Trifling with Visitation is no Trifling Matter

February 2, 2015 § Leave a comment

Some of the most bothersome and galling matters with which family lawyers have to contend are problems with visitation. They can include outright denial of visitation, conflicts during exchanges, interference during visitation, refusal to return a child, and every other atrocity one can conjure up. Those calls on the weekend and in the evenings can wear one to a frazzle.

In the case of Ash v. Ash, 622 So.2d 1264 (Miss. 1993), the MSSC affirmed a chancellor’s modification of custody based on a mother’s obstinate refusal to allow visitation and non-compliance with court orders, which the court described as involving the attention of “two prior chancellors and six attorneys” in more than ten court proceedings before the modification judgment.

In the case of Strait v. Lorenz, handed down January 6, 2015, the COA affirmed a chancellor’s decision to modify custody based on Travis Strait’s long-standing denial of visitation to his ex-wife, Kristy Lorenz. The parties had agreed in their irreconcilable differences divorce that they would share joint legal custody of their daughter, Jane, and that Travis would have “primary physical custody.”

Following the divorce, Kristy filed five times for modification and/or contempt, alleging denial of and interference with visitation in most of the actions. Travis filed actions in California and Hawaii for TRO’s, both of which were vacated. The chancellor in Mississippi denied Travis’s efforts to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction or to remove the case from Mississippi based on forum non conveniens.

In her pleadings, Kristy charged that Travis had sexually abused Jane, so the chancellor appointed a GAL to investigate. The GAL’s report was unfavorable to Travis, and, on Kristy’s motion, the chancellor entered an emergency temporary order changing custody to Kristy until the final hearing.

The chancellor awarded Kristy custody and other relief, and Travis appealed.

On the issue of material change, Judge Griffis of the COA said this:

¶27. In Ash, the chancellor issued various visitation-related restraining orders, emergency orders, and modification orders over the course of five years. Id. at 1265. The non-custodial parent then filed another motion to change custody and find the custodial parent in contempt. Id. The chancellor granted the motion, finding a material change in circumstances had occurred. Id. In affirming the chancellor’s ruling, the supreme court found that the visitation dispute was tackled by “two prior chancellors and six attorneys, [and] more than ten court proceedings,” none of which resolved the issue. Id. at 1266.

¶28. The facts in this action are comparable to Ash. As in Ash, the chancellor here contemplated liberal visitation, which was deliberately denied. See id. Also, there was an “onslaught of pleadings . . . stemming from visitation problems,” none of which were resolved by the chancellor’s orders. Id. at 1265.

¶29. Travis admittedly ignored Kristy’s attempts to contact him and would not allow Jane to take Kristy’s phone calls. The chancellor encouraged communication between Kristy and Jane through email and mail, but Travis disabled Jane’s email account that Kristy had created for her and there was testimony that Jane did not receive cards mailed to her. We cannot find the chancellor erred in finding the repeated failure to comply with visitation order was a material change in circumstances, for which contempt orders would not resolve.

¶30. Travis argues that the lack of visitation was not a “change in circumstances,” but rather a foreseeable, continued animosity between the parties that existed from the time of divorce. We cannot find that the chancellor anticipated, at the time of the divorce decree, that Travis would continuously refuse to comply with the visitation orders. Also, we note that no a single act of denying visitation amounted to a material change in circumstances. Rather, as in Ellis [v. Ellis, 952 So.2d 982 (Miss App 2006)], it was the “continued violation of court orders pertaining to visitation and continued hindering of the visitation time” that amounted to a material change in circumstances. Ellis, 952 So. 2d at 990 (¶17) (emphasis in original). Given the severity of the denial of visitation, we cannot find the chancellor abused his discretion in finding the denial of visitation was a material change in circumstances.

So the key is the “severity of the denial of visitation” which, from the cases, must be long-standing and extreme, and most likely involve repeated violations of court orders.

You should note that the proof in Strait included testimony of a mental health professional that the father’s conduct did have an adverse effect on the child. The opinion did not say so, but it apparently is not enough merely to show alienation and interference with contact; rather, the proof must show that the alienating behavior did have an adverse effect on the child, and the testimony of a mental health professional is probably the best means of doing that. In Strait, Travis’s behavior was so adverse that the chancellor characterized his custodial environment as “poisonous.”

I agree that most visitation disputes are more vexing than dangerous, and more paltry than extreme. Yet, if more parents understood that interference with visitation could lead to modification of custody, I believe it would result in far fewer visitation disputes in court.

 

A Flurry of Child Custody Modification Points

April 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

The COA’s decision in Hall v. Hall, decided March 25, 2014, is not one of those milestone cases that stands out from others.

It does, however, include a nifty selection of legal authority that you can use as a refresher and file away for future use. It’s nothing that you don’t already know or aren’t acquainted with, but it is set out in handy, bite-sized portions for ease in serving up later. 

From Judge Fair’s opinion:

  • ¶9. The burden of proof is on the movant to show by a preponderance of the evidence that a material change in circumstances has occurred in the custodial home. Riley v. Doerner, 677 So. 2d 740, 743 (Miss. 1996). To successfully move to modify custody of a child, a noncustodial parent must prove (1) that a substantial change in circumstances has transpired since issuance of the custody decree, (2) that this change adversely affects the child’s welfare, and (3) that the child’s best interests mandate a change of custody. McDonald [v. McDonald], 39 So.3d at 880 (¶37). “A modification of custody is warranted in the event that the moving parent successfully shows that an application of the Albright factors reveals that there had been a material change in those circumstances which has an adverse effect on the child and modification of custody would be in the child’s best interest.” Johnson v. Gray, 859 So. 2d 1006, 1013 (¶33) (Miss. 2003) (citing Sanford v. Arinder, 800 So. 2d 1267, 1272 (Miss. Ct. App. 2001)).

    ¶10. “The chancellor must consider the totality of the circumstances to determine ‘whether there was a material change in circumstances.’” Cantin v. Cantin, 78 So. 3d 943, 948 (¶15) (Miss. Ct. App. 2012) (citation and quotation omitted). If, after examining the totality of the circumstances, a material change in circumstances is found to have occurred, the chancellor “must separately and affirmatively determine that this change is one which adversely affects the children.” Bredemeier v. Jackson, 689 So. 2d 770, 775 (Miss. 1997) (citation omitted).

  • ¶15.  … In his judgment, the chancellor stated that there are no facts in the record to support that Dana’s cohabitation with a romantic partner had an adverse effect on the children. The chancellor also stated that the existence of an extramarital relationship, by itself, fails to provide a sufficient basis for a finding of an adverse material change. See Sullivan v. Stringer, 736 So. 2d 514, 517 (¶16) (Miss. Ct. App. 1999) (finding that cohabitation alone fails to give rise to a material change in circumstances). However, the existence of the relationship coupled with another adverse impact on the child provides a sufficient basis to warrant a custody modification. Id. at 518 (¶20). The chancellor did not err in considering this issue in his material-change analysis.

Comment: Modification of child custody requires what I refer to as a three-legged stool of proof. You must first prove that there has been a material change in the circumstances of the child and/or custodial parent. If you have proven the material change, then you must prove that the change has had some adverse effect on the child OR, per Riley, that the circumstances are so inherently dangerous or inimical to the child’s welfare that the court can assume an adverse effect. And, third, you must prove that it is in the child’s best interest to change custody. As with any three-legged stool, if any leg fails, the whole thing falls.   

  • ¶17. “If the court finds an adverse material change, then the next step is to apply the Albright factors to determine whether modification is in the child’s best interest.” White v. White, 26 So. 3d 342, 351 (¶28) (Miss. 2010) (citing Sturgis v. Sturgis, 792 So. 2d 1020, 1025 (¶18) (Miss. Ct. App. 2001)). The Albright factors are as follows: (1) age, health, and sex of the child; (2) a determination of the parent who had the continuity of care prior to the separation; (3) which parent has the best parenting skills and which parent has the willingness and capacity to provide primary child care; (4) the employment of the parent and responsibilities of that employment; (5) the physical and mental health and age of the parents; (6) the emotional ties of parent and child; (7) the moral fitness of the parents; (8) the home, school, and community record of the child; (9) the preference of the child at the age sufficient to express a preference by law; (10) the stability of the home environment and employment of each parent; and (11) other factors relevant to the parent-child relationship. Albright, 437 So. 2d at 1005.

Comment: Many attorneys base their trial tactics on the misconception that if they can prevail on more of the factors than the other side, their client wins. Not so. Here is what Judge Fair said about that approach:

  • ¶19. An Albright analysis is not a mathematical equation. Lee v. Lee, 798 So. 2d 1284, 1288 (¶15) (Miss. 2001). Further, the “factors are not meant to be weighed equally in every case.” Id. (citing Divers v. Divers, 856 So. 2d 370, 376 (¶27) (Miss. Ct. App. 2003)). Our supreme court has held that “[a]ll the [ Albright] factors are important, but the chancellor has the ultimate discretion to weigh the evidence the way he sees fit.” Johnson, 859 So. 2d at 1013-14 (¶36).

Comment: As I have said here before, the judge can give much greater weight to one or more factors, depending on the facts in the case. For example, I had an original custody case where the mother prevailed on nearly every Albright factor save one: she had a history of mental illness and was actively delusional, would not take medication, and saw her children as part of her delusion. Dad got custody. That “mental health of the parent” factor outweighed all the others combined. 

Even when a decision appears to be the “same old same old,” it just might be what you need to reacquaint yourself with the law on a given point.

GAL UPHELD

April 25, 2013 § Leave a comment

GAL’s have a difficult job. Both sides in a contested child-custody case try to pull them into their respective camps, while the GAL is trying hard to maintain impartiality. The parties try to show only their good side and hide the bad, while the GAL has to penetrate the fog of misinformation to detect the truth. The GAL spends hours (often many of them uncompensated) developing the information that the court will need to make a proper decision. And then, when it comes time for trial, one side, or even both sides, will castigate and vilify the GAL and her report, questioning her conclusions as unsupported, or one-sided, or an outright lie. On appeal the GAL is portrayed as biased, prejudiced, arbitrary, capricious and lacking good judgment, in league with the devil (i.e., the judge) who ruled against the disappointed party.

That’s pretty much what happened in Lindsey v. Willard, decided  by the COA April 9, 2013. Jason, stung by the GAL’s unfavorable report as to his case to retain custody of his son, Tyler, and the chancellor’s reliance on it, appealed. Judge Roberts’ opinion affirming states:

¶18. Jason has a litany of complaints regarding the way the guardian ad litem conducted her investigation. According to Jason, the guardian ad litem was derelict in her duties, and she “abandoned her obligation” to conduct a proper investigation. Jason claims the guardian ad litem improperly obtained information from third parties, rather than going to more appropriate sources. For example, Jason complains that the guardian ad litem asked Jason’s father, Jimmy, whether Jason paid Mandy’s bills while Jason’s own bills went unpaid, but the guardian ad litem never asked Jason whether that was true. Additionally, Jason laments that the guardian ad litem accepted Jimmy and Tania’s word regarding the paternity of Mandy’s baby, but the guardian ad litem never asked Mandy whether her baby was fathered by someone other than Jason. Jason raises several other similar allegations.

¶19. The guardian ad litem was appointed in an investigatory capacity. She was not appointed to represent Tyler. Thus, the guardian ad litem was “obligated to investigate the allegations before the court, process the information found, report all material information to the court, and (if requested) make a recommendation.” S.G. v. D.C., 13 So. 3d 269, 282 (¶57) (Miss. 2009). Prior to making a recommendation, the guardian ad litem must “provid[e] the court with all material information [that] weighs on the issue to be decided by the court, including information which does not support the recommendation.” Id.

¶20. The chancellor contacted the guardian ad litem on June 14, 2011. The guardian ad litem began her investigation soon afterwards. She interviewed fourteen people and “evaluated all documents filed in this matter and all [of the] correspondence [that was] given to her.” On July 19, 2011, the guardian ad litem filed her report. Based on the totality of the circumstances, the guardian ad litem recommended that the chancellor find that there had been a material change in circumstances adverse to Tyler’s best interests. The guardian ad litem then recommended that Tania have physical custody of Tyler during the school year, and that Jason have physical custody of Tyler during the summer.

¶21. Jason’s attorney vigorously cross-examined the guardian ad litem during the July 2011 hearing. At that time, the guardian ad litem had seventeen years’ experience as a guardian ad litem for the Itawamba County Youth Court. She had also worked for the Itawamba County Department of Human Services. The guardian ad litem explained that she asked Jason’s father, Jimmy, several questions without verifying Jimmy’s responses with Jason because she did not want to further harm Jimmy’s relationship with Jason. The chancellor heard the guardian ad litem’s explanations regarding the manner in which she conducted her investigation. Jason and Mandy also testified during the July 2011 hearing, as did Tyler. Consequently, the chancellor heard what Jason and Mandy would have said in response to the questions Jason’s attorney thought the guardian ad litem should have asked. Finally, the chancellor did not “rubber stamp” the guardian ad litem’s report. Although the chancellor reached the same conclusions as the guardian ad litem, the chancellor did so based on her own analysis. We find no merit to Jason’s claim that the guardian ad litem’s investigation somehow resulted in reversible error. It follows that we find no merit to this issue.

What I like about this decision is that it upholds what was apparently a good effort by an experienced GAL who knew what to devote her time to for the most productive results.

GAL investigations and reports are not required to be perfect. They are required to be thorough, impartial, and for the best interest of the child. It’s refreshing to see the appellate courts recognizing the difficult role that GAL’s play in these difficult decisions.

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