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.

Whose Inconvenience Counts in Visitation?

December 5, 2017 § Leave a comment

When Mike and Kim Smith were divorced in 2011, both of them lived in the Tupelo area. In 2012, Kim relocated near Atlanta with the children, and the parties agreed to meet for visitation exchanges in Leeds, Alabama, a point approximately half-way.

Mike customarily travelled to Kentucky for work or play, and the parties agreed for a time to meet in Chattanooga, which was more convenient for Mike. Kim, however, found the Chattanooga exchange unacceptable, and insisted on the Leeds exchange location. Mike filed a petition to modify visitation to require the Chattanooga location.

Following a hearing, the chancellor denied Mike’s petition to modify the visitation exchange point. Mike appealed. In Smith v. Mull, decided November 7, 2017, the COA affirmed. Judge Lee wrote for the unanimous court, Tindell not participating:

¶14. Mike also argues that the chancellor erred in failing to modify the exchange location from Leeds to Chattanooga when he is working or visiting in Kentucky. In doing so, Mike asserts the chancellor “gave no cogent reason” for her decision. We disagree.

¶15. This Court has articulated the relevant principles regarding modifications of visitation: When modification of visitation is at issue, the material change in circumstances test is not applicable because the court is not being asked to modify the permanent custody of the child. To modify a visitation order, it must be shown that the prior decree for reasonable visitation is not working and that a modification is in the best interest of the child. The chancellor has broad discretion to determine the specific times for visitation. H.L.S. v. R.S.R., 949 So. 2d 794, 798 (¶9) (Miss. Ct. App. 2006) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). With these principles in mind, we find the chancellor’s decision to deny Mike’s request for modification was supported by substantial credible evidence.

¶16. In his motion, Mike sought to have the exchange location modified to “the most convenient location for . . . the minor children.” He argued that when he is working or visiting in Kentucky, Chattanooga should be the court-ordered exchange location, as it is a slightly shorter distance (approximately 143 miles) from Kim’s home than Leeds (approximately 152 miles). He further argued that the chancellor’s failure to modify the
exchange location was not in the best interests of the children because it requires approximately 150-160 additional miles per exchange when he is in Kentucky. He alternatively sought to have Kim meet him at a different location so long as it did not exceed the 152 miles that Kim would normally drive from her home. Kim testified that Leeds was “very systematic, very structured, it’s what we’re used to, we know the safe places, we know all that stuff.” Kim also testified that, although Chattanooga may be a shorter overall distance from her home, it took longer to travel there than to Leeds.

¶17. To prevail, Mike needed to show that “the prior decree for reasonable visitation [was] not working and that a modification [was] in the best interest[s] of the child[ren].” Id. After hearing testimony from both parties, the chancellor found: “[M]odification of the place of exchange, while perhaps more convenient for [Mike] when he elects to travel out of state, would disturb the children’s routines with which they have become comfortable and which complies with the prior decrees.” The chancellor further stated: “I don’t buy into [Mike’s] argument . . . that the court is inconveniencing the children, because, as their father, [Mike] ha[s] to make whatever decision works for [himself]in their best interest[s].” The chancellor ultimately held that Mike failed to show that visitation was not working to serve the best interests of the children. Upon review of the facts before us, we do not find the chancellor erred by declining to modify the visitation-exchange location. This issue is without merit.

This is actually a somewhat familiar fact situation in chancery court. One or both parties relocate, throwing visitation into controversy. In these cases, I often hear it said that the test is whether the prior order for visitation is working or workable. But that is an incomplete statement. The test is actually whether the prior order for visitation is not working … and whether modification is in the best interest of the child or children. That latter consideration is what tripped Mike up in this case. It’s not what is more convenient for either or both parents; it’s what is in the best interest of the child or children.

Beyond the Scope of the Pleadings

July 5, 2017 § Leave a comment

It’s fundamental that, if you want relief, you have to ask for it (or pray for it, in chancery parlance). There are scads of cases on the point. The only two exceptions that I am certain of are: (1) where an issue is tried without objection and a motion to amend the pleadings to conform to the proof is timely made per MRCP 15; and (2) where the chancellor fashions ancillary relief in order to afford the relief requested.

In the recent COA case In the Matter of C.T.; Taylor v. Timmons, decided June 6, 2017, the chancellor modified visitation even though no one asked for that relief. The appellant argued that the modification was beyond the court’s authority, since no one had pled for it. The COA affirmed, with Judge Lee writing for the unanimous court:

¶16. Taylor argues that the chancellor’s modification was an abuse of discretion because neither party requested the modification or presented evidence that the visitation schedule was not working. However, the record is replete with evidence that the visitation schedule was not working. Though neither party petitioned the chancery court for modification of visitation, Taylor did file a petition for contempt, asserting that he was not getting visitation with the child. Taylor also testified extensively that he was unable to visit with the child. Timmons testified that she had not denied Taylor visitation, but that she had begged Taylor to visit with the child. The chancellor also noted that there was some confusion between the parties regarding the details of visitation under the agreed order. As such, there was a clear showing that the prior visitation order was not working, and the chancellor’s finding that a modification was necessary was supported by substantial evidence. Given the chancellor’s “broad discretion to determine the specific times for visitation,” the chancellor did not abuse his discretion in modifying the visitation schedule. Moreland v. Spears, 187 So. 3d 661, 666 (¶17) (Miss. Ct. App. 2016) (citation omitted). This issue is without merit.

No doubt the chancellor was being practical and was attempting to solve as many of these people’s conflicts as he could in one stab.

I don’t think one could argue convincingly, though, that the visitation modification was directly related to the relief sought. Take this case as support for the proposition that the appellate courts will generally defer to a chancellor acting as problem-solver. But be forewarned: there are cases going the other way.

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