What You Have to Show

July 25, 2018 § Leave a comment

Whenever chancellors gather the topic often arises that lawyers simply fail to put enough proof in the record to support findings by the court. No R41(b) motion is made, and the judge is left to sort through the incomplete record to come to a conclusion.

That is more or less what happened when Amy Voss sued Daven Doughty for modification of custody or visitation. The two had litigated custody only a month previously and the court had awarded Amy custody of their daughter Aqua, and awarded Daven visitation and enjoined smoking around the child.

After a trial, the chancellor denied Amy’s prayer to modify visitation. She appealed.

In Voss v. Doughty, decided April 10, 2018, the COA affirmed. Judge Wilson wrote for the unanimous court:

¶18. Voss also argues that the chancellor erred by denying her petition to modify and limit Doughty’s visitation. The chancellor denied Voss’s petition after finding that there had been no “change in circumstances” since the original visitation order. The chancellor’s ruling arguably misapplied the law concerning modification of visitation. “All that need be shown [to obtain a modification of visitation] is that there is a prior decree providing for reasonable visitation rights which isn’t working and that [modification] is in the best interests of the children.” Cox v. Moulds, 490 So. 2d 866, 869 (Miss. 1986). On this issue, “our familiar change in circumstances rule has no application.” Id. (citation omitted).

¶19. Nonetheless, we affirm on this issue because no evidence was presented that the visitation schedule was not working or was not in Aqua’s best interest. Voss petitioned the court to modify custody only thirty-six days after the original visitation order was entered. A “visitation plan should be given an opportunity to work.” Jones v. McQuage, 932 So. 2d 846, 849 (¶14) (Miss. Ct. App. 2006) (holding that there was no evidence that a visitation schedule was not working four months after its entry). Voss did not give the original visitation plan in this case an opportunity to work.

¶20. Moreover, Voss failed to prove that the original visitation plan was not working. She alleged that it was not working only because Aqua was being exposed to smoke while she was with Doughty. A representative from a drug testing company testified that a January 6, 2016 hair follicle test showed that Aqua had absorbed and metabolized nicotine from secondhand or thirdhand cigarette smoke. However, the witness testified that the test detected nicotine absorption dating back six months, so it could have reflected exposures prior to the chancery court’s prior custody order. The witness also testified that the test did not identify when or where the exposure occurred or “whether it was once, twice, or three  times”—only that it occurred sometime in the prior six months.

¶21. A pediatric pulmonologist, called by Voss as an expert witness, testified that “any nicotine level in your body is significant.” He opined that Aqua’s “chronic runny nose,” coughing, congestion, and other “upper respiratory” issues “could be attributable to . . . exposure to [cigarette] smoke.” However, he acknowledged that “a lot of things” can cause such issues, that none of Aqua’s treating physicians have attributed these issues to exposure to cigarette smoke, and that Aqua does not have asthma. The witness had never seen or examined Aqua, and his opinions were based solely on a review of her medical records.

¶22. Doughty and Ashley admitted that they smoke, but both denied that they smoke in their house or in Aqua’s presence. They admitted that Ashley’s mother, who pays most of their bills and has paid some child support for Doughty, does smoke in her bedroom with the door closed. They denied that they allowed anyone to smoke in Aqua’s presence.

¶23. Obviously, parents should not expose their children to cigarette smoke. However, the evidence indicated that Doughty tried to protect Aqua from exposure, and there was no clear link between exposure and Aqua’s congestion, runny noses, and coughing. Especially given the short time between entry of the prior custody order and Voss’s petition to modify visitation, there was insufficient evidence that the visitation schedule was not working. We therefore affirm the chancellor’s denial of Voss’s petition to modify visitation.

Some random thoughts:

  • The familiar material-change/adverse-effect rule does not apply in an action to modify visitation; all that needs to be shown is that the existing visitation order is not working.
  • You have got to allow time for the order to prove to be unworkable. Not only was this a quick turnaround, it did not allow time for the expert to rule out pre-injunction behavior.
  • Of course, no one is required to wait if there is a true emergency affecting the health or safety of the child. But there has to be a true peril, and it has to be imminent.
  • Here, the proof offered by Amy did not rise to that level.
  • Making sure that all of the elements get proven by competent proof is on you.

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