The Natural Parent Presumption and the Third-Party Action

October 28, 2015 § Leave a comment

What is the burden of proof on a third-party who is seeking to remove custody from a natural parent? It’s an important question in these days when we are seeing increasing numbers of parents who are abdicating their roles to others, and parents who are unfit to have custody of their children.

Denise Irle and David Foster were not married, but they were parents of two children, Britney and Chase. David was the caretaker of the children, but he died. Patty and Lavirl Foster, David’s parents, petitioned the court for custody of the children. Denise and the Fosters entered into an agreed order under which Denise was to have custody of Britney and the Fosters would have custody of Chase.

Shortly after entry of the agreed order DHS removed Britney from Denise’s home, and the Fosters again filed to get custody of the child. Following a hearing, the chancellor ruled that the Fosters had overcome the natural-parent presumption, and Britney’s best interest would be in the care of the grandparents. Denise appealed, claiming that the chancellor erred by not finding a material change in circumstances. The COA affirmed, and the MSSC granted cert.

In an opinion rendered October 8, 2015, in Irle v. Foster, the court took the opportunity to clarify the law:

¶7. Whatever doubt there may be about the grandparents’ burden, it is universally understood and accepted that a natural parent seeking to modify custody must demonstrate some change in the circumstances that were presented to the chancellor that led to the previous decree, and must show that the changed circumstances are material.

¶8. But thirty-five years ago in Thomas v. Purvis, this Court stated that “[t]he principle that there must be a material change of circumstances which adversely affects a child’s welfare before a custody decree may be modified only applies between parents of the child.” For two reasons, we find this sweeping statement needs clarification and correction.

¶9. First, Thomas cited Rodgers v. Rodgers as authority for the broad proposition that a material change in circumstances must be demonstrated only in cases involving natural parents. But nothing this Court said in Rodgers supports this proposition. The chancellor in that case—after concluding that a material change in circumstances had occurred, but without considering the natural-parent presumption—modified an original divorce decree to transfer custody of a minor child from the child’s natural mother to the child’s paternal grandparents. The mother appealed, arguing that she enjoyed the natural-parent presumption, and that the grandparents had presented insufficient evidence to rebut that presumption.

¶10. This Court agreed with the mother, recognizing that a natural parent may not be deprived of custody in favor of a third party unless the third party rebuts the natural-parent presumption by clear and convincing evidence.10 The Rogers Court certainly did not intend to place a burden on a natural parent that it did not place on third parties, thereby making it more difficult for the natural parent to prevail in a custody battle. Stated another way, if a natural parent is required to demonstrate a material change in circumstances in order to win custody, then certainly a third party has at least that same burden.

¶11. Importantly, the Rodgers Court reversed solely because the grandparents failed to rebut the natural-parent presumption, and it never considered or discussed whether the grandparents did or did not have an additional burden to show a material change in circumstances.

¶12. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for natural parents to engage in numerous custody battles. But rarely do third parties—such as grandparents—attempt more than once to take custody from natural parents. This led to the second error in the Thomas Court’s reasoning, which was that it had failed to consider that there would be rare cases—such as the one before us today—where the third parties seeking to take custody from natural parents already had been before the court in a previous custody battle. So, while the logic is obvious that the material-change-in-circumstances test does not apply to third parties appearing for the first time before the chancery court, the same cannot be said where, as here, grandparents previously have been before the court on the very issue of who should have custody. Stated another way, grandparents who already have been before the chancery court in an attempt to remove custody from a natural parent may not reappear before the same chancery court, seeking a change in custody based on the same evidence and circumstances as existed when they first appeared.

¶13. So we hold that in cases involving a third party and a natural parent—where the third party has been before the court in a previous custody dispute over the child—the material change-in-circumstances test applies. A third party attempting to take custody from a natural parent under those circumstances is required to overcome the natural-parent presumption and to show a material change in circumstances from the previous decree.

¶14. Said differently, to obtain custody, the Fosters had to prove: (1) that a material change in circumstances had occurred since they last appeared before the chancellor; (2) that the natural-parent presumption had been rebutted; and (3) that the best interests of the child would be served by granting them custody. The chancellor applied this standard and credible evidence supported his judgment.

[All of the case citations are in footnotes which are omitted here because they are too tedious to copy and paste separately into this text]

So the rule now is that third parties who have previously attempted to obtain custody by court order must prove what is set out in ¶14 in order to modify custody in a later attempt. The upshot of the rule is that it prevents third parties from relitigating facts that have already been presented.

An In Loco Parentis Case with a Twist

April 13, 2015 § Leave a comment

Gene and Eunieca Smiley were awarded custody of a minor child, Christopher, in a Memphis Juvenile Court proceeding. In addition, Eunieca’s cousin signed an agreed order giving the couple custody of her daughter, Alaina, in 2005.

Gene and Eunieca separated in 2009, but they nonetheless filed a proceeding to adopt Alaina. After the separation, Gene had moved to Memphis with Christopher, and Eunieca resided in Tishomingo with Alaina.

In November, 2010, Eunieca filed for divorce. That same month the adoption was granted (the natural mother had consented; there is no mention of a natural father). The adoption, however, was set later aside for reasons undisclosed in the opinion.

During the pendency of the divorce, Christopher was removed from Gene’s home for physical abuse. Gene conceded that he had gone overboard in whipping the boy with a belt, leaving bruises on the child’s back.

There was testimony of some creepy behavior by Gene involving inappropriate touching and handling little girls at his church and in his own home, and some inappropriate conduct with Alaina.

After a trial, the chancellor ruled that Gene’s had no standing to contest custody because his claim was based on in loco parentis, which the judge said was not adequate to confer standing. She also found that Gene had a history of family violence, and that there were insufficient safeguards to ensure Alaina’s safety when with Gene, so that he should have no visitation with the child, per MCA 93-5-24(9)(d)(i).

Gene appealed. The COA affirmed in part, and reversed and remanded in part, in the case of Smiley v. Smiley, decided March 31, 2015.

On the standing issue, Judge Irving wrote for the majority (Carlton dissented) that Gene did have standing, but that the chancellor correctly adjudicated custody. The court held that the judge’s treatment of Gene’s request for visitation to be cursory, and noted that the GAL in the hearing had reserved the right to make a recommendation on visitation until after hearing all the evidence, but she never did so as to give the judge a basis for finding insufficient safeguards. The court remanded for the chancellor to determine whether “adequate provision” could be made for Alaina’s safety as in the statute.

You should read the opinion to gain an appreciation of the scope of this fact-intensive case.

A few thoughts:

  • “I thought in loco parentis was dead” you might be thinking. Well, as between a natural parent and a third party, it is not alone enough to defeat the natural-parent presumption. As between two non-biological parents who have not adopted a child, however, in loco parentis is available.
  • Does it bother anyone else that separated parents with a divorce filed were allowed to adopt a child? As noted, the opinion does not tell us why the adoption was set aside.
  • The chancellor did not specifically address the Albright factors in ruling on custody; however, she did adopt the GAL report, which incorporated an Albright analysis, and the COA said that was good enough.
  • You need to read the code section cited above. It places custody and visitation limitations on the ability of one found to have been guilty of a history of domestic violence.

A Higher Duty

February 4, 2015 § 5 Comments

Many lawyers get into the mindset that winning is the most important thing, and it shows up in their take-no-prisoners, no-holds-barred, Rambo-ish approach to litigation. Discovery is adversarial and contested, sanctions are threatened at the slightest slight, and aggressive motion practice is used like a jousting match of yore.

Those lawyers point to the duty in our professional rules to represent the client zealously, within the bounds of the law. The emphasis, though, is on zeal.

Consider, however, this scenario:

You are representing a young mother in a custody contest. Her former husband is trying to get custody of their 3-year-old son, who has had bruises on his legs, and who has nightmares and is a bedwetter. The father knows something is wrong, and as discovery proceeds it is apparent that he does not have enough solid information to make a case of change in circumstances and adverse effect. The court has not appointed a GAL because the allegations to this point do not warrant it. You, however, learn as the case goes on that your client had a live-in boyfriend who did, indeed, whip the child. The boyfriend is a convicted felon with a violent history, and your client is afraid of him. The other side knows nothing about this, and has not even asked anything in discovery that your client had to lie about to conceal the information. When you confront her with the new-found information, she admits it, but assures you that she made the boyfriend leave during the litigation, although he has made it clear that he will return when the case is over.

What do you do? On the one hand, if you voluntarily disclose the information without a specific discovery request for it, you will have violated your client’s confidentiality. And the Rambo in you has to acknowledge that it will surely send the case plummeting from its heights as a sure winner to the depths of loserdom. On the other hand, it certainly does not seem like it’s in the best interest of the child to be in the mother’s home with that violent boyfriend, and you know your chancellor well enough to know that if those facts came to light, she would not hesitate to protect the child.

The highest and most serious duty of a chancellor is to do what is in the best interest of a child. The best interest of the child is always the “polestar consideration” in every custody and child-affecting  decision in chancery court. The rules of evidence do not trump that responsibility, nor do considerations of winning and losing, attorney-client privilege, or anything else.

As an officer of the court, you may not do anything that thwarts the court in its duty. You may not stifle the truth in such matters, or suppress evidence, or do anything that will result in compromising the safety of a child.

So how can you act and still maintain the confidentiality of your client? If I were the attorney, I would file a motion for appointment of a GAL. No details need to be pled. You could recite that the father’s suspicions should be investigated for the best interest of the child, and leave it at that. A competent GAL will ferret out the truth.

A chancellor told me recently of a case he had in which he overruled the father’s petition to modify custody. It was unquestionably a case in which the father was unfit, and the mother’s situation was better for the child. It was not a close case. Seven months later, however, the mother’s live-in, convicted-felon-boyfriend shot and killed the four-year-old son because he wet the bed. No one hid the information that the mother had someone like that living with her from the judge; it was a situation that developed after the case was concluded. Had it been part of the facts existing at the time of the modification, the judge could have taken other measures to protect the child, but only if someone made it known.

In my opinion, in cases involving the best interest of a child, you have a higher duty.

A Remand Without a New Trial

December 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

I posted here a few months ago that on remand the parties are restored to the position that they occupied before entry of the reversed judgment. A new trial is the norm, and even amended pleadings that change the scope of the proceedings from the original action are allowed.

That post also pointed out that, by agreement of the parties, the court may render a judgment on remand using the original record. The latest example of that is the case of Wilson v. Davis, a COA decision, handed down November 18, 2014.

In this case, the mother of a minor child had died, and the maternal grandmother refused to surrender the child to the father. The father brought an action for custody, which the chancellor treated as a modification, and not as an original action. The chancellor found for the grandmother, and the father appealed. The COA reversed and remanded, concluding that it was error for the trial court to try the case by the standards of a modification rather than as an original action.

The second time around, the chancellor used the record from the original trial to render a decision applying the proper standard for adjudication of custody. That’s what Judge Roberts tells us in his dissent:

¶30. Upon remand, the chancery court did not hold a new hearing or take new evidence in the matter. It modified its original opinion and found that the natural-parent presumption had been overcome because [the father] had abandoned [the child] and he had engaged in immoral conduct; it then applied an Albright analysis; and it found that [the maternal grandmother] should retain custody of [the child] because it was in [the child’s] best interest.

Nobody raised the issue whether this procedure was proper in arriving at the trial court’s adjudication. Neither the majority nor the dissent raised the question on its own. It does not appear from the opinion that either party asserted the issue in a R59 motion for a new trial, which would have been the most efficacious way to assert it, in my opinion.

How to proceed on remand is something to which you should devote some thought before you have to deal with it. The outcome for the father in this case might have been dramatically different if he had used his knowledge of what the chancellor viewed as the weak points in his case, and reshaped his witness list and evidence to present a case that overcame them. Instead, he allowed the chancellor to adjudicate the case on the record that she had already used to find against him.

Splitting the Baby

December 10, 2014 § 1 Comment

It is fundamental that a judgment rendered by a court without subject matter jurisdiction is void. Not voidable, but void ab initio. Therefore, it is critical for a court to ensure that it has subject matter jurisdiction before it proceeds to final judgment.

The MSSC confronted this principle in the case of Bronk v. Hobson, handed down December 4, 2014, in which the court was called upon to decide whether, in 1999, the County Court had jurisdiction to award custody in a paternity action. In a 5-4 decision the court ruled that county courts did not have such jurisdiction in 1999, and that, therefore, the 1999 judgment awarding custody was void.

Before going further, I have to note that the MSSC’s ruling directed that the case be transferred to Chancery Court. Since this is a Lauderdale County case, the court’s holding might result in the case being assigned to me, so I am limiting my comments to the jurisdictional questions in child custody cases in general, and am making no comment on the merits of the custody case between these parties in particular.

Chancery court jurisdiction is created by the Mississippi Constitution, which vests “full jurisdiction” over minor’s business in chancery courts. County court jurisdiction is created by MCA 9-9-21, which vests the county courts with ” … jurisdiction concurrent with … chancery courts in all matters of … equity wherein the amount of value of the thing in controversy is $200,000 or less … ”

The majority in Bronk decided that county court jurisdiction derived from 9-9-21 rests on matters only for which the value can be quantified in terms of dollars. The value of child custody matters can not be determined monetarily, so county court lacks jurisdiction.

The dissent took the opposite tack, arguing that since the value of child custody is not quantifiable, it is zero, which is less than $200,000, and, therefore, is within county court jurisdiction.

As between the two radically different approaches, the majority actually represents the reality of how county courts have traditionally exercised jurisdiction in equity matters. That’s because there are two sources of county court jurisdiction: one is 9-9-21; the other is specific grants of jurisdiction such as the statute authorizing county courts to adjudicate paternity and its 2013 amendment that conferred jurisdiction on county courts ” … for the enforcement of orders awarding custody … ” in paternity matters. In my experience, county courts have limited their exercise of concurrent equity jurisdiction to matters specifically granted by statute. That’s why you don’t see divorces being granted, or adverse possession being decreed, or estates and guardianships being administered, in county court. Thus, by practice, 9-9-21 has not been applied as a blanket grant of concurrent jurisdiction with chancery court.

The practice reflects the legislature’s approach. If the legislature had intended 9-9-21 to be a sweeping grant of co-jurisdiction with chancery court in all matters without regard to money value, then why did the legislature go to the trouble to amend the paternity statute to grant jurisdiction to county courts over what had been up to that point a purely chancery matter? If 9-9-21 were authority enough, then the statute was unnecessary. The same holds true with the 2013 amendment. I think the answer is that county court is purely a creature of statute, and its jurisdiction, which is not constitutionally derived, as is chancery’s, must be defined by the legislature. The legislature recognizes this, and defines that concurrent jurisdiction by express and specific statutory grants.

A legitimate concern of the MSSC is to construe legislation in such a way as to clarify the law so as to eliminate uncertainty and ambiguity. In my opinion, the majority and dissent in Bronk lead to different results in this regard.

  • The majority opinion in Bronk makes it clear that county courts lacked jurisdiction over child custody in paternity actions before the 2013 amendment. It offers the clarification that county court’s concurrent jurisdiction is limited to matters that can be monetarily quantified.
  • The dissent opens the door to the possibility that any chancery matter can be brought in chancery or county court, since it says that adjudications like custody determination are within the county court’s $200,000 limit. The dissent does not limit its scope to custody solely to paternity actions. Any matter that can not be quantified would fall within the $200,000 limit. That would, in essence, extend county court jurisdiction to all other chancery matters, because almost all chancery relief can not be calculated in terms of dollars. True, monetary relief is granted in chancery, but much of the relief has no dollar value. What, for instance, is the exact dollar value of the grant of a divorce, or an adoption, or the determination of a landline dispute, or confirmation of title, or adverse possession, or confirmation of title, or a guardianship of the person only, or a determination of heirship, or grandparent visitation, or a mental or drug commitment? And these are but a few examples. How do we determine their value so as to make that subject-matter-jurisdiction determination? Is each case evaluated separately? To open that door would be to create the possibility of endless arguments over jurisdictional limits and which court is most appropriate. It would encourage forum shopping. It would create uncertainty and embed questions about subject matter jurisdiction in every case, increasing the numbers of appeals. None of these type cases have ever, to my knowledge been heard in county court. We have to ask ourselves whether all of these kinds of cases should be brought in county court I the first place? Is that what is best for litigants? Our court system has never operated that way in my experience. And experience is a good teacher. What has worked well over time often proves to be the best approach.

The majority opinion offers more certainty as to where subject matter jurisdiction lies than does the minority. Subject matter jurisdiction should have clear and unquestionable lines drawn. Lawyers and judges should not have to guess about whether the court does or does not have jurisdiction. It does no one any good to litigate a matter only to have it set aside 15 years later — as in Bronk — for lack of jurisdiction. For that reason, the appellate courts should always lean toward what makes the jurisdictional boundaries between our courts as unquestionable and clear as possible. We already have a dichotomy of case law on the boundary between chancery and circuit that should not be further compounded with confusion between chancery and county.

Justice Waller’s separate opinion makes the practical point that it is “nonsensical and contrary to the intent” of the paternity statute for a court to be able to adjudicate paternity, and yet be unable to adjudicate custody in the same action. Yet, the MSSC already ruled out that approach in Griffith v. Pell, 881 So.2d 184, 187-188 (Miss. 2004), when it affirmed that COA’s ruling that paternity cases are not to be used as a forum for custody determinations.

Finally, I think it needs to be taken into consideration that child custody is a weighty matter. The cases  are too numerous to mention in which our appellate courts have acknowledged the complex, difficult, and close questions that chancellors must resolve in determining the issue of what is in the best interest of a child. Resolution of custody issues involves analysis of the Albright factors in original cases, analysis of material change, adverse effect, and best interest with Albright analysis in modifications, and a determination of application of the natural parent presumption in third-party custody cases. Habeas corpus, visitation, grandparental visitation, child support, and joint-custody arrangements are other matters that are affected by custody determinations. Chancellors have developed considerable expertise over the years in all of these matters, and understand how serious and life-affecting are such decisions. Why should we want to burden other courts with that responsibility when we already have a wealth of wisdom and expertise on that subject and so many others like it in our chancery courts?

It remains to be seen how the high court will interpret and apply the language of the 2013 bill granting county courts jurisdiction ” … for the enforcement of orders awarding custody … ” in paternity actions. That language is not entirely unambiguous to me. Until then, this Bronk decision is a welcome beacon of certainty for trial courts and lawyers navigating in the shoal waters of jurisdiction between the two courts.

How to Address the GAL Report

October 15, 2014 § 2 Comments

There are three types of cases in which a chancellor is required to appoint a guardian ad litem (GAL):

  • MCA 93-5-23 requires appointment of a GAL “when a charge of abuse or neglect arises in the course of a custody action.”
  • MCA 93-15-107 requires a GAL for the child(ren) in termination of parental rights (TPR) cases.
  • MCA 93-17-8 requires a GAL for the child(ren) in a contested adoption.

In other cases the court may appoint a GAL whenever the court deems it necessary to protect the interests of a child or vulnerable adult.

The chancellor is never required to follow or adopt the recommendations and findings of a GAL, but when she does not do so there are certain requirements that the judge must meet in rendering her opinion.

In the October 9, 2014, MSSC case, Borden v. Borden, Chief Justice Waller, for the unanimous court, spelled it out:

¶11. In child-custody cases where there are allegations of abuse or neglect, courts must appoint a guardian. Miss. Code Ann.§ 93-5-23 (Rev. 2013); Floyd v. Floyd, 949 So. 2d 26, 28 (Miss. 2007). And when the appointment is mandatory, chancellors, in their findings of fact, must include at least a summary of the guardian ad litem’s recommendations. Id. While a chancellor is not bound by the guardian ad litem’s recommendations, “if the court rejects the recommendations . . . , the court’s findings must include its reasons for rejecting the guardian’s recommendations.” Id.; S.N.C. v. J.R.D., Jr., 755 So. 2d 1077, 1082 (Miss. 2000).

¶12. In the current case, Mary Jane raised her concerns that the children might have been sexually abused. Accordingly, the chancellor appointed a guardian ad litem. The guardian ad litem conducted an investigation into the child-abuse claims and prepared a recommendation regarding custody of the children. The guardian ad litem found no evidence of abuse, and after an Albright analysis, determined that Mary Jane should be awarded custody.

¶13. When the guardian ad litem’s appointment is mandatory, as in this case, the chancellor must include a summary of the guardian ad litem’s recommendations in his or her findings of fact and conclusions of law. S.N.C., 755 So. 2d at1082. And “when a chancellor’s ruling is contrary to [that] recommendation . . .” the court must state “the reasons for not adopting the . . . recommendation . . . in the findings of fact and conclusions of law.” Id. While the chancellor in the current case acknowledged the guardian ad litem’s recommendation, he did not provide a summary of the report or a summary of his reasons for rejecting the guardian ad litem’s recommendation. Therefore, we find the chancellor erred in failing to do so.

The court reversed on this and another ground, and remanded the case for proceedings consistent with the opinion.

If you have a case involving a GAL, and the judge rules contrary to the GAL’s recommendations, be sure that the court’s findings include both a summary of the GAL’s findings and the court’s reasons for not following the GAL’s recommendations. Whether the appointment was mandatory or not, I think it’s the best practice. If the judge neglected to do that in his opinion, file a timely R59 motion and ask the court to add his findings. Don’t do it and you might just get a free pass for a retrial after a brief detour to the COA.

When is Temporary Relief Available in Family Law Cases?

June 18, 2014 § 5 Comments

I have heard it said that chancery courts routinely grant temporary relief in any matters pending before them. Is that so? And in what matters is temporary relief available?

Let’s look at family law.

Anyone who has done any Mississippi family law knows that temporary relief is available in divorce cases. The authority of the chancery court to grant temporary relief in a divorce proceeding is found in MCA 93-5-17(2), which provides:

The chancellor in vacation may, upon reasonable notice, hear complaints for temporary alimony, temporary custody of children and temporary child support and make all proper orders and judgments thereon.

Divorce is a creature of statute unknown in the common law; therefore, any relief obtainable in a divorce must have its source in a statute. Since this statute is part of the title dealing with divorce, and is a subsection of the statute that requires divorce hearings to be held in open court, I am confident in saying that this particular statute is not authority to grant temporary relief outside the context of a divorce.

Likewise, in cases of determination of parentage, MCA 93-11-65(10) creates a remedy:

Upon motion of a party requesting temporary child support pending a determination of parentage, temporary support shall be ordered if there is clear and convincing evidence of paternity on the basis of genetic testing or other evidence, unless the court makes written findings of fact on the record that the award of temporary support would be unjust or inappropriate in a particular case.

Notice that the latter statute does not not include custody among the relief provided. The COA has held that both natural parents have an equal right to custody of the child, regardless whether parentage has been finally determined. So, on the one hand, it would appear in a custody dispute between parents in a parentage case that the tug-of-war between them must continue unabated by temporary custody because there is no provision in the statute for temporary custody. The conundrum is exacerbated by the simple fact that support is customarily (always?) paid to the parent with custody, which is certainly logical, because we have to know where the child will be in order to know where to direct the support. If the court has no statutory authority to award custody in such a case, how can the court award child support?

It could be that the chancellor may simply order extra-statutory temporary relief in a given case based on equitable principles. In the parentage case, for example, the court could award temporary custody in order to get to the statutorily permissible temporary support award.

But would such an order stand? After all, we know that there is no appeal of right from a temporary or interlocutory order.

I think the distinction may lie in the nature of the review. If the merits of the order are attacked, then I think the appeal fails. If the power of the court to grant the temporary relief is attacked, then I think the appeal would have merit. An example of the latter is Martin v. Falcon, #2013-IA-1985-SCT (December 5, 2013), in which Justice Coleman vacated a temporary order granting grandparent visitation.

Is there even a right to a temporary hearing in a grandparent visitation case? I would argue in the negative, for two reasons: (1) the grandparent visitation statute has no provision whatsoever for temporary relief, and like divorce and parentage, it is a creature solely of statute; and (2) to grant temporary relief is to presume on the ultimate issue that the petitioner is entitled to such relief, which is not always so.

Of course, temporary relief is expressly available in injuntions, per MRCP 65, in the form of a TRO. A TRO does require the existence of an emergency or danger of irreparable harm if no relief is immediately granted. And the domestic violence statutes incorporate such relief.

Custody modification cases and third-party custody cases are somewhat more problematical. There are statutes dealing with custody, and its award and forms, but they do not specifically mention temporary relief. In this district, we do not allow temporary relief in a child-custody-modification case unless there is an emergency or it is clearly necessary to protect the best interest of a child until a final determination may be made. To do otherwise would peremptorily adjudicate the ultimate issue in the case.

When the chancellor acts in an emergency or other exigent situation to protect the child, her actions are based on Article 6, § 159 of the Mississippi Constitution, which gives chancery courts “full jurisdiction” over “All matters in equity,” and “Minor’s business.” Custody has long been recognized as being under the mantle of chancery jurisdiction, and, indeed, our cases speak in terms of the chancellor being the “superior guardian” and protector of the child’s best interest. I think as between the apparent form required by statute and the chancellor’s determination that action must be taken for the best interest of a child, the court will and should go with the best interest every time.

I would reconcile all of the foregoing by saying that I believe that, in the absence of exigent circumstances requiring immediate intervention the court should avoid temporary relief unless there is a statutory provision or rule expressly providing that relief. Your chancellor may see it differently, based on an entirely different rationale, but that is the way I view it.

This post addresses temporary relief in family law matters. Temporary relief in the many other types of cases within chancery jurisdiction is the subject of another post.


Thanks to Attorney George S. Whitten of Greenwood for supplying some of the material for this post.

Don’t Overlook the Practicalities when Dealing with Visitation

January 29, 2014 § 1 Comment

When Wesley and Janet Jaggers got their irreconcilable differences divorce in April, 2004, Janet got custody, and Wesley got visitation.

Soon afterward, only three months after the divorce, they agreed to a modification judgment that included the following language:

[E]ach parent shall allow the children to attend and participate in the scheduled extra-curricular activities of each child, including baseball, speech therapy, etc., it being the intention of this paragraph that the children’s regular schedules be maintained so as to provide as great a degree [of] continuity as possible.

That language sets a lofty aspiration for the parties, and its spirit is certainly commendable. But it leaves some questions unanswered, such as: who does the scheduling; what are the limits on extra-curricular activities; who gets to determine what the children’s regular schedules are?

In time conflict arose between the parties over the fact that Janet scheduled baseball games, out-of-town tournaments, and other activities of the children during Wesley’s visitation time. Wesley petitioned the court for relief.

Wesley argued that Janet’s conduct violated his sacrosanct parental right to visitation without interference. Janet invoked the polestar best-interest-of-the-child principle. Immovable object meet irresistable force.

The chancellor fashioned a remedy he deemed to be in the best interest of the children, providing for Wesley to have make-up visitation if the children’s travel schedule interfered with his visitation. The chancellor relied heavily on the parties’ own language adopted in the agreed modification judgment. On appeal, the COA affirmed in Jaggers v. Magruder, handed down January 7, 2014, deferring to the chancellor’s considerable discretion in this area.

A few desultory thoughts:

  • I wonder whether more attention to detail in that modification judgment might have produced a different result, or even avoided this litigation entirely. As a lawyer, you have a considerable body of experience to draw on when you draft language to solve a client’s legal problem. You know from experience what situations give rise to certain kinds of problems. Bring that experience to bear when advising your client.
  • I think it’s a good idea to avoid aspirational language in agreed judgments and PSA’s. Language like “The parties agree that they will do all in their power to foster good feelings and to encourage love and devotion between parent and child” just seems to me to be a recipe for future litigation.
  • Address the practicalities in every order or PSA dealing with visitation. Who is responsible to pick up and return? What times? Who may accompany or take the place of the visiting parent? Who decides about scheduling extra-curricular activities during visitation time? What are the conditions for make-up visitation? Yes, I know that the parties have to bring some good faith to the table, but you can ward off some bad behavior based on your experience. And I know, too, that no one can anticipate every conceivable problem, but I am not suggesting that you address every conceivable problem — only the ones you shuold reasonably anticipate you can avoid in advance based on your experience.
  • The issue of the boundaries of the parents’ respective rights vis a vis visitation is one of the thorniest and most difficult to resolve for any chancellor. It’s as hard for a chancellor to resolve as it is for the lawyer to offer advice. That’s because of the competing equities that almost always have almost equal weight. I am glad that the appellate courts leave these issues largely in the discretion of the chancellor rather than conjuring up formulaic solutions that don’t fit the nuances in most situations.
  • This case is yet another in which the chancellor did not accept or implement the recommendation of the GAL. Keep in mind that the chancellor is never bound by the GAL’s recommendations.      

A History of Family Violence

August 26, 2013 § 2 Comments

A serious act or history of family violence has an impact on the adjudication of custody, and even visitation. It’s a subject I’ve posted about herehere and here.

The matter is addressed in MCA 93-5-24(9)(a)(i), which establishes a rebuttable presumption regarding family violence: ” … it is detrimental to the child and not in the best interest of the child to be placed in sole custody, joint legal custody or joint physical custody of a parent who has a history of perpetrating family violence.”

The statute does not explicitly define the term “family violence,” but it does refer to violence against ” … the party making the allegation or a family household member of either party.”

The statute goes on to say that the court may find a history if it finds either (a) one incident of family violence that resulted in serious bodily injury, or (b) a pattern of family violence. The finding is by a preponderance of the evidence.

In the COA case of Rolison v. Rolison, decided December 11, 2012, Alisa Rolison argued that the chancellor had refused and failed to apply the presumption against her ex-husband Gary in a case where there was proof in the record of what she considered to have been family violence. Judge Fair, for the majority, stated the court’s ruling:

¶6. The statute requires that if a chancellor finds a history of perpetrating family violence, the rebuttable presumption is triggered. The chancellor must then consider six factors to determine whether or not the presumption has been rebutted and make “written findings” to document his consideration. Miss. Code Ann. § 93-5-24.

¶7. The Mississippi Supreme Court has one published decision addressing this presumption, J.P. v. S.V.B., 987 So. 2d 975 (Miss. 2008). In J.P., the chancellor removed a child from his parents’ custody because the father had a history of perpetrating domestic violence, and the mother continued to reside with him. Id. at 980 (¶¶11-12). The supreme court upheld awarding custody to the maternal grandparents explaining [Fn 1]:

The applicable statute [§ 93-5-24] clearly required the chancellor to consider all of the above-listed factors in ascertaining whether the rebuttable presumption has been overcome, and the chancellor “shall make written findings to document how and why the presumption was or was not rebutted.” That being said, a chancellor in these cases must specifically address each factor, failing which reversible error may quite likely result. However, from the record before us in today’s case, we can safely say that while the chancellor did not specifically refer in writing to all the factors enumerated in her judgment, she no doubt considered those factors in making the custody determination. The chancellor made sufficient, specific findings to support her conclusion that the [parents] did not provide evidence to rebut the presumption outlined in Section 93-5-24(9)(a)(iii) and (iv). Since these findings were supported by substantial evidence in the record, we are duty-bound not to reverse on this issue. J.P., 987 So. 2d at 981-82 (¶16). [Fn1]

[Fn1] This Court [the COA] rendered a similar decision in Lawrence v. Lawrence, 956 So. 2d 251, 260-61 (¶¶33-35) (Miss. Ct. App. 2006), two years earlier and has since discussed the statute four times, most recently in Thompson v. Hutchinson, 84 So. 3d 840, 844 (¶¶15-19) (Miss. Ct. App. 2012).

¶8. Alisa contends the chancellor should have found that Gary had a history of family violence. Then, if the chancellor still intended to award Gary custody, he should have made written findings explaining why the presumption “was or was not rebutted.” Miss. Code Ann. § 93-5-24.

¶9. The record contains evidence of both parents’ actions that could be construed as perpetrating family violence. The chancellor found that at times, Gary was aggressive with the children and had a foul mouth. Alisa asserted that Gary once beat her with a “stacking stick” when she let a cow escape and that Gary spanked the children until they were bruised. Gary admitted that he disciplined his children corporally until the chancellor prohibited him from doing so during the pendency of this proceeding.

¶10. There is also evidence of Alisa’s perpetrating family violence. Alisa has bipolar disorder, borderline personalty disorder, and ADHD. She is taking medication and receiving treatment but has shoplifted at numerous stores and blamed her behavior on her medication. Alisa admitted being aggressive with the children. After a fight with one child, Alisa had to have an operation due to a spleen injury.

¶11. Both parents admitted to behaving aggressively with the children, but the only evidence of any serious injury was inflicted on Alisa by one of the children. We find that the chancellor did not abuse his discretion in refusing to apply the statutory presumption against Gary or Alisa. See Thompson v. Hutchinson, 84 So. 3d 840, 844 (¶¶15-19) (Miss. Ct. App. 2012).

In Rolison, the facts as to Gary’s violence simply did not rise to the level that would put the presumption into effect. If there were any serious episode, it was by one of the children against Alisa, requiring her to have surgery.

It’s hard to read the cases and come away with a clear picture of exactly what it is that constitues a “history” of “family violence.” Those are terms of art, but the definitions seem to be a moving target, based on the facts in the case. Sort of like US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” definition of obscenity.

The main point to bear in mind is that, as you develop your child custody case, determine whether there are facts that might bring the statute into play. If so, peruse the statute and see whether and how it can help you prevail. Or, if you are on the downhill side of the case, look at the 6 factors the court has to consider to overcome the presumption and see how you can turn them to your advantage.

Recovering Lost Custody

July 16, 2013 § 4 Comments

We talked last week about the natural parent presumption for custody, and how it may be lost.

Once a parent has lost custody on a finding of unfitness, and he or she later reforms the unfit conduct, what is the standard of proof required to recover custody?

In the case of Barnett v. Oathout, 833 So.2d 563 (Miss. 2004), DHS had removed the minor children from the parents’ home and placed the children in a foster home for more than two years. After the Youth Court had awarded the foster parents durable legal custody and they denied the natural father visitation, he petitioned for modification of visitation. The MSSC stated the rule to be followed by the modification court, as follows:

“The chancellor had to make two determinations: first, whether [petitioner] showed that there was a substantial change of circumstances which adversely affected the children, where it would be in the best interest of the children that custody be changed; and second, whether [the petitioner] showed that he had eliminated the behavior that caused the children to be taken in the first place.” Id., at 568 (¶ 10).

The court went on to find that the rule in Grant v. Martin, 757 So.2d 264 (Miss. 2000), that a parent who agrees to third-party custody forfeits the natural-parent presumption does not apply in cases in which a child is placed with DHS.

That would appear to mean that, although the natural parent in a DHS case does not lose the natural-parent presumption, the standard of proof to modify will be material change-best interest-reformed conduct.

But in 2010, the MSSC extended the Barnett rule to non-DHS cases in the case of Adams v. Johnson, 33 So.3d 551 (Miss. App. 2010), where the court held that when a third party has gotten cusstody of a child due to the unfitness of the parent(s), modification will require proof that there has been a “material change in circumstances in the [grandparents’] home that adversely affected the children.” Id., at 555-56 (¶ 10). No mention of reformed conduct.

As the dust settles, it looks like whether the natural parent voluntarily gives up the child, or has the child taken away, a later attempt to modify custody will require the standard material change-adverse effect-best interest standard, without regard to any natural parent presumption.

[This post is based on material prepared by attorney David Bridges and presented to the Conference of Chancery Judges in April, 2013]


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