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

Wilson v. Wilson – 2024 UT App 87

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

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

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

The Honorable Robert A. Lund

The Honorable James R. Taylor

No. 200401547

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

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

LUTHY, Judge:

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

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

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

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

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

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

BACKGROUND
Pre-litigation History

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

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

The TKS Parties’ Complaint

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Temporary Civil Stalking Injunction

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

Doug’s Suicide Attempt

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

Doug’s Answer and Counterclaims

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

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

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

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

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

Permanent Civil Stalking Injunction

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

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

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

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

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

The No Contact Order read:

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

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

Motion for Contempt Sanctions

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

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

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

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

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

and

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

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

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

Dismissal of the TKS Parties’ Tort Claims

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

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

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

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

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

Hearing and Decision on the Motion for Contempt Sanctions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Appeals

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

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW
Doug’s Appeal

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

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

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

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

The TKS Parties’ Appeal

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

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

ANALYSIS

I. Doug’s Appeal

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

A.        Whether This Court Has Jurisdiction

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

¶40      Rule 4 of the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure provides that, with a few exceptions not applicable here, “in a case in which an appeal is permitted as a matter of right from the trial court to the appellate court, the notice of appeal . . . must be filed with the clerk of the trial court within 30 days after the date of entry of the judgment or order appealed from.” Utah R. App. P. 4(a). Rule 58A of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure requires that, again with some exceptions that are not applicable here, “[e]very judgment and amended judgment must be set out in a separate document ordinarily titled ‘Judgment’—or, as appropriate, ‘Decree.’” Utah R. Civ. P. 58A(a)—(b). Rule 58A also provides that when “a separate document is required, a judgment is complete and is entered at the earlier of” (A) when “the judgment is set out in a separate document signed by the judge and recorded in the docket” or (B) when “150 days have run from the clerk recording the decision, however designated, that provides the basis for the entry of judgment.” Id. R. 58A(e)(2).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B.        Whether the Stalking Injunction Was Proper

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

1.         Course of Conduct

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.         Emotional Distress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II. The TKS Parties’ Appeal

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

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

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

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

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

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

This determination was not an abuse of discretion.

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

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

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

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

1.         Doug’s Communications with Prior Customer

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

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

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

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

2.         Doug’s Facebook Post and Related Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(i) Whether Doug Knew What Was Required

¶86      The Personal Conduct Order said:

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

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

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

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

(ii) Whether Doug Was Able to Comply

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

(iii) Whether Doug Intended Noncompliance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In re D.S. – 2023 UT App 98

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

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

PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

S.S.,

Appellant,

v.

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20220956-CA

Filed August 31, 2023

Third District Juvenile Court, Salt Lake Department

The Honorable Annette Jan

No. 1198250

Sheleigh A. Harding, Attorney for Appellant

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

John M. Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

JUDGE RYAN M. HARRIS authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES DAVID N. MORTENSEN and AMY J. OLIVER concurred.

HARRIS, Judge:

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

BACKGROUND

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

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

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

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

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

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

¶8                      Grandmother testified that the Children were doing well

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

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

ANALYSIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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Custody order says mother and child can’t leave the state. Is that legal?

If custody order says mother and child are not allowed to leave the state, is there any chance the court would allow them to go on a vacation to another country if the father says no?

I cannot speak for all jurisdictions, but I can answer the question based upon the law where I practice divorce and family law (Utah):

First, if the court were to order a parent not to leave the state (just the parent, not the parent with the child), that would likely be held unconstitutional, as a civil court does not have the authority to infringe upon an individual’s right to travel without a compelling reason.

Second, if the court were to order a parent not to leave the state with the child, that may be within the court’s authority to do so, especially if:

  • there were evidence that you have tried to abscond with the child to a foreign country (whether the foreign country is beyond the reach of the Hague Convention) or are at risk of absconding with the child to a foreign country.
  • the custody award, such as a joint physical custody award, was conditioned upon the parties residing within a certain geographical distance of each other.

That stated, if:

  1. there is no concern about you absconding with the children to a foreign country, never to return;
  2. the foreign country to which you want to travel on vacation is not a dangerous place (i.e., a place where Americans are routinely kidnapped or killed and/or where there are wars, insurrections, and/or dangerous natural disasters occurring);
  3. there is no harm that a child would suffer by traveling with you internationally (such as a certain health or medical or mental health condition that makes international travel a serious danger to the child), I cannot see any reason why a court would deny you the right to travel to a foreign country on vacation; and
  4. there is no other compelling reason to deny you and the child(ren) the opportunity to vacation internationally,

I doubt that any court would bar you from travelling internationally with the child(ren).

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

https://www.quora.com/If-custody-order-says-mother-and-child-are-not-allowed-to-leave-the-state-is-there-any-chance-the-court-would-allow-them-to-go-on-a-vacation-to-another-country-if-the-father-says-no/answer/Eric-Johnson-311?prompt_topic_bio=1

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Can I sell or trade in the family car while divorce proceedings are pending?

Can I sell or trade in the family car while divorce proceedings are pending?

How would a spouse in process of divorce go about trading her van that is in both spouses name, if the other spouse is uncooperative? Would surrendering her van to the bank be an alternative?

If you owe more on the van than it is worth and don’t depend upon the van for essential transportation needs, then if you were to sell the van such that you’d be left with just the loan deficiency (the difference between the amount the van was worth or sold for and the remaining balance of the loan), you’d probably not be punished. It would be hard for anyone to argue or for a court to conclude that by getting rid of a van worth less than the loan encumbering it you destroyed, dissipated, or diminished an “asset” that had a negative value. And if your spouse agrees (get it in writing!) you can sell the van, you’re fully in the clear.

Bear in mind, however, that many states have an “ATRO” rule (automatic temporary restraining order) that provides that in every divorce action that concerns the division of property then neither party may transfer, encumber, conceal, or dispose of any property of either party without the written consent of the other party or an order of the court, except in the usual course of business or to provide for the necessities of life. Violation of this rule can result in you being sanctioned for contempt of court. Other states that don’t have ATROs in divorce cases can still provide for the judge to enter a restraining order at the outset of a divorce case that, among other things, restrains you and your spouse from transferring or disposing of any marital property without the written consent of the other party or an order of the court.

Also bear in mind that if your credit is already bad and you won’t be able to qualify for a new loan for a replacement vehicle, you may be better off paying the loan for a vehicle you have in hand. And if 1) your spouse depended on using that van to get to work or the doctor or the store, etc., 2) your spouse does not want the van sold, and 3) by selling the van you would deprive your spouse of his/her only means of transportation, the court would likely frown on that and order you to provide or pay for a replacement vehicle.

The safest way to sell off the van or trade the van in for a different vehicle is to move the court (file a motion with the court) for permission to sell the van or trade the van in for a different vehicle. Now just because you filed the motion does not necessarily mean the court will grant that motion.

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

https://www.quora.com/How-would-a-spouse-in-process-of-divorce-go-about-trading-her-van-that-is-in-both-spouses-name-if-the-other-spouse-is-uncooperative-Would-surrendering-her-van-to-the-bank-be-an-alternative/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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Should I accept money from my ex for the kids, even if I’ve already filed in court for child support?

Should I accept money my ex sent for his kids (not enough to support), even if I already decided to take him to court for child support?

I don’t see any reason why you can’t do both: keep the money already given and pursue a long-term child support order (you’re entitled to it, you need it for the kids). Just be sure to give him credit for the child support he’s voluntarily paid you to this point.

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

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Do opposing attorneys ever make bets on how a judge will rule?

Do opposing attorneys ever make bets on how a judge will rule?

Yes, but usually in the sense of, “I’ll bet you Judge Brown won’t allow that in,” or something like that. Not a “formal” bet, but as an expression of confidence in their own client and case.

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

https://www.quora.com/Do-opposing-attorneys-ever-make-bets-on-how-a-judge-will-rule/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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Why not reduce child support when the supporting parent loses his/her job?

Should child support be ordered reduced as soon as (automatically when) the supporting parent loses his/her job through no fault of his/her own?

Of course.

The only reason we don’t have such a law in place is because of greedy people who don’t want child support payments to stop or decrease under any circumstances.

Any politician who would have the guts to stand up for a law that would condition the payment of child support upon the obligor having employment (or some other reliable source of un-earned income) would not be re-elected.

Now clearly the law should not be that one pays child support only if one has a job or steady income because we know that there are many child support payors who would simply quit their jobs or be underemployed to avoid paying child support.

But your question was why don’t we have a law that provides you don’t have to pay child support in the event you lose a job through no fault of your own. Clearly such a law should exist. You don’t have the ability to pay child support if you don’t earn money through your job. And you can earn money through your job if you don’t have that job due to no fault of your own.

If Mom and Dad are married and Dad loses his job, the family’s lifestyle naturally and inexorably decreases in response to the resulting loss of income. This is unfortunate, but nobody can say this is unfair. What’s so perverse is that if Mom and Dad get divorced, and then Dad loses his job, he can (and almost always is) ordered to maintain the lifestyle of his ex-wife and children, even though he has no ability to do so. This is clearly not just unfair, but immoral, and it is not the purpose of the law to impose such impossible burdens.

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

https://www.quora.com/Should-US-child-support-orders-reduce-support-if-their-supporting-parent-loses-their-job-through-no-fault-of-their-own/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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Can a court force a parent to exercise visitation, even if that parent doesn’t want to?

If a divorced parent doesn’t want visitation rights (i.e. doesn’t want to see his/her child), is that legal, or would the court order the unwilling parent to have visits?

This a great question because it’s a bold, honest question that many parents (more than you’d think) want to ask, but are afraid to ask for fear of being branded scum of the earth.

To those of you who think that only the scum of the earth would ask such a question, I can assure you that there are times when a loving parent may nevertheless not want visitation rights. One of those instances is when a parent knows that the other parent is hell-bent on making the children suffer unless and until they break all ties physical and emotional with the other parent.

So a good question like yours deserves a good answer, and I will do my best to provide you with one:

Can a court order a parent to spend time with his/her children, even if that parent does not want to spend time with his/her children? Yes. I have never seen it happen in a case I’ve handled, and I do not know of any instances of it happening in other cases. But yes, the court has the power to order a parent to spend time with his/her child.

Would a court order a parent to spend time with his/her children, even if that parent does not want to spend time with his/her children? Probably not. Courts know it’s virtually impossible to enforce such an order, and even if it could be enforced, the enforcement of the order would probably do the children more harm than good.

Warning: if a parent took the position of “I don’t want visitation now, but maybe later, and if and when I do want visitation, I’ll just go back to court to get visitation ordered” the court would likely tell such a parent, “You had your chance, you forfeited visitation then, and so you can’t get it now,” unless somehow that absentee parent could prove that the children will suffer irreparable harm if they were denied visitation going forward.

Finally, unless you are a parent in one of those weird (and tragic) situations where visitation between you and your child(ren) would do them more harm then good, abandoning your children is one of the most cruel things you could do to them; it leaves scars and cripples all but the strongest of children emotionally and psychologically for life. Your kids need to see and be involved with you, even if you don’t want to be involved with them. Other than in exceptional circumstances, you owe it to them.

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

https://www.quora.com/If-a-divorced-parent-doesn-t-want-visitation-rights-i-e-doesn-t-want-to-see-his-her-child-is-that-legal-or-would-the-court-order-the-unwilling-parent-to-have-visits/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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What is OSC?

QUESTION:

I hear about holding an ex who is not complying with the provisions of the Decree of Divorce or other court orders held accountable with an “OSC” What is an “OSC”?

ANSWER: “OSC” means order to show cause.

When a party is not complying with the provisions of a court order, the other party can move to have the non-compliant party sanctioned through a “motion for order to show cause” as to why he/she should not be found to be in contempt and sanctioned accordingly.

Briefly, if your ex violates a provision of the decree or other court order, you can file a motion asking the court to order your ex to come to court and explain (if your ex can) why your ex should not be punished by the court for non-compliance (or “encouraged to comply”) with the court’s orders. If your ex doesn’t have a valid excuse, the court will sanction your ex and/or compensate you for your trouble.

There are some specific contempt of course provisions that apply only to divorce and other domestic relations cases:

78B-6-315.  Noncompliance with child support order.

(1) When a court of competent jurisdiction, or the Office of Recovery Services pursuant to an action under Title 63G, Chapter 4, Administrative Procedures Act, makes an order requiring a parent to furnish support or necessary food, clothing, shelter, medical care, or other remedial care for his child, and the parent fails to do so, proof of noncompliance shall be prima facie evidence of contempt of court.

(2) Proof of noncompliance may be demonstrated by showing that:

(a) the order was made, and filed with the district court; and

(b) the parent knew of the order because:

(i) the order was mailed to the parent at his last-known address as shown on the court records;

(ii) the parent was present in court at the time the order was pronounced;

(iii) the parent entered into a written stipulation and the parent or counsel for the parent was sent a copy of the order;

(iv) counsel was present in court and entered into a stipulation which was accepted and the order based upon the stipulation was then sent to counsel for the parent; or

(v) the parent was properly served and failed to answer.

(3) Upon establishment of a prima facie case of contempt under Subsection (2), the obligor under the child support order has the burden of proving inability to comply with the child support order.

(4) A court may, in addition to other available sanctions, withhold, suspend, or restrict the use of driver’s licenses, professional and occupational licenses, and recreational licenses and impose conditions for reinstatement upon a finding that:

(a) an obligor has:

(i) made no payment for 60 days on a current obligation of support as set forth in an administrative or court order and, thereafter, has failed to make a good faith effort under the circumstances to make payment on the support obligation in accordance with the order; or

(ii) made no payment for 60 days on an arrearage obligation of support as set forth in a payment schedule, written agreement with the Office of Recovery Services, or an administrative or judicial order and, thereafter, has failed to make a good faith effort under the circumstances to make payment on the arrearage obligation in accordance with the payment schedule, agreement, or order; and

(iii) not obtained a judicial order staying enforcement of the support or arrearage obligation for which the obligor would be otherwise delinquent;

(b) a custodial parent has:

(i) violated a parent-time order by denying contact for 60 days between a noncustodial parent and a child and, thereafter, has failed to make a good faith effort under the circumstances to comply with a parent-time order; and

(ii) not obtained a judicial order staying enforcement of the parent-time order; or

(c) an obligor or obligee, after receiving appropriate notice, has failed to comply with a subpoena or order relating to a paternity or child support proceeding.

 

78B-6-316.  Compensatory service for violation of parent-time order or failure to pay child support.

(1)        If a court finds by a preponderance of the evidence that a parent has refused to comply with the minimum amount of parent-time ordered in a decree of divorce, the court shall order the parent to:

(a) perform a minimum of 10 hours of compensatory service; and

(b) participate in workshops, classes, or individual counseling to educate the parent about the importance of complying with the court order and providing a child a continuing relationship with both parents.

(2) If a custodial parent is ordered to perform compensatory service or undergo court-ordered education, there is a rebuttable presumption that the noncustodial parent be granted parent-time by the court to provide child care during the time the custodial parent is complying with compensatory service or education in order to recompense him for parent-time wrongfully denied by the custodial parent under the divorce decree.

(3) If a noncustodial parent is ordered to perform compensatory service or undergo court-ordered education, the court shall attempt to schedule the compensatory service or education at times that will not interfere with the noncustodial parent’s parent-time with the child.

(4) The person ordered to participate in court-ordered education is responsible for expenses of workshops, classes, and individual counseling.

(5) If a court finds by a preponderance of the evidence that an obligor, as defined in Section 78B-12-102, has refused to pay child support as ordered by a court in accordance with Title 78B, Chapter 12, Utah Child Support Act, the court shall order the obligor to:

(a) perform a minimum of 10 hours of compensatory service; and

(b) participate in workshops, classes, or individual counseling to educate the obligor about the importance of complying with the court order and providing the children with a regular and stable source of support.

(6) The obligor is responsible for the expenses of workshops, classes, and individual counseling ordered by the court.

(7) If a court orders an obligor to perform compensatory service or undergo court-ordered education, the court shall attempt to schedule the compensatory service or education at times that will not interfere with the obligor’s parent-time with the child.

(8) The sanctions that the court shall impose under this section do not prevent the court from imposing other sanctions or prevent any person from bringing a cause of action allowed under state or federal law.

(9) The Legislature shall allocate the money from the Children’s Legal Defense Account to the judiciary to defray the cost of enforcing and administering this section.

___________________

Now let’s learn about what contempt is and how it is punished (the courts don’t like to use the word “punish,” instead they like the word “sanction,” which is, of course, a synonym for “punish,” but the courts prefer to think of sanctions only as “ways to encourage compliance,” not punishment for non-compliance, but I digress):

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

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

(1) disorderly, contemptuous, or insolent behavior toward the judge while holding the court, tending to interrupt the course of a trial or other judicial proceeding;

(2) breach of the peace, boisterous conduct or violent disturbance, tending to interrupt the due course of a trial or other judicial proceeding;

(3) misbehavior in office, or other willful neglect or violation of duty by an attorney, counsel, clerk, sheriff, or other person appointed or elected to perform a judicial or ministerial service;

(4) deceit, or abuse of the process or proceedings of the court, by a party to an action or special proceeding;

(5) disobedience of any lawful judgment, order or process of the court;

(6) acting as an officer, attorney or counselor, of a court without authority;

(7) rescuing any person or property that is in the custody of an officer by virtue of an order or process of the court;

(8) unlawfully detaining a witness or party to an action while going to, remaining at, or returning from, the court where the action is on the calendar for trial;

(9) any other unlawful interference with the process or proceedings of a court;

(10) disobedience of a subpoena duly served, or refusing to be sworn or to answer as a witness;

(11) when summoned as a juror in a court, neglecting to attend or serve, or improperly conversing with a party to an action to be tried at the court, or with any other person, concerning the merits of an action, or receiving a communication from a party or other person in respect to it, without immediately disclosing the communication to the court; and

(12) disobedience by an inferior tribunal, magistrate or officer of the lawful judgment, order or process of a superior court, or proceeding in an action or special proceeding contrary to law, after the action or special proceeding is removed from the jurisdiction of the inferior tribunal, magistrate or officer. Disobedience of the lawful orders or process of a judicial officer is also a contempt of the authority of the officer.

78B-6-302.  Contempt in immediate presence of court — Summary action — Outside presence of court — procedure.

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

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

78B-6-303.  Warrant of attachment or commitment order to show cause.

If the contempt is not committed in the immediate view and presence of the court or judge, a warrant of attachment may be issued to bring the person charged to answer. If there is no previous arrest, a warrant of commitment may, upon notice, or upon an order to show cause, be granted. A warrant of commitment may not be issued without a previous attachment to answer, or a notice or order to show cause.

78B-6-310.  Contempt — Action by court.

The court shall determine whether the person proceeded against is guilty of the contempt charged. If the court finds the person is guilty of the contempt, the court may impose a fine not exceeding $1,000, order the person incarcerated in the county jail not exceeding 30 days, or both. However, a justice court judge or court commissioner may punish for contempt by a fine not to exceed $500 or by incarceration for five days or both.

78B-6-311.  Damages to party aggrieved.

(1) If an actual loss or injury to a party in an action or special proceeding is caused by the contempt, the court, in lieu of or in addition to the fine or imprisonment imposed for the contempt, may order the person proceeded against to pay the party aggrieved a sum of money sufficient to indemnify and satisfy the aggrieved party’s costs and expenses. The court may order that any bail posted by the person proceeded against be used to satisfy all or part of the money ordered to be paid to the aggrieved party. The order and the acceptance of money under it is a bar to an action by the aggrieved party for the loss and injury.

(2) A judgment creditor may request that the court pay bail posted by a judgment debtor to the judgment creditor if:

(a) the judgment debtor owes the judgment creditor funds pursuant to a court-ordered judgment;

(b) the judgment creditor provides the court with a copy of the valid judgment; and

(c) bail was posted in cash, or by credit or debit card.

(3)        Upon receipt of a request by a judgment creditor, the court shall require the judgment debtor to provide either proof of payment or good cause why the court should not order the forfeiture of bail to then be paid to the judgment creditor. The court shall find that good cause exists if the judgment debtor provides admissible evidence that the bail was paid by a third party.

(4)        The court may, in its discretion, order all or a portion of the funds deposited with the court as bail to be paid to the judgment creditor towards the amount of the judgment. If the amount paid to the court exceeds the amount of the judgment, the court shall refund the excess to the judgment debtor.

(5)        Within seven days of the receipt of funds, the judgment creditor shall provide to the judgment debtor an accounting of amounts received and the balance still due, if any.

78B-6-312.  Imprisonment to compel performance.

When the contempt consists of the omission to perform an act enjoined by law, which is yet in the power of the person to perform, the person may be imprisoned until the act is performed, or until released by the court. The act shall be specified in the warrant of commitment.

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

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What happens when the child violates the custody or parent-time order?

What happens when the child violates the custody or parent-time order?

The best examples I can give you of this experience that I have had as a lawyer are as follows:

My guess is that you are referring to teenagers who will not comply with the child custody or visitation orders of the court. In Utah, visitation is now known as “parent-time,” and so I will refer to it as parent-time.

Teenagers are more or less ungovernable in these situations, meaning that while they are subject to the jurisdiction of the court when it comes to enforcement of child custody and parent time orders, very few domestic relations commissioners and judges are willing to use their judicial powers to punish a noncompliant child, even though they certainly could.

Instead, many commissioners and judges frequently (and unfairly) blame the parent with whom the child claims to want to spend more time, finding (without any evidence) that such a parent “unduly influenced” or “coached” the child (even if the allegations are that the child is complaining about mistreatment at the custodial parent’s home or simply a desire to spend more time with the noncustodial parent).

Then the court punishes the parent that the child claims to want to spend more time with. Courts will defend this policy by claiming it discourages parents from manipulating their children’s feelings and from competing for their children’s affections. And there is a measure of truth to this: punishing everyone does tend to discourage the wrongdoers from wrongdoing; however, it also gives innocent and sincere people no reason to stay innocent and sincere, if innocence and sincerity is no protection from punishment. It also never addresses the question of whether the child might actually benefit from a change in the child custody or parent-time schedule.

You might think at this point that the court would want to inquire with the child as to his or her reasons for wanting to change custody or parent time. Virtually none of the commissioners or judges are willing to do this. They give as their reasons the claims that children’s testimony is too easily influenced to be believed and that inquiring with children as to their desires “puts them in the middle” of their parents’ divorce and thus “traumatizes” the children. While there is also an element of truth to these concerns, too often courts fall back on these excuses without trying to assuage the underlying concerns to get to the compelling facts (i.e., the evidence) the children may have to share.

It makes no sense to ignore the experiences, observations, feelings, opinions, and preferences of the child when the child—and his/her best interest—is the focus of the child custody award. There are plenty of inexpensive, feasible, and sufficiently reliable ways to elicit the truth from a child without scarring the child for life.

For example, Utah Code § 30-3-10(1)(e), which provides:

(e) The court may inquire of the children and take into consideration the children’s desires regarding future custody or parent-time schedules, but the expressed desires are not controlling and the court may determine the children’s custody or parent-time otherwise. The desires of a child 14 years of age or older shall be given added weight, but is not the single controlling factor.

A judge interviewing a child costs the litigating parties nothing. A judge interviewing a child is  expeditious and results in the court obtaining information from the child directly, unfiltered, unadulterated by second- (or even third-) hand hearsay accounts. But when I cite this code section as a basis for interviewing a child I get the lamest excuses, including claims from multiple judges that they are “not qualified to interview children.” Really? So judges, who derive their power to do everything they do from what is codified in the law and in court rules, who are clearly acknowledged by a statute to be qualified to interview children, will refuse to interview children by claiming they are not qualified. If that is true, then the judge needs either 1) to get qualified; or 2) to resign from office as unqualified to perform all of his/her duties as a judge, not refuse to do what he or she is authorized to do and that he or she must do when circumstances so dictate.

Another option is for children to be appointed a “guardian ad litem,” meaning that the child is appointed his/her own lawyer to “represent the interests of the child.” ‘Sounds great, right? But my experience with guardians ad litem is that they are by and large at best overworked and thus ineffective, or (as is more often the case) they are incompetent, biased, or too afraid of looking stupid to admit it when their interviews of the children were inconclusive. Oh, and one or both of the parents has to pay for the guardian ad litem (also referred to as a “GAL”). Still, if a skilled, neutral, humble, and affordable guardian ad litem were available, the court should utilize that resource and interview the child, rather than refusing to learn of a child’s experiences and desires on the basis that inquiring with the child might (might!) traumatize him.

Yet another option is for the court to appoint a psychologist or social worker to serve as a custody or parent-time “evaluator” to interview the children and then report to the court. That sounds great too, right? Maybe, were it not for the fact that custody evaluations in Utah are obscenely (there is no other appropriate word to describe it) expensive (we’re talking between $3,000 to $10,000—and if you think you’ll be the “lucky” one who gets a [good] custody evaluation done for a “mere” $3,000, you yourself need a psychologist) and custody evaluators are far, far too often too afraid of being reported to their licensing boards or sued by disgruntled parents to speak their minds. And so, many custody evaluators end up producing an equivocal, please-everyone (and thus a please-no-one) recommendation.

Many (not all) courts don’t refuse to inquire with children because of concern for the children, they refuse to inquire because they don’t want to do it. Adding knowledge of the child’s experiences and desires to the mix make such court’s jobs more complex (i.e., harder) and make it harder for some judges and commissioners to manipulate the facts to suit their personal biases and preferences. And so such courts will, ironically, exert great effort to avoid this kind of hard work.

When I deal with the case of a teenage child who will not comply with the court’s parent time and/or custody orders, I insist that the court get to the root of the problem. If the teenager is just being a spoiled brat, no modification of custody or parent-time is warranted. I can live with that. Any rational and fair-minded person must. No one, however, can knowledgeably or efficaciously get to the root of a problem that concerns a child without–sensitively, but resolutely–involving the child in the investigation, the analysis, and the formulation of a solution.

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

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