face value the court’s finding that Nicole brought the claims in a bad-faith effort to retaliate against Bruce.

¶36 Accordingly, we conclude that the absence of any specific finding that Nicole’s claims were without merit renders the district court’s attorney fees award improper.[1]

CONCLUSION

¶37 We discern no abuse of discretion in the district court’s determination that laches barred Nicole’s claims and defenses regarding the Home, and on that basis we affirm the district court’s grant of Bruce’s Petition and its accompanying order awarding the Home to Bruce. But due to the absence of any finding that Nicole’s claims and defenses were without merit, we reverse the court’s award of attorney fees to Bruce pursuant to the bad-faith statute, and we vacate the part of the court’s judgment that required Nicole to pay $7,390.67 in fees to Bruce.

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


[1] Again invoking the bad-faith statute, Bruce asks us to award him attorney fees he incurred on appeal. We must reject this request because we have reversed the award of attorney fees in the district court. Moreover, we do not consider Nicole’s appellate arguments to have been brought in bad faith.

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In re Adoption of J.E. – 2024 UT App 34 – termination of parental rights – adoption

In re Adoption of J.E. – 2024 UT App 34

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

IN THE MATTER OF THE ADOPTION OF J.E., E.E., AND L.E.,

PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE. K.E., Appellant, v. K.M.L. AND L.L.L., Appellees.

Opinion No. 20230162-CA, Filed March 14, 2024 Third District Court, West Jordan Department

The Honorable Matthew Bates No. 222900154

Julie J. Nelson and Alexandra Mareschal, Attorneys for Appellant

Bradley A. Schmidt, Attorney for Appellees

JUDGE DAVID N. MORTENSEN authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES RYAN D. TENNEY and JOHN D. LUTHY concurred. MORTENSEN, Judge:

¶1        In connection with an adoption proceeding brought in district court, the rights of a biological father were terminated. The father now claims on appeal that the district court relied impermissibly on generalized concerns of his minor children’s need for permanence and that our recent decision in In re L.L.B., 2023 UT App 66, 532 P.3d 592, compels reversal here. We agree with the father and reverse.

BACKGROUND

¶2        KML[1] (Mother) and KE (Father) have two minor children,[2] who are the subject of this appeal—EE, age sixteen, and LE, age thirteen. For much of the children’s lives, Father has been incarcerated. As relevant here, from 2013 to 2018, Father was incarcerated. During that period, his time with EE and LE “consisted of, at most, a weekly visit” with them at the prison.

¶3        In 2018, Father was released from prison on parole. Sometime during this same period, Mother and Father divorced and Mother married LLL (Stepfather). According to Father, after the divorce, the parent-time arrangement allowed him visits every other weekend. But Father saw EE and LE only once in the summer of 2018. Beyond that visit, Father says he “tried to” exercise his parent-time four times, but that each time he went to Mother’s home for the exchange as required by the divorce decree, Stepfather told him the decree required Father to text Mother. Father disputes the texting requirement. The final time Father attempted to visit the children, he found that they had moved and the “house was empty.” Mother had not given him an updated address or contact information. Father notified the law enforcement officers whom Mother and Father used to communicate with one another.

¶4        In January 2020, Father returned to prison because of a parole violation, and he remained there until December of that same year. Following his release, he tried contacting Mother, but when he called the “last phone number [he] had with her[,] . . . there was nothing.” He asked his family to help him contact Mother, but they had no way to reach her either. Father returned to prison in November 2021 because of another parole violation. While incarcerated, he tried to call the children but still did not have updated contact information. Father says he also wrote letters for the children but did not send them because he did not have a current address for Mother.

¶5        In April 2022, Mother and Stepfather petitioned the district court for termination of Father’s parental rights and Stepfather’s adoption of the children. The court bifurcated the proceedings and, following a hearing in November 2022, determined that Father met the statutory ground of abandonment for termination of parental rights.

¶6        In January 2023, during a second evidentiary hearing, the district court determined that it was in the best interest of EE and LE to terminate Father’s parental rights. The court determined that the children presently had “no relationship” with Father. Both children testified that they had “no memory of him, and they would not recognize him if they saw him.” The court also determined that for the last four years, Stepfather had “assumed the role of natural father” to the children, including socializing with them, playing with them, attending their school and extracurricular activities, assisting with their schoolwork, and caring for them, such as by driving them places and making them meals. Both EE and LE “testified to the strong emotional bond” they had with Stepfather and their desire to be adopted by him, which the court gave some weight in consideration of their ages. The court also determined that the “destruction of the relationship between the children and [Father’s] extended family . . . [was] due to [Mother’s] failure to respond to efforts” made by the family to see the children. The court determined that Mother was “not supportive of the relationship between the children and [Father’s] family.” During the hearing, Father requested reconsideration of the court’s abandonment finding. The court took new evidence on the issue but ultimately did not alter its finding and terminated Father’s parental rights.

¶7          In February 2023, the district court held a hearing concerning Stepfather’s adoption of EE and LE, during which Father asked the court to stay the adoption pending appeal. Following arguments from each party, the district court proceeded with the adoption, determining that it was “in the best interests of the [children] that [the] adoption go forward.”

¶8          Father appeals.

ISSUE AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶9          On appeal, Father argues that the district court erred by deciding that termination of Father’s parental rights was in the best interest of EE and LE. “Whether a parent’s rights should be terminated presents a mixed question of law and fact.” In re B.R., 2007 UT 82, ¶ 12, 171 P.3d 435. “A lower court’s best-interest ruling is reviewed deferentially,” but we do not limit our review to considering whether any relevant facts have been left out; we also “assess whether the court’s determination that the clear and convincing standard had been met goes against the clear weight of the evidence.” In re L.L.B., 2023 UT App 66, ¶ 16, 532 P.3d 592 (cleaned up).

ANALYSIS

¶10        “The right of parents to raise their children is one of the most important rights any person enjoys.” In re D.S., 2023 UT App 98, ¶ 16, 535 P.3d 843 (cleaned up), cert. granted, Jan. 25, 2024 (No. 20230877). Before terminating parental rights, a district court must find that (1) “one or more of the statutory grounds for termination are present” and (2) “termination of the parent’s rights is in the best interests of the child.” In re L.L.B., 2023 UT App 66, ¶ 17, 532 P.3d 592 (cleaned up). A district court “must make both of these findings . . . by clear and convincing evidence and the burden of proof rests with the petitioner.” Id. (cleaned up). Father has not challenged the district court’s ruling that statutory grounds for termination existed, so we turn to the best-interest analysis.

¶11      Our supreme court recently determined that a “court must start the best interest analysis from the legislatively mandated position that wherever possible, family life should be strengthened and preserved.” In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 66, 472 P.3d 827 (cleaned up).[3] Relying nearly entirely on In re L.L.B., 2023

UT App 66, 532 P.3d 592, a recent decision from our court in which we reversed the termination of a father’s parental rights, Father argues that the court erred when it determined that termination and adoption was in the best interest of EE and LE. Father does not claim that the court’s findings were erroneous; instead, he asserts that the facts taken together do not support the court’s ruling. “The best-interest inquiry is intended as a holistic examination of all of the relevant circumstances that might affect a child’s situation.” Id. ¶ 21 (cleaned up); see also In re D.S., 2023 UT App 98, ¶ 18 (“The best-interest inquiry is wide-ranging and asks a court to weigh the entirety of the circumstances of a child’s situation . . . .” (cleaned up)). A district court undertakes this analysis from the child’s perspective and must consider the child’s “physical, intellectual, social, moral, and educational training and general welfare and happiness.” In re L.L.B., 2023 UT App 66, ¶ 21 (cleaned up). To support his argument that the district court erred, Father argues that the “facts and legal analysis are almost identical” between his case and In re L.L.B. This is an overstatement of the cases’ factual parallels, and we are quick to point out where the two cases diverge; however, we still conclude that In re L.L.B. is factually similar enough to be helpful in reaching our ultimate conclusion that the district court did err.

¶12      In In re L.L.B., like the situation in the case before us, the district court terminated the father’s rights in order to allow a stepfather to adopt a child. Id. ¶ 15. Our court reversed. Id. ¶ 35.

¶13      In that case, less than a week after the birth of his child, the father left due to a drug relapse. Id. ¶ 2. Over the course of the next year, the father saw the child only twice. Id. A paternity agreement then granted the mother sole custody and awarded parent-time to the father. Id. ¶ 3. Three years later, the mother married the stepfather, with whom she and the child lived from that point on. Id. ¶ 4. For approximately five years, the father used his parent-time, but then the parents got into an argument. Id. Around that same time, the father and child were in a four-wheeling accident, which the mother suspected had been caused by the father’s alcohol use. Id. In the months that followed, the father’s parent-time was supervised because the mother was concerned that he was using drugs and alcohol around the child. Id.

¶14 About two years later, the mother and stepfather filed a petition in district court for termination of the father’s parental rights and the stepfather’s adoption of the child. Id. ¶ 5. At trial, the mother testified that in the nearly two-year period leading up to the proceedings, the father had attempted to contact the child only twice. Id. ¶ 7. She also testified that he was severely behind on child support payments, and he had never been involved in the child’s education. IdThe guardian ad litem testified that the child did not have a relationship with the father due to his absence and that, in contrast, the stepfather was “an excellent father” who had a “great bond” with the child. Id. ¶ 13 (cleaned up). Over the course of the case, the father relapsed, went to jail, and got sober. Id. ¶ 12. At the time of trial, he had a job and was again paying child support. Id.

¶15 The mother admitted that since filing the termination petition, she had not responded to the father’s requests to see the child. Id. ¶ 7. The father’s mother testified that she had tried “to stay in contact” with the child but had “difficulty getting responses” from the mother. Id. ¶ 9. After the termination petition had been filed, the father had seen the child once and had written letters to the mother, sent a gift, and emailed the child. Id. ¶ 11.

¶16 The district court concluded that the child deserved a “healthy, stable family relationship” with the stepfather, who was the child’s father figure, and that it was in the child’s best interest for the adoption to go forward. Id. ¶ 15 (cleaned up). Because the adoption could not occur without termination of the father’s parental rights, the district court determined “by clear and convincing evidence that it [was] ‘strictly necessary’” to terminate the father’s rights. Id. Our court reversed because the district court’s conclusion that termination was in the child’s best interest went “against the clear weight of the evidence.” Id. ¶ 34. We will discuss some of the applicable reasoning from In re L.L.B. in our ensuing analysis.

¶17      Here, the district court based its decision that termination was in the best interest of EE and LE primarily on two categorical concerns. First, the court stated that the children needed permanency by reasoning that it was “in the best interest of the children to have a normal family life and a permanent home and to have a positive nurturing family relationship with a mother and father.” Second, the court reasoned that Father’s absence while incarcerated required termination of his rights because “weekly visits at the prison . . . are not an adequate substitute to a father in the home and do little to maintain the bond between parent and child.” But categorical concerns such as these are not enough to overcome the legislative presumption that it is in the best interest of children to be raised by their natural parents. We now address why these concerns are insufficient grounds to terminate Father’s rights.

  1. Permanency

¶18 “As our supreme court has explained, categorical concerns about the lack of permanence of an option other than adoption are not enough, otherwise termination and adoption would be strictly necessary across the board.” In re L.L.B., 2023 UT App 66, ¶ 23, 532 P.3d 592 (cleaned up). Just as in In re L.L.B., while we understand the concern about what Stepfather’s legal rights may be regarding the children if Mother dies or Mother and Stepfather divorce,[4] this concern is present in many termination cases, and it does not lead us to the conclusion here “that termination of a parent’s rights is in the [children’s] best interest.” Id.

¶19      Relatedly, Father argues that the district court erred because it did not find that “the present quality of the [c]hildren’s relationship with Stepfather would be changed by adoption.” We agree and see no evidence on the record that—excluding a tragedy like Mother’s death—the adoption will change the living situation or custody of the children. The absence of such a change “is a factor that may weigh against termination in some cases.” In re B.T.B., 2018 UT App 157, ¶ 56, 436 P.3d 206 (cleaned up), aff’d, 2020 UT 60, 472 P.3d 827. Just as in In re L.L.B., we see no findings from the district court that EE and LE’s “current living situation [is] not healthy and stable” or that their living situation will change in any way if Stepfather does not adopt them. See 2023 UT App 66, ¶ 27. Indeed, we see no evidence, or even an assertion, that Stepfather’s love, care, or attachment would change in the absence of an adoption decree.

¶20      Thus, the categorical concern of stability and permanency does not support the court’s decision to terminate Father’s parental rights.

  1. Incarceration

¶21      Because Father has been in and out of prison for much of the children’s lives, the district court relied on the categorical concern of his incarceration to support its termination decision. While it is true that it is much harder for incarcerated parents to be engaged in their children’s lives, the legislature’s policy that we must begin with an assumption that it is in the best interest of children “to be raised under the care and supervision of [their] natural parents” does not support a categorical rule that incarcerated parents’ rights should be terminated. In re D.S., 2023 UT App 98, ¶ 18, 535 P.3d 843 (cleaned up), cert. granted, Jan. 25, 2024 (No. 20230877). In In re D.S., our court recently reversed a juvenile court’s termination of parental rights in the case of a father who was incarcerated at the time. Id. ¶ 33. The father there expressed “a desire to have a stronger relationship” with his children. Id. ¶ 11 (cleaned up). This court determined that “a parent’s desire to build and maintain—coupled with efforts to actually maintain—a meaningful relationship with a child is a factor that will often weigh in favor of . . . a determination that it is in the child’s best interest to keep the relationship intact.” Id. ¶ 27. Our court also explained that the father’s desire to have visitation with his children upon his release should also be “viewed positively” in the best-interest inquiry. Id.

¶22      Here, Father is currently incarcerated and has not, at the present, turned his life around like the father in In re L.L.B, 2023 UT App 66, ¶ 30, 532 P.3d 592However, Father has expressed that he misses the children and has a desire to “support them in their daily lives, their school, [and] their personal affairs.” Father said that he is “glad that they are living a decent” life, but he still wants to be a part of that life. We acknowledge and credit Father’s desire to build a relationship with the children despite his incarceration. Additionally, from 2013 to 2018, Father interacted with the children in the only avenue available to him as an incarcerated parent—through “at most, a weekly visit” at the prison. And though these visits did not continue during his subsequent periods of incarceration, it was at this point that Father had no means of contacting his children due to Mother’s actions.

¶23      Furthermore, there is no evidence that Father’s relationship with EE and LE is harmful to them—just as in In re L.L.B. where there was no finding that the father’s presence “affirmatively harmed” the child or that the father’s “attempts to exercise his parental rights” in any way “negatively affected or disrupted” the child’s life. 2023 UT App 66, ¶ 24; see also In re D.S., 2023 UT App 98, ¶ 24 (reversing termination of an incarcerated father’s parental rights in part because there was “no indication that [the father’s] continuing relationship” with the children was “harmful to them, rather than merely perhaps inconvenient”). Here, neither party has raised any concerns about Father ever

posing a threat to or endangering the children. This is important. Even in In re L.L.B., though the father had turned his life around, there were instances in the past of concern for the child’s safety, such as the four-wheeling accident and supervised visits over fear of the father’s substance abuse. See 2023 UT App 66, ¶ 4. We note that in In re L.L.B our court emphasized that courts must weigh parental conduct in the past against later conduct and that the father was a “presently fit and capable” parent. Id. ¶ 29 (cleaned up). We only point to this concern to emphasize that no such circumstance exists here.

¶24      Thus, not only is the district court’s reliance on the fact of Father’s incarceration unsupported in this case, but the creation of such a categorical rule goes against Utah’s statutes and caselaw.

III. Other Concerns

¶25      Mother and Stepfather, in an effort to distinguish In re L.L.B. from the present case, point to the fact that, unlike Father, the father in that case made “many” attempts to communicate with the children after his incarceration. 2023 UT App 66, ¶ 29, 532 P.3d 592. However, Father’s argument is well-taken that the district court determined this lack of communication was “largely the result of Mother and Stepfather’s interference.” Mother moved the children without telling Father or providing any means of contacting them. This lack of communication should not be held wholly against Father as it was the result of Mother’s actions; to do so would certainly encourage other parents to prevent communication in an effort to similarly strengthen their cases for termination of parental rights.

¶26      Relatedly, any lack of relationship—or as the court put it “destruction” of the relationship—between the children and Father’s extended family was due to Mother’s lack of support and her “failure to respond to [the extended family’s] efforts . . . to see the children.” Mother’s failure to respond to these efforts should likewise not be held against Father.

¶27      Thus, looking holistically at the evidence presented, as courts are required to do, see id. ¶ 21, we conclude that the evidence does not clearly and convincingly demonstrate that termination of Father’s parental rights was in EE’s and LE’s best interest. In our view, the primary bases for the district court’s decision were its categorical conclusions about the need for permanency and the insubstantial nature of a parent/child relationship when a parent is incarcerated. We view Utah precedent as precluding reliance on such categorical concerns. And we view the remainder of the district court’s findings to be insufficient to meet the required burden of proof once these bases are removed from the analysis. Given our legislature’s clear expression that, “as a matter of state policy, the default position is that it is in the best interest and welfare of a child to be raised under the care and supervision of the child’s natural parents,” id. ¶ 31 (cleaned up), we must reverse.

¶28      The court’s order in the adoption decree relied on the termination of all Father’s “rights, duties and responsibilities, including residual parental rights.” Accordingly, with our reversal of the termination order, we also reverse the adoption decree. While this decision is final, it does not preclude the possibility of future termination and adoption proceedings if there is a material change in circumstances.

CONCLUSION

¶29      The district court’s conclusion that the termination of Father’s parental rights was in the best interest of EE and LE was against the clear weight of the evidence. As a consequence of this error, the court also erred when it granted Stepfather’s adoption of the children in reliance on termination of Father’s rights. We therefore reverse.

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


[1] Regarding this opinion’s omission of periods following initials, see A.W. v. Marelli, 2024 UT App 8, ¶ 1 n.1. This practice is consistent with The Chicago Manual of Style, which states that if “an entire name is abbreviated, spaces and periods can usually be omitted.” The Chicago Manual of Style Online ¶ 10.12 (17th ed. 2017).

[2] A third child, JE, was initially a part of these proceedings but has since turned eighteen and is no longer included.

[3] In the same case, our supreme court determined that a court may terminate parental rights only “when it concludes that a different option is in the child’s best interest and that termination is strictly necessary to facilitate that option.” In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 66, 472 P.3d 827 (emphasis added). The district court here made the legal determination that the legislature intended a strictly necessary requirement to apply to the Utah Adoption Act (UAA) for district courts. Yet, the court did not make any subsidiary findings or give reasoned analysis as to whether termination was strictly necessary here; instead, it simply noted in the order’s conclusion that it was strictly necessary to terminate Father’s rights to allow the adoption to proceed. Both parties make arguments on appeal whether the district court erred in this conclusion but neither addresses whether the strictly necessary requirement is even appropriate to apply.

The UAA applies to district courts and reads as follows: “The district court may terminate an individual’s parental rights in a child if . . . the individual’s parental rights are terminated on grounds described in Title 80, Chapter 4, Termination and Restoration of Parental Rights, and termination is in the best interests of the child.” Utah Code § 78B-6-112(5)(e).

Comparatively, the Termination of Parental Rights Act applies to juvenile courts and reads as follows: “[I]f the juvenile court finds termination of parental rights, from the child’s point of view, is strictly necessary, the juvenile court may terminate all parental rights with respect to the parent if the juvenile court finds any one of the [listed grounds for termination].” Id. § 80-4-301(1) (emphasis added).

The case in which our supreme court stated that the best interest of the child analysis includes the strictly necessary requirement was an appeal from juvenile court. See In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 1. The supreme court has not yet addressed whether this analysis also applies to appeals from a district court— particularly given the absence of the “strictly necessary” language in the UAA.

Our court recently acknowledged, but did not answer, this same question in In re L.L.B. when it determined that it did not need to address the issue because “even without considering the strictly necessary part of the best-interest analysis . . . there [was] not clear and convincing evidence supporting the district court’s conclusion that termination of Father’s parental rights was in [the child’s] best interest.” 2023 UT App 66, ¶ 18, 532 P.3d 592. We conclude the same and will not address the issue further.

[4] The legislature might wish to consider that our court frequently sees this issue raised by stepparents who are concerned over what their legal role will be in a child’s life if their spouse—the child’s natural parent—dies. A statute addresses this concern for grandparents, but no such legal protections exist for stepparents. See Utah Code § 30-5-2(4); see also In re S.T.T., 2006 UT 46, ¶ 30, 144 P.3d 1083 (upholding the statute recognizing that the death of one parent creates potential conflict between the surviving parent and the “in-law” grandparents and, accordingly, providing “an avenue for grandparents and grandchildren to maintain their relationship” through visitation rights).

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In re O.N. – 2024 UT App 27 – failure to sign notice of appeal

In re O.N. – 2024 UT App 27

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF O.N. AND R.N., PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

K.D., Appellant, v. STATE OF UTAH, Appellee.

Per Curiam Opinion

No. 20230987-CA

Filed March 7, 2024

Sixth District Juvenile Court, Kanab Department

The Honorable Alex Goble

No. 1215052

Emily Adams, Attorney for Appellant Sean D. Reyes and John M. Peterson,

Attorneys for Appellee Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

Before JUDGES RYAN M. HARRIS, RYAN D. TENNEY, and JOHN D. LUTHY.

PER CURIAM:

¶1        K.D. (Mother) moves to reinstate her appeal after it was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction due to an insufficient notice of appeal.

¶2        Mother’s motion is pursuant to rule 23A of the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure, which permits an “appeal dismissed for failure to take a step other than the timely filing of a notice of appeal” to be reinstated by the court under certain circumstances. Mother contends that the failure of a parent to sign a notice of appeal from a child welfare order is a “failure to take a step other than the timely filing of a notice of appeal” and that her appeal should be reinstated. However, the failure to take other steps within the scope of the rule are administrative matters in the appeal process rather than jurisdictional defects.

¶3        The content required in a notice of appeal in child welfare proceedings is set forth in both statute and rule. See Utah Code § 78A-6-359(2); Utah R. App. P. 53. Both require a parent’s signature to complete the notice of appeal. See Utah Code § 78A­6-359(2)(b); Utah R. App. P. 53(b). A parent’s signature is identified as a jurisdictional requirement under statute: “If [a parent] fails to timely sign a notice of appeal, the appeal shall be dismissed.” Utah Code § 78A-6-359(2)(c). The lack of a parent’s signature means the notice of appeal is not complete and is insufficient to invoke the court’s jurisdiction regardless of when it was filed. See In re D.E., 2006 UT App 391, ¶¶ 2, 6, 147 P.3d 462 (per curiam) (holding that a notice of appeal unsigned by the parent was insufficient even though filed within fifteen days); see also In re adoption of A.B., 2010 UT 55, ¶ 17, 245 P.3d 711 (“If an appellant fails to file a signed notice of appeal in conformity with [rule 53], the appeal shall be dismissed.” (quotation simplified)); cf. In re adoption of B.B., 2017 UT 59, ¶ 106, 417 P.3d 1 (noting that the contents of a notice of appeal can have jurisdictional consequences).

¶4        In sum, the signature requirement is a jurisdictional element of a notice of appeal in a child welfare proceeding. “Utah appellate courts lack jurisdiction over an appeal . . . if the notice of appeal is not filed in strict compliance with Utah’s notice of appeal requirements.” In re adoption of A.B., 2010 UT 55, ¶ 25. When an appellate court has never obtained jurisdiction over a case, then by definition no appeal was ever instated. And if no appeal in the matter was instated, it cannot be reinstated. Accordingly, reinstatement is not available under rule 23A.[1] The motion to reinstate the appeal is denied.

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


[1] Notably, a rule change is pending that might provide for a different outcome in future cases that present circumstances similar to those presented here. Our decision here, however, is dictated by the current rule and the case law interpreting it.

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How can you appeal a child custody decision?

You have to show that the trial court that made the child custody decision committed an appealable error.

Many people believe that an appeal of a trial court’s decision is a “second bite at the apple”-style situation, that if you simply don’t like the outcome of the trial, then you can “appeal” the decision and get the appellate court to “re-try” the case on disputed facts. That is not how an appeal works.

The appellate courts do not retry cases or hear new evidence. They do not hear witnesses testify. There is no jury. Appellate courts review the procedures and the decisions in the trial court to make sure that the proceedings were fair and that the proper law was applied correctly (reference: Do appellate courts hear evidence? (LegalKnowledgeBase.com)).

As for just how a trial court’s decision is appealed, that is a rather complicated process that few who are not attorneys (and attorneys either with experience in appellate practice or geniuses who have the time to learn appellate while working their full-time jobs) can undertake successfully.

You also need to know that there is very short time limit for filing an appeal, and that filing an appeal is very expensive (although in some jurisdictions certain kinds of appeals may, under certain circumstances, entitle a parent to the services of an appellate attorney free of charge, such as in termination of parental rights cases in the jurisdiction where I practice law (Utah)).

If you want to appeal a trial court’s decision, talk to an appellate practice attorney immediately.

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

https://www.quora.com/How-can-you-appeal-a-child-custody-decision/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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Clarke v. Clarke – 2023 UT App 160

2023 UT App 160

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

EDWIN M. CLARKE,

Appellee,

v.

ANGOZI R.S. CLARKE,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20220067-CA

Filed December 29, 2023

Third District Court, Silver Summit Department

The Honorable Teresa Welch

No. 174500147

Cassie Medura and Jarrod H. Jennings,

Attorneys for Appellant

Julie J. Nelson and Rebecca Ross,

Attorneys for Appellee

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

HARRIS, Judge:

¶1        After about twenty years of marriage, Edwin (Ed) and Angozi (Anne) Clarke separated in 2016, and their divorce case proceeded to a four-day bench trial in late 2020 and early 2021. Anne appeals from some of the trial court’s findings and conclusions regarding the financial aspects of the case, chiefly the court’s determination as to how much alimony Ed was ordered to pay. And she appeals the court’s denial of her motion for a new trial. We reject Anne’s arguments and affirm the court’s rulings.

 

BACKGROUND

¶2        Ed and Anne[1] married in September 1996. Ed commenced this divorce action in 2017. During their marriage, the parties had three children together, none of whom are minors now and only one of whom was a minor at the time of trial. The bulk of the pretrial litigation in this case concerned the parties’ children, but none of the trial court’s eventual rulings regarding custody are at issue in this appeal; rather, the matters at issue here are exclusively financial.

¶3        Ed is an airline pilot by trade, and in the years leading up to trial he worked for Delta Air Lines (Delta); in 2016, he was promoted to captain. Anne was also employed during the marriage; the trial court found that, since 2006, she had been “self-employed as an Independent Clothing Salesperson” affiliated with a clothing company. Prior to trial, the parties exchanged several financial disclosures, including information about their respective incomes and claimed monthly expenses. As trial approached, the court entered a pretrial order commanding that the parties exchange “[u]pdated [f]inancial [s]tatements . . . 21 days prior to the scheduled trial date.”

¶4        Trial was eventually scheduled for a three-day setting in November 2020. In keeping with the pretrial scheduling order, the parties exchanged updated financial information in the weeks prior to the scheduled trial date. Anne submitted an updated financial declaration in September 2020, therein asserting that her gross employment income was $1,674 per month (not including alimony and child support payments Ed was making pursuant to a temporary order), that her total net income (including alimony and child support, but after taxes) was $3,894 per month, and that her expenses were $8,093 per month. Regarding expenses, the form she used contained two columns for each line item, one for the “current amount” and one for “marital expenses.” Anne filled out only the “current amount” column; she left the “marital expenses” column blank.

¶5      In his final pretrial disclosures, Ed submitted an updated financial declaration indicating that his net income was $14,849 per month. Regarding expenses, Ed filled out both columns, indicating that his “current” expenses were $16,399 and that his monthly “marital expenses” had been $17,007. Ed also produced documentation supporting his assertions regarding income and expenses, including his tax returns from 2015 through 2019, as well as a paystub dated September 30, 2020 that included 2020 year-to-date income information. While Anne raised one pretrial concern with Ed’s financial disclosures, she did not litigate that concern to completion,[2] and she lodged no other objection prior to or during trial to the scope of Ed’s financial disclosures.

¶6        Trial began on November 10, 2020. The most prominent issues at trial were financial ones, chiefly Anne’s request for alimony, and much of the trial was devoted to evidence of the parties’ respective incomes and expenses. The disputes were especially pointed regarding Ed’s income and Anne’s expenses. Neither side called any financial experts to the stand; the only witnesses to offer evidence regarding the parties’ finances were the parties themselves.

¶7        Ed was on the witness stand for the better part of three days, and he offered testimony about his income. He explained that, in 2016, he was promoted to captain and thereby earned a substantial raise, and that during the years 2016 through 2018 he earned relatively consistent annual amounts, from approximately $271,000 to $292,000. In 2019, however, he earned a significantly higher salary, making approximately $349,000. He testified that, given the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing change in worldwide travel conditions in 2020, this 2019 pay increase was anomalous and not representative of his earning capacity at the time of trial. He explained that his 2019 income was higher than usual because, during that year, “Delta experienced a pilot shortage” that enabled him “to work significant overtime” during this “high demand time.” And he explained that the pandemic had significantly impacted Delta’s business in several ways. In 2020, there were “far too many pilots for the flight schedules being flown,” and therefore he was not able to work even pre-2019 hours, let alone the increased 2019 hours. In addition, he explained that before the pandemic, he had, as a captain, received a profit-sharing payment from Delta; that payment from 2019 had been significant, totaling over $51,000. But he testified that, given the state of Delta’s business in 2020, he was unlikely to receive any profit-sharing payment for that year, or for the foreseeable short-term future. He testified that, given these circumstances, the income that he received during September 2020—as reflected on his paystub from that month—was most indicative of his earning capacity moving forward. In his proposed post-trial findings, Ed indicated that his net monthly income was $13,358.32, based on then-current tax codes. And he testified that his marital expenses were consistent with what he had listed on his most recent financial declaration.

¶8        Anne offered very little testimony regarding her income and expenses. She did, however, testify briefly about certain business expenses that she believed should be deducted from her income for alimony purposes. She offered no testimony regarding her total net income or how it should be computed, but she indicated in written filings (including her post-trial proposed findings) that her net income from employment (not including alimony and child support) was $920 per month.

¶9        Both parties also testified that they should receive credit, or “offsets,” for previous expenditures made using their personal funds for items or matters for which they believed both parties should be equally responsible. For instance, Ed asked for reimbursement of payments he made for maintenance of the marital home and for certain child-related expenses. Anne asked for repayment of other child-related expenses and for costs incurred in moving out of the marital home around the time of separation, and she sought some sort of credit for various other instances where she alleged Ed had used her personal funds.

¶10      As the three scheduled November 2020 trial days drew to a close, it became apparent that the parties were going to need additional time to present their evidence. After some discussion, the court agreed to schedule a fourth trial day, but the parties and the court did not have mutual availability until February 2021. Thus, the court scheduled a fourth trial day for February 11, and it scheduled closing arguments to take place on March 9.

¶11      A few weeks after the closing arguments, the court issued a lengthy ruling containing its findings of fact and conclusions of law.[3] In that ruling, the court indicated that it found Ed’s testimony about his income to be credible, and on that basis determined that the years 2019 and 2020 were both anomalous with regard to Ed’s income, and that neither year was “indicative of his normal or foreseeable income.” Instead, the court determined that the most accurate measure of Ed’s earning capacity, as of the time of trial, was an average of his 2016, 2017, and 2018 earnings. The court also believed that Ed was unlikely to receive profit-sharing income from Delta “for the foreseeable future.” Thus, the court did not include profit sharing as part of Ed’s gross income calculation. Using Ed’s 2016, 2017, and 2018 tax returns and averaging the income figures found there, the court determined that Ed’s gross monthly earning capacity, for child support and alimony purposes, was $20,452.25. And the court calculated Ed’s net income “by applying current tax rates to” the gross income figure it had come up with. Using this methodology, the court calculated Ed’s net monthly earning capacity as $13,358.32. And it calculated Ed’s reasonable monthly expenses, in light of the marital standard of living, to be $10,249.46.

¶12 The court calculated Anne’s gross earning capacity by averaging her earnings from 2015 through 2019 and then concluding, on that basis, that her earning capacity was $3,158.50 per month. The court declined Anne’s invitation to subtract business expenses from that figure, noting that, under applicable law, “[o]nly those expenses necessary to allow the business to operate at a reasonable level may be deducted from gross receipts,” and concluding that Anne had “failed to explain which, if any, business expenses claimed on her tax returns are necessary to allow [her clothing enterprise] to operate at a reasonable level.”

¶13      The court then noted that “[n]o testimony was offered at trial regarding” how to calculate Anne’s net income. The court found it “difficult to ascertain the amount of tax [Anne] actually [paid] based upon her income” given that Anne had “been receiving alimony during the pendency of the case” and had been “responsible for the tax consequences of her alimony income,” but due to changes in the tax code subsequent alimony payments would “be received tax-free.” Given these difficulties, the court looked to Anne’s 2017 tax return for guidance, and it determined that Anne had paid $390.35 in taxes on a monthly basis that year; it then applied that same tax-paid figure to Anne’s future income. Using this methodology, the court determined that Anne’s net monthly earning capacity was $2,768.25.[4]

¶14 In determining Anne’s reasonable monthly expenses, the court primarily relied on Anne’s most recent financial declaration. The court found Anne’s latest declaration to be more credible than earlier versions, explaining that Anne had testified that one of the earlier declarations was “inaccurate,” and opining that another one was “uncredible” because it claimed monthly expenses that were “more than the gross earnings of both Parties combined for the last full year of the marriage.” For the most part, the court found the expenses claimed in Anne’s most recent declaration “to be reasonable in light of the marital standard of living.” However, the court found that a few of the listed expenses were “post-separation debt for which [Anne was] solely responsible,” and it therefore deducted those expenses from the calculation. But without being asked to do so, the court added to Anne’s list a line item for health care expenses. With these adjustments, and based largely on Anne’s own requests, the court calculated Anne’s reasonable monthly expenses as $6,218.

¶15 Using these findings and conclusions, the court then computed Anne’s alimony award. In particular, it concluded that Anne had a monthly shortfall of $3,449.75 (the difference between Anne’s expenses and her earning capacity). And it concluded that Ed had capacity to pay $2,937.11 (the difference between Ed’s expenses and his earning capacity). The court split the difference between these figures, in an effort to “equalize the poverty,” as it were, and therefore ordered Ed to pay alimony to Anne in the amount of $3,193.43 per month. Separately, however, the court ruled that, in the event Ed did “receive profit sharing amounts” from Delta “during the years that [he] is paying alimony” to Anne, he would be required to make an additional payment to Anne of half of any such amount, after taxes.

¶16 The court also made a separate finding regarding the amount that the parties had been spending on a monthly basis during the marriage, an amount the court referred to as “the parties’ marital standard of living.” Using the expenses listed on Ed’s financial declaration as a starting point (after all, he was the only one who had filled out the “marital expenses” column on the form) and then making certain adjustments, the court concluded that the parties “marital standard of living” was $15,745.73 per month. But this figure did not play any role in the court’s mathematical calculation of Anne’s alimony award; as noted, the court calculated that amount by computing Anne’s shortfall and Ed’s ability to pay, and then by “equalizing the poverty.”

¶17      The court also made rulings dividing the parties’ property, assets, and debts, and most of those rulings are not at issue in this appeal. As relevant here, however, the court awarded Ed offsets for certain expenditures that “were used for family or child-related expenses, for which [Anne] should be equally responsible.” Anne also requested offsets, but the court declined to award them for several reasons, most notably because the court found that Anne “failed to provide credible and sufficient proof” supporting her requests. The court also concluded that Anne’s requests for offsets had not been timely asserted because they were “first mentioned in her Trial Brief (filed five days before trial)” and therefore Ed had been deprived of any opportunity to “conduct discovery on these requested offsets.”

¶18      Later, the court entered a decree of divorce incorporating its findings and conclusions. A few weeks after that, Anne filed a motion asking for a new trial or, in the alternative, for amendments to the decree. The main grievance asserted in this motion was Anne’s allegation that Ed had withheld relevant financial information indicating that his income was higher than he testified at trial. Shortly before filing this motion, Anne had obtained a copy of Ed’s 2020 W-2 form which, in her view, indicated that Ed had earned approximately $25,000 per month in gross income during October, November, and December 2020. Anne argued in her motion that Ed was in possession of this information during trial—certainly by the fourth day of trial, which was held in February 2021—but he did not inform her or the court of these developments. Anne also claimed that there existed “new evidence” showing that Ed was back to working at least some overtime hours during 2021 and that Delta was recovering from the pandemic faster than Ed had testified.

¶19      After full briefing, the court denied Anne’s motion, stating that Anne “did not prove the existence of newly discovered evidence that existed at the time of the trial (as opposed to facts or evidence that occurred subsequent to trial),” and noting that a “petition to modify is the appropriate mechanism for any pertinent changes that occur after trial.”

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶20      Anne now appeals, taking issue with certain aspects of the court’s post-trial findings and conclusions, as well as with the court’s denial of her motion for a new trial.

¶21      As noted, all of Anne’s challenges to the court’s findings and conclusions involve financial rulings. “In divorce actions, a [trial] court is permitted considerable discretion in adjusting the financial and property interests of the parties, and its actions are entitled to a presumption of validity.” Gardner v. Gardner, 2019 UT 61, ¶ 18, 452 P.3d 1134 (quotation simplified); see also Miner v. Miner, 2021 UT App 77, ¶ 11, 496 P.3d 242 (“We review all aspects of the trial court’s alimony determination for an abuse of discretion . . . .” (quotation simplified)). “We will reverse only if (1) there was a misunderstanding or misapplication of the law resulting in substantial and prejudicial error; (2) the factual findings upon which the award was based are clearly erroneous; or (3) the party challenging the award shows that such a serious inequity has resulted as to manifest a clear abuse of discretion.” Gardner, 2019 UT 61, ¶ 18 (quotation simplified). “Appellants have a heavy burden to show that an alleged error falls into any of these three categories” because “we can properly find abuse only if no reasonable person would take the view adopted by the trial court.” Id. (quotation simplified).

¶22      Anne also challenges the court’s denial of her motion for a new trial. “There are two aspects to a court’s decision-making process in ruling on a motion for new trial, and there are differences in the manner in which we review each aspect.” Peterson v. Hyundai Motor Co., 2021 UT App 128, ¶ 30, 502 P.3d 320 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 509 P.3d 768 (Utah 2022). “First, a trial court must determine that there exists a problem . . . that may require a retrial.” Id. ¶ 31. Some of the grounds for retrial listed in rule 59(a) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure “cannot be found to exist without some sort of factual determination on the part of the trial court,” and we review any such determination for abuse of discretion. Id. But other grounds, such as “the existence of legal errors,” “require no factual determination on the part of the trial court,” and rulings on these grounds are reviewed for correctness. Id. “Second, after determining that an error or impropriety of some kind exists, a trial court must determine whether the identified errors or improprieties are significant enough to warrant a retrial.” Id. ¶ 32. And this determination is usually reviewed for abuse of discretion. Id.

ANALYSIS

¶23      In this appeal, Anne challenges two aspects of the court’s rulings regarding the parties’ finances. Chiefly, Anne takes issue with the court’s alimony award; in her view, the award was, for several reasons, not big enough. She also asks us to review the court’s decisions regarding the parties’ claimed offsets. For the reasons explained below, we reject Anne’s challenges.

I. Alimony

¶24 Anne assails the court’s alimony award on several grounds. First, she takes issue with the court’s rulings regarding Ed’s gross monthly earning capacity. Second, with regard to her own earning capacity, she challenges the denial of her request that the court take into account certain claimed business expenses.[5] Third, she asserts that the court erred in computing the parties’ net (after-tax) incomes. And finally, she assails the overall alimony computation, arguing that the court did not properly take the parties’ pre-separation standard of living into account in assessing her reasonable monthly expenses. We discuss each argument, in turn, and find none of them persuasive.

A. Ed’s Gross Earning Capacity

¶25 Anne’s challenge to the court’s rulings regarding Ed’s gross earning capacity has two parts. First, Anne asks us to review the court’s original findings and conclusions. And second, Anne takes issue with the court’s denial of her motion for a new trial.

1

¶26      After considering the evidence presented during the four-day trial, the court made findings regarding Ed’s earning capacity. In particular, it determined that Ed’s current earning capacity, viewed from the perspective of a trial that occurred in late 2020 and early 2021, was best estimated by looking at his income in 2016, 2017, and 2018. In the court’s view, Ed’s 2019 income was anomalous, because he had worked significantly more that year than in previous years, and he was unlikely to work that much in the near future. And the court determined not to use Ed’s 2020 income either, given the uncertainty in the airline industry that year due to the pandemic. The court decided that the best indicator of Ed’s current earning capacity was an average of the three years prior to these two anomalous years. And the court determined not to include Delta profit-sharing payments in the income calculation, on the basis that—at the time of trial— airlines were struggling due to the pandemic and therefore Ed was unlikely to receive any profit-sharing payments “in the foreseeable future.” Using these parameters, the court calculated Ed’s “gross monthly income” as $20,452.25.

¶27 There was ample evidence presented during the trial to support these findings and conclusions. The parties presented tax returns and paystubs setting forth Ed’s salary and other income, and Ed offered extensive testimony in this regard that the court expressly found credible.[6] The court also heard evidence regarding conditions in the airline industry in 2019 and 2020, and about the COVID-19 pandemic. The trial record therefore contains evidence sufficient to support the court’s findings regarding which years to use in the income calculation, and regarding the specific amounts computed. And where there exists evidence sufficient to support a court’s rulings regarding a divorcing couple’s finances, that ruling will be upheld on appeal, even if evidence was presented that might have cut the other way. See Kimball v. Kimball, 2009 UT App 233, ¶ 20 n.5, 217 P.3d 733 (“The pill that is hard for many appellants to swallow is that if there is evidence supporting a finding, absent a legal problem—a ‘fatal flaw’—with that evidence, the finding will stand, even though there is ample record evidence that would have supported contrary findings. After all, it is the trial court’s singularly important mission to consider and weigh all the conflicting evidence and find the facts.”).

¶28 Anne resists this conclusion by asserting that the court specifically erred in excluding any profit-sharing payments from the income calculation. She points out—correctly—that Utah law defines “gross income” as including “prospective income from any source.” See Utah Code § 78B-12-203(1). But the court found— based on prevailing economic conditions existing at the time of trial—that Ed was unlikely to “receive profit sharing payments for the foreseeable future,” and on that basis chose not to include those amounts in its calculation of Ed’s income. As noted, there was evidence to support this determination, and it therefore survives Anne’s appellate challenge.

¶29 Moreover, we have held that, while trial courts must “consider all sources of income when determining alimony,” Utah law “does not dictate that all sources of income be counted as income received by a spouse for that purpose.” Eberhard v. Eberhard, 2019 UT App 114, ¶ 21, 449 P.3d 202. Instead, our case law “preserv[es] a [trial] court’s broad discretion to treat sources of income as the court sees fit under the circumstances.” Id. Here, the trial court certainly considered the profit-sharing component of Ed’s historical income. And after consideration, it determined not to include profit sharing in Ed’s income calculation due to unfavorable economic conditions in existence at the time of trial, but it did order—separately—that, if economic conditions improved and Ed ended up receiving profit-sharing payments from Delta “during the years that [he] is paying alimony” to Anne, Ed would be “required to pay [Anne] half” of any such payments. As Ed points out, this order has the potential to be much better for Anne, in terms of dollars received over time,

than the order she is now asserting the court should have entered. But more to the point, it was well within the court’s discretion to craft this sort of creative solution to the parties’ alimony conundrum.

¶30      In short, the trial court’s findings regarding Ed’s gross monthly earning capacity were amply supported by evidence presented during the trial, and the court’s final computations and orders were not an abuse of its discretion.

2

¶31 Next, Anne takes issue with the court’s decision to deny her motion for a new trial. In that motion, Anne asked the court to order that a new trial be held in light of information— that she claimed was new—regarding Ed’s income. In particular, Anne asserted that Ed had, during trial, withheld relevant financial information indicating that his income in late 2020 and early 2021 was higher than he testified at trial. Anne also claimed that there existed “new evidence” that Ed was back to working at least some overtime hours during 2021 and that Delta was recovering from the pandemic faster than Ed had testified. The court denied Anne’s motion, and declined her invitation to order a new trial. We perceive no error in this determination.

¶32      Under applicable rules, a new trial “may be granted to any party on any issue” for any one of several enumerated reasons. See Utah R. Civ. P. 59(a). Those reasons include “irregularity in the proceedings of the court, . . . or any order of the court, or abuse of discretion by which a party was prevented from having a fair trial,” id. R. 59(a)(1); “newly discovered material evidence that could not, with reasonable diligence, have been discovered and produced at the trial,” id. R. 59(a)(4); “insufficiency of the evidence to justify the verdict or other decision,” id. R. 59(a)(6); and “the verdict or decision [being] contrary to law or based on an error in law,” id. R. 59(a)(7). Anne asked for a new trial under each of these subsections, and we discuss them in turn.

¶33      Rule 59(a)(1): Anne first argues that she is entitled to a new trial because of an irregularity in the proceedings. She points to Ed’s 2020 W-2 form, which she obtained in September 2021 (several months after the conclusion of the trial), and she asserts that Ed’s testimony at trial was inconsistent with that document. She characterizes Ed’s testimony as materially inaccurate, and she accuses him of being less than candid with the court.[7] Based on these assertions, she concludes that there was an irregularity in the trial proceedings sufficient to justify a new trial.

¶34 In this vein, Anne asserts that Ed had an ongoing obligation, which continued even during trial, to supplement his pretrial disclosures with up-to-date financial information. She acknowledges that Ed provided then-current financial information in his final pretrial disclosures, which the court ordered the parties to exchange some three weeks prior to trial; this information included Ed’s September 2020 paystub, including year-to-date income information. But she asserts that, despite Ed’s compliance with the court’s pretrial disclosure order, Ed violated his ongoing supplementation obligation, an event she asserts contributed to creating an “irregularity” in the trial proceedings. She points out that, even though the trial was originally scheduled to conclude over three days in November 2020, the court eventually scheduled a fourth trial day to take place in February 2021. She acknowledges that, ordinarily, a party discharges its pretrial disclosure obligations by complying with the court’s pretrial disclosure order, but she asserts that, under the unique circumstances of this case—in which trial was extended for another three months, into another calendar year—Ed became obligated to update his financial disclosures without further order of the court and without any request on her part.

¶35 We are unpersuaded. When it scheduled the fourth trial date, the court did not amend its pretrial disclosure order, or otherwise command the parties to update their financial disclosures, one more time, prior to that trial date. We also note that Anne herself did not attempt to supplement her disclosures during trial (for instance, she did not provide her own year-end 2020 financial information to Ed prior to the fourth trial date in February), nor did she complain to the trial court, during trial, about Ed’s failure to do so.

¶36 And Anne cites no statute or case law in support of the specific position she advocates. The only rules to which she directs our attention are the ones containing parties’ general disclosure and supplementation obligations. See Utah R. Civ. P. 26(d)(5), 26.1. We acknowledge Anne’s point, and certainly agree with her that, during litigation, parties have ongoing supplementation obligations regarding their discovery disclosures. But we are aware of no specific rule compelling parties to continue to provide updated financial information after the final pretrial disclosure deadline; indeed, as we understand it, trial courts often set such deadlines so that trials can proceed in an orderly fashion and facilitate assessment of the litigants’ situation as of the date of the final financial disclosures.

¶37      Moreover, in the family law context, there exists a specific remedy for situations in which a party’s income changes materially after a trial has been held and findings about the parties’ financial situation have been made: a party may file a petition to modify the existing order. See id. R. 106; Utah Code §§ 30-3-5(11)(a), 78B-12-210(8). Indeed, in this case, the trial court

denied Anne’s motion for a new trial, at least in part, because it concluded that a “petition to modify is the appropriate mechanism” for addressing “any pertinent changes” in Ed’s income that have occurred “subsequent to trial.” We agree with the trial court that, ordinarily, the petition to modify remedy is the method that should be used to address post-trial changes in divorcing parties’ financial status. That remedy remains open to Anne here, despite the court’s denial of her motion for a new trial.

¶38      For all of these reasons, we perceive no abuse of discretion, under the circumstances presented here, in the trial court’s conclusion that Ed’s failure to provide ongoing paystubs and W-2 forms he received after the court’s final pretrial disclosure deadline did not constitute the sort of “irregularity in the proceedings” that would justify a new trial.

¶39      Rule 59(a)(4): Next, Anne argues that a new trial is necessary because of newly discovered evidence. See Utah R. Civ. P. 59(a)(4). Again, she points to Ed’s 2020 and 2021 W-2 forms, as well as new evidence about Delta’s 2021 resurgence, and asserts that this evidence constitutes “newly discovered material evidence” that would justify a new trial. We remain unpersuaded.

¶40      As an initial matter, “a motion for a new trial or amended judgment cannot be based on facts occurring subsequent to trial.” In re C.L., 2007 UT 51, ¶ 14, 166 P.3d 608 (quotation simplified). “Otherwise, there would be no end to litigation.” Id. (quotation simplified). Some of the “newly discovered evidence” obviously fits into this category: Ed’s 2021 W-2 was not available until well into 2022, and evidence of Delta’s 2021 resurgence was not available during any of the trial dates in this case.

¶41      Ed’s 2020 W-2 form, on the other hand, may well have been available, at least to Ed, prior to the fourth and final trial date in this case, which took place on February 11, 2021. But in order to demonstrate that the evidence in question is the kind of evidence that fits within rule 59(a)(4), Anne must show that the evidence “could not, by due diligence, have been discovered and produced

at trial.” Id. ¶ 12 (quotation simplified); see also Utah R. Civ. P. 59(a)(4) (stating that, to be “newly discovered material evidence,” the evidence in question “could not, with reasonable diligence, have been discovered and produced at the trial”). In our view, Anne has not carried her burden of demonstrating that Ed’s 2020 W-2 form could not have been discovered and discussed during the February 11 trial date. Ed testified during the proceedings on February 11, and Anne’s attorney had the opportunity to ask Ed questions that day. Yet Ed was not asked any questions about his income during late 2020 or early 2021, and in particular he was not asked if his income had changed appreciably in the months since September 2020, the last month for which documentary information had been presented during the November 2020 trial dates. We are hard-pressed to conclude that information about Ed’s income during the last three months of 2020 and the first two months of 2021 “could not, with reasonable diligence, have been discovered and produced” at the February 11 trial date, when Anne had the chance to ask Ed about those issues and did not.

¶42      For these reasons, we discern no abuse of discretion in the trial court’s determination that no new trial was warranted under rule 59(a)(4).

¶43      Rule 59(a)(6): Next, Anne suggests that the trial court should have granted a new trial on the basis that there was insufficient evidence to justify its conclusions. See Utah R. Civ. P. 59(a)(6). We need not discuss this issue further, however, given our conclusions—set forth above—that sufficient evidence existed to support the trial court’s original findings and conclusions regarding Ed’s gross earning capacity.

¶44      Rule 59(a)(7): Finally, Anne asserts that the trial court should have granted a new trial because its initial findings regarding Ed’s income were “contrary to law or based on an error in law.” See id. R. 59(a)(7). But in this regard, Anne does not make any additional arguments that we have not already addressed; as noted, we perceive no legal error in the court’s findings and conclusions regarding Ed’s gross earning capacity, and no legal

error in the way the court conducted the trial, including specifically its pretrial disclosure order.

¶45 Accordingly, we see no infirmity in the court’s rulings regarding Ed’s gross earning capacity. Its initial findings and conclusions were supported by sufficient evidence, and the court did not err in denying Anne’s motion for a new trial and advising Anne to address the issues raised there, if at all, in the context of a petition to modify the decree.

B. Anne’s Business Expenses

¶46 Anne’s next challenge to the court’s alimony award involves one aspect of its ruling regarding her own earning capacity. As noted, the court determined that Anne’s gross earning capacity was $3,158.50 per month; it derived that figure by averaging her earnings from 2015 through 2019. The court declined Anne’s invitation to subtract business expenses from that figure, concluding that Anne had “failed to explain which, if any, business expenses claimed on her tax returns are necessary to allow [her clothing enterprise] to operate at a reasonable level.” Anne takes issue with the court’s refusal to subtract her claimed business expenses from her monthly gross income computation.

¶47 Under applicable statutory guidance, when a court is assessing a self-employed person’s gross income, the court shall “subtract[] necessary expenses required for self-employment or business operation from gross receipts.” Utah Code § 78B-12­203(4)(a). However, “[o]nly those expenses necessary to allow the business to operate at a reasonable level may be deducted from gross receipts.” Id. “The person claiming business expenses” bears the burden of proving that the claimed “expenses are necessary to allow the business to operate at a reasonable level.” See Ouk v. Ouk, 2015 UT App 104, ¶ 4, 348 P.3d 751 (quotation simplified). Thus, Anne bore the burden of demonstrating, at trial, that her claimed business expenses were necessary to allow her business to operate at a reasonable level. The trial court concluded that Anne failed to carry that burden.

¶48 At trial, Anne pointed to the “Schedule Cs” on her 2017, 2018, and 2019 tax returns as evidence of her business expenses. There, she claimed expenses for “Office expense,” “Supplies,” “Travel,” and “Utilities,” among other more minor items. The trial court explained its reasoning for rejecting Anne’s claim on these items. With regard to “Office expense,” the court noted that Anne “did not explain what actual and necessary business expense this would entail,” and that Anne had “admitted that she does not have an office outside her home.” With regard to “Utilities,” the court noted that Anne had acknowledged that this expense was simply “personal expenses that she is permitted to write off for tax purposes,” and that Anne was unable, during her trial testimony, to “be certain what her claimed ‘Utilities’ expenses entailed.” And with regard to “Supplies,” the court concluded that the figure Anne listed on her tax returns was confusing, because it was unclear, even after Anne’s trial testimony, whether this figure properly accounted for revenue Anne received from selling some of these supplies “at the end of each season.” Given these evidentiary deficiencies, the court found that Anne “failed to meet her burden to demonstrate that the claimed business expenses are only those necessary to allow her business to operate at a reasonable level.”

¶49 We perceive no infirmity in this determination. Anne offered very little testimony about her business expenses, and she supported that testimony only with her tax returns. In its ruling, the court identified several legitimate concerns about the persuasiveness of the evidence Anne presented, and it determined that Anne had not carried her burden of proof. Trial courts have discretion to credit, or not credit, evidence presented to them. See id. ¶ 14 (stating that “the fact-finder is in the best position to judge the credibility of witnesses and is free to disbelieve their testimony” (quotation simplified)). Thus, under the circumstances of this case, the court did not abuse its discretion by finding that Anne had failed to carry her burden to prove the necessity of her business expenses.

C. Net Income Calculations

¶50      Anne’s next challenge to the alimony award involves the court’s net income calculations. She argues that, in assessing the impact of taxes on gross income, the court “miscalculated” her net income and “treated [her] differently than” it treated Ed.

¶51 Anne provided no testimony or documentary evidence regarding net income. That is, she offered the court no assistance in computing net income from the court’s gross income figures. And neither party hired an accountant or offered testimony from any other financial professional. Given these evidentiary realities, the court noted that it was “difficult to ascertain the amount of tax” Anne “actually pays,” especially given certain then-recent changes in the tax code regarding alimony. In the absence of better evidence, the court simply looked to Anne’s tax returns, which showed that, in 2017, Anne had paid $390.35 per month in combined federal and state taxes. The court then subtracted that number from its monthly gross income finding ($3,158.50), and found that Anne’s monthly net income, for alimony purposes, was $2,768.25. On appeal, Anne does not lodge any specific objection to this methodology at a conceptual level.

¶52      Instead, she complains that the court did not compute her net income in the same way as it computed Ed’s. In this, Anne is correct: the court did compute Ed’s net income in a different way. For Ed, the court simply took his gross income figure and applied a tax rate to it. As noted above, the court found that Ed’s monthly gross earning capacity was $20,452.25. The court simply applied “current tax rates” to that figure, without accounting for any potential tax deductions. Using this methodology, the court computed Ed’s monthly net income as $13,358.32.

¶53 Anne complains that using two different methodologies resulted in potential inequity: by using Anne’s actual “tax paid” figure from years past, the court accounted for any tax deductions she had taken, but by simply applying a tax rate to Ed’s gross income figure, the court did not similarly account for any tax deductions Ed might take in the future and effectively assumed that he wouldn’t take any. We take Anne’s point that, as a general matter and where possible, courts should compute divorcing parties’ net incomes for alimony purposes using the same methodology. But courts in appropriate cases may find it necessary to employ differing methodologies for computing spouses’ respective net incomes, and we cannot say that the court abused its discretion by doing so here.

¶54      In this case, there are differences between Anne’s and Ed’s situations. For starters, Anne did not offer any testimony or evidence regarding how the court should go about calculating her net income, so the court used the information it was given. More specifically, Anne did not provide the court any assistance in navigating the changes to the tax code regarding alimony. And with regard to Ed, the court would have found it difficult to use the “tax paid” figure from past tax returns, given that this figure may have included taxes paid on profit-sharing income, which the court had determined not to include in Ed’s future monthly gross income estimate. And as Ed points out, some of the key tax deductions he would have taken in past years (such as for children) would not be available to him in the future.

¶55 In our view, given the absence of any expert financial testimony, and given the paucity of assistance the parties offered the court in making these calculations, the court in this instance made findings within its discretion and supported by the evidence it was given. While we generally advise trial courts to use mirror-image methodologies to compute parties’ respective net incomes in family law cases, we cannot say that Anne has carried her appellate burden of demonstrating that the court abused its discretion by making the calculations it made.

D. Overall Alimony Computation

¶56 The final challenge Anne raises to the court’s alimony award is a more general one: she questions the formula the court used to arrive at its computation, and specifically challenges the manner in which the court assessed her reasonable monthly expenses. She notes that the court went to the trouble of making a finding regarding the parties’ overall marital standard of living ($15,745.73 per month), but she observes—correctly—that it is “unclear what role the marital standard of living then plays in the [c]ourt’s alimony determination.” And she points out that the court “did not use [this figure] as any sort of ‘baseline.’” It is not entirely clear exactly what Anne believes the court should have done with its $15,745.73 figure, but she complains that the court did not take it—and the marital standard of living—appropriately into account in assessing her expenses, and she laments that the court “based its alimony award wholly on [Anne’s] actual expenses at the time of trial.”

¶57 We see at least two problems with Anne’s argument, one general and one case-specific. At a general level, Anne misunderstands the formula that is to be used to compute alimony awards. As we recently observed, courts should not calculate alimony by simply dividing the couple’s pre-separation expenses in half. See Fox v. Fox, 2022 UT App 88, ¶¶ 18-19, 515 P.3d 481, cert. denied, 525 P.3d 1263 (Utah 2022). Indeed, we noted that “[t]here is usually no need for a trial court to make a separate specific finding regarding the overall ‘marital standard of living’ as measured by the total amount of money spent each month by the couple while they were married.” Id. ¶ 19. Such a finding is typically unnecessary; it is not one of the input variables that a court needs to assess before computing an alimony award.

¶58 In this case, the court did go to the trouble of making a finding about the parties’ monthly expenses prior to separation ($15,745.73). But as Anne points out, the court did not use that figure in its ultimate alimony calculation. In this case (as, we suspect, in most cases), such a finding was not necessary and only served to complicate matters. The court did not need to make this finding at all, and its failure to use the $15,745.73 figure in its alimony calculation was not error.

¶59      To be sure, trial courts may not ignore the marital standard of living when making an alimony award. The pre-separation standard of living must be taken into account, because the primary purpose of alimony is “to get the parties as close as possible to the same standard of living that existed during the marriage.” See Rule v. Rule, 2017 UT App 137, ¶ 14, 402 P.3d 153 (quotation simplified). But the way a court should take that standard into account is by assessing a party’s claimed line-item expenses in light of that standard, and not by making an overall-expenses finding and chopping it in half. See Fox, 2022 UT App 88, ¶¶ 19–21, 24; see also Miner v. Miner, 2021 UT App 77, ¶ 20, 496 P.3d 242 (examining each of the claimed line-item expenses “with the marital standard of living in mind”). To give effect to the marital standard of living, courts should—as a general rule— assess parties’ expenses as of the time of separation and not as of the time of trial. See Rule, 2017 UT App 137, ¶ 16 (cautioning “against determining alimony based upon actual expenses at the time of trial because . . . a party’s current, actual expenses may be necessarily lower than needed to maintain an appropriate standard of living for various reasons, including, possibly, lack of income” (quotation simplified)). But “in appropriate situations with regard to certain line items, a court may apply equitable principles, in its discretion, to base alimony on the standard of living that existed at the time of trial.” See Miner, 2021 UT App 77, ¶ 18 (quotation simplified). To assist with this process, the financial declaration form often used in family law cases—and used in this case—includes two columns for each expense item, one for “current amount” and one for “marital expenses.”

¶60      And this leads us to the case-specific problem with Anne’s argument: Anne provided the court with only time-of-trial expenses, and the court gave Anne credit for more or less everything she asked for on her financial declaration.

¶61      The trial court, after making its superfluous “marital standard of living” finding, then proceeded to use the correct formula to compute Anne’s alimony award. See Fox, 2022 UT App 88, ¶ 20. As relevant here, it correctly assessed “the needs of the parties, in light of their marital standard of living.” See id. (quotation simplified). In assessing Anne’s expenses, the court simply gave Anne everything she asked for—to the dollar—in her most recent financial declaration, with only a few exceptions. The court found that a few of the listed expenses were “post-separation debt for which [Anne] is solely responsible,” and it therefore deducted those expenses from the calculation.7F8 And without being asked to do so, the court added to Anne’s list a line item for health care expenses. With regard to all the rest of Anne’s claimed expenses, the court found that these expenses were “reasonable in light of the marital standard of living.” With these adjustments, and based largely on Anne’s own requests, the court calculated Anne’s reasonable monthly expenses as $6,218.

¶62 We perceive no error in the court’s analysis of Anne’s reasonable expenses. It is significant that Anne did not provide the court, in her financial declaration or in her trial testimony, with any evidence regarding the “marital expenses” amount for her claimed line items. If a party offers into evidence only time-of-trial expense amounts, and does not provide the court with any evidence of pre-separation expenses (to the extent they are different), that party has no right to complain when the court awards the time-of-trial amounts. Any complaint on Anne’s part that the court failed to appropriately take the marital standard of living into account in assessing these expenses rings hollow when Anne herself apparently didn’t take the marital standard of living into account in making her claims, and where the court—more or less—credited Anne with all of the expenses she was claiming.

¶63      We therefore reject all of Anne’s challenges to the court’s alimony award. The court employed the proper formula, and all of its determinations were supported by sufficient evidence and were within the court’s discretion.

8. On appeal, Anne does not take issue with the court’s deduction of these post-separation debts from her expenses.

II. Offsets

¶64      The only non-alimony argument Anne raises concerns the court’s rulings regarding the parties’ claimed offsets. During trial, both parties claimed that they should each receive credits, or “offsets,” for purchases made using their personal funds that they believed both parties should be equally responsible for. Ed sought reimbursement of payments he made for maintenance of the marital home and for certain child-related expenses. For her part, Anne sought repayment of other child-related expenses and of costs incurred in moving out of the marital home, and she sought equalization for various other instances where she alleged Ed had used her personal funds. In its post-trial ruling, the court granted Ed’s requests for offsets, but declined to grant Anne’s requests. The court determined that Anne’s requests were “not credible and not proven” because Anne “failed to provide credible and sufficient proof” supporting her claims. The court also concluded that Anne’s requests for offsets had not been timely asserted because they were “first mentioned in her Trial Brief (filed five days before trial)” and therefore Ed had been deprived of any opportunity to “conduct discovery on these requested offsets.”

¶65      Anne contends that the court should not have denied her requests and granted Ed’s, and again complains that the court treated her differently than it treated Ed. She directs much of her appellate ire at the court’s secondary reason for its ruling—that Anne’s requests were not timely made—and asserts that Ed’s requests suffered from the same infirmity. While the court did note that Anne did not timely disclose her offset requests, we do not perceive that as the primary basis for the court’s denial of her requests. Rather, the court’s main concern was that Anne had not carried her burden of proving her requested offsets. By contrast, the court determined that Ed had proven his requested offsets, and that he had done so through a spreadsheet exhibit and “credible” testimony.

¶66 On appeal, Anne does little to engage with the court’s conclusion that her claims—unlike Ed’s—were “not credible and not proven.” Rather, Anne lists the offset awards and denials that she disagrees with, and she offers her view that the rulings were in error. She makes conclusory statements about who paid certain expenses, without proper record citations for those propositions. And for several of the offsets awarded to Ed, Anne claims that there was insufficient evidence, but she does not explain how or why Ed’s spreadsheet exhibit, coupled with his testimony that the court found credible, does not constitute sufficient evidence.

¶67      “An appellant bears the burden of persuasion on appeal, and this burden includes engaging with and responding to the grounds for the decision the appellant is challenging on appeal.” In re A.B., 2022 UT 39, ¶ 39, 523 P.3d 168 (quotation simplified). In this case, Anne has not carried her appellate burden of demonstrating that the court erred in its offset determinations.

CONCLUSION

¶68 The trial court’s post-trial findings and conclusions regarding alimony and offsets were all supported by sufficient evidence and were not an abuse of its discretion. And the court did not err in denying Anne’s motion for a new trial. For all of these reasons, we reject Anne’s appellate challenges.

¶69 Affirmed

 

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2023 UT App 137 – Lobendahn v. Lobendahn – petition to modify custody

2023 UT App 137  – Lobendahn v. Lobendahn

 

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

MARCUS JAMES LOBENDAHN,

Appellant and Cross-appellee,

v.

LEEYEN MOEVAI LOBENDAHN,

Appellee and Cross-appellant.

Opinion

No. 20210278-CA

Filed November 16, 2023

Fourth District Court, Provo Department

The Honorable Thomas Low

No. 164400262

Luke A. Shaw and Jill L. Coil,

Attorneys for Appellant

Julie J. Nelson, Daniel Ybarra, and Alexandra

Mareschal, Attorneys for Appellee

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

concurred.

CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge:

 

¶1        Marcus James Lobendahn (Father) appeals the district court’s denial of his petition to modify the parties’ divorce decree. LeeYen Moevai Lobendahn (Mother)[1] also appeals the court’s order denying her request for attorney fees incurred in responding to Father’s petition to modify. We affirm the district court’s order in all respects.

BACKGROUND

¶2        The parties were married in 2008 in Hawaii. Following their marriage, the parties moved to Utah and had two children— a daughter and a son (Son). In May 2015, Father moved to New Jersey for employment purposes, and Mother and the children followed a little while later. Shortly after Mother arrived in New Jersey, Father asked Mother for a divorce and filed for a divorce in Utah. Mother suggested that the children live with Father in the marital apartment while she rented a separate place and cared for the children while Father was at work. Father declined the offer and advised Mother that she and the children should move back to Utah, which they did. The parties’ divorce was finalized through a stipulated decree in Utah in early 2016 while Father still lived in New Jersey. The decree awarded the parties joint legal and physical custody of the children and Father parent-time under section 30-3-37 of the Utah Code with additional time during certain breaks.

¶3        Father moved back to Utah in the fall of 2016, and Mother allowed him parent-time every other weekend, similar to the schedule provided in section 30-3-35 of the Utah Code. In 2017, Father filed a petition to modify based on his relocation, and the parties resolved the petition through a stipulation modifying the decree of divorce. Based upon their agreement, Father would exercise parent-time as provided in section 30-3-35 until he moved within fifteen miles of Mother’s residence in Utah County, at which time his parent-time would increase pursuant to the schedule described in section 30-3-35.1, with some modifications. Father did not move within fifteen miles of Mother and the children at that time but remarried and moved to his wife’s residence in Salt Lake County. Even so, Mother allowed Father to exercise increased parent-time.

¶4      Mother sent a letter to Father in March 2018, notifying him of her intent to remarry and relocate with the children to Washington state. A few weeks later, Father notified Mother that he had signed a lease for an apartment in an area within fifteen miles of her residence in Utah County. Father continued to reside with his wife in Salt Lake County but would stay at the apartment when exercising parent-time with the children. Thereafter, Father filed a motion to restrain Mother from relocating, which the court denied, concluding that Mother’s move to Washington was in the best interest of the children. Mother remarried and moved to Washington in the summer of 2018.

¶5        While the parties were litigating Mother’s relocation, Father filed a second petition to modify. Father argued that he should be awarded primary physical custody of the children, who should live with him in Utah, and that Mother should be awarded parent-time under section 30-3-37 of the Utah Code. Father’s petition alleged that Mother had not been entirely truthful in describing the reasons for her relocation, that the children struggled in school upon moving to Washington, that Mother had been evasive about Father’s proposal to relocate to Washington to live close to the children, that Mother interfered with his parent-time since she had relocated, that Mother had been uncooperative in planning the children’s travel, and that Mother interfered with Father’s participation in Son’s baptism. Father also requested that a custody evaluator be appointed to make recommendations about what custodial arrangement would be in the best interest of the children, and the court granted that request.

¶6        The court appointed a custody evaluator (Evaluator), who began her evaluation in July and completed her work in November 2019. Evaluator interviewed the parties, their respective spouses, and Son, and she observed the children with both parents in their homes. At the time Evaluator conducted her evaluation, the children had lived in Washington with Mother for approximately one year. Evaluator delivered her recommendations to the parties at a settlement conference in April 2020, and completed her report five months later. Evaluator recommended that the parties continue to share joint physical and legal custody but that the children should relocate back to Utah. Evaluator recommended that if Mother did not return with the children, Father should have primary physical custody with statutory visitation for Mother. Later, at the trial on Father’s petition to modify, Evaluator advised that in her opinion—while both parents shared a close, positive relationship with the children and Mother had been the children’s primary caretaker for their entire lives—Mother did not truly support the children’s relationship with Father and the broad benefit of having access to Father outweighed the potential risk that a second relocation adjustment would be hard for the children. And she acknowledged that her relocation recommendation was based on her understanding that if the court ordered the children to relocate back to Utah, Mother would move back to Utah as well. Evaluator also conceded that by the time of trial, the children had lived in Washington for two-and-a-half years and that the delay between her evaluation and the trial could be significant. She agreed that “some of the facts that [she] relied on to make [her] determinations are now out of date.” She agreed that the children had probably changed and matured emotionally, psychologically, socially, and physically and that she had not had any contact with the children in more than a year and a half.

¶7        The court held a trial in March 2021 on Father’s petition to modify. Father’s petition was based on his contention that Mother’s move to Washington was selfishly motivated and harmed the children and that Mother had failed to facilitate Father’s role in the children’s lives and had excluded him from decision-making. Father testified about particular instances that, in his view, demonstrated Mother’s inability to co-parent and unwillingness to facilitate his role in the children’s lives. These included:

·         Son’s difficulty in school after the relocation and resultant disputes between the parties about whether to move him to a different classroom or have him tested for autism;

·        Son’s baptism in July 2019 and Father’s role in that event;

·        Mother’s apparent unwillingness to commit to living in Washington for the long term when Father was contemplating relocating there to be closer to the children;

·         Father’s participation in obtaining passports for the children so they could visit Mother’s ill father in Tahiti and Father’s contention that he did not intend to use these circumstances to coerce Mother into moving back to Utah; and

·         Mother’s alleged interference with Father’s visitation in February 2019.

·         ¶8        Mother testified to her version of the events and issues raised in Father’s testimony. Specifically, Mother testified:

·         That her decision to move from Utah was not to get herself and the children away from Father;

·        That she addressed Son’s difficulties in school following the relocation and how she wanted to have him tested for autism as recommended by his teacher but Father did not want the school to do any testing;

·         That Son’s school difficulties had mostly been resolved by the time of trial and that his recent less-than-stellar report card had more to do with remote learning than continued transition issues;

·         That given Son’s his age and stage of development, she believed it was appropriate to let him choose who would baptize him and where the baptism would take place and that Mother never interfered with Father’s wish to perform the baptism;

·         That Father caused a big scene before the baptism ceremony, which Son overheard, and Father demanded that he perform both the baptism and the confirmation;

·        That when Father considered moving to Washington and asked Mother to commit to remaining in the area, Mother did not think it was wise to promise Father that she would live in Washington forever because of the constant litigation she had already experienced over custody;

·         That the conflict that arose when Mother tried to obtain passports for the children in 2018 to visit her father in Tahiti after he had been diagnosed with cancer required her to file an order to show cause in December 2019 to compel Father to complete an affidavit and sign the passport applications, which he eventually did, but the children’s passports did not arrive in time for them to travel to Tahiti before Mother’s father passed away; and

·         That Father does a good job keeping up with and supporting the children’s interests.

¶9        At the conclusion of the trial, Mother asked the court to award her attorney fees.

¶10      In its written ruling issued after the trial, the court addressed Mother’s alleged failure to facilitate Father’s role in the children’s lives. Regarding Son’s baptism, the court found that Father had adduced no evidence demonstrating that Mother had broached the subject of baptism with Son in an attempt to create contention, or that Son had suffered any psychological harm from Mother’s actions. The court found, however, that the evidence admitted “demonstrates poor judgment on Father’s part,” that the only evidence of conflict surrounding the baptism was created by Father himself, and that the “only harm [Son] suffered was having to overhear Father yelling at [Son’s] bishop . . . inside the closed bishop’s office.”

¶11 Regarding the circumstances surrounding obtaining the children’s passports, the court was extremely critical of Father’s actions. Among other things, it found that Father’s actions were “senselessly cruel” and “among the most reprobate [the] court [had] encountered in a domestic relations case.” It faulted Father for using “the imminent death of a grandparent as a bargaining chip” and found that his behavior “demonstrates that his control over the children’s welfare must be reduced.”

¶12 The court also addressed Mother’s move to Washington, finding that the move did not cause the children harm or interfere with the parties’ ability to co-parent. Specifically, the court determined that both parents had chosen to live in places that did not prioritize proximity to the other parent—Mother moving to Washington to remarry and attend school after living in Utah for more than three years and Father remaining in New Jersey while Mother and the children returned to Utah and then moving to Salt Lake County with his wife rather than moving to a place within fifteen miles of the children (until Mother indicated she would be relocating). Moreover, the court noted that although Father is “untethered,” in that he is employed for a company that allows him to work from home and he could live and work anywhere, he is unwilling to move unless Mother commits to remain in Washington, which she had not done because she eventually wants to work as a pharmacist and may need to move for that career. The court found that Father’s decision to remain in Utah despite his ability to move reflects his choice not to live close to the children.

¶13      As far as the children’s best interest in staying in their current placement, the court found that Mother’s spouse has an extensive family network with whom the children have grown close and share a Pacific Islander heritage. Besides a strong family connection, the children also have close friends in the area, which the court found to be good for the children. And due in part to the length of time spent in Washington, the court found that “[o]verall, the children’s social network is stronger in Washington” than in Utah. The court also determined that no evidence supported Father’s assertion that the move to Washington caused Son to have behavioral issues at school. If anything, Father’s refusal to allow Son to be tested for autism or to allow him to change classrooms when he started having trouble has potentially caused continuing suffering for Son and created stalemates between the parents that Father chose to address in the courts. Father’s proclivity for litigation, which he can afford and which the court found bordered on harassment, caused harm to the children, created unpredictability, and demonstrated less-responsive parenting.

¶14      The court found that both Mother and Father have capacity to parent and to co-parent and have excellent parenting skills. But the court determined that Mother “exhibits greater respect of Father’s role than Father does of Mother’s.” Specifically, the court found that “[w]hen the children ask Mother a question on which Father should be consulted, she tells them ‘I’ll talk to your dad about that and we’ll decide together.’” The court recognized that the children’s bond with Father is very strong, but it agreed with Evaluator that “the children are more bonded with Mother in light of being under her primary care for their entire lifetimes.”

¶15      The court analyzed the custody factors found in section 30­3-10(2) of the Utah Code and made the following determinations:

·        Both parents demonstrate an appropriate understanding of, and responsiveness to, the developmental needs of the children, but Mother’s openness to the advice and assistance of professionals exceeds Father’s.

·        Both parents have an excellent capacity to parent and co-parent and endorse the other’s role in the presence of the children. Except for Mother’s use of inappropriate terms in some of her written communication (which the court believed was on the mend), “both parents appropriately communicate with the other, encourage the sharing of love and affection, and exhibit a willingness to allow frequent and continuous contact with the other parent.” However, Mother exhibits a greater respect for Father’s role in the children’s lives than Father does for Mother’s.

·         Father has relinquished both custody and parent-time in the past.

·         Both parents desire custody and time with the children. Mother has been the primary caretaker and Father has made it a priority to maintain good contact with the children. But “Mother’s commitment to the care and custody of the children exceeds Father’s.”

·         Both parents have always cared for the children financially and are financially responsible, but “Mother has expressed more constant and less evasive financial responsibility than Father.”

·         The children enjoy a strong social and familial network in Washington with their stepfather and his side of the family and have close friends there. The children also enjoy the close proximity of their stepmother and her family and their maternal aunt and grandmother in Utah. Overall, the children’s social network is stronger in Washington.

·         The children are more bonded to Mother because she has always been their primary caretaker.

·        The children have both benefitted and suffered from the sharing of parental responsibilities. Father is very involved and committed to his role. “But Father’s veto-power over decisions regarding the children’s health, education, and welfare” has prevented Son from being tested for autism, prevented Father from honoring Son’s preferences at his baptism, and “prevented the children from traveling to see their dying grandfather in Tahiti.”

·        The parents are generally able to cooperate with each other and make decisions jointly but struggle to reach agreement on significant decisions in the children’s best interest and these frequent stalemates harm the children. Specifically, the court noted that the parents could not communicate effectively to make Son’s baptism conflict-free and they could not agree on how to address Son’s difficulties in school after the relocation or obtain passports for the children. “Given her less affluent status, Mother usually surrenders in the face of disagreement because she cannot afford to take the matter further. Father, however, has substantial funds at his disposal, and has exhibited the ability and willingness to press his concerns in the courts.”

·         Both parents ensure that the children are protected from conflict, except for Father’s refusal to complete the passport paperwork to allow the children to travel to Tahiti, which harmed the children, and allowing Son to overhear the conflict over his baptism.

¶16      After weighing the evidence and the statutory factors, the court concluded that granting Father’s petition and relocating the children back to Utah would not be in their best interest. The court found that the children are doing well in their current circumstances and that they are primarily bonded with Mother as their primary caretaker. “Father has presented no evidence that removing primary custody from Mother would be in the children’s best interests. . . . [Rather,] doing so would be harmful to the children.” The court determined that “the children are happy in Washington, that the parties have successfully mitigated the effects of distance on parent-time, that Father continues to enjoy a healthy relationship and strong bond with the children, and that the current custody arrangement is working well.” The court noted that the trial evidence “establish[ed] that [Father] and Mother have been extraordinarily successful in managing the geographical distance between them,” “that the children do not grasp the gravity of the distance,” and that “all evidence indicates that the children are happy, thriving, and well-adjusted in the current circumstances.” The court found that none of the statutory custody factors favored a change in custody.

¶17 Accordingly, the court denied Father’s petition to modify custody and his request that he be awarded primary custody if Mother did not relocate to Utah. The court ordered joint legal custody to continue but awarded Mother final decision-making authority as to the children’s health, education, and welfare. It also ordered that Mother “should be designated as the parent with the sole legal right to determine the residence of the children.” The court denied Mother’s request for an award of attorney fees because (1) she presented no evidence of her need for such an award and (2) even though Mother had ultimately prevailed, Father’s petition was not frivolous because it had been supported by Evaluator’s recommendation for a change in custody. But the court then explained that it chose to disregard the custody evaluation because it was “outdated and fail[ed] to adequately address the evidence presented at trial.”

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶18 Father now appeals the court’s denial of his petition to modify, including its decision to reject Evaluator’s recommendation. “We review custody determinations under an abuse of discretion standard, giving the district court broad discretion to make custody awards.” Hinds v. Hinds-Holm, 2022 UT App 13, ¶ 26, 505 P.3d 1136 (quotation simplified). We will not disturb a district court’s findings of fact unless they are clearly erroneous. See Robertson v. Robertson, 2016 UT App 55, ¶ 5, 370 P.3d 569. And “[a]lthough a district court is not bound to accept a custody evaluator’s recommendation, the court is expected to articulate some reason for rejecting that recommendation.” R.B. v. L.B., 2014 UT App 270, ¶ 18, 339 P.3d 137.

¶19 Mother cross-appeals and challenges the court’s denial of her request for attorney fees. We review a district court’s attorney fee determination for an abuse of discretion. Jensen v. Jensen, 2009 UT App 1, ¶ 7, 203 P.3d 1020.

ANALYSIS

¶20 Father argues the district court erred in denying his petition to modify. Father’s challenge comprises two parts. First, Father takes issue with the court’s weighing of the evidence and its associated factual findings and conclusions. Second, Father challenges the court’s decision to reject Evaluator’s recommendation. We address each of Father’s arguments in turn. Lastly, we address Mother’s cross-appeal concerning the denial of her request for attorney fees.

I. The Evidence Supports the District Court’s Determination to Deny the Petition to Modify

¶21      Father’s first argument on appeal is that the district court ignored the evidence presented at trial that supported Father’s position that it was in the best interest of the children to move them back to Utah and that he should be awarded primary custody if Mother did not relocate with them. Father also argues that the court viewed the evidence presented from a biased perspective. In the context of determining custody, the district court is to analyze the best interest of the children through the custody factors outlined in section 30-3-10(2) of the Utah Code. Generally, it is within the court’s discretion to consider each custody factor and accord each factor the appropriate weight. See Hudema v. Carpenter, 1999 UT App 290, ¶ 26, 989 P.2d 491. The “court’s discretion stems from the reality that in some cases the court must choose one custodian from two excellent parents, and its proximity to the evidence places it in a more advantaged position than an appellate court.” Tucker v. Tucker, 910 P.2d 1209, 1214 (Utah 1996). Thus, a custody determination “may frequently and of necessity require a choice between good and better.” Hogge v. Hogge, 649 P.2d 51, 55 (Utah 1982).

¶22      While the district court is accorded discretion in weighing the statutory custody factors, “it must be guided at all times by the best interests of the child,” see Tucker, 910 P.2d at 1214, and it “must set forth written findings of fact and conclusions of law which specify the reasons for its custody decision,” see id. at 1215. “Whenever custody is contested, the district court must provide the necessary supporting factual findings that link the evidence presented at trial to the child’s best interest and the ability of each parent to meet the child’s needs.” K.P.S. v. E.J.P., 2018 UT App 5, ¶ 27, 414 P.3d 933.

¶23      Moreover, 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.” Kimball v. Kimball, 2009 UT App 233, ¶ 14, 217 P.3d 733 (quotation simplified). And “the existence of conflicting evidence is not sufficient to set aside a [district] court’s finding.” Bond v. Bond, 2018 UT App 38, ¶ 6, 420 P.3d 53 (quotation simplified). Rather, “to successfully challenge a [district] court’s factual findings on appeal, the appellant must overcome the healthy dose of deference owed to factual findings by identifying and dealing with the supportive evidence and demonstrating the legal problem in that evidence, generally through marshaling the evidence.” Taft v. Taft, 2016 UT App 135, ¶ 19, 379 P.3d 890 (quotation simplified).[2] Thus, a party challenging the sufficiency of the evidence to support a custody decision will almost certainly fail to carry its burden of persuasion on appeal if it fails to marshal. See State v. Nielsen, 2014 UT 10, ¶ 42, 326 P.3d 645. In addition, a district court “may make findings, credibility determinations, or other assessments without detailing its justification for finding particular evidence more credible or persuasive than other evidence supporting a different outcome.” Shuman v. Shuman, 2017 UT App 192, ¶ 6, 406 P.3d 258 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 412 P.3d 1257 (Utah 2018).

¶24      On appeal, Father asserts that the district court ignored evidence that was presented to Evaluator and to the court at trial. But on appeal, Father has not wrestled with the evidence that supports the court’s conclusion that most of the custody factors favor Mother, and he has made no attempt to marshal the evidence that supports the court’s factual findings. Father “clearly views the evidence as compelling a different outcome, but it is not within our purview to engage in a reweighing of the evidence, and [Father] has not demonstrated that the evidence underlying the [district] court’s findings is insufficient.” See id. ¶ 9 (quotation simplified). We address Father’s specific challenges to the court’s conclusions below.

A.        Father’s relinquishment of parent-time with the children by voluntarily choosing not to live close to them

¶25      Father complains that the district court misunderstood and ignored the evidence when it determined that Father had made decisions that minimized his parent-time. But Father has not addressed the evidence the court chose to credit nor demonstrated how that evidence was insufficient for the court to conclude that Father had not prioritized living close to the children to maximize his parent-time. That is, the court found the following evidence convincing:

·         While the family lived in New Jersey in 2015, and after Father announced he wanted a divorce, Mother offered to move out of their apartment so the children could remain with Father. Father declined this offer and advised Mother to return to Utah with the children.

·         Father remained in New Jersey for over a year before moving back to Utah.

·         After the parties mediated a settlement in August 2017 wherein Father could exercise more parent-time if he moved within fifteen miles of Mother’s residence, he did not do so. Instead, Father remarried in 2018 and moved to his wife’s residence in Salt Lake County (Mother’s residence was in Utah County).

·         Father rented an apartment within fifteen miles of Mother’s residence in Utah County only after she had announced her intention to relocate to Washington.

·        Father is employed by a company that allows him to work from home and his wife does not work outside the home, so Father’s employment does not necessarily tie him to Utah. Father has even shopped for houses in Washington but requires a commitment from Mother that she will remain there long term before he will move.

·        Evaluator opined that despite Father’s valid professional and financial motives for staying in New Jersey and then in Utah, Father failed to capitalize on the opportunity for more frequent parent-time by living close to the children.

¶26 Father appears to fault the court for not considering dispositive his testimony that he sought and exercised more than the minimum parent-time once he returned to Utah in 2016. Father asserts that this evidence disproves the court’s determination that Father had not prioritized his time with the children. But “Father [doing] what was within his rights . . . to exercise the expanded parent-time” was not persuasive to the court given the evidence listed above. And Father has not challenged any of the factual findings that support the court’s conclusion that he did not make choices for his living situation to be closer to the children. Father simply challenges how the court considered the evidence that supports his position.

¶27 The existence of conflicting evidence in the record is not sufficient to set aside a district court’s findings. See Nebeker v. Orton, 2019 UT App 23, ¶ 16, 438 P.3d 1053. “The pill that is hard for many appellants to swallow is that if there is evidence supporting a finding, absent a legal problem—a fatal flaw—with that evidence, the finding will stand, even though there is ample record evidence that would have supported contrary findings.” Kimball, 2009 UT App 233, ¶ 20 n.5 (quotation simplified). The district court’s “mission” is “to consider and weigh all the conflicting evidence and find the facts.” Id. Thus, even though “contrary facts might have been found from all the evidence,” this court defers to the district court’s “pre-eminent role as fact-finder,” and we “take the findings of fact as our starting point, unless particular findings have been shown . . . to lack legally adequate evidentiary support.” Id. Because Father has not directly challenged any of the court’s subsidiary findings supporting its determination that Father made decisions that minimized, rather than maximized, his parent-time, we will not reweigh the evidence.

B.        The circumstances surrounding Son’s baptism

¶28      Father complains that the issue surrounding Son’s baptism “is an issue of legal custody . . . [and] should [have been] discussed between the parents before decisions [were] made.” Father asserts that the district court committed legal error when it failed to rule that a decision about who will perform a child’s baptism is a major parenting decision that should not be left up to a child. Father also takes issue with the court crediting Mother’s testimony about the dispute that occurred before the baptism— and not Father’s testimony that he did not agree with the accounts that he was yelling or losing his cool—to determine that the circumstances of the event demonstrated poor judgment on Father’s part and that Father’s actions caused Son harm.

¶29      On the facts of this case, we cannot fault the district court for its determination that who performs the various parts of a child’s religious ceremonies within the shared religious tradition of both parents (as opposed to whether the ceremonies will be performed at all) is not a major parenting decision requiring the agreement of both parents. Father cites no authority for the proposition that the decision about who performs a religious ceremony is equivalent to decisions concerning a child’s medical care, school attendance, or overall religious practice. Nor has Father challenged any of the factual findings that support the court’s conclusion that Father had failed to demonstrate that Mother’s decision to allow Son to have “input regarding his own baptism was an unhealthy or unwise parenting decision.” Thus, Father cannot show the court erred in considering this decision to be something other than a major parenting decision. And while we understand that Father is unhappy with the court’s conclusion that Father’s behavior before Son’s baptism showed poor judgment on his part rather than ineffective co-parenting on Mother’s part, the evidence in the record supports the court’s conclusion that Mother’s parenting regarding the baptism was not problematic, and we will not reweigh the evidence.

C.        The circumstances surrounding having Son tested for autism

¶30 Father next takes issue with the court’s findings about whether the children have benefitted from the parties’ sharing of parenting responsibilities and about the abilities “of the parents to give first priority to the welfare of the [children] and reach shared decisions in the [children’s] best interest.” See Utah Code § 30-3-10.2(2)(b). Among other things, in determining that Mother should be designated the final decision-maker as to the children’s health, education, and welfare, the court found that Father exhibited an “injudicious use of his veto power over decisions relating to the children’s health” and had “evidenced [a] tendency to act contrary to the children’s interests and to use those interests as leverage against Mother.” But Father’s complaint that the evidence demonstrated that he suggested they not rush into testing Son for autism rather than that he objected to the testing does not diminish the court’s determination that “Father’s veto-power over decisions regarding the children’s health, education, and welfare [] prevented [Son] from being tested for autism at a time when educational professionals believed the test would be helpful to address his needs.” Thus, we agree with Mother that “[e]ven if the court should have used the word ‘delayed’ rather than ‘prevented’” in its finding, Father has not shown how the court’s decision to award Mother final decision-making authority was an abuse of discretion or legal error.

D.        The circumstances surrounding obtaining the children’s passports

¶31 Father next challenges the court’s view of the circumstances surrounding Mother’s attempts to obtain passports for the children in time to visit her cancer-stricken father in Tahiti in 2019. Father argues that the court’s pointed and direct comments about this incident are overly aggressive and suggest that this evidence was the “ultimate basis for [the court’s] ultimate conclusion.” Father asserts that he did not interfere with the passport applications or attempt to condition his facilitation of the passports upon Mother’s promise to return to Utah and suggests that Mother was at fault for not obtaining the passports in time. But, once again, on appeal, Father selectively highlights the evidence he submitted at trial, asserts that the evidence supports a different outcome, and criticizes the court for not crediting his testimony rather than Mother’s. It is not this court’s “purview to engage in a reweighing of the evidence.” Shuman v. Shuman, 2017 UT App 192, ¶ 9, 406 P.3d 258 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 412 P.3d 1257 (Utah 2018). In fact, when “a foundation for the court’s decision exists in the evidence, [we] may not engage in a reweighing of the evidence.” In re B.R., 2007 UT 82, ¶ 12, 171 P.3d 435. On appeal, this court will look to whether the district court’s decision is supported by the evidence and in cases where the appellant has “merely point[ed] to evidence that might have supported findings more favorable to them” rather than “identify[ing] flaws in the evidence relied on by the [district] court that rendered” the court’s findings clearly erroneous, we will not reverse. Shuman, 2017 UT App 192, ¶ 8 (quotation simplified). Because the court’s decision is supported by the record and Father has identified no fatal flaws in the evidence upon which the court relied, we will not reweigh the evidence.

E.         The reasons and representations given for Mother’s relocation to Washington

¶32 Father next challenges the court’s view of Mother’s relocation. Father appears to attack Mother’s honesty and credibility by asserting that the reasons she gave for her move to Washington were not true. But Father did not appeal the court’s order approving Mother’s relocation, and by not directly challenging the district court’s findings about Mother’s move, Father has failed to persuade us that the court’s determination that “Mother’s move to Washington was not contrary to the children’s interests” was an abuse of discretion or legal error since it “is undisputed that the children are thriving and happy there”.

F.         The district court’s custody factor findings

¶33      Father challenges the court’s determination that evaluation of the statutory custody factors favored denying his petition to modify and awarding Mother more decision-making authority. Specifically, Father argues that the court’s analysis of the custody factors is not supported by the evidence with regard to (1) the parents’ commitment to the care and custody of the children, (2) not disrupting a custody arrangement where the children are happy and well-adjusted in their current circumstances, (3) the respect each parent affords the other parent’s role, (4) the parents’ ability to make decisions jointly, and (5) whether it was better to remain in Washington versus returning to Utah.

¶34      But Father does not tie his argument to a particular custody factor or explain how the court’s findings in these areas are critically important to the overall custody determination. Nor does Father explain how the court’s findings on these factors are against the clear weight of the evidence. “Generally, it is within the [district] court’s discretion to determine . . . where a particular factor falls within the spectrum of relative importance and to accord each factor its appropriate weight.” Hudema v. Carpenter, 1999 UT App 290, ¶ 26, 989 P.2d 491. “While the district court is accorded discretion in weighing these factors, it must be guided at all times by the best interests of the child.” Hinds v. Hinds-Holm, 2022 UT App 13, ¶ 30, 505 P.3d 1136 (quotation simplified).

¶35      Father’s argument that the court disregarded the evidence that supports his preferred evaluation of the statutory custody factors is not persuasive. It is not this court’s role to reweigh the evidence to see if we would reach a different conclusion from that of the district court. Father has not demonstrated that the court’s evaluation of the custody factors lacks evidentiary support or that any finding regarding each factor is against the clear weight of the evidence. Given this, we cannot say that the court abused its discretion or committed legal error in concluding that “none of the factors favor a change in custody” or that “[t]he critically important factors—bonding and continuity of placement— strongly favor leaving primary custody with Mother.”

¶36 In sum, Father has not directly challenged any of the court’s specific findings supporting the determinations listed above. Indeed, he simply highlights evidence he claims the district court ignored. Without a direct challenge to any specific finding, we consider the district court’s findings as established and will not reweigh the evidence.

II. The District Court Did Not Abuse Its Discretion When It
Rejected Evaluator’s Recommendation

¶37      Father contends that the district court erred in rejecting the recommendations and testimony of Evaluator. “Courts are not bound to accept the testimony of an expert and are free to judge the expert testimony as to its credibility and its persuasive influence in light of all of the other evidence in the case.” Barrani v. Barrani, 2014 UT App 204, ¶ 4, 334 P.3d 994 (quotation simplified). “This is because . . . the fact-finder is in the best position to judge the credibility of witnesses and is free to disbelieve their testimony . . . even if that testimony comes from an expert witness.” Woodward v. Lafranca, 2016 UT App 141, ¶ 13, 381 P.3d 1125 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 384 P.3d 570 (Utah 2016). These principles apply to a court’s assessment of the opinions offered by a custody evaluator. Indeed, a “district court is not bound to accept a custody evaluator’s recommendation,” but if a court chooses to reject the evaluator’s opinion, it “is expected to articulate some reason for” doing so. See R.B. v. L.B., 2014 UT App 270, ¶ 18, 339 P.3d 137. In this case, while the court could have perhaps more fully explained its reasons for rejecting Evaluator’s recommendations, in our view the court had sufficient reasons for doing so and adequately explained itself.

¶38      Father first contends that the district court erroneously rejected Evaluator’s recommendations because the court had unreasonable expectations of Evaluator, that it was incumbent on the court to solicit further information from Evaluator through questioning at trial if the court thought her report was insufficient, and that the court should have accepted Evaluator’s recommendation without question because the court did not contest her qualifications and admitted her report into evidence without objection. But the record does not support Father’s complaints, and he does not support his argument with legal citation. The court invited Evaluator to augment her report at trial by “putt[ing] in context or explain[ing] or add[ing] flesh to the bones of the report,” and the court dialogued at length with Evaluator during direct questioning and cross-examination. Father’s complaint that the court discouraged additional testimony or additional explanation from Evaluator because it stated during her examination that “[n]ow that I have received the report, if she’s just going to read it, maybe there’s more effective ways for her to spend her time” is not compelling, especially because Father’s counsel agreed to “expedite the process a bit” by then focusing on Evaluator’s recommendations. Thus, Father does not persuade us that the court abused its discretion or committed legal error in choosing not to ask Evaluator further questions.

¶39      Next, Father takes issue with the court’s decision to reject Evaluator’s recommendation because it was “outdated” at the time of trial.[3] But Father fails to acknowledge that while all the statutory custody factors are equally important, “[a]t the critically important end of the spectrum, when [a] child is thriving, happy, and well-adjusted, lies continuity of placement.” Hudema v. Carpenter, 1999 UT App 290, ¶ 26, 989 P.2d 491. Utah law requires courts to “give substantial weight to the existing joint legal . . . custody order when the child is thriving, happy, and well-adjusted.” Utah Code § 30-3-10.4(2)(c). And here, the court relied heavily on continuity of placement as the basis for rejecting Evaluator’s report. The court found that the evidence presented at trial was “virtually unanimous” in establishing that the children were “happy, well-adjusted, and thriving under [their] current arrangement” and it rejected Evaluator’s contention that relocating the children back to Utah would not be that big of a deal because “[w]e don’t have a child . . . moving into a different developmental phase or a child with specific developmental needs.” Because the court heard the evidence on both sides and it explained why it was rejecting certain evidence, the court did not abuse its discretion or commit legal error. Thus, we see no infirmity in the court’s determination that Evaluator’s report was outdated by the time of trial.

¶40      We are, of course, sensitive to the emotional undercurrents giving rise to Father’s challenges on appeal. This appears to have been a very difficult case for both parties—both of whom love and care for their children. And we acknowledge the district court’s determination that both “parents are well suited to parent the children [who] are surrounded by an unusual amount of love on both sides of the family. . . . All children everywhere deserve to be loved as much as these children are.” But ultimately, the fact that Father disagrees with the court’s decision to deny his petition to modify does not render the district court’s findings inadequate or unsupported by the evidence, nor does it require an outright grant of custody in his favor. See Shuman v. Shuman, 2017 UT App 192, ¶ 10, 406 P.3d 258, cert. denied, 412 P.3d 1257 (Utah 2018).

¶41 In sum, Father has failed to meaningfully address the evidence supporting the district court’s findings or persuasively demonstrate that those findings are against the clear weight of the evidence or legally erroneous. We therefore affirm the district court’s denial of Father’s petition to modify custody and its associated adjustment to the parties’ legal custody arrangement.

III. Mother’s Attorney Fees Request

¶42 Finally, we address Mother’s challenge to the district court’s denial of her request for attorney fees incurred in responding to Father’s petition to modify. Mother asserts entitlement to fees under two different statutes, but we reject both of her arguments.

¶43 First, Mother claims that the court should have awarded her fees pursuant to a statute authorizing a court to award fees in cases where the “action” was “filed or answered frivolously and in a manner designed to harass the other party.” See Utah Code § 30-3-10.4(5). The court determined that whether the litigation was frivolous or filed with the intent to harass was “a very close call” but that Evaluator’s change-of-custody recommendation provided Father with at least some basis to file his petition. We agree. The district court has discretion to determine whether an action was filed frivolously or with an intent to harass, and we will not substitute our judgment for that of the district court unless the action it takes is so flagrantly unjust as to constitute an abuse of discretion. See Wall v. Wall, 700 P.2d 1124, 1125 (Utah 1985). We discern no abuse of discretion in the court’s determination not to award fees under section 30-3-10.4(5) of the Utah Code.

¶44      Second, Mother claims that the court should have awarded her fees under a different statute, one that authorizes courts to order one party to pay fees to the other in order “to enable the other party to prosecute or defend the action.” See Utah Code § 30­3-3(1). The court denied Mother’s request for fees under this statute based on its determination that Mother did not produce evidence of her financial need. When reviewing requests for attorney fees in divorce proceedings, “both the decision to award attorney fees and the amount of such fees are within the [district] court’s sound discretion.” Stonehocker v. Stonehocker, 2008 UT App 11, ¶ 10, 176 P.3d 476 (quotation simplified). However, the party to be awarded attorney fees under this statute 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. See Dahl v. Dahl, 2015 UT 79, ¶ 168, 459 P.3d 276.

¶45 Here, Mother argues that the district court erred in concluding that an award of fees was not warranted when it determined that “Mother did not adduce any evidence of her need for an award of attorney’s fees under section 30-3-3(1).” Mother contends that there was evidence before the court to demonstrate her need and Father’s ability to pay. Specifically, Mother points to the parties’ stipulated order from 2017 that showed the parties’ incomes and the custody evaluation that reported the parties’ incomes in 2020. But Mother did not point to this evidence in connection with her fee request, and we do not think it is incumbent on a district court to comb through the record to find evidence of a party’s need. Rather, the party to be awarded fees has the burden to submit that evidence or at least point the court to that evidence and ask that the court utilize that evidence to determine need.

¶46      Accordingly, we affirm the district court’s conclusion that fees were not warranted in this case.

CONCLUSION

¶47      We conclude that the evidence supports the district court’s findings and conclusions that relocating the children back to Utah would not be in the children’s best interest and supports the denial of Father’s petition to modify. We further conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying Mother’s request for attorney fees. Affirmed.

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


[1] Mother has remarried and has adopted her husband’s surname, Sahim.

[2] As this court stated in Kimball v. Kimball, 2009 UT App 233, 217

P.3d 733:

After all, it is the [district] court’s singularly important mission to consider and weigh all the conflicting evidence and find the facts. No matter what contrary facts might have been found from all the evidence, our deference to the [district] court’s pre-eminent role as fact-finder requires us to take the findings of fact as our starting point, unless particular findings have been shown, in the course of an appellant’s meeting the marshaling requirement, to lack legally adequate evidentiary support.

Id. ¶ 20 n.5.

[3] In addition to rejecting Evaluator’s report for being outdated, the court rejected the report because it “fail[ed] to adequately address the evidence presented at trial.” Specifically, the court noted that the report “mentions but glosses over Father’s sending the children away from New Jersey, choosing several times thereafter not to live near the children (including now), preventing them from traveling to Tahiti, and declining to engage [Son] regarding his baptism.” Father takes issue with the court’s reasoning on each point, arguing that the court “did not agree with [Evaluator’s] expert view and analysis of the evidence.” But his argument is limited to merely explaining his view of why each of these events happened and why Evaluator did not find them important. Father does not show that the court’s view was unsupported by the evidence. And regardless of these stated reasons, the court’s decision to reject the report because it was outdated was entirely proper.

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In re K.A.S. – 2023 UT App 138 THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF K.S., A PERSON OVER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

STATE OF UTAH, Appellee, v. K.S., Appellant. Opinion No. 20210291-CA Filed November 16, 2023 Third District Juvenile Court, Salt Lake Department The Honorable Mark W. May No. 1108274 Monica Maio, Marina Pena, Sam Pappas, and Hilary Forbush, Attorneys for Appellant Sean D. Reyes and Jeffrey S. Gray, Attorneys for Appellee JUDGE RYAN D. TENNEY authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER and DAVID N. MORTENSEN concurred.

TENNEY, Judge:

¶1        K.S., a minor, spent several weeks babysitting the infant child of some family members while they were at work. When the infant’s parents returned home one day, the infant was in pronounced distress. The infant was taken to the hospital, but she died a few days later.

¶2        K.S. was charged in juvenile court with having committed child abuse homicide. At the close of trial, the juvenile court found that K.S. had committed the crime and adjudicated K.S. delinquent as a result. K.S. now appeals that adjudication, arguing that there was insufficient evidence to support it. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm.

BACKGROUND

¶3        A.M., a four-month-old infant, died on May 10, 2019. Several medical experts later testified that the cause of death was a brain injury and that the fatal injury was likely inflicted in a non-accidental manner. The question at the heart of this case is who inflicted the fatal injury.

¶4        A.M.’s parents (Mother and Father) both worked and needed someone to watch their two children (A.M. and a two-year-old son) during the day. After an arrangement with a previous babysitter fell through, Mother and Father learned that K.S., the 16-year-old son of Mother’s cousin, was available to babysit. Although K.S. had no prior child-care experience, he began watching the children in April 2019. Because of K.S.’s lack of experience, Father had to teach him the basics of childcare, including how to prepare a bottle, how to change a diaper, and how to calm A.M. down and “hold her correctly.” K.S. frequently stayed overnight to save on gas, sleeping on a couch in the front room.

¶5        On May 2, Mother and Father took A.M. to the emergency room because A.M. had been sick for a few days. On examination, the ER doctor found “nothing worrisome,” and tests indicated that her heart rate, oxygen saturation, and temperature were all “reassuring.” The ER doctor concluded that A.M. “might have a bug” and sent her home. By May 6, A.M. seemed to be “feeling a little better.”

¶6        K.S. slept over at the house on the night of May 6 to 7, and A.M. was “real fussy” that night. According to her parents’ subsequent accounts, though, A.M. was “crying normal[ly]” and even “cheery, smiling, [and] glowing” by the next morning. Mother left for work by 9:30 a.m.[1] Father later testified that he left for work between 8:30 and 8:45 a.m. (though, as will be discussed below, testimony from an officer suggested that Father didn’t actually leave until 10:55 that morning).

¶7        At some point between 11:36 and 11:56 a.m., K.S. sent Mother a video that showed A.M. experiencing troubling symptoms—specifically, A.M. had a limp arm and labored breathing. K.S. texted, “Is this normal?” After viewing the video, Mother asked her sister (Aunt) to stop by on her lunch break to check on A.M.

¶8        Aunt arrived at about 1:20 that afternoon. A.M. seemed “lethargic” to her, and it seemed like “moving her was upsetting her more, almost like it was causing her pain.” Aunt thought that A.M. might have an ear infection, so she gave her some ibuprofen. After returning to work, Aunt told Mother her concern about the ear infection and encouraged Mother to take A.M. to the hospital after Mother’s shift ended. During her own lunch break an hour later, Mother returned home and checked on A.M., who was “fussy and whiney”; when Mother picked A.M. up, she also observed her legs “dangling down.” Mother was concerned enough to schedule an appointment with a pediatrician, but she made lunch and returned to work without taking further action.

¶9        There was no additional contact between K.S. and the parents until around 7:45 that evening, when K.S. called Mother and reported that A.M still didn’t seem to be feeling better. Mother said she was on her way. After picking Father up from his work, Mother arrived home to find A.M. “pale as a light.” Father performed CPR while Mother called 911. Mother told the 911 dispatcher that A.M. had been “fine throughout the day and stuff.”

¶10 A.M. was first taken to the Intermountain Healthcare hospital, then life-flighted to Primary Children’s Medical Center (Primary Children’s). Doctors at Primary Children’s concluded that A.M. had suffered a severe brain injury.

¶11      Police detained Mother and Father for questioning before allowing them to see A.M. While awaiting the arrival of a detective, Father engaged police officers in light-hearted banter, telling them “a story about getting drunk and . . . dancing on the table,” as well as a story about a woman beating up a man in their apartment complex. Mother and Father eventually met with a detective who questioned them about the events of the day. This detective later testified that, during these interviews, Father told him that he had left for work around 10:55 that morning.

¶12      The following day, K.S. sent Father two text messages. The first said: “im so sorry. . . . if it weren’t for my laziness and wanting to relax [A.M.] wouldn’t be like this and if i had never tossed her up in the air to try and cheer her up.” The second said: “im truly sorry plz tell [Mother] im so so so sorry and i would never intentionally hurt your kids out of anger or frustration.”

¶13      A.M. died two days later. Later that week, Dr. Christensen, the medical examiner, performed an autopsy and determined that the “primary cause” of death was “blunt injuries” to A.M.’s head. Dr. Christensen classified the death as a homicide.

¶14 The State subsequently charged K.S. with child abuse homicide in juvenile court. Over the course of eight days of trial, the court heard testimony from, among others, both parents, several medical experts, and the responding officer.

¶15      Mother and Father testified about the events on May 7 and A.M.’s health in the relevant period. Mother testified that A.M. was “pretty fine” and “cheery, smiling, [and] glowing” before she left for work that morning. Father testified that, after a few days of being fussy, A.M. “was feeling a little better” and that there was “nothing out of the ordinary” that morning. Father testified that he remembered leaving home between 8:30 and 8:45 a.m. so that he could catch the bus.

¶16 The court also heard testimony from three medical experts—Dr. Thorn, Dr. Hatch, and Dr. Christensen—about the nature of A.M.’s injuries and the timing of those injuries.

¶17 Dr. Thorn. Dr. Thorn was an ER doctor who had “extensive training and expertise specialization in the management of head injury,” and he was the doctor who treated A.M. on May 7 at the Intermountain Healthcare hospital. Dr. Thorn testified that A.M.’s symptoms likely resulted from “non-accidental trauma,” which “is a nice way of saying a child . . . was physically abused.” Dr. Thorn also testified that A.M.’s injuries would have required the application of “[e]xtremely violent” force, though he opined that it might have been “possible” that a person might not have “recognize[d] the severity” of the injury that he or she had inflicted.

¶18      On a CAT scan, Dr. Thorn observed two layers of blood in A.M.’s brain, which suggested to him that A.M. had sustained “at least two” discrete injuries. He estimated that the earlier of the two injuries occurred “within days” to “maybe a week” before May 7. Dr. Thorn speculated that the symptoms that prompted A.M.’s visit to the hospital on May 2 had come from the first brain injury, but he acknowledged that “[w]e’ll never know.” With respect to the injuries that led to A.M.’s death, Dr. Thorn testified that the “most severe injury leading eventually to the death” happened anywhere from “sometime within hours” to “almost right before” the video that was taken on May 7. He further testified that there was “some event soon before arrival [at the ER] that had caused” A.M.’s “respiratory depression.” Dr. Thorn felt unable to narrow the timeframe any further, and he expressed doubt that any doctor “would be able to comment as to a more definitive timeframe.” Dr. Thorn also testified that A.M. “was very, very sick at the time that that video was taken.”[2]

¶19 Dr. Hatch. Dr. Hatch was a recent medical school graduate who was completing a post-residency fellowship in child abuse pediatrics at the University of Utah, and he was part of the team that treated A.M. at Primary Children’s. Dr. Hatch testified that it would have required a significant amount of force to cause A.M.’s symptoms, such as “shaking by itself” or shaking combined “with some form of impact, or impact by itself.” He added that “we don’t observe these kinds of injuries from falls” or even from “significant” car accidents. In Dr. Hatch’s view, A.M.’s symptoms “suggest[ed]” that A.M. had “experienced significant force to her head.” He also opined that anyone who was present when the injuries were inflicted “would know that the force was excessive and that an injury was likely” to follow.

¶20 Dr. Hatch thought there were two potentially plausible explanations for the two layers of blood in A.M.’s brain: he thought it was possible that the blood represented two different injuries that were separated by time, and he also thought it was possible that the blood represented a single injury where some of the blood had changed colors when it mingled with cerebral spinal fluid. Thus, in Dr. Hatch’s opinion, A.M. was definitely injured on May 7, and it was possible that she had suffered an earlier brain injury as well.

¶21      As to the question of timing of the May 7 injury, Dr. Hatch testified that “the head injury immediately preceded the development of any symptoms that [A.M.] had. So in this situation where she became unconscious, the injury would immediately precede that.” Continuing, Dr. Hatch testified that the “medical literature would support that in almost all cases with this severe of an injury,” the resulting symptoms would appear “immediately afterward.”

¶22 Dr. Christensen. Dr. Christensen is the chief medical examiner for the Utah Department of Health and, as noted, performed A.M.’s autopsy. Dr. Christensen testified that A.M. had suffered a “traumatic” “axonal injury” to her brain and that the injury was “not consistent with having occurred accidentally.” In his view, the force involved would have been “noticeably violent.”

¶23      Like Dr. Thorn, Dr. Christensen saw signs of both an earlier and a later injury. Dr. Christensen agreed that “some of [A.M.’s] prior symptoms”—including the nausea that led to her May 2 visit to the hospital—could have been “related to a prior head injury.” On questioning from the State, however, Dr. Christensen seemed to agree that the later injury was “the ultimately fatal” one.

¶24      Dr. Christensen testified that in “some cases,” fatal injuries can be inflicted as many as three to ten days before the child actually dies. But Dr. Christensen explained that doctors look to “other aspects of the case as well” when estimating the time at which the injuries were inflicted, such as “what was the child’s behavior at various points along the way.” He said that in this case, he thought the fatal injury “occurred around the time” that A.M. arrived at the hospital. He also testified that with “traumatic axonal injury, you would expect [A.M.] to be symptomatic essentially immediately. I mean very, very quickly. It’s not going to be the kind of thing where she is going to be normal for a few hours . . . . It’s a global insult to the brain that is going to manifest as . . . abnormal behavior very soon after infliction.”

¶25      After the conclusion of the trial, the court entered a single-sentence ruling determining that the State had met its burden of proving that K.S. committed child abuse homicide. K.S. timely appealed.

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶26      K.S. argues there was insufficient evidence to support his adjudication for child abuse homicide. In cases tried without a jury (which include juvenile court proceedings), factual determinations “must not be set aside unless clearly erroneous, and the reviewing court must give due regard to the trial court’s opportunity to judge the credibility of the witnesses.” Utah R. Civ. P. 52(a)(4); cf. In re Z.D., 2006 UT 54, ¶ 29, 147 P.3d 401 (holding that an “appellate court must launch any review of factual findings from rule 52(a) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure and its ‘clearly erroneous’ test”). “The content of Rule 52(a)’s clearly erroneous standard, imported from the federal rule, requires that if the findings (or the trial court’s verdict in a criminal case) are against the clear weight of the evidence, or if the appellate court otherwise reaches a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made, the findings (or verdict) will be set aside.” State v. Walker, 743 P.2d 191, 193 (Utah 1987) (quotation simplified).

¶27 The parties agree that we should apply the above-cited standard of review to this case. We pause here to note, however, that the parties have disputed whether we should apply an additional layer of deferential gloss in this case as well.

¶28 It’s well-settled that when an appellate court reviews a jury’s verdict, the court views the evidence and all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the verdict. See, e.g.State v. Green, 2023 UT 10, n.2, 532 P.3d 930; State v. Bonds, 2023 UT 1, n.3, 524 P.3d 581; State v. Winfield, 2006 UT 4, ¶ 2, 128 P.3d 1171. But there’s a divergence in Utah’s caselaw about whether an appellate court does the same when reviewing a verdict from a bench trial. On this, some Utah cases say no. See, e.g.In re Z.D., 2006 UT 54, ¶ 35 (“An appellate court must indulge findings of fact made by a jury that support the verdict. No such indulgence is required of findings made by a judge.”); Alta Indus. Ltd. v. Hurst, 846 P.2d 1282, 1284 n.2 (Utah 1993) (holding that “an appellate court does not, as a matter of course, resolve all conflicts in the evidence in favor of the appellee” when findings were made by a judge); Walker, 743 P.2d at 193 (noting that “it is not accurate to say that the appellate court takes that view of the evidence that is most favorable to the appellee” when reviewing findings of the court (quotation simplified)). But other Utah cases—including some from our court that reviewed adjudications from juvenile court delinquency proceedings—say yes. See, e.g.State v. Layman, 1999 UT 79, ¶¶ 12–13, 985 P.2d 911 (holding that when “reviewing a conviction, an appellate court should consider the facts in a light most favorable to the verdict,” and then applying that standard to a ruling from “the trial judge, who was the finder of fact” in the bench trial at issue); In re J.R.H., 2020 UT App 155, ¶ 9, 478 P.3d 56 (applying the “light most favorable” standard to a juvenile court adjudication (quotation simplified)); In re V.T., 2000 UT App 189, ¶ 8, 5 P.3d 1234 (relying on Layman for the proposition that “[w]hen reviewing a juvenile court’s decision for sufficiency of the evidence, we must consider all the facts, and all reasonable inferences which may be drawn therefrom, in a light most favorable to the juvenile court’s determination”); see also In re C.C.R., 2011 UT App 228, ¶ 10, 257 P.3d 1106; In re M.B., 2008 UT App 433, ¶ 5, 198 P.3d 1007.

¶29      We need not resolve this conflict here. Again, the parties at least agree that K.S. can only prevail on his sufficiency challenge if he establishes that the verdict was against the clear weight of the evidence, or, instead, if we reach a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made. And the parties further agree that we give “due regard” to the juvenile court’s opportunity to “judge the credibility of witnesses.” Utah R. Civ. P. 52(a)(4). For the reasons set forth below, we affirm the juvenile court’s adjudication under these agreed-upon standards alone. We accordingly leave for another day (and, more likely, another court) the question of how to resolve the tension in the cases about whether the additional deferential gloss that applies to jury verdicts should apply to juvenile court decisions as well.

ANALYSIS

¶30      K.S. argues there was “insufficient evidence that [he], as opposed to someone else, caused the injuries that resulted in A.M.’s death.” We disagree.

¶31      The State’s case against K.S. relied on the interplay between three propositions: (i) A.M. died from an injury to her brain that was caused by violent force; (ii) A.M.’s symptoms would have manifested very quickly after the injury was inflicted; and (iii) K.S. was alone with A.M. immediately prior to the symptoms’ initial appearance. There was competent testimony to support each of these propositions.

¶32 Injury. All three medical experts agreed that A.M. died from a brain injury that was caused by violent force. Dr. Thorn testified that A.M.’s injury would have been caused by “[e]xtremely violent” force or a “violent, blunt act,” such as the “shaking back and forth of a child’s brain.” In his view, this was “not an accidentally dropped child.” Dr. Hatch similarly testified that a significant amount of force would have been required, either “shaking by itself,” or shaking combined “with some form of impact,” or “impact by itself.” He added that doctors “don’t observe these kinds of injuries from falls” or even from “significant” car accidents. Dr. Hatch believed anyone “who witnessed an incident like this occur would know that the force was excessive and that an injury was likely” to follow. Finally, Dr. Christensen testified that the injury was “not consistent with having occurred accidentally” and that the force involved would have been “noticeably violent.”

¶33 Timing of symptoms. There was also testimony from medical experts that A.M.’s symptoms would have manifested very quickly after the force that caused the fatal injury. Dr. Hatch testified that “the head injury immediately preceded the development of any symptoms that [A.M.] had” and that the “medical literature would support that in almost all cases with this severe of an injury,” the resulting symptoms would appear “immediately afterward.” Dr. Christensen similarly testified that with “traumatic axonal injury, you would expect [A.M.] to be symptomatic essentially immediately.” He added: “It’s not going to be the kind of thing where she is going to be normal for a few hours . . . . It’s a global insult to the brain that is going to manifest as . . . abnormal behavior very soon after infliction.”[3]

¶34 K.S. was alone with A.M. Finally, there was testimony establishing that K.S. was alone with A.M. immediately before the symptoms’ initial appearance. Mother and Father both testified that A.M. was in good health that morning. Father stated that after a few days of being fussy, A.M. was “feeling a little better” and that there was “nothing out of the ordinary.” Mother also testified that A.M. was “cheery, smiling, [and] glowing” that morning.

¶35      Mother left for work by 9:30 a.m., and at trial, Father testified that he left for work between 8:30 and 8:45 a.m. (though there was some suggestion that he may have left at 10:55 a.m.). At some point between 11:36 and 11:56 that morning, K.S. sent Mother a video showing A.M. with limp limbs and having difficulty breathing.

¶36      The collective import of these propositions is clear. Since K.S. was alone with A.M. for at least a half hour (if not several hours) before A.M.’s symptoms appeared, and since two medical experts testified that A.M.’s symptoms would have appeared very quickly (if not immediately) after the infliction of the injury, it stands to reason that K.S. caused the fatal injury. This would provide a basis to sustain the adjudication.[4]

¶37 K.S. nevertheless argues that there was insufficient evidence to support the adjudication because of various problems with the above evidence and with other aspects of the State’s case. While we certainly agree that there was conflicting evidence on certain points, the problems that K.S. identifies are not so conclusive that we can overturn the adjudication as a result.

¶38      Much of K.S.’s argument is focused on ambiguities in the record about the critical question of timing. K.S. points out that while Dr. Christensen opined that the symptoms likely manifested soon after the injury, Dr. Christensen also acknowledged that “those things”—apparently meaning medical conclusions about the time at which an injury occurred—“are not precise.” K.S. also relies heavily on Dr. Thorn’s testimony that the injury could have occurred anywhere from “almost right before” the symptoms appeared to “hours” earlier. And K.S. further points to Dr. Thorn’s testimony that he didn’t think “you could find anyone else that would be able to comment as to a more definitive timeframe.”

¶39 But when Dr. Thorn opined that he didn’t think that “anyone else” could provide “a more definitive timeframe,” Dr. Thorn was mistaken. As discussed, the State called two medical experts—Dr. Christensen and Dr. Hatch—who each testified under oath that they thought that A.M.’s symptoms would have appeared very quickly (if not immediately) after the fatal injury was inflicted. And to the extent that there was any conflict between the experts’ conclusions on this, the juvenile court was in a better position than we are to determine which version to believe. See, e.g.In re M.M., 2023 UT App 95, ¶ 35 n.9, 536 P.3d 102, petition for cert. filed, October 25, 2023 (No. 20230944) (recognizing that it “is the role of the juvenile court, not this court, to assess the weight and credibility of expert witnesses and to choose among their testimonies” (quotation simplified)); Knowlton v. Knowlton, 2023 UT App 16, ¶ 59 n.13, 525 P.3d 898 (noting that a trial court “is in the superior position to assess the weight of evidence,” including questions about which expert’s testimony to accept), cert. denied, 531 P.3d 730 (Utah 2023); Woodward v. Lafranca, 2016 UT App 141, ¶ 13, 381 P.3d 1125 (noting that a “fact-finder is in the best position to judge the credibility of witnesses and is free to disbelieve their testimony, even if that testimony comes from an expert witness” (quotation simplified)).

¶40      K.S. also points to testimony showing that Mother left for work by 9:30 a.m., as well as testimony that Father told a detective that he didn’t leave until 10:55 that morning. Since K.S. maintains that the window in which the injury could have been inflicted was several hours long, K.S. posits that Mother or Father could have inflicted the injury before they left for work. But again, on the question of timing, Dr. Christensen and Dr. Hatch both spoke of symptoms appearing very quickly after the fatal injury was inflicted. This testimony, alone, undermines this theory, and the juvenile court was entitled to credit it.

¶41 And there are other problems with this theory too. After all, K.S.’s suggestion that Mother or Father caused the injury that morning or overnight is at odds with their sworn testimonies. Again, both of them testified under oath that A.M. was healthy when they left the house. And it also seems possible (if not probable) that K.S. would have noticed something if Mother or Father had used violent force against A.M. that morning—after all, he’d spent the night there and was at the house all morning. But K.S. never claimed to have heard or witnessed either parent injuring A.M. earlier that day. Thus, to have accepted this theory, the court would have had to discredit the injury-to-symptoms chronology testimony of two medical experts, disbelieve the testimonies of Mother and Father, and then infer that Mother or Father had used violent force against A.M. without K.S. noticing or deciding to comment on it.

¶42 K.S. also points to evidence suggesting that A.M. had sustained a prior brain injury sometime before May 7, and he then argues that this prior injury might have been responsible for A.M.’s death. But while Dr. Christensen and Dr. Thorn both believed that A.M. had suffered multiple injuries, Dr. Hatch thought it was possible that there weren’t two injuries at all. Regardless, even assuming that the earlier injury did occur, K.S. could have inflicted that injury too given that he’d been babysitting for weeks. And more to the point, Dr. Christensen testified that the earlier injury wasn’t the cause of death. Dr. Christensen explained that both the earlier injury and the later injury had caused “subdural hemorrhage[s]” but that a subdural hemorrhage “didn’t ultimately lead directly to the child’s death.” Instead, Dr. Christensen testified that “diffuse axonal injury” in the brainstem created “respiratory compromise” that led to “brain swelling and ultimately death.” And when the prosecutor asked Dr. Christensen whether the “fatal” or “ultimately fatal” injury occurred close in time to A.M. arriving at the hospital, Dr. Christensen agreed with the State’s timeline. He reiterated that after the infliction of the “traumatic axonal injury,” which he had previously identified as the ultimate cause of death, symptoms would appear “essentially immediately.”[5]

¶43                Finally, K.S. points to various problems with the version of

events offered by Mother and Father, including Mother’s decision not to take the baby to the hospital that afternoon, Father’s seemingly odd storytelling while waiting for detectives that night, and certain discrepancies between the parents’ initial statements to officers and their testimonies at trial. We’ve reviewed the record and acknowledge the potential problems identified by K.S. But these problems all go to the perceived credibility (or lack thereof) of Mother and Father, particularly as it relates to their sworn testimonies that they did not injure their child. Our supreme court, however, has directly cautioned the appellate courts to avoid second-guessing lower courts about credibility issues like these. As the court explained in In re Z.D.:

Appellate courts are removed temporally and geographically from trial courts. They do not see juries impaneled or oaths administered to witnesses. They do not view first-hand witnesses’ “tells” of posture, inflection, or mood that strengthen or erode credibility. It is the lot of appellate judges to take their sustenance from the printed page; to peer into the facts as deeply as the flat plane of paper will permit. By the time the trial transcript reaches the hands of the appellate judge, the universal adjective describing its condition is “cold.”

2006 UT 54, ¶ 24, 147 P.3d 401. It’s of course possible that the court could have chosen to disbelieve the testimonies of Mother and Father. But given its adjudication, it’s clear that the court did accept their accounts (or, at least, those portions that suggested that it was K.S., not Mother or Father, who inflicted the fatal injury on A.M.). Without something more, it’s not our place to second-guess that determination.

¶44      In short, this evidentiary picture could certainly have been clearer, and we do see this as something of a close case. But the fact that it’s a close case is the reason we shouldn’t overturn this adjudication. In In re Z.D., our supreme court stressed that an “appellate court must be capable of discriminating between discomfort over a trial court’s findings of fact—which it must tolerate—and those that require the court’s intercession. It must forebear disturbing the ‘close call.’” Id. ¶ 33. And again, under even the standard of review that both parties agree on, K.S. must convince us that the verdict was against “the clear weight of the evidence,” or, instead, we must be left with “a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made.” State v. Walker, 743 P.2d 191, 193 (Utah 1987) (emphases added, quotations otherwise simplified).

¶45      On this record, the juvenile court could have sided with K.S. based on certain evidence about the timing of the injuries and who was around A.M. during a potentially relevant window. But the State’s narrower view of the timing window was backed by two medical experts, and its view of who was where and when was backed by sworn testimony as well. And under the State’s evidence, K.S. was the only person who could have caused the fatal injury.

¶46      Unlike members of this court, the juvenile court observed the relevant testimony firsthand. As a result, it was in a better position than we are to evaluate the credibility of that testimony and make determinations about the key facts. While K.S. has highlighted some problems with the State’s case, we don’t see those problems as being so pronounced that the court’s decision was against the clear weight of the evidence, nor are we left with a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made. We accordingly see no basis for overturning this adjudication.

CONCLUSION

¶47 There was sufficient evidence to support the juvenile court’s adjudication that K.S. committed child abuse homicide. The adjudication is therefore affirmed.

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

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State v. Fowers – 2023 UT App 128 – violation of protective order

State v. Fowers – 2023 UT App 128

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellant,

v.

THOMAS FOWERS,

Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20220073-CA

Filed October 26, 2023

Fourth District Court, Provo Department

The Honorable Robert A. Lund

No. 201402484

Sean D. Reyes and Jeffrey D. Mann, Attorneys for

Appellant, assisted by law student Rebecca Barker[1]

Douglas J. Thompson, Attorney for Appellee

JUDGE JOHN D. LUTHY authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and AMY J. OLIVER concurred.

LUTHY, Judge:

¶1        Thomas Fowers’s ex-wife (Ex-Wife) is married to his adopted brother (Brother). A court issued a protective order directing Fowers not to “contact . . . or communicate in any way with [Ex-Wife], either directly or indirectly,” and not to “threaten to commit any form of violence against” her. Early one morning, Fowers called Brother’s phone three times in two minutes from an unrecognized number. The first two times, no one answered. The third time, Ex-Wife answered, and Fowers said, “You and that f***ing whore have it coming.”

¶2        Fowers was charged with violating the protective order. The district court declined to bind Fowers over and dismissed the charge, determining that there was “no evidence in the record to establish that Mr. Fowers . . . intentionally communicat[ed] either directly or indirectly to [Ex-Wife]” since “the statement itself clearly [was] directed at [Brother]” and Fowers did not tell Brother “to direct the comment to [Ex-Wife].” The State appeals, and we reverse.

BACKGROUND

¶3        Ex-Wife obtained a protective order against Fowers in August 2017. The order included a “No Contact Order” stating, “Do not contact, phone, mail, e-mail, or communicate in any way with [Ex-Wife], either directly or indirectly.” It also included a “Personal Conduct Order” stating, “Do not commit, try to commit or threaten to commit any form of violence against [Ex-Wife] . . . . This includes stalking, harassing, threatening, physically hurting, or causing any other form of abuse.”

¶4        One morning in July 2020, Brother’s phone received three calls between 4:57 a.m. and 4:58 a.m. from an unrecognized number. At the time of the first call, Ex-Wife and Brother “were, of course, sleeping.” As they awoke, they thought that maybe someone was calling for help related to a wedding they were to attend that day. When Ex-Wife answered the third call, she recognized Fowers’s voice saying, “You and that f***ing whore have it coming.”

¶5        Ex-Wife reported the calls to authorities, and Fowers was charged with one third-degree felony count of violation of a protective order with a domestic violence enhancement.

¶6        The district court held a preliminary hearing on the charge. The State presented evidence that Fowers had been served with the protective order. In addition to Ex-Wife, who testified about the phone calls, the deputy who received Ex-Wife’s report testified that he had checked the number from which the calls had been made against local records and found that the number was attached to Fowers. The deputy also said that he called the number and that, when he asked to speak to Fowers, the person who answered identified himself as Fowers. Additionally, the court accepted into evidence records of three prior convictions of Fowers’s for violating this protective order and a previous protective order because those convictions were “relevant to establish under evidence [r]ule 404 both knowledge by the defendant and intention.”

¶7        After the State presented its case, the court found “that the [S]tate ha[d] not met its burden.” The court explained:

[A]lthough the direct and circumstantial evidence establishes that Mr. Fowers made the call, the number that he called was his adoptive brother’s number, not the alleged victim’s number. . . .

[And] the statement itself clearly is directed at [Brother], not at [Ex-Wife]. He say[s] “you and that f’ing whore,” meaning that he’s directing his comment toward [Brother] and not [Ex-Wife] . . . . [W]hat is glaringly missing from the record here is any statement by Mr. Fowers to [Brother] to direct the comment to the alleged victim. Therefore, there is no evidence in the record to establish that Mr. Fowers intentionally violated this order by intentionally communicating either directly or indirectly to [Ex-Wife].

Based on those findings, I find that the [S]tate has not—even drawing inferences in the light most favorable to the [S]tate— . . . establish[ed] sufficient evidence[,] and I decline to bind the charge over.

The court dismissed the charge with prejudice, and the State now appeals.

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶8        The State contends that it presented evidence establishing probable cause that Fowers violated the protective order and that the district court therefore erred by not binding Fowers over. In essence, the State argues that the court applied the wrong legal standard by not viewing the evidence and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn from it in favor of the prosecution. A district court’s “decision to bind over a criminal defendant for trial presents a mixed question of law and fact and requires the application of the appropriate bindover standard to the underlying factual findings. As a result, in reviewing a bindover decision, an appellate court should afford the decision limited deference.” In re I.R.C., 2010 UT 41, ¶ 12, 232 P.3d 1040 (cleaned up). “Applying the wrong legal standard . . . will always exceed whatever limited discretion the [court] has in the bindover decision.” State v. Ramirez, 2012 UT 59, ¶ 7, 289 P.3d 444.

ANALYSIS

¶9        Our supreme court has explained that the evidentiary threshold for bindover is a low bar:

Although the guarantee of a preliminary hearing is fundamental, the evidentiary threshold at such hearing is relatively low. As we have emphasized, a showing of “probable cause” entails only the presentation of evidence sufficient to support a reasonable belief that the defendant committed the charged crime. . . . To justify binding a defendant over for trial, the prosecution need not present evidence capable of supporting a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Nor is the prosecution required to eliminate alternative inferences that could be drawn from the evidence in favor of the defense. All that is required is reasonably believable evidence—as opposed to speculation—sufficient to sustain each element of the crime(s) in question.

State v. Ramirez, 2012 UT 59, ¶ 9, 289 P.3d 444 (cleaned up). Here, the State needed to present “evidence sufficient to support a reasonable belief” that Fowers violated the protective order, id. (cleaned up), and the court was required to “view all evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution and . . . draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the prosecution,” State v. Clark, 2001 UT 9, ¶ 10, 20 P.3d 300 (cleaned up).

¶10 A person commits the crime of violation of a protective order if the person “(a) is the respondent or defendant subject to a protective order . . . and (b) intentionally or knowingly violates that order after having been properly served” with it. Utah Code § 76-5-108(2). A person acts intentionally “when it is his conscious objective or desire to engage in the conduct.” Id. § 76-2-103(1). And a person acts knowingly “when he is aware of the nature of his conduct or the existing circumstances.” Id. § 76-2-103(2).

¶11 There is no dispute that Fowers was subject to the protective order at issue, and the State showed that Fowers was served with that protective order. Thus, the only issue before us is whether the State offered evidence supporting a reasonable belief that Fowers intentionally or knowingly violated the protective order. On this point, the State first argues that it put on evidence sufficient to establish probable cause that Fowers violated the No Contact Order portion of the protective order by “intentionally or knowingly contact[ing] Ex-Wife at least indirectly” because “[i]t was reasonable to infer that Fowers knew or intended that his contact and [message] . . . would be relayed to Ex-Wife.” The State then argues that Fowers’s statement “You and that f***ing whore have it coming” can also be reasonably interpreted as a threat of violence in violation of the Personal Conduct Order portion of the protective order. We agree with each of the State’s arguments.[2]

¶12      The State put on evidence establishing probable cause that Fowers intentionally or knowingly contacted Ex-Wife at least indirectly. In State v. Fouse, 2014 UT App 29, 319 P.3d 778, cert. denied, 329 P.3d 36 (Utah 2014), this court affirmed a conviction for violation of a protective order where the defendant mailed envelopes to the victim’s sisters rather than to the victim, his estranged wife. Id. ¶¶ 4–7, 43. The victim was living with one of the sisters, and the other sister lived in the apartment next door. Id. ¶ 3. While some of the letters in the envelopes were addressed to the victim, others contained statements such as, “Please hold onto this. . . . [E]ven though I can’t send nor talk to my wife or kids[,] . . . writing sure does help.” Id. ¶ 4. Nonetheless, we reasoned that a factfinder “could readily infer that communication directed to or dealing with one’s ex-spouse, and sent to the ex-spouse’s siblings, will routinely and predictably be conveyed by the siblings to their family member.” Id. ¶ 40. And we noted, “Such an inference is particularly sound in this case, given the jury’s awareness that [the victim] and her sisters were close—in both senses of that term.” Id.

¶13 The same reasoning applies here. A factfinder could readily infer that calls Fowers placed to Brother or statements Fowers made to him would “routinely and predictably be conveyed” to Ex-Wife, Brother’s spouse, especially where a factfinder could reasonably infer that Brother and Ex-Wife were “close” “in both senses of that term.” Id. Indeed, a factfinder could infer that Fowers’s decision to call Brother just before 5:00 a.m.— a time when spouses could reasonably be assumed to be together—manifested his intent to catch Brother and Ex-Wife together. Therefore, we have no trouble concluding that the State’s evidence was sufficient to support a reasonable belief that Fowers, by calling Brother’s phone when he did, intentionally or knowingly contacted Ex-Wife directly or indirectly. Fowers did not need to explicitly direct Brother to communicate his message to Ex-Wife, and the court erred in suggesting as much.

¶14 The State also asserts that Fowers’s statement “You and that f***ing whore have it coming” can be reasonably interpreted as a threat of violence. We agree. In State v. Spainhower, 1999 UT App 280, 988 P.2d 452, this court recognized that the admittedly “vague and indirect” statement, “‘I’m going to get you,’ surely may connote a threat of bodily injury” because “among the many dictionary definitions of the verb ‘get’ are: ‘to bring to retribution, take vengeance on, KILL’ and ‘to strike with force, HIT.’” Id. ¶¶ 6– 7 (cleaned up). Likewise, the words at issue here, though perhaps similarly vague and indirect, could carry either a violent or a nonviolent meaning and must be interpreted by the factfinder in light of “the inferences to be drawn from the context in which the words were spoken.” Id. ¶ 7. And again, at the preliminary hearing stage, a court must “view all evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution and must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the prosecution.” Clark, 2001 UT 9, ¶ 10 (cleaned up). Accordingly, at this stage, the court should have interpreted Fowers’s words to be capable of conveying, in context, a threat of violence.

CONCLUSION

¶15 The protective order’s No Contact Order forbade Fowers from contacting, phoning, mailing, e-mailing, or communicating in any way with Ex-Wife, either directly or indirectly. Its Personal Conduct Order forbade him from threatening violence against Ex-Wife. Plainly there is “reasonably believable evidence—as opposed to speculation—sufficient to” show that Fowers violated one or both of these provisions. State v. Ramirez, 2012 UT 59, ¶ 9, 289 P.3d 444. By not viewing the evidence and the reasonable inferences to be drawn from it in the light most favorable to the State—and instead requiring a statement by Fowers to Brother to direct the comment at issue to Ex-Wife—the district court applied the wrong legal standard and exceeded “whatever limited discretion” it had in the bindover decision. Id. ¶ 7. We therefore reverse and remand this matter to the district court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


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

[2] Fowers asserts that the State did not preserve “the arguments” it now makes on appeal because the prosecutor “did not raise [them] in a way that gave the district court the opportunity . . . to address [them].” “An issue is preserved by presenting it to the trial court in such a way that the trial court has an opportunity to rule on that issue.” Vierig v. Therriault, 2023 UT App 67, ¶ 43, 532 P.3d 568 (cleaned up); see id. ¶ 44 (“Of note, issues must be preserved, not arguments for or against a particular ruling on an issue raised below. By contrast, new arguments, when brought under a properly preserved issue or theory, do not require an exception to preservation.” (cleaned up)).

Fowers is mistaken when he says that the State did not meet this preservation standard here. At the close of the preliminary hearing, the State referenced “paragraph 1 and 2 of the protective order”; identified those paragraphs as the Personal Conduct Order and No Contact Order respectively; and noted that they prohibited Fowers from “threatening [Ex-Wife] in any way” and from “communicating in any way with [Ex-Wife] either directly or indirectly.” The State then highlighted the evidence that Fowers “called the husband of [Ex-Wife] in the early morning hours when they would presumably be together and made a statement against her to [her] then husband,” which is the same evidence that the State emphasizes here. By presenting evidence and arguing below for bindover based on an alleged violation of both the Personal Conduct Order and the No Contact Order, the State gave the district court an opportunity to rule on the same questions we are now asked to rule on. So regardless of whether those questions are characterized as arguments or issues—and we express no opinion as to the proper characterization here— Fowers’s preservation argument fails.

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In re A.S.G.-R. – 2023 UT App 126 – permanent custody and guardianship

In re A.S.G.-R. – 2023 UT App 126

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF A.S.G.-R.,

A PERSON UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

G.R.,

Appellant,

v.

STATE OF UTAH AND E.G.,

Appellees.

Opinion No. 20220645-CA

Filed October 19, 2023

Fourth District Juvenile Court, Provo Department

The Honorable D. Scott Davis

No. 1196726

Alexandra Mareschal and Julie J. Nelson,

Attorneys for Appellant

Sean D. Reyes, Carol L.C. Verdoia, and John M.

Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee State of Utah

Neil D. Skousen, Attorney for Appellee E.G.

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

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

concurred.

HARRIS, Judge:

¶1        G.R. (Mother) became convinced that E.G. (Father) was sexually abusing their daughter, A.S.G.-R. (Child). Over a nearly two-year period, Mother made or sparked some thirty reports of sexual abuse to Utah’s Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS). After investigation, however, DCFS was unable to discover any credible evidence supporting Mother’s allegations, and therefore did not substantiate any of them. And given the number and repeated nature of the reports, DCFS became concerned that Child was being harmed by the allegations and ensuing investigations, some of which had included invasive physical examinations of Child.

¶2        Eventually, the State filed a petition for protective supervision and obtained an order removing Child from Mother’s custody and placing her with Father. After affording Mother fifteen months of reunification services, including a psychological evaluation and therapy, the juvenile court determined that the services had not resulted in sufficient change to the situation and that Child would be placed at substantial risk if she were returned to Mother, and therefore terminated reunification services. And after a four-day permanency hearing, the court entered a permanent custody and guardianship order in favor of Father.

¶3        Mother now appeals, arguing that the court erred in its decisions to not extend reunification services and to award permanent custody and guardianship to Father. We discern no reversible error in those decisions, and therefore affirm.

BACKGROUND[1]

¶4        Child was born in January 2017. Mother and Father separated shortly before Child’s birth, and about two years later they finalized their divorce. In the decree of divorce, Mother and Father were awarded joint legal custody of Child, but Mother was awarded primary physical custody with Father having statutory parent-time.

¶5        Child welfare officials first became involved with this family in November 2018, when DCFS made a supported finding of domestic violence with Father as the perpetrator and Child as the victim. At some point during this same time frame, Mother obtained a protective order against Father, based on allegations that he committed domestic violence against her also.

¶6        Beginning in May 2019, Mother began to make accusations that Father was sexually abusing Child. Over the course of the next two years, Mother made at least eight direct reports to DCFS of alleged sexual abuse. In addition, Mother reported her allegations to various medical and mental health professionals, some of whom also made reports to DCFS based on Mother’s representations. In total, between May 2019 and February 2021, some thirty separate reports were made to DCFS that Father was sexually abusing Child. DCFS investigated these reports and could not substantiate any of them. In connection with some of these reports, Mother took Child to the hospital. During two of these visits, Child—approximately three years old at the time— was subjected to invasive physical examinations, including one “code-R” rape examination.[2] The examinations yielded no evidence of abuse, and in January 2020 DCFS representatives spoke with Mother about the potential harm that could result to Child from repeated unfounded allegations and needless forensic medical examinations. In addition, in April 2020 the “medical director of Utah’s [Center for] Safe and Healthy Families” program advised Mother that subjecting Child to “any further sexual assault examinations could result in an allegation of abuse for [Mother] due to the harm that unnecessary examinations can cause a child.”

¶7        During this time frame, and in an effort to expand Mother’s understanding of the relevant issues, DCFS opened a “voluntary services case” to provide Mother the opportunity to take advantage of certain services, and Mother agreed to work with DCFS to try to improve the situation.

¶8        During the pendency of the voluntary services case, however, Mother hired a private investigator to investigate the possibility of sexual abuse by Father, and she did not tell DCFS that she had done so. This investigator interviewed Child, using techniques the juvenile court later found to “violate[] nearly every guideline for child forensic interviewing,” including “ask[ing] leading questions, [making] promises to [Child] that could not be kept, and offer[ing Child] ice cream if she would tell the interviewer what ‘daddy’s secret’ is.”

¶9        Despite DCFS’s efforts to assist Mother, the voluntary services case did not have its desired effect. Mother proved unable or unwilling to follow the plan DCFS outlined, and she stopped communicating with the DCFS caseworker.[3] Eventually, DCFS closed the voluntary services case.

¶10 Sometime after that case was closed, Mother—in a continuing effort to present evidence that Father was sexually abusing Child—took a video recording of Child in an incident the juvenile court described as follows: Mother “videotaped [Child], naked on a bed, having her point to where [Father] touches her. On the video, [Mother] touches [Child’s] genitals and has her spread her legs and moves the camera angle close-up to [Child’s] genitals.” Mother provided a copy of this recording to DCFS, but caseworkers declined to view it “based on concerns that it may potentially contain child pornography.” Mother then provided the video recording to law enforcement.

¶11      In January 2021, Mother again brought Child to a hospital, alleging that Child “disclosed that [Father] had put his mouth on [Child’s] vagina just hours prior.” Another invasive physical examination was performed on Child, yet “no male DNA was found on [Child’s] genitals.” DCFS was informed about this incident, presumably from hospital personnel, and investigated it; the investigation included interviewing Child at the Children’s Justice Center. After completing its investigation, DCFS found “no corroborating evidence” and concluded that Child’s “disclosure was coached” and “not credible.”

¶12      The present case was initiated in March 2021 when Mother sought a protective order barring Father from having contact with Child, and the State responded by not only intervening in the protective order case but also by filing this action: a petition for protective supervision services in which the State asked the court to “discontinue” the protective order, conclude that Child was “abused, dependent, and/or neglected,” award DCFS protective supervision of Child, and allow DCFS to place Child in Father’s custody during the pendency of the case.

¶13      At a shelter hearing held about a week later, the juvenile court ordered Child removed from Mother’s custody and placed in the temporary custody of DCFS, which then placed Child, on a preliminary basis, with Father. Child has remained in Father’s care ever since.

¶14      Later, at a subsequent hearing, the court found, based on stipulation, that Child was dependent as to Father. With regard to Father, the court indicated that the primary permanency goal was “Reunification/REMAIN HOME,” and that the concurrent goal was “Remain Home with non-custodial parent.”

¶15      The court held an adjudication hearing as to Mother; at that hearing, Father and the guardian ad litem (the GAL) asserted that Mother’s conduct—making repeated false claims of sexual abuse, thereby subjecting Child to interviews, investigations, and physical examinations—constituted abuse, but the State argued only for a finding of neglect. After the hearing, the court found “no specific evidence” of harm to Child that could support a finding of abuse, but instead determined that Child “is neglected” as to Mother because Child “lacks proper care by reason of the fault or habits of [Mother].” For Mother, the court set a primary permanency goal of “RETURN HOME” and a concurrent permanency goal of “Permanent Custody and Guardianship with a Relative.” The court explained that it was setting “different permanency goals for each parent,” and that for Father, “the primary goal will be” for Child to “remain[] home with him,” with “the concurrent goal of reunification if she is removed from his care.” For Mother, the primary goal was “reunification, with the concurrent goal of guardianship with [a] relative.”

¶16 In connection with setting these permanency goals, the court adopted a Child and Family Plan (the Plan). Under the terms of the Plan, Mother was required to, among other things, “complete a psychological evaluation and follow through with all recommendations”; “participate in individual therapy”; participate in a “parenting class”; and “maintain stable and appropriate housing” for herself and Child. The Plan also required Mother to be “open and honest” in connection with the psychological evaluation, as well as with therapists and other mental health professionals. The Plan provided that its objectives would “be achieved when [Child] is living at [Mother’s] home” and when Mother “is providing a healthy, stable, and age-appropriate environment . . . that supports a strong co-parenting relationship with” Father. No party lodged any objection to the terms of the Plan or to the permanency goals the court set.[4]

¶17 Thereafter, Mother completed a parenting class as well as—after some delay that may or may not have been attributable to her—the required psychological evaluation. The psychologist who conducted the evaluation (Evaluator) diagnosed Mother with “unspecified personality disorder” characterized by “symptoms indicative of borderline, histrionic, and narcissistic personality disorders as well as paranoid-like features.” In particular, Evaluator noted that Mother has “a belief that she can only be understood by a few people,” a “sense of entitlement,” a “lack of empathy,” and a “pervasive distrust and suspiciousness of others” that leads her to sometimes “suspect[], without sufficient basis, that others are harming and deceiving her.” Evaluator offered his view that, “unless [Mother] overcomes her psychopathological features,” she “cannot act in [Child’s] best interest.” He noted that the “obvious recommendation” for Mother would be for her to “pursue an effective treatment program,” but he was doubtful that such a program would succeed in Mother’s case, because Mother “is convinced that she is not the problem” and because, “given her personality disorder features, . . . it would be hard for [Mother] to develop an effective psychotherapeutic alliance with her psychotherapist.”

¶18 Thereafter, DCFS sent Mother a list of recommended therapists, and Mother attended therapy sessions with at least three different mental health professionals. DCFS expressed concern that Mother “was seeking out multiple providers,” some of whom reported that Mother was attempting to “get a second opinion on the psychological evaluation,” and DCFS was worried that Mother was “continu[ing] to report” to these therapists “that [Child] was being sexually abused.” Because of this, DCFS harbored a “concern that there is no clear progress in therapy, due to minimal communication from providers, multiple providers involved and regular changes in therapy.” Mother maintains, however, that she “engaged in all recommended therapy,” an assertion no party apparently contests, although the record is far from clear about what the specific recommendations were and exactly how Mother complied with them.

¶19 After the psychological evaluation was completed, the parties appeared for a review hearing before the court. At that hearing, the results of the evaluation were discussed, and the court commented that, “if the case were closed today and things returned to how they were before the case, [Child] would be at risk of harm by” Mother. The court ordered that Child remain in DCFS custody and placed with Father, with whom the court stated it had “no safety concerns.”

¶20 As the twelve-month permanency hearing approached, Mother moved for an extension of reunification services for “at least 90 days.” Mother argued that she had complied with the Plan, in that she had completed the parenting class and the psychological evaluation and had engaged in therapy. In this motion, Mother also argued that the juvenile court could not enter an order of permanent custody and guardianship with Father, because the district court had already entered a custody order, in connection with the parties’ divorce case, and in Mother’s view the district court should be the court to enter and modify custody orders between the parents. Father opposed Mother’s motion for extended services, but the State did not register opposition. The court scheduled an evidentiary hearing to consider the matter. But due to problems with witness subpoenas, the evidentiary hearing needed to be postponed, which resulted in Mother’s motion for an extension of services being de facto granted: services were then extended for another ninety days, and the postponed evidentiary hearing was turned into a permanency hearing.

¶21      After these delays, the permanency hearing was held, over four nonconsecutive trial days, in April and June 2022. Child’s DCFS caseworker testified that she believed that Mother had been “coaching [Child] into telling people certain things.” And Child’s psychologist testified that she “did not observe significant behaviors or concerns, [or] emotions concerning expressions that would signal to [her] that [Child] has experienced sexual abuse.”

¶22      Evaluator testified at length during the trial, and discussed the specifics of his evaluation of Mother. He discussed his diagnosis that Mother had an “unspecified personality disorder.” He testified that the evaluation took longer than anticipated because Mother “did not involve herself in the evaluation in a forthright manner,” “withheld relevant information that was requested of her,” and “intentionally distorted information.” In his view, Mother did not think that she was the problem or that she had done anything wrong. Evaluator reiterated his view that unless Mother “overcomes her psychopathological features, [she] cannot act in [Child’s] best interest.”

¶23 During her own testimony, Mother continued to cling to her viewpoint that Father had been sexually abusing Child. She testified that “she does not agree with a doctor’s opinion that there was no evidence of sexual abuse.” When asked whether she “still believe[d]” that Father had sexually abused Child, she answered that she did not know, but that some “part of [her]” still believed that abuse took place, and that she still had “a suspicion” in that regard. She did not recognize any impropriety in her multiple reports of sexual abuse to DCFS and other authorities, testifying that she did not “think [she] was doing anything incorrectly” regarding the parenting of Child. And she did not agree that her behavior constituted neglect of Child.

¶24      In this same vein, Mother also called her ongoing therapist to testify at the trial. The therapist testified that he had spent some thirty hours of therapy with Mother and that she had been cooperative. The therapist opined, to the extent he was able to as a fact witness, that Evaluator’s diagnosis of an “unspecified personality disorder” was incorrect, that Mother had not neglected Child by reporting sexual abuse to the authorities, and that Father had indeed sexually abused Child.

¶25      At the conclusion of the trial, the juvenile court took the matter under advisement. A few weeks later, the court issued a written decision containing several different rulings. First, the court declined Mother’s invitation to further extend reunification services, and it terminated those services. Important to the court’s decision in this regard were its findings that—although Mother had taken certain steps, including completing parenting classes, engaging in therapy, and completing the psychological evaluation—Mother had not fully complied with the terms of the Plan, because even after all of these services, Mother “accepted virtually no responsibility for [Child] being in DCFS custody for more than one year,” “demonstrated virtually no insight regarding the harm she has caused” to Child, and offered “varied and conflicted” testimony “regarding whether she still believed” that Father had sexually abused Child, “despite there being no credible evidence that he has.” The court also determined that reunification between Mother and Child was not “probable or likely within the next 90 days” and that the extension of services was not in Child’s best interest.

¶26 Second, the court awarded “permanent custody and guardianship” of Child to Father. Important to the court’s decision in this regard were its findings that “return of [Child] to [Mother’s] care would create a substantial risk of detriment to [Child’s] physical or emotional well-being,” that there is “no credible evidence” that Father has ever sexually abused Child, and that Child “seems to be thriving and well-adjusted [and] well cared for” in Father’s care.

¶27 Finally, after denying Mother’s request for additional reunification services and granting permanent custody and guardianship in favor of Father, the court terminated its jurisdiction in the case.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶28 Mother now appeals, and she raises two issues for our consideration. First, she challenges the juvenile court’s decision to terminate reunification services. The juvenile court is “in the best position to evaluate the credibility of witnesses, the parent’s level of participation in reunification services, and whether services were appropriately tailored to remedy the problems that led to the child’s removal.” In re D.R., 2022 UT App 124, ¶ 9, 521 P.3d 545 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 525 P.3d 1264 (Utah 2023). Accordingly, “absent a demonstration that the determination was clearly in error, we will not disturb the determination” to terminate reunification services. See id. (quotation simplified).

¶29      Second, Mother challenges the juvenile court’s decision to award permanent custody and guardianship to Father, her fellow parent. As part of this challenge, she takes issue with the court setting slightly different permanency goals for each parent, and with the court accomplishing two separate objectives—namely, choosing among those goals and awarding permanent custody to Father—all in connection with the same hearing. In the main, Mother’s challenges in this regard involve questions of statutory interpretation, which “are questions of law that we review for correctness.” In re S.Y.T., 2011 UT App 407, ¶ 9, 267 P.3d 930 (quotation simplified). But to the extent that Mother here challenges the court’s underlying factual findings, we adopt a more deferential standard of review. See In re L.M., 2013 UT App 191, ¶ 6, 308 P.3d 553 (“We review the juvenile court’s factual findings for clear error . . . .” (quotation simplified)), cert. denied, 320 P.3d 676 (Utah 2014).[5]

ANALYSIS

I

¶30      Mother first challenges the juvenile court’s decision to terminate reunification services. For the reasons discussed, we discern no clear error in the court’s decision.

¶31 When a juvenile court removes a child from a parent’s custody, it may afford the parent the opportunity to take advantage of certain services—e.g., mental health counseling or parenting classes—designed to address the problems that led to removal and aimed at facilitating reunification between parent and child. See Utah Code § 80-3-406. However, due to the need for swift permanence in child welfare cases, the duration of reunification services may not ordinarily “exceed 12 months” from the date of removal. See id. § 80-3-406(13)(a); see also id. § 80­3-409(6). A juvenile court may, however, extend reunification services by an additional “90 days”—for a total of fifteen months—if the court finds, by a preponderance of the evidence, “that (i) there has been substantial compliance with the child and family plan; (ii) reunification is probable within that 90-day period; and (iii) the extension is in the best interest of the minor.” Id. § 80-3­409(7)(a). And in exceptional cases, the court may extend services for a second ninety-day period—for a total of eighteen months— but only if the court can make those same three findings by clear and convincing evidenceId. § 80-3-409(7)(c).

¶32      In this case, Child was removed from Mother’s custody at a shelter hearing in March 2021. Thus, reunification services were to presumptively end in March 2022, unless the court made findings sufficient to support an extension. In early April 2022, the court commenced an evidentiary hearing for the purpose of determining whether reunification services should be terminated or extended but, due to problems with witness subpoenas, the evidentiary hearing needed to be postponed, which resulted in a de facto extension of reunification services for another three months, into June 2022. Finally, at the conclusion of the four-day hearing that same month, the court ordered that reunification services be terminated. In its order, the court—presumably out of an abundance of caution given the timing of the hearing—stated that it was “not able to find by a preponderance of the evidence, and certainly not by clear and convincing evidence, that [Mother] is in substantial compliance with [the Plan], that reunification . . . is probable or likely within the next 90 days, or that extension of services for [Mother] is in [Child’s] best interest.”

¶33 Mother challenges this decision, asserting that it goes against the clear weight of the evidence because, she asserts, she at least substantially complied with the Plan. We acknowledge that Mother did take certain actions that the Plan required, such as completing the psychological evaluation and participating in parenting classes and individual therapy, and we therefore agree with Mother’s assertion that she complied with many—if not necessarily all[6]—of the Plan’s individual requirements.

¶34      But even taking Mother’s assertion—that she completed all of the Plan’s individual subsidiary tasks—at face value, that does not necessarily compel the conclusion that Mother substantially complied with the Plan, because in this case Mother’s efforts did not bear fruit. That is, at the end of fifteen months of reunification services, Mother had not rectified the problem that led to the removal of Child from her custody. The Plan explicitly stated that its goals would be “achieved when [Child] is living at [Mother’s] home [and] where Mother is providing a healthy, stable, and age-appropriate environment . . . that supports a strong co-parenting relationship with [Father].” Child was removed from Mother’s custody because Child lacked “proper care by reason of the fault or habits of [Mother]” due to Mother’s continued unsupported reports to authorities that Father was sexually abusing Child. After fifteen months of services, the court—based at least in part on Mother’s own testimony at the evidentiary hearing— determined that the original problem still existed, and that Child could not therefore safely be returned to Mother’s custody. It is far from clear error for a juvenile court to determine that a parent who has completed many of a child and family plan’s individual requirements, but who has still not meaningfully addressed the underlying problem the plan was designed to solve, has not substantially complied with the plan.

¶35      Moreover, even if we were to assume, for the purposes of the discussion, that Mother’s actions constituted substantial compliance with the Plan, Mother must also grapple with the juvenile court’s findings that reunification was not probable within the next ninety days, and that another extension of reunification services was not in Child’s best interest. See Utah Code § 80-3-409(7)(a)(ii), (iii); see also In re H.C., 2022 UT App 146, ¶ 54, 523 P.3d 736 (“Although [the mother] subsequently complied with the child and family plan, the court nonetheless determined that [the child] could not safely be returned to her care because it found that the return posed a substantial risk of detriment to [the child’s] physical or emotional well-being.”), cert. denied, 527 P.3d 1106 (Utah 2023). While Mother spends many pages in her brief contesting the court’s “substantial compliance” finding, she does not directly engage with the court’s findings that, given her lack of progress on solving the underlying problem, she had not shown—by either evidentiary standard— that reunification was probable in the next ninety days or that reunification was in Child’s best interest. And based on our review of the record, we discern no clear error in these findings.

¶36      Accordingly, we discern no error, let alone reversible error, in the juvenile court’s decision to terminate reunification services.

II

¶37 Next, Mother challenges the juvenile court’s decision to award permanent custody and guardianship to Father. Her challenge in this regard is multi-faceted. First, she challenges the substance of the court’s decision, and asserts that the court—by considering its options limited to those set forth in section 80-3­409(4)(b) of the Utah Code—erred in its interpretation of the governing statute. And in connection with this argument, Mother asks us to overrule one of our recent opinions. Second, Mother challenges the procedure the court used in reaching its decision. For the reasons discussed, we reject Mother’s arguments.

A

¶38      Under our law, in any case in which reunification services are ordered, “the juvenile court shall, at the permanency hearing, determine . . . whether the minor may safely be returned to the custody of the minor’s parent.” See Utah Code § 80-3-409(2)(a). And “[i]f the juvenile court finds, by a preponderance of the evidence, that return of the minor to the minor’s parent would create a substantial risk of detriment to the minor’s physical or emotional well-being, the minor may not be returned to the custody of the minor’s parent.” Id. § 80-3-409(2)(b).

¶39      In this case, as already discussed, the juvenile court ordered reunification services for Mother, and therefore needed to confront, at the permanency hearing, the question of whether Child faced “substantial risk of detriment to her physical and emotional well-being if returned to [Mother’s] care.” In its findings and conclusions entered following that hearing, the court specifically found, by “both a preponderance of the evidence” and by “clear and convincing evidence, that return of [Child] to [Mother’s] care would create a substantial risk of detriment to [Child’s] physical or emotional well-being.” Mother does not directly challenge that finding on appeal.[7]

¶40      In situations where a juvenile court makes a finding of risk and therefore determines that a child cannot be returned to the parent’s custody, our law then requires the court to do certain things: “(a) order termination of reunification services to the parent; (b) make a final determination regarding whether termination of parental rights, adoption, or permanent custody and guardianship is the most appropriate final plan for the minor . . . ; and (c) . . . establish a concurrent permanency plan that identifies the second most appropriate final plan for the minor, if appropriate.” Id. § 80-3-409(4). As discussed above, the court terminated reunification services, and did not err by so doing.

¶41      The court then considered the three options presented by the second part of the governing statute: termination of parental rights, adoption, or permanent custody and guardianship.[8] See id. § 80-3-409(4)(b). The court determined that permanent custody and guardianship with Father was the most appropriate of those three options.

¶42      Mother challenges the substance of this determination, and she makes two specific arguments. First, she asserts that the statutory subsection the court believed governed the situation— section 80-3-409(4) of the Utah Code—doesn’t actually govern, because in Mother’s view Child was “returned to” a parent (Father) after the permanency hearing. Second, and relatedly, Mother acknowledges that one of our recent decisions—In re H.C., 2022 UT App 146, 523 P.3d 736, cert. denied, 527 P.3d 1106 (Utah 2023)—interpreted the governing statute in a manner unfavorable to her, and she asks us to overrule that recent case. We find neither of Mother’s arguments persuasive.

1

¶43 Mother’s first argument challenges the juvenile court’s interpretation of statutory text. In particular, she notes that a threshold requirement of the governing statute is that the minor not be “returned to the minor’s parent or guardian at the permanency hearing.” See Utah Code § 80-3-409(4). Only if a child is not “returned to the minor’s parent” at the permanency hearing does a court need to choose from one of the three options set forth in subsection (4)(b): termination, adoption, or permanent custody and guardianship. See id. If a child is “returned to the minor’s parent,” then a court presumably could select some other option not listed in subsection (4)(b). As Mother sees it, the statutory reference to “the minor’s parent” includes not only the parent from whom the child was removed and with regard to whom the “substantial risk” determination is being made, but also the child’s other parent. And she asserts that, because Child was placed in the custody of Father—Child’s other parent—after the permanency hearing, the court erred by considering itself limited to the three options set out in subsection (4)(b).

¶44      Our “overarching goal” in interpreting a statute is “to implement the intent of the legislature.” See State v. Rushton, 2017 UT 21, ¶ 11, 395 P.3d 92. In attempting to ascertain that intent, we start with “the language and structure of the statute.” Id. “Often, statutory text may not be plain when read in isolation, but may become so in light of its linguistic, structural, and statutory context.” Id. (quotation simplified). “The reverse is equally true: words or phrases may appear unambiguous when read in isolation, but become ambiguous when read in context.” Id. For this reason, “we read the plain language of the statute as a whole, and interpret its provisions in harmony with other statutes in the same chapter and related chapters, avoiding any interpretation which renders parts or words in a statute inoperative or superfluous in order to give effect to every word in the statute.” Id. (quotation simplified).

¶45 In our view, the phrase “the minor’s parent,” as used in section 80-3-409(4), refers only to the parent from whom the child was removed, who was offered reunification services, and to whom return of the child “would create a substantial risk of detriment” to the child. It does not refer to another parent with whom the child is currently placed, who has not been ordered to complete any reunification services, and with regard to whom the court has not made any “substantial risk” determination. Indeed, the thrust of this entire statutory section has to do with whether a child will be reunited with a parent from whom the child has been removed and who has received reunification services. See Utah Code § 80-3-409. As already noted, subsection (2) requires a court to make a threshold determination about whether the “minor may safely be returned to the custody of the minor’s parent,” something that may not occur if “return of the minor to the minor’s parent would create a substantial risk of detriment” to the minor. Id. § 80-3-409(2)(a), (b). The verb “returned” is meaningful here: one does not “return” to a situation in which one has never been in the first place. See Return,    Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/return            [https://perma.cc/Y4YF-3ENP]
(defining “return” as “to go back or come back again”). In the subsection (2) context, the phrase “the minor’s parent” clearly refers to the parent from whom the minor was removed, who received reunification services, and with regard to whom the “substantial risk” determination is being made; indeed, the statute instructs juvenile courts that are making the subsection (2) threshold determination to consider, among other things, whether the parent in question has demonstrated “progress” and whether the parent has “cooperated and used the services provided.” See Utah Code § 80-3-409(3)(a)(iv), (v). In our view, it would be nonsensical to apply this phrase to the minor’s other parent in a situation where the child was already in the custody of that parent at the time of the permanency hearing, where that parent did not receive reunification services, and where the court made no “substantial risk” determination concerning that parent at that hearing. Indeed, at oral argument before this court, Mother conceded that the phrase “the minor’s parent,” as used in subsection (2), must refer solely to the parent who received reunification services and with regard to whom the “substantial risk” determination is being made.

¶46 That same phrase—“the minor’s parent”—used two subsections later means the same thing. As noted, we read statutes as a whole, including all of their subsections, and “interpret [their] provisions in harmony with other statutes in the same chapter and related chapters.” See Rushton, 2017 UT 21, ¶ 11 (quotation simplified). Under “the canon of consistent meaning,” there is a “presumption that the established meaning of a word in a given body of law carries over to other uses of the same term used elsewhere within that same law.” In re Childers-Gray, 2021 UT 13, ¶ 142, 487 P.3d 96 (Lee, J., dissenting). And the “canon of consistent meaning is at its strongest when it is applied to a term used in neighboring subparts of the same statutory provision.” Irving Place Assocs. v. 628 Park Ave, LLC, 2015 UT 91, ¶ 21, 362 P.3d 1241; see also Barneck v. Utah Dep’t of Transp., 2015 UT 50, ¶ 31, 353 P.3d 140 (determining that a term “cannot properly mean one thing as applied to two of the objects in a series . . . but something else as applied to the other object in the same series”). Thus, when assessing the meaning of the phrase “the minor’s parent” in subsection (4), it is highly relevant how that phrase is used in subsection (2). And we conclude that, interpreted in its proper context, the phrase—as used in subsection (4) as well as subsection (2)—refers only to the parent from whom the child was removed, who received reunification services, and with regard to whom the court is making the “substantial risk” determination, and not to another parent who does not fit those criteria.

¶47      Accordingly, we reject Mother’s argument that subsection 409(4) has no application to her situation. By the plain terms of that statutory section, the juvenile court—as soon as it determined that Child could not safely be returned to Mother—was obligated to apply that statutory subsection according to its text.

2

¶48      Under the text of that statutory subsection, a court that has made a “substantial risk” determination must terminate reunification services. See Utah Code § 80-3-409(4)(a). At that point, the statute requires the court to “make a final determination regarding whether termination of parental rights, adoption, or permanent custody and guardianship is the most appropriate final plan for the minor.” Id. § 80-3-409(4)(b). The language of this statutory subsection therefore speaks of only three options, and requires the court in this situation to choose one of them. And we have recently interpreted this language according to its text, even as applied to disputes between parents. See In re H.C., 2022 UT App 146, 523 P.3d 736, cert. denied, 527 P.3d 1106 (Utah 2023).

¶49      Yet here, Mother nevertheless asserts that, at least in cases involving disputes between two parents, juvenile courts ought to be allowed to choose a different option: entry of a simple custody order that is controlled by the usual standards governing entry and modification of custody orders in divorce court. Mother asserts that awarding a parent the status of “guardian” makes no sense, given that a parent already has all the rights that a guardian has. And she asserts that entering orders of permanent guardianship as between parents has the effect—one she posits was unintended—of preventing one parent from being able to seek modification of the custody order.

¶50      To her credit, Mother recognizes that our recent holding in In re H.C. forecloses her argument for a fourth option. In that case, the parents of a child were divorced, with a parenting plan that gave primary custody to the mother. Id. ¶ 2. But later, the juvenile court determined that the child had been neglected by the mother, and the child was placed in the care of the father. Id. ¶¶ 4, 8. After the permanency hearing, the juvenile court determined that the child would be at substantial risk if returned to the mother’s custody, and the court placed the child with the father under an order of permanent custody and guardianship. Id. ¶¶ 28, 38. On appeal, we affirmed the juvenile court’s decision, and we interpreted subsection 409(4)(b) as limiting the juvenile court to the three options set forth therein. Id. ¶ 58. We held that subsection 409(4)(b) “leaves a juvenile court judge with no discretion” to do anything else, and we specifically stated that the statute “does not vest the juvenile court with the authority to defer to the district court” with regard to custody of the adjudicated child. Id. (quotation simplified).

¶51      In an effort to get around this roadblock, Mother asks us to overrule In re H.C. We do possess the authority to overrule our own precedent in appropriate cases. See State v. Legg, 2018 UT 12, ¶ 11, 417 P.3d 592 (stating that one panel of this court “retains the right to overrule another panel’s decision if the appropriate standard is met”). “But we do not do so lightly,” given our respect for the principle of stare decisis, which ordinarily requires us to defer to “the first decision by a court on a particular question.” See State v. Garcia-Lorenzo, 2022 UT App 101, ¶¶ 42, 44, 517 P.3d 424 (quotation simplified), cert. granted, 525 P.3d 1263 (Utah 2022).

¶52      “Before we may overrule one of our precedents, we must engage in the two-part exercise required by our supreme court in such situations.” Id. ¶ 45. “First, we must assess the correctness of the precedent, and specifically examine the persuasiveness of the authority and reasoning on which the precedent was originally based.” Id. (quotation simplified). “Second, we must assess the practical effect of the precedent, including considerations such as the age of the precedent, how well it has worked in practice, its consistency with other legal principles, and the extent to which people’s reliance on the precedent would create injustice or hardship if it were overturned.” Id. (quotation simplified). Both parts of the test must be satisfied before we may overrule a precedent. See id. In this case, we need not discuss the second part because, in our view, the first one is not satisfied.

¶53 With regard to the first part—the correctness of the precedent—Mother asserts that our decision in In re H.C. “upends the district court’s jurisdiction over custody matters and imposes an unnecessarily restrictive scheme on custody between two parents.” She points out that, when a child is placed with the other parent after a permanency hearing, “the child isn’t in ‘legal limbo’” and “all that is left to determine is what [the] custody [arrangement] between the parents will look like.” And she maintains that, if subsection 409(4)(b) is interpreted to require courts to order permanent custody and guardianship in favor of one of the parents, that result would serve to “override[] district court custody orders” and would create a “super sole custody” arrangement in which “the non-guardian parent can never modify the terms of the guardianship.” She asserts that this is an “absurd result” that “cannot be what the legislature intended.”

¶54 But in our view, the panel’s reasoning in In re H.C. was sound. There, the court analyzed the text of subsection 409(4)(b) and concluded that the language used by the legislature limited juvenile courts in this situation to the three options set forth in the text of the statute. See In re H.C., 2022 UT App 146, ¶¶ 58–59. Our analysis of that same text leads us to the same conclusion.

¶55      Moreover, Mother overlooks the fact that the panel in In re H.C. considered many of the same arguments that Mother is advancing here. In that case, the appellant asserted that “juvenile courts should not be deciding custody between two fit parents.” Id. ¶ 52 (quotation simplified). And the appellant complained that an order of permanent custody and guardianship in favor of the other parent may prevent her “from petitioning for custodial change in the future.” Id. ¶ 53. We rejected these arguments, in part, by noting that, given the court’s adjudication rulings, “this was not merely a custody proceeding ‘between two fit parents.’” Id. ¶ 54. And we acknowledged the remainder of these arguments in a footnote, editorializing that “it seems odd that, in a situation such as this with two parents vying for custody of a minor child, the statute authorizes the award of permanent guardianship to one parent over the other, where both enjoy parental rights in the minor child.” Id. ¶ 59 n.13. But we found these arguments nevertheless unpersuasive in light of the text of the “statutory regimen that we [were] called upon to interpret and apply.” Id.

¶56      We share the sentiment of the panel in In re H.C. that the text of the governing statute compels the interpretation described there. The text selected and enacted by our legislature limits juvenile courts to just three options in this situation. See id. ¶¶ 58– 59 & n.13 (stating that “permanent custody and guardianship is one of only three options available by the terms of the controlling statute when parental neglect has triggered the juvenile court’s jurisdiction and the case progresses to a permanency hearing at which parental neglect is found and reunification services are terminated”). If our legislature intended a different result, it can always amend the statute to provide for additional options—for instance, entry of a simple custody order awarding primary physical custody to the other parent, and allowing the district court to manage things from there—that a juvenile court might be able to apply in cases involving disputes between two parents. But for now, the text of the governing statute speaks of only three options, applicable in all cases, and we must apply the statute as written, Mother’s policy arguments notwithstanding.[9]

¶57 For all of these reasons, we decline Mother’s invitation to overrule In re H.C. That case—and the statutory text interpreted therein—compels the conclusion that the juvenile court, in this case, had only three options after concluding that it could not return Child to Mother’s custody: it had to either (a) terminate Mother’s parental rights, (b) work toward adoption, or (c) enter an order of permanent custody and guardianship with someone other than the parent at issue. See Utah Code § 80-3-409(4)(b); see also In re H.C., 2022 UT App 146, ¶¶ 58–59. The juvenile court, by selecting permanent custody and guardianship in favor of Father, chose one of the available options.[10] In so doing, the court properly followed the governing statute, and did not misinterpret it. We therefore reject Mother’s second substantive argument.

B

¶58      Finally, Mother makes two challenges to the procedure the juvenile court employed in arriving at its conclusion to award permanent custody and guardianship to Father. We reject both challenges.

¶59 First, Mother claims that the court acted inappropriately when it took the following two actions in the same ruling and after the same hearing: (a) it changed Child’s final permanency goal to permanent custody and guardianship and (b) it entered an order effectuating the permanent custody and guardianship. As Mother sees it, the court was required “to first change the permanency goals . . . and then hold a review hearing (possibly another evidentiary hearing) to determine whether the final permanency goal is established.” Mother notes that “nothing in section 409 permits a juvenile court to” accomplish both things in the same ruling and after the same hearing. But Mother cites no statute or appellate opinion forbidding the court from doing so and, in this situation, we see no reason why the court could not have proceeded as it did.

¶60 Had the court chosen “adoption” as the primary permanency goal following the permanency hearing, then perhaps Mother would have a point: as a practical matter, setting adoption as the goal entails a fair bit of extra work. To facilitate an adoption, the parent’s rights would need to be terminated, and to make that happen, the State (or another petitioner) would need to file a petition for termination of parental rights, which would need to be litigated. And the juvenile court would also need to concern itself, in the event the parent’s rights were terminated, with finding an appropriate adoptive placement for the child.

¶61 But where the court selects permanent custody and guardianship as the primary permanency goal, and the child is already placed with the person to whom custody and guardianship is to be given, there are not necessarily any additional steps that the court needs to take before making that goal a reality. Certainly, in this case Mother doesn’t identify any additional work that needed to be done in the interim. And as noted, Mother points to no statute or governing case forbidding the juvenile court, in cases like this one, from proceeding efficiently and entering the order of guardianship in the same order as it selects the primary permanency goal. Mother has therefore not carried her burden of demonstrating error.

¶62 Second, Mother takes issue with the juvenile court’s decision, earlier in the case, to set different permanency goals for each parent. As noted above, after adjudicating Child dependent as to Father, the court initially set the primary permanency goal, as to Father, as “Reunification/REMAIN HOME,” and the concurrent permanency goal as “Remain Home with non­custodial parent.” Later, after adjudicating Child neglected as to Mother, the court set a primary permanency goal, as to Mother, of “RETURN HOME” and a concurrent permanency goal of “Permanent Custody and Guardianship with a Relative.” The court explained that it was setting “different permanency goals for each parent,” and that for Father, “the primary goal will be” for Child to “remain[] home with him,” with “the concurrent goal of reunification if she is removed from his care.” For Mother, the primary permanency goal was “reunification, with the concurrent goal of guardianship with [a] relative.” Mother challenges this procedure as improper, asserting that this choice made “it additionally difficult for any parent to determine what the effect of abandoning one of the primary plans would be.” But Mother cites no statute or governing case forbidding the court from engaging in this procedure, and she overlooks the fact that she did not object to these goals when they were set. In addition, Mother does not articulate how the court’s decision to set slightly different permanency goals vis-à-vis each parent resulted in any harm to her at the end of the case. Accordingly, Mother has not carried her burden of demonstrating reversible error.[11]

CONCLUSION

¶63 We discern no clear error in the juvenile court’s decision to terminate reunification services. And we reject Mother’s challenges—both substantive and procedural—to the court’s award of permanent custody and guardianship to Father.

¶64 Affirmed.

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

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In re H.M. – 2023 UT App 122 – termination of parental rights

In re H.M. – 2023 UT App 122

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF H.M. AND D.M.,

PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

G.B.,

Appellant,

v.

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20220774-CA

Filed October 13, 2023

First District Juvenile Court, Logan Department

The Honorable Kirk M. Morgan

No. 1187751

Julie J. Nelson and Alexandra Mareschal,

Attorneys for Appellant

Sean D. Reyes, Carol L.C. Verdoia, and John M.

Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee State of Utah

Jonathan P. Thomas, Attorney for Father

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

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

TENNEY, Judge:

¶1 Mother and Father separated in 2015 and were divorced in 2018. They had two children during their marriage—D.M. and H.M. (collectively, the Children). From 2015 until 2020, Mother repeatedly told state authorities that Father had physically and sexually abused the Children. In several instances, Mother prompted the Children to make allegations against Father too.

Although authorities investigated the reports, none of the investigations resulted in a finding that Father had abused the Children. Also, on two occasions in 2020, Mother absconded with the Children during times in which she did not have custody. Both times, law enforcement was involved in locating and returning the Children to Father’s custody.

¶2        After Mother encouraged one of the Children to file a new report of abuse against Father in January 2022, the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) filed a petition to terminate Mother’s parental rights. At the close of a several-day trial, the juvenile court issued an order finding that Mother “cannot stop her destructive behavior” of making “false allegations” against Father. The court then terminated Mother’s parental rights.

¶3        Mother now appeals the termination decision. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm.

BACKGROUND

¶4        Mother and Father had two children during their marriage: D.M., who was born in 2012, and H.M., who was born in late 2014. Mother and Father separated in 2015 when H.M. was approximately three months old, and their divorce was finalized in 2018. Mother subsequently married another man (Stepfather).

Allegations of Abuse from 2015 Through 2020[1]

¶5        The reports of abuse began in February 2015, when DCFS received a referral alleging that during the marriage between Mother and Father, Father would “throw things, but not at [Mother], and punch holes in the doors.” DCFS chose not to accept this referral as a basis for action. In June 2015, DCFS received a referral alleging that Father views pornography “including teenaged girls.” This referral was unaccepted because there were no allegations that the Children were being abused or neglected.

¶6 In May 2016, DCFS received a referral alleging that after D.M. came back from parent-time with Father, he would not sit down because “his bottom hurt” and his anus was “red and inflamed.” The referral was not accepted because D.M. did not make any disclosure that any abuse had occurred. In September 2016, DCFS received a referral alleging that the Children had returned from parent-time with Father with black eyes and that Father commonly yelled at the Children, which allegedly made D.M. fearful to get out of bed to use the bathroom at night. The referral was unaccepted because the Children did not report any injuries from Father or provide specific details about what Father was saying to the Children.

¶7        In early October 2016, DCFS received a referral alleging that the Children were being physically abused by Father and that H.M. had been sexually abused by Father. The referral was accompanied by photographs of a bruise on H.M.’s leg. When a DCFS worker interviewed D.M. about these allegations, D.M. reported that Father had pushed him into a “monkey bag,” but D.M. couldn’t explain what a “monkey bag” was. D.M. made no disclosures of sexual abuse.

¶8        In late October 2016, Mother contacted law enforcement and reported that H.M. had complained of his “bum hurting” after returning from parent-time with Father. Mother also said that she changed H.M.’s diaper and that there was blood present and that she had also observed tearing on his anus. Mother told law enforcement that H.M. had said that Father put his finger “in there.” DCFS interviewed H.M. the following day. During that interview, H.M. said that he had been “hurt” at “daddy’s house,” but he made no other disclosures. Shortly thereafter, H.M. underwent a physical examination at the Children’s Justice Center (the CJC), but no evidence of sexual or physical abuse was discovered during this examination.

¶9      In September 2017, DCFS received a referral alleging that D.M. had been physically abused by his paternal grandfather. When DCFS interviewed D.M., D.M. said that “grandpa pushed him backwards and he fell on the rocks, because he didn’t hear grandpa.” When the grandfather was then interviewed, he acknowledged that he had accidentally knocked D.M. over during a recent visit when moving him away from something.

¶10      In June 2018, DCFS received a referral alleging that during a parent-time exchange, Mother had pulled Father’s beard and kicked him and that Father had ripped out one of Mother’s hair extensions. This case was not accepted.

¶11      In November 2018, DCFS received a referral alleging that Father attempted to hit Mother with his car and that Father had threatened to kill Mother by loosening the screws on her car. While investigating this referral, DCFS interviewed both of the Children. H.M. reported that he gets “hurt” at “all of my parents’ houses,” that his parents get frustrated with each other, and that Father punches Mother. D.M. reported that his parents are “always fighting.”

¶12 In December 2018, March 2019, and April 2019, Father made reports against Mother suggesting that she was using illegal drugs and wasn’t taking proper care of the Children. None of the referrals were accepted.

¶13 In April 2019, DCFS received a referral alleging that the Children had been “sodomized” by both Father and the paternal grandfather during visits with Father and that the paternal grandmother was aware of the abuse but not intervening. The referral also alleged that Father had punched D.M. in the stomach and testicles. As part of an investigation into these allegations, both of the Children were interviewed at the CJC. Though somewhat unclear, the record suggests that D.M. said nothing about abuse in his interview. H.M., however, said that his “old dad” is “going to be in the car when it explodes” “because he was mean to me.” H.M. also said that Father “put his penis in my bum” and “spanks [my] bum.” H.M. said that Father did the same thing to his cousins and that Mother told him this. When the interviewer spoke to Mother about what the Children had said, Mother asked the interviewer to talk to D.M. again, which the interviewer declined to do. During this investigation, Mother was “jittery and unable to finish sentences.”

¶14      In May 2019, Mother sought a protective order against Father. The protective order request was later denied. Around this same time, Mother informed DCFS that H.M. had bloody stools and that H.M. had reported that Father had “punched and kicked him.” Later that month, DCFS received information that H.M. had allegedly said Father “peed in his butt.” Father denied all allegations when interviewed by a detective from the Smithfield City Police Department.

¶15      In June 2019, DCFS received another referral alleging that the Children were being physically, sexually, and emotionally abused by Father. DCFS visited with the Children and observed no suspicious bruises. DCFS also found the accusations of physical abuse to be without merit. As part of this investigation, a DCFS caseworker and a Smithfield City Police Department detective interviewed Mother. During this interview, Mother alleged that the Children had told her that they “are being raped” and “punched in the crotch” by Father.

¶16      On July 1, 2019, Mother brought the Children to the CJC for an interview. At the outset of H.M.’s interview, and before the DCFS interviewer had even finished explaining the nature of the interview to him, H.M. said, “Well, my dad puts his penis in my bum.” H.M. said that Mother was present when this occurred, and that Father, paternal grandfather, and paternal grandmother “did it.” H.M. further reported that Father punches him with a “real hammer that is metal and black.” H.M. also reported that Father punches him in the penis and “punches me with his butt.” When asked what he saw when Father put his penis in his bottom, H.M. said, “That’s all I needed to tell you. I didn’t see anything.” When asked again what he saw, H.M. responded, “That’s all I have to tell you.” D.M. was also interviewed at the CJC that day. D.M. responded “nothing” and “I don’t know” to the majority of the interviewer’s questions. He also said that “nothing happened” at Father’s house and that “nothing happened to his brother that hurt him.” In addition, D.M. told the interviewer that Mother would talk to H.M. about events that happened at Father’s house. After finishing the interviews with the Children, the interviewer and a Smithfield City Police Department detective interviewed Mother. They encouraged Mother “not to press” the Children “for information and not to question them.”

¶17 Later that month, Mother contacted law enforcement during a parent-time exchange with Father. Mother told law enforcement that the Children wanted to share “their concerns” regarding Father. The Children spoke to law enforcement, and nothing further was reported to DCFS.

¶18      On February 21, 2020, DCFS received another referral alleging that the Children were being physically, sexually, and emotionally abused by Father. This referral alleged that Father had threatened to kill the Children and Mother if the Children reported the abuse. The referral further alleged that, within the past few days, Father had touched the Children’s genitals and “‘go[ne] inside’ their bums.” The referral also alleged that Father would give D.M. medicine to induce vomiting when D.M. would make a mistake on his homework and that Father would not allow the Children to use the bathroom in the middle of the night.

¶19      While investigating this latest referral, a DCFS investigator met with Father and the Children at Father’s home. Father denied each allegation. The DCFS investigator also observed that the Children interacted with her appropriately, appeared happy and healthy, and had no marks or bruises. During this investigation, DCFS came to believe that the Children were being emotionally abused by Mother.

¶20      On February 25, 2020, DCFS received a report that Father takes the Children to “drinking parties,” that Father stalks Mother and Stepfather, and that Father “rapes” the Children. The Smithfield City Police Department conducted a welfare check but failed to find any support for the allegations or anything out of the ordinary with the Children. At this point, the Smithfield City Police Department informed DCFS that it would no longer conduct welfare checks on the Children “because of the number of reports made and lack of findings of concern.”

¶21      DCFS interviewed the Children again at the CJC on March 2, 2020. H.M. reported that Father and neighbors put cameras outside his house and that the “cameras are made from poisonous stuff that make[s] people go crazy and rip kids’ heads off.” H.M. said that the cameras have speakers to “do bad stuff to [Mother].” H.M. denied having ever been hurt and denied that anyone told him what to say at the interview. In his interview, D.M. reported that he didn’t “remember if anything has happened to him” and that there was “nothing he needs to talk about” happening at either parent’s house. D.M. also stated that no one told him what to say at the interview.

¶22      On March 20, 2020, Mother obtained an ex parte protective order against Father. A few days later, DCFS received a report alleging that Father had been sexually inappropriate in front of the Children, that Father had raped Mother in the presence of the Children, and that Father had been telling the Children that there are cameras at Mother’s house watching them. Father denied these allegations.

¶23      On March 26, 2020, the court held a hearing on the ex parte protective order. Less than an hour before it began, Mother texted a DCFS employee and alleged that the Children wanted to tell her about abuse from Father. Mother then brought a recording of the Children alleging sexual abuse by Father to the court hearing, so the hearing was continued. At a hearing that was held on April 30, the court ordered that despite Mother’s allegations, Father could resume his previously ordered parent-time.

¶24      A few days later, Mother refused to bring the Children to the exchange point, telling law enforcement that she believed the Children were in danger. That same day, the Children were interviewed at a DCFS office. Without prompting, and without waiting for the interviewer to explain what the interview would be about, H.M. said that Father had “choked him, peed in his mouth, and put his penis in his bum and it bled, and that [H.M.’s] neck was broken.” H.M. said that these things all occurred in the middle of church and that “they” were wearing church clothes when it all happened. When asked for more detail, H.M. said, “that’s all I said, that’s all I needed to tell you about,” and he continued to reply “that’s all” and “that’s all he did” to further questions. H.M. then became emotional and visibly upset, and when asked why, H.M. responded, “[B]ecause that’s what I needed to say to you!” When asked if someone had told him what to say, H.M. said that he and Mother had “talked on the iPad about it.”

¶25      When Mother was asked about H.M.’s statements later that day, Mother claimed that H.M. must have been referring to the recorded disclosure he had previously made and which Mother had previously brought to court. Following the interview, Mother asked DCFS if she still needed to send the Children to Father for parent-time the following day. DCFS informed Mother that there was not enough information to support the allegations and that it was not recommending any adjustment to parent-time.

¶26      On May 3, 2020, law enforcement was called to conduct a welfare check at Mother’s home after she reported that she was afraid Father was going to come shoot her and the Children. A week later, DCFS received a report that Father had been unable to retrieve the Children for his parent-time. Law enforcement soon learned from the maternal grandfather that Mother and the Children were staying at a local hotel, but he would not disclose its location. On May 9, 2020, Mother brought the Children to the Bountiful City Police Department to demonstrate to law enforcement that the Children were physically safe.

¶27      On May 11, 2020, Mother called law enforcement in Tooele to report that the Children’s paternal aunt and uncle were sexually and physically abusing the Children. The next day, DCFS received an additional report that Mother had told law enforcement in Layton that the Children had been sexually abused by Father and were being victimized by a sex trafficking ring. Law enforcement stated that Mother was speaking rapidly and that the conversation “went in circles.” Law enforcement was concerned that Mother was under the influence of a substance or was suffering from a mental illness. H.M. also called law enforcement that day and reported that he had been abused.

¶28 On May 14, 2020, Father obtained a writ of assistance, authorizing the help of law enforcement to retrieve the Children from Mother. Mother refused to cooperate with this order, so Father received a second writ of assistance on May 21, 2020, authorizing law enforcement to locate Mother through cell phone tracking. The Children were eventually recovered from a hotel by law enforcement.

Protective Supervision Services Case

¶29      On May 26, 2020, the State filed an expedited verified petition for protective supervision with the juvenile court. The State requested that the Children remain in Father’s custody, with DCFS providing protective supervision services. In June 2020, the juvenile court ordered DCFS to supervise the Children’s visits with Mother moving forward.

¶30      During a supervised visit at a DCFS office on July 2, 2020, Mother, Stepfather, and a step-grandfather took the Children and left the building. H.M. cried, yelled, and became upset when the step-grandfather picked him up and carried him out. Mother and the others left with the Children despite DCFS employees telling Mother that law enforcement would be called. Law enforcement soon located Mother, Stepfather, the step-grandfather, and the Children in a nearby canyon and, pursuant to a warrant, returned the Children to Father.

¶31      On July 13, 2020, the juvenile court found that Mother had neglected the Children by attempting to alienate them from Father and by making repeated reports that Father had abused the Children. The court ordered the Children to remain in Father’s custody, and it further ordered that Mother’s visits must be supervised by a professional visit supervisor and a security guard. The court also ordered Mother and Stepfather to participate in psychological evaluations and receive treatment. Mother and Stepfather subsequently participated in the ordered psychological evaluations and participated in follow-up treatment with a psychologist specializing in high-conflict custody cases. The evaluating psychologist concluded that Mother “is stuck in her narrative about what has transpired with the Children” and that she “lacks insight into her own behaviors.”

¶32      The Children began receiving therapy from a trauma therapist (Therapist). Therapist initially diagnosed both of the Children with an acute stress disorder, though she later modified the diagnoses to post-traumatic stress disorder. Therapist opined that the Children had suffered cumulative and complex trauma because of Mother’s actions, and Therapist noted that their symptoms included intrusive thoughts, negative moods, sleep disturbances, irritable behavior, angry outbursts, and physical aggression. In an August 2020 letter to the court, Therapist said that both Children, and more particularly H.M., had expressed fear of being “stole[n]” by Mother again and of having the police “chase [them] down.” Therapist also described D.M.’s stress related to the May 2020 hotel stay.

¶33      As noted, Mother began having supervised visits with Children in July 2020. DCFS’s progress notes indicate that Mother asked “some inappropriate questions during the visits,” e.g., that she had asked the Children “multiple times if they are ok or if there is anything wrong” and that Mother also questioned the Children about “where they live, who lives with them, and if anyone is telling them not to tell her things.” Although Mother had been told several times not to talk to the Children about the case, Mother asked the Children in September 2020 “if they could tell someone about the things they told her and the things she said were not crazy,” and that if they did, “they could go home with her because ‘they think that I’m lying.’” When the supervising DCFS caseworker (Lead Caseworker) told Mother not to talk about these things with the Children, Mother became defensive and told Lead Caseworker to “back off.”

¶34      Mother’s supervised visits began proceeding without serious incident, though, and in March 2021, the juvenile court removed the requirement that a security guard be present. The court also ruled that the Children could have visits in Mother’s home if Mother provided a minimum of three negative drug tests and was in compliance with all other provisions from a Child and Family Plan. In April 2021, Therapist noted that D.M. had said that he had “mixed up feelings” about the possibility of staying at Mother’s home. D.M. said that he wanted to “stay overnight at [his] mom’s house,” but he was “scared” that she would “ask questions about [him] getting hurt” and felt like he had “to answer those things she asks.” Therapist also noted that D.M. felt pressured by Mother to say that “bad things” had happened at Father’s house. Therapist noted that D.M. feels like he “disappoint[ed]” Mother if he told her that he was safe at Father’s house.

¶35 In May 2021 and again in July 2021, the juvenile court increased the length of Mother’s visits with the Children. In September 2021, the court began allowing unsupervised visits at Mother’s home. In October 2021, however, the Children told DCFS that Mother “was starting to ask questions” about Father’s “house like before and they [didn’t] like it when” she did that. In November 2021, the Children reported to DCFS that “the visits have been going well” and that Mother “hasn’t asked them questions about [Father’s] house anymore.”

¶36      At a December 8, 2021, review hearing, the Guardian Ad Litem (the GAL) recommended closing the protective supervision services case due to the substantial completion of services provided to Mother and Stepfather. At the close of the hearing, Father was awarded primary custody of the Children, and the juvenile court ordered the Children to be released from the protective supervision of DCFS. The case was then closed.

Mother’s Allegations Against Father Resume

¶37      Less than a month after the protective supervision case was closed, a series of events occurred in rapid succession that again involved Mother implicating Father in alleged abuse.

¶38 On January 3, 2022, D.M. reported to a school counselor that Father was hitting him. D.M. was unable to provide any further context or detail about the alleged abuse. On January 4, DCFS received a referral that Mother was acting erratically and had perhaps used methamphetamine. That same day, Mother refused to return the Children to Father following a mid-week visit. On January 5, DCFS received a referral alleging that Father “may have” physically abused D.M. On January 6, Mother attempted to take the Children from their school, even though that day was not hers under the parent-time schedule. Law enforcement was called, and in the presence of both the Children and other school children, Mother accused Father of attempting to kidnap the Children. The Children went home with Father.

¶39      On January 10, D.M. was interviewed at the CJC. During the interview, DCFS received an additional report that Father was physically abusing D.M. and sexually abusing him by putting “his private parts in [D.M.’s] private parts.” When the interviewer asked D.M. about this information, D.M. stated that Father “hits [him], spanks [him], chokes [him], and hurts [him],” but he denied that Father had done anything else to his body. When D.M. was asked why he decided to talk about these things that day, D.M. stated he “wanted to get it out” and was “too scared to talk about it before.” H.M. was also interviewed at the CJC that day, but he said nothing about any abuse.

¶40      That same day, DCFS learned that the Cache County Sheriff’s Office had just received a letter that was written by D.M. in which D.M. alleged that Father had physically and sexually abused D.M. and H.M. When a detective spoke with Mother that day, Mother told him that she had “no idea” that D.M. had written the letter. On January 11, D.M. was interviewed at his school regarding the letter by a detective (Detective). D.M. said that “nobody knows about the letter” and that he had ridden his bike to drop it off in a mailbox. When asked for further details, D.M. responded, “I don’t know” and “I don’t remember.” D.M. also said that he “knew” the address for the sheriff’s office and that he had run a Google search and used YouTube on his tablet to learn how to send a letter.

¶41      Detective obtained a search warrant allowing him to examine the tablets used in Mother and Stepfather’s home. Pursuant to this search, Detective found no evidence of any searches like those described by D.M. But Detective did learn that Mother had searched “when does Sheriff read the mail” on January 10, 2022.

¶42      After obtaining this evidence, Detective interviewed Mother again at the sheriff’s office. Mother now acknowledged that she had taught D.M. how to “write this letter.” She also admitted to having looked up the address of the sheriff’s office and having taken D.M. to the post office to mail the letter. Mother then said that D.M. had told her that Father has “hit, choked, and sodomized” him and that H.M. had said that the first time Father “sodomized him” was when he was three years old. Mother said that H.M. couldn’t sit down because it hurt and that “something came out of his butt when he went to the bathroom.” Mother said she was having his underwear “tested for DNA” “in Florida,” but she refused to give Detective any more information about the alleged DNA testing. Mother said that she “knows this stuff is true” and that the Children were being “put back with” a “pedophile.”

¶43      On January 12, D.M. was again interviewed at school, this time by Lead Caseworker. D.M. began crying and stated that Mother “made me write that letter.” D.M. said that the “choking, the spanking and the hitting” “didn’t really happen” and that Mother had instructed him to write a letter about “something bad about” Father and “all the mean stuff she thinks has happened” to D.M. He said that he did not ride his bike to the post office but that Mother had helped him address the envelope and had then driven him there. Lead Caseworker also interviewed H.M. at school that day. H.M. reported that Mother “forced” D.M. to write a letter to the police because Mother “is trying to get dad arrested” “so they can live with her forever.” At trial, Therapist testified that both Children told her the same things about the events surrounding this letter and that both Children had also told her that as they were mailing the letter, Mother exclaimed, “This is a day we will celebrate every year.”

Termination Proceedings

¶44      DCFS sought protective supervision services for the Children on January 19, 2022. In February 2022, DCFS filed a petition for the termination of Mother’s parental rights.

¶45      The Children soon resumed regular therapy with Therapist. Therapist later testified that “D.M. came in very tearful, very confused. He had been through four to five interviews” in one week and was “wrestling with himself because he had lied during some of them because he felt like that was the right thing to do for” Mother. Therapist testified that D.M. was “having a lot of shame towards himself” and that D.M. told her that he felt like he had “to say that these things have happened in order to make [Mother] happy.” Therapist said that H.M. told her that he was “tired of all the asking stuff with [Mother].”

¶46      From January 2022 through the termination trial in July 2022, Mother was only allowed to have supervised visits with the Children. Therapist later testified that H.M. was initially “very, very vocal about not wanting to do the visits.” H.M. told Therapist that Mother “just—she comes at me and comes at me. I don’t want to go. I don’t want to deal with it.” After a March 2022 visit, H.M. reported to Therapist that he “didn’t like it and it didn’t feel safe.” H.M. said that “it sort of made [his] stomach hurt and like maybe she was going to take [him] again.”

¶47      Lead Caseworker later affirmed Therapist’s view that H.M. was initially hesitant to have visits with Mother after the January 2022 incidents. She subsequently testified that H.M. refused to attend one visit with Mother and that when he had visits with Mother early on, he was “emotionally dysregulated.” But Lead Caseworker also testified that H.M. eventually warmed up to the visits and that by the time of trial, he would sit in Mother’s lap and hug her. Lead Caseworker testified that D.M. was “very good” with Mother and that they “like to play together.”

¶48      The GAL was still concerned, though, and requested that Mother’s supervised visits be suspended. The court held a hearing in May 2022 to consider this request. At the close of the hearing, the juvenile court found that there was “no evidence whatsoever of any harm or trauma being caused to D.M. from the visits with [Mother] that have occurred subsequent” to January 2022 and that “[s]upervised visitation is in the best interest of the Children.” The court emphasized that it intended “for the visits between the Children and [Mother] to occur, regardless of whether the Children want to go or not.” Shortly before trial, D.M. indicated that he wanted visits with Mother to “last longer,” and H.M. indicated that he wanted the visits to be at Mother’s house.

Trial

¶49 In July 2022, the juvenile court held a four-day trial on DCFS’s petition to terminate Mother’s parental rights. The court heard testimony from 17 witnesses, including numerous professionals.

¶50      The State called Mother as a witness on the first day of trial. During her testimony, Mother claimed that she hadn’t personally seen the letter that D.M. wrote to the sheriff in January 2022 and that she was now seeing it in court for “the first time”; Mother also claimed that she didn’t know what its contents were. But the State introduced evidence showing that Mother’s assertions about the letter were not true. For example, the State introduced a video of Mother’s interview at the sheriff’s office, and this video showed Mother reading the letter. The State also introduced an email that Mother had written to her father (the Children’s maternal grandfather) after the incident that showed that she was aware of the letter’s contents.

¶51      As for the long-term allegations of abuse that had been made against Father, Mother testified twice that she didn’t know if Father had actually abused the Children. And with respect to the allegations she’d made against Father, Mother testified that she had “followed the rules” and that she had “made sure” she didn’t talk to the Children about their disclosures to authorities.

¶52      Lead Caseworker testified at trial. She testified that the Children had been traumatized by “the fear of them being taken,” noting that H.M. has “dreams about a commander coming into a hotel room,” which Lead Caseworker linked to the incident in 2020 in which law enforcement retrieved the Children from the hotel. Lead Caseworker also testified that DCFS sought termination of parental rights instead of another round of protective supervised services because DCFS had “exhausted all options.” She said that while Mother “in her own testimony has said that she learned a lot [from the protective supervision services case] and that she . . . knew at the time what to do in that situation,” Lead Caseworker didn’t “know what more we could provide.”

¶53      Therapist testified at trial too. According to Therapist, when she began seeing the Children in January 2022, the Children “expressed a fear” about “what possibly may happen again,” wondered if Mother “would take [them] again,” and asked whether they would “have to go to the hotel again.” When Therapist was asked whether she thought there was “anything less significant than the complete termination of [Mother’s] rights that can adequately protect these Children,” she responded, “if we look at adequate protection coupled with normalcy, the answer to that is no.” Therapist further testified that her recommendation for terminating Mother’s parental rights “was based on the cumulative therapy [she] had done with the [Children] in the last few years” and that she thought that termination was in “their emotional best interest.” Therapist testified that H.M.’s “exact words” to her were, “How would you feel if this were always happening to you? I just want a normal life.” When she was asked how Mother could be stopped from continuing to traumatize the Children, Therapist testified, “We stop the interaction.” She also testified that although DCFS “may have talked about the possibility of supervised visitation,” “that’s not really along the normal, natural developmental means, and so I didn’t feel like that was the best option.”

¶54      In the GAL’s closing argument, she emphasized that “[c]ontact that isn’t highly structured and supervised, holding [Mother] accountable, results in trauma to these Children. They’ve expressed discomfort about the idea of being in [Mother’s] presence without a protective third party present.” The GAL further asserted that Mother “cannot be trusted to follow a court order. She cannot be trusted to act in the best interest of her children. Supervising visits for the rest of these Children’s childhood is not feasible, it’s not in their best interest, it’s not appropriate. Nothing less than termination of this relationship can adequately protect these Children now and into the long term.”

¶55      After the GAL’s closing argument concluded, Mother’s counsel asserted in her own closing argument that “[t]o presume that—first of all, that there’s no other choice but termination in this case, I don’t think it’s a reasonable position.” Mother’s counsel argued that

there were no specific reasons given during trial as to why these other options were not possible. Some of these less—you know, short of termination options would be to reopen the [protective supervision services] case and to implement . . . a reliable source for the kids to contact directly as to eliminate . . . the possibility of them making reports to either parent, to implementing a high-conflict therapist/family counselor . . . . Or start a new [protective supervision services] case . . . . Or permanent legal custody and guardianship with the dad, but which would allow the mom to remain in the kids’ lives and continue playing an active role in that. There are other options that would—that are short of termination that would preserve—that would enable the kids to continue having a relationship with their mother.

Mother’s counsel asserted that Mother had “worked hard and earnestly” to “be a better mom” and “did everything she was asked to do.” Mother’s counsel admitted that after the close of the protected supervision services case, “not all of the recommendations made by the therapist were followed,” but counsel suggested that if there had been “an assigned family therapist in place . . . we wouldn’t be here today.” Counsel concluded her argument by requesting that the court reopen the prior protective supervised services case and “require the parties to comply with the recommendations as given by the service providers.”

Termination Decision

¶56      The juvenile court subsequently issued a written decision terminating Mother’s parental rights to the Children.

¶57      Early in this ruling, the court found the testimony of Therapist to be “both credible and helpful in provid[ing] understanding of the harm done to the Children due to the actions of [Mother].” By contrast, the court found that Mother’s testimony at trial “was not credible and at times was simply untruthful.” Specifically, the court contrasted Mother’s testimony that she had never seen D.M.’s January 2022 letter and that she was unaware of its contents with the video showing her reading the letter at the sheriff’s office. The court also found that Mother had given “different versions of her story of how [D.M.] wrote the letter and how the letter was then mailed to the sheriff’s office.”

¶58      Addressing the January 2022 letter, the court found that D.M. “first lied to the sheriff deputy and stated that he wrote the letter without the help of his mother and rode himself to the post office to mail the letter,” and the court opined that it “cannot find any other reason for [D.M.] to lie about how the letter was written and delivered to the post office other than [Mother] telling him to do so.” The court found that “the allegations stated in the letter were false and were contrived by [Mother] to cause harm to and further alienate [Father] with his Children.”

¶59      The court then found that six grounds for termination had been established: abuse, neglect, unfitness, failure to provide care, token efforts, and “other.” As part of its unfitness analysis, the court found that “[a]fter years of unsubstantiated allegations of abuse against Father,” Mother “still fails to show any real remorse for her actions and their consequences on the Children. She simply testified that she ‘doesn’t know’ whether or not the Children have been or are being abused by” Father. The court found that “[a]fter years of therapy and services by DCFS, [Mother] refuses to take any responsibility for her behavior.” The court concluded that Mother “has shown that she cannot stop her destructive behavior regarding false allegations and refuses to take any responsibility regarding the Children’s statements to DCFS and law enforcement.”

¶60      The court then determined it was in the Children’s best interest to terminate Mother’s rights and that it was also strictly necessary to do so. In its best interest determination, the court found that Mother “is unable to accept any court order that does not grant her primary care and custody of the children and will distort facts and perceptions until it makes sense to her that she should have custody.” The court found that Mother

has not demonstrated the ability to sustain progress in treatment that shows that the Children would be safe in her care. Her actions taken less than a month after the protective supervision services case closed demonstrates that she has not responded to the extensive services provided to her. [Mother] has shown that when she is not subject to the strict oversight of DCFS and this Court, she reverts to allegations of abuse against [Father].

¶61      Under a separate subheading devoted to the strictly necessary determination, the court found it had “considered less-restrictive alternatives than termination of [Mother’s] parental rights” and that a “permanent custody and guardianship arrangement is unworkable and not in the best interest of the Children.” The court found that Mother “has made or caused to be made a multitude of false allegations of physical and sexual abuse against [Father] throughout a period [of] seven years, causing the Children to be interviewed repeatedly and examined and having their lives investigated.” The court further found that “[a]ny contact” that Mother has with the Children “is likely to result in an additional false allegation, necessitating additional investigation, interviews, etc., all to the serious detriment of the Children.” Finally, the court found that even when it “ordered [Mother] to be restricted to supervised visits by DCFS with the children, [Mother] absconded with the children. The Court cannot perceive a less-restrictive alternative which would protect the Children from further trauma without terminating [Mother’s] parental rights.”

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶62    Mother challenges the termination order on two primary grounds. First, she argues that in its best interest analysis, the juvenile court “failed to consider all the facts” and improperly relied on past events rather than engaging in a present-tense inquiry. Second, she argues that the court “did not make findings as to why supervised visitation was not feasible.”

¶63      This court applies “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. “A best interest determination involves neither a pure finding of fact nor an abstract conclusion of law. This is a mixed determination of law and fact—in which the abstract law is applied to a given set of facts.” Id. ¶ 17. “The juvenile court’s decision can be overturned only if it either failed to consider all of the facts or considered all of the facts and its decision was nonetheless against the clear weight of the evidence.” Id. ¶ 31 (quotation simplified).[2]

ANALYSIS

¶64      The Utah legislature has determined that “[a] child’s need for a normal family life in a permanent home, and for positive, nurturing family relationships is usually best met by the child’s natural parents.” Utah Code § 80-4-104(8). In light of this, a “juvenile court should only transfer custody of a child from the child’s natural parent for compelling reasons and when there is a jurisdictional basis to do so.” Id. “When the [juvenile] court considers a child’s welfare and best interest, the court’s focus should be firmly fixed on finding the outcome that best secures the child’s well-being.” In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 64, 472 P.3d 827.

¶65      To terminate a parent’s rights, a court must find that (1) a statutory ground for termination exists and (2) termination is in the child’s best interest. See id. ¶¶ 19–20. With one minor exception that we address below in Part III, Mother’s appeal does not challenge the court’s determination that there were grounds to terminate her parental rights. Rather, Mother’s appeal is focused on the best interest portion of the court’s ruling.

¶66      “The best-interest inquiry is wide-ranging and asks a court to weigh the entirety of the circumstances of a child’s situation, including the physical, intellectual, social, moral, and educational training and general welfare and happiness of the child.” In re J.J.W., 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 26, 520 P.3d 38 (quotation simplified). By statute, a court can only find that termination is in the best interest of a child if it also finds that “termination of parental rights, from the child’s point of view, is strictly necessary.” Utah Code § 80-4-301(1); accord In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 66. The “statutory language uses the verb ‘is,’ indicating that the best-interest inquiry is to be undertaken in a present-tense fashion.” In re Z.C.W., 2021 UT App 98, ¶ 13, 500 P.3d 94. Moreover, Utah law presumes that “Lilt is in the best interest and welfare of a child to be raised under the care and supervision of the child’s natural parents.” Utah Code § 80-4-104(8). In light of this, a juvenile court “must determine whether a feasible option short of imposing the ultimate remedy of terminating the parent’s rights exists, and if it does, the court must choose it.” In re K.Y., 2022 UT App 149, ¶ 34, 523 P.3d 1159 (quotation simplified).

¶67      As noted, Mother advances two main challenges to the court’s ruling. First, Mother argues that the court did not properly account for the present-tense best interest of the Children, but that it instead improperly relied “on outdated information.” And second, Mother argues that the court erred by not determining on the record whether an order of ongoing supervised visitation was a feasible non-termination option. We reject both challenges.

  1. Present-Tense Best Interest of the Children

¶68      Mother argues that the court’s conclusion that it was in the best interest of the Children to terminate her parental rights was “based on outdated information.” In Mother’s view, the court failed to properly account for the fact “that between January 2022 and July 2022, Mother had supervised visits without incident.” We disagree.

¶69    Again, it’s settled that “the best-interest inquiry is to be undertaken in a present-tense fashion.” In re Z.C.W., 2021 UT App 98, ¶ 13. “Because children inhabit dynamic environments in which their needs and circumstances are constantly evolving,” the best interest inquiry must “be undertaken in a present-tense fashion, as of the date of the trial or hearing held to decide the question.” In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 34, 518 P.3d 993 (quotation simplified), cert. granted, 525 P.3d 1279 (Utah 2023). “In a best-interest inquiry, the relevant question is almost always this one: what outcome is in the child’s best interest now?” In re Z.C.W., 2021 UT App 98, ¶ 12 (emphasis in original).

¶70      The juvenile court’s order in this case was properly couched in present-tense terms. In its findings on unfitness, for example, the court found that Mother “still fails to show any real remorse for her actions and their consequences on the children.” (Emphasis added.) The court also found that Mother “has shown that she cannot stop her destructive behavior regarding false allegations and refuses to take any responsibility regarding the children’s statements to DCFS and law enforcement.” (Emphases added.) Then, in a subsection that was specifically directed at the best interest determination, the court found that Mother’s “intent and the effect of her actions is to disrupt any semblance of stability the children might enjoy regarding [Father] while in his care,” and it further found that Mother “is unable to accept any court order that does not grant her primary care and custody of the children and will distort facts and perceptions until it makes sense to her that she should have custody.” (Emphases added.) And in another subsection that was specifically devoted to the strictly necessary determination, the court found that “any contact [Mother] has with the children is likely to result in an additional false allegation, necessitating additional investigation, interviews, etc., all to the serious detriment of the children,” that “Mother has not shown that she can stop the false allegations” against Father, and that Mother “fails to even acknowledge that the allegations are false or that she is in any way responsible for them.” (Emphases added.) In these and other instances in the ruling, the court made it clear that it was making a determination about the present-tense best interest of the Children.

¶71      Given this, Mother’s argument is ultimately focused on the alleged lack of evidentiary support for that conclusion. Mother asserts that although the court’s ruling may have been written in the present tense, the information that it relied on was so old or stale that the court had no valid basis for concluding that termination was in the Children’s present-tense best interest. We disagree.

¶72      In virtually any decision that’s made in law or life, questions about the present must in some measure be answered through consideration of relevant events from the past. As famously put by Faulkner, the “past is never dead. It’s not even past.” William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun 92 (1951).

¶73      Our cases have recognized as much in this very particular legal context. Although it’s true that the best interest determination is made in the present-tense, it’s also true that “considering what a child’s best interest is at the time of trial does not require ignoring historical patterns.” In re A.K., 2022 UT App 148, ¶ 8 n.3, 523 P.3d 1156 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 527 P.3d 1106 (Utah 2023). Rather, “a juvenile court judge conducting a best interests analysis must weigh evidence forecasting future events in order to predict what course of action will best protect and nurture the child.” In re C.L., 2007 UT 51, ¶ 22, 166 P.3d 608 (quotation simplified). Since neither judges nor expert witnesses are soothsayers, the evidence that a court would rely on to “forecast[] future events” would naturally include evidence of things that had happened in the past between the parent and the children. In this sense, a court is tasked with “weigh[ing] a parent’s past conduct with her present abilities” in order to make the statutorily required determination. In re B.R., 2007 UT 82, ¶ 13, 171 P.3d 435.

¶74    Mother recognizes this, but she nevertheless argues that there must be some point at which the evidence is too distant to support a determination about a child’s present-tense best interest. In concept, we agree. But in application, we disagree with Mother’s suggestion that the evidence in this case was so remote that it could not be relied on.

¶75 Mother first points out that much of the court’s ruling was based on events that had occurred years before trial. And she’s right—the court did make repeated reference to events that had occurred years earlier. But even so, we think it significant that the court was not focused on an isolated event or two that had occurred in the far distant past. Rather, the court was focused on a pattern of events that had unfolded over the course of several years. As recounted at some length above, Mother began making allegations of sexual and physical abuse against Father in 2015, and she kept making such allegations over the course of the next five years. Mother kept doing so despite the apparent lack of any corroborating evidence. And she repeatedly encouraged her young children to make allegations against Father as well, even though this resulted in the Children being subject to repeated interviews and even physical examinations, and she also did so despite the transparently imaginative nature of some of the allegations.[3] Given that the juvenile court’s inquiry in this case was in some measure predictive, its focus on a pattern of behavior that had extended over several years would of course have probative value.

¶76    Even so, Mother points out that her behavior had improved enough by the later months of 2021 to prompt the juvenile court to close the protective supervision services case in December 2021. But as the juvenile court stressed in its termination order, within just a few weeks of that case being closed, Mother encouraged D.M. to write a letter to law enforcement with yet another allegation of abuse, Mother lied to authorities when questioned about her involvement in that letter, and Mother publicly accused Father of attempting to kidnap the Children during a confrontation at a school (and she did so in front of other children, no less). These events certainly gave the court some basis for reassessing its conclusion from December 2021 that Mother’s pattern of troubling behavior had come to an end.

¶77      This leads to Mother’s final assertion, which is that the January 2022 events could not support the termination order that was entered in July 2022 because no further incidents occurred during the January-to-July interim. As an initial matter, we have some skepticism about Mother’s suggestion that events that occurred five months before trial are indeed so remote that they could not inform the court’s present-tense best interest determination. And our skepticism of this argument is particularly warranted here, where the events that occurred in January 2022 are consistent with a prior pattern of events that had stretched out over the course of several years. After all, even during the 2015 through 2020 period, there were several stretches of several months in which Mother didn’t make any allegations. Yet each time, the period of dormancy was later interrupted by new allegations of abuse.

¶78      But more importantly, we disagree with Mother’s suggestion that nothing of note had occurred in the January-to-July interim. In reviewing the juvenile court’s termination decision, two things stand out.

¶79      First, at the time of the July trial, the court now had access to new information (primarily from Therapist) about the harm that Mother’s long-term behavior had inflicted on the Children. On January 24, 2022, Therapist wrote that D.M. reported “feeling very confused because [Father] never did that stuff” but that D.M. did not want to disappoint Mother. Therapist said D.M. felt “sort of unsafe” because of the events surrounding the January 2022 letter and “all the question asking.” And Therapist also said that H.M. reported feeling “tired of all the asking stuff” with Mother and that H.M. thought that life felt “sad and mad and scary” as a result. In a June 2022 letter, Therapist then informed the court that after a March 2022 visit with Mother, H.M. told her that he “didn’t like it and it didn’t feel safe.” She said that H.M. told her that “it sort of made [his] stomach hurt and like maybe she was going to take [him] again.”

¶80      Therapist’s testimony at trial gave the court even more insight into these harms. Therapist testified that D.M. was tearful in his January 2022 session and that he was “wrestling with himself because he had lied during some of [the interviews] because he felt like that was the right thing to do for [Mother].” Therapist testified that D.M. was “having a lot of shame towards himself” and that D.M. had told her he felt like he had “to say that these things have happened in order to make [Mother] happy.” Therapist also testified that after the January 2022 incidents, H.M. was “very, very vocal about not wanting to do the visits” with Mother. She testified that H.M. told her that “[m]y mom just—she comes at me and comes at me. I don’t want to go. I don’t want to deal with it.” She further testified that H.M.’s “exact words” to her were, “How would you feel if this were always happening to you? I just want a normal life.”

¶81      The court didn’t have this information when it closed the case in December 2021, but it did have this information at trial. And this information could properly inform any decision about what was in the best interest of the Children moving forward.

¶82      Second, the court also had new information about Mother’s mindset. In its order, the court found that Mother’s trial testimony “was not credible and at times was simply untruthful.” For example, the court noted that Mother testified twice that she was seeing D.M.’s January 2022 letter for the first time in the courtroom, even though a video of an earlier interview with law enforcement showed Mother reading that letter then. The court also highlighted Mother’s contrasting stories about how D.M. had written the letter. And the court further determined that Mother’s “statements that she has no opinion on whether she believes” that Father abused the Children were “not credible[,] taking into account the history of her actions in this matter.”

¶83      Based in part on Mother’s July 2022 trial testimony, the court found that Mother “still fails to show any real remorse for her actions and their consequences on the Children.” And the court found that although Mother “believes it improves her standing to now say that she ‘doesn’t know’ or has no opinion on whether or not the Children have been abused,” she “continues to deny responsibility for the continuous harm of false allegations.” Mother’s testimony and the court’s observations of her mindset were, of course, new information. And this new information would have some proper bearing on the court’s assessment of whether it was presently in the Children’s best interest to terminate Mother’s parental rights.

¶84      Pushing back, Mother points to some contrary evidence showing that there had been some improvement in her relationship with the Children. For example, Lead Caseworker testified that while H.M. initially showed some hesitancy at the visits, by the time of trial he would “sit in mom’s lap now where he wouldn’t do that before. You know, he’ll hug her. Things like that.” Lead Caseworker also testified that “D.M. is very good with his mom. I mean, it seems like they like to play together. And they just have fun when he’s there.” And at trial, Lead Caseworker said that she could not remember any time since January 2022 that the Children expressed to her “any concerns or anxiety about contact with their mom.” Also, minutes from a March 2022 hearing indicate that Mother had “been appropriate on her visits.” And in a DCFS Progress Report written a month before trial, D.M. “report[ed] that he wants the visits to last longer and [H.M.] asked to have the visits in [Mother’s] house.”

¶85      But again, a “juvenile court’s decision can be overturned only if it either failed to consider all of the facts or considered all of the facts and its decision was nonetheless against the clear weight of the evidence.” In re E.R., 2021 UT 36, ¶ 31, 496 P.3d 58 (quotation simplified). Here:

  • The events that occurred from 2015 through 2020 gave the court ample reason to find that Mother had a long-term and persistent desire to make allegations of abuse against Father, that she was willing to directly involve the Children in those efforts, and that she was willing to ignore court orders (such as those she ignored when absconding with the Children on two occasions in 2020).
  • The events of January 2022 and Mother’s non-remorseful testimony at trial gave the court reason to believe that Mother’s good behavior in late 2021 had been temporary, rather than permanent, and that Mother still persisted in her beliefs about Father and her willingness to manipulate the Children or court processes to support her views.
  • And the new evidence that the court received leading up to trial and then at trial gave it additional information about the harm that was being done to the Children by Mother’s behavior.

¶86      In short, the court was tasked with making a present-tense determination, and its decision reflects that it did. In making that determination, the court could properly consider past and present events together. Although the court had concluded in December 2021 that the protective supervision case should be closed, more recent events had given the court reason to reassess its conclusions about Mother’s ongoing danger to the Children. Given the evidence that was before the court at trial, we see no basis for concluding that the court’s decision was improperly based on stale evidence. We therefore reject this argument.

  1. Supervised Visitation

¶87      A court may only terminate a parent’s rights if it finds that termination is in the child’s best interest and that “termination of parental rights, from the child’s point of view, is strictly necessary.” Utah Code § 80-4-301(1). “The strictly necessary language is designed to ensure that the court pause long enough to thoughtfully consider the range of available options that could promote the child’s welfare and best interest.” In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 69. “If the child can be equally protected and benefited by an option other than termination, termination is not strictly necessary” and “the court cannot order the parent’s rights terminated.” Id. ¶ 66. Moreover, when a juvenile court is presented with a readily apparent non-termination option, the court must “state, on the record, its reasons for rejecting feasible alternatives.” In re K.Y., 2022 UT App 149, ¶ 43 (quotation simplified). This “leaves no room for implicit rejection.” Id. (quotation simplified).

¶88      As noted, the court heard both evidence and argument suggesting that supervised visitation was not a viable solution moving forward. Therapist testified that although DCFS “may have talked about the possibility of supervised visitation,” “that’s not really along the normal, natural developmental means, and so I didn’t feel like that was the best option.” And in closing argument, the GAL argued that “[s]upervising visits for the rest of these children’s childhood is not feasible, it’s not in their best interest, it’s not appropriate.” As also noted, the juvenile court then made a series of findings about why it was strictly necessary to terminate Mother’s parental rights. Despite these findings, Mother argues that the juvenile court “erred as a matter of law when it did not make findings as to why supervised visitation” was not a feasible alternative to termination. We disagree with Mother’s claim that the ruling was lacking in this respect.

¶89      The cases in which we’ve found that a court erred by not addressing a feasible alternative have involved termination orders that were far less clear than the one at issue here. In In re K.Y., for example, the court’s best interest analysis was just two paragraphs long. See 2022 UT App 149, ¶ 28. After the State asserted on appeal that the juvenile court had at least “implicitly” rejected a potential guardianship within those two paragraphs, id. ¶ 42, we rejected that assertion, explaining that it was unclear to us “which conclusion” the court would have even reached about a potential guardianship, id. ¶ 44. The order at issue in In re J.J.W. had similar infirmities. There, “the court’s best-interest analysis consisted of a single paragraph.” 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 16. And while we agreed that the court had “by necessity” implicitly rejected guardianship as an option, id. ¶ 32, we still reversed because we still saw no explanation for why the court thought that guardianship was not a viable option, id. ¶ 35.

¶90      The ruling at issue in this case is decidedly different. The court devoted nearly three pages of analysis to the best interest inquiry alone, and it then devoted an additional page and a half to the strictly necessary determination. In addition, the ruling as a whole spans over 40 pages, and many of the court’s findings and conclusions from the other sections were interconnected and had obvious bearing on the best interest and strictly necessary determinations. Thus, unlike the orders at issue in prior cases where we’ve found this kind of error, the court here issued a detailed order that gave clear insight into its thinking about the relevant questions.

¶91      This leads to the question of whether the court’s ruling left any room for ongoing supervised visits as a non-termination option. Here, the subsection on the strictly necessary determination began with the court’s declaration that it “ha[d] considered less-restrictive alternatives than termination of [Mother’s] parental rights” and its conclusion that a “permanent custody and guardianship arrangement is unworkable and not in the best interest of the Children.” Under the same subheading, the court recounted the incidents in which Mother had previously absconded with the Children. The court specifically highlighted the fact that the second absconding incident had occurred when Mother “abducted the children from a division-supervised visit at the Division’s offices in July 2020.” The court then stressed that “[e]ven when the Court ordered the mother to be restricted to supervised visits by DCFS with the children, mother absconded with the children.” With this as something of a springboard, the very next sentence read, “The Court cannot perceive a less-restrictive alternative which would protect the children from further trauma without terminating mother’s parental rights.” The court’s focus was thus explicit and clear: the court had concluded that the only way to protect the Children from Mother inflicting “further trauma” on them by absconding with them again was to terminate her parental rights.

¶92      Mother nevertheless stresses that she had not absconded with the Children recently, and in light of this, she suggests that it’s unclear why, or perhaps even whether, the court was ruling out supervised visits as a viable option moving forward. But in cases such as In re K.Y. or In re J.J.W., we were left guessing at the court’s ruling or rationale. Here, however, it requires no guesswork to see that the court had indeed rejected ongoing visitation as an option, nor is there any question about why the court had done so. Again, in the subsection of its ruling that addressed the best interest determination, the court found that Mother “is unable to accept any court order that does not grant her primary care and custody of the children and will distort facts and perceptions until it makes sense to her that she should have custody.” And in the subsection that more particularly addressed the strictly necessary inquiry, the court found that “Mother has not shown that she can stop the false allegations against” Father and that “[a]ny contact the mother has with the children is likely to result in an additional false allegation, necessitating additional investigation, interviews, etc., all to the serious detriment to the children.”

¶93      This ruling thus foreclosed the possibility of ongoing supervised visits as a viable alternative to termination. Taking the court at its word, the court’s express finding that “any contact” carried the risk of causing potential harm to the Children by definition ruled out ongoing supervised visits. And the court’s focus on the prior absconding events, coupled with its findings about Mother’s current lack of remorse, collectively explained why the court thought that even supervised visits would still present an unacceptable risk—whether it be of Mother absconding with the Children again or of using any visits (even supervised ones) to raise new allegations of abuse against Father. All of this is drawn directly from the court’s ruling.

¶94      In short, the juvenile court was sufficiently clear about its finding that termination was in the best interest of the Children and that termination was also strictly necessary, and the rationales given by the court directly foreclosed ongoing supervision as a feasible option. We see no basis for reversing the decision.

III. Mother’s Additional Arguments

¶95      Mother briefly raises three additional issues on appeal. But none of them warrant reversal.

  1. Adoption

¶96      At the back end of the best interest section of its ruling, the juvenile court found, “It is in the children’s best interests to terminate the parental rights of [Mother] so they may be free from abuse and neglect, so they may receive the proper safety, parenting, bonding, love, affection and stability they need, and so they may be adopted where they are safe, secure and stable.” Mother now argues that the court should not have relied on adoption in its best interest analysis because “adoption by a stepparent is wholly unnecessary” since “Father has sole custody.”

¶97      Our best interest cases have suggested that a court should not terminate a parent’s rights based on the “categorical concern” that adoption provides more stability to children than some other non-termination option. See, e.g.In re J.A.L.2022 UT 12, ¶ 25, 506 P.3d 606. But we disagree with Mother’s suggestion that the ruling here was categorical in nature. The court’s ruling was not only extensive, but it was focused on particular findings of the harm inflicted on the Children by Mother. We see no basis for overturning the decision based on the court’s stray reference to adoption in a single portion of the ruling.

  1. “Piling On”

¶98 Mother also argues that the court “piled on its grounds rulings by basing all six of its grounds-related findings on the same ‘emotional abuse.’” Mother argues that this practice violated “the spirit of the ‘grounds’ statutes, if not the letter,” because “[p]iling on multiple grounds based on the same subset of facts simply renders the additional ‘grounds’ superfluous.”

¶99      But Mother concedes that this practice “do[es] not provide independent grounds for relief on appeal.” And while Mother points to some caselaw from the attorney discipline context that might suggest that it’s problematic to “pile on” multiple overlapping charges, Mother provides no authority that supports her view that a juvenile court cannot base a termination decision on multiple grounds if the statutorily defined elements of those multiple grounds have some or even substantial overlap. We’re aware of no such authority either, and we therefore see no basis for overturning this ruling as a result of this alleged problem.

  1. Mandatory Reporting

¶100    Finally, Mother argues that “the court’s findings of emotional abuse are not supported by Utah law, where parents have both a right and a responsibility to report perceived abuse to authorities.” In Mother’s view, the “court’s decision sets up a scenario that fails to protect” children from “physical abuse and instead deems them ‘emotionally abused’ if one parent reports repeated, suspected abuse by the other.” Mother thus argues that the “court’s decision faults” her “for protecting [the] Children as she thought best.”

¶101    But the juvenile court’s extensive findings in this case leave no room for the conclusion that Mother’s rights have been terminated for anything like a good faith effort to protect the Children. The juvenile court found, with ample support, that Mother has engaged in a years-long campaign of filing unsupported or false reports of abuse against Father, that Mother has co-opted her children into being participants in this campaign (despite the fact that doing so caused them to be subjected to multiple police interviews and even physical examinations), that Mother has defied court orders and absconded with her children on two occasions, and that Mother lied to law enforcement and the court during the course of official interviews and proceedings.

¶102    We thus emphasize that a parent’s rights should not be terminated for making a good faith report of suspected abuse. But we likewise emphasize that nothing like that happened here. Rather, under the terms of the court’s order, Mother’s rights were terminated because of her years-long pattern of abusive behavior toward her children, not because of a good faith attempt to protect them.

CONCLUSION

¶103 The juvenile court did not err in relying on past events to support its present-tense best interest analysis, nor did it fail to account for the possibility of ordering ongoing supervised visits in its strictly necessary determination. Its decision to terminate Mother’s parental rights is accordingly affirmed.

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


[1] It’s appropriate at the outset to explain some of the word choices and information gaps in our recitation of the history of this case. As indicated in the introductory paragraphs of this opinion, this case centers on a years-long history of reports of abuse that were made against Father. The reports themselves are not in the record, so the record is limited to descriptions of those reports that came from others (most commonly the juvenile court in its various rulings).

In many instances, the passive voice was used when describing who had made an individual report—i.e., the record would say something like, “a referral was made.” To be faithful to the record, we’ve proceeded similarly. Also, the record sometimes says that a report was made but doesn’t then say what DCFS or law enforcement did with that report. And in some instances, the record makes passing reference to a reason a report was unaccepted without then providing much (or even any) explanatory detail. Our silence reflects those omissions too.

While acknowledging these caveats upfront, we note that the clear implications of the record generally and of the juvenile court’s termination decision more particularly are that (1) with the exception of the reports that were made by the Children themselves, it was Mother who was making most (if not all) of the reports of abuse against Father and (2) none of the reports of physical or sexual abuse that were made against Father were corroborated or accepted by DCFS or law enforcement.

[2] Mother also advances a few additional arguments relating to the grounds for termination and the broader scope of the allegations against her. These arguments are subject to this same standard of review, and we address them together in Part III.

[3] 3. As noted, the allegations included such things as an exploding car, Father allegedly punching a child in the bottom with a hammer, and Father somehow assaulting and even breaking a child’s neck in the middle of a church service.

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In re D.S. – 2023 UT App 98 – reversal of termination of parental rights

In re D.S. – 2023 UT App 98

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

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

PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

S.S.,

Appellant,

v.

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20220956-CA

Filed August 31, 2023

Third District Juvenile Court, Salt Lake Department

The Honorable Annette Jan

No. 1198250

Sheleigh A. Harding, Attorney for Appellant

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 DAVID N. MORTENSEN and AMY J. OLIVER concurred.

HARRIS, Judge:

¶1 After a trial, the juvenile court terminated S.S.’s (Father) parental rights regarding his two children, D.S. and K.S. (collectively, the Children), concluding that it was in the best interest of the Children for them to be adopted by their paternal grandmother (Grandmother). Father appeals the court’s termination order, asserting that—under the precise circumstances presented here, where the Children are being placed with Father’s own mother and where permanent guardianship remains a viable option—termination of his rights was not strictly necessary to promote the best interest of the Children. We agree with Father, and reverse the juvenile court’s termination order.

BACKGROUND

¶2        Father is the biological father of K.S., a boy born in 2010, and D.S., a girl born in 2016. Father resided with the Children and their mother (Mother) from the time the Children were born until approximately 2018. In 2014, the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) received a report that Father had committed “Domestic Violence related child abuse” against K.S. and some of the Children’s other siblings; most notably, the report alleged that Father had “cut [a sibling’s] hand with a knife.” DCFS found the allegations “supported,” but it did not take action to remove K.S. at that time, and no criminal charges were ever filed.

¶3        Around 2017, after D.S. was born, a protective order was entered against Father, for reasons unclear from this record, that restricted his ability to contact Mother. Even after entry of the protective order, though, Father continued to reside with Mother for about another year, in apparent violation of that order. Eventually, in 2018, Father and Mother went through “a messy break up” and separated; the Children remained in Mother’s custody. In the year following the separation, Father spent time with the Children on a regular basis through “weekend visits” that Grandmother initiated and staged at her house.

¶4        During this time period, Father was arrested for “possession of a dangerous weapon”—“a pocketknife in [his] pocket”—in connection with various “protective order violations.” In late 2019, he was sentenced to prison, and ordered to serve a term of zero to five years. When Father first got to prison, he was unable to visit with the Children—even virtually— due to the continued existence of the protective order, but in March 2020, after obtaining a modification to that order, he began visiting with the Children through weekly “video visits” or “phone visits.” In the beginning, it was Grandmother who “was really insistent” that these virtual visits take place between Father and the Children. And since 2020, such visits have occurred on more or less a weekly basis.

¶5        In early 2021, while Father was still incarcerated, the Children were removed from Mother’s custody after an incident in which Mother abandoned them. The Children were later adjudicated neglected as to Mother and dependent as to Father, and the juvenile court placed them with Grandmother. In later proceedings, Mother’s parental rights were terminated, a determination Mother has not appealed. And due to Father’s ongoing incarceration, reunification services were never offered to him; the juvenile court set a permanency goal of adoption.

¶6        In January 2022, the State filed a petition seeking to terminate Father’s parental rights regarding the Children. Prior to trial on that petition, Father stipulated that—largely due to his incarceration—the State could show at least one statutory ground for termination of his parental rights. But the case proceeded to trial on the other element of the termination test: whether termination was strictly necessary to promote the best interest of the Children. On that point, Father took the position that termination of his rights was not strictly necessary, given that—at least in his view—he had a good relationship with the Children, they were in the care of his own mother (Grandmother), and he would undoubtedly be a part of their lives going forward, at least in some sense, simply due to that reality. He asserted that a permanent custody and guardianship arrangement would suit this situation better than adoption would.

¶7        In August 2022, the juvenile court held a relatively brief trial to consider that issue; during that trial, the court heard argument from counsel and testimony from three witnesses: the DCFS caseworker (Caseworker), Grandmother, and Father.[1] Caseworker testified that the Children were doing well in Grandmother’s care. She was aware that the Children have regular virtual visits with Father, but she noted that the Children “don’t talk [with her] much about” those visits and, when they do, they often just say “they don’t remember what they talked [with Father] about.” Caseworker stated that she knows that the Children “love [Father],” and did not recall either of them ever saying that they found Father “scary.” But she offered her view that adoption by Grandmother was in the Children’s best interest, opining that “adoption is necessary to allow them permanency and . . . a long-lasting, stable environment.” She also stated that she had talked to the Children “about adoption” and that the Children “would like to be adopted by [Grandmother],” but did not elaborate or offer any context for this conversation.

¶8                      Grandmother testified that the Children were doing well

in school and thriving in her care. She acknowledged that, as a general matter, “fathers are important” in the lives of children, and she stated that she had been “a big advocate for” Father throughout the entire saga, even pushing to set up virtual visits from the prison after Father was first incarcerated. But she testified that, over time, she had become more of “an advocate for the [Children],” and offered her view that, due to some of the “choice[s]” Father had made, the relationship between Father and the Children had not “functioned properly for a very long time.” She discussed, at some length, the regular virtual visits that the Children have with Father, and she acknowledged that Father is a good listener during the visits. But she stated that the Children have lost interest in the visits over time, and that the visits are “hard for” the Children and make them “uncomfortable” because “they don’t know what to do” during the visits. To cope with the discomfort, Grandmother has added some “structure[]” to the visits “so that [the Children] would have things to talk about”; for instance, K.S. often plays the piano for Father during the visits, while D.S. often “plays kitchen” and pretends to cook things for Father. Grandmother offered her perception that the Children do not wish to have regular virtual visits anymore, and that Father does not understand that the visits are hard for the Children. She noted that sometimes the Children need to “spend some time kind of snuggling” with her after the visits. Grandmother also testified that, on at least one occasion, K.S. said that Father is “scary.”

¶9        Grandmother testified that she is ready, willing, and able to continue caring for the Children. But she voiced a strong preference for adopting them rather than acting as their permanent guardian. When asked why, she offered her view that adoption would be “less confusing” for the Children and that she could be “a consistent parent” for them given her “resources.” She opined that a guardianship arrangement “may suit [Father],” but she didn’t think it was “in the [C]hildren’s best interests.” She also stated that she was worried about what would happen to the Children—and, specifically, whether they would return to Father’s custody—if something were to happen to her. She acknowledged, however, that she would be willing to care for the Children in either form of custody (adoption or guardianship). And she also acknowledged that, even if Father’s parental rights were terminated and she were allowed to adopt the Children, she would nevertheless be open to the possibility that Father could still have a role in the Children’s lives, and in that situation she would “ask for some guidance from people that know more than [she does] about that,” such as the Children’s therapist. She testified that she had discussed the possibility of adoption with the Children, and that D.S. had compared it to those “commercials on TV about adopting a dog.” Referring to that comment, Grandmother acknowledged that the Children “have some misconceptions about” what adoption would mean and stated that she had “tried to fix” those misconceptions, but she offered no specifics about how she had attempted to do that.

¶10      Father was the trial’s final witness. In his testimony, he first described the involvement he has had in the Children’s lives since their birth, stating that when the family was living together he saw the Children every day, “took them to school, [and] everything.” Father acknowledged that the situation had changed due to his incarceration, and he recognized that the virtual visits from prison are “not ideal” because there are often other inmates in the background on video calls and because the technology sometimes has issues, but overall, he offered his view that the visits had been going well and that he did not think the visits were uncomfortable for the Children. As he perceived it, the Children “seem[ed] excited to see” him and “always tell [him] they love” him. He credited the virtual visits for allowing him to “maintain a relationship with” the Children despite his incarceration. He stated that he had “a really good bond” with K.S., with whom he shares a connection to music. He also spoke positively of his visits with D.S., although he acknowledged that D.S. sometimes “gets upset because [Father] can’t be there with her” in person.

¶11      Father testified that he was scheduled to be released from prison in December 2022, and he articulated a desire to “have a stronger relationship with” the Children than he was able to enjoy during incarceration. Father acknowledged that, immediately upon his release from prison, he would be in no position to assume custody of the Children, because he would “have a lot of stuff to deal with,” like “getting a job,” addressing his housing situation, and sorting out outstanding “immigration” issues.[2] But he was vocal about wanting to continue and improve his relationship with the Children after his release from prison.

¶12 After the presentation of evidence, the attorneys made closing arguments. The juvenile court did not make any ruling on the record at the close of the trial; instead, it asked the parties to submit additional briefing on “the issue of strictly necessary.” A few weeks later, the parties submitted those supplemental briefs, and thereafter the court issued a written ruling terminating Father’s parental rights.

¶13 Because Father had conceded the existence of statutory grounds for termination, the only issue the court needed to address was whether termination of Father’s rights was in the best interest of the Children and, as part of that inquiry, whether termination was strictly necessary to promote the Children’s best interest. And on that score, the court concluded that termination was indeed strictly necessary. The court acknowledged that both Father and Grandmother love the Children. The court also acknowledged that “there were no allegations of abuse and neglect regarding [Father] at the time the [C]hildren were ordered into” the custody of DCFS.[3] But the court found that Father’s “ability to offer love, affection, [and] guidance, and to continue with the [C]hildren’s education is very limited both due to his incarceration and [the Children’s] resistance to engaging with” Father. The court noted that the Children “have had stability” with Grandmother and were doing well in her care. The court also referenced its belief that the Children “desire to remain with and be adopted” by Grandmother, but it made no determination that the Children were of sufficient capacity to be able to meaningfully express their desires in this context.

¶14      In addition, the court opined that adoption was “necessary and essential to [the Children’s] well-being as it will protect them from [Father’s] desire to have ongoing and frequent visitation.” The court chided Father for failing “to recognize that the [C]hildren . . . do not want to visit with him,” and concluded that this failure “raises questions as to whether [Father] could act in the [C]hildren’s best interest.” In the court’s view, the fact that Father “believes [the Children] enjoy the visits” and that he “would, ideally, exercise more visitation [after release from prison] is exactly why a permanent custody and guardianship neither protects nor benefits the [C]hildren.” The court stated that a guardianship arrangement would “fail to ensure adequate protections against [Father’s] commitment for increased and continued visitation,” and would leave the Children “vulnerable to [Father’s] residual parental rights.” Indeed, the court observed that, “under a permanent custody and guardianship order,” the Children’s “emotional and physical needs” would be “subsumed by [Father’s] residual rights.” The court offered its view that adoption would serve the Children’s needs better than guardianship would, because it “affords them the protection of ensuring that any future assessment of contact with [Father] will [be] considered solely from their respective points of view.” The court stated that, “[i]f the legal assessment for best interest and strictly necessary was from the parental perspective, permanent custody and guardianship with [Grandmother] would likely [be] the best solution.” But it observed that “the legal assessment of best interest and strictly necessary is focused solely upon the [C]hildren and their needs” and, viewing the situation from that perspective, the court concluded that termination of Father’s rights was strictly necessary to promote their best interest.

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶15      Father appeals the juvenile court’s termination order, and challenges the court’s conclusion that termination of his parental rights was strictly necessary to further the Children’s best interest. “We review a lower court’s best interest determination deferentially, and we will overturn it only if it either failed to consider all of the facts or considered all of the facts and its decision was nonetheless against the clear weight of the evidence.” In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 30, 518 P.3d 993 (quotation simplified), cert. granted, 525 P.3d 1279 (Utah 2023). But “we do not afford a high degree of deference to such determinations; rather, we simply apply the same level of deference given to all lower court findings of fact and fact-like determinations of mixed questions.” Id. (quotation simplified). Moreover, because the “evidentiary standard applicable in termination of parental rights cases” is “the clear and convincing evidence standard,” we will “assess whether the juvenile court’s determination that the clear and convincing standard had been met goes against the clear weight of the evidence.” Id. (quotation simplified); see also In re G.D., 2021 UT 19, ¶ 37, 491 P.3d 867 (“Whether the juvenile court correctly concluded there was no feasible alternative to terminating . . . [the father’s] parental rights is a mixed question of fact and law,” and “we review the juvenile court’s findings of fact for clear error and its conclusions of law for correctness, affording the court some discretion in applying the law to the facts.” (quotation simplified)).

ANALYSIS

¶16      “The right of parents to raise their children is one of the most important rights any person enjoys.” In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 31. Perhaps for this reason, our legislature has provided specific requirements that must be met before a parent’s rights may be terminated. First, at least one of the enumerated statutory grounds for termination must be present. See Utah Code § 80-4­301. Second, termination of parental rights must be in the best interest of the affected children. In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 32. “The party seeking termination of a parent’s rights bears the

burden of proof on both parts of this test,” and “that party must make this required showing by clear and convincing evidence.” Id. (quotation simplified).

¶17      At trial, Father did not contest the State’s assertion that at least one of the statutory grounds for termination of his parental rights was present. He did, however, contest the State’s assertion that termination was in the Children’s best interest. And his appellate challenge to the juvenile court’s termination order is similarly limited to the best-interest portion of the two-part test.

¶18      “The best-interest inquiry is wide-ranging and asks a court to weigh the entirety of the circumstances of a child’s situation, including the physical, intellectual, social, moral, and educational training and general welfare and happiness of the child.” In re J.J.W., 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 26, 520 P.3d 38 (quotation simplified). Our legislature has provided important guidance regarding the best-interest question. First, statutes emphasize the importance of maintaining familial relationships where possible. As a general rule, it is “in the best interest and welfare of a child to be raised under the care and supervision of the child’s natural parents.” Utah Code § 80-4-104(8). This is because “[a] child’s need for a normal family life in a permanent home, and for positive, nurturing family relationships is usually best met by the child’s natural parents.” Id. Therefore, “the juvenile court should only transfer custody of a child from the child’s natural parent for compelling reasons and when there is a jurisdictional basis to do so.” Id.see also In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 31 (stating that a parent’s “fundamental liberty interest in the care, custody, and management of the parent’s child . . . does not cease to exist simply because . . . a parent may fail to be a model parent” (quoting Utah Code § 80-4-104(1), (4)(a)(i))).

¶19      Next, our legislature requires that termination of parental rights be “strictly necessary.” Utah Code § 80-4-301(1). “Our supreme court has interpreted this statutory requirement to mean that ‘termination must be strictly necessary to promote the child’s best interest.’” In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 36 (quoting In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 60, 472 P.3d 827). And as the juvenile court here correctly noted, this inquiry is to be conducted “from the child’s point of view,” and not from either the parent’s or the prospective adoptive family’s. See Utah Code §§ 80-4­104(12)(b), -301(1); see also In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶¶ 25 n.5, 64 (stating that the “best interest analysis should be undertaken from the child’s point of view”). “[W]hen two placement options would equally benefit a child, the strictly-necessary requirement operates as a preference for a placement option that does not necessitate termination over an option that does.” In re G.D., 2021 UT 19, ¶ 75, 491 P.3d 867; see also In re J.J.W., 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 29 (“Courts must start the best interest analysis from the legislatively mandated position that wherever possible, family life should be strengthened and preserved, and if the child can be equally protected and benefited by an option other than termination, termination is not strictly necessary.” (quotation simplified)). Thus, the best-interest inquiry—informed by the “strictly necessary” requirement—“requires courts to explore whether other feasible options exist that could address the specific problems or issues facing the family, short of imposing the ultimate remedy of terminating the parent’s rights.” In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 67 (quotation simplified). In particular, “courts should consider whether other less-permanent arrangements might serve the child’s needs just as well” as termination of the parent’s rights would. Id. (quotation simplified).

¶20    With these considerations in mind, we turn to the issue at hand: whether the State presented clear and convincing evidence that termination of Father’s rights was strictly necessary to promote the Children’s best interest. The juvenile court determined that the State had cleared this hurdle, and it based its best-interest determination largely on two subsidiary conclusions: (1) that the Children needed stability, which the court believed could be better provided through adoption than through a permanent guardianship arrangement, and (2) that the Children needed to be “protect[ed] against [Father’s] commitment for increased and continued visitation,” including protection against Father’s “residual rights,” which protection the court believed could be better provided through adoption than through a permanent guardianship arrangement. Father asserts that, on this record, these reasons constitute an insufficient basis to terminate his parental rights, and he maintains that the juvenile court’s determination was therefore against the weight of the evidence. We agree with Father.

¶21 The court’s first conclusion—that adoption affords a somewhat higher degree of stability than permanent guardianship does—is not, at a general level, a sufficient reason for terminating a parent’s rights. As our supreme court recently clarified, “categorical concerns” about stability are insufficient to warrant termination of parental rights so that an adoption may occur. See In re J.A.L., 2022 UT 12, ¶ 24, 506 P.3d 606. “If these categorical concerns were enough, termination and adoption would be strictly necessary across the board” because a “permanent guardianship by definition does not offer the same degree of permanency as an adoption” and “there is always some risk that the permanent guardianship could come to an end, or be affected by visitation by the parent.” Id.see also In re L.L.B., 2023 UT App 66, ¶ 23, 532 P.3d 592 (“Categorical concerns about the lack of permanence of an option other than adoption are not enough, otherwise termination and adoption would be strictly necessary across the board.” (quotation simplified)).

¶22 In this vein, we note again that permanent guardianship arrangements are themselves quite stable. See In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 55; see also In re J.J.W., 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 31 (noting that permanent guardianships “have certain hallmarks of permanency”). “A parent whose child has been placed in a permanent guardianship arrangement in a child welfare proceeding has no independent right to petition to change or dissolve the guardianship.” In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 55; see also Utah Code § 78A-6-357(3)(d). “Only the guardian has that right.” In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 55; see also Utah Code § 78A­6-357(3)(d). And a parent, in this situation, is entitled only to “reasonable parent-time” with the child. See Utah Code § 80-1-102(70)(a)(iv). A guardian who does not think that a parent’s parent-time request is “reasonable” may resist that request, and any disputes between the guardian and the parent about the scope of “reasonable” visitation will be resolved “by the court,” with the best interest of the child in mind. See id. It is simply not the case—as the State implies—that a parent in this situation may demand, and obtain, as much parent-time as the parent desires. There are, of course, meaningful marginal differences in permanence and control between adoption and guardianship, and in some cases, these differences might matter. But after In re J.A.L., courts focused on the virtues of stability and permanence may no longer rely on the categorical differences between the two arrangements, but must instead discuss case-specific reasons why the “added layer of permanency that adoptions offer” matters in the case at hand. See In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 53.

¶23      In this case, the juvenile court offered a case-specific reason for its focus on stability: it was concerned about Father’s “residual rights,” and specifically about Father’s “commitment for increased and continued visitation,” and it worried that, after Father’s release from prison, he might continue to have some “involvement in [the Children’s] lives.” We acknowledge that, in some cases, fear of a parent’s residual rights might reasonably counsel in favor of terminating that parent’s rights so that an adoption can take place. But this case is not one of those cases.

¶24      For starters, there is no indication that Father’s continuing relationship with the Children is harmful to them, rather than merely perhaps inconvenient. See In re L.L.B., 2023 UT App 66, ¶ 24 (reversing a court’s termination of parental rights in part because “there was no finding . . . that [the] [f]ather’s presence in [the child’s] life has affirmatively harmed” the child, and “there was no finding detailing how [the child’s] life was negatively affected or disrupted by [the] [f]ather’s attempts to exercise his parental rights”).[4] Indeed, the juvenile court accurately noted that “there were no allegations of abuse or neglect regarding [Father] at the time the [C]hildren were ordered into [DCFS] custody,” and the Children were found only “dependent”—not abused or neglected—as to him. And the court found that Father “was involved in” K.S.’s life “until he was about eight years old” and in D.S.’s life until she “was three”; that he “love[s] these [C]hildren”; and that he “expresses genuine love and affection for” them.

¶25                To be sure, Father’s incarceration has placed a great degree

of stress on the parent-child relationship. Because of his incarceration, Father was unable to care for the Children in their time of need when Mother abandoned them, and he was—as of the time of trial—still unable to assume custody of them. Father has, however, made a credible and determined effort to remain involved in the Children’s lives despite his incarceration. With Grandmother’s initial encouragement and assistance, virtual visits were arranged on a regular basis, and the juvenile court found that, “[a]t first, the [C]hildren were eager” to participate in those visits. Over time, however, the Children have lost their enthusiasm for the visits. But no party pins this loss of enthusiasm on Father’s behavior regarding those visits; he remains excited about the visits, and there is no evidence that Father has ever turned down (or not shown up for) an opportunity for visits, or that he has ever acted inappropriately during any visit. Indeed, the juvenile court specifically found that Father was “a good listener” during the visits, and Grandmother testified that Father was “very good at playing kitchen” with D.S.

¶26      The most anyone can say regarding any downside to these visits is that the Children find them boring or “uncomfortable” because they sometimes see other inmates in the background and because they do “not know what to do” during the visits. Grandmother has had to add some structure to the visits so that the Children have some things to talk about with Father; K.S. has turned to music, and D.S. to “playing kitchen.” On some occasions, the Children find the visits “difficult” and need comfort from Grandmother after the visits conclude, but there is no indication from the record that this difficulty arises from anything Father does or says during the visits; indeed, it seems that the difficulty arises simply from the fact that Father is in prison, a fact that makes communicating and bonding comparatively difficult and often awkward.

¶27 Given Father’s genuine efforts to maintain a meaningful relationship with the Children, as well as the absence of a “harmfulness” component to that relationship, we see no basis for the juvenile court’s view that the Children need “protections against [Father’s] commitment for increased and continued visitation.” As a general matter, we want parents to exhibit a commitment toward a positive and continued relationship with their children. See In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 55 (“Family life should be strengthened and preserved wherever possible, and . . . it is usually in the best interest and welfare of a child to be raised under the care and supervision of the child’s natural parents.” (quotation simplified)); see also In re B.T.B., 2018 UT App 157, ¶ 55, 436 P.3d 206 (“In many cases, children will benefit from having more people—rather than fewer—in their lives who love them and care about them . . . .”), aff’d, 2020 UT 60, 472 P.3d 827. All else being equal, there is inherent value and benefit—not only to the parent but to the children—in maintaining familial relationships, a fact that the juvenile court failed to discuss or account for. See In re J.J.W., 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 31 (noting the “benefit of preserving the familial relationships, as our legislature has commanded courts to do ‘wherever possible’” (quoting Utah Code § 80-4­104(12))). And a parent’s desire to build and maintain—coupled with efforts to actually maintain—a meaningful relationship with a child is a factor that will often weigh in favor of, and not against, a determination that it is in the child’s best interest to keep the relationship intact. See In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 55. As we read this record, Father should be commended—rather than chided—for maintaining love and affection for, and a desire to continue a meaningful relationship with, the Children despite his incarceration. And Father’s wish to have “visitation” with the Children after his release from prison should likewise have been viewed positively—or at least neutrally—rather than negatively in the context of the best-interest inquiry. See id. (“[W]e question whether—in many cases, including this one—a parent’s desire to re-engage in their child’s life should be viewed as negatively as the juvenile court appeared to view it.”).

¶28      All of this is especially true in this case, where the prospective adoptive parent is Father’s own mother. As Grandmother herself acknowledged, no matter the outcome of the case—whether adoption or guardianship—there will very likely be some sort of ongoing relationship between Father and the Children. That is, not even Grandmother believes that Father will (or necessarily should) be completely cut out of the Children’s lives; instead, she testified that, in the event she is allowed to adopt the Children, she would consult with “therapist[s]” and other “people that know more than” she does about appropriate visitation, and come to a decision about the level of Father’s involvement that she believes would be best for the Children. In another similar case, we defined the relevant question as follows: “[B]efore it may terminate [a parent’s] rights, the [juvenile] court must adequately explain why it is better for [the Children] to have [the parent] cut out of [their lives] forever than to have [the parent] remain involved in [their lives], perhaps with limited parent-time, pursuant to a guardianship arrangement.” In re J.J.W., 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 36. In cases like this one, where—given the identity of the prospective adoptive parent—nobody thinks Father really is going to be completely cut out of the Children’s lives as a practical matter, it becomes more difficult to establish that it is best for the Children for Father’s rights to be terminated.

¶29 Finally, we put almost no stock in the juvenile court’s finding that the Children “expressed a desire to be adopted by” Grandmother. In this context—termination cases in which the children are not in the physical custody of the parent in question—our law allows the court to consider “the child’s desires regarding the termination,” but only if the court “determines [that] the child is of sufficient capacity to express the child’s desires.” Utah Code § 80-4-303(1)(a). The issue of the capacity of the Children to express their desires was never discussed at trial, and the juvenile court made no determination that either one of the Children had sufficient capacity. At the time of trial, K.S. was eleven years old and D.S. was six years old. While the governing statute puts no absolute age threshold on when a child’s desires may be considered,[5] it is far from obvious that either of the Children—especially the six-year-old—were “of sufficient capacity” to express a meaningful opinion about the ultimate question in this case: whether Father’s rights ought to be terminated to facilitate an adoption or whether Father should retain certain rights through a guardianship arrangement. In parental termination cases, a court wishing to take a child’s desires into account should make a determination regarding the child’s capacity to express those desires; absent such a determination, the requirements of the statute are not met.

¶30 Moreover, even if the Children could be considered capable of offering meaningful testimony about their desires, there are evidentiary problems with the juvenile court’s finding on the subject: the trial testimony did not support any finding on this issue more specific than that the Children—quite understandably—wanted to remain in Grandmother’s care. Caseworker testified that the Children “would like to be adopted by” Grandmother, but she offered no additional details about her conversation with the Children. And Grandmother stated that she had discussed adoption with the Children, but she testified that D.S. responded, “That’s like the commercials on TV about adopting a dog.” And she acknowledged that the Children “have some misconceptions about” what adoption would mean, and that she had “tried to fix” those misconceptions. But no witness offered any testimony that could support a finding that either of the Children actually understood and appreciated the distinction between adoption and guardianship, and that, based on that understanding, they preferred adoption. In particular, no witness offered any testimony that either of the Children understood that, if an adoption were to occur, Father would lose all of his parental rights, and—relatedly—no witness offered any testimony that the Children actually wanted Father to lose all of his parental rights.[6]

¶31      In the end, the facts of this case simply don’t add up to strict necessity. Even though we review the juvenile court’s decision deferentially, we still must reverse when “the evidence presented at trial [does] not constitute clear and convincing evidence that termination of [the parent’s] rights . . . would be in the best interest of those children.” In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 38; see also In re L.L.B., 2023 UT App 66, ¶ 34 (reversing the district court’s decision where the “court’s conclusion that termination of [a father’s] parental rights was in [a child’s] best interest goes against the clear weight of the evidence”). With the appropriate “clear and convincing” evidentiary standard in mind, we conclude that the juvenile court’s decision in this case was against the clear weight of the evidence, and that the reasons upon which the court’s analysis relied were insufficient to support termination of Father’s rights.

¶32 We emphasize, however, that our decision is dependent upon the particular circumstances of this case. Those notable circumstances include the following: the juvenile court made no finding that Father’s relationship with the Children was abusive or harmful; the prospective adoptive parent is Father’s own mother; and Father will—in any event—likely have a relationship of some kind with the Children in the future. Moreover, there is no evidence that Father and Grandmother have the sort of relationship where he would be likely to exercise undue control over custody and care decisions in a guardianship arrangement. See In re J.J.W., 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 31 (noting that guardianship might be a viable option because, among other things, there was “no evidence in the record that would lead us to believe that [the guardians] would be particularly susceptible to undue influence from [the parent] as concerns seeking a change or dissolution of the guardianship”); see also In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 55. If the facts of the case were different, termination of Father’s parental rights might well have been justified. For instance, if Father’s relationship with the Children were abusive or detrimental, the situation would certainly be different. And we have previously noted that, where the prospective adoptive placement consists of non-relatives with no pre-existing relationship with the parent whose rights are at issue, a guardianship arrangement may be a poor fit. See In re J.P., 2021 UT App 134, ¶ 11, 502 P.3d 1247 (discussing with approval a lower court’s reasoning that permanent guardianship arrangements work best in situations where the parent and the guardian know each other and are “willing to work together to preserve [the] parent-child relationship” and “where the child has a healthy relationship with both the guardian and the parent,” and that such arrangements may not work as well in non-relative, foster-family placement situations). But on the facts presented at the termination trial in this case, a permanent guardianship arrangement serves the Children’s interest at least as well as adoption does, and therefore termination of Father’s parental rights is not strictly necessary to promote the Children’s best interest. See In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 49 (“If the two placements can each equally protect and benefit the child’s best interest, then by definition there does not exist clear and convincing evidence in favor of terminating a parent’s rights.” (quotation simplified)).

CONCLUSION

¶33      We reverse the juvenile court’s order terminating Father’s parental rights and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. We note, as we have in similar cases, that “best-interest determinations are to be conducted in present-tense fashion, as of the date of the trial or hearing convened to consider the matter.” Id. ¶ 58. Our holding today is that, based on the evidence presented at trial in August 2022, termination of Father’s rights was not strictly necessary to promote the Children’s best interest. But the situation may well have changed since August 2022. In particular, we are aware that Father was scheduled to be released from prison in December 2022; the record submitted to us contains no information about whether that occurred as scheduled or, if so, what has happened since his release. If nothing has materially changed since the August 2022 trial, then we expect the court to enter an order establishing a permanent custody and guardianship arrangement, with the Children in Grandmother’s care, and to make appropriate rulings, as necessary, regarding the scope of Father’s reasonable visitation. But if there is evidence that matters have materially changed since the trial, the court may need to consider that evidence in some fashion, see In re Z.C.W., 2021 UT App 98, ¶ 15, 500 P.3d 94, and re-assess best interest, with its strictly necessary component, based on the situation at the time of the remand proceedings.


[1] The trial transcript is composed of just fifty-two pages. And the three witnesses’ testimony, in total, took just over an hour.

[2] The record submitted to us does not indicate whether Father was in fact released from prison on the anticipated date or, if so, whether Father has taken any steps to resolve his employment, housing, or immigration issues.

[3] At no point in its written ruling, or at any other time during the trial, did the court reference the 2014 “supported” allegations of abuse regarding the Children’s sibling. No witness testified about those allegations at trial. And while the protective order violations were mentioned in passing, no witness offered any testimony about the basis upon which the protective order was granted.

[4] As noted already, see supra note 3, no witness at trial mentioned the 2014 “supported” incident of abuse, and the protective order violations were discussed only in passing. Most importantly for present purposes, the juvenile court did not base any of its findings or conclusions on either of these incidents; in particular, it made no finding that either one was of such a nature as to render Father’s relationship with the Children harmful to them.

[5] Utah’s adoption statutes, by contrast, establish a specific age limit regarding when a child’s consent to adoption must be procured. See Utah Code § 78B-6-120(1)(a) (“[C]onsent to adoption of a child . . . is required from . . . the adoptee, if the adoptee is more than 12 years of age, unless the adoptee does not have the mental capacity to consent.”).

[6] In this vein, we note a general concern with evidence about a child’s desires regarding termination coming in through the testimony of a prospective adoptive parent. A much better practice is for such evidence to come in through either a proffer from a guardian ad litem—the attorney specifically hired to represent the interests of the child—or through the testimony of professional witnesses (e.g., mental health counselors) who presumably have training in discussing such topics with minors in a neutral way. By noting the absence of specific foundational evidence about the Children’s desires, we are in no way faulting Grandmother for apparently not asking additional follow-up questions of the Children regarding termination; indeed, this opinion should not be viewed as encouraging prospective adoptive parents to engage in conversations with children about termination of their natural parents’ rights.

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In re M.M. – 2023 UT App 95 – termination of parental rights

2023 UT App 95

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF M.M.,

A PERSON UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

A.M.,

Appellant,

v.

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20220624-CA

Filed August 24, 2023

Second District Juvenile Court, Ogden Department

The Honorable Jeffrey J. Noland

No. 1140984

Emily Adams, Sara Pfrommer, and Hannah K.

Leavitt-Howell, Attorneys for Appellant

Sean D. Reyes, Carol L.C. Verdoia, and John M.

Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

JUDGE MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES JOHN D. LUTHY and AMY J. OLIVER concurred.

 

CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge:

 

¶1        Following a multi-day bench trial, the juvenile court entered an order terminating A.M.’s (Mother) parental rights to her child, M.M. (Child). Mother contends the court erred in denying her reunification services and in concluding termination of her parental rights was strictly necessary. Because Mother has not persuaded us that the court committed reversible error, we affirm its order terminating Mother’s parental rights.

BACKGROUND[1]

¶2      Mother is the biological parent of three children: Child, born in 2015; A.M. (Sister), born in 2018; and B.B. (Brother), born in 2019. All three children have different biological fathers. This appeal concerns only Child. Nevertheless, a complete understanding of the events giving rise to this case necessitates a recounting of the background as it relates to all three children.

¶3        In December 2016, prior to the birth of Sister and Brother, Child’s maternal grandmother (Grandmother) and maternal step-grandfather (Grandfather) noticed “large bruises on [Child’s] hips and thighs when they put him into the bath.” The following day, a caseworker from the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) met with Grandmother and Grandfather and examined Child. The caseworker observed the same bruising on Child that had been seen the day before, as well as a “small bruise in [Child’s] hairline above his forehead.” Child was transported to the hospital where a doctor observed the bruising and opined that “the bruising is concerning for abuse because of its location, linear component, the large size, and the lack of history explaining them.”

¶4        A few months later, in February 2017, Child was brought to the hospital for a breathing treatment for his asthma. While at the hospital, a doctor again observed “linear bruising on [Child’s] buttocks,” which she described as a “classic bruise found with spanking or inflicted trauma.” She explained the bruising was consistent with “excessive,” “repeated high-force spanking.”

¶5        During the time of these injuries, Child had been residing with Mother, Mother’s husband (Stepfather),[2] Grandmother, and Grandfather, and he had also attended daycare. Ultimately, no one was able to provide an explanation for the bruising. As a result, the juvenile court concluded that Child “has been abused by an unknown perpetrator” and adjudicated him dependent as to Mother. The court allowed Child to remain with Mother, contingent on her compliance with a safety plan and completion of court-ordered services. In December 2017, after Mother had received a year of services, the court terminated its jurisdiction and returned permanent custody and guardianship of Child to Mother.

¶6        The following month, Sister was born. Brother was born a year and a half later.

¶7        In August 2019, Brother suffered a series of abusive episodes. First, Mother said she “fell going down some stairs” while holding Brother. Thereafter, Brother’s father picked Brother up from a babysitter and became concerned that Brother was vomiting and appeared dehydrated. Brother was taken to the doctor for examination but was sent home with his father because the cause of the vomiting was “undetermined.” A few weeks later, Brother’s father again observed that Brother had been vomiting and appeared dehydrated. Brother was taken to the hospital for examination.

¶8        Upon examination, Brother’s head appeared “swollen.” A subsequent CT scan revealed a “large” brain bleed and a skeletal survey revealed “multiple healing rib fractures.” A doctor evaluated Brother the following day and expressed that Brother’s initial vomiting was “consistent with the brain injury” and a “sign” that the brain injury had occurred. She noted that although Brother’s head circumference had not been measured during his initial visit to the doctor, by the time of his second visit—which occurred approximately two weeks later—Brother “had a massive head.” She also opined that Brother’s injuries were caused by one of his caregivers and were “consistent with inflicted trauma and child abuse.” When questioned, both parents denied any involvement or knowledge of injuries to Brother. However, based on her conversation with both parents, the doctor had “much more concern” that Mother had caused Brother’s injuries.

¶9        Based on Brother’s injuries, the State filed a verified petition for custody and guardianship on behalf of all three children in August 2019. In the petition, the State asked the juvenile court to find that “[Brother] is severely abused by [Mother]” and that Child and Sister were “siblings at risk” and “neglected” as to Mother.

¶10      Over the next several months, the juvenile court transferred temporary custody of Sister and Brother to their respective fathers. Although the State requested that Child be removed from Mother’s custody, the court allowed Child to remain home with Mother on the condition that she comply with a safety plan. The safety plan required “line of sight supervision” by Grandmother and Grandfather for “any contact” between Mother and Child. But Mother did not abide by the safety plan, and in January 2020, after a DCFS caseworker observed a series of three events of non-compliance, the court transferred Child to DCFS’s custody, finding that Mother had “substantially endangered” Child’s welfare. Child was then placed in a foster care home.

¶11      In July 2020, Mother appeared before the juvenile court for adjudication of the State’s verified petition for custody.[3] After negotiations with Mother, the State agreed to amend the petition by removing the allegation that Mother had severely abused Brother, replacing it with an allegation that Brother suffered “severe physical abuse while in the care of [Mother].” Following this amendment, Mother proceeded with adjudication and entered a plea pursuant to rule 34(e) of the Utah Rules of Juvenile Procedure by which she neither admitted nor denied the allegations but they were deemed admitted as a matter of law.

¶12      At the close of the hearing, the court found by clear and convincing evidence that Brother had suffered “severe physical abuse while in the care of [Mother].” Accordingly, the court found that “[Sister] and [Child] are siblings at risk” and were “neglected” as to Mother. In addition to adjudicating the children’s statuses, the court also substantiated the DCFS supported finding of severe physical abuse of Brother while in Mother’s care. The court ordered that Brother and Sister continue in the temporary custody of their respective fathers and that Child continue in the custody of DCFS.

¶13      Shortly thereafter, the juvenile court held a disposition hearing during which it resolved the custody petition as to Brother and Sister by granting custody and guardianship to their respective fathers and terminating jurisdiction. The court requested briefing on the issue of whether Mother should be provided reunification services for Child. Citing the allegations that Mother physically abused her children, even after receiving court-ordered services, as well as Child’s success in his current foster placement, the State and the guardian ad litem (GAL) argued that reunification services were not in Child’s best interest and accordingly requested that services not be provided. In September 2020, the court entered an order denying reunification services to Mother.[4] In April 2021, the court set Child’s primary permanency goal as adoption with his current foster parents.

¶14     The next month, the State filed a petition to terminate Mother’s parental rights to Child. The matter proceeded to an eight-day bench trial that took place in March and April 2022.

¶15      At trial, several therapists who had provided mental health services to Mother testified. All agreed that Mother suffered from trauma and that treatment was needed to address it. These therapists further testified that while Mother had attended some therapy sessions, Mother had either canceled, rescheduled, or failed to attend many of the sessions, and that although Mother had made some progress in therapy, she still had a long way to go to process her trauma.

¶16    Child’s therapist and foster parents testified regarding Child’s communications with them, as well as Child’s improvements since his removal from Mother’s custody. Child’s therapist explained that Child suffered from “separation anxiety disorder and unspecified trauma and stressor-related disorder” but that these conditions had greatly improved while Child was living with his foster parents. Likewise, Child’s foster mother testified that Child had grown emotionally while in her care. She detailed Child’s emotional bonds with the members of his foster family and recounted how it was “an easy decision” to pursue adopting Child. Moreover, Child’s therapist and foster mother both testified that Child had reported witnessing Mother “hit his sibling on the head” and that Child had also reported that Mother had hit him.

¶17    Following trial, the juvenile court issued an order terminating Mother’s parental rights to Child. The court found the testimony and evidence presented to be true, and therefore concluded that the State had proved by clear and convincing evidence three statutory grounds for termination. The court also found that it was in Child’s best interest and strictly necessary to terminate Mother’s parental rights. In reaching this conclusion, the court noted it had “considered the specific circumstances” of the case, including Child’s “wishes to remain in his current foster home” and the feasibility of an alternative to termination, such as a permanent guardianship.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶18      Mother now appeals the juvenile court’s order terminating her parental rights to Child, raising two issues for our review. First, Mother argues the court erred when it refused to order reunification services to her. We review the juvenile court’s interpretation of the law for correctness; however, “[t]he ultimate decision whether to provide or deny reunification services is a determination that we review for abuse of discretion.” In re Z.G., 2016 UT App 98, ¶ 4, 376 P.3d 1077.

¶19      Second, Mother argues the juvenile court erred when it concluded that termination of her parental rights was strictly necessary. “We review deferentially a lower court’s best-interest determination and will overturn it only if it either failed to consider all of the facts or considered all of the facts and its decision was nonetheless against the clear weight of the evidence.” In re J.J.W., 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 18, 520 P.3d 38 (quotation simplified).

ANALYSIS

I. Reunification Services

¶20      Mother first argues the juvenile court erred when it denied reunification services to her. Specifically, she contends the court misinterpreted the law and abused its discretion when it (1) failed to provide the “necessary findings for the presumption against reunification services to apply” and (2) improperly weighed the statutory factors a court must use when determining whether to order reunification services.

¶21      After a juvenile court adjudicates a child as abused, neglected, or dependent, the court must conduct a dispositional hearing. See Utah Code § 78A-6-311(1) (2020). At that hearing, if the court orders that the child continue in the custody of DCFS, the court shall (1) “establish a primary permanency plan” and (2) “determine whether, in view of the primary permanency plan, reunification services are appropriate.” Id. § 78A-6-312(2).

¶22      The decision to order reunification services is therefore discretionary with the juvenile court, and “parents have no constitutional right to receive these services.” In re A.K., 2015 UT App 39, ¶ 15, 344 P.3d 1153 (quotation simplified); see also In re N.R., 967 P.2d 951, 955–56 (Utah Ct. App. 1998); Utah Code § 78A­6-312(20)(a) (2020). Accordingly, we will overturn the court’s decision only if it “either failed to consider all of the facts or considered all of the facts and its decision was nonetheless against the clear weight of the evidence.” In re E.R., 2021 UT 36, ¶ 31, 496 P.3d 58 (quotation simplified).

¶23      In determining whether to order reunification services, the child’s “health, safety, and welfare shall be the court’s paramount concern.” Utah Code § 78A-6-312(5) (2020). And in making this determination, the juvenile court must consider a non-exclusive list of statutory factors, including the following:

·         “failure of the parent to respond to previous services or comply with a previous child and family plan;”

·         “the fact that the minor was abused while the parent was under the influence of drugs or alcohol;”

·         “any history of violent behavior directed at the child or an immediate family member;”

·         “whether a parent continues to live with an individual who abused the minor;”

·         “any patterns of the parent’s behavior that have exposed the minor to repeated abuse;”

·         “testimony by a competent professional that the parent’s behavior is unlikely to be successful; and”

·         “whether the parent has expressed an interest in reunification with the minor.”

Id. § 78A-6-312(23). However, in cases involving “obvious sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, abandonment, severe abuse, or severe neglect,” the court has no duty to provide services. Id. § 78A-6­-312(4). And several circumstances—if found by clear and convincing evidence—create “a presumption that reunification services should not be provided to a parent.” Id. § 78A-6-312(21).

¶24     Before the juvenile court, the State and the GAL argued that reunification services should not be offered to Mother. While only the State argued that the presumption against providing services should apply, both parties argued that the statutory factors weighed in favor of denying reunification services. Ultimately, the court denied services, finding they were not “appropriate” “given the fact that [Mother] had services before.”

¶25      Mother takes issue with the juvenile court’s determination on two grounds. As an initial matter, she asserts the court made “no findings in its reunification order, much less findings by clear and convincing evidence,” that would allow the court to apply the presumption against providing reunification services. But even if Mother’s assertion is correct and a presumption against reunification services does not apply in this case, Mother ignores that the court may still properly deny services regardless of whether a presumption exists.[5] And on the facts of this case, the court did not abuse its discretion in concluding that denying reunification services to Mother was appropriate.

¶26     Next, Mother asserts the juvenile court improperly weighed the statutory factors a court must consider when determining whether to provide reunification services. According to Mother, “four[6] of the seven factors weigh in favor of granting Mother reunification services” and “the remaining three factors do not tip the balance towards not offering reunification services.” We disagree.

¶27     First, Mother contends the juvenile court improperly determined she had failed to respond to reunification services in the past. See Utah Code § 78A-6-312(23)(a) (2020) (requiring courts to consider the “failure of the parent to respond to previous services or comply with a previous child and family plan” when determining whether to order reunification services). She claims that the dismissal of the first protective services case in December 2017 and the full restoration of custody of Child shows she responded to services and complied with her previous family plan. But in concluding that this factor weighed against Mother, the court considered Mother’s compliance in the first protective services case as well as her actions after that case was closed. The court explained,

I see that you’ve had services before on [Child]. We had a [protective supervision services] case. . . . You engage in services. We think things are good. We close the case.

Then not much longer . . . we have a severe abuse to [Child]’s younger sibling . . . . We’ve already done reunification services or services by DCFS for you on [Child] and here we are again with a severely abused child.

¶28     This explanation is sufficient to show that the court adequately considered whether Mother had failed to respond to previous reunification services. The court weighed Mother’s prior compliance against her actions following the completion of the original services. Because the court’s decision is not “against the clear weight of the evidence,” a “measure of deference is owing” to the court’s decision. In re E.R., 2021 UT 36, ¶ 32 (quotation simplified). Accordingly, we will not perform an “independent ‘reweighing’ of the evidence” but will instead “respect[]” the court’s decision. Id.

¶29      Second, Mother contends the juvenile court improperly weighed against her the factors concerning “any history of violent behavior directed at the child or an immediate family member” and “any patterns of the parent’s behavior that have exposed the minor to repeated abuse.” See Utah Code § 78A-6-312(23)(c), (e) (2020). Specifically, Mother asserts these factors do not weigh against her because she “was not adjudicated as abusing [Child] in 2017,” there are “no other allegations” that Child or Sister have been otherwise injured, and it has “never been established that Mother harmed [Brother].”

¶30      But Mother’s arguments on this point ignore substantial record evidence indicating that Mother did have a history of violent behavior directed at Child or Child’s immediate family members and that Mother’s behavior exposed Child to repeated abuse. While Mother is correct that she was not adjudicated as abusing Child in 2017, Child’s statements to his foster mother and therapist provide substantial evidence of Mother’s history of violent behavior toward Child and other immediate family members. Notably, the juvenile court found that during a therapy session, Child credibly reported to his therapist that he had witnessed Mother “hit his sibling on the head.” And at trial, Child’s foster mother testified that on multiple occasions, Child told her that Mother had hit him. Further, as the juvenile court found, Child, Brother, and Sister were all exposed to repeated abuse while in Mother’s care. Indeed, Child and Sister were found to be “siblings at risk” and “neglected” based on Mother’s rule 34(e) plea to the allegation that Brother suffered “severe physical abuse while in the care of [Mother].” This exposure occurred subsequent to the court’s 2017 determination that Child had been “abused by an unknown perpetrator” during a time when Mother “was the primary caregiver.”

¶31      The juvenile court did not abuse its discretion by deciding not to order reunification services for Mother. In reaching this decision, the court evaluated the evidence before it, and Mother has not demonstrated that the court’s decision was against the clear weight of the evidence.[7]

II. Strictly Necessary

¶32      Next, Mother argues the juvenile court erred in determining it was strictly necessary to terminate her parental rights to Child. In particular, Mother contends the court’s strictly necessary analysis was “improperly brief and conclusory.”

¶33     “Because the relationship between parent and child is constitutionally protected, a court may only terminate parental rights upon a finding that termination is strictly necessary to the best interest[] of the child.”[8] In re S.T., 2022 UT App 130, ¶ 25, 521 P.3d 887 (quotation simplified). “This analysis should be undertaken from the child’s point of view, not the parent’s.” In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 63, 472 P.3d 827 (quotation simplified).

¶34      When evaluating whether termination is strictly necessary,

the juvenile court must address whether “the child can be equally protected and benefited by an option other than termination.” Id. ¶ 66. This inquiry cannot be satisfied merely by relying on the “categorical concern” that adoption offers the highest degree of permanency. In re J.A.L., 2022 UT 12, ¶ 25, 506 P.3d 606. Instead, the court must analyze the “particularized circumstances of the case” and “explore whether other feasible options exist that could address the specific problems or issues facing the family, short of imposing the ultimate remedy of terminating the parent’s rights.” In re S.T., 2022 UT App 130, ¶ 26 (quotation simplified). If another option exists where “the child can be equally protected and benefited,” then “termination is not strictly necessary” and “the court cannot order the parent’s rights terminated.” In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 66.

¶35      In determining that it was strictly necessary to terminate Mother’s parental rights, the juvenile court explicitly stated that it “considered whether a placement with Permanent Guardianship would equally protect and benefit [Child].” Ultimately, the court decided against such an arrangement, finding it was not in Child’s best interest “as it does not provide the permanency that he seeks and wishes for.” Citing In re J.A.L., 2022 UT 12, 506 P.3d 606, Mother contends this conclusion was error because it is based on the categorical concern that a permanent guardianship is not as permanent as an adoption.[9] Mother’s argument is unavailing, however, because it selectively focuses on the court’s conclusion without considering it in the fuller context.

¶36      Here, the juvenile court was not presented with any feasible alternative option for a permanent guardianship placement, nor has Mother proposed one on appeal. At the time of trial, the only individuals that had previously been involved in the case were not feasible placement options. Indeed, Grandfather had failed to comply with the safety plan by allowing Mother to interact with Child outside his “line of sight,” which ultimately led to Child’s removal; Grandmother and Mother were estranged; and the State had initiated termination proceedings for Father.[10] Consequently, there was “no other option, short of termination and adoption, that would have otherwise been apparent to the juvenile court.” See In re D.G., 2022 UT App 128, ¶ 8 n.2, 522 P.3d 39, cert. denied, 527 P.3d 1106 (Utah 2023). And “where only one feasible custody option exists, the categorical concern that adoption is more stable than a permanent guardianship is not implicated.” In re S.T., 2022 UT App 130, ¶ 32 n.6 (quotation simplified).

¶37      In sum, given Child’s “strong emotional ties with [his] foster parents,” see id., and the lack of “any remotely feasible alternatives to termination and adoption,” see In re D.G., 2022 UT App 128, ¶ 8 n.2, it was entirely proper for the juvenile court to find that it was strictly necessary to terminate Mother’s parental rights.[11]

CONCLUSION

¶38      The juvenile court did not err in terminating Mother’s parental rights to Child. The court’s decision to deny Mother reunification services was not an abuse of discretion because the court’s decision is well supported by evidence in the record. And the court did not err when it found that termination of Mother’s parental rights was strictly necessary because there were no feasible alternative placement options other than termination and adoption. Affirmed.


[1] “We recite the facts in the light most favorable to the juvenile court findings.” In re S.T., 2022 UT App 130, n.2, 521 P.3d 887 (quotation simplified).

[2] Stepfather and Mother married one day after DCFS made the initial home visit to observe Child. Prior to the marriage, Stepfather spent “multiple nights in a row” in the home with Mother and Child.

[3] Although the juvenile court adjudicated Child’s status as to Mother in July 2020, the written order was not entered until August 2021—approximately one year after the adjudication hearing. Mother appealed the written adjudication order, arguing that she was deprived of due process by the court’s delay in entering the order, but this court affirmed.

[4] At the time reunification services for Mother were denied, an Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children (ICPC) request form had been sent to Child’s biological father (Father), who resides in South Carolina. Following denial of services for Mother, the juvenile court changed Child’s primary permanency goal from reunification with Mother to reunification with Father with a concurrent goal of adoption. During a subsequent permanency hearing, the court terminated reunification services to Father due to his failure to comply with any of the three ICPC requests initiated by DCFS and changed Child’s primary permanency goal to adoption with his current foster parents. Father’s parental rights to Child were then terminated in June 2022.

[5] Moreover, Mother’s position on this point seems to ignore the juvenile court’s own explanation of its reasoning to deny reunification services. At the disposition hearing, the court explicitly agreed with Mother’s counsel that Child did not qualify as a “severely abused child,” which would create a presumption against providing services. As a result, the court stated, “I don’t really attach the presumption that [Mother] should not receive reunification services. I’m kind of looking towards the presumption that she should . . . .”

[6] These factors are (1) “the fact that the minor was abused while the parent was under the influence of drugs or alcohol,” (2) “whether a parent continues to live with an individual who abused the minor,” (3) “testimony by a competent professional that the parent’s behavior is unlikely to be successful,” and (4) “whether the parent has expressed an interest in reunification with the minor.” See Utah Code § 78A-6-312(23)(b), (d), (f), (g) (2020).

[7] Mother challenges the adequacy of the juvenile court’s findings in support of its decision not to order reunification services by asserting that “the juvenile court made no findings in its reunification order.” But Mother’s assertion is overbroad; the juvenile court did make explicit factual findings regarding a number of the facts we have noted as supportive of its determination not to order services. And, while we acknowledge that the court did not explicitly disclose all the analytic steps it took in deciding not to provide services, this is a case where the court’s “unstated findings can be implied” because “it is reasonable to assume that the [juvenile] court actually considered the controverted evidence and necessarily made . . . finding[s] to resolve the controversy, but simply failed to record the factual determination[s] made.” Fish v. Fish, 2016 UT App 125, ¶ 22, 379 P.3d 882 (quotation simplified). It is not a case “where there is a matrix of possible factual findings and we cannot ascertain the [juvenile] court’s actual findings.” Hall v. Hall, 858 P.2d 1018, 1025–26 (Utah Ct. App. 1993) (quotation simplified). The evidence and arguments presented below, coupled with the juvenile court’s decision not to order services, necessarily imply that the juvenile court found the factors in Utah Code subsections 78A-6­312(23)(c) and (e) weigh against the provision of services based on the findings and evidence we have outlined above. Although on this record the unstated steps of the juvenile court’s analysis can be implied, we caution courts to ensure that the analytic steps taken in support of such fact-sensitive decisions are fully articulated in an oral or written ruling, order, or judgment. Detailed findings aid appellate review and reduce the likelihood of reversal.

[8] “To terminate a parent’s rights, Utah law requires that both elements of a two-part test are satisfied. First, the court must find that one or more of the statutory grounds for termination are present. Second, the court must find that termination of the parent’s rights is in the best interest[] of the child.” In re S.T., 2022 UT App 130, ¶ 25 n.5, 521 P.3d 887 (quotation simplified). Here, Mother acknowledges the juvenile court properly found at least one ground to terminate her parental rights. Accordingly, our focus is limited to only the court’s best interest determination.

[9] In a related vein, Mother also asserts the juvenile court’s decision was conclusory because the court focused only on negative testimony and overlooked the positive testimony of several of Mother’s therapists. But this position ignores that “Lilt is the role of the juvenile court, not this court, to assess the weight and credibility of expert witnesses and to choose among their testimonies.” In re G.V., 916 P.2d 918, 920 (Utah Ct. App. 1996) (per curiam). As such, we decline to reweigh the evidence.

[10] The lack of alternative options was reiterated through the trial testimony of Child’s great-uncle (Uncle). Uncle testified that Mother and Grandfather were estranged, largely due to Grandfather’s role in having Child removed from Mother’s custody, and that Mother and Grandmother were estranged because Grandmother is “a very toxic individual” and “abusive toward” Mother. Uncle also explained that although he wanted to be “involved” with Child, he was not in a position for Child to be placed with him. Lastly, Uncle noted that his brother had applied for Child to be placed with him, but his application was not approved.

[11] We again caution juvenile courts to “adequately disclose[]”— either in an oral or written ruling—all the “analytic steps” they take when they conduct a best interest analysis. Keiter v. Keiter, 2010 UT App 169, ¶ 21, 235 P.3d 782 (describing a challenge to the adequacy of findings as raising the issue of whether “the findings as a whole adequately disclosed the analytic steps taken by the trial court”). Here, however, even assuming that the court’s articulation of its strictly necessary analysis could have or even should have been more robust, without any feasible alternatives to termination and adoption, Mother cannot show that the court’s finding on this point was against the clear weight of the evidence. See generally In re J.J.W., 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 19, 520 P.3d 38 (“[I]n some instances (e.g., where the existence of a particular option would not be readily apparent to the court), a parent may need to expressly ask a [juvenile] court to consider a specific non-termination option in order to properly preserve the right to argue, on appeal, that the court did not adequately consider that option.”). But in cases where a feasible alternative placement option does exist, a court assessing strict necessity must explain, “on the record,” why adoption and termination of the parent’s rights would better further the child’s best interest than the alternative option. See In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 74, 472 P.3d 827.

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State v. Hararah – 2023 UT App 77 – domestic violence prosecution

State v. Hararah – 2023 UT App 77

2023 UT App 77

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee,

v.

HOUSTON RAEFAT HARARAH,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20220276-CA

Filed July 20, 2023

Eighth District Court, Vernal Department

The Honorable Edwin T. Peterson

The Honorable Gregory M. Lamb

No. 201800299

Nicolas C. Wilde and Trevor J. Lee,

Attorneys for Appellant

Tegan M. Troutner and Rachelle Shumway,

Attorneys for Appellee

JUDGE DAVID N. MORTENSEN authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES RYAN M. HARRIS and AMY J. OLIVER concurred.

MORTENSEN, Judge:

¶1        Houston Raefat Hararah was charged with assault for throwing a potted plant at his then-girlfriend. He waived his right to a preliminary hearing and proceeded to trial, following which he was convicted. He now contends that he was coerced into waiving his right to a preliminary hearing because the district court[1] stated, at various points in the proceedings, that it would not permit Hararah to accept any plea deal if he chose to have a preliminary hearing. But the record indicates that Hararah rejected the State’s “best offer” and independently decided to waive the preliminary hearing and proceed to trial, so we cannot agree that the court forced his waiver. Hararah also asserts that his defense counsel (Counsel[2]) provided ineffective assistance for not objecting to the court’s allegedly problematic statements, as well as for telling the jury, during opening statements at trial, that they would not hear that Hararah had punched the victim, when the victim went on to testify that he did so. We do not agree that his counsel performed deficiently in either respect, so we affirm.

BACKGROUND

¶2        After police responded to an argument between Hararah and his then-girlfriend, Hararah was charged with assault, with a domestic violence enhancement. The Information alleged that Hararah “threw a potted plant at his girlfriend[,] striking her in the face and causing a cut above her eye.” As a result, the district court issued a no-contact order against Hararah. At a hearing to review the no-contact order, held in July 2020, the following exchange took place between Hararah, the district court, and Counsel:

Counsel:  Judge, do you want to keep [the next hearing] on the 28th? I think that at this point, I’ve discussed a plea with Mr. Hararah and it looks like we’re probably going to be setting it for a preliminary hearing.

District Court:  Well, let’s go ahead and . . . take it on the 28th and see—Mr. Hararah, do you understand if you go to preliminary hearing, you’re going to trial on the original charges? I won’t allow a plea negotiation after that.

Hararah:  Yes, Your Honor.

District Court:  Okay. Well, you think long and hard on that and I’ll talk to you on the 28th. Thank you.

¶3        The minutes for the next hearing, held in August 2020, indicate that “[t]he defendant request[ed] a Preliminary Hearing” and that “the [c]ourt set[] this matter for Preliminary Hearing.”

¶4        In court on the date set for the preliminary hearing, in September 2020, Counsel said, “I’ve had a chance to speak with Mr. Hararah, [and] he’s willing to waive his right to a preliminary hearing and we can set the case for trial—for the next step.” Then the following exchange took place:

District Court:  So you talked to [Counsel] about what a preliminary hearing is[,] right?

Hararah:  Yes.

District Court:  Okay. And you are, in fact, willing to waive your rights to a preliminary hearing and allow the matter to be bound over; is that correct?

Hararah:  Yes.

District Court:  Very good. I will go ahead and allow the waiver[;] I’ll bind the matter over. How long do you think you need to have discussions, [Counsel]?

Counsel:  Your Honor, I think that the best offer has been made and Mr. Hararah  has had a chance to discuss it, and I think we’re just going to need to figure out when we can get it on for a trial as soon as possible in front of a jury.

Later in the hearing, the district court added,

District Court: [W]e will have a trial as soon as possible. And seeing as we did not go to prelim, we could still have discussions regarding, you know, some other outcome to the . . . litigation.

¶5        The case eventually went to trial, and during opening statements, Counsel said to the jury, “You will not hear any testimony about [Hararah] punching [the alleged victim] . . . . [Y]ou’ll hear . . . that the only item that he had to protect himself from [a] taser [the alleged victim held] was the plant that was on the floor. And he picked it up and he threw it so that he could get out . . . .”

¶6        But when the victim testified, she stated that Hararah had hit her through a pillow. She testified that the pair had been drinking and started arguing when “[a] verbal argument turned into a physical [one].” She said, “I had tried knocking over his drink. I knew the conversation wasn’t ending anywhere. He ended up on top of me hitting me.” She described how she tried to leave the room but “was hit in the face” with “a pillow and his fist.” She clarified that “he was punching [her] and hitting [her] through the pillow.”

¶7        Later in the trial and outside the presence of the jury, Counsel objected to “the uncharged misconduct that we’ve now heard about for the first time today, which is this witness . . . now saying that she was punched in the face by Mr. Hararah prior to the throwing of the plant.” Counsel asserted, “That is nowhere in the State’s discovery. It is not in the officer’s report, it isn’t anywhere in the body cam. And so what we are now entertaining is the fact that these jurors can . . . believe that the bruising on her face comes from those punches rather than from the plant.” Counsel explained why this was problematic: “We don’t have the ability to bring in a rebuttal expert to say, ‘Hey, do you think these bruis[es] came from punching or . . . from a plant?’ So, I maintain that [this] is prejudicial.” The trial court responded, “I’ve previously ruled during the course of the trial that I would allow the testimony as long as it was consecutive to the day . . . in question [and] I would allow testimony from . . . the witness about the arguing and the conduct that happened during that date in question.”

¶8        The State went on to call the deputy who had arrested Hararah. On cross-examination, he testified that “[t]he only assault [he] was aware of was the plant being thrown,” and he agreed that if the victim had “mentioned being punched in the face, [he] would have put that in [his] report.” In closing arguments, Counsel portrayed the victim as an unreliable witness based on the inconsistencies between her previous accounts of what happened and her trial testimony.

¶9        Ultimately, the jury found Hararah guilty of domestic violence-related assault. Hararah now appeals.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶10 Hararah presents two issues on appeal. First, he asserts that the district court erred “when it coerced [him] into waiving his right to a preliminary hearing by threatening to not allow him to accept a plea bargain from the State if he exercised his fundamental right to a preliminary hearing.” He argues that this error “violated Article I, Section 13 and Article V, Section 1 of the Utah Constitution; Utah Rules of Criminal Procedure 7(e) and 11(i); and our adversarial system of justice.” Hararah admits that this “issue was not preserved,” but he claims that “either the exceptional circumstances exception or the plain error exception applies here.”

¶11      Second, Hararah asserts that Counsel provided ineffective assistance in two respects: (1) by “fail[ing] to object to the district court coercing [Hararah] into waiving his fundamental right to a preliminary hearing” and (2) by telling the jury “during opening statements that the jury would not hear any testimony about the alleged victim being punched.” “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 [the appellate court] must decide whether the defendant was deprived of the effective assistance of counsel as a matter of law.” State v. Reid, 2018 UT App 146, ¶ 17, 427 P.3d 1261 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 432 P.3d 1225 (Utah 2018).

ANALYSIS

  1. Preliminary Hearing Waiver

¶12      Hararah argues that the district court “violated [his] rights . . . when it—by threatening to prevent him from accepting a plea deal from the State—forced him to waive his right to a preliminary hearing.” Hararah acknowledges that he did not object or otherwise preserve this argument. He argues that either the plain error exception or the exceptional circumstances exception applies. But Hararah cannot prevail under either theory.

  1. Plain Error

¶13      To show plain error, “a defendant must establish that (i) an error exists; (ii) the error should have been obvious to the trial court; and (iii) the error is harmful, i.e., absent the error, there is a reasonable likelihood of a more favorable outcome for the appellant, or phrased differently, our confidence in the verdict is undermined.” State v. Holgate, 2000 UT 74, ¶ 13, 10 P.3d 346 (cleaned up).

¶14      We first address Hararah’s argument that the district court erred by “coercing” or “forcing” him to waive his right to the preliminary hearing. Hararah takes issue with the district court’s statement made at the July 2020 hearing: “Mr. Hararah, do you understand if you go to preliminary hearing, you’re going to trial on the original charges? I won’t allow a plea negotiation after that.” The advisability of this comment[3] is immaterial here because the record indicates that Hararah chose to waive his right to a preliminary hearing for reasons unrelated to the district court’s statement. In other words, the record is clear that the court did not, in fact, force or coerce Hararah to waive the preliminary hearing because he made an independent choice to waive it.

¶15      At the outset of the September 2020 hearing, Counsel said, “I’ve had a chance to speak with Mr. Hararah, [and] he’s willing to waive his right to a preliminary hearing and we can set the case for trial—for the next step.” Critically, Counsel also said during that hearing that “the best offer has been made and Mr. Hararah has had a chance to discuss it, and I think we’re just going to need to figure out when we can get [the case set] for a trial as soon as possible in front of a jury.”

¶16 We make much of the fact that Hararah waived his preliminary hearing in the same hearing in which he expressed his rejection of the State’s “best” plea offer. This shows that Hararah’s waiver was not based on the possibility of future bargaining or a fear that he would not be able to accept a plea deal if he had a preliminary hearing. Counsel did not indicate that Hararah anticipated any plea bargain better than the one the State had offered—as the plea bargain offered was already the “best offer” possible; instead, Counsel represented that Hararah had considered the offer and had decided to proceed to trial rather than accept the offered bargain. And Counsel did not mention the idea that the preliminary hearing was being waived to keep open the prospect of a future plea deal.

¶17      Hararah fails to provide us with any evidence supporting a belief that his independent desire to proceed to trial—after rejecting the State’s “best offer”—was not what drove his decision to waive his right to a preliminary hearing. If Hararah had represented in any way that he was forgoing the preliminary hearing because he was planning to accept a plea deal or wanted to keep his options open, the case before us would be quite different. But instead, the record demonstrates that Hararah was forgoing the preliminary hearing after having fully considered and rejected the State’s best offer and with the goal of going to trial as soon as possible. Accordingly, Hararah has not shown that any error took place, because there is no indication that the district court’s comment had any effect on Hararah’s actions.

¶18      Similarly, the district court’s post-waiver statement that “seeing as we did not go to prelim, we could still have discussions regarding, you know, some other outcome to the . . . litigation” had no bearing on Hararah’s decision to waive his right to a preliminary hearing. At that point, Hararah had already made his decision to forgo the preliminary hearing, and he had also already rejected the State’s best plea offer.

¶19      Furthermore, even if we assume that the district court’s comments alone—rather than Hararah’s counterfactual claimed reliance on them—constituted error, Hararah has not met his burden on plain error review to show prejudice. The record shows that Hararah would have taken the same course of action whether or not the district court made the comments at issue. The same facts discussed above indicate that even if the statements had never been uttered, Hararah would have been presented with and rejected the State’s “best offer” and would have wanted to move as quickly as possible toward trial, including waiving his preliminary hearing. Accordingly, Hararah’s claim on this point fails.[4]

¶20      Moreover, even if “an error exist[ed]” that “should have been obvious to the [district] court,” Holgate, 2000 UT 74, ¶ 13 (cleaned up), any such error was cured by Hararah’s conviction by a jury, see State v. Aleh, 2015 UT App 195, ¶¶ 13–18, 357 P.3d 12, cert. denied, 366 P.3d 1213 (Utah 2016). In Aleh, a defendant “contend[ed] that the trial court erred in denying his motion to withdraw the waiver of his right to a preliminary hearing.” Id. ¶ 13. This court determined that because the “sole purpose” of a preliminary hearing is “determining whether probable cause exists,” “an error at the preliminary stage is cured if the defendant is later convicted beyond a reasonable doubt.” Id. ¶¶ 14–15 (cleaned up). And “[t]his is so even when the error consists of a complete deprivation of a preliminary hearing.” Id. ¶ 16.[5] “Because conviction beyond a reasonable doubt cures any flaw in a preliminary hearing—including the complete deprivation of a preliminary hearing—it necessarily cures any error the [district] court may have made in accepting a defendant’s waiver of the right to a preliminary hearing.” Id. ¶ 18.[6] “Accordingly, [Hararah’s] conviction of all charges beyond a reasonable doubt cured any possible error attending his waiver of a preliminary hearing.” See id.

¶21      Ultimately, Hararah’s argument of plain error fails.

  1. Exceptional Circumstances Doctrine

¶22      We apply the exceptional circumstances doctrine “to reach an unpreserved issue where a rare procedural anomaly has either prevented an appellant from preserving an issue or excuses a failure to do so.” State v. Johnson, 2017 UT 76, ¶ 29, 416 P.3d 443 (cleaned up). Hararah argues that “[b]ecause it is procedurally uncommon in Utah to have a district court force a criminal defendant to waive his constitutional right to a preliminary hearing, a rare procedural anomaly occurred.”

¶23      But the claimed procedural anomaly did not actually occur. Hararah’s argument points to the presumed effect of the district court’s statements (namely, “forc[ing]” Hararah “to waive his constitutional right to a preliminary hearing”) rather than the mere occurrence of the statements as the “rare procedural anomaly.” But as we have explained, Hararah was not forced into waiving his right to a preliminary hearing, because he chose to waive that right for reasons independent from the district court’s comments. The absence of an actual “rare procedural anomaly” alone defeats Hararah’s argument as to the applicability of the exceptional circumstances doctrine, but this is not all.

¶24     Even if we assume that the district court’s statements constituted a “rare procedural anomaly,” Hararah would need to show that they “either prevented [him] from preserving an issue or excuse[d] a failure to do so.” See id. Hararah does not attempt to explain what prevented him from objecting to the district court’s statements and thereby preserving the issue. In reality, there was nothing preventing him from doing so. Hararah could have objected when the district court made the first statement at the July 2020 hearing. But this is not a case where a defendant had only one opportunity to object to an alleged error. Hararah could have taken time to review the issue and objected during the August 2020 hearing. Or he could have objected after the district court’s follow-up comment at the September 2020 hearing. Furthermore, before trial, Hararah could have filed a motion to withdraw his waiver. On this record, Hararah had time and multiple opportunities to object or preserve this issue, and he did not do so.

¶25      Moreover, we are not convinced that Hararah’s failure to preserve the issue is excusable. While we recognize the fundamental nature of the preliminary hearing and we protect defendants’ constitutional rights to preliminary hearings, we also recognize that a defendant has the constitutionally guaranteed right to waive the preliminary hearing. See Utah Const. art. I, § 13 (protecting the right to a preliminary hearing “unless the examination be waived by the accused with the consent of the State”); see also, e.g.Hafen v. State, 2011 UT App 85, ¶¶ 3–4, 249 P.3d 1006 (per curiam) (“[The defendant] filed his petition asserting that he was deprived of his preliminary hearing. . . . The petition was inconsistent with and [superseded] by [the defendant’s] waiver. [The defendant] was not deprived of any right to a preliminary hearing.” (cleaned up)). Waiving a preliminary hearing may have negative implications, but this reality does not invalidate a qualifying waiver. See State v. Bragg, 2013 UT App 282, ¶ 40, 317 P.3d 452 (“[The defendant] waived his right to a preliminary hearing, [forgoing] one opportunity to explore the exact nature of the charges against him and resolve any confusion about what those charges entailed.”). While Hararah may, in retrospect, have benefitted from taking the opportunity to develop the victim’s testimony at the preliminary hearing, this does not invalidate his waiver. And his regrets do not excuse his failure to preserve this issue. Therefore, the exceptional circumstances doctrine does not apply.

  1. Ineffective Assistance

¶26 Hararah also asserts that Counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to object to the district court’s comments discussed above and by informing the jury in opening statements that it would not hear that Hararah had punched the victim.

¶27      “To prevail on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, [a defendant] must demonstrate that (1) [the defendant’s] counsel’s performance was deficient in that it fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and (2) the deficient performance prejudiced the defense.” State v. Streeper, 2022 UT App 147, ¶ 34, 523 P.3d 710 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 527 P.3d 1106 (Utah 2023); see also Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984). The first prong of this test “requires showing that counsel made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as the ‘counsel’ guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687. “[T]he defendant must show that counsel’s representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.” Id. at 688.

¶28      The second prong “requires showing that counsel’s errors were so serious as to deprive the defendant of a fair trial, a trial whose result is reliable.” Id. at 687. “When a defendant challenges a conviction, the question is whether there is a reasonable probability that, absent the errors, the factfinder would have had a reasonable doubt respecting guilt.” Id. at 695. “Because failure to establish either prong of the test is fatal to an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, we are free to address [a defendant’s] claims under either prong.” Honie v. State, 2014 UT 19, ¶ 31, 342 P.3d 182.

¶29      We can easily dismiss Hararah’s first assertion of ineffective assistance. As discussed above, Hararah did not provide any evidence that he intended to accept a plea deal and that he based his waiver of the right to a preliminary hearing on such a plan.[7] Counsel was aware of Hararah’s feelings toward the choice between pleading or going to trial and stated repeatedly that Hararah was not interested in pleading guilty or accepting a plea bargain. Accordingly, Hararah has not persuaded us that any comments from the district court related to plea negotiations would have affected his plans at all, so Counsel acted reasonably in choosing not to object to such comments. In other words, the district court’s comments bore no impact on Hararah’s actions, so there was no tactical reason for Counsel to act as Hararah retroactively desires. “In evaluating trial counsel’s performance, 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. Liti, 2015 UT App 186, ¶ 18, 355 P.3d 1078 (cleaned up). Here Counsel acted in line with Hararah’s clear desire to proceed toward trial.

¶30      Additionally, for the same reasons described above, we are convinced that Hararah was not prejudiced by this alleged deficiency in performance. Hararah asserts that “[t]here is a reasonable likelihood that if [he] had been allowed to exercise his right to a preliminary hearing,” his case would have ended differently. But Hararah was able to exercise his right to a preliminary hearing. We have already explained why the district court’s alleged carrot—permitting Hararah the possibility of accepting a plea deal—was no carrot at all based on his express refusal of the State’s “best offer” and his desire to proceed to trial. Hararah’s claim might have some foundation if he had proceeded with a preliminary hearing and the court had, in fact, restricted his ability to negotiate a plea deal or even if he had accepted a plea bargain after waiving the preliminary hearing. But given that he clearly and consistently conveyed his desire to go to trial, that he was offered the “best” plea deal and refused it, and that his conviction by a jury at trial was in no way influenced by the district court’s earlier comments on waiving the preliminary hearing, we are not persuaded that the outcome would have been any different if Counsel had objected. See Strickland, 466 U.S. at 695. Therefore, Hararah cannot show ineffective assistance on this point.

¶31      Hararah’s second allegation of ineffective assistance is also unavailing. Hararah asserts that Counsel performed deficiently by saying in opening statements that the jury would “not hear any testimony about [Hararah] punching [the alleged victim],” when the victim went on to testify that Hararah had, in fact, hit her through a pillow. Hararah argues that Counsel should not have made such a promise without first “lock[ing] in” the victim’s testimony during a preliminary hearing. But, as discussed above, Hararah waived the preliminary hearing of his own free will. And it is clear that neither side was aware the victim would testify that Hararah hit her, because the deputy testified that he did not know of any assault other than Hararah throwing the plant. Accordingly, we do not fault Counsel for making a statement in line with all the known facts, and we conclude that Counsel’s actions are not nearly “so serious that counsel was not functioning as the ‘counsel’ guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment.” Id. at 687.

¶32      Furthermore, Hararah was not prejudiced by this allegedly deficient performance. Counsel was able to paint the victim as an unreliable witness based on the inconsistencies between her previous accounts of what happened and her trial testimony. And Counsel elicited testimony from the State’s own witness that there were no allegations of punching prior to trial. Accordingly, Hararah was in a strong position to counter the State’s case, and the jury still found him guilty of assault. From this, we see no support for “a reasonable probability that, absent the errors, the factfinder would have had a reasonable doubt respecting guilt.” Id. at 695.

CONCLUSION

¶33       Hararah’s claim that the district court coerced him into waiving his preliminary hearing is not supported by the record, so the exceptional circumstances doctrine does not apply and the court also did not plainly err. Additionally, Hararah’s assertion of ineffective assistance of counsel fails. Therefore, we affirm Hararah’s conviction.

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In re K.R. – 2023 UT App 75 – termination of parental rights vs. guardianship

In re K.R. – 2023 UT App 75

 

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF K.R. AND R.B.,

PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

R.S.,

Appellant,

v.

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee.

Per Curiam Opinion

No. 20230255-CA

Filed July 13, 2023

Third District Juvenile Court, Salt Lake Department

The Honorable Monica Diaz

No. 1207437

Kelton Reed and Lisa Lokken

Attorneys for Appellant

Sean D. Reyes, John M. Peterson, and Carol L.C.

Verdoia, Attorneys for Appellee

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

Before JUDGES MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, DAVID N.

MORTENSEN, and AMY J. OLIVER.

PER CURIAM:

 

¶1        R.S. (Mother) appeals the juvenile court’s order terminating her parental rights with respect to K.R. (Brother) and R.B. (Sister) (collectively, the children). Mother alleges the juvenile court exceeded its discretion in determining that it was strictly necessary to terminate her rights rather than awarding permanent custody and guardianship to the children’s maternal grandmother (Grandmother). We affirm.

¶2        In January 2022, the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) received a report that Mother was using drugs and neglecting Sister, who was an infant at the time. Four-year-old Brother was already living with Grandmother, and DCFS soon placed Sister with Grandmother as well.

¶3        Following a disposition hearing, the Court set a primary goal of reunification and set up a child and family plan. Mother received an initial substance abuse and mental health assessment but made no progress toward receiving treatment. She took only five of ninety-six required drug tests and tested positive on all five.

¶4        Nevertheless, Mother continued to demonstrate an attachment to the children. She participated in visits with the children on a bi-weekly basis, although she did miss some visits and had not seen the children for several weeks prior to the termination trial. The visits were supervised by a DCFS caseworker (Caseworker), and the children had to travel six-and-a-half hours round trip to attend. On some occasions, Mother cancelled visits without notifying Grandmother, leading the children to make the trip unnecessarily. Brother became upset when Mother missed visits with him.

¶5        Early on, Caseworker observed Mother having “inappropriate conversations” with Brother regarding Grandmother, such as telling him that Grandmother was not properly caring for him. Caseworker would redirect Mother to more appropriate topics, and “with reminders, this behavior . . . stopped.” Mother engaged with the children during visits and planned activities for them to do together.

¶6      Grandmother and Mother used to have a good relationship, but it had deteriorated due to Mother’s drug use and the DCFS case. According to Grandmother, Brother’s behavior would “deregulate[] for a couple days” after visits with Mother and he would become belligerent toward Grandmother. Mother would send Grandmother insulting text messages, and she had trouble respecting boundaries Grandmother set. Both women indicated they would not be comfortable “co-parenting” with one another.

¶7        Following the termination trial, the juvenile court found several grounds for termination, which Mother does not challenge on appeal. The court then turned to the best interest analysis, including the question of whether termination of parental rights was strictly necessary.

¶8        The court considered whether awarding permanent guardianship to Grandmother was an alternative to termination that could “equally protect and benefit the children.” However, the court ultimately determined that termination was strictly necessary for the following reasons:

·         Mother and Grandmother “do not have a relationship” and are “unable to communicate regarding the children’s needs and wellbeing.” And while Grandmother attempts to set reasonable boundaries, Mother does not respect them. Mother herself acknowledged that “having her and [Grandmother] co-parent would not be healthy for the children.”

·         Mother had a history of making inappropriate comments regarding Grandmother to Brother during parent time. These comments led Brother to become belligerent toward Grandmother following visits. Although Mother had stopped making such comments at the direction of Caseworker, the court was concerned that she would “revert to making these comments, without the oversight of the Division.” The court found that pitting the children against their caregiver in this way was “unhealthy” for their “emotional development and wellbeing.”

·         Visits with Mother “are emotionally hard on the children.” Brother experiences behavioral problems after visits with Mother.

·        The children have to travel six-and-a-half hours round trip to visit Mother. Because Mother does not communicate with Grandmother, she does not let her know when she is unable to attend visits. This has led the children to “endure the travel time needlessly.” Additionally, it is emotionally hard on Brother when Mother misses visits. The long travel time, emotional harm due to missed visits, and Mother’s inability to communicate with Grandmother combine to undermine the children’s stability. “They need to know that their relationships are stable and that they can count on the adults in their lives. . . . [Mother] missing visits undermines and disregards the children’s psychological and emotional security.”

·        The children are happy and thriving in Grandmother’s care. She addresses their physical, mental, developmental, and emotional needs. The children are bonded to their extended family, which consists of Grandmother’s husband and other children living in Grandmother’s home. The children “need a permanent home,” and “[f]rom the children’s point of view, that home is [Grandmother’s] home.”

Based on these factors, the court found that termination of Mother’s parental rights was “strictly necessary from the children’s point of view.”

¶9        Mother challenges the juvenile court’s determination that termination of her rights was strictly necessary. “Whether a parent’s rights should be terminated presents a mixed question of law and fact.” In re B.W., 2022 UT App 131, ¶ 45, 521 P.3d 896 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 525 P.3d 1269 (Utah 2023). “We will overturn a termination decision only if the juvenile court either failed to consider all of the facts or considered all of the facts and its decision was nonetheless against the clear weight of the evidence.” Id. (quotation simplified).

¶10 Mother asserts (1) that the court did not appropriately weigh certain evidence and (2) that the court inappropriately focused on the needs of the adults rather than the children by basing its decision on Mother and Grandmother’s inability to “coparent” the children.

¶11      Before terminating a parent’s rights, the court must find that termination is “strictly necessary to promote the child’s best interest.” In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 60, 472 P.3d 827. And this analysis must be undertaken from the child’s point of view. See Utah Code § 80-4-301(1); In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 64. “Termination is strictly necessary only when, after exploring possible placements for the child, the juvenile court concludes that no other feasible options exist that could address the specific problems or issues facing the family, short of imposing the ultimate remedy of terminating the parent’s rights.” In re J.P., 2021 UT App 134, ¶ 15, 502 P.3d 1247 (quotation simplified). “If the child can be equally protected and benefited by an option other than termination, termination is not strictly necessary.” Id. (quotation simplified).

¶12      The strictly necessary analysis “is designed to ensure that the court pause long enough to thoughtfully consider the range of available options that could promote the child’s welfare and best interest.” In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 69. “[I]f a court has complied with its statutory obligations, its resultant best interest determination is entitled to deference.” In re B.W., 2022 UT App 131, ¶ 69. Thus, a parent’s mere dissatisfaction “with the manner in which the juvenile court weighed the evidence . . . has no traction on appeal.” In re J.P., 2021 UT App 134, ¶ 23.

¶13      Mother argues that the court’s finding that Brother was upset when she missed visits should weigh against a finding that termination was strictly necessary. She also asserts that the court should have given more weight to her recent history of stopping her inappropriate comments to Brother rather than inferring that she was likely to resume such comments in the future. These arguments ultimately take issue with “the manner in which the juvenile court weighed the evidence” rather than its compliance with its statutory mandate. See id. The court’s findings are entitled to deference, and we will not disturb them on appeal. See In re B.W., 2022 UT App 131, ¶ 69.

¶14      Mother next asserts that the court’s focus on her and Grandmother’s inability to “co-parent” the children was inappropriate and led it to consider the strictly necessary analysis from the adults’ perspective rather than the children’s perspective. See Utah Code § 80-4-301(1) (dictating that the strictly necessary analysis must be undertaken from the child’s point of view). Mother argues that a permanent custody and guardianship order does not result in “co-parenting” but rather involves “the Guardian call[ing] the shots” while “the parent has a handful of residual rights.” We take Mother’s point that co-parenting may not have been quite the right term to use in describing the relationship between a parent and a permanent guardian.[1] However, we are more concerned with the substance of the court’s analysis than the term it used. And that analysis indicates that the court’s true concern was whether it was in the children’s best interests to be pitted between a parent and guardian who could neither cooperate nor communicate with one another.

¶15      “[L]ong-term guardianship arrangements are typically only in a child’s best interest where the guardians and the parent have a working, relatively healthy relationship in which they are both willing to work together to preserve the parent-child relationship and where the child has a healthy relationship with both the guardian and the parent.” In re J.P., 2021 UT App 134, ¶ 22 (quotation simplified). Thus, when a parent and guardian have “little to no relationship,” the particular circumstances of the case may indicate that permanent custody and guardianship will not meet the children’s needs as well as termination of parental rights. See id. That is what the juvenile court found here, and such a finding was not an abuse of its discretion under the circumstances.

¶16      Furthermore, we are not convinced that the juvenile court inappropriately conducted the strictly necessary analysis from the adults’ point of view rather than that of the children. The court explicitly discussed the effect Mother and Grandmother’s inability to cooperate had on the children, finding that being put in the middle of the conflict was “unhealthy” for the children’s “emotional development and wellbeing” and undermined their stability, that the children suffered when Mother did not communicate with Grandmother about missing visits, and that Mother herself acknowledged that the conflict was “unhealthy” for the children. These findings indicate that the court considered the conflict between Mother and Grandmother from the children’s point of view in determining that the conflict made termination of Mother’s rights strictly necessary.

¶17      The juvenile court here carefully considered whether the children could be equally benefited and protected by a permanent custody and guardianship arrangement as opposed to termination of Mother’s parental rights. It also made detailed findings in support of its determination that termination was strictly necessary from the children’s point of view. Accordingly, the juvenile court’s decision to terminate Mother’s parental rights is affirmed.

 

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[1] Nevertheless, as the guardian ad litem observes, it is not apparent from the record that Mother was “up to the tasks involved with residual parental rights,” given that she has not paid child support, has not respected the boundaries Grandmother has put in place, has not progressed past supervised visitation, and has disappointed the children by failing to communicate about missed visits.

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2023 UT 11 – In Re C.D.S. And W.E.S – Appeal of Termination Parental Rights

2023 UT 11 – In re C.D.S. and W.E.S

IN THE SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF UTAH

STATE OF UTAH, in the interest of C.D.S. and W.E.S.,

persons under eighteen years of age.

A.S.,

Petitioner,

v.

STATE OF UTAH,

Respondent.

No. 20220580

Heard February 10, 2023

Filed June 8, 2023

On Certiorari to the Utah Court of Appeals

Eighth District Juvenile, Uintah County

The Honorable Ryan B. Evershed

Nos. 1178352, 1184710

Utah Court of Appeals, Salt Lake

No. 20220100

Attorneys:

K. Andrew Fitzgerald, Moab, for petitioner,

Sean D. Reyes, Att’y Gen., Carol L. C. Verdoia, John M. Peterson,

Asst. Atty’s Gen., Salt Lake City, for respondent

Martha Pierce, Salt Lake City, Guardian ad Litem for C.D.S.

and W.E.S.

ASSOCIATE CHIEF JUSTICE PEARCE authored the opinion of the Court,

in which CHIEF JUSTICE DURRANT, JUSTICE PETERSEN,

JUSTICE POHLMAN, and JUDGE CORNISH joined.

Having recused herself, JUSTICE HAGEN does not participate herein;

DISTRICT COURT JUDGE RITA M. CORNISH sat.

 

ASSOCIATE CHIEF JUSTICE PEARCE, opinion of the Court:

INTRODUCTION

¶1 The juvenile court terminated the parental rights of a mother and father. They each had fifteen days to appeal. Father appealed within that window. Mother filed her notice of appeal on the wrong side of the deadline. The court of appeals dismissed Mother’s appeal as untimely.

¶2 Mother argues that the court of appeals erred for a couple of reasons. We reject Mother’s argument that a minute entry that came after the court signed the final order restarted the clock on her time to appeal. But we agree with her that Utah Rule of Appellate Procedure 52(c)—together with Father’s timely appeal—extended her time to file a notice of appeal. We reverse and remand to the court of appeals.

BACKGROUND

¶3 In September 2019, the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) petitioned the juvenile court to remove two-year-old Chester from Mother and Father’s custody. At the time, Mother was pregnant with their second child, Winnie.[1]

¶4 The juvenile court placed Chester in the temporary custody of his aunt and uncle. The court also ordered DCFS to provide Mother and Father with reunification services.

¶5 After Winnie was born, DCFS initially allowed Winnie to stay with Mother and Father. A few months after Winnie’s birth, however, DCFS filed a “Motion for Expedited Placement and Temporary Custody” for Winnie. From the beginning of 2020 to the beginning of 2021, the juvenile court conducted several permanency and review hearings for the children. At the end of 2020, the court authorized Chester to live with Mother and Father in a trial home placement.

¶6 At a hearing a few months later, the juvenile court determined that, while Mother and Father had substantially complied with the reunification plan, reunification was not likely to be appropriate within the next ninety days. The court terminated DCFS’s reunification services and changed the children’s primary permanency goal from reunification to adoption.

¶7 In November 2021, the juvenile court held a trial. At the trial’s conclusion, the court indicated that it would enter an order terminating Mother’s and Father’s parental rights.

¶8 The juvenile court entered the written termination order (Termination Order) on January 7, 2022, which terminated Mother’s and Father’s parental rights. In it, the court detailed the grounds it relied upon to terminate Mother’s and Father’s parental rights. The juvenile court found that DCFS made reasonable efforts to provide reunification services to Mother and Father, and found that it was in the best interest of the children for Mother’s and Father’s parental rights to be terminated and for the children to be adopted.

¶9 The Termination Order stated: “This is a final and appealable order. There will be no further order after this as related to the parent’s [sic] parental rights.” It also informed Mother and Father that they had “15 days from the signing of this order to file a Notice of Appeal with the Juvenile Court.”[2]

¶10 On January 10, 2022, the juvenile court filed a minute entry titled “Minutes.”[3] The Minutes contained a condensed recitation of what had occurred at trial. Among other particulars, it detailed who was present in the courtroom, the names of those who testified, and the exhibits the court entered into evidence. The Minutes also contained several findings of fact and ordered the termination of Mother’s and Father’s parental rights.

¶11 On January 24, 2022, Father filed his notice of appeal.[4] On January 25, Mother’s trial counsel filed a notice of appeal.

¶12 The court of appeals determined that Mother’s appeal was not filed within fifteen days of the Termination Order, as Utah Rule of Appellate Procedure 52(a) requires. The panel dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction. This court granted certiorari review.

¶13 Mother contends that her appeal was timely filed for at least one of two reasons. Mother first points to the Minutes that the court filed several days after it entered the written termination order. Mother argues that the minute entry constitutes a new appealable order and that she had fifteen days from the entry of that order to file her notice of appeal. The State and the guardian ad litem disagree.

¶14 Mother next asserts that the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure allow her to file a notice of appeal within five days of Father’s timely filed notice. Rule 52(c) states that after a party files a notice of appeal, “any other party” may file its notice of appeal within five days. Mother asserts that she is “any other party” within the rule’s meaning. The State largely agrees with Mother’s argument. The guardian ad litem does not.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶15 “Whether jurisdiction is proper is a legal question that we review for correctness . . . .” State ex rel. A.C.M., 2009 UT 30, ¶ 6, 221 P.3d 185. The court of appeals based its decision on an interpretation of the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure. “The interpretation of a rule of procedure is a question of law that we review for correctness.” Arbogast Family Tr. v. River Crossings, LLC, 2010 UT 40, ¶ 10, 238 P.3d 1035 (cleaned up).

ANALYSIS

I. THE MINUTE ENTRY DID NOT EXTEND MOTHER’S TIME TO APPEAL

¶16 The court of appeals held that it lacked jurisdiction over Mother’s appeal because it was filed outside the fifteen-day timeframe that Utah Rule of Appellate Procedure 52(c) provides. Mother argues that the court of appeals erred when it calculated the fifteen-day period from the entry of the Termination Order and not the subsequently entered Minutes. Mother argues that she is entitled to appeal from the Minutes and that her notice of appeal of that ruling was timely filed.

¶17 The State and the guardian ad litem argue that the court of appeals correctly held that the minute entry was not a separately appealable order. The State claims that the Minutes were “a mere ministerial document from which the judgment must be drawn” and that the minute entry was not an appealable order because it “was a belated entry that did not modify or change the substance of the Termination Order.” The guardian ad litem similarly argues that the Termination Order “triggered the timing for the notice of appeal” and that the minute entry was an inconsequential “after-the-fact ministerial document[].”

¶18 The clock to file a notice of appeal starts when “the court directs that no additional order need be entered.” Giusti v. Sterling Wentworth Corp., 2009 UT 2, ¶ 35, 201 P.3d 966. There can be no doubt that the Termination Order met this test. The Order stated: “There will be no further order after this as related to the parent’s [sic] parental rights,” and informed Mother and Father that they had fifteen days to appeal.[5]

¶19 This statement in the Termination Order alone, of course, does not answer the question this case presents. Mother asks what the effect is of a subsequently entered order on the same topic as a final appealable order. This is a question that we answered long ago. If one order starts to run the time for appeal, the entry of another order does not restart the clock if the later entry does not change the substance of the first.

¶20 For example, in Adamson v. Brockbank, we held that the defendants could file their appeal from an order amending an original judgment, even though the date to file a timely appeal from the original order had already passed. Adamson v. Brockbank, 185 P.2d 264, 268 (Utah 1947). The amended order corrected an inconsistency in the original judgment. Id. This correction clarified the liability of a defendant, an alteration we held was significant enough to change the character of the judgment. Id. We articulated the principle that, “where a belated entry merely constitutes an amendment or modification not changing the substance or character of the judgment, such entry . . . relates back to the time the original judgment was entered.” Id.

¶21 We relied on this holding in State v. Garner, 2005 UT 6, 106 P.3d 729. There, a modification to an original judgment clarified the nature of the defendant’s conditional plea in greater detail. Id. ¶ 12. But this was “a redundant addition, not a material change” and thus did not extend the time for Garner’s appeal. Id.¶¶ 11, 13.

¶22 Here, the Minutes did not amend or modify the substance of the Termination Order. The Minutes recited short findings of fact and repeated the conclusion that the parental rights be terminated. It did not change the parents’ rights or the children’s status. The minute entry did not amend or modify the Termination Order, so the time to appeal ran from the entry of the Termination Order. The court of appeals did not err when it rejected Mother’s argument.

II. RULE 52(C) EXTENDED MOTHER’S TIME TO APPEAL

¶23 Mother also argues that the court of appeals incorrectly concluded that Father’s appeal, filed one day before Mother’s, did not extend Mother’s time to appeal. The court of appeals held that rule 52(c) of the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure “relates to cross-appeals, i.e., appeals filed by someone who has already been made a party to the appeal.” The court, therefore, held that Mother was “required to file her own timely appeal” because she “was not a party to Father’s appeal.”

¶24 Mother argues that rule 52(c) allows a party five days to file a notice of appeal from the date another party to the case files its notice of appeal.[6] The State agrees with Mother and contends the court of appeals incorrectly determined that “rule 52(c) did not render Mother’s notice of appeal timely.”[7] The State expresses uncertainty on whether Mother has initiated her own appeal or must be limited to the issues presented in Father’s appeal, but it still concludes that the “plain language of appellate rule 52(c) means that Mother has, at least, successfully initiated a cross-appeal.”[8]

¶25 “When we interpret a procedural rule, we do so according to our general rules of statutory construction.” Arbogast Family Tr. v. River Crossings, LLC, 2010 UT 40, ¶ 18, 238 P.3d 1035. In statutory construction, “our primary goal is to evince the true intent and purpose of the Legislature,” the “best evidence” of which “is the plain language of the statute itself.” Zilleruelo v. Commodity Transporters, Inc., 2022 UT 1, ¶ 18, 506 P.3d 509 (cleaned up). Thus, “[w]e interpret court rules, like statutes and administrative rules, according to their plain language.” Arbogast Family Tr., 2010 UT 40, ¶ 18 (cleaned up). Although we do this with the added wrinkle that, when we interpret the Utah Rules of Procedure, the intent we most often attempt to discern through the text is ours, and not the Legislature’s.

¶26 Rule 52(c) is straightforward: “If a timely notice of appeal is filed by a party, any other party may file a notice of appeal within 5 days after the first notice of appeal was filed.” UTAH R. APP. P. 52(c). Nothing in the language of the rule itself limits the phrase “any other party” the way the court of appeals did. That is, nothing in the plain text limits the rule’s reach to a party who is already part of the appeal.

¶27 The court of appeals’ reading of rule 52(c) appears to have been influenced by the rule’s title. We put the label “Time for cross-appeal” on that subsection. However, we have noted that “[t]he title of a statute is not part of the text of a statute, and absent ambiguity, it is generally not used to determine a statute’s intent.” Blaisdell v. Dentrix Dental Sys., Inc., 2012 UT 37, ¶ 10, 284 P.3d 616 (cleaned up). We are in what some would consider good company with that proposition. A prominent treatise on the topic counsels that a “title or heading should never be allowed to override the plain words of a text.” ANTONIN SCALIA & BRYAN A. GARNER, READING LAW: THE INTERPRETATION OF LEGAL TEXTS 222 (2012).[9]

¶28 It nevertheless appears the court of appeals relied on this title and imported the language “party to this appeal” into the rule, such that it would read: “If a timely notice of appeal is filed by a party, any other party [who was made party to the appeal] may file a notice of appeal within 5 days after the first notice of appeal was filed.” UTAH R. APP. P. 52(c).

¶29 As Mother points out, “[t]he rules do not define ‘a party’ as something different than those who were parties to the proceedings before the district or juvenile court.” The court of appeals’ dismissal incorrectly “would define ‘a party’ in the lower courts as different than ‘a party’ before the appellate courts on the same matter.”

¶30 Our reading of the rule is buttressed by how we understand rule 52(c) came to be. It is based on rule 4 of the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure, which is, in turn, based on rule 4(a)(3) of the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure.[10] See UTAH RULES OF APPELLATE PROCEDURE: WITH NOTES OF THE SUPREME COURT ADVISORY COMMITTEE 14 (1984) (on file with the Utah State Law Library) (stating that rule 4(d) “adopts substantially the time period and concept of cross-appeal in Rule 4(a)(3)” of the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure).

¶31 Rule 4(a)(3) of the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure gives a party fourteen days after another party appeals to file its appeal.[11] Wright and Miller’s treatise on federal procedure explains that rule 4(a)(3) allows any party to take advantage of the additional time to file a notice of appeal. “The 14-day provision is not limited to cross-appeals, and plainly encompasses appeals by other parties such as co-parties or third-party defendants.” 16A CHARLES ALAN WRIGHT & ARTHUR R. MILLER, FEDERAL PRACTICE & PROCEDURE: JURISDICTION § 3950.7 (5th ed. 2022) (Westlaw).[12]

¶32 This interpretation reflects the views of the advisory committee. When the committee recommended a substantive amendment to this rule, it noted:

The added time which may be made available by the operation of the provision is not restricted to cross appeals in the technical sense, i.e., to appeals by parties made appellees by the nature of the initial appeal. The exception permits any party to the action who is entitled to appeal within the time ordinarily prescribed to appeal within such added time as the sentence affords.

Advisory Committee Note to 1966 Amendments to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73(a), 39 F.R.D. 69, 131 (1966) (amending then rule 73(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a rule later incorporated into the appellate rules).

¶33 In other words, if Mother were in federal court, or in a non-child welfare case in a Utah court, her appeal would undoubtedly be timely filed under rules that in all aspects—other than title and time frame—mirror rule 52(c). The only part of rule 52(c) that suggests a different result is the title, and, as we have noted, we don’t use titles that way.

¶34 And here, there is additional reason to believe that we did not intend to use the rule’s title to work a substantive limitation on the rule’s text. In 2003, the Advisory Committee on the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure heard from an assistant attorney general in the Child Welfare Division who “described child welfare proceedings and the need to expedite appeals from parental rights terminations” to “help stabilize” children’s lives. Approved Minutes, SUPREME COURT’S ADVISORY COMMITTEE ON THE UTAH RULES OF APPELLATE PROCEDURE, ADMINISTRATIVE OFFICE OF THE COURTS (hereinafter Approved Minutes, SUPREME COURT’S ADVISORY COMMITTEE) (Nov. 19, 2003).

¶35 The need for speed was reiterated at a 2017 committee meeting, which discussed amendments to rule 52 and other child welfare appellate rules. The minutes of that meeting laid out that “[t]he purpose of these amendments is to expedite adoption and termination of parental rights appeals from the district courts and put them on the same footing as appeals from child welfare proceedings in the juvenile courts.” Approved Minutes, SUPREME COURT’S ADVISORY COMMITTEE (Sept. 7, 2017).

¶36 The rules committee also discussed the relationship between rule 52 and rule 4 when a member “proposed, and the committee agreed, that Rule 52 should be amended to make it consistent with the recent changes that were approved to Rule 4(b).” Approved Minutes, SUPREME COURT’S ADVISORY COMMITTEE (May 5, 2016). Thus, it appears the drive behind these rules was not to have rule 52(c) exclude certain appeals that rule 4 includes but to maintain the structure of rule 4 while expediting child welfare proceedings.[13]

¶37 The guardian ad litem offers a different interpretation of the rule than Mother, the State, and the court of appeals. She avers that Mother was a party to her own termination proceedings but was never, even at the district court level, a party to Father’s termination proceedings. The guardian ad litem thus contends that Mother was not “any party” in the context of the rule because she was not a party to the proceedings Father appealed.

¶38 The guardian ad litem supports this argument with something we said in State ex rel. A.C.M. There, we noted that we “treat the termination of each parent’s rights separately for purposes of finality and appealability.” State ex rel. A.C.M., 2009 UT 30, ¶ 12, 221 P.3d 185. The guardian ad litem in A.C.M. claimed that the order terminating the father’s parental rights was not a final order because the mother’s rights had not yet been terminated. Id. We reasoned that the order terminating the father’s rights was “final and appealable because it constitute[d] a change in the child’s status” with respect to the father. Id. That also prompted the observation on which the guardian ad litem relies.

¶39 We stand by the observation that we can treat the termination of each parent’s rights separately for the purposes of finality and appealability. But that is not to say that parents cannot be parties to the same case. And A.C.M. says nothing about the applicability of rule 52(c) when the system adjudicates both parents’ rights in the same action and addresses them in the same order.

¶40 The guardian ad litem claims that there was one termination proceeding for Father and a separate one for Mother—and that the juvenile court consolidated these cases without making either parent party to the other’s case. The record before us does not bear that out. A separate case was initiated relating to each child. Mother and Father were parties in both cases. The juvenile court consolidated Chester’s case and Winnie’s case, though each case maintained its own case number. The court did not—indeed, it could not— consolidate the parents’ cases, because those cases did not exist. The court conducted a single trial in which both Mother and Father presented evidence and arguments. That trial resulted in a single order that lists both Mother and Father as parties.

¶41 On these facts, we have no trouble concluding that Mother was “another party” within the meaning of Utah Rule of Appellate Procedure 52(c) and is entitled to the additional five days to file a notice of appeal.[14]

III. WE DECLINE TO ADDRESS MOTHER’S CLAIMS OF INEFFECTIVE ASSISTANCE OF COUNSEL

¶42 Mother spends a considerable portion of her brief arguing that her appeal should be considered timely because her counsel was ineffective for filing past the fifteen-day deadline. Mother also argues she was prejudiced by her denial of the right to appeal.

¶43 Mother asked us to grant certiorari review on this issue. We did not. We note for future reference that an order that does not grant certiorari on an issue is a pretty good signal that we do not intend to address the question.[15]

CONCLUSION

¶44 The court of appeals correctly ruled that the time for Mother to file her appeal ran from the entry of the Termination Order and not the subsequent Minutes. The court of appeals erred when it concluded that Utah Rule of Appellate Procedure 52(c) only applied to parties filing a cross-appeal. Mother timely filed her notice of appeal. We reverse and remand to the court of appeals to consider Mother’s appeal.

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

 

[1] Chester and Winnie are pseudonyms.

[2] The Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure provide the fifteen-day timeline in child welfare proceedings. Rule 52(a) states that in this setting, a notice of appeal “must be filed within 15 days of the entry of the order appealed from.” UTAH R. APP. P. 52(a).

[3] As we march through our analysis, we will refer to this document as both the minute entry and the Minutes.

[4] The fifteenth day was Saturday, January 22, 2022. By operation of rule 22(a) of the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure, which does not require parties to file on Saturdays and Sundays, the time for filing the petition was extended to the following Monday, January 24. See UTAH R. APP. P. 22(a).

[5] Mother questions whether our precedent on the finality of orders applies to child welfare proceedings. It generally does, though our rules and precedent make some distinction between child welfare and non-child welfare cases. For example, rule 58A of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure requires that “[e]very judgment and amended judgment must be set out in a separate document.” There is no such requirement in child welfare proceedings. See UTAH R. APP. P. 52(a); State ex rel. A.C.M., 2009 UT 30, ¶ 10, 221 P.3d 185. But no rule or precedent alters the conclusion that a belated entry or modification that does not change the substance of a final order does not create a new final and appealable order.

[6] Rule 52(c) of the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure, titled “Time for cross-appeal,” reads:

If a timely notice of appeal is filed by a party, any other party may file a notice of appeal within 5 days after the first notice of appeal was filed, or within the time otherwise prescribed by paragraphs (a) and (b) of this rule, whichever period last expires.

[7] The State—both in its briefs and during oral argument— acknowledges that rule 52(c)’s plain language supports Mother’s argument. We commend the State for its candor.

[8] The guardian ad litem disagrees for reasons we will discuss and dismiss in a page or two.

[9] That is not to say that titles are irrelevant. When “we need help understanding an ambiguous provision, titles are persuasive and can aid in ascertaining the statute’s correct interpretation and application.” Graham v. Albertson’s LLC, 2020 UT 15, ¶ 24, 462 P.3d 367 (cleaned up). We just don’t use titles to create ambiguity. This is because titles are generally shorthand descriptions of what is to follow and can miss some of the complexities of the text to come.

[10] Utah Rule of Appellate Procedure 4 states, in relevant part: “If 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.” UTAH R. APP. P. 4(d). Unlike rule 52(c), it gives “any other party” fourteen days (instead of five) to file an appeal. In addition, rule 4(d) is titled “Additional or cross-appeal” rather than “Time for cross-appeal.” Compare UTAH R. APP. P. 4(d), with UTAH R. APP. P. 52(c).

[11] The federal rule bears the title “Multiple Appeals.” FED. R. APP. P. 4(a)(3).

[12] Other treatises echo this understanding. See, e.g., JAMES WM. MOORE ET AL., MOORE’S FEDERAL PRACTICE: CIVIL § 304.11 (2023) (LexisNexis) (“This provision is not restricted, however, to parties named as appellees in the initial appeal.”); 18 BENDER’S FEDERAL PRACTICE FORMS, COMMENT ON APPELLATE RULE 4 (2022) (LexisNexis) (“This provision is not restricted to parties named as appellees in the initial appeal. Any party to the action is entitled to the benefit of the additional 14-day period.”). This is also the way several federal cases have interpreted the rule. See, e.g.N. A,ii. Sav. Ass’n v. Metroplex Dev. P’ship, 931 F.2d 1073, 1077–78 (5th Cir. 1991); Melton v. Frank, 891 F.2d 1054, 1056 n.1 (2d Cir. 1989); Jackson Jordan, Inc. v. Plasser A,ii. Corp., 725 F.2d 1373, 1374–76 (Fed. Cir. 1984).

[13] We encourage the Advisory Committee on the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure to look at clarifying the title so it better reflects the rule’s language and intent.

[14] 14 There is logic underlying rule 52(c). There may be occasions when a party’s calculus on whether to file an appeal may be impacted by another party’s decision to appeal. Using the facts of this case, for example—and we stress that this is a hypothetical and not a reflection of what we think actually occurred—it is entirely possible that a person in Mother’s position might decide not to appeal the termination of her parental rights if she thinks it will only delay adoption of the children. Mother’s thinking could dramatically change if her co-parent appeals and the possible outcomes include not only adoption, but restoration of Father’s parental rights and not hers. In that case, it makes sense that our rules would give Mother a few additional days to assess the changed landscape and decide whether to appeal.

[15] The guardian ad litem advocates that we task our rules committee with considering a new rule that would “reinstate the time for appeal in child welfare cases where a parent’s right to effective counsel is implicated.” We have previously recognized that a trial court may extend the time for appeal in a proceeding on termination of parental rights if a parent was denied effective assistance of counsel. State ex rel. M.M., 2003 UT 54, ¶¶ 6, 9, 82 P.3d 1104. But this is not the same as a rule that says the court shall reinstate the time for appeal when a parent can show that they have been denied effective representation. We encourage the Advisory Committee on the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure to explore such a rule, and we thank the guardian ad litem for the excellent suggestion.

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