BLANK

Tag: district court

In re J.T. – 2023 UT App 157

2023 UT App 157

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

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

PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

F.R.,

Appellant,

v.

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20220623-CA

Filed December 21, 2023

First District Juvenile Court, Brigham City Department

The Honorable Bryan Galloway

Nos. 1051672 and 1210454

Christopher A. Beins, Attorney for Appellant

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

Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

JUDGE JOHN D. LUTHY authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES DAVID N. MORTENSEN and RYAN M. HARRIS concurred.

LUTHY, Judge:

¶1        After minor children J.T. and A.T. were removed from the custody of their mother (Mother), their grandmother, F.R. (Grandmother), moved to intervene in the child welfare proceeding. The juvenile court ultimately denied Grandmother’s motion, and she appeals. We conclude that Grandmother should have been allowed to intervene but only as a limited-purpose party based on her statutory right to request preferential consideration for temporary placement of the children. We therefore reverse the juvenile court’s ruling on Grandmother’s intervention motion and remand this matter for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

BACKGROUND

¶2        J.T. and A.T. share the same mother but have different fathers. J.T.’s father passed away before the proceedings commenced. In 2021, J.T. turned eleven and A.T. turned eight. As of the time of the events relevant to this appeal, A.T.’s father was subject to an order that prohibited him from contacting A.T.

¶3        Grandmother is the children’s maternal grandmother. In September 2021, she filed a petition in the district court for the appointment of a guardian for J.T. In her petition, Grandmother alleged that Mother was “unwilling or unable to exercise her parental rights,” and Grandmother requested that she, Grandmother, be appointed as J.T.’s guardian.

¶4        The district court ordered Mother and Grandmother to mediation. The mediation resulted in a stipulation, filed in January 2022, under which Mother and Grandmother agreed for J.T., Mother, and Grandmother to each be evaluated by a therapist and to then “abide by the appointed therapist’s recommendations as a temporary order” until final resolution of the guardianship case. Under the stipulation, Mother and Grandmother were “required to cooperate in good faith and follow through with the requests made by the appointed therapist.”

¶5        Thereafter, the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) received repeated referrals raising concerns that J.T. and A.T. were being abused and neglected by Mother. In response to those referrals, in May 2022 (while the guardianship action remained pending in the district court), DCFS filed a petition in juvenile court alleging that J.T. and A.T. were “abused, neglected, and/or dependent children.” The children were then removed from Mother’s custody and placed in the temporary custody of DCFS.

¶6        At the ensuing shelter hearing, a temporary placement for the children was discussed. Mother and A.T.’s father objected to Grandmother as a temporary placement option. The juvenile court considered their objections and ordered DCFS to “conduct a reasonable search to determine whether there [were other] relatives of the children or friends of the parents of the children who [were] willing and appropriate to be considered for placement of the children.” The juvenile court was “reluctant to have the children placed with [Grandmother] based on . . . accusations that [had] been made and the history involved in this case,” and it stated that it did “not believe that a kinship placement [was] appropriate if the children [were] going to be kept together.”[1] Nonetheless, the juvenile court left the temporary placement decision “up to the discretion of [DCFS].”

¶7        Shortly after the shelter hearing, DCFS held a kinship meeting and considered all the placement options that had been identified, including placement with Grandmother. DCFS decided to place both children with A.T.’s paternal aunt and uncle.

¶8        Grandmother then filed a Motion to Intervene and for Kinship Placement in the child welfare proceeding. In support of her motion, Grandmother argued that she had a right to intervene under rule 24(a)(2) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure.[2] That rule requires, among other things, that the movant “claim[] an interest relating to the property or transaction that is the subject of the action” and that the movant be “so situated that disposing of the action may as a practical matter impair or impede the movant’s ability to protect its interest.” Utah R. Civ. P. 24(a)(2). Grandmother claimed to have three interests that relate to the subject of this child welfare action, each of which, she asserted, might be impaired or impeded by resolution of the action: (1) an interest related to potential grandparent visitation, (2) an interest related to her petition for guardianship of J.T., and (3) an interest related to her right to preferential consideration as a temporary kinship placement for the children.

¶9        The juvenile court acknowledged that Grandmother has “some statutory rights . . . through the child welfare proceeding,” including “the right to be given preferential treatment as it relates to placement.” But it found that none of Grandmother’s rights “would be compromised if she is not allowed to intervene as a party,” and it therefore denied Grandmother’s request to intervene. It also denied her request to be the children’s temporary kinship placement. Grandmother appeals the denial of her request to intervene in the child welfare proceeding.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶10      On appeal, Grandmother again contends that she has three interests related to this child welfare proceeding, that “her ability to pursue each of these interests was impaired or impeded by prior and prospective rulings in the child welfare case,” and that “[e]ach of these three distinct interests is thus sufficient to support her right to intervene under [r]ule 24(a)(2).”

¶11      As to Grandmother’s first two claimed interests—namely, her interest related to grandparent visitation and her interest related to her guardianship petition—we resolve this appeal under rule 24 and examine whether the claimed interests qualify under rule 24(a)(2) as “interest[s] relating to the property or transaction that is the subject of the [child welfare] action.” Utah R. Civ. P. 24(a)(2). “Whether the intervenor has claimed an interest relating to the property or transaction which is the subject of the action” is an issue that “we review for correctness.” Supernova Media, Inc. v. Pia Anderson Dorius Reynard & Moss, LLC, 2013 UT 7, ¶ 16, 297 P.3d 599 (cleaned up).

¶12 As to Grandmother’s claimed interest related to her right to preferential consideration as a temporary kinship placement in the child welfare action, we resolve the issue through application of a controlling line of Utah Supreme Court cases—In re guardianship of A.T.I.G., 2012 UT 88, 293 P.3d 276; State v. Brown, 2014 UT 48, 342 P.3d 239; and F.L. v. Court of Appeals, 2022 UT 32, 515 P.3d 421. “Our interpretation of case law . . . presents a question of law reviewed for correctness.” State v. Morgan, 2001 UT 87, ¶ 1, 34 P.3d 767.

ANALYSIS

I. Intervention as of Right Under Rule 24(a)(2)

A.        Legally Protectable Interest

¶13 To the extent that Grandmother based her motion to intervene on rule 24(a)(2) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure,[3] she was required to show (1) that her motion was timely, (2) that she “claims an interest relating to the property or transaction that is the subject of the action,” (3) that the disposition “of the action may as a practical matter impair or impede [her] ability to protect [that] interest,” and (4) that “existing parties” do not “adequately represent that interest.” Utah R. Civ. P. 24(a)(2); see also Supernova Media, Inc. v. Pia Anderson Dorius Reynard & Moss, LLC, 2013 UT 7, ¶ 22, 297 P.3d 599. With respect to Grandmother’s first two interests that she claims form the basis of her right to intervene, we conclude that the interests do not qualify under rule 24(a)(2) as interests “relating to the property or transaction that is the subject of the action” and, thus, that she is not entitled to intervene based on those claimed interests.

¶14      We begin our analysis by recounting the relevant history of rule 24(a)(2). As of 1982, rule 24(a)(2) required a showing that the applicant “is or may be bound by a judgment in the action.” Utah R. Civ. P. 24(a)(2) (1982) (emphasis added). Not surprisingly, therefore, the Utah Supreme Court held in 1982 that a “party seeking intervention must demonstrate a direct interest in the subject matter of the litigation such that the intervenor’s rights may be affected, for good or for ill.” Lima v. Chambers, 657 P.2d 279, 282 (Utah 1982) (emphasis added), superseded by rule, Utah R. Civ. P. 24(a)(2) (1987), as recognized in Supernova Media, 2013 UT 7, ¶ 39. The court further explained:

The required interest does not include a mere, consequential, remote or conjectural possibility of being in some manner affected by the result of the original action. It must be such a direct claim upon the subject matter of the action that the intervenor will either gain or lose by direct operation of the judgment to be rendered.

Id. (emphasis added) (cleaned up).

¶15 Rule 24(a)(2) was later amended—effective January 1, 1987—to eliminate the requirement to show that the applicant would be “bound” by a judgment in the action. Utah R. Civ. P. 24(a)(2) (1987). The amended rule instead allowed for intervention when “the disposition of the action may as a practical matter impair or impede [the applicant’s] ability to protect that interest.” Id. The amended rule also changed the requirement to demonstrate an interest in the subject of the action to a requirement to “claim[] an interest relating to” the subject of the dispute. Id. These changes mandated intervention on “more liberal terms” than under the pre-1987 rule.[4] Chatterton v. Walker, 938 P.2d 255, 258 (Utah 1997).

¶16      Notwithstanding the 1987 amendment, both this court and the Utah Supreme Court rearticulated the old standard in subsequent cases where the difference between the old and new standards was not determinative. See In re E.H., 2006 UT 36, ¶¶ 51–52, 137 P.3d 809 (stating in a case where “the parties stipulated that the [intervenor] had the necessary interest,” that “[t]o justify intervention, the party seeking intervention must demonstrate a direct interest in the subject matter of the litigation” (emphasis added)); Interstate Land Corp. v. Patterson, 797 P.2d 1101, 1108 (Utah Ct. App. 1990) (stating that “[t]he applicant’s interest in the subject matter of the dispute must be a direct claim upon the subject matter of the action such that the applicant will either gain or lose by direct operation of the judgment to be rendered” but concluding that the applicants had “no direct or remote interest in the subject matter of the dispute” (emphasis added)).

¶17 In Supernova Media, Inc. v. Pia Anderson Dorius Reynard & Moss, LLC, 2013 UT 7, 297 P.3d 599, however, the Utah Supreme Court emphasized the effect of the 1987 amendment. In that case, the party opposing intervention argued that the applicant had “not established a direct, substantial, and legally protectable interest in the . . . matter.”[5] 2013 UT 7, ¶ 35 (cleaned up). The supreme court responded to this argument by explaining that the party opposing intervention had “misstate[d] the standard: [the applicant] is only required to claim an interest relating to the property or transaction which is the subject of the action. [It] is not required to ‘establish’ an interest, and the interest need not be ‘direct’ or ‘substantial.’” Id. (cleaned up). Notably, while the supreme court disavowed the suggestion that our current rule 24(a)(2) requires an applicant for intervention to demonstrate either a direct or a substantial interest in the subject of the action, it did not disclaim the notion that the applicant’s claimed interest must be a legally protectable one. See id. See generally Lima, 657 P.2d at 282 (holding that a party seeking intervention must show that its “rights may be affected, for good or for ill” (emphasis added)). Indeed, in In re United Effort Plan Trust, 2013 UT 5, 296 P.3d 742, which the supreme court had decided less than three weeks before it issued Supernova Media, the court held that an applicant’s interest in the proceeding must be an interest capable of supporting a legally cognizable claim or defense. See id. ¶¶ 37– 38.

¶18      In that case, a set of applicants for intervention claimed an interest in the subject of the action “arising from a ‘sacred priesthood charge, pursuant to scripture and belief’ and grounded in the ‘tenets of [the applicants’] faith.’” Id. ¶ 37. Another set of applicants similarly claimed an interest in the subject of the action “stemming from a ‘priesthood stewardship.’” Id. Although the court did “not question the importance of these interests in the abstract,” it concluded that they were not the kind of interests that triggered rule 24(a)(2). Id. In reaching this conclusion, the court observed that “rule 24(c) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure provides helpful context for evaluating rule 24(a)(2)’s ‘interest’ requirement,” and it explained as follows:

Under 24(c), a party moving for intervention must file an accompanying pleading setting forth the claim or defense for which intervention is sought. And rule 8 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure, in turn, sets forth the requirements for pleading claims and defenses, requiring for the assertion of a claim: (1) a statement of the claim showing that the party is entitled to relief; and (2) a demand for judgment for specified relief.

Id. ¶ 38 (cleaned up). The court then held that because the applicants there had “asserted no such claim” and “[t]heir purported ‘interests’ [were] abstract ones, disconnected from any ‘demand for judgment for specified relief,’” they “lacked an interest in the subject matter of the dispute sufficient to sustain their intervention under rule 24(a)(2).” Id. In sum then, In re United Effort Plan Trust stands for the proposition that only a legally protectable interest (not an abstract one) qualifies as an interest related to the subject matter of the action under rule 24(a)(2) because only on the basis of a legally protectable interest can one state a cognizable claim for specified relief.

¶19      Representative cases leading up to In re United Effort Plan Trust demonstrate that its holding was not an innovation but, rather, a more explicit articulation of a principle the court had applied over time. For example, in In re adoption of I.K., 2009 UT 70, 220 P.3d 464, the court held that an unmarried natural father who had “failed to timely establish his parental rights” under applicable state law had “no interest in the [adoption] proceeding [for his natural daughter] that would endow him with standing to intervene under rule 24.” See id. ¶ 26. And applying the same principle with a contrasting result, the court held in In re Discipline of Alex, 2004 UT 81, 99 P.3d 865, that a landlord did have “a cognizable interest . . . sufficient to justify its intervention” in an attorney discipline action because the district court in the disciplinary action had ordered a representative of the Utah State Bar to “recover, attach, remove and possess any and all property” left by the attorney in the landlord’s building and the landlord in its motion for intervention had also asserted a contingent right in the attorney’s personal property “pursuant to [an] order of restitution entered in [an] unlawful detainer action” against the attorney. Id. ¶¶ 5, 25–28 (cleaned up). Accordingly, for an interest to qualify under rule 24(a)(2) as an interest related to the subject matter of an action, it must be a legally protectable interest, one on the basis of which the applicant for intervention articulates a demand for specified relief.[6] See In re United Effort Plan Trust, 2013 UT 5, ¶ 38.

B.        Grandmother’s First Two Claimed Interests

¶20 Under the foregoing standard, we now examine Grandmother’s first two interests that she contends entitle her to intervention as of right under rule 24(a)(2).

1.         Interest Related to Grandparent Visitation

¶21      Grandmother claims an interest related to her potential pursuit of grandparent visitation rights under section 30-5-2(1) of the Utah Code. That section provides:

In accordance with the provisions and requirements of this section: (a) a grandparent has standing to bring an action requesting visitation in district court by petition; and (b) a grandparent may file a petition for visitation rights in the juvenile court or district court where a divorce proceeding or other proceeding involving custody and visitation issues is pending.

Utah Code § 30-5-2(1). Grandmother has not filed a petition for visitation under this section, and she does not argue that resolution of this child welfare proceeding may impair or impede her right to file such a petition. Indeed, if Grandmother wishes to petition for visitation under the provisions and requirements of section 30-5-2, she is—and will remain—free to do so regardless of the resolution of this action.

¶22 Instead, Grandmother’s argument is that if she files a petition for visitation under section 30-5-2, the visitation she might be granted could be impaired because of the placement decisions made in this action:

The minor children have been placed in a home 90 miles away from [Grandmother’s] home (they previously lived in the same city); one of the minor children has been placed in a home with a family to whom he is not a relative; and [Grandmother’s] access to visitation with the children has been severely restricted since the date of removal.

¶23      But Grandmother has no legally protectable right to have the children placed close to her home or to have them placed with a relative. And she fails to articulate any legally protectable right that is being violated by other allegedly severe but unidentified restrictions that have been placed on her access to visitation with the children. Accordingly, we affirm the juvenile court’s denial of Grandmother’s intervention motion to the extent that it was based on her claimed interests related to grandparent visitation.

2.         Interest Related to the Guardianship Proceeding

¶24 Grandmother also claims an interest related to the guardianship action she commenced in district court. Grandmother bases this interest on the “signed stipulation in [the guardianship] action [that grants Grandmother] certain rights in relation to the guardianship action.”[7] Under the stipulation, Mother and Grandmother agreed to an individual evaluation of J.T., Mother, and Grandmother and to “abide by the therapist’s recommendations as a temporary order” until final resolution of the guardianship case. Yet in her motion and arguments below, Grandmother never articulated a specified claim for relief based on this stipulation. And she does not identify one on appeal.

¶25      Moreover, we are not convinced that the stipulation gives Grandmother protectable legal rights on which she could base a cognizable claim for relief in this child welfare action. Grandmother’s rights under the stipulation are rights as against Mother, and Mother’s duty to perform is cabined by the “require[ment] to cooperate in good faith.” Thus, for example, we cannot say that Grandmother has a legally protectable right to Mother’s facilitation of a therapist’s evaluation of J.T. when J.T. has been removed from Mother’s custody. Cf. Kilgore Pavement Maint., LLC v. West Jordan City, 2011 UT App 165, ¶ 9, 257 P.3d 460 (“Under the contractual defense of impossibility, an obligation is deemed discharged if an unforeseen event occurs after formation of the contract and without fault of the obligated party, which event makes performance of the obligation impossible or highly impracticable.” (cleaned up)).

¶26 Because Grandmother has failed to point us to a legally protectable right that she has under the stipulation and on the basis of which she seeks some specified relief in this child welfare action, we affirm the juvenile court’s denial of her intervention motion to the extent that it was based on her claimed interest related to the stipulation in the guardianship proceeding.[8]

II. Intervention as a Limited-Purpose Party

¶27      Grandmother’s final argument is that her statutory right to preferential consideration as a temporary kinship placement for the children provides an interest that supports her intervention as of right under rule 24(a)(2). As we have noted already, however, we do not address under rule 24(a)(2) Grandmother’s statutory right to preferential consideration as a temporary kinship placement. Instead, we address intervention based on that statutory right under a controlling line of Utah Supreme Court cases—In re guardianship of A.T.I.G., 2012 UT 88, 293 P.3d 276; State v. Brown, 2014 UT 48, 342 P.3d 239; and F.L. v. Court of Appeals, 2022 UT 32, 515 P.3d 421.

A.        Relevant Supreme Court Precedent

¶28 We begin by reviewing the identified cases. In In re guardianship of A.T.I.G., the mother of a child was “diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.” 2012 UT 88, ¶ 6. “[I]n anticipation of her death, [the mother] prepared a testamentary appointment of guardianship and conservatorship of [her child] in favor of [the child’s maternal grandparents].” Id. The child’s biological father, who was never married to the mother, was not named on the child’s birth certificate, and he had not signed a voluntary declaration of paternity at the time of the child’s birth. Id. ¶ 3. Nor was the father notified of the mother’s testamentary appointment of guardianship. Id. ¶ 6. After the mother’s passing and funeral, the grandparents took the child home and filed a petition for confirmation of their appointment as guardians, and the district court confirmed their appointment. Id. ¶ 7. When the father learned that the grandparents had been appointed and confirmed as the child’s guardians, he filed an objection. Id. ¶¶ 8, 19. The district court denied the objection, and the father appealed. Id. ¶¶ 9, 11–12.

¶29      On appeal, the grandparents argued that because the father “never formally filed a motion to intervene in [the] case, he lacked standing to object to the guardianship appointment” and “standing to bring [the] appeal.” Id. ¶ 17 (cleaned up). The supreme court disagreed, explaining that because section 75-5-203 of the Utah Code “permits ‘[a]ny person interested in the welfare of a minor’ to file a written objection to a guardianship appointment,” “the statute confers intervenor status on any person who files an objection pursuant to it.” Id. ¶ 18. Accordingly, the court concluded, “when [the father] filed his objection, [he] received statutory intervenor status.” Id. ¶ 19.

¶30      A few years later, in State v. Brown, 2014 UT 48, 342 P.3d 239, the supreme court reached a similar conclusion and elaborated on its reasoning. There, it granted intervention with “limited-party status” to a victim in a criminal proceeding. See id. ¶¶ 13–20. The defendant had been charged with sex crimes (and later pleaded guilty to one of them), and the victim “sought to intervene by filing a notice of a claim for restitution.” Id. ¶¶ 1, 5. “The district court rejected [the] filing on the ground that [the victim] was not a proper party and thus lacked standing to file pleadings.” Id. ¶ 1. The victim appealed. Id. ¶ 2.

¶31 On appeal, the supreme court acknowledged that “[t]he traditional parties to a criminal proceeding are the prosecution and the defense, and a crime victim is not that kind of party; a victim is not entitled to participate at all stages of the proceedings or for all purposes.” Id. ¶ 16. The court noted, however, that “[o]ur crime victims bill of rights recognizes the right of a victim to ‘seek restitution or reparations.’” Id. ¶ 18 (quoting Utah Code § 77-37­3(1)(e)). It then explained that “the right to ‘seek’ connotes a proactive right to ‘go in search of,’ or to ‘try to acquire or gain,’” and that “the anticipated mode of seeking restitution is . . . by a direct filing by the victim.” Id. (cleaned up). Reasoning that “[n]on-parties have no standing to file motions or to otherwise request relief,” the court concluded that the provisions of the code allowing a victim to seek restitution through a direct filing “recognize a victim’s status as a limited-purpose party.” Id. ¶ 19.

¶32      Most recently, in F.L. v. Court of Appeals, 2022 UT 32, 515 P.3d 421, the supreme court again addressed the right of a crime victim to intervene in a criminal proceeding as a limited-purpose party. The defendant in that case was also charged with sex crimes, and he requested “that the district court conduct an in camera review of [the alleged victim’s] therapy and counseling records and release specific categories of information relevant to his defense.” Id. ¶ 1. The court granted the request, conducted the review, and issued orders quoting relevant excerpts from the records. Id. The court then sealed the records, the case proceeded to trial, and the defendant was convicted of one count of sexual abuse of a child. Id. He then appealed, challenging “the adequacy of the district court’s in camera review.” Id. ¶ 2.

¶33      The appeal came to this court, and we initially “unsealed [the] records and classified them as private, which allowed [the defendant’s] attorney to make extensive use of those records in his opening brief on appeal.” Id. The victim, however, asked this court to reseal her records, and we responded by ordering the records resealed and instructing the defendant “to file a revised brief without references to the records.” Id. The defendant complied but argued that “the sealing order violated his rights.” Id. ¶ 3. The victim “then moved to intervene in [the] appeal as a limited-purpose party to assert her privacy interests.” Id. We did not grant intervention, but we did allow her to file an amicus brief. Id. ¶ 4. She then filed a petition for extraordinary relief in the supreme court, seeking an order allowing her to intervene as a limited-purpose party. Id. ¶¶ 4–5.

¶34 The supreme court held that the victim was entitled to limited-purpose party status “under the reasoning of State v. Brown and as provided in Utah Rule of Evidence 506.” Id. ¶ 35. The court determined that “[t]he reasoning of State v. Brown can be distilled into this general rule: if the law gives crime victims the ability to proactively assert a right or seek a remedy, then they may enforce those specific rights as limited-purpose parties in criminal proceedings.” Id. ¶ 37. Therefore, the question was “whether the law [gave the victim] the right to proactively assert her privacy interests in her privileged mental health records.” Id.

The court declared that it did because under rule 506, “a patient has a privilege to refuse to disclose and to prevent any other person from disclosing information that is communicated in confidence to a mental health therapist for the purpose of diagnosing or treating the patient” and “the privilege may be claimed by the patient.” Id. ¶ 38 (cleaned up). The court emphasized that, “[s]imilar to the phrase ‘seek restitution’ in Brown, the phrase ‘claim the privilege’ [in rule 506] connotes a proactive right.” Id. Because rule 506 gave the victim a proactive right to “assert that privilege and directly oppose [the defendant’s] attempts to gain access to her records,” the court concluded that the victim “possess[ed] the status of a limited-purpose party.” Id. ¶ 39 (cleaned up).

¶35 The court in F.L. also expressly addressed intervention under rule 24 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. See id. ¶ 37 n.36. It observed that the defendant and the victim had spent “much of their briefing arguing over whether [the victim] should be allowed to intervene through Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 24, which [the victim] argue[d] should apply to [the] criminal proceedings under Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 81(e).” Id. The State, on the other hand, argued that the victim did “not need to satisfy the requirements of rule 24 to become a limited-purpose party under Brown.” Id. Importantly, the court “[chose] the narrower option and resolve[d] [the] case based on Brown and Utah Rule of Evidence 506 rather than rule 24,” emphasizing that (1) it had previously “held that the traditional parties to a criminal proceeding are the prosecution and the defense, and a victim is not entitled to participate at all stages of the proceedings or for all purposes”; (2) “rule 24 allows a person to become a full-fledged party to the proceeding in every respect”; and (3) it was “concerned with the broad consequences of applying rule 24 to allow intervention in criminal proceedings.” Id. (cleaned up).

B.        Right to Preferential Consideration as a Kinship Placement

¶36      As with the father in In re guardianship of A.T.I.G. and the victims in Brown and F.L., the law gives Grandmother the ability to proactively assert a right or seek a remedy in the action into which she seeks to intervene. Specifically, section 80-3-302 of the Utah Code, which addresses shelter hearings in child welfare proceedings, provides that when considering the temporary placement of children removed from a parent’s custody, “[DCFS] and the juvenile court shall give preferential consideration to a relative’s or a friend’s request for placement of the child, if the placement is in the best interest of the child.” Utah Code § 80-3-302(7)(a)(i) (emphasis added). Furthermore, the preceding code section, which also addresses shelter hearings, requires the juvenile court conducting the hearing to “hear relevant evidence presented by the child, the child’s parent or guardian, the requesting party, or the requesting party’s counsel.” Id. § 80-3-301(5)(b)(ii) (emphasis added). Just as the law’s recognition of the rights to “file” an objection, “seek” restitution, and “claim” privacy protections each indicate an ability to proactively assert a right or seek a remedy and, thus, confer limited-purpose intervenor status on persons who exercise those rights, section 80­3-302’s recognition of a relative’s or a friend’s right to “request” preferential consideration for child placement likewise indicates an ability to proactively assert a right or seek a remedy and, thus, confers limited-purpose intervenor status on relatives or friends when they request such preferential consideration. See In re guardianship of A.T.I.G., 2012 UT 88, ¶ 19, 293 P.3d 276 (holding that “when he filed his objection, [the father] received statutory intervenor status” (emphasis added)); State v. Brown, 2014 UT 48, ¶ 19, 342 P.3d 239 (“Non-parties have no standing to file motions or to otherwise request relief. Such rights are conferred only on parties.”).

¶37 Persons who gain this type of statutory or rule-based intervenor status, however, become only “limited-purpose parties” who may participate in the action solely to “enforce those specific rights” that the law upon which their intervention is based affords “the ability to proactively assert.” Id. Hence, Grandmother’s limited-purpose party status allows her to request preferential consideration for temporary kinship placement, see Utah Code § 80-3-302(7)(a)(i), provide relevant testimony and other relevant evidence on the issue of temporary placement during the shelter hearing, see id. § 80-3-301(5)(b)(ii), and be provided information that is anticipated to be reported or requested during the portion of the shelter hearing that she is entitled to participate in as a party, see id. § 80-3-107(1)(a).

¶38 Grandmother contends that to the extent section 80-3-302(7)(a)(i) does “create some right of limited-purpose intervention,” that right should “not preempt” rule 24 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. As reflected in this opinion, we agree with Grandmother to some extent: we do not see inherent inconsistency between rule 24(a)(2) and the Utah Rules of Juvenile Procedure, see supra note 3, and we have therefore analyzed under rule 24(a)(2) Grandmother’s claimed interests that are not of the sort that would give rise to limited-purpose party status, see supra ¶¶ 13–26.

¶39 On the other hand, we note that quite like criminal proceedings where “the prosecution and the defense” are the “traditional parties” and others, including victims, are “not entitled to participate at all stages of the proceedings or for all purposes,” F.L., 2022 UT 32, ¶ 37 n.36, the traditional parties in DCFS-initiated child welfare proceedings are the State (in the interest of the children) and the parents or guardians of the children, and other parties are not entitled to participate for all purposes or at all stages of the proceedings. Given these similarities, we are concerned, as was the supreme court with respect to criminal proceedings, “with the broad consequences of applying rule 24 to allow intervention” in child welfare proceedings in instances where the “narrower option” of limited-purpose intervention is available. Id. For this reason, we follow the supreme court’s lead and resolve the portion of this case stemming from Grandmother’s claimed interest in preferential kinship placement under In re guardianship of A.T.I.G.BrownF.L., and Utah Code section 80-3-302(7)(a)(i).[9]

¶40      Based on the foregoing, we hold that when Grandmother requested preferential consideration as a temporary kinship placement for the children, she acquired limited-purpose statutory intervenor status. The juvenile court thus erred by not recognizing Grandmother as a limited-purpose party.

CONCLUSION

¶41      The juvenile court was correct when it declined to grant Grandmother’s request to intervene in this child welfare matter under rule 24(a)(2) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure based on her claimed interests related to grandparent visitation and the stipulation in the guardianship action in district court. The court erred, however, when it did not recognize Grandmother’s status as a limited-purpose party. We therefore reverse in part the juvenile court’s denial of Grandmother’s motion to intervene and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

 

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

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Clark v. Clark – 2023 UT App 111 – divorce, exhibits, dissipation

Clark v. Clark – 2023 UT App 111

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

SUSAN JEANNE CLARK,

Appellee,

v.

RICHARD LEE CLARK,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20210713-CA

Filed September 28, 2023

Fourth District Court, Heber Department

The Honorable Jennifer A. Brown

No. 184500153

Karra J. Porter and Kristen C. Kiburtz, Attorneys for Appellant

Julie J. Nelson, Attorney for Appellee

JUDGE AMY J. OLIVER authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES

MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER and RYAN D. TENNEY

concurred.

OLIVER, Judge:

¶1        Richard Lee Clark appeals from the district court’s decision following a two-day divorce trial. Clark challenges several aspects of the court’s ruling, including a discovery sanction for his failure to timely disclose his trial exhibits under rule 26 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure; findings relating to his claim that his ex-wife, Susan Jeanne Clark, dissipated the marital estate; and the court’s division of the marital property. We affirm the district court’s ruling with the exception of one aspect of the district court’s marital property determination, which we vacate and remand for additional findings.

BACKGROUND

¶2        Richard and Susan[1] married in 2002, when Richard was in his sixties and Susan was in her fifties. Richard was retired from military service and from employment as an attorney with the Department of Justice. Susan owned a wallpaper business when she met Richard but quit working shortly after they married. For the next six years, Richard and Susan lived off Richard’s retirement income from both the Army and the Department of Justice.

¶3        In 2008, Richard came out of retirement to work for a government contractor in Afghanistan, where he lived for thirty-eight months. During that time, Richard’s retirement and employment income of $814,627 was deposited into a joint account that Susan controlled. Richard returned home to find “probably about $100,000 . . . had been saved” in the joint bank account—much less than he expected—yet he said nothing to Susan at that time.

¶4        Three years after his return, Richard moved into the basement of the marital home. The following year, in 2016, Susan transferred approximately $78,000 from their joint account into her personal account, prompting Richard to confront her about what he viewed as missing money from his time in Afghanistan. Two years later, in 2018, Susan filed for divorce. Shortly afterward, Richard purchased a Harley-Davidson motorcycle with financing, which he paid off in 2020.

¶5        At the time of their divorce, Richard and Susan owned two real properties—a condo in Norfolk, Virginia (Mooring Drive), and a home in Kamas, Utah (Ross Creek). Richard had purchased Mooring Drive before the marriage for approximately $205,000. In 2003, Richard added Susan to the title of Mooring Drive, which allowed her to vote at the condominium association’s meetings and to join the board. The following year, Richard and Susan used equity loans on Mooring Drive to finance the purchase and construction of Ross Creek. From 2009—when Susan moved to Utah and Richard was in Afghanistan—until June 2019, Richard rented Mooring Drive out to others and the revenues were deposited into his separate account that was designated to pay for the property’s expenses.

¶6        During their marriage, the parties took out an equity loan on Ross Creek that matured, along with one of the equity loans from Mooring Drive, in 2019. With the divorce still pending, Susan agreed to refinance Ross Creek’s mortgage to pay off the two equity loans that were due, but only if Richard would stipulate that Mooring Drive and Ross Creek were marital property and were subject to equitable division in their pending divorce. Richard agreed, and the parties stipulated that “the Ross Creek and Mooring Drive properties shall remain marital property and shall be subject to equitable division in the parties’ divorce notwithstanding that the Ross Creek home and Mooring Drive property will no longer be jointly titled.”

¶7        In April 2019, the Mooring Drive tenants’ lease expired. Richard decided he could only offer the tenants a month-to-month lease until his divorce was over. When the tenants declined to renew and moved out in June, Richard withdrew $30,000 from the joint bank account, claiming that he needed the funds to cover Mooring Drive’s expenses. After a hearing, the court entered temporary orders in December 2019, permitting Richard to access equity in Ross Creek to pay off debt on Mooring Drive but denying his “request for financial relief based on the loss of rental income because [Richard] ha[d] not made any attempt to secure new renters.”

¶8        Trial was originally scheduled for June 2020, but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and courts were required to hold bench trials virtually, Richard declined to proceed with a virtual trial, and it was continued without a date. In February 2021, the court held a pretrial scheduling conference and rescheduled the trial for May 2021. The court’s pretrial order stated the parties must produce pretrial disclosures on or before April 26, 2021, pursuant to rule 26(a)(5)(B) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure.

¶9        Richard missed the deadline. A week after it passed, he requested a continuance to hire trial counsel. Richard had been representing himself as a pro se litigant despite being eighty-four years old and not having practiced law since 1988. According to Richard, health issues arose that made him “no longer physically and mentally capable of representing” himself. The court granted the motion, rescheduling the trial for June. The new deadline for pretrial disclosures became May 24, but Richard did not submit his pretrial disclosures until June 10—eleven days before trial.

¶10      The two-day trial began with Susan’s objection to Richard’s untimely pretrial disclosures. Susan contended that Richard had “ample opportunity” to produce his pretrial disclosures given the multiple continuances of the trial. In response, Richard claimed his failure to meet the disclosure deadline was harmless because he had previously produced as discovery responses the 339 pages of financial documents—including check registers, paystubs from 2008 to 2009, and bank account information from 2011 to 2012— that he sought to admit as exhibits 2 through 8. Yet Richard did not file certificates of service for those responses, and neither party’s counsel could confirm whether Richard had previously sent the documents in exhibits 2 through 8 to Susan, leaving the district court with only Richard’s testimony to support the claim that he had previously disclosed the exhibits. The district court sustained Susan’s objection as to exhibits 2 through 8, excluding them from trial.

¶11      Both Susan and Richard testified at trial. Susan testified Richard had transferred $30,000 from their joint account to his personal account in June 2019 and contended she was entitled to half of that amount. Susan also testified about her exhibits that provided recent balances in her bank and retirement accounts.

¶12      On cross-examination, Susan admitted she had not looked for work and was unemployed despite the court’s urging in 2020 for her to seek employment. Richard then peppered Susan about numerous expenditures during his time in Afghanistan, to which Susan replied that it “was a number of years ago” and she “ha[d] no recollection at all” of the transactions. Susan did state, however, that when Richard left for Afghanistan, she recalled they “had very large credit card balances” that Richard instructed her “to start paying off” while he was away.

¶13 First testifying as Susan’s witness, Richard answered questions about some of the marital property. He testified about a recent appraisal of Mooring Drive that valued it at $390,000, his three life insurance policies that all list Susan as the beneficiary, and his purchase of the Harley-Davidson in May 2019. Susan then introduced a pleading Richard had filed with the court in November 2019 that stated, in relevant part, he had “owned three motorcycles, selling the last one when [he] moved to Norfolk,” but he has “never ridden a Harley-Davidson.” Richard replied that he had “misstated the fact,” both in that pleading and at a hearing the same month when he told the court he did not own a Harley-Davidson. Richard testified he should receive three-fourths of the equity in Mooring Drive because he purchased it before the marriage. Unable to provide a figure for what the property was worth when he married Susan, Richard claimed that “the[] prices have gone up and gone down a great deal” since their marriage, but his best guess was that Mooring Drive appreciated from $205,000 to $350,000 between 2000 and 2002. Richard continued to do some impromptu math on the stand to clarify how much equity he felt he was owed, asserting that since Mooring Drive was recently appraised at $390,000 and had been worth $350,000 in 2002—by his best guess—there is $40,000 of equity for them to divide, but then he admitted such valuation “is something I’m just not knowledgeable about.”

¶14      As his own witness, Richard testified about Susan’s alleged dissipation during his time in Afghanistan. Richard’s excluded exhibits went to the issue of dissipation, so without the financial documents from that period, Richard sought to prove Susan “dissipated money while [he] was in Afghanistan” through his testimony about his earnings and typical expenses during that time frame. Using the excluded exhibits to refresh his recollection, Richard estimated their monthly expenses before he left were approximately $10,000 to $11,000. Richard also challenged Susan’s testimony about credit card balances, claiming that “there weren’t any large credit card balances before [he] left.”

¶15      At the conclusion of trial, the district court asked both parties to submit proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law in lieu of closing arguments. After issuing an oral ruling, the district court memorialized its decision in written findings of fact and conclusions of law. The court found that Richard’s “testimony was insufficient to establish his [dissipation] claim” and that Richard had “failed to meet his burden of demonstrating dissipation.” The court also found “problems with the credibility of both parties,” specifically finding that Susan’s “credibility was lacking with regards to the dissipation issue” and Richard’s “credibility was lacking with regards to his motorcycle purchase.” Susan was awarded Ross Creek’s equity, and Richard was awarded Mooring Drive’s. The court awarded Susan $2,500 per month in alimony and an offset of $43,474 (from Richard’s purchase of the Harley-Davidson and his $30,000 withdrawal from the joint account) “to achieve an equitable division of the estate.” The court found Richard “withdrew $30,000 from the joint account without [Susan’s] knowledge or consent and deposited it into his own personal account,” but it made no findings as to how Richard spent the $30,000.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶16      Richard raises three main issues for our review. First, Richard challenges the district court’s exclusion of his exhibits for his failure to comply with rule 26(a)(5) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. A district court “has broad discretion regarding the imposition of discovery sanctions,” and when we apply “the abuse of discretion standard to the district court’s imposition of a particular sanction, we give the district court a great deal of latitude.” Bodell Constr. Co. v. Robbins, 2009 UT 52, ¶ 35, 215 P.3d 933 (cleaned up).

¶17 Second, Richard contends the district court erred in its application of the burden of proof on Richard’s dissipation claim. A district court’s “allocation of the burden of proof is . . . a question of law that we review for correctness.” Salt Lake City Corp. v. Jordan River Restoration Network, 2018 UT 62, ¶ 20, 435 P.3d 179.

¶18      Finally, Richard challenges the district court’s division of the property, including the court’s finding that the marital estate included Mooring Drive and the Harley-Davidson, and its decision to deduct from the marital estate the $30,000 Richard withdrew from the parties’ joint account. A district court “has considerable discretion considering property division in a divorce proceeding, thus its actions enjoy a presumption of validity,” and “we will disturb the district court’s division only if there is a misunderstanding or misapplication of the law indicating an abuse of discretion.” Beckham v. Beckham, 2022 UT App 65, ¶ 6, 511 P.3d 1253 (cleaned up).

ANALYSIS

I. Pretrial Disclosures

¶19      Richard asserts the district court abused its discretion in excluding his exhibits 2 through 8 for failure to comply with rule 26(a)(5) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure because he “produced the documents that comprised the exhibits” during discovery and any “technical non-compliance with that rule” was “harmless.” We disagree.

¶20      Rule 26 governs “disclosure and discovery” in civil matters and requires parties to provide “a copy of each exhibit, including charts, summaries, and demonstrative exhibits, unless solely for impeachment, separately identifying those which the party will offer and those which the party may offer . . . . at least 28 days before trial.” Utah R. Civ. P. 26(a)(5). A party who fails to timely disclose exhibits “may not use the undisclosed witness, document, or material at . . . trial unless the failure is harmless or the party shows good cause for the failure.” Id. R. 26(d)(4). A district court “has broad discretion in selecting and imposing sanctions for discovery violations under rule 26,” and “appellate courts may not interfere with such discretion unless there is either an erroneous conclusion of law or no evidentiary basis for the district court’s ruling.” Wallace v. Niels Fugal Sons Co., 2022 UT App 111, ¶ 26, 518 P.3d 184 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 525 P.3d 1267 (Utah 2023).

¶21      Richard does not dispute that he failed to timely disclose exhibits 2 through 8. Instead, Richard argues he produced the documents in those exhibits to Susan in earlier discovery responses, so his failure to timely file pretrial disclosures was harmless, and he further argues that it was Susan’s burden to prove she had not received them. In response, Susan asserts it was Richard’s burden, not hers, to prove that he produced the documents earlier in discovery, and the failure to file his pretrial disclosures pursuant to rule 26(a)(5) was not harmless. We agree with Susan on both fronts.

¶22 First, “the burden to demonstrate harmlessness or good cause is clearly on the party seeking relief from disclosure requirements.” Dierl v. Birkin, 2023 UT App 6, ¶ 32, 525 P.3d 127 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 527 P.3d 1107 (Utah 2023). Second, Richard failed to carry his burden of demonstrating harmlessness. Although Richard “assured [his counsel] that he [had] produced records related to this 2008-to-2012 timeframe,” he did not file the required certificates of service. See Utah R. Civ. P. 26(f) (requiring a party to file “the certificate of service stating that the disclosure, request for discovery, or response has been served on the other parties and the date of service”). Thus, Richard failed to prove that the documents had previously been produced.

¶23 But even if he had proved prior production, excusing pretrial disclosures if the documents were produced earlier in discovery would “eviscerate[] the rule that explicitly requires parties to” serve a copy of the documents they intend to use “in their case-in-chief at trial.” Johansen v. Johansen, 2021 UT App 130, ¶¶ 19, 26, 504 P.3d 152 (rejecting argument to follow the spirit of rule 26 rather than “the plain language of rule 26” regarding pretrial disclosures); see also Utah R. Civ. P. 26(a)(5)(A)(iv) (requiring pretrial disclosure of “each exhibit” the party will or may offer at trial). And expecting a party to sort through hundreds, if not thousands, of pages of documents that were produced earlier by the other side during discovery and then expecting the party to predict which ones the opposing party might seek to admit at trial would be harmful and would violate the intent of rule 26.

¶24 Ultimately, “a court’s determination with respect to harmlessness . . . . is a discretionary call,” and our review of it “is necessarily deferential.” Johansen, 2021 UT App 130, ¶ 11 (cleaned up). Thus, the district court was well within its “broad discretion” to exclude Richard’s exhibits 2 through 8 under these circumstances. See Wallace, 2022 UT App 111, ¶ 26 (cleaned up).

II. Dissipation

¶25 Richard claims the district court erred in finding that he failed to meet the burden of proof on his dissipation claim. We disagree.

¶26      “The marital estate is generally valued at the time of the divorce decree or trial.” Goggin v. Goggin, 2013 UT 16, ¶ 49, 299 P.3d 1079 (cleaned up). “But where one party has dissipated an asset,” the “trial court may, in the exercise of its equitable powers,” “hold one party accountable to the other for the dissipation.” Id. (cleaned up). A court’s inquiry into a dissipation claim may consider “a number of factors,” such as “(1) how the money was spent, including whether funds were used to pay legitimate marital expenses or individual expenses; (2) the parties’ historical practices; (3) the magnitude of any depletion; (4) the timing of the challenged actions in relation to the separation and divorce; and (5) any obstructive efforts that hinder the valuation of the assets.” Wadsworth v. Wadsworth, 2022 UT App 28, ¶ 69, 507 P.3d 385 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 525 P.3d 1259 (Utah 2022).

¶27 The burden of proof for dissipation initially falls on the party alleging it. See Parker v. Parker, 2000 UT App 30, ¶ 15, 996 P.2d 565 (stating that a party seeking to assert dissipation must make an “initial showing of apparent dissipation”). The district court correctly concluded that Richard bore the “burden of demonstrating dissipation.” To meet the “initial showing of apparent dissipation,” the party alleging dissipation must first show evidence of dissipation. Id. ¶¶ 13, 15. Only after “present[ing] the trial court with evidence tending to show that [Susan] had dissipated marital assets” does the burden shift to Susan “to show that the funds were not dissipated, but were used for some legitimate marital purpose.” Id. ¶ 13.

¶28 Richard’s documentary evidence on this issue had been excluded by the court, so the only evidence he presented was his testimony in 2021 that his income while in Afghanistan from 2008 to 2012 exceeded the estimated historical marital expenses from before 2008, some thirteen years earlier. Richard asserts that his testimony alone should suffice for an initial showing of dissipation. In Parker v. Parker, 2000 UT App 30, ¶ 15, 996 P.2d 565, the husband “presented the trial court with evidence” that detailed how the wife had dissipated marital assets—exact beginning and ending balances for eight bank accounts, the marital expenses during the time in question, and specific checks the wife wrote to herself—thus shifting the burden to the wife. Id. ¶ 13. But Richard, like the wife in Parker, only “testified in conclusory and cryptic terms,” and thus “wholly failed to meet [his] burden.” Id. ¶ 14.

¶29      Therefore, the district court was well within its discretion to decide that Richard’s uncorroborated testimony about Susan’s spending that occurred many years before either party contemplated divorce[2] was insufficient evidence to meet his initial burden of proving dissipation. Accordingly, the district court did not err in its finding that Richard failed to meet his burden of proof on the dissipation claim.

III. Marital Property

¶30      Richard presents three challenges to the district court’s division of the marital property. First, Richard asserts he is entitled to his premarital contribution to Mooring Drive. Second, he alleges the Harley-Davidson he purchased during the pendency of the divorce is his separate property. Third, Richard claims the court should not have deducted from the marital estate the $30,000 that he withdrew from the joint account in June 2019.

We affirm the district court’s decision on Richard’s first two challenges and vacate the decision on the third, remanding the matter for additional findings.

A.        Mooring Drive

¶31      Although the district court awarded Richard the equity in Mooring Drive when it divided the marital estate, it did not also award Richard any premarital equity in the property for three reasons. First, it found that Richard “formally stipulated that Ross Creek and Mooring Drive were marital property subject to division in this divorce action.” Second, it found that “through a series of refinances, [Richard] transferred equity from Ross Creek to Mooring Drive, and paid expenses associated with both properties with marital funds.” Third, it found that Richard “formally conveyed the property to himself and [Susan] in 2003” when he added Susan’s name to the title. Because we affirm the district court’s decision not to award Richard any premarital equity on the basis of the parties’ stipulation, we do not address the other two reasons the district court relied upon.

¶32 Richard and Susan stipulated that “the Ross Creek and Mooring Drive properties shall remain marital property and shall be subject to equitable division in the parties’ divorce, notwithstanding that the Ross Creek home and Mooring Drive property will no longer be jointly titled.” Richard now claims that despite the language of the stipulation, he “never agreed that he should not be compensated for his premarital and separate contributions to Mooring Drive before the property became marital.” Furthermore, Richard argues, “nowhere in the stipulation did he agree that he was waiving his premarital equity in that property.”

¶33 Richard’s argument is flawed. “Parties to a divorce are bound by the terms of their stipulated agreement.” McQuarrie v. McQuarrie, 2021 UT 22, ¶ 18, 496 P.3d 44. And according to the “ordinary contract principles” that govern “contracts between spouses,” see Ashby v. Ashby, 2010 UT 7, ¶ 21, 227 P.3d 246 (cleaned up), “if the language within the four corners of the contract is unambiguous, the parties’ intentions are determined from the plain meaning of the contractual language,” Green River Canal Co. v. Thayn, 2003 UT 50, ¶ 17, 84 P.3d 1134 (cleaned up). See also Mind & Motion Utah Invs., LLC v. Celtic Bank Corp., 2016 UT 6, ¶ 24, 367 P.3d 994 (holding that “the best indication of the parties’ intent is the ordinary meaning of the contract’s terms”); Ocean 18 LLC v. Overage Refund Specialists LLC (In re Excess Proceeds from the Foreclosure of 1107 Snowberry St.), 2020 UT App 54, ¶ 22, 474 P.3d 481 (holding that where the “contract is facially unambiguous, the parties’ intentions are determined from the plain meaning of the contractual language . . . without resort to parol evidence” (cleaned up)).

¶34      Richard essentially argues that the district court erred when it refused to go beyond the stipulation’s language and infer his intention from what he omitted. But the district court was correct when it interpreted the parties’ intentions by what the plain language of the stipulation does say and not by what it does not. Therefore, the district court did not abuse its discretion when it abided by the parties’ stipulation and included Mooring Drive as marital property, “subject to equitable division.”

B.        The Harley-Davidson

¶35      “Prior to the entry of a divorce decree, all property acquired by parties to a marriage is marital property, owned equally by each party.” Dahl v. Dahl, 2015 UT 79, ¶ 126, 456 P.3d 276. Thus, the presumption is that property acquired during the pendency of a divorce is marital, not separate. Richard failed to rebut this presumption regarding the Harley-Davidson motorcycle he purchased because he failed to present evidence that he used separate funds.

¶36 Richard argued that he purchased the Harley-Davidson from separate, rather than marital, funds in his proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law.[3] To be clear, Richard does not assert that the Harley-Davidson is separate property because he purchased it after the parties separated or after Susan filed for divorce. Instead, he argues the only funds available to him to purchase the motorcycle came from his “separate premarital retirement income.” Richard’s argument fails for two reasons. First, Richard did not present evidence to support his argument that the funds he used to purchase the motorcycle came from separate, not marital, funds. Instead, Richard essentially places his burden on the district court by asserting, on appeal, that “[t]here was no marital account identified by the district court from which [Richard] could have made that purchase.” But Richard, not the court, bears the burden of identifying where the funds came from that he used to purchase the motorcycle.

¶37      Second, the district court found credibility problems with Richard’s testimony about the Harley-Davidson, concluding that Richard’s “credibility was lacking with regards to his motorcycle purchase.”[4] A district court “is in the best position to judge the credibility of witnesses and is free to disbelieve their testimony” or “disregard such testimony if it finds the evidence self-serving and not credible.” Ouk v. Ouk, 2015 UT App 104, ¶ 14, 348 P.3d 751 (cleaned up).

¶38      In sum, as “property acquired during [the] marriage,” the Harley-Davidson is presumptively “marital property subject to equitable distribution.” Dahl, 2015 UT 79, ¶ 26. Richard bore the burden of proof to rebut the presumption that the funds he used to purchase the Harley-Davidson were not marital, and he presented no credible evidence to the district court to support that position. Thus, the district court did not abuse its discretion by including the motorcycle in the marital estate.

C.        $30,000 Offset

¶39      Finally, Richard challenges the district court’s decision to include in the marital estate the $30,000 he withdrew from the joint account. The district court agreed with Susan that because Richard had made a unilateral withdrawal from the joint account during the pendency of the divorce, he should be held accountable for that withdrawal. Richard, on the other hand, claims he used the money for marital expenses, paying costs associated with Mooring Drive. Susan argues the money could also have been spent on personal items including travel and motorcycle payments and accessories. “How the money was spent, including whether [the] funds were used to pay legitimate marital expenses or individual expenses,” Wadsworth v. Wadsworth, 2022 UT App 28, ¶ 69, 507 P.3d 385 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 525 P.3d 1259 (Utah 2022), is a critical question that needs to be resolved.

¶40 Divorce cases often require district courts to make numerous findings of fact. And generally speaking, “for findings of fact to be adequate, they must show that the court’s judgment or decree follows logically from, and is supported by, the evidence” and such findings “should be sufficiently detailed and include enough subsidiary facts to disclose the steps by which the ultimate conclusion on each factual issue was reached.” Armed Forces Ins. Exch. v. Harrison, 2003 UT 14, ¶ 28, 70 P.3d 35 (cleaned up). Moreover, when it comes to the “unequal division of marital property,” a district court must “memorialize[] in . . . detailed findings the exceptional circumstances supporting the distribution.” Bradford v. Bradford, 1999 UT App 373, ¶ 27, 993 P.2d 887 (cleaned up). “Without adequate findings detailing why [one spouse] should be entitled to such an unequal split of the marital estate, we cannot affirm the court’s award.” Fischer v. Fischer, 2021 UT App 145, ¶ 29, 505 P.3d 56; see, e.g.Rothwell v. Rothwell, 2023 UT App 50, ¶ 57, 531 P.3d 225 (concluding that “we simply do not have enough information” to rule on whether the funds were marital or separate, “let alone to conclude that the district court

. . . erred”).

¶41      We face the same dilemma here. The district court made no findings as to how Richard spent the $30,000. The written ruling merely states, “In June 2019, [Richard] withdrew $30,000 from the joint account without [Susan’s] knowledge or consent and deposited it into his own personal account.” “We will not imply any missing finding where there is a matrix of possible factual findings and we cannot ascertain the trial court’s actual findings.” Hall v. Hall, 858 P.2d 1018, 1025–26 (Utah Ct. App. 1993). Without “adequate findings” on whether Richard used the funds for marital expenses or not, “we cannot affirm,” nor properly review, the court’s decision to offset the $30,000 against Richard in its division of the marital estate. See Fischer, 2021 UT App 145, ¶ 29. Therefore, we vacate this portion of the decision and remand the matter to the district court for it to enter findings on how the funds were spent.

CONCLUSION

¶42 The district court did not abuse its discretion when it excluded Richard’s exhibits for failure to comply with rule 26(a)(5) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. The district court also did not err in its conclusion that Richard failed to meet the burden of proof for his dissipation claim nor did it abuse its discretion in how it divided the marital estate with respect to Mooring Drive and the Harley-Davidson. We vacate the district court’s decision to offset the $30,000 against Richard when it divided the marital estate and remand the matter for the district court to enter additional findings and to alter its conclusion as may be necessary.


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

[2] Susan invites us to join some other states in drawing a bright-line rule concerning the timing of a dissipation claim and limit pre-separation dissipation claims to those occurring (1) in contemplation of divorce or separation or (2) when the marriage is in serious jeopardy or undergoing an irretrievable breakdown. Under our caselaw, the district court is empowered to consider the “timing of the challenged actions in relation to the separation and divorce” as one of several factors when determining “whether a party should be held accountable for the dissipation of marital assets.” Marroquin v. Marroquin, 2019 UT App 38, ¶ 33, 440 P.3d 757 (cleaned up). We see no need to alter this approach. Assessing timing as one factor among many provides the greatest flexibility to the district court to consider all the circumstances in a particular case, and we believe the district court is in the best position to evaluate the importance of such evidence on a case-by-case basis.

[3] Because the district court directed the parties to submit proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law in lieu of closing arguments, Richard’s argument was preserved for our review.

[4] Indeed, in its oral ruling, the court stated that Richard “lied to the Court about the purchase of the motorcycle.”

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Blake v. Smith – 2023 UT App 78 – child custody, child support

Blake v. Smith – 2023 UT App 78

2023 UT App 78

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

DEJUAN BLAKE,

Appellee,

v.

JILLYN SMITH,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20210779-CA

Filed July 20, 2023

Third District Court, Salt Lake Department

The Honorable Su Chon

No. 184900112

Julie J. Nelson, Attorney for Appellant

DeJuan Blake, Appellee Pro Se

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

concurred.

CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge:

 

¶1        Jillyn Smith appeals the district court’s order regarding custody and child support for her minor son (Child). Because we determine the court abused its discretion by awarding Smith sole physical and legal custody while requiring joint decision-making between Smith and Child’s father, DeJuan Blake, we vacate that part of the court’s custody award. Furthermore, because we conclude the court made a mathematical error in calculating the amount of child support, and that a further examination of the evidence of Blake’s income is warranted, we reverse the court’s child support award and remand for recalculation as appropriate.

BACKGROUND

¶2        Smith met Blake in 2007 in Las Vegas, Nevada, and the two entered into a relationship. As a result of the relationship, Smith became pregnant with Child in 2009. At the time Smith learned about the pregnancy, she was no longer living in Las Vegas—she had moved to Utah to escape her relationship with Blake.

¶3        After a tumultuous pregnancy, during which Blake continuously asked Smith to have an abortion, Child was born in Utah in October 2009. Blake traveled to Utah to visit Child twice during the first year of Child’s life, with each visit lasting “maybe an hour or two.” The sporadic visits continued over the next few years, with Child and Smith traveling with Blake on short trips together. Although Smith asked Blake for financial support during this time, Blake did not provide support and instead always offered an “excuse.” Eventually, the communications between the couple became too toxic and Smith elected to “take a break from communication” with Blake.

¶4        Thereafter, Smith decided to “give [Blake] a second chance.” Blake and Child had “maybe a few” “infrequent[]” telephone conversations a year, but the conversations were short due to Child’s speech impediment. Blake was not involved in Child’s schooling or scheduling, he never attended Child’s doctor’s appointments, and he “wouldn’t follow through” or offer any explanation as to why he could not help Smith with financial support for Child’s medical care or educational needs.

¶5        Blake traveled to Utah in 2015 to attend Child’s birthday party. Toward the end of the party, Blake and Smith had a verbal altercation regarding Blake’s failure to honor their agreement for Blake to pay Smith child support. Following this visit, Blake returned to Utah once in 2016 to attend Child’s baseball game. That visit also ended in a verbal altercation.

¶6        In January 2018, Blake petitioned the district court for paternity and custody of Child. At the time, Child was eight years old and living with Smith.

¶7        After initiating custody proceedings, Blake filed a series of three financial declarations with the district court. Blake is self-employed and owns a company managing professional and aspiring boxers. Blake’s stated gross income, monthly expenses, and debt listed on each of the three financial declarations differed significantly. In the first declaration, Blake claimed $0 in gross monthly income, $1,875 in monthly expenses, and a debt of $7,240. In the second, Blake claimed $2,000 in gross monthly income, $17,797 in monthly expenses, and no debt. And in the third, Blake claimed $1,686 in gross monthly income, $3,947 in monthly expenses, and no debt. The bank statements filed with each disclosure were incomplete; however, the bank statements that were submitted showed that between August 2017 and January 2019, Blake made deposits into his personal account totaling $456,669.98, and that during that same time, he made withdrawals totaling nearly $50,000 for investments in cryptocurrency, payments to his mother, payments to the mother of one of his other children, and luxury clothing.

¶8        The case proceeded to a bench trial in October 2020. At trial, Smith detailed the relationship between Child and Blake. She explained that Blake had never been actively involved in Child’s life and that Blake had not seen Child at all since May 2016. Smith testified that she and Blake had reached an “original agreement” for child support where Blake would pay her $1,000 per month. She further testified that this agreement did not start until 2015—when Child was already six years old—and that the payments had lasted for only one month. In total, Smith estimated that Blake had contributed $1,600 in support payments “over the entirety of [Child’s] life.”

¶9        Following trial, the district court adjudicated Blake as Child’s father, awarded Smith sole physical and legal custody of Child, and awarded Blake standard relocation parent-time pursuant to Utah Code section 30-3-37, which is approximately 17% of the year. In reaching its legal custody determination, the court analyzed the statutory factors outlined in Utah Code sections 30-3-10 and 30-3-10.2 and concluded that the presumption favoring joint legal custody had been rebutted and that joint legal custody was not in Child’s best interest. However, the court ordered a joint decision-making arrangement between the parties, requiring that the parties “discuss with each other decisions that should be made regarding [Child].” The arrangement further provides, “If there is a dispute, the parties should attend mediation and each pay half of the mediation fees. If the dispute remains, then [Smith] will have final say. [Blake] can . . . bring the matter to court if he is unsatisfied with the decision.”

¶10      Regarding child support, the district court primarily calculated Blake’s past child support payments based on his 2018 tax record, where he claimed $45,050 in gross receipts and $34,483 in deductions. After reviewing the evidence, the court concluded that several of the deductions—totaling $27,530—were unsupported and accordingly struck those deductions. Based on this, the court found that Blake’s “annual income should be $23,790” through March 2020. However, given the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the court concluded that “Blake’s income has come to a halt,” and it accordingly found it “appropriate . . . to impute minimum wage income of $1,257/month from March 2020 forward.”

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶11      Smith now appeals the district court’s order regarding custody and child support, raising two issues for our review. First, Smith argues the court abused its discretion when it “issued an internally inconsistent [custody] award” giving Smith “sole legal and physical custody but also order[ing] joint decision-making” between her and Blake. “We review custody determinations under an abuse of discretion standard, giving the district court broad discretion to make custody awards.” K.P.S. v. E.J.P., 2018 UT App 5, ¶ 24, 414 P.3d 933 (quotation simplified). “But this broad discretion must be guided by the governing law adopted by the Utah Legislature. And on matters of statutory interpretation, we review for correctness.” Dahl v. Dahl, 2015 UT 79, ¶ 155, 459 P.3d 276 (quotation simplified). And “[w]here the court’s findings are internally inconsistent on a material point, reversal and remand are appropriate.” Vandermeide v. Young, 2013 UT App 31, ¶ 21, 296 P.3d 787, cert. denied, 308 P.3d 536 (Utah 2013).[1]

¶12      Second, Smith argues the district court abused its discretion when it calculated Blake’s income for purposes of child support. “We review the district court’s decisions regarding child support . . . under the abuse of discretion standard.” Pankhurst v. Pankhurst, 2022 UT App 36, ¶ 13, 508 P.3d 612 (quotation simplified). Where the court’s findings contain mathematical error or conflict with the record, we will remand for recalculation. See Miner v. Miner, 2021 UT App 77, ¶¶ 57–60, 496 P.3d 242.

ANALYSIS
I. Custody

¶13      Smith first challenges the district court’s custody award, contending the court abused its discretion in crafting the award because it is “internally inconsistent.” According to Smith, the joint decision-making arrangement “undermines” her award of sole physical and legal custody because it “allows [Blake] to force mediation and litigation whenever he disagrees with a decision made by [Smith], even though she has sole legal and physical custody.” We agree.

¶14      As an initial matter, the Utah Code does not define “sole physical custody” or “sole legal custody.” But in Hansen v. Hansen, 2012 UT 9, 270 P.3d 531, our supreme court provided guidance as to the meaning of those terms. In Hansen, the father and the mother were awarded joint custody of their daughter following their divorce. Id. ¶ 2. The mother was awarded sole physical custody and the father was ordered to pay child support to the mother. Id. Sometime later, the daughter entered a private youth homeless shelter, where she lived through her eighteenth birthday. Id. While the daughter was living at the shelter, the father filed a petition with the district court seeking to redirect his child support payments from the mother to the homeless shelter. Id. ¶¶ 2–3. The court denied the motion, which denial was ultimately upheld by the Utah Supreme Court. Id. ¶¶ 4–5, 30.

¶15      The supreme court’s decision centered on the meaning of custody. Although the daughter had been residing at the shelter, the court determined that the daughter’s physical custody had not changed; rather, the mother still retained physical custody. Id. ¶¶ 15–19, 28. The court explained,

Family law treatises consistently define custody as a bundle of constituent rights and obligations to a child’s possession, care, and control, and explain that the essence of custody is control over all aspects of the child’s life coupled with responsibility for the child’s welfare. Standard dictionary definitions of custody are to the same effect.

Custody is often divided into two subsets: legal and physical custody. Both encompass a duty of control and supervision. While legal custody carries the power and duty to make the most significant decisions about a child’s life and welfare, physical custody involves the right, obligation, and authority to make necessary day-to-day decisions concerning the child’s welfare. Although the latter is limited to the right to control the child’s daily activities, it still involves a right of control. This grant of authority is necessary so that the custodian can control and discipline the child or make emergency medical or surgical decisions for the child.

Id. ¶¶ 16–17 (quotation simplified). Put differently, “the legal duty of control or supervision [is] the essential hallmark of custody.” Id. ¶ 18 (quotation simplified). Legal custody encompasses the ability to make major decisions in a child’s life, while physical custody encompasses the ability to make day-to-day decisions in a child’s life.

¶16      Although the Utah Code does not define sole physical or legal custody, it does define “joint legal custody” and “joint physical custody.”[2] Under the current statutory scheme, a parent may be awarded “joint legal custody,” which is defined as “the sharing of the rights, privileges, duties, and powers of a parent by both parents.” Utah Code § 30-3-10.1(2)(a) (emphasis added). As this court has long recognized, the purpose of joint legal custody is to allow “both parents [to] share the authority and responsibility to make basic decisions regarding their child’s welfare.” See Thronson v. Thronson, 810 P.2d 428, 429–30 (Utah Ct. App. 1991), cert. denied, 826 P.2d 651 (Utah 1991).

¶17      Taken together, it follows that an award of “sole” legal custody does not involve sharing the “rights, privileges, duties, and powers of a parent.” See Utah Code § 30-3-10.1(2)(a). Accordingly, when the district court awarded sole legal and physical custody to Smith, it also awarded her alone the “rights and obligations to [Child’s] possession, care, and control,” see Hansen, 2012 UT 9, ¶ 16 (quotation simplified), including the sole authority to “make the most significant decisions about [Child’s] life and welfare,” see id. ¶ 17 (quotation simplified), and the “authority to make necessary day-to-day decisions concerning [Child’s] welfare,” see id. (quotation simplified). It therefore was inconsistent to simultaneously order a joint decision-making arrangement.

¶18       Moreover, the joint decision-making arrangement is at odds with the district court’s own findings regarding Child’s best interest. “In making a custody determination, a [district] court’s primary focus is what custody arrangement would be in the best interest[] of the child.” Grindstaff v. Grindstaff, 2010 UT App 261, ¶ 4, 241 P.3d 365. Utah law presumes that joint legal custody is in a child’s best interest, but that presumption may be rebutted by showing “by a preponderance of the evidence that it is not in the best interest of the child.” Utah Code § 30-3-10(3)–(4). And under Utah law, there is “neither a preference nor a presumption for or against joint physical custody or sole physical custody.” Id. § 30­3-10(8).

¶19      “In determining whether the best interest of a child will be served by ordering joint legal custody or joint physical custody or both, the court shall consider” a number of statutory factors. See id. § 30-3-10.2(2). Here, the court analyzed the statutory factors and determined that awarding Smith sole legal and physical custody of Child was in Child’s best interest. In particular, the court found that there was “very little evidence provided that either parent could function appropriately with co-parenting skills,” that it was “unclear” whether the parties could work together to reach shared decisions in Child’s best interest, and that there was “very little evidence” the parties “actually discussed and made decisions together.” In light of these findings, it is unclear how the joint decision-making arrangement—which is not limited to major decisions but instead encompasses all decisions—could be properly viewed as advancing Child’s best interest. It does not follow from the evidence of the parties’ ongoing issues making decisions relating to Child that such an arrangement would lead to success in the future. Rather, precisely because of the court’s findings, it seems likely that such an arrangement would cause ongoing issues, result in costly mediation and additional court involvement, and be detrimental to Child’s best interest, which is exactly what Utah law seeks to avoid.

¶20      In sum, the district court abused its discretion when it awarded Smith sole physical and legal custody while also ordering a joint decision-making arrangement between Smith and Blake. Although Utah law does not prohibit a joint decision-making arrangement in cases involving an award of joint physical and legal custody, an examination of the underlying statutory scheme reveals that such an arrangement is not compatible with an award of sole physical and legal custody. Furthermore, these competing provisions belie the court’s own findings regarding Child’s best interest as relates to custody. As such, we vacate the portion of the court’s custody award ordering the joint decision-making arrangement.

II. Child Support

¶21      Smith next argues the district court erred in calculating child support. Specifically, Smith takes issue with the court’s calculation of Blake’s income for purposes of child support, contending the court’s calculation (1) contains a mathematical error and (2) is inconsistent with the evidence in the record. We agree.

¶22      The Utah Child Support Act outlines the process by which a district court must evaluate the income of a parent when calculating child support. See generally Utah Code § 78B-12-202. To begin, the court must consider the “gross income” of a parent, which the Utah Code defines broadly as including

prospective income from any source, including earned and nonearned income sources which may include salaries, wages, commissions, royalties, bonuses, rents, gifts from anyone, prizes, dividends, severance pay, pensions, interest, trust income, alimony from previous marriages, annuities, capital gains, Social Security benefits, workers’ compensation benefits, unemployment compensation, income replacement disability insurance benefits, and payments from “nonmeans-tested” government programs.

Id. § 78B-12-203(1). And when a parent is self-employed—as is the case with Blake—the statute directs how gross income should be handled. It provides that “[g]ross income from self-employment or operation of a business shall be calculated by subtracting necessary expenses required for self-employment or business operation from gross receipts. . . . Gross income . . . may differ from the amount of business income determined for tax purposes.” Id. § 78B-12-203(4).

¶23      The district court determined that Blake’s income had been impacted as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and accordingly evaluated his income for purposes of child support based on what he had earned pre-pandemic and what he was earning during the pandemic. On the record before us, we see two errors in the court’s calculations. First, the court made a discrete mathematical error in calculating Blake’s pre-pandemic income. Second, and more broadly, the court did not consider all the evidence of Blake’s finances when calculating Blake’s income, both pre-pandemic and at the time of trial.

¶24      First, the district court calculated Blake’s past child support payments using his 2018 tax record. On that record, Blake claimed $45,050 in gross receipts. From that, Blake deducted $34,483 as follows: $5,270 for “materials and supplies,” $3,605 for “advertising,” $360 for “legal and professional services,” $500 for “office expense,” $21,760 for “other business property,” and $2,988 for “utilities.” After viewing the evidence, the court found that Blake had failed to adequately explain why he should be entitled to deductions for “materials and supplies” ($5,270), “other business property” ($21,760), or “office expense” ($500), and it accordingly struck those deductions, totaling $27,530. As a result, the court should have concluded that Blake’s income was $38,097, or $3,175 per month rounded. But it did not. Instead, it concluded that Blake’s income was $23,790, or $1,983 per month. This value is mathematically incorrect.

¶25      Second, notwithstanding the mathematical error in the court’s calculation of Blake’s income, the value imputed by the court is inconsistent with the evidence in the record. Utah law is clear that “in contested cases,” a judge is entitled to impute income to a parent so long as the judge “enters findings of fact as to the evidentiary basis for the imputation.” See id. § 78B-12­203(8)(a). “The purpose of such imputation is to prevent parents from reducing their child support or alimony by purposeful unemployment or underemployment.” Connell v. Connell, 2010 UT App 139, ¶ 16, 233 P.3d 836 (quotation simplified). Accordingly, when imputing income, “the income shall be based upon employment potential and probable earnings considering,” among other things, “employment opportunities,” “work history,” and “occupation qualifications.” Utah Code § 78B-12­203(8)(b).

¶26      As explained above, the court calculated Blake’s income at $1,983 per month up until the time that the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020. And at trial, which was held in October 2020, the court concluded that due to the pandemic, “Blake’s income has come to a halt” and therefore determined it was “appropriate . . . to impute minimum wage income of $1,257/month from March 2020 forward.” But the financial documents submitted by Blake do not support the low amount of income the court chose to impute.

¶27      Blake’s bank records—which were all filed with the court—show that Blake made deposits into his personal account totaling $456,669.98 between August 2017 and January 2019. These deposits included a check for $200,000, which Blake testified “was for my services that was rendered” in connection with a high-publicity boxing match. And in addition to the deposits, Blake’s bank records show significant withdrawals. For example, the records indicate that Blake had regularly invested in cryptocurrency, had transferred over $15,000 to his mother, had transferred over $9,000 to the mother of one of his other children,[3] and had spent over $10,000 on luxury clothing.

¶28      Despite the evidence of Blake’s spending, Blake did not demonstrate how he was funding his lifestyle, and he claimed only one debt of $7,240 in the first of his three financial disclosures. In light of the foregoing, the district court’s determination that Blake was making no money and therefore should be imputed minimum wage is not supported by the evidence. Rather, the evidence suggests that Blake was less than forthcoming with the court as to the actual amount of his income. As such, on remand the court should reevaluate evidence of Blake’s finances, his earning capacity, and whether he is voluntarily underemployed and should make a further determination as to whether greater income should be imputed to him.[4] In so doing, the court should take special care to ensure that the final award is void of mathematical error.

CONCLUSION

¶29      The district court abused its discretion when it awarded Smith sole physical and legal custody of Child while also ordering a joint decision-making arrangement with Blake. We therefore vacate the court’s custody ruling as it relates to the joint decision-making arrangement. The court also abused its discretion when calculating child support. The current award contains a mathematical error and is not supported by record evidence. Accordingly, we reverse the court’s award of child support and remand with instructions that the court reexamine the evidence to determine whether greater income should be imputed to Blake.

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


[1] Blake did not file a brief or otherwise appear in this appeal. Although “an appellee’s failure to file a brief does not amount to an automatic default and consequent reversal of the lower court,” our supreme court has recently recognized that such failure does impact the “typical burden of persuasion on appeal.” See AL-IN Partners, LLC v. LifeVantage Corp., 2021 UT 42, ¶ 19, 496 P.3d 76 (quotation simplified). Because an appellee’s failure to raise any argument leaves the appellant’s claims “unrebutted,” see Broderick v. Apartment Mgmt. Consultants, LLC, 2012 UT 17, ¶¶ 18–21, 279 P.3d 391, “when an appellee fails to present us with any argument, an appellant need only establish a prima facie showing of a plausible basis for reversal,” AL-IN Partners, 2021 UT 42, ¶ 19 (quotation simplified). We question whether the standard articulated in AL-IN Partners should apply the same way in cases such as this where the standard of review on appeal is deferential to the discretionary decisions of the district court. But because this issue was not briefed and our decision on both arguments presented ultimately involves the conclusion that the district court did abuse its discretion and committed other errors, we need not decide the issue today. However, we note the question does warrant additional consideration in a case where it is squarely before the court.

[2] In relevant part, the statute defines “joint physical custody” as when “the child stays with each parent overnight for more than 30% of the year.” Utah Code § 30-3-10.1(3)(a). This particular provision is not applicable here because Blake was awarded standard relocation parent-time which falls below the 30% threshold. See id. § 30-3-37. Nevertheless, Utah law is clear that “[e]ach parent may make decisions regarding the day-to-day care and control of the child while the child is residing with that parent.” Id. § 30-3-10.9(6). Thus, by statute Smith has sole decision-making authority over day-to-day decisions when Child is in her care. Likewise, Blake has decision-making authority over day-to-day decisions when Child is in his care.

[3] This amount does not include child support payments awarded to the mother, which were $1,000 per month. Those support payments were made directly to Nevada’s State Collection and Disbursement Unit.

[4] Smith filed a post-trial motion pursuant to rule 59(e) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure seeking to amend, among other things, the court’s child support award. The district court issued a Memorandum Decision and Order denying the motion. In analyzing the child support issue, the court stated that “[g]ifts are not generally considered income.” This is legally incorrect. As explained above, the Utah Code explicitly defines “gross income” as including “gifts from anyone.” See Utah Code § 78B-12-203(1). To the extent Blake was gifted items, the court must include the value of those gifts when calculating his income.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

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.

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

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2023 UT App 48 – Anderson v. Deem – civil stalking injunction

2023 UT App 48 – Anderson v. Deem

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

ELLIE ANDERSON,

Appellant,

v.

JACKSON DEEM,

Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20210558-CA

Filed May 11, 2023

Fourth District Court, Provo Department

The Honorable Robert A. Lund

No. 210400723

Jason B. Fida and Patricia Abbott Lammi,

Attorneys for Appellant

Emily Adams and Freyja Johnson,

Attorneys for Appellee

JUDGE DAVID N. MORTENSEN authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and RYAN D. TENNEY concurred.

MORTENSEN, Judge:

¶1        Jackson Deem used social media to send several messages to Ellie Anderson, his teenaged schoolmate. Anderson requested a civil stalking injunction, and the district court issued a temporary order. Deem requested a hearing, at which the court revoked the injunction and dismissed the case. The court considered each incident separately as to its emotional or fear-inducing effect to reach a conclusion that Deem had not engaged in a course of conduct as required by the civil stalking statute. In addition, the court justified its decision by referring to Deem’s autism and to the potential availability of a no-contact order in an unadjudicated criminal case. Anderson appeals, claiming that the district court applied the wrong standard in its evaluation of the issues. We agree, reverse the revocation and dismissal of the petition (thereby reinstating the injunction), and remand this matter to the district court so that it may apply the correct standard.

BACKGROUND[1]

¶2 Deem and Anderson were schoolmates, having intermittently attended elementary through high school together. As it is material in this case, we note that Deem was diagnosed with autism when he was around nine or ten years old.

¶3        The troubles underlying the present case stem from an incident in August 2018 when Anderson and Deem were starting tenth grade. Deem posted a message on Instagram stating that he was considering suicide. Seeing this message, Anderson called 911 to request a welfare check on Deem. Shortly after this, Deem posted that he was upset that someone had made the call. Notably, the record does not state that Deem ever said he knew who made the call, and Anderson testified that she was “not sure if he realized” that it was her.

¶4        After this incident, Anderson alleged that Deem sent her a series of unwelcome communications over a period of about three years.

The Incidents of Alleged Stalking

¶5        First Incident: Allegedly—there is no evidence of this event apart from Anderson’s testimony—Deem posted a “hit list” on Instagram about a week after he posted the message alluding to suicide. According to Anderson, this message “stated that [Deem] wanted to shoot up the school and . . . listed people [he] was going to be targeting,” and she and her friend “were on there.” Anderson asserted that she provided a screenshot of the message to her principal but did not otherwise save it or report it. Deem categorically denied posting such a list.

¶6        Second Incident: In July 2019, on the occasion of Anderson’s sixteenth birthday, Deem posted a message to her Facebook page expressing the sentiment, “die, bitch.” After this post, Anderson attempted to block Deem from contacting her on social media.

¶7        Third Incident: In May 2021, Deem, using a different account, sent Anderson a series of Instagram messages. Anderson testified that the first message was an apology stating that Deem “didn’t think” Anderson was “going to take all of [his] threats seriously.” This message was deleted and does not appear in the record; it was followed by four messages, which do appear in the record, from Deem over a period of about three hours.

¶8        In the first of these messages, Deem wrote,

I don’t know if you saw my apology from before, but I take it back. I wish nothing but the absolute worst for you in life. You being angry at what I said is one thing, but telling other people and blackballing me is another entirely. Why even care about what I said? No one values my opinion. I can scream at people how much I hate them all I want, but it doesn’t erase the fundamental power imbalance. You and all the other people who’ve mistreated me over the years have destroyed my mental health irreparably. And the worst part is that no one cares or even acknowledges how they’ve hurt me. There’s no reason why anyone should remember me because they have great lives today. But I don’t have that luxury of not caring about the past because I have no future. Now there’s not a single person from those schools who doesn’t hate me, so those memories are tainted now.

In the next message, apparently sent immediately afterward, Deem stated,

Unlike you, I acknowledge that I’m a terrible person. But you go about it in a different way. All those times you were nice to me were purely self-serving.

¶9        About two hours later, Anderson messaged Deem, “[P]lease stop harassing me or I will be going to the police.” About an hour later, Deem expressed his discontent with her response by sending two messages of his own. The first read, “I’ll be waiting for you in hell.” And the second was the capitalized epithet “FUCK YOU”—followed by 529 exclamation points.

The Injunction and Dismissal

¶10 After receiving the May 2021 messages, Anderson requested a civil stalking injunction against Deem, citing the three incidents described above and one other incident.[2] See Utah Code § 78B-7-701(1)(a)(i) (“[A]n individual who believes that the individual is the victim of stalking may file a verified written petition for a civil stalking injunction against the alleged stalker with the district court in the district in which the individual or respondent resides, is temporarily domiciled, or in which any of the events occurred.”). The district court granted that request and issued a temporary stalking injunction, ordering Deem to have no contact with Anderson and to stay away from Anderson’s home, work, and school. See id. § 78B-7-701(3)(a). Deem requested a hearing on the temporary stalking injunction. See id. § 78B-7­701(4)(a) (“[T]he respondent is entitled to request, in writing, an evidentiary hearing on the civil stalking injunction.”).[3]

¶11 At the hearing, Anderson, Deem, and Deem’s mother (Mother) testified. Anderson testified about the incidents described above, namely the suicide threat and the three incidents. Apart from the hit list, Anderson had screenshots of the communications that she referred to in her testimony. She also testified that she last saw Deem in person during their sophomore year of high school, sometime in 2018.

from Deem’s account. The court agreed with Deem, noting that the connection with Deem was tenuous and that the message was directed to a third party without reference to Anderson. Anderson does not challenge the exclusion on appeal.

¶12      Deem testified that he had not posted a hit list. He also testified that he never intended to cause Anderson fear or emotional distress. Rather, he said he “lashed out” on social media and had no intent to follow up, noting that Anderson was “just . . . the first person who came to mind as someone [he would] like to say those things to.” Deem also testified that he was homebound, did not drive or have a license, and never left his house without his parents. And he stated that he understood that he could not have any contact with Anderson and that he “did potentially cause [Anderson] emotional distress.” Finally, he testified that he did not know where Anderson lived.

¶13      Mother testified that she did not recall being informed by the school that Deem sent a hit list or threatened to shoot up the school in 2018. She testified that apart from an incident in fourth grade, she did not know Deem to be physically violent. However, she testified that Deem does “lash out with his words” from “behind a computer screen.” And concerning his mobility, she testified that Deem does not drive or leave the house without her or his father.

¶14 After hearing the evidence, the district court concluded that Anderson had “failed to meet the standard [of] by a preponderance of the evidence for a continuation of the injunction.” See id. § 78B-7-701(5) (“At the hearing, the court may modify, revoke, or continue the injunction. . . . [T]he burden is on the petitioner to show by a preponderance of the evidence that stalking of the petitioner by the respondent has occurred.”).

¶15      In arriving at its decision, the court considered the three incidents to determine if there was a course of conduct under the stalking statute: “An actor commits stalking if the actor intentionally or knowingly . . . engages in a course of conduct directed at a specific individual and knows or should know that the course of conduct would cause a reasonable person: (i) to fear for the individual’s own safety or the safety of a third individual; or (ii) to suffer other emotional distress . . . .” Id. § 76-5-106.5(2)(a).

¶16 Regarding the first incident, the court determined that it was “disputed and there was no independent evidence provided that the list was created or that . . . Anderson’s name was on it.” Concerning the second incident, the court stated that it “certainly” consisted of “conduct that could qualify under the statute as something that would create emotional distress.” And about the third incident, the court noted that it “contain[ed] two potentially concerning language references.” The first was the profane expression of “FUCK YOU,” but the court observed that this phrase is “so ubiquitous in our culture” as to have “no significance at all” or to be in “any way threatening.” The court stated, “[I]t’s not a term that causes emotional distress. It’s replete in our culture, in our language, in our entertainment.” Accordingly, the court found “that saying that to someone alone is not a basis to support the petition” for a stalking injunction. The court reasoned that the other phrase—“I’ll be waiting for you in hell”—“conveys that both parties have engaged in a pattern that makes them worthy of being relegated to hell” and that it was “not threatening on its face.”

¶17      The court reasoned that because “two of those events [did not] meet the standard for potentially satisfying the requirements of the statute,” it was left “with one [incident] that occur[red] over the period of three years,” which failed “to meet the course of conduct requirement of the statute.” See id. § 76-5-106.5(1)(a)(i) (defining course of conduct as “two or more acts directed at or toward a specific individual, including . . . acts in which the actor . . . communicates to or about an individual”).

¶18      The court acknowledged that Deem’s communications had a “significant impact” on Anderson. But when viewing the communications “independently” and “objectively,” and “weighing [the evidence] against the statutory requirement,” the court concluded “that there [was not] a further basis to enjoin . . . Deem’s behavior.” The court clarified that while Deem “communicated to or about” Anderson, he did not do so “in a way that invokes the necessity to enjoin him in the future,” noting that there was not “a course of conduct at issue here given the time frame [and] given the specific language that was used.”

¶19      The court then made two additional observations to justify

not extending the injunction. First, it delved into the impact of Deem’s autism:

And furthermore, I think that all this has to be taken in terms of whether or not he knowingly and intentionally[[4]] engaged in the course of conduct and whether or not he knew or should have known that a reasonable person would be in fear[.] [T]hat has to be viewed in light of . . . Deem’s special circumstances. If he didn’t have the diagnosis and the things that he does have, we might attribute more mens rea to him[,] and I think that somebody receiving communications from him in terms of how threatening they are or whether they would put someone in fear [or] apprehension, has to be viewed in the context of his condition, of the fact that he has no history of violence, that he’s not mobile. All those things relate to the reasonableness with which somebody would view this language.

¶20 Second, the court considered the impact of a criminal case—presumably related to the third incident. The court noted that Deem indicated that he would be “stipulating” to “a criminal no contact order . . . in that case.” The court observed that this potential no-contact order would provide Anderson “with the protection that she’ll need, if that protection is needed, which is, you know, not certain in this [c]ourt’s mind.”

¶21      With that, the district court ordered the stalking injunction dismissed. Anderson appeals.

ISSUE AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶22      The issue on appeal is whether the district court “erred in its construction and application of the Utah stalking statutes” when it declined to continue the temporary stalking injunction. A court’s “interpretation and application of the relevant statutory provisions” regarding continuing a stalking injunction “is a question of law which we review for correctness, affording no deference to the district court’s legal conclusions.” Ellison v. Stam, 2006 UT App 150, ¶ 16, 136 P.3d 1242 (cleaned up). Although the question of whether the course of conduct would “cause a reasonable person [in a petitioner’s circumstances] to suffer fear or emotional distress” is “a question of fact that we review for clear error, we review the district court’s interpretation of the underlying legal standard for correctness.” See Ragsdale v. Fishler, 2021 UT 29, ¶ 16, 491 P.3d 835.[5]

ANALYSIS

¶23      Those who believe they are victims of stalking may file a petition for a civil stalking injunction against the alleged stalker with the district court. See Utah Code § 78B-7-701(1)(a)(i). If the court determines there is reason to believe that there has been an offense[6] of stalking, it may issue a civil stalking injunction restraining the alleged stalker from, among other actions, going near the other party or having contact with the other party. Id. § 78B-7-701(3)(a).

¶24      Our supreme court summarizes stalking as follows:

The crime of stalking consists of two elements. First, a person must intentionally or knowingly engage in a course of conduct directed at a specific person. Second, that person must know or should know that the course of conduct would cause a reasonable person to fear for the person’s own safety or suffer other emotional distress. A district court may enjoin an alleged stalker only if both elements are met.

Ragsdale v. Fishler, 2021 UT 29, ¶ 25, 491 P.3d 835 (cleaned up); see also Utah Code § 76-5-106.5(2)(a). Here, the district court’s approach suffered from two primary infirmities that we will address in turn. First, the district court erroneously considered incidents to be potentially part of a course of conduct only if each discrete incident was capable of causing fear or emotional distress. Second, and relatedly, the district court considered each incident in isolation as to whether fear or emotional distress might be engendered. In both regards, this approach is at odds with the applicable statute and precedent.

  1. Course of Conduct Analysis

¶25 Here, there is no dispute as to the first element. Deem intentionally or knowingly communicated with Anderson in the second and third incidents.[7] Indeed, Deem “concedes that there was a course of conduct here, as defined by the statute.” But for the sake of clarity and as this matter is being remanded for further consideration, we note that a course of conduct does not necessarily involve threatening behavior—as it appears the district court seemed to require in its approach to this case. Rather, a course of conduct merely requires “two or more acts directed at or toward a specific individual.” See Utah Code § 76-5-106.5(1)(a)(i). These acts might well be threatening, but they don’t have to be. Instead, they can include “acts in which the actor . . . communicates to or about an individual,” directly or indirectly and by any means. See id. § 76-5-106.5(1)(a)(i)(A).

¶26      As our supreme court has made clear, establishing a course of conduct is the first step in the stalking analysis. See Ragsdale v. Fishler, 2021 UT 29, ¶ 25, 491 P.3d 835. This step should not be conflated or combined with the second part of the analysis, which involves a determination as to whether the course of conduct would cause a reasonable person fear or emotional distress. See id. Here, the district court’s analysis on this point lagged a bit in clarity. The court said that because two of the three alleged incidents were not capable of inducing fear or emotional distress in the court’s view, they did not “meet the standard for potentially satisfying the requirements of the statute, . . . leav[ing] us with one [incident] that occur[ed] over the period of three years[,] which also fails to meet the course of conduct requirement of the statute.” Insofar as the district court was saying that while Deem committed two more acts that would have satisfied the course of conduct requirement had those acts been threatening in nature, the district court erred in its interpretation of the statute. For the purpose of showing a course of conduct, the Ragsdale court clearly explained, “[I]f a respondent follows, threatens, or communicates to a petitioner only once, he or she has not engaged in a course of conduct. But if a respondent follows, threatens, or communicates to the petitioner on two or more occasions, he or she engages in a course of conduct directed at the petitioner.” Id. ¶ 31 (emphasis added).[8] Deem’s communications in the second and third incidents easily fit the bill required by the first element of the statute. Deem acknowledged that he intentionally or knowingly communicated on multiple occasions with Anderson. That’s likely why Deem concedes that the course of conduct occurred.

But the district court’s consideration of whether fear or emotional distress was associated with each communication was an erroneous distraction in this part of the statutory analysis.

  1. Emotional Distress and Fear for Safety Analysis

¶27 Regarding the second element, the district court determined that only one communication—the second incident— would cause “a reasonable person to fear for the person’s own safety or suffer other emotional distress.” See Ragsdale v. Fishler, 2021 UT 29, ¶ 25, 491 P.3d 835 (cleaned up). In so concluding, the district court considered each communication in isolation. This was error.

¶28      The court declined to consider the alleged communication associated with the first incident because (1) the incident was disputed and (2) Anderson did not provide evidence, apart from her sworn testimony, to corroborate the claim that the hit list was created or that her name was on it. And the court concluded that the third incident was not threatening or emotionally distressful. Given that this effectively left only one incident to constitute the course of conduct in the court’s view, the district court concluded that Anderson had not shown by a preponderance of the evidence that Deem had stalked her so as to satisfy the conditions for continuing the injunction. See Utah Code § 78B-7-701(5). However, precedent holds that a district court should consider the course of conduct cumulatively. This the district court failed to do. While the district court was free to ignore the first incident because the court ruled it had not been proved to have occurred, the court erroneously failed to consider the remaining acts in the course of conduct collectively.

¶29      To qualify for a stalking injunction, “a petitioner must meet an objective—not subjective—standard.” Baird v. Baird, 2014 UT 8, ¶ 24, 322 P.3d 728. Under this “solely objective standard, the subjective effect of the respondent’s conduct on the petitioner is irrelevant. Rather, the petitioner must establish only that the respondent’s conduct would cause emotional distress to a reasonable person in the petitioner’s circumstances.” Id. ¶ 25. But by “including ‘in the victim’s circumstances’ as part of the ‘reasonable person’ definition,” the statute “provides for an individualized objective standard,” meaning that “a court must consider the entire context surrounding [the] defendant’s conduct.” Id. ¶ 26; see also State v. Miller, 2023 UT 3, ¶¶ 82, 91 (reciting the same standard); Utah Code § 76-5-106.5(1)(a)(v) (defining a reasonable person as “a reasonable person in the victim’s circumstances”). [9] Thus, “acts that seem perfectly innocent or even well intentioned may constitute stalking. For example, conduct such as sending the victim a dozen roses may seem benign and loving to the casual observer, but could mean a very different thing when understood in the context of the victim’s experience.” Baird, 2014 UT 8, ¶ 26 (cleaned up). “Courts applying this individualized objective standard have considered such factors as the victim’s background, the victim’s knowledge of and relationship with the defendant, any history of abuse between the parties, . . . and the cumulative effect of defendant’s repetitive conduct.” Id. ¶ 27 (cleaned up) (emphasis added); see also Miller, 2023 UT 3, ¶¶ 83–86 (noting that the factors listed in Baird are not exhaustive of the behaviors “that could, in certain circumstances, cause a victim emotional distress”).[10]

¶30      Here, the district court’s analysis was legally flawed because it approached the matter using an insular rather than a holistic framework to arrive at its conclusion that Deem’s course of conduct was not of such a type as to cause fear or emotional distress to a reasonable person. In other words, the court erred by looking at the individual acts that created the course of conduct rather than the course of conduct and other relevant incidents cumulatively.

¶31      The district court’s focus on the individual acts in isolation from the overall course of conduct is especially problematic with regard to the third incident. First, the district court concluded that the term “‘fuck you’ . . . is so ubiquitous in our culture” that it was of “no significance at all” or in “any way threatening.” The court stated that this profane statement is “not a term that causes emotional distress” given that its use is “replete in our culture, in our language, in our entertainment.” From its common use, the court found “that saying that to someone alone is not a basis to support the petition” for a stalking injunction. The court might be right that, standing alone, this term would not cause fear or emotional distress.[11] But analyzing the profanity in isolation from the other acts establishing a course of conduct is not what the stalking statute asks us to do. As our supreme court has clarified, courts “must consider the conduct cumulatively, accounting for the facts and circumstances of the individual case,” rather than considering the individual acts making up the course of conduct in isolation from each other. See Ragsdale, 2021 UT 29, ¶ 45 (cleaned up); see also Baird, 2014 UT 8, ¶ 27. Thus, while the profanity alone might not be enough to cause fear or emotional distress, when considered in conjunction with Deem’s wish to see Anderson in hell and his earlier communication that she was a “bitch” that he would like to see “die,” a different picture emerges. Moreover, Deem’s use of capital letters and hundreds (529, to be precise) of exclamation points in his final communication could be seen as expressing a certain amount of rage that goes well beyond the casual use of profanity. Thus, Deem’s overall course of conduct could very well be enough to cause fear or emotional distress.

¶32      Second, concerning Deem’s statement, “I’ll be waiting for you in hell,” the district court made a similar error in concluding that it conveyed nothing more than “that both parties [had] engaged in a pattern that [made] them worthy of being relegated to hell” and that it was “not threatening on its face.” Saying “I’ll see you in hell” might carry a benign meaning when said jokingly between friends, but when coupled with the profanity and Deem’s birthday greeting of “die, bitch,” it takes on an altogether different connotation. In other words, evaluating the hell statement in isolation makes it seem benign, but when viewed as part of Deem’s overall course of conduct, it could very well contribute to instilling fear or causing emotional distress.

¶33      On remand, we direct the district court to assess “the entire context surrounding” Deem’s conduct—rather than relying on a “blanket conclusion” that the ubiquity of profanity precludes it from instilling fear or causing emotional distress—so as to “account for the cumulative impact of his behavior” over the entire period of the course of conduct. See Ragsdale, 2021 UT 29, ¶ 47; see also Miller, 2023 UT 3, ¶ 116 (“Although the jury found that [certain] prior conduct did not constitute stalking, [that prior conduct] remained relevant to understand [the respondent and petitioner’s] relationship, the history they shared, and, therefore, whether [the respondent] knew or should have known [later actions] would cause a reasonable person in [petitioner’s] position emotional distress.”).

¶34      The district court also should conduct this analysis in light of the standard of a reasonable person in Anderson’s circumstances. See Ragsdale, 2021 UT 29, ¶ 48. This does not give license for the district court to conduct “a purely subjective analysis” that provides voice to unreasonable sensitivity or paranoia. See Baird, 2014 UT 8, ¶ 27. But it does mean that the court must consider factors such as Anderson’s “knowledge of and relationship” with Deem and their shared history in reaching its conclusion on whether Deem’s course of conduct would cause fear or emotional distress. See id.[12]

¶35      In sum, we remand this matter to the district court so that it may apply the appropriate objective standard as outlined above to its emotional distress and fear determination regarding the cumulative effect of Deem’s multiple communications directed at Anderson. This standard requires that the court look at the context surrounding Deem’s course of conduct. Specifically, we direct the district court to avoid looking at whether each of Deem’s individual acts induced fear or caused emotional distress, instead focusing on the impact of the overall course of his conduct on a reasonable person in Anderson’s circumstances.

CONCLUSION

¶36      The district court misapplied the standard in determining whether a course of conduct existed that would cause a reasonable person in Anderson’s circumstances to suffer fear or emotional distress. We reverse the revocation and dismissal of Anderson’s request for a civil stalking injunction (thereby reinstating the injunction) and remand this matter so that the court may apply the correct standard.

 

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

 

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

[2] Anderson also asserted that “around [the] time or before [the] time” of the May 2021 messages, a hacked Instagram account sent a message to her friends’ accounts stating, “I will murder your family.” Anderson said the name on the sending account “was a bunch of scrambled letters” but that she had deciphered it to reveal Deem’s name. Anderson speculated that Deem was surreptitiously sending the message to her through a third-party account, even though the message did not reference her in any way. Anderson attached a screenshot of this message to her request for the stalking injunction. At the hearing for the injunction, Deem objected to the admission of this evidence on the ground that there was not “any foundation” to show that it was

[3] If a respondent requests a hearing within ten days “after the day on which the . . . civil stalking injunction is served,” the “burden is on the petitioner to show by a preponderance of the evidence that stalking of the petitioner by the respondent has occurred.” Utah Code § 78B-7-701(4)(a), (b)(ii). “If the respondent requests a hearing after the 10-day period after service, . . . the burden is on the respondent to show good cause why the civil stalking injunction should be dissolved or modified.” Id. § 78B-7­701(7). Here, Deem filed the request within ten days. Accordingly, at the ensuing hearing, Anderson bore the burden of proof.

[4] The statutory standard is “intentionally or knowingly,” not “intentionally and knowingly.” See Utah Code § 76-5-106.5(2).

[5] Anderson also argues on appeal that the district court erred in considering that a no-contact order was available to her from Deem’s criminal matter—presumably arising from the third incident—in determining whether she was entitled to a stalking injunction. We agree. Consideration of whether other remedies (criminal or otherwise) exist is not contemplated in relevant caselaw or the stalking statute. See infra note 12. But we need not address this issue further given the manner in which we resolve this appeal.

[6] While it may seem odd to discuss an “offense” in a civil context, the stalking injunction statute borrows its definition from the criminal stalking statute. In other words, to “obtain a civil stalking injunction, a petitioner must establish the elements necessary to meet the definition of stalking in the criminal code.” See Higley v. Buhler, 2019 UT App 96, ¶ 11, 446 P.3d 92 (per curiam); see also Utah Code § 76-5-106.5(2).

[7] Deem stated that Anderson was “the first person who came to mind” when he wanted to lash out.

[8] The third incident likely established a course of conduct by itself. In Hardy v. Hardy, 2020 UT App 88, 467 P.3d 931, cert. denied, 474 P.3d 948 (Utah 2020), our court said, “We could conceive of a circumstance in which a single event with multiple distinct acts undertaken for different purposes or separated by some amount of time might constitute a course of conduct.” Id. ¶ 7 n.4; see also State v. Miller, 2023 UT 3, ¶ 126 (explaining that repeatedly replying to emails in the same thread “does not convert each of [the] separate emails into a single act” when the emails in the chain were sent over a period time). This is what we have in the third incident. See supra ¶¶ 7–9. First, there was an apology. Second, there were two consecutive messages in which Deem rescinded the apology and complained about the way he had been treated. Then—about three hours later and after Anderson had replied with a message telling Deem to “please stop harassing her or [she would] be going to the police”—Deem sent a third set of messages with the profanity and the reference to hell. These three communications likely constituted a course of conduct because each had “different purposes” and because they (or at least the second and third communications) were “separated by some amount of time.” See Hardy, 2020 UT App 88, ¶ 7 n.4. Thus, it seems likely that there were four communications—or “acts” in the parlance of the statute (namely, the second incident, the apology, the rescindment, and the profanity and hell comment)— to satisfy the course of conduct requirement.

[9] In this regard, the district court’s approach was arguably backward. The district court considered the individual circumstances of the respondent—a consideration absent in the statute—and failed to properly consider the individual circumstances of the petitioner. See supra ¶ 19.

[10] Still, our supreme court has cautioned that “when assessing these and other relevant factors, . . . courts must avoid succumbing to a purely subjective analysis, which is inconsistent with the objective standard’s intent to protect against criminalizing conduct that only an unreasonably sensitive or paranoid victim would find harassing so as to reduce the risk of a truly innocent defendant falling within the ambit of a stalking statute.” Baird v. Baird, 2014 UT 8, ¶ 27, 322 P.3d 728 (cleaned up).

[11] Although even this conclusion seems to rest on shaky ground. Our supreme court in Ragsdale v. Fishler, 2021 UT 29, 491 P.3d 835, noted, “[T]he fact that [the respondent] flipped off and communicated obscenities” to the petitioner “on two or more occasions” meant that the petitioner “could potentially obtain an injunction against” the respondent. Id. ¶ 39. Granted, the supreme court added, “But this does not mean that every person flipped off and sworn at two or more times by the same individual is entitled to a stalking injunction.” Id. ¶ 39 n.29. Yet, this is the point. In context, considering the particular circumstances of a petitioner, even profanity ubiquitous in society might very well form the basis for an injunction.

[12] Anderson asserts that the district court erred in considering Deem’s autism and other facts such as Deem’s lack of a history of violence and immobility. The district court’s consideration of these points strayed well into the realm of the irrelevant. There is nothing in the record to suggest that Anderson should have regarded Deem’s course of conduct as more or less threatening than it would have been had he not been diagnosed with autism. On remand, given the dearth of evidence about Anderson’s knowledge of (1) the impact autism had on Deem’s behavior, (2) Deem’s lack of past violent conduct, and (3) Deem’s other personal circumstances, we caution the district court to avoid the line of reasoning it previously embraced in this respect.

The district court should also avoid speculation regarding the availability of a no-contact order because consideration of other remedies is nowhere contemplated in the stalking statutes. The consolation of the merely potential no-contact order is nebulous at best, especially considering that the criminal case was unadjudicated at the time of the hearing. Cf. Miller, 2023 UT 3, ¶ 119 (noting that the availability of an existing stalking injunction does not necessarily “mitigate” or “eliminate the emotional distress [a respondent’s] behavior caused” when the course of conduct is ongoing).

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Nix v. Nix – 2022 UT App 83- insufficient evidence of adultery

2022 UT App 83

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

JILL NIX,

Appellee,

v.

ROLAND COMPTON NIX JR.,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20200691-CA

Filed June 30, 2022

Fourth District Court, Provo Department

The Honorable Darold J. McDade

No. 174402122

Seth D. Needs, Attorney for Appellant

D. Grant Dickinson, Attorney for Appellee

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

TENNEY, Judge:

¶1        Under the Utah Code, there are ten “[g]rounds for divorce,” one of which is “adultery committed by the respondent subsequent to marriage.” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-1(3)(b) (LexisNexis 2019). Interpreting this provision, our supreme court has held that evidence of adultery “subsequent to the filing of a divorce complaint is inadmissible for the purpose of establishing grounds for divorce,” though it can be “admissible as lending weight to and corroborating testimony as to prior acts” of infidelity. Vrontikis v. Vrontikis, 358 P.2d 632, 632 (Utah 1961).

¶2        When Jill Nix filed for divorce from Roland Nix Jr., she alleged “adultery committed by Roland during the marriage” as one of “the grounds for dissolution of this marriage.” During his subsequent deposition, Roland declined to answer a question from Jill’s attorney about whether he’d had extramarital sexual relations “since the marriage.” The district court later concluded that this non-response constituted an adoptive admission that Roland had committed adultery before Jill filed for divorce. Based on this conclusion, the court awarded Jill a divorce on the ground of adultery.

¶3        Roland now appeals that decision. As explained below, we agree that Roland’s non-response did not provide sufficient evidence to establish that Roland committed adultery before Jill filed her divorce petition. We accordingly reverse.

BACKGROUND[1]

¶4        Jill filed for divorce from Roland in August 2017. In her petition, Jill asserted two “grounds for dissolution of [the] marriage,” one of which was “adultery committed by Roland during the marriage.” Jill also asserted cruelty as an alternative ground for divorce. But that alternative ground was not further litigated below, the district court never ruled on it, and neither party has raised any issue about it on appeal.

¶5        In his answer, Roland “denie[d]” Jill’s “[g]rounds.” But Roland did not want the marriage to continue, so he counter-petitioned for divorce on the ground of irreconcilable differences.

¶6        Roland was later deposed. During his deposition, the following exchange occurred between Jill’s counsel, Roland, and Roland’s counsel:

[Jill’s counsel:] Have you had any sexual relations with someone other than Jill since the marriage?

[Roland:] It is none of your business.

[Jill’s counsel:] Counsel I am entitled to know.

[Roland’s counsel:] I question the relevance. I don’t think that adultery or anything has been alleged in the pleadings.

. . . .

[Roland:] We are separated and that is none of their business.

. . . . [brief break taken by the parties]

[Jill’s counsel:] We left on the question of adultery. Mr. Nix what is your response?

After another objection and then more discussion between counsel, Roland made a somewhat vague reference to a woman with whom he’d apparently had some type of relationship. A short time later, Roland was asked, “And have you engaged in sexual relations with this person?” Roland answered, “Yes.”

¶7        Roland and Jill eventually settled most aspects of their divorce. But when they weren’t able to agree on the ground for divorce, Jill’s counsel requested a trial on that issue. At a scheduling conference, however, the parties and the court agreed on an alternative procedure under which the parties would submit memoranda about the ground for divorce, after which the court would hear oral argument on the matter.

¶8        In her memorandum, Jill pointed to Roland’s non-response to the deposition question of whether he’d “had any sexual relations with someone other than Jill since the marriage.” From this, Jill asked the court to draw “an adverse inference” that Roland had “committed adultery subsequent to the marriage.” In addition, Jill pointed to Roland’s express admission that he’d “engaged in sexual relations with this person.”

¶9        In his responsive memorandum, Roland asked the court to deny Jill’s request for an adultery-based divorce. Roland asserted that under Vrontikis v. Vrontikis, 358 P.2d 632 (Utah 1961), any adultery that he had committed after Jill filed for divorce could not constitute a ground for divorce. And Roland then argued that Jill had offered no evidence that he had “committed adultery prior to her filing for divorce.”

¶10      After briefing and then a hearing, the district court issued a written decision. There, the court agreed that under Vrontikis, “adulterous conduct subsequent to a divorce petition does not constitute fault,” but that “evidence of such conduct can be used to lend weight” to other evidence that the party had “committed adultery prior to the divorce petition.” (Emphases omitted.) The court then concluded that although Roland had expressly admitted to adultery in his deposition, this express admission had only been to “adultery subsequent to the divorce petition, but prior to divorce finalization.”[2]

¶11 Given its understanding of Vrontikis, the court next considered whether there was any evidence of pre-filing adultery. The court concluded that there was. In the court’s view, Roland’s non-response to the deposition question about whether he’d had sexual relations “since the marriage” qualified as an adoptive admission under rule 801(d)(2)(B) of the Utah Rules of Evidence. Notably, the court not only regarded this as proof “that Roland did commit adultery,” but also as proof “that Roland’s adultery caused the divorce,” i.e., proof that the adultery happened pre-filing. Thus, the court concluded that even if “Roland’s express admission [was] not, stand[ing] alone, a grounds for fault, the adoptive admission satisfie[d] Jill’s burden to show that Roland’s adultery caused the divorce.” Based on this, the court later “awarded Jill a decree of divorce on the grounds of adultery.”

¶12 Roland subsequently filed a motion under rule 59 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure “for [a] new trial or for an alteration of judgment on the issue of grounds for divorce.” Roland challenged the district court’s ruling on several fronts, including procedural fairness, incorrect application of the adoptive admission standard, and insufficiency of the evidence. After Jill opposed the motion, the court denied it. Roland timely appealed.

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶13      Roland challenges the district court’s denial of his rule 59 motion. As he did below, Roland assails this ruling for several reasons. We need address only one of them: Roland’s contention that there was insufficient evidence to support the court’s determination that he committed adultery before Jill filed for divorce.

¶14      A district court ordinarily has “some discretion in deciding whether or not to grant a new trial.” Hansen v. Stewart, 761 P.2d 14, 17 (Utah 1988). But because Roland’s “challenge rests on a claim of insufficiency of the evidence, we will reverse only if, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prevailing party, the evidence is insufficient to support the verdict.” In re Estate of Anderson, 2016 UT App 179, ¶ 7, 381 P.3d 1179 (quotation simplified); accord Hansen, 761 P.2d at 17.

ANALYSIS

¶15      The district court determined that Roland had committed adultery before Jill filed for divorce. It based this determination on Roland’s non-response to a question about this subject in his deposition, which the court regarded as an adoptive admission of pre-filing adultery.

¶16      On appeal, Roland first argues that the district court erred in concluding that his non-response qualified as an adoptive admission. But we need not decide whether this was so. Even assuming for the sake of argument that the non-response did qualify as an adoptive admission, the court was still required to point to some evidence that Roland had committed adultery before Jill filed for divorce. See Vrontikis v. Vrontikis, 358 P.2d 632, 632 (Utah 1961) (holding that evidence of adultery “subsequent to the filing of a divorce complaint is inadmissible for the purpose of establishing grounds for divorce,” though it can be “admissible as lending weight to and corroborating testimony as to prior acts” of infidelity).

¶17      Roland argues that there was no such evidence. Of note, Roland points out that, in the deposition exchange at issue, he “was never specifically asked whether he had had sexual relations with someone other than Jill since the marriage, but prior to the filing of the petition for divorce.” Having reviewed the portion of the deposition that is in the record, we agree. While Jill’s counsel asked Roland whether he had engaged in extramarital sexual relations, Jill’s counsel never asked Roland when he had done so. As a result, with respect to the critical issue of timing, the question and non-answer that supported the court’s adoptive-admission determination were silent.

¶18 Jill nevertheless points to Roland’s express admission of adultery. But on this, the district court only found that Roland had expressly admitted to postfiling adultery, and Jill has not challenged the court’s temporal limitation of its own finding on appeal. In any event, we’ve reviewed the exchange ourselves. We see nothing in it in which Roland said that his extramarital conduct was limited to post-filing behavior, but we also see nothing in it in which he admitted to any pre-filing conduct. Instead, as with the (alleged) adoptive admission, the timing of Roland’s behavior simply never came up.

¶19      This same defect exists with respect to the small amount of other evidence that Jill provided below to inferentially support her claims about Roland’s adultery. For example, Jill provided the court with a check that Roland had given her for alimony. This check was embossed with a picture of Roland and another woman, and in the identification block in the upper corner, it identified the other woman’s last name as “Nix.” Even accepting Jill’s contention that this could inferentially show that there was a sexual relationship between Roland and the other woman, what matters here is that the check was dated September 2019—which was after Jill had filed for divorce.

¶20      This leaves us with Jill’s final argument, which is to rely heavily on the favorable standard of review. Because Roland challenges the district court’s ruling on sufficiency grounds, we’re required to view the evidence in the light most favorable to the district court’s determination. But Roland’s argument presents us with a “no evidence” challenge—i.e., he argues that “even with the evidence in the record, nothing would demonstrate that . . . Roland committed adultery prior to the filing of the Petition for Divorce.” And to defeat such a claim, Jill “need only point to a scintilla of credible evidence from the record that supports the finding of fact in order to overcome [Roland’s] ‘no evidence’ assertion.” Wilson Supply, Inc. v. Fraden Mfg. Corp., 2002 UT 94, ¶ 22, 54 P.3d 1177.

¶21 She hasn’t. Even on such a review, there must be some evidence to support the determination in question. As we have explained in another context, a “reviewing court will stretch the evidentiary fabric as far as it will go,” but “this does not mean that the court can take a speculative leap across a remaining gap in order to sustain a verdict.” State v. Pullman, 2013 UT App 168, ¶ 14, 306 P.3d 827 (quotation simplified). Here, the evidence demonstrates that Roland engaged in sexual activity with another woman before his divorce was finalized. After all, he expressly admitted as much. But Vrontikis requires evidence of adultery at a particular time—namely, before the petitioner filed for divorce. Jill points to no evidence, and we see none, that even inferentially says anything about when Roland engaged in extramarital sexual activity. Without such evidence, the district court’s finding that Roland had engaged in pre-filing extramarital sexual relations cannot stand. We accordingly reverse for insufficient evidence.[3]

CONCLUSION

¶22 There was insufficient evidence to support the district court’s determination that Roland committed adultery before Jill filed for divorce. We accordingly reverse that decision and remand this case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.[4]


[1] Because the parties share the same last name, we’ll follow our normal practice and refer to them by their first names, with no disrespect intended by the apparent informality. Also, for purposes of consistency and readability, we’ll use the parties’ first names (and corresponding pronouns) when quoting references to them from the record or the briefing, and we’ll do so without using brackets to note any such alterations.

[2] We note that Roland did not actually draw this chronological line in the portion of the deposition in which he made his express admission. But neither party has challenged the court’s determination that the express admission was only to post-filing adulterous conduct.

[3] Our determination leaves a potential wrinkle about what should happen next. At the close of his brief, Roland asks us to not only reverse on insufficiency grounds, but also to “alter the Ruling” ourselves to grant him a divorce on “the grounds of irreconcilable differences.” Roland provides us with no authority that establishes our ability to modify an order in this manner, however, so this request is inadequately briefed. Moreover, Jill petitioned for divorce on an alternative ground, but neither party on appeal has competently briefed the question of whether Jill would be entitled to continue litigating that ground if we reverse the district court’s adultery-based decree. Without such briefing, we decline to decide the question in the first instance.

[4] Jill has asked for her attorney fees on appeal. See Utah R. App. P. 24(a)(9). Because she is not the prevailing party in this appeal, we deny her request.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Twitchell v. Twitchell – 2022 UT App 49 – child custody and support

Twitchell v. Twitchell – 2022 UT App 49

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

JAZMIN S. TWITCHELL,

Appellee,

V.

JOSEPH N. TWITCHELL,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20200546-CA

Filed April 14, 2022

First District Court, Logan Department

The Honorable Brian G. Cannell

No. 184100383

Ryan L. Holdaway and Diane Pitcher, Attorneys

for Appellant

Robert L. Neeley, Attorney for Appellee

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

CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge:

¶1 Joseph N. Twitchell appeals from a divorce decree and appurtenant findings of fact and conclusions of law, arguing that the district court failed to consider relevant statutory factors when forming its custody determination, awarded him less parent-time than the statutory minimum, and erroneously calculated his child support obligation based on an inaccurate accounting of the income of his ex-wife, Jazmin S. Twitchell. We find Joseph’s arguments persuasive on each of these issues, and accordingly, we remand for further proceedings.

BACKGROUND

¶2 Joseph and Jazmin[1] were married in 2016 and share one child (Child), who was born in May 2017. The parties “separated about a year after she was born.” Shortly thereafter, in June 2018, Jazmin filed for divorce, citing “irreconcilable differences.”

¶3 The court issued temporary orders in December 2018, awarding the parties joint legal custody of Child and designating Jazmin as the primary physical custodian, “subject to [Joseph’s] right to parent-time.” As to the parent-time schedule, the court directed the parties to follow the minimum schedule set out in section 30-3-35 of the Utah Code, with Joseph generally “designated as the non-custodial parent,” meaning that he could exercise parent-time on alternating weekends. In addition, the temporary orders granted Joseph an additional overnight with Child “every Thursday night,” with Joseph keeping Child for the weekend when it was one of his parent-time weekends and returning Child to Jazmin’s care by noon on Friday when it was not.

¶4 As the case proceeded to trial, Jazmin filed her financial disclosures, dated November 7, 2019. In her disclosures, Jazmin reported her gross monthly income as $2,111. In this document, under an entry entitled “Employment Status,” Jazmin listed the name of a child care center where she worked at some point. Under an entry for “Name of Employer,” she listed a local private school. Jazmin also filed a supplemental disclosure, dated September 23, 2019, informing the court that she had been serving as a “houseparent” at the private school since September 1, 2019, for which she received no monetary compensation but was provided room and board. Jazmin included a letter from a representative of the school who estimated that the value of the housing and utilities provided to Jazmin was $980 per month.

¶5 A two-day trial was held in December 2019, at which multiple witnesses testified. During Joseph’s testimony, he described instances of physical and verbal altercations beginning a few months into the parties’ marriage. He averred that the first time things became physical between the two was in November 2016, when stress regarding the upcoming holiday season resulted in an argument and Jazmin eventually “going after [him] with a knife,” cutting his hand. Joseph also described a time in Spring 2017 when he and Jazmin were in another argument, and he “went to go give her a hug and apologize . . . and she bit [his] right arm.” He then described one more instance where Jazmin told Joseph “she hated [him], over and over and over again,” which prompted him to threaten leaving with Child. In response, Jazmin “slapped or hit [him] with something across the face.” Joseph also presented photographs of injuries he sustained from each of these incidents, which were admitted into evidence without objection.

¶6 Several witnesses also testified as to their observations of Child’s condition once she went from Jazmin’s to Joseph’s care. One witness testified that on multiple occasions when Joseph received Child from Jazmin, Child had “severe diaper rashes” with blistering, “yeast infections,” and “bite marks on her feet,” and that she was “really dehydrated” to the point of not “even having a bowel movement for a day or two after.” Another witness also confirmed that Child had severe diaper rashes when she came to Joseph, to the point that Joseph had to seek care from a pediatrician, and testified that Child often “had bite marks on both her hands . . . and her feet.” Joseph also produced evidence documenting incidents of what he characterizes as “assaults” from other children at a daycare while Child was in Jazmin’s care.

¶7 Jazmin testified about her employment history since the parties’ separation. During the marriage, Jazmin had been “a stay-at-home mom,” but she started a job “within two weeks of leaving” to help provide for Child. She testified to working at a child care center from approximately July 2018 until March 2019, when she left to accept an offer to work for higher pay at another daycare center. She worked at that second center full-time until October 2019. Jazmin began serving as a houseparent at the private school in September 2019, a role she was still working in at the time of trial.

¶8 In addition to her financial disclosure in which she reported the aforementioned $2,111 figure, Jazmin also offered her 2018 tax return into evidence. That return listed only the first child care center as her employer and an annual gross income of $7,044.75—which would translate to approximately $587 per month. Jazmin nevertheless confirmed at trial that her gross monthly income was $2,100. When asked if that amount included the $980 value of her housing and utilities, she stated, “No. That . . . doesn’t have anything to do with that.” When asked about her current employment, she testified that she had just started working as a substitute teacher earning $75 per day, which she “guesstimate[d]” she did two to three days per week. Based on that “guesstimate,” Jazmin testified that she earned approximately $813 per month from substitute teaching as opposed to the $2,100 in her financial declaration. Jazmin also confirmed that, at the time of trial, she had no sources of income other than her “service as a houseparent, [and her] income from substitute teaching.”

¶9 Later, on cross-examination, when asked about the $2,111 reported as her gross monthly income in her disclosure, Jazmin admitted that there was actually “no documentation being provided with that [disclosure] that would substantiate that number.” While Jazmin was being cross-examined, the court interjected and expressed its confusion as to whether the $980 value of her housing expenses had been included in her reported monthly income; although Jazmin never answered the court directly, her attorney asserted that it was included within that amount (contradicting Jazmin’s earlier testimony in which she had stated the opposite). Jazmin also stated that at the time of trial, she had actually worked as a substitute teacher on only one occasion up to that point.

¶10 Testimony was also given by a representative of the private school, whom Jazmin had contacted to secure documentation of the value of her housing and utilities. A final draft of a letter from the representative was attached to Jazmin’s supplemental disclosure. But at trial, Joseph offered evidence of an earlier draft of the letter in which the representative had originally stated that the value of what Jazmin received was estimated at $1,800 per month for rent and $1,000 per month for utilities, whereas the amount given in the final letter was $980 for both rent and utilities. The representative testified that she had sent the initial draft to Jazmin’s grandmother asking if it was “acceptable,” and either Jazmin or her grandmother had then asked additional questions about the square footage and what portion of the house Jazmin was actually living in, and whether that was reflected in the amount the representative gave. This prompted the representative to change the amount to $980 in the final letter, based on a “pro-rated amount” that seemed more consistent with the part of the house where Jazmin was living.

¶11 The court issued findings of fact and conclusions of law in April 2020.[2] While it awarded the parties joint legal custody of Child, it also found that it was in Child’s “best interest” that Jazmin be awarded primary physical custody. In support, the court cited the following findings: Jazmin had primary physical custody of Child since the parties separated, and the parties had been “following” the parent-time schedule imposed by the court in its temporary orders, consisting of “alternating weekends, with [Joseph] being awarded overnight every Thursday”; Child was “happy and well[-]adjusted and [was] progressing well developmentally”; Child was “closely bonded to [Jazmin] as she ha[d] been the primary custodial parent since birth, while [Joseph] was the primary bread winner in the family”; it was in Child’s “best interest . . . to maintain a close relationship with her half sister,” of whom Jazmin has primary physical custody; Jazmin had “exhibited good parenting skills” and was “of good moral character, and emotionally stable”; Jazmin had “exhibited a depth and desire for custody of [Child] since . . . birth”; Jazmin had “a flexible work and school schedule and she ha[d] the ability to provide personal care rather than surrogate care”; Jazmin had experience in early childhood education; and Jazmin “exhibited sound financial responsibility” whereas the court was “concerned about [Joseph’s] lack of financial responsibility” based on his debt accumulations. In the findings, the court also expressed its “concern[] about the alleged physical abuse between the parties during the marriage” and therefore found it “appropriate” for the exchanges of Child to occur at a police department safe zone located roughly halfway between the parties’ homes.

¶12 The court additionally noted its consideration of the factors outlined in section 30-3-10.2 of the Utah Code, finding in particular that Child’s “physical, psychological, emotional and development needs will benefit from the parties sharing joint legal custody.” But the court listed several reasons under these factors why joint physical custody would not be appropriate, finding that the “parties do not effectively communicate with each other”; they lived “approximately 60 miles” apart; Joseph “participated in raising [Child] but not to the extent that [Jazmin] did”; “[t]o date there ha[d] not been . . . opportunities for either parent to protect [Child] from any conflict that may arise between the parties, due to [Child’s] age”; and “the parties’ relationship ha[d] stabilized and once these divorce proceedings have concluded it is anticipated the parties will be able to cooperate with each other and make appropriate joint decisions regarding [Child].”

¶13 As to parent-time, the court concluded that Joseph’s parent-time “shall be, until [Child] starts Kindergarten, every Thursday overnight and every other weekend from Friday (after school) to Sunday evening at 6 p.m.” And on weeks that ended with Jazmin’s designated weekend, Joseph “shall return [Child] to [Jazmin] by Friday at noon, after his Thursday overnight visit.” The court also concluded that “[t]he parties shall follow the holiday parent time pursuant to Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-35” but that Joseph “shall be awarded six[ ]weeks of extended summer vacation instead of four[ ]weeks, consistent with Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-35 and by stipulation of [Jazmin] at closing arguments.”

¶14 Regarding child support, the court found that Jazmin “earn[ed] $980 per month gross wage from her house parent job” and “approximately $780 per month” from substitute teaching. It therefore calculated her gross monthly income at $1,760 for child support purposes. The court then found that Joseph’s average gross income is $5,011 per month, and therefore his “child support obligation is $582 per month.”

¶15 The court entered a decree of divorce in June 2020, in which it largely echoed the parent-time findings, ordering that Joseph’s parent-time “shall be every Thursday overnight and every other weekend from Friday (after school) to Sunday evening at 6 p.m. On [Jazmin’s] weekend with the parties’ child, [Joseph] shall return [Child] to [Jazmin] by Friday at noon following his Thursday overnight parent time.” And once Child “commences Kindergarten [Joseph’s] parent time shall change[] to every other weekend from Friday (after school) to Sunday at 6 p.m., and a mid-week from after school until 7 p.m.” The decree did not mention a schedule for holidays or extended/vacation parent-time. The decree also reiterated what the court found to be the parties’ respective incomes, and accordingly it memorialized its decision ordering Joseph to pay $582 per month in child support.

¶16 Joseph promptly appealed the findings of fact and conclusions of law, as well as the divorce decree.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶17 On appeal, Joseph presents two main issues for our consideration. First, he attacks the district court’s custody determination on two bases, arguing that the court’s custody conclusion and the underlying factual findings are deficient because it failed to consider certain relevant factors and that the court erred in awarding him less than the minimum time provided by statute without explaining a reason to depart from the statutory minimum. “[W]e review the district court’s custody and parent-time determination for abuse of discretion.” 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).

¶18 Second, Joseph challenges the district court’s child support determination, asserting that it made errors in calculating Jazmin’s income, resulting in an inaccurate child support obligation.[3] “In reviewing child support proceedings, we accord substantial deference to the [district] court’s findings and give it considerable latitude in fashioning the appropriate relief. We will not disturb that court’s actions unless the evidence clearly preponderates to the contrary or there has been an abuse of discretion.” Hibbens v. Hibbens, 2015 UT App 278, ¶ 17, 363 P.3d 524 (quotation simplified).

ANALYSIS

I. Custody and Parent-Time

A. Consideration of the Relevant Factors

¶19 Joseph first asserts that the district court erred by failing to adequately consider certain statutory factors in formulating its custody determination. Specifically, he asserts that two factors did not receive the attention he feels they deserved by the district court, namely, any “evidence of domestic violence, neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, or emotional abuse, involving the child, the parent, or a household member of the parent” and “the past conduct and demonstrated moral character of the parent.” See Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(2)(a), (d) (LexisNexis 2019). We agree with Joseph that it is not clear from the district court’s findings that it considered evidence regarding abusive behavior by Jazmin, neglect and injuries to Child, or Jazmin’s moral character. Accordingly, we remand for the court to fully evaluate that evidence through supplemented or additional findings.

¶20 “In all custody determinations, the district court’s primary focus must be on the best interests of the child.” Pingree v. Pingree, 2015 UT App 302, ¶ 7, 365 P.3d 713 (quotation simplified). Furthermore, when “determining any form of custody and parent-time” arrangement, the district court “shall consider the best interest of the child and may consider [any] factors the court finds relevant” to that end, including certain factors that are specifically articulated in the Utah Code. See Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(2). Importantly, not all these factors are “on equal footing”; instead, the district court generally has “discretion to determine, based on the facts before it and within the confines set by the appellate courts, where a particular factor falls within the spectrum of relative importance and to accord each factor its appropriate weight.” T.W. v. S.A., 2021 UT App 132, ¶ 16, 504 P.3d 163 (quotation simplified).

¶21 Determining which factors the court must address in a given case, and to what degree, presents a tricky task. Inevitably, some factors will loom larger in a given case than other factors, and “[t]here is no definitive checklist of factors to be used for determining custody.” Sukin v. Sukin, 842 P.2d 922, 924 (Utah Ct. App. 1992). Consequently, “courts are not required to render a global accounting of all evidence presented or to discuss all aspects of a case that might support a contrary ruling.” Shuman v. Shuman, 2017 UT App 192, ¶ 6, 406 P.3d 258. On the other hand, a “court’s factual findings are adequate only if they are sufficiently detailed and include enough subsidiary facts to disclose the steps by which the ultimate conclusion on each factual issue was reached.” Lay v. Lay, 2018 UT App 137, ¶ 19, 427 P.3d 1221 (quotation simplified). And where significant evidence concerning a particular factor is presented to the district court, findings that omit all discussion of that evidence must be deemed inadequate. See Barnes v. Barnes, 857 P.2d 257, 261 (Utah Ct. App. 1993) (“The record is replete with highly disputed evidence relevant to the custody issue which is not dealt with at all in the findings. The findings do not show whether the court considered the moral conduct or emotional stability of the parties and what evidence the court found determinative in deciding the best interests of the children.”); Sukin, 842 P.2d at 925 (“Whenever custody is contested and evidence presents several possible interpretations, a bare conclusory recitation of factors and statutory terms will not suffice. We must have the necessary supporting factual findings linking those factors to the children’s best interests and each parent’s abilities to meet the children’s needs.” (quotation simplified)).

¶22 Joseph asserts that the district court failed to consider evidence presented at trial of domestic violence Jazmin had perpetrated against him as well as neglectful behavior Jazmin had purportedly inflicted on Child. Specifically, Joseph points to his own testimony at trial that Jazmin had slapped him in the face hard enough to leave red marks, had attempted to stab him with a pocket knife, and had bitten him. Joseph also presented photographic exhibits purporting to show his injuries from these incidents. Joseph also points to testimony at trial and an exhibit he introduced into evidence tending to show injuries that Child sustained while she was in Jazmin’s care. One witness testified that when Joseph received Child from Jazmin, Child often had “severe diaper rashes” with blistering, “yeast infections,” and “bite marks on her feet,” and that she was “really dehydrated” to the point of not “even having a bowel movement for a day or two after.” Another witness also confirmed that Child had severe diaper rashes when she came to Joseph, such that Joseph had to seek care from a pediatrician, and testified that Child often “had bite marks on both her hands . . . and her feet.” Finally, Joseph asserts that the court did “not analyze or even mention . . . multiple incidents” in which Jazmin supposedly “engaged in deceitful tactics” during the litigation. Specifically, Joseph asserts that Jazmin instructed a witness on what to testify regarding Jazmin’s income from her houseparent job, that Jazmin and another witness mischaracterized the events that precipitated an incident when the police were called around the time of the parties’ separation, that Jazmin claimed that the parties were married on a date different from that indicated on their marriage certificate, and that Jazmin supposedly attempted to manipulate the testimony of her ex-husband in the case.

¶23 With respect to “evidence of domestic violence, neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, or emotional abuse, involving the child, the parent, or a household member of the parent” and “the past conduct and demonstrated moral character of the parent,” see Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(2)(a), (d), the court made only the following finding: “[Jazmin] has exhibited good parenting skills, is of good moral character, and emotionally stable.” It then proceeded to emphasize the facts it believed supported Jazmin’s bid for custody: that Jazmin had been Child’s primary caretaker; that Child had a bond with Jazmin’s other child, her half-sister; that Jazmin had made sure Joseph received his parent-time in accordance with the temporary orders; that Jazmin had “a depth and desire for custody”; that Jazmin had a flexible schedule that would allow her to provide personal care for Child; that Jazmin had taken Child to her medical appointments; and that Jazmin was financially responsible, “industrious,” and “goal oriented.” The court made no findings regarding Joseph’s parenting abilities, past conduct, bond with Child, etc., except to express concern that he was in debt.[4] Finally, the court stated that it was “concerned about the alleged physical abuse between the parties” and concluded it was therefore appropriate for them to exchange Child at a police department safe zone.

¶24 “To ensure that the trial court’s custody determination, discretionary as it is, is rationally based, it is essential that the court set forth in its findings of fact not only that it finds one parent to be the better person to care for the child, but also the basic facts which show why that ultimate conclusion is justified.” Sukin, 842 P.2d at 924 (quotation simplified). The court’s finding that Jazmin “has exhibited good parenting skills, is of good moral character, and emotionally stable” is inadequate for us to determine whether the court exceeded its discretion in assessing the abuse/neglect and moral character factors or how those factors impacted Child’s best interests. Likewise, the court’s expression of “concern[] about the alleged physical abuse between the parties during the marriage” tells us nothing about how or even if the court weighed the abuse allegations in its custody evaluation. Indeed, it is not clear to us that the court considered this factor at all in assessing which parent should be awarded custody, as it mentioned the factor only in the context of concluding that it would be “appropriate” for the exchanges of Child to occur at a police department safe zone. Without at least some discussion of the evidence the court relied on in assessing the factors and how the court related the factors to Child’s best interests, the court’s findings regarding the custody factors are inadequate. See, e.g.K.P.S. v. E.J.P., 2018 UT App 5, ¶¶ 30–42, 414 P.3d 933 (determining that the court’s factual findings were inadequate where it made factual conclusions but did not discuss the evidence underlying those conclusions and rejected the guardian ad litem’s recommendation without explanation); Bartlett v. Bartlett, 2015 UT App 2, ¶ 6, 342 P.3d 296 (rejecting the court’s conclusory finding that the mother was “better able and equipped to support and sustain a positive relationship between the children and their father” where the “court identified no subsidiary facts supporting this finding” and had, in fact, “admonished Mother for denying Father court-ordered access to the children” (quotation simplified)); Barnes, 857 P.2d at 261 (rejecting as inadequate the court’s finding that “[t]he Plaintiff’s level of commitment to her children during the course of this separation has exceeded that of the Defendant and that’s been established by their actions during the course of their separation” because “[t]he findings do not show whether the court considered the moral conduct or emotional stability of the parties and what evidence the court found determinative in deciding the best interests of the children”); Roberts v. Roberts, 835 P.2d 193, 196–97 (Utah Ct. App. 1992) (deeming inadequate findings that “Husband has physically abused Wife during the marriage” and that “both parties have participated in acts that bear on their moral character,” accompanied by a recitation of examples of each party’s bad behavior because the recitation did not give any “guidance regarding how those acts bear on the parties’ parenting abilities or affect the children’s best interests” (quotation simplified)); Cummings v. Cummings, 821 P.2d 472, 478–79 (Utah Ct. App. 1991) (reversing the district court’s custody determination based on its failure to make findings regarding evidence relating to important custody factors); Paryzek v. Paryzek, 776 P.2d 78, 83 (Utah Ct. App. 1989) (holding that it was an abuse of discretion for the court’s findings to “omit any reference” to a custody evaluation and evidence relating to the bond between father and son, the father’s status as primary caretaker pending trial, the fact that the child thrived while in the father’s care, and the son’s preference for living with his father).

¶25 Thus, we conclude that the district court exceeded its discretion by failing to include in its findings any discussion of the evidence relating to the abuse allegations against Jazmin, her alleged neglect of Child, and her moral character, as well as the effect that evidence had on its best-interest analysis. Accordingly, we vacate the district court’s custody and parent-time order and remand for the court to revisit that evidence and enter additional or supplemented findings, as necessary.

B. Deviation from Statutory Minimum Parent-Time Schedule

¶26 Joseph next argues that the district court committed reversible error by awarding him less than the minimum parent-time he is guaranteed by statute. Because we agree that the court’s custody award indeed creates a situation in which Joseph is guaranteed less than the statutory minimum, without explaining its reasoning in adequate factual findings, we conclude that this is an additional reason to vacate the court’s parent-time order.

¶27 In the event that the parents of a minor child litigating that child’s custody are unable to agree to a parent-time schedule, our legislature has codified a “minimum parent-time [schedule] to which the noncustodial parent and the child shall be entitled.” See Utah Code Ann. §§ 30-3-35(2), 30-3-35.5(3) (LexisNexis 2019 & Supp. 2021). In fashioning its parent-time order, the court may either “incorporate[] a parent-time schedule provided in Section 30-3-35 or 30-3-35.5; or . . . provide[] more or less parent-time” than outlined in those sections, but in either case “[t]he court shall enter the reasons underlying the court’s order for parent-time.” Id. § 30-3-34(4) (Supp. 2021). The court’s reasoning must be outlined in adequate factual findings, which must “contain sufficient detail to permit appellate review to ensure that the district court’s discretionary determination was rationally based.” Lay v. Lay, 2018 UT App 137, ¶ 19, 427 P.3d 1221 (quotation simplified). Thus, the statutory minimum “provides [the court with] a presumptive minimum, but the district court still retains discretion to award more [or less] time” to the noncustodial parent, so long as it identifies “the reasons underlying its order” in sufficiently detailed factual findings. See T.W. v. S.A., 2021 UT App 132, ¶ 30, 504 P.3d 163 (quotation simplified).

¶28 There is a separate section dealing with the minimum schedule for children who are under five years of age, see Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-35.5 (2019), and those who are between five and eighteen years of age, see id. § 30-3-35 (Supp. 2021). As Child was born in May 2017, she is still currently younger than five, so section 30-3-35.5 applies. Under that section, Joseph is entitled to “one weekday evening between 5:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.,” “alternative weekends . . . from 6 p.m. on Friday until 7 p.m. on Sunday,” certain holidays, and “two two-week periods, separated by at least four weeks, at the option of the noncustodial parent.” See id. § 30-3-35.5(3)(f) (2019).

¶29      Under the court’s findings and the divorce decree, Joseph receives parent-time “every Thursday overnight and every other weekend from Friday (after school) to Sunday evening at 6 p.m.,” and when it is Jazmin’s weekend, he returns Child to Jazmin “by Friday at noon following his Thursday overnight parent time.” Although Joseph correctly points out that the parent-time order requires him to return Child one hour earlier on Sundays than provided for in the statutory minimum schedule, Joseph ultimately receives more than the minimum parent-time required by statute while Child is under five, because he receives an additional weekday overnight, whereas the statute requires only a weekday evening visit. See id. Thus, for the time being, Joseph receives more than the statutory minimum.

¶30 But the situation changes when Child starts school. The district court ordered that once Child “commences Kindergarten,” Joseph’s parent-time “shall change[] to every other weekend from Friday (after school) to Sunday at 6 p.m., and a mid-week from after school until 7 p.m.” This schedule deviates from the statutory minimum, under which Joseph is entitled to “[a]lternating weekends . . . from 6 p.m. on Friday until Sunday at 7 p.m.,” and one weekday evening from either “5:30 p.m. until 8:30 p.m.” or, “at the election of the noncustodial parent, one weekday from the time the child’s school is regularly dismissed until 8:30 p.m.” Id. § 30-3-35(2)(a)(i), (2)(b)(i)(A) (Supp. 2021) (emphases added). Thus, under the court’s parent-time order, once Child begins kindergarten Joseph is required to return her to Jazmin one hour early on his weekends and one-and-a-half hours early during his weekday evenings.

¶31 As Joseph convincingly points out, while these discrepancies “may seem minor” to a casual observer, for “the non-custodial parent on a minimum visitation schedule, hours matter.” And, more importantly, the court did not explain—or even acknowledge—that it was departing from the statutory minimum. While section 30-3-35 is referenced in the findings of fact with respect to Joseph’s parent-time for holidays and summer vacation, the court made no other mention of the statutory minimum schedule.[5] As noted, when making its custody decision the court must give the “reasons underlying” its decision. See id. § 30-3-34(4); T.W., 2021 UT App 132, ¶ 30. The court did depart from the statutory minimum in this case, and it gave no reason for doing so in its findings.

¶32 As a result, we are prevented from conducting meaningful “appellate review to ensure that the district court’s discretionary determination was rationally based.” See Lay, 2018 UT App 137, ¶ 19 (quotation simplified). Accordingly, the findings in support of the district court’s parent-time order are insufficient, leaving us with no choice but to remand the matter for the court to adopt the statutory minimum schedule or otherwise explain its reasoning for departing from the minimum through adequate factual findings. See id.

II. Child Support

¶33 Joseph next challenges the district court’s child support determination, arguing that its determination of Jazmin’s income was entirely unsupported by the evidence and insufficiently explained. Because we agree that the court did not sufficiently explain how it reached the number it did in calculating Jazmin’s monthly income, we remand for entry of additional findings.

¶34 “A noncustodial parent’s child support obligation is calculated using each parent’s adjusted gross income.” Barrani v. Barrani, 2014 UT App 204, ¶ 11, 334 P.3d 994. Each parent’s “gross income” for purposes of child support “includes prospective income from any source, including earned and nonearned income sources which may include salaries, wages, . . . [and] rents.” Utah Code Ann. § 78B-12-203(1) (LexisNexis 2018). “Income from earned income sources is limited to the equivalent of one full-time 40-hour job.” Id. § 78B-12-203(2). “[C]hild support is appropriately calculated based on earnings at the time of trial,” but district courts also “have broad discretion to select an appropriate method” of calculating each parent’s income. Griffith v. Griffith, 959 P.2d 1015, 1019 (Utah Ct. App. 1998).

¶35      In this case, there were a number of potential bases for the court to assess Jazmin’s income. First, it could have accepted the declared full-time income in her financial declaration of $2,100, which she initially reaffirmed at trial. Second, it could have used her part-time substitute teaching income of approximately $813 per month combined with her in-kind income of $980 per month to reach a monthly income of $1,793. Third, it could have imputed her full-time income based on her substitute teaching salary of $75 per day for a total of $1,625 per month. There may, perhaps, have been other methods the court could have employed as well, had it adequately explained its reasoning.

¶36 Generally, “so long as the steps by which the ultimate conclusion on each factual issue was reached are apparent, a trial 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). And had the court taken one of the approaches outlined above, or another approach for which its reasoning was apparent, we would be inclined to affirm the court’s decision.[6] However, here the district court’s finding that Jazmin earned “approximately $780 per month” from substitute teaching does not align with any evidence submitted at trial, nor, so far as we can tell, can it be extrapolated from that evidence.[7] As Joseph observes, this number “do[es] not appear to come from the documentary or testimonial evidence at all.” Jazmin testified that she earned $75 per day working as a substitute teacher but that she worked only two to three days a week. Using these numbers, she reached a “guesstimate” of her monthly income of $813 per month ($75 per day x 2.5 days per week x 52 weeks per year / 12 months). While Jazmin was admittedly unsure about the amount she would be able to earn, the $780 figure adopted by the court appears to not be supported by the evidence presented at trial. While we are reluctant to reverse a district court’s child support order on this basis considering the small discrepancy between the $813 and $780 figures, the fact remains that we are unable to identify the “steps by which the ultimate conclusion on [this] factual issue was reached.” See id. (quotation simplified).

¶37 In such situations, “without the benefit of the reasoning and additional findings by the [district] court,” we must remand the child support decision to the district court to detail its full reasoning, through adequate findings, for why it chose the income amount for Jazmin that it did. See Bell v. Bell, 2013 UT App 248, ¶ 19, 312 P.3d 951.

CONCLUSION

¶38 This appeal compels us to remand the case because the district court’s findings and conclusions were infirm in several respects. First, the court failed to address disputed evidence that was highly relevant to the court’s custody determination. Second, the court’s order awards Joseph less than the statutory minimum parent-time once Child starts kindergarten, without explaining why or recognizing that it did so. And third, the court’s findings regarding Jazmin’s income contain insufficient detail for us to adequately review its reasoning.


[1] Because the parties share the same surname, we follow our oft-used practice of referring to them by their first names, with no disrespect intended by the apparent informality.

[2] Other than mentioning that “both parent[s] can step up and be good parents and both parents in large part have been good parents,” the court did not announce a ruling from the bench at the conclusion of the trial. Instead, it asked both parties to prepare proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law and heard closing arguments at a subsequent hearing. Ultimately, with only a few minor alterations, the court adopted Jazmin’s findings of fact and conclusions of law in their entirety.

While we would not go so far as to say that it is inappropriate for the court to fully adopt one party’s proposed findings, before signing off the court should confirm that those findings conform to the evidence presented at trial and that the findings sufficiently explain the court’s reasoning for the decision. In this case, it appears that the court adopted Jazmin’s version of the evidence without confirmation of that evidence and without disclosing the steps by which the ultimate conclusion on each factual issue was reached.

[3] As part of his broader challenge to the district court’s child support determination, Joseph purports to include another argument: that the court erred in dividing the parties’ debts. However, Jazmin points out that while Joseph included this argument in his articulation of the issues on appeal, he “did not [substantively] address the debt issue in his brief.” Indeed, we find a dearth of any argument regarding the debt distribution in Joseph’s brief; accordingly, Joseph has failed to properly raise such an argument for our consideration.

[4] We are troubled by the manner in which the district court’s findings focused exclusively on Jazmin rather than comparing hers and Joseph’s relative character, skills, and abilities. See Woodward v. LaFranca, 2013 UT App 147, ¶¶ 22, 26–28, 305 P.3d 181 (explaining that a court’s findings must “compare the parenting skills, character, and abilities of both parents” and reversing a finding that the emotional stability factor weighed in favor of mother because it was based solely on the determination that mother was emotionally stable without any findings regarding father’s emotional stability; “the question for the court was not whether Mother was emotionally stable, but whether Mother was more emotionally stable than Father” (quotation simplified)), abrogated on other grounds by Zavala v. Zavala, 2016 UT App 6, 366 P.3d 422. We urge the court on remand to make the appropriate comparisons in revising its findings.

[5] Furthermore, section 30-3-35.5 is not referenced at all, which would have been the operative section from the time the decree was entered until Child turns five.

[6] While a finding that aligned with the various numbers presented at trial would have met the bare minimum threshold for sufficiency, we note that this case would substantially benefit from further analysis. First, the court did not address the inconsistencies in Jazmin’s trial testimony regarding her income. Jazmin first agreed that the $2,111 monthly income in her financial declaration was accurate but then went on to testify that she made only $75 per day substitute teaching and worked only two to three days per week. But the court did not address or explain the reasoning behind its resolution of this inconsistency. Second, Joseph presented evidence that Jazmin’s housing and utilities had been undervalued. The court’s decision included no discussion of the conflicting evidence regarding the value of Jazmin’s in-kind earnings or its assessment of that conflicting evidence. On remand, the court’s findings could benefit from a more thorough discussion of the evidence and explanation for its resolution of these conflicts.

[7] In Jazmin’s post-trial brief, she stated, without any supporting evidence, that she earned $72 per day, for a total of $780 per month. This appears to be the source of the court’s number. As assertions in the post-trial brief are not evidence, the court could not rely on this number to calculate child support.

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

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Ward v. McGarry – 2021 UT App 51

Ward v. McGarry – 2021 UT App 51 

NOTICE: THIS OPINION HAS NOT BEEN RELEASED FOR PUBLICATION IN THE PERMANENT LAW REPORTS. UNTIL RELEASED, IT IS SUBJECT TO REVISION OR WITHDRAWAL. 

 

Court of Appeals of Utah. 

Sara WARD, Appellant, v. Meredith MCGARRY, Appellee. 

No. 20200435-CA 

Filed May 6, 2021 

Third District Court, Salt Lake Department, The Honorable Richard D. McKelvie, No. 134901200 

Attorneys and Law Firms 

Angilee K. Dakic, Attorney for Appellant 

Martin N. Olsen, Midvale, and Beau J. Olsen, Attorneys for Appellee 

Judge Michele M. Christiansen Forster authored this Opinion, in which Judges David N. Mortensen and Ryan M. Harris concurred. 

 

Opinion 

CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge: 

*1 ¶1 Sara Ward challenges the district court’s final order regarding child support in a paternity action. We reverse and remand for further proceedings. 

 

¶2 Ward and Meredith McGarry have one child together. The two have been involved in a paternity action regarding that child since 2013. Although they have resolved custody issues relating to the child, they were unable to reach a resolution regarding child support. 

 

¶3 The parties’ dispute centers on disagreements regarding the amount of McGarry’s monthly income. McGarry is self-employed and has an ownership interest in at least one company. Ward reports having ongoing difficulties obtaining documentation relating to McGarry’s income, asserting that his disclosures were incomplete and heavily redacted. The parties engaged in settlement negotiations and exchanged rule 68 settlement offers, see Utah R. Civ. P. 68, and in his rule 68 settlement offer, McGarry offered to have income of $30,000 per month imputed to him. But the parties were unable to come to an agreement. 

 

¶4 The parties appeared before a domestic relations commissioner for a hearing on March 11, 2020, to address various non-dispositive motions then pending before the court, including motions for sanctions and a motion to strike. The parties did not anticipate that the substantive issues in the case would be resolved at that time. However, at the hearing, which lasted only a few minutes, the commissioner did not directly address the pending motions; instead, she announced that she was “going to make a recommendation … to wrap this up and resolve” the case and proceeded to impute McGarry’s income “at $30,000 a month going forward for child support purposes” based on McGarry’s “agreement.” Further, the commissioner recommended that McGarry pay $56,000 in child support arrearages and attorney fees, a number calculated by averaging Ward’s request for $60,000 and McGarry’s rule 68 offer of $52,000. The commissioner did not take evidence at the hearing, made no further findings in support of these calculations, and did not distinguish which portion of the lump sum award was attributable to attorney fees as opposed to arrearages. The commissioner’s recommendation took the form of an order captioned “Final Order Re Child Support.” 

 

¶5 Ward objected to the commissioner’s recommendation, asserting that the commissioner “failed to make requisite findings that would support the order” and erred by relying on McGarry’s rule 68 settlement offer to reach the imputation number rather than calculating that amount based on the evidence. Ward further asserted that the commissioner “made no findings as to how she calculated the child support arrears or attorney fees awarded to” Ward and erred in lumping the arrears and fees together rather than calculating them separately. Ward also claimed that the commissioner’s order, in the absence of an evidentiary hearing, deprived her of her “right to a trial.” The district court countersigned the commissioner’s recommendation, making it the final order of the court, and denied Ward’s objection without holding any further hearing or making any additional findings on the record. Ward now appeals. 

 

*2 ¶6 Ward asserts that the district court erred in approving the commissioner’s recommendation and summarily denying her objection without adequate findings and without a trial or other evidentiary hearing.1 “The ultimate question of whether the trial court strictly complied with … procedural requirements … is a question of law that is reviewed for correctness.” State v. Holland, 921 P.2d 430, 433 (Utah 1996); accord Brigham Young Univ. v. Tremco Consultants, Inc., 2007 UT 17, ¶ 25, 156 P.3d 782. Further, “we review the legal adequacy of findings of fact for correctness as a question of law.” Jacobsen v. Jacobsen, 2011 UT App 161, ¶ 15, 257 P.3d 478 (quotation simplified). 

 

¶7 “In all actions tried upon the facts without a jury …, the court must find the facts specially and state separately its conclusions of law. The findings and conclusions must be made part of the record and may be stated in writing or orally following the close of evidence.” Utah R. Civ. P. 52(a)(1). Moreover, when a party objects to a commissioner’s recommendation, the judge must “make independent findings of fact and conclusions of law based on the evidence.” Id. R. 108(f); see also Day v. Barnes, 2018 UT App 143, ¶ 16, 427 P.3d 1272 (“[R]ule [108] is explicit that the district court’s review is independent on both the evidence and the law.”). A court’s findings must “contain sufficient detail to permit appellate review to ensure that the district court’s discretionary determination was rationally based.” Fish v. Fish, 2016 UT App 125, ¶ 22, 379 P.3d 882. 

 

¶8 In this case, the district court did not make any independent findings of fact or conclusions of law, as required by rule 108 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure.2 McGarry urges us to construe the court’s signing of the commissioner’s recommendation and summary denial of Ward’s objection as an implicit adoption of the same findings and conclusions entered by the commissioner. However, nothing in the record supports such an assumption.3 

 

¶9 In any event, the commissioner’s findings are inadequate to support her legal conclusions. The commissioner made a single finding in support of her recommendation: “The parties have had extensive, ongoing litigation for the past seven (7) years and a conclusion of this matter is critical for the parties and the minor child.” This finding does not address any of the evidence pertaining to McGarry’s income, the arrearages owed, or the attorney fees incurred by Ward. Rather than receiving and examining any evidence and reaching legal conclusions based on that evidence, the commissioner imputed income based solely on McGarry’s rule 68 settlement offer, which was never accepted.4 See generally Utah Code Ann. § 78B-12-203(8)(b) (LexisNexis 2018) (outlining the factors a court must consider in calculating the appropriate amount of income to impute to a parent). The commissioner’s recommendation regarding child support arrearages and attorney fees was likewise unsupported by any evidence. Rather than examining the actual numbers and making findings regarding the amount owed, the commissioner simply split the difference between the two parties’ claimed numbers in their rule 68 settlement offers. Such findings would not adequately support the court’s decision even if we could somehow construe them as independent. 

 

*3 ¶10 The overarching problem in this case—and the ultimate source of the inadequacy and insufficiency of the court’s findings—is that no judicial officer ever took evidence or held a hearing on the contested child support issues. Unless the matter in question can be resolved summarily (for instance, by summary judgment pursuant to rule 56 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure), parties have a right to their “day in court,” in which they have the opportunity to testify and present evidence regarding the relevant issues. See Utah Const. art. I, § 11 (“All courts shall be open, and every person, for an injury done to the person in his or her person, property or reputation, shall have remedy by due course of law, which shall be administered without denial or unnecessary delay; and no person shall be barred from prosecuting or defending before any tribunal in this State, with or without counsel, any civil cause to which the person is a party.”); Miller v. USAA Cas. Ins. Co., 2002 UT 6, ¶ 38, 44 P.3d 663 (“Parties to a suit, subject to all valid claims and defenses, are constitutionally entitled to litigate any justiciable controversy between them, i.e., they are entitled to their day in court.”). 

 

¶11 At some level, we understand the commissioner’s frustration with parties who had litigated for several years over positions that were perhaps not all that far apart. But concerns regarding judicial efficiency alone cannot justify depriving parties of their day in court. The contested child support issues in this case needed to be resolved, if not through negotiation or summary resolution, then through a trial at which evidence was presented. The commissioner’s and the district court’s actions to short-circuit that process here were improper. 

 

¶12 Because the district court did not take evidence and make “independent findings of fact and conclusions of law based on the evidence,” see Utah R. Civ. P. 108(f), in resolving Ward’s objection, we must reverse the order and remand for further proceedings. 

 

——————————— 

 

1 Ward also raises arguments regarding the inadequacy of McGarry’s disclosures. However, she does not identify any particular errors the court made with respect to discovery issues, and we are therefore unable to review her arguments on this point. In any event, as we are reversing the district court’s child support order, Ward will have the opportunity to raise any ongoing issues with respect to discovery on remand. 

 

2 We are also concerned about the court’s refusal to grant Ward a hearing when requested. See generally Utah R. Civ. P. 108(d)(3) (“If the hearing before the commissioner was in a domestic relations matter other than a cohabitant abuse protective order, any party has the right, upon request … to a hearing at which the judge may require testimony or proffers of testimony on genuine issues of material fact relevant to issues other than custody.”). 

 

3 If the commissioner had taken evidence and if the district court, after reviewing that evidence, had expressly adopted the commissioner’s findings as its own, then it might be possible to construe those findings as independent findings mirroring those of the commissioner. But that is not what occurred in this case. 

 

4 The commissioner relied on McGarry’s rule 68 settlement offer to calculate the $30,000 imputation amount, but Ward never agreed to this amount. “Income may not be imputed to a parent unless the parent stipulates to the amount imputed, the parent defaults, or, in contested cases, a hearing is held and the judge … enters findings of fact as to the evidentiary basis for the imputation.” Utah Code Ann. § 78B-12-203(8)(a) (LexisNexis 2018). McGarry asserts that we should construe this provision as permitting a court to impute income to a parent based on that parent’s unilateral stipulation to the amount imputed. However, McGarry’s interpretation is inconsistent with the language of the statute and would also lead to an absurd result. 

First, nothing in the statute requires the court to impute income based on the imputed parent’s stipulation. It simply states that the court cannot impute income “unless the parent stipulates” or other conditions are met. Id. And in fact, the statute explicitly states that “in contested cases,” the imputation requires a hearing and factual findings entered by the judge in support of the imputation. Id. Here, Ward maintained that McGarry’s income was greater than $30,000 per month. The appropriate amount of McGarry’s income was therefore contested, requiring the court to calculate the appropriate amount after a hearing if the parties could not reach an agreement. 

Moreover, even if the statute was ambiguous and McGarry’s interpretation was consistent with the plain language of the statute, his reading would lead to an absurd result, as it would essentially require the court to impute income at whatever level the party being imputed requests. See, e.g.Encon Utah, LLC v. Fluor Ames Kraemer, LLC, 2009 UT 7, ¶ 73, 210 P.3d 263 (“When statutory language plausibly presents the court with two alternative readings, we prefer the reading that avoids absurd results.” (quotation simplified)). Interpreting the statute in this way could have a significant negative impact on the right children have to be supported by their parents—a right that we have consistently held “is not subject to being bartered away, extinguished, estopped or in any way defeated by the agreement or conduct of the parents.” Hills v. Hills, 638 P.2d 516, 517 (Utah 1981); accord Andrus v. Andrus, 2007 UT App 291, ¶ 14, 169 P.3d 754. 

 

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Velasquez v. Chavez – 2019 UT App 185 – child surname

2019 UT App 185
THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

DARIO ARTHUR VELASQUEZ,
Appellant,
v.
STACY L. CHAVEZ,
Appellee.

Opinion
No. 20180451-CA
Filed November 15, 2019

Third District Court, Salt Lake Department
The Honorable Matthew Bates
The Honorable Patrick Corum
No. 154901302

Marsha M. Lang, Attorney for Appellant
Michael P. Studebaker, Attorney for Appellee

JUDGE DIANA HAGEN authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and DAVID N. MORTENSEN concurred.

HAGEN, Judge:

¶1        Dario Arthur Velasquez appeals the district court’s decision to hyphenate the surname of his biological son (the child). Velasquez argues that the court did not address the six-factor test articulated in Hamby v. Jacobson, 769 P.2d 273 (Utah Ct. App. 1989), for determining whether changing the child’s surname from Chavez to Velasquez-Chavez was in the child’s best interest. Because we conclude the district court properly considered all the relevant factors and provided sufficient findings to support its decision, we affirm.

BACKGROUND

¶2        Velasquez and Stacy L. Chavez were in a relationship and living together when Chavez became pregnant with their child. A few months into the pregnancy, Chavez ended the relationship and moved in with a former boyfriend who was the father of her daughter.

¶3        When Chavez gave birth to the child, she left the birth certificate blank as to the child’s father and gave the child the surname “Chavez.” A few weeks after the birth, Velasquez filed a Verified Petition for Decree of Paternity (the petition). Relevant to this appeal, Velasquez petitioned the court to change the child’s surname to “Velasquez.”

¶4        At the trial on the petition, the parties were present and stipulated to proffers of testimony before the court. Velasquez’s attorney argued that the child’s surname should be “Velasquez” because Velasquez believes that the child is confused as to who his “real father” is because he calls both Velasquez and Chavez’s significant other “daddy.” Velasquez’s attorney argued that the child will be stigmatized and embarrassed to have his mother’s surname because children at school “are very cruel” and will conclude he is “illegitimate.” His attorney anticipated that a hyphenated surname might be an option and expressed concerns that the name “Velasquez will be dropped off” if the child’s surname was changed to “Chavez-Velasquez.” There was also concern that the child would just go by “Chavez” if the last name was changed to “Velasquez-Chavez.” But Velasquez did not “have any objection to Chavez being a middle name.” Velasquez’s attorney argued that “for inheritance purposes, for the idea of carrying on the last name of Velasquez, for the heritage of his family, [the child] should have [Velasquez’s] last name.” At this point, the district court asked Velasquez directly, “[S]hare with me your heritage, where does your family come from?” Velasquez responded that he and his mother are from Texas and that his father was born in Mexico but has spent most of his life in Texas.

¶5        In response, Chavez’s attorney argued that Velasquez’s arguments with respect to the child’s confusion, embarrassment, and “stigmas in schools” were based on “a lot of speculation” without any support. Chavez disagreed that the child would suffer embarrassment or lack of identity without his father’s surname. Chavez’s attorney proffered that the child shared Velasquez’s middle name and that Chavez was “not opposed to the offer of the child’s last name being Velasquez-dash-Chavez.” Chavez’s attorney further explained that he had “spent a lot of time researching and trying to find any sociological or psychological literature” to make sure the child was not harmed by a hyphenated surname. The court asked Chavez where her family came from, and she responded that her family was from Colorado and that she lived in Utah. The court commented that “it is common in certain Latin cultures for a person’s last name to be the father’s last name hyphenated with the mother’s last name” and then asked if either family followed that tradition. Velasquez and Chavez each responded, “No.”

¶6        Following the proffered testimony, the district court gave its oral ruling, following the six-factor test articulated in Hamby v. Jacobson, 769 P.2d 273 (Utah Ct. App. 1989), for determining whether changing the child’s surname is in the child’s best interest. The court concluded that it was in the child’s best interest to have the surname Velasquez-Chavez to “make sure that the child understands that he has two parents that don’t live together but they’re both his parents.” The court also explained that “although this isn’t common in the heritage of the two families here, it is . . . very common in the heritage of many Latin and Hispanic families, in Utah and outside of Utah . . . [and] it’s very common in . . . other cultures in this community.”

¶7        Velasquez objected to the hyphenated last name. He personally addressed the court, arguing that it had erroneously based its decision on “Latin countries and stuff,” despite the fact that he and Chavez were both born in the United States and “the ways here in America is [to use] one last name.” The court clarified that it “mentioned that particular cultural tradition only to demonstrate that [it] found little basis to find that a hyphenated name is going to cause the child any embarrassment simply because that is so prevalent in our community today, regardless of where it comes from.”

¶8        Following the trial, the court entered findings of fact and conclusions of law and ordered that the child’s surname be changed to Velasquez-Chavez. Velasquez now appeals.

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶9 Velasquez contends the district court erred in determining that it was in the child’s best interest to hyphenate the child’s name to Velasquez-Chavez. “We review the trial court’s findings under a clearly erroneous standard and will not disturb those findings unless they are against the clear weight of the evidence . . . .” Hamby v. Jacobson, 769 P.2d 273, 279 (Utah Ct. App. 1989). But “when the evidence consists only of proffers to the trial court, the appellate court is in as good a position to review the proffer as was the trial court, as no assessment of witness credibility occurred below.” Id. at 278 (cleaned up). “Therefore, we review the facts and draw our own legal conclusions therefrom,” id. (cleaned up), and will reverse only if we “reach[] a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made,” id. at 279.

ANALYSIS

¶10 This court has previously held that “the best interests of the child is the paramount consideration in determining whether a child’s name should be changed.” Hamby v. Jacobson, 769 P.2d 273, 277 (Utah Ct. App. 1989). There are six factors that are relevant for determining the best interests of the child in this regard:

1) the child’s preference in light of the child’s age and experience, 2) the effect of a name change on the development and preservation of the child’s relationship with each parent, 3) the length of time a child has used a name, 4) the difficulties, harassment or embarrassment a child may experience from bearing the present or proposed name, 5) the possibility that a different name may cause insecurity and lack of identity, and 6) the motive or interests of the custodial parent.

Christensen v. Christensen, 941 P.2d 622, 624 (Utah Ct. App. 1997) (cleaned up).

¶11      Velasquez argues that the district court “did not correctly apply the [Hamby] factors in this matter in determining that the [c]hild’s name should be hyphenated and not just Velasquez after his father.” Velasquez asserts that the court improperly “used its belief that the parties have a culture and heritage from Latin or Central America because of the root of their surnames to support its decision.” Essentially, Velasquez argues that there are no facts apparent in the record to support the court’s decision to hyphenate the child’s surname and appears to challenge four of the Hamby factors: “the effect of a name change on the development and preservation of the child’s relationship with each parent”; “the difficulties, harassment or embarrassment a child may experience from bearing the present or proposed name”; “the possibility that a different name may cause insecurity and lack of identity”; and “the motive or interests of the custodial parent.” See id. (cleaned up). We address each factor in turn.

¶12 We first address the district court’s findings related to “the effect of a name change on the development and preservation of the child’s relationship with each parent.” Id. (cleaned up). The district court found that this was the most “important factor” in this case. The court noted that the child lives in “a blended family where the child has a mother and a stepfather that the child lives with,” that “the child has a half sibling” with the last name of the stepfather, and that the child has visitation with Velasquez “outside of the home.” The court explained that, under such circumstances, “the child’s last name becomes somewhat important in helping the child to identify [with] his heritage, who his parents are[,] and to understand the difference between stepfather and natural father.” Thus, the court determined that this factor weighed in favor of “making sure . . . the child does have a last name that helps the child identify with [Velasquez].” Based on these findings, we see no error in the court’s determination that a blended family supports a hyphenated surname, and Velasquez has not persuaded us otherwise.[1]

¶13 Next, we address whether the hyphenated surname will result in “difficulties, harassment or embarrassment” to the child. Id. (cleaned up). Velasquez argues that the child could suffer “possible harassment by not being considered an American by bearing a hyphenated name in the manner of a heritage and ethnicity that neither side of his family affiliates or associates themselves with.”[2] In response to the court’s questions, Chavez and Velasquez made clear that they do not identify with Latin culture, and the court recognized that there are many “blended families” and children “from various backgrounds,” including those “who are of European ancestry,” with hyphenated names, “regardless of where [the practice of hyphenated names] comes from.” Velasquez does not challenge this finding, only arguing that the court improperly based its decision on its “belief that the parties have a culture and heritage from Latin or Central America.” But the court took care to clarify that it “mentioned [the Latin or Hispanic] cultural tradition only to demonstrate that [it] found little basis to find that a hyphenated name is going to cause the child any embarrassment simply because [such a practice] is so prevalent in our community today, regardless of where it comes from.” We cannot say that the court’s determination was against the clear weight of the evidence, nor can we say that we are left with a firm and definite conviction that the court erred in weighing this factor.

¶14 With respect to “insecurity or lack of identity,” Christensen, 941 P.2d at 624, 626, the court again expressed the “need to make sure that the child properly identifies with both parents and particularly, that he understands that [Velasquez] is . . . his father.” Velasquez does not directly challenge this finding, and instead argues that with a hyphenated name the child “will likewise face many throughout his life who think he is not a third-generation American but rather a Latin American, which raises the possibility that it may cause insecurity and lack of identity.” Velasquez did not provide any support for this assertion below or on appeal and relies on mere speculation. We therefore find no error in the court’s findings with respect to this factor.

¶15      Finally, Velasquez argues that the court “overlooked” the “exhibits and evidence indicating [Chavez’s] ulterior motives.” In support of his argument, Velasquez points to Chavez’s answer to his petition. But like the district court, we discern nothing in Chavez’s answer that suggests an ulterior motive. Velasquez also complains that, in proceeding by proffer, the court deprived him of the opportunity to present evidence relating to Chavez’s motive. But both parties agreed at the outset to proceed by proffer. Nevertheless, after the court made its ruling, Velasquez claimed that the record was insufficient for purposes of appeal and asked for an evidentiary hearing. The court denied the request, noting that it had “accepted the facts [he] offered almost verbatim” and took issue only with “[his] suggestion that there was maybe some ill motive on Ms. Chavez’s part.” In fact, Velasquez never proffered any facts relating to Chavez’s motives. Instead, his attorney merely speculated that “[t]here seems to be some motive here that I don’t know” and hoped to find one by asking Chavez “on the stand . . . why in the world she wouldn’t want [the child] to have the last name Velasquez.” The district court acted well within its discretion in denying an evidentiary hearing to conduct such a fishing expedition. Because Velasquez proffered no facts to support his claim of an ulterior motive, the court properly concluded that this factor did not bear on the best interest of the child.

¶16      In light of the district court’s findings with respect to the four factors Velasquez challenges on appeal, we conclude the district court did not err in determining that it was in the child’s best interest to change his surname from Chavez to Velasquez-Chavez.

CONCLUSION

¶17      The district court’s determination that it was in the child’s best interest to change his surname to Velasquez-Chavez was not against the clear weight of the evidence and does not leave us with a firm and definite conviction that a mistake was made. Accordingly, we affirm.

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

————————————————————

[1] On appeal, Velasquez makes much of the fact that he is “the only male heir in his family” and that the child, as his only issue, “will be the only one who can carry on the surname Velasquez.” Thirty years ago, this court firmly rejected relying on the outdated notion “that a father has a protectible or primary interest in having his children bear his surname.” Hamby v. Jacobson, 769 P.2d 273, 276 (Utah Ct. App. 1989). As this court recognized, “a paternal preference for a child’s surname is improper, just as would be a preference for the maternal surname.” Id. at 277. We fail to see how Velasquez’s own interest in having the child carry on his family name bears on the child’s best interest, which is the “paramount consideration in determining whether a child’s name should be changed.” Id.

[2] Velasquez insinuates that the prospect of a hyphenated surname was generated by the court’s own misguided assumptions about the parties’ ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. But it was the parties themselves who identified a hyphenated surname as an option. Velasquez’s attorney was the first to broach the possibility of a hyphenated name in proffering that Velasquez worried that the child might drop Velasquez and use only Chavez if his surname was hyphenated. And Chavez’s attorney proffered that Chavez was “not opposed to the offer of the child’s last name being Velasquez-dash-Chavez.”

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Oldroyd v. Oldroyd – 2019 UT App 155 – premarital property interest, unjust enrichment

Oldroyd v. Oldroyd – 2019 UT App 155 – THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

ROBBEN ANN OLDROYD,
Appellant,
v.
FARRELL LYNN OLDROYD,
Appellee.

Opinion
No. 20180257-CA
Filed September 26, 2019
Second District Court, Morgan Department
The Honorable Noel S. Hyde
No. 134500028

Brent D. Wride and Bryant McConkie, Attorneys
for Appellant

Brian E. Arnold and Lauren Schultz, Attorneys
for Appellee

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

CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge:

¶1        Robben Ann Oldroyd (Wife) appeals the district court’s determination that Farrell Lynn Oldroyd (Husband) was entitled to an equitable interest in property she acquired prior to the parties’ marriage. We reverse and remand for further proceedings.

BACKGROUND

¶2        This case previously came before us in Oldroyd v. Oldroyd (Oldroyd I), 2017 UT App 45, 397 P.3d 645. At that time, Wife challenged the district court’s determination that Husband had acquired a premarital interest in a home constructed prior to their marriage and titled in her name. Id. ¶¶ 2, 5.

¶3        We vacated the award and remanded for the district court to make additional findings disclosing “the steps by which the district court reached its ultimate conclusion.” Id. ¶¶ 5, 11. Although courts have discretion to grant one spouse an equitable portion of premarital property belonging to another spouse in certain circumstances, see Lindsey v. Lindsey, 2017 UT App 38, ¶ 33, 392 P.3d 968, the district court had not made findings regarding any of those circumstances. Instead, it concluded that Husband had “acquired a separate premarital interest in the improvements on the property.” Oldroyd I, 2017 UT App 45, ¶ 4 (quotation simplified). Yet the court did not articulate “what legal theory gave” Husband a premarital interest in the property as opposed to an equitable interest in a portion of a premarital asset belonging to Wife. Id. ¶ 8. Thus, we were “unable to trace with accuracy the steps by which the district court reached its ultimate conclusion that [Husband] had obtained a premarital interest in the house.” Id. ¶ 11 (emphasis added).

¶4        On remand, the court made additional findings regarding Husband’s contribution to the value of the home. The court found that Wife had contributed $350,000 toward the out-of-pocket costs of constructing the home and that “[t]he value of the specialized expertise and labor provided” by Husband, which included providing “the vast majority of supervision and conceptual direction for the construction of the home,” “was equivalent to the value of [Wife’s] financial contributions to the home’s construction,” i.e., $350,000.[1] The court further found that Husband “conferred upon [Wife] the benefit of his unique and specialized knowledge and skills in constructing the . . . home,” that Wife “was aware of and appreciated the unique and substantial benefit being conferred upon her,” and that permitting Wife “to retain the benefit of [Husband’s] knowledge and skills without granting [Husband] equal value in the home would unjustly enrich” Wife. Based on these findings, the court determined that the parties “should each be awarded a 50% premarital interest” in the home based on a theory of unjust enrichment. Wife again appeals the district court’s decision.

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶5        Wife asserts that the district court erred in recognizing a 50% premarital interest for Husband based on unjust enrichment. “We review the district court’s legal conclusions for correctness, and will reverse its factual findings only if they are clearly erroneous.” 438 Main St. v. Easy Heat, Inc., 2004 UT 72, ¶ 49, 99 P.3d 801.

ANALYSIS

¶6        Wife asserts that the district court erred in awarding Husband a premarital interest based on unjust enrichment, because that theory was neither pleaded nor tried by consent. Husband maintains that his pleadings adequately asserted an unjust enrichment claim and that, even if they did not do so explicitly, Wife was aware of the claim and defended against it at trial, thereby impliedly consenting to its consideration. We agree with Wife.

¶7        First, Husband’s pleadings cannot be construed as asserting an unjust enrichment claim. The pleadings alleged that Husband “has exerted hours and money into the home, including trade work,” and that he “should be awarded a sum certain from [Wife’s] equity in the home for all the work he has completed on the home, and for value of his trade work that he has performed for investment on the marital home.” This is not a claim for a premarital interest in property based on unjust enrichment or any other theory but a claim for an equitable award of a portion of Wife’s premarital asset.[2] See Lindsey v. Lindsey, 2017 UT App 38, ¶ 33, 392 P.3d 968.

¶8        Second, Husband has not pointed us to anything in the

trial record suggesting that the issue was tried by implied consent. “When an issue not raised in the pleadings is tried by the parties’ express or implied consent, it must be treated in all respects as if raised in the pleadings.” Utah R. Civ. P. 15(b)(1). “Implied consent to try an issue may be found where one party raises an issue material to the other party’s case or where evidence is introduced without objection, where it appears that the parties understood the evidence is to be aimed at the unpleaded issue.” Hill v. Estate of Allred, 2009 UT 28, ¶ 48, 216 P.3d 929 (quotation simplified). But “when evidence is introduced that is relevant to a pleaded issue and the party against whom the amendment is urged has no reason to believe a new issue is being injected into the case, that party cannot be said to have impliedly consented to trial of that issue.” Id. (quotation simplified).

¶9        Husband’s contribution to the value of the home was a major issue at trial, and much evidence was presented by both parties on this point. However, all of this evidence was relevant to Husband’s equitable claim that his efforts on the home entitled him to a portion of Wife’s premarital asset. There is nothing inherent in this evidence that would have suggested to Wife that the evidence was introduced to prove an unpleaded unjust enrichment claim. And in fact, Husband represented the opposite, explicitly acknowledging at trial that his opportunity to assert unjust enrichment had passed, since more than eighteen years had elapsed since the completion of the home. The fact that any unjust enrichment claim was several years too late is the reason Husband sought an equitable award of a portion of Wife’s property as part of the divorce action. It was the court that ultimately construed Husband’s claim as an assertion of a premarital interest in Wife’s separate property and articulated it as such in its order.

¶10 In Oldroyd I, we concluded that the district court had failed to “explain what legal theory gave rise” to Husband’s premarital interest in the property and clarified, “[T]he court did not discuss whether unjust enrichment, promissory estoppel, quasi-contract, or some other theory applied.” Oldroyd I, 2017 UT App 45, ¶ 8. While acknowledging that it also did not appear that Husband had “identified to the court a particular theory under which he was entitled to a premarital interest,” we left open the possibility that there could be some legal theory under which the court could reach such a conclusion. Id. Upon further review, however, it is apparent that this is not the case. Husband raised no contract, quasi-contract, or equitable claim that he had acquired a premarital interest in the home, and no such claim was tried by consent. Further, by Husband’s own admission, it does not appear that any such claim was available to him within the statute of limitations. See Utah Code Ann. § 78B-2-307(1) (LexisNexis 2018). Thus, the district court erred in determining that Husband had established a premarital interest in the property.

¶11 Because the district court premised its ruling on the conclusion that Husband had acquired a premarital interest in the home, it did not rule on his equitable argument. On remand, the court is not precluded from evaluating this argument, which was specifically pleaded and tried.[3]

CONCLUSION

¶12      Because a claim of unjust enrichment was neither pleaded nor tried by consent, the district court erred in determining that Husband had acquired a premarital interest in the home. We therefore reverse and remand for further proceedings.

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

———————————————————–

[1] At trial, a general contractor called as an expert witness for Wife estimated that he would have charged approximately $804,000 to build the home in 1997.

[2] In Oldroyd I, we declined Husband’s invitation to construe the district court’s decision as granting him an equitable interest in Wife’s premarital property because the court’s findings did not support such a determination: “[T]he district court did not rule that the house was marital property that should be divided unequally” and “did not purport to award an interest in [Wife’s] separate property to [Husband] to achieve an equitable result.” Oldroyd I, 2017 UT App 45, ¶ 9 & n.5, 397 P.3d 645. “Rather, the court determined that [Husband] had ‘acquired a separate premarital interest’ in the house.” Id. ¶ 9.

[3] Previous cases addressing equitable division of premarital assets have involved contributions made to those assets during the course of the marriage. See, e.g., Lindsey v. Lindsey, 2017 UT App 38, ¶¶ 6–7, 13, 392 P.3d 968; Elman v. Elman, 2002 UT App 83, ¶ 20, 45 P.3d 176. Thus, Utah courts have not had the opportunity to assess the extent to which one spouse’s premarital contributions to another spouse’s premarital assets may be considered in the context of a divorce court’s equitable division of property. However, Wife does not appear to have asserted that the court was precluded from considering Husband’s premarital contributions, and the parties’ presentation of evidence at trial indicates that both were acting on the assumption that Husband’s premarital contributions were relevant to his equitable claim for a portion of Wife’s premarital asset. We therefore assume, without deciding, that premarital contributions may be relevant in assessing whether equity requires division of a premarital asset.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Do I have to keep paying child support if our child doesn’t live with the other parent?

Question:

My daughter turns 18 in the middle of September.  I just recently learned that her mom moved away a couple of months ago leaving my daughter to live with her mother’s boyfriend, then my daughter just moved out of her mother’s boyfriends and into a friend’s house.

In the state of Utah, am I still obligated to pay child support after the child is no longer living with the custodial parent after she’s 18 but before she graduates?

Answer:

You can seek a modification of the child support award if the child is no longer residing with the parent to whom you were ordered to pay child support.

You have two options for seeking a modification:

  • administratively through the Office of Recovery Services (ORS); or
  • you can file a petition to modify the child support order through the district court.

Consult an attorney to find out how to exercise either option and to determine what option may be best for you.

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

Tags: , , , , ,

Nebeker v. Orton – 2019 UT App 23 – custody and parent-time

2019 UT App 23

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

SHANE NEBEKER,
Appellant,
v.
TRISHA ANN ORTON,
Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20170438-CA

Filed February 14, 2019

Sixth District Court, Richfield Department
The Honorable Marvin D. Bagley
No. 154600140

Jared L. Peterson, Attorney for Appellant Benjamin Kearns, Attorney for Appellee

JUDGE DAVID N. MORTENSEN authored this Opinion, in which
JUDGES KATE APPLEBY and JILL M. POHLMAN concurred.

MORTENSEN, Judge:

¶1        Shane Nebeker (Father) and Trisha Ann Orton’s (Mother) extramarital relationship resulted in the birth of a son (Child). For the first eighteen months of Child’s life, Father saw him only a few times. Then, concerned about Mother’s illegal activities, Father took Child away from Mother without her consent. Sometime thereafter, Father and Mother worked out an extrajudicial, temporary custody arrangement that they perpetuated until a custody trial. After a bench trial, Mother was awarded primary physical custody of Child, and Father was awarded statutory minimum parent-time. Father appeals. We affirm in part—affirming the district court’s decision regarding primary custody—and reverse in part—reversing the district court’s decision related to Father’s parent-time.

BACKGROUND[1]

¶2Father and Mother are parents of Child, born in December 2013. Mother and Father ended their relationship before Child was born, and they lived about 100 miles apart. During the first eighteen months of Child’s life, Father saw Child on two occasions shortly after his birth. Mother stated that Father “was more than welcome to come down any time he wanted to” visit Child, but Father repeatedly told Mother, “I refuse to have anything to do with you to see my child.” Mother did not allow Father to remove Child from her supervision because (1) Child was nursing and (2) Mother felt Child needed “to get to know” Father before he took him for a visit. Father admitted Mother told him he could visit Child at her residence, but Father said it would have been “uncomfortable” because there were “still feelings.”[2]

¶3        Father did not provide financial support to Child or Mother during the first eighteen months of Child’s life. The Office of Recovery Services opened a case, and the matter came before the district court in early May 2015, where Father’s support obligation was determined.

¶4        In late May 2015, Mother allowed Father to visit Child. Mother’s daughter (Daughter) picked up Child and took him to meet Father at a nearby restaurant. Daughter allowed Father to take Child for a few minutes to buy a toy. But Father then sent Daughter a text message informing her that he was not returning Child. Father characterized this action as “rescuing” Child from the dangerous situation created by Mother’s drug use. Father took Child to his house. Mother stated that the day Father took Child was the “darkest day of [her] life” and admitted that she “wasn’t probably in the best place in [her] life.” For the first week after Father took Child, Father allowed Mother to call and read Child a bedtime story, but after that week Father refused to answer the phone, and Mother “was not allowed to see [Child] for six months.” Mother did not report Father’s taking of Child to the police or any other authority.

¶5        Mother realized that she was “never going to get [her] baby back” unless she “got clean.” She testified that she “found a new way of life” in a treatment center and “never touched [drugs] again.”

¶6        In October 2015, Father filed a parentage petition in which he sought sole custody of Child and child support from Mother. Around January 2016, Mother and Father “agreed” to an ongoing extrajudicial temporary custody arrangement under which Child stayed ten out of every twenty-eight days with Mother and the balance of the days with Father.[3] Mother said that she felt “bullied” into accepting the temporary arrangement. Father stated that Child did well under the arrangement.

¶7        Ultimately, a two-day bench trial was held in October and November 2016. The district court made the following findings of fact: (1) Mother and Father began a relationship when they were teenagers; (2) each had been married or in relationships with other persons; (3) each had other children from prior marriages or relationships; (4) each had a history of using illegal drugs and violating the law; (5) Father was married and Mother was single at the time of trial; (6) Child had his own bed and bedroom in Father’s house; (7) Child had his own bed in Mother’s room at Mother’s house; (8) Father and Mother resided approximately 105 miles apart and had no plans to move closer to each other; (9) Mother had a good support system where she lived and believed she could avoid adverse influences she might encounter elsewhere; (10) Mother and Father each had family members to provide support and a positive influence on Child; Father’s employment required him to be away from home for fourteen hours per day during scheduled work periods; Mother worked six-and-one-half hours daily, Monday through Thursday; (13) Child had been residing with both parents pursuant to an informal, temporary parent-time schedule; (14) Child was well-adjusted and doing well under the informal agreement. The district court also found:

Both parties acknowledged past deficiencies in their parenting abilities. In essence both parties have had periods in their [lives] when they have been less than fit parents. However, at the present time both parties contribute financially to the welfare of [Child]; and both parties spend appropriate time with, and provide appropriate emotional support to [Child]. Essentially, both parents are fit parents. Both are very bonded with [Child].

¶8        In its analysis, the district court acknowledged that both parties had a history of drug problems, criminal activities, and extramarital sexual relations. “While Father cleaned his life up sooner than Mother, there is insufficient evidence for [the district court] to make a decision as to whether one of the parties’ past conduct was better or worse than the other.” Indeed, Father admitted having a history of criminal activity, including “a couple DUIs,” methamphetamine and marijuana use with Mother, and being incarcerated more than three times. Mother likewise admitted that she had a history of drug use and selling drugs, but she had been “over a year clean” at the time of the trial. Thus, the district court determined that “evidence relating to past conduct and moral standards is equally balanced between the parties.“

¶9        In determining which parent should have primary physical care of Child, the district court highlighted four factors. First, in analyzing which party was most likely to allow “frequent and continuing contact with the other parent,” the district court noted that the facts did not weigh in Father’s favor, particularly because Father “surreptitiously” and “underhandedly” took Child and did not allow Mother to contact Child for a significant period. At the same time, the court acknowledged that taking Child motivated Mother’s recovery from drug use. The district court found the evidence supported the conclusion that Child was “doing very well” in the care of both parents and that both parties were cooperating in providing the other “meaningful parent time.”

¶10 Second, the district court determined that Child had a greater bond with Mother:

While [Child] has recently spent considerable periods of time with Father, [Child] has overall lived more with Mother than Father. Prior to the time Father became concerned enough with Mother’s drug use that he took self-help action, Father was content to allow [Child] to live primarily with Mother. The [district court] considers such action (or non-action) on the part of Father to be a tacit acknowledgement that the best interests of [Child] were being best served by [Child] living primarily with Mother.

Thus, the district court determined that Mother had been the primary caregiver for Child.

¶11      Third, “Mother’s work schedule is also more conducive to her having primary physical care of [Child].” The court reasoned that Mother could “devote more time to [Child’s] needs than Father” because she “works fewer hours, travels less time to and from work, and has a more consistent work schedule than Father.”

¶12      Fourth, the court cited the distance separating the parties as a motivating factor in its determination. “If the parties were living in the same community, or within a reasonably close distance from each other, the [district court] would likely have found a joint physical custody arrangement to be in [Child’s] best interests.” Indeed, both parties acknowledged at trial that once Child begins school, one parent must necessarily have primary custody. As Father noted, “Obviously when school starts, I think that’s why we’re here today. . . . I don’t think we could possibly do a two week on or a one week on schedule when he’s going to school.”

¶13 Having weighed these factors, the court determined that it was in Child’s best interests to award the parties joint legal custody, with Mother having primary physical custody. The district court further specified that “Father be allowed to exercise liberal and meaningful parent time with [Child]. At a minimum Father should be entitled to the aggregate amount of parent time provided by Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-35; with adjustments being made to that schedule to ensure Father’s parent time is exercised, as much as is reasonably possible, at times Father is off work.” Father appeals.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶14 The first issue is whether the district court’s factual findings were properly supported by the evidence. “A challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence concerns the [district] court’s findings of fact. Those findings will not be disturbed unless they are clearly erroneous.” Kimball v. Kimball, 2009 UT App 233, ¶ 14, 217 P.3d 733 (cleaned up). And a “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.” Id. (cleaned up).

¶15      The second issue is whether the district court erred when it departed from the informal custody arrangement and awarded primary physical custody to Mother and only the statutory minimum parent-time to Father. “We review custody determinations under an abuse of discretion standard, giving the district court broad discretion to make custody awards.” K.P.S. v. E.J.P., 2018 UT App 5, ¶ 24, 414 P.3d 933 (cleaned up). We will not disturb the district court’s judgment “unless we determine the [district] court has exceeded the scope of permitted discretion or has acted contrary to law.” Davis v. Davis, 2001 UT App 225, ¶ 6, 29 P.3d 676 (cleaned up). Further, “[i]t has long been the law in this state that conclusions of law must be predicated upon and find support in the findings of fact and that the judgment or decree must follow the conclusions of law.” Gillmor v. Wright, 850 P.2d 431, 436 (Utah 1993).

ANALYSIS

  1. The Evidence Supported the District Court’s Factual Findings

¶16 Father’s first argument is that the evidence does not support the court’s factual findings. 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 (cleaned up). But “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 (cleaned up). Rather, “to successfully challenge a [district] court’s factual finding 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 (cleaned up). “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. Thus, “a party challenging a factual finding or sufficiency of the evidence to support a verdict will almost certainly fail to carry its burden of persuasion on appeal if it fails to marshal.” State v. Nielsen, 2014 UT 10, ¶ 42, 326 P.3d 645.

¶17 Here, Father has not addressed many of the district “court’s findings and makes no attempt to marshal the evidence in support of them. He 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 Shuman v. Shuman, 2017 UT App 192, ¶ 9, 406 P.3d 258 (cleaned up). We illustrate a portion of the absence of marshaling as follows.

  1. Child’s Best Interests

¶18 Father disagrees that Mother is more likely than he is to act in Child’s best interests. The court found that Father “underhandedly” and “surreptitiously” took Child and “kept Child from Mother for some time.” Father responded that he allowed phone contact between Mother and Child, and noted that Mother never filed a police report against him after he took Child, implying that she tacitly supported Father’s decision to take Child. But Father fails to address why Mother would have been reluctant to call police. Mother had warrants out for her arrest. If she had filed a report, she likely would have lost custody of Child because she would have been arrested. By taking Child and withholding him from Mother, Father placed Mother in a no-win situation.

¶19 In contrast to Father’s actions, the record indicates that Mother was willing to let Father visit Child. Shortly after Child was born and before paternity had been established, Mother allowed Father to visit Child. Father admitted that Mother told him he could come visit Child at her parents’ house, but Father declined because there were “still feelings” and he was “uncomfortable” with such an arrangement. After paternity was established and Father agreed to pay child support, Mother allowed him to spend time with Child at a restaurant—a decision that led to her losing physical possession of Child. Furthermore, unlike Father, Mother never attempted to regain exclusive possession of Child through surreptitious means.

¶20      The district court also found that Father’s “non-action” in allowing Child to remain with Mother for the first eighteen months of his life was a “tacit acknowledgment” that Child’s best interests were served by remaining primarily with Mother. The court also noted that, although there was some dispute in the evidence at trial, Father told Mother shortly after taking Child that this arrangement was temporary and “she would get [Child] back after she cleaned up her drug use.”

¶21 From this evidence the court concluded that “the parties have recognized it is in the best interest of [Child] that [Mother] continue” to be his primary caregiver. As we noted in Shuman, Father “views the evidence as compelling a different outcome”— that his efforts to gain custody of Child demonstrate he was not content with allowing Child to live primarily with Mother—“but it is not within our purview to engage in a reweighing of the evidence.” 2017 UT App 192, ¶ 9 (cleaned up). Thus, the district court’s determination that Child’s best interests were served by awarding Mother primary custody was sufficiently supported by the evidence and was not clearly erroneous.[4]

  1. Primary Caretaker Assessment

¶22 Father next argues that the district court’s finding that Mother was the primary caretaker for the majority of Child’s life is “contrary to the law and evidence.” But Child lived exclusively with Mother for the first eighteen months of his life. In contrast, the parties shared custody from January 2016 until trial in late 2016. Father had sole custody for only about seven months— from May 2015 when he took child until January 2016 when the parties agreed to a temporary custody arrangement.

¶23 Father responds that “[i]t is not who the child has lived with the majority of his life, but who the child has lived with once a party initiates legal action.” Father cites Davis v. Davis, 749 P.2d 647 (Utah 1988), in support of this proposition. We find Father’s reading of Davis selective and inaccurate. In Davis, the parties in a divorce proceeding agreed that the father would have custody of a minor child so the child could stay in the family home. Id. at 648. About one month later, the divorce decree was set aside on the grounds that the mother was emotionally unstable at the time of the original proceeding and did not realize the consequences of her actions. Id. In the renewed divorce proceedings, the court awarded custody of the child to the father. Id. Our supreme court upheld the decision, noting that the father had been the child’s “primary caregiver for over a year and had provided a very stable environment.” Id. From this holding, Father argues that because he had primary custody of Child during the pendency of this matter, “[t]he District Court erred in disregarding this information in favor of the care provided by [Mother].”

¶24 As Mother points out in her brief, this “position is contrary to Utah law and basic logic.” Such an approach might require a court to award primary caretaker status to the parent who filed for custody after only recently gaining possession of a child over the interests of the parent who had a previous, but much longer, possession. Father’s position is also contrary to Davis. Directly following the statement that the current custody arrangement should be given special weight, the Davis court warned, “Of course, if the primary caregiver gained that status wrongfully, courts should be careful not to reward such conduct by giving the wrongdoer a consequential advantage in evaluating the custody question.” Id. at 648–49. We find Father’s reliance on Davis misplaced precisely because, as the district court noted, he gained primary caregiver status wrongfully when he “surreptitiously” and “underhandedly” took possession of Child through “self-help.” Therefore, the district court’s finding was not clearly erroneous.

  1. Work Schedule Analysis

¶25 Father also challenges the district court’s finding that Mother’s work schedule was more conducive to her having primary physical custody. Father argues that the district court’s decision “[e]ssentially . . . came down to its finding that [Mother’s] work schedule, a schedule where she worked more days, but fewer hours in a two-week period than [Father] served [Child’s] best interest.” Father’s characterization of the district court’s analysis of the parties’ work schedules is flawed in three respects.

¶26 First, Father fails to acknowledge that the work schedule was one of three factors the district court highlighted in Mother’s favor. The court also determined that Mother was more likely to allow “frequent and continuing contact with the other parent” and that Mother had a greater bond with Child.

¶27      Second, Father asserts that in Fullmer v. Fullmer, 761 P.2d 942 (Utah Ct. App. 1988), this court held that it is an abuse of discretion to base a custody award on the parties’ work schedules. But Father misreads that case. Fullmer stated that the “[district] court abused its discretion by relying on [a minor child’s] placement in full-time day care to change [the child’s] custody placement” because “more and more children are raised by single parents who must work.” Id. at 948. In the present case, the district court did not punish Father for working. Rather, it stated that Mother’s work schedule was more conducive to devoting more time to Child.

¶28      Third, Father ignores the totality of the evidence. Father’s job as a supervisor at a coal mine required that he work variable twelve-hour shifts fourteen days out of every four weeks. In addition, Father has a nearly one-hour commute each way to work. He admits that the length of his commute requires him to rely on his extended family and his spouse to address emergencies involving Child that might arise while he is working. In contrast, Mother works Monday through Thursday from 10:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. at a convenience store close to home. Her employment affords her the flexibility to leave during her shift if the need arises. Therefore, Father has not shown that the district court’s finding that Mother can devote more time to Child’s needs than Father was clearly erroneous.

¶29      By failing to marshal the evidence in favor of the district court’s findings, Father has not met his burden of persuasion. Accordingly, we do not conclude that the findings are clearly erroneous and instead conclude that, although we might subjectively view the import of the evidence differently from the district court, we cannot say that the conclusions are against the great weight of evidence nor are we convinced that a mistake has been made.

  1. The District Court Erred in Awarding Father Minimum
    Parent-Time
  2. Deviation from the Informal Custody Arrangement

¶30 Father next argues that the district court erred by failing to identify a compelling reason to deviate from the informal custody arrangement—under which Child was thriving, happy, and well-adjusted—and awarding primary physical custody to Mother and parent-time to Father.[5] “The importance of the myriad of factors used in determining a child’s best interests ranges from the possibly relevant to the critically important. At the critically important end of the spectrum, when the child is thriving, happy, and well-adjusted, lies continuity of placement.” Hudema v. Carpenter, 1999 UT App 290, ¶ 26, 989 P.2d 491. “A very short custody arrangement of a few months, even if nurturing to some extent, is not entitled to as much weight as a similar arrangement of substantial duration. Of course, a lengthy custody arrangement in which a child has thrived ought rarely, if at all, to be disturbed, and then only if the circumstances are compelling.” Elmer v. Elmer, 776 P.2d 599, 604 (Utah 1989) (cleaned up). In Davis v. Davis, 749 P.2d 647, (Utah 1988), a custody arrangement that had been in place for just over a year was held sufficient to establish continuity. Id. at 648.

¶31 In the present case, we note that the informal custody arrangement was temporary and had been in place for about ten months—from January 2016 until the district court’s decision in November 2016—falling between the lengths of duration established in our case law. But the length of the informal custody arrangement is not the dispositive factor here. Rather, the district court recognized that the agreement could not continue because Child would be starting school the following year. And Father admits that “when [Child] turns five and begins kindergarten, the Court really does have to pick one parent for [Child] to reside with, at least Monday through Friday.” Mother also acknowledges that where Child attends school is an issue that must be addressed. Thus, the district court acted within its discretion and supported its decision with adequate findings when it departed from the informal custody arrangement. An imminent change in circumstance, namely Child’s starting school, required a change in the custody arrangement. Father fails to address this significant undisputed fact.

¶32 The district court acknowledged that joint physical custody would be in Child’s best interests if the parties lived in the same community, but the parties’ distance from each other precluded such an arrangement. Prompted by this reality, the district court weighed the factors, see supra ¶¶ 9–11, and concluded that Child’s best interests were served by awarding Mother primary physical custody. It noted that (1) Mother had been the primary caregiver for the majority of Child’s life, (2) Mother was more likely to allow “frequent and continuing contact with the other parent,” and (3) Mother’s work schedule was more conducive to having primary physical care of Child. As this court noted in Kimball v. Kimball, 2009 UT App 233, 217 P.3d 733, “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.” Id. ¶ 20 n.5.

¶33 Thus, we conclude that the district court did not exceed its discretion in relying on evidence of changed circumstances in departing from the informal custody arrangement and awarding Mother primary physical custody of Child.

  1. The Award of Parent-Time to Father

¶34 Father argues that the district court erred in awarding him minimum parent-time, asserting that he showed by a preponderance of the evidence that he should be awarded parent-time in excess of the minimum guidelines in Utah Code sections 30-3-35 and 30-3-35.5. We agree that the district court’s award of only minimum parent-time was not supported by its findings.

¶35 “[T]he parent-time schedule as provided in Sections 30-3-35 and 30-3-35.5 shall be presumed to be in the best interests of the child . . . .” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-34(2) (LexisNexis Supp. 2018).[6] But these parent-time schedules are subject to adjustment. See id. The schedules represent the minimum parent-time to which the noncustodial parent is entitled unless one of the parents can establish, by a preponderance of the evidence, that more or less time should be awarded based upon a number of criteria. See id. Criteria relevant to the case at hand include, amongst a lengthy list, (1) the distance between the residences of the custodial and noncustodial parents, (2) shared interests between the child and the noncustodial parent, (3) involvement of the noncustodial parent in the child’s community activities, and (4) “any other criteria the court determines relevant to the best interests of the child.” Id. § 30-3-34(2)(b), (h), (i), (o). Regardless of whether the court awards minimum parent-time or awards more or less than the statutory minimum, the statute requires the court to “enter the reasons underlying its order.” Id. § 30-3-34(3).

¶36 Without specifically referencing the statutory criteria, Father contends that the following evidence supported awarding him parent-time in excess of the statutory minimum: (1) Mother’s testimony that Child should have equal time with both parents; (2) neither distance nor finances made “frequent and meaningful” visitation prohibitive; (3) travel between the parents’ residences was not harmful to Child; (4) Child shared a strong bond with Father and Father’s wife and other children; and (5) Child thrived by following the routine in Father’s household.

¶37      “It has long been the law in this state that conclusions of law must be predicated upon and find support in the findings of fact and that the judgment or decree must follow the conclusions of law. When there is variance, the judgment must be corrected to conform with the findings of fact.” Gillmor v. Wright, 850 P.2d 431, 436 (Utah 1993). Such correction is appropriate in this case.

¶38 In the very sentence stating that it found Child’s best interests were served by awarding primary physical custody to Mother, the district court also stated that it “would likely have found a joint physical custody arrangement to be in [Child’s] best interests” if the parties lived reasonably close to each other. The district court reasonably concluded that the distance separating the parties’ residences justified something less than equal parent-time, especially once Child starts attending school. After all, Mother and Father agree that a 100-mile commute to school is unworkable. But this distance does not prevent other possible accommodations that could be accomplished without undue disruption to Child’s school schedule, such as awarding Father additional weekend time or more parent-time over the summer vacation, fall break, spring break, and holidays.

¶39      The district court made no attempt to explain, as required by the statute, its reason for awarding minimum parent-time. See Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-34(3). Given the district court’s findings that (1) Child was “well adjusted and doing very well pursuant” to the informal custody arrangement, (2) “[b]oth parents deeply love and are committed to [Child],” (3) “both parents are extremely motivated to be awarded physical custody of [Child],”

both parties offer financial and emotional support to Child,

“both parties spend appropriate time with” Child, (6) both parents are “fit” and “very bonded” with Child, and (7) the parties agree that Child needs a “relationship” and “substantial time with” the other parent, we would have expected that the court attempt to increase Father’s parent-time over the statutory minimum. Indeed, we are hard-pressed to understand the process by which the court awarded Father minimum parent-time when—in its own words—Father should be “allowed to exercise liberal and meaningful parent time” and where Mother argued at trial that both parents should have equal time with Child. In reality, the record reflects that Mother was arguing that she should have enhanced parent-time, likely believing that Father would prevail as the primary caretaker. Both through the presentation of evidence and in argument, Mother supported the notion that in this case enhanced parent-time should be awarded to the non-primary caregiver. Accordingly, awarding Father the statutory minimum parent-time while simultaneously concluding that the evidence supports awarding Father “liberal and meaningful” parent-time presents a conclusion that does not follow from the findings stated.

¶40      On this single issue we determine that the district court’s conclusion is not supported by its findings, and therefore the court exceeded its discretion when it minimized Father’s parent-time. Thus, we reverse on this issue because of inadequate findings and remand for additional findings and, if necessary, a reevaluation of what additional parent-time should be awarded.

CONCLUSION

¶41 We conclude that the evidence supports the district court’s findings leading it to determine that Child’s best interests were served by awarding primary physical custody to Mother. We further conclude that the district court made adequate findings supported by the record to depart from the informal custody arrangement, but we conclude that the court’s findings are inadequate to justify an award of only minimum parent-time to Father. Accordingly, we remand this matter for further proceedings.

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

———————

[1] “On appeal from a bench trial, we view the evidence in a light most favorable to the [district] court’s findings, and therefore recite the facts consistent with that standard.” Lake Philgas Service v. Valley Bank & Trust Co., 845 P.2d 951, 953 n.1 (Utah Ct. App. 1993).

[2] Shortly after Child was born, Father reunited with his ex-wife. They had married for the first time in 2006, separated, divorced, and then remarried in June 2016.

[3] The temporary arrangement began about ten months prior to the November 2016 trial. A temporary order allowing Mother parent-time was in place from late December 2015 through early January 2016.

[4] The court concluded that Mother would be more likely than Father to allow contact because Father resorted to self-help to take possession of Child and then kept Child from Mother for some time. Father did not deny taking and keeping Child. But he asserted Mother stopped calling Child and never filed a police report. Father further argued that the district court ignored (1) Mother withholding Child from Father prior to the self-help incident and (2) Father’s willingness to allow additional contact under the informal custody arrangement. Although Father presented evidence that would have supported a contrary finding, we will not disturb the district court’s finding that Mother was more likely to allow frequent and continuing contact for the simple reason that this finding was also supported by the evidence.

[5] Father contends that Hudema v. Carpenter, 1999 UT App 290, 989 P.2d 491, stands for the proposition that the court must have a compelling reason to disrupt a stable custody situation. We disagree and find Father’s reliance on Hudema misplaced. In that decision, a panel of this court noted, “[N]ot all continuity [of custody arrangements] is alike. A heavy emphasis on preserving stability presupposes that the prior arrangement is not only satisfactory, but will in fact continue.” Id. ¶ 27. In Hudema, the mother had sole physical custody pursuant to a court order. Id. ¶ 3. While the district court was considering a petition to modify custody, the mother moved to another state. Id. ¶¶ 3–4. The district court determined that the custody arrangement could not continue due to changed circumstances. Id. ¶ 6. Accordingly, this court in Pingree v. Pingree, 2015 UT App 302, 365 P.3d 713, clarified that Hudema does not stand “for the proposition that a court must find compelling circumstances before ordering a change in custody when the child thrives under the current arrangement” but for the proposition that “[a] modification is premised on a finding of changed circumstances.” Id. ¶ 13. The present case is not presented in that context.

[6] We cite to the current version of this section because the recent amendments do not affect our analysis or the issue as presented by the parties.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Click to listen highlighted text!