Justia Family Law Opinion Summaries

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The Ninth Circuit vacated the district court's denial of a petition for return of petitioner's child to France under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. The panel concluded that the district court made three legal errors: 1) assuming petitioner cut off financial support for the child, the district court erred as a matter of law in determining that was sufficient to establish that he clearly and unequivocally abandoned the child, the showing required for deeming a parent not to be exercising custody rights; 2) the district court further erred in declining to return the child to France based on a "grave risk" defense, without first considering whether there are alternative remedies available to protect the child and permit her return to France for the period of time necessary for French courts to make the custody determination; and 3) the district court also erred in relying in part on the pandemic to deny the petition because the record did not include any evidence addressing what specific pandemic related risk returning the child to France would present. View "Jones v. Fairfield" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed in part four provisions of a district court order and amended parenting plan in this case, holding that certain provisions in the provisions in the court's amended parenting plan were erroneous.The amended parenting plan at issue required Sarah Willmon and her husband to attend family counseling, allowed her ex-husband, Marlen Russell, to contact the children regularly, required the parties to mediate future disputes, and split between the parties the tax dependency deductions. The Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed in part, holding that the district court (1) erred to the extent it ordered Sarah's current husband to attend family counseling; (2) abused its discretion when it ordered that Marlen may contact the children "regularly"; (3) erred when it ordered future conflicts to be subject to mandatory mediation; and (4) did not err when it divided the tax dependency deductions between the parties. View "In re Parenting of P.H.R." on Justia Law

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The issue presented by this case arose from a family law order setting pendente lite spousal support. Appellant Mitchell Fletcher operated an investment management business. His income fluctuated considerably from year to year depending on the performance of the market. In re Marriage of Riddle, 125 Cal.App.4th 1075 (2005) held that a court had to calculate future income based on a representative sample of past income. Instead of doing that, the trial court here forecasted Mitchell’s future income based on the most recent year of historical income, which happened to be Mitchell’s best year ever by a wide margin. Given the nature of his income structure, however, it was unlikely Mitchell would repeat such a year. In the recent past, Mitchell had made as little as one-third of the amount the court based its calculation on. The Court of Appeal determined the trial court abused its discretion in calculating his prospective income on an unrepresentative sample period. In addition to managing investments, Mitchell and Jill Fletcher started a theater company. In calculating Mitchell’s income, Court of Appeal found the trial court did not consider any losses from the theater company on the ground that the theater was not “related to” the investment business. The Court agreed with Mitchell that the trial court employed the wrong legal standard in conducting that analysis. The error, however, was harmless because Mitchell did not identify any prospective theater expenses that would impact his income going forward. Nevertheless, because this issue may recur in this case, the Court set forth the proper legal standard for further proceedings upon remand. View "Marriage of Pletcher" on Justia Law

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Michael Lockhart appealed a Chancery Court’s Opinion and Final Judgment entered in July 2019 (the 2019 Order) purporting to clarify the court’s previous 2018 Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Final Judgment (the 2018 Order) equitably distributing property between Lockhart and his ex-wife, Stella Payton. Lockhart also appealed the chancery court’s Order Denying Post Trial Motion entered in February 2020. In doing so, Lockhart claimed the chancery court erred: (1) by modifying the court’s property division ruling from its 2018 Order; (2) by assigning values to property identified in the 2018 Order; (3) in its determination of “proceeds” related to certain businesses owned by Lockhart; (4) by finding Lockhart in contempt; (5) by failing to penalize Payton’s contempt and allowing Payton equitable relief; (6) by failing to assign rental income to Lockhart for two marital rental properties; (7) by failing to provide Lockhart a way to retrieve his personal property from the marital home; and (8) by denying Lockhart’s motion to recuse. Since each of Lockhart’s eight assignments of error either lacked merit or ere procedurally barred on appeal, the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed the chancery court's decision. View "Lockhart v. Lockhart" on Justia Law

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J.B. appealed a juvenile court order terminating her parental rights to her two children. She argued there was not evidence beyond a reasonable doubt to support the court’s determination under the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) that continued custody by J.B. was likely to result in serious emotional or physical damage to the children. Retaining jurisdiction under N.D.R.App.P. 35(a)(3), the North Dakota Supreme Court remanded to the juvenile court for detailed findings under ICWA, allowing for additional testimony from the qualified expert witness if necessary to make the required findings. After receiving additional testimony, the district court made additional findings, denied the petition to terminate J.B.’s parental rights, and ordered the children be removed from J.B.’s custody for nine months. No party requested additional briefing or argument following the order on remand. Finding no reversible error, the Supreme Court affirmed the juvenile court order. View "Interest of K.B." on Justia Law

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Respondent Simran Singh (Mother) and Petitioner Gunjit Singh (Father) separated in January of 2012. They entered into a settlement agreement which resolved all issues arising from their marriage, including custody and visitation matters involving their two children, then aged eleven and two. Pursuant to that agreement, Mother received primary custody, and the parties consented to submit any future disputes regarding child support or visitation to a mutually agreed-upon arbitrator, specifically providing that his or her decision would "be binding and non-appealable." The family court approved the agreement and granted the parties a divorce in February of 2013. Approximately nine months later, Father filed an action in family court seeking modification of custody, visitation, and child support, alleging Mother had violated a provision of the agreement when she failed to return to South Carolina with the children after embarking on a cross-country tour as a motivational speaker. From January through August of 2014, four family court judges issued decisions— one dismissing Father’s complaint due to the parties' decision to arbitrate; a second issuing a consent order to arbitrate; and two approving amended agreements to arbitrate. The arbitrator issued a "partial" arbitration award finding a substantial and material change of circumstance affecting the welfare and custody of the minor children, and awarding Father temporary custody. A thirty-two-page final arbitration award was issued the next month, awarding custody to Father. A fifth family court judge issued an order in January 2015 confirming both the partial and final arbitration awards. Thereafter, Mother filed five separate Rule 60(b)(4), SCRCP, motions to vacate all the orders approving the parties' agreements to arbitrate. The court of appeals issued its unanimous decision in December of 2019, holding that the parties could not divest the family court of jurisdiction to determine issues relating to custody, visitation, and child support. One month prior, another panel of the court of appeals issued a decision in Kosciusko v. Parham, 836 S.E.2d 362 (Ct. App. 2019), holding the family court did not have subject-matter jurisdiction to approve the binding arbitration of children's issues. The South Carolina Supreme Court granted certiorari, and affirmed as modified, the appellate court's order. View "Singh v. Singh" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs were W.H. and B.H., who were abused as children, and their grandparents. They brought this tort action for damages in 2014, arguing that DCF failed to accept or respond to dozens of reports of physical and sexual abuse of the children between 2008 and 2012. Among other things, plaintiffs made claims of negligence based on the Vermont Department for Children and Families’ (DCF) failure to perform its statutory obligations and negligent undertaking. The State moved for summary judgment on all counts, arguing in part that the State did not breach any duty owed to plaintiffs, that the State was entitled to sovereign immunity because its actions were discretionary and grounded in public policy, and that plaintiffs could not prove causation. In June 2019, the trial court denied DCF’s motion for summary judgment, and the case proceeded to trial. After the close of the evidence, the trial court granted the State’s motion for judgment as a matter of law on the record, holding that even if the jury accepted all plaintiffs’ evidence as true and made all reasonable inferences in favor of plaintiff, “the jury could not find the presence of proximate causation.” It determined that the jury would have had to speculate as to “what actions [DCF] would have taken had they acted on reports of maltreatment of the children that were made and not acted upon” as well as “what it is that would have happened had DCF received that report and acted on it.” Plaintiffs challenged the trial court’s decision granting judgment as a matter of law to the State. They argued the court erred in narrowing the scope of DCF's legally actionable duty and in concluding that no reasonable jury could find that DCF’s actions were the proximate cause of then-children B.H. and W.H.’s injuries. They also argued the discretionary function exception to the State’s tort liability did not bar their claim and that the trial court improperly considered factors other than the law and evidence in granting the State judgment as a matter of law. Finding no reversible error, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Stocker, et al. v. Vermont, et al." on Justia Law

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Before getting married, Andy drafted a prenuptial agreement. Abbie first saw the agreement the night before their wedding, when she was intoxicated. The agreement, designed to protect Andy’s substantial assets, designated only certain earnings marital property. It referenced an investment account for Abbie’s benefit, but the paragraph pertaining to this account contained only the words “Not Used,” and no such account was ever created. The superior court enforced the agreement over Abbie’s objection that it was not voluntarily executed. The court then ruled that all income reported on the parties’ tax returns during the marriage was part of the marital estate subject to division and awarded Abbie an additional sum to compensate for the nonexistent investment account. The Alaska Supreme Court determined this interpretation of the agreement was erroneous and key facts relevant to whether the agreement was enforceable were not addressed, thus, the Court reversed the superior court and remanded for further proceedings. View "Andrew B. v. Abbie B." on Justia Law

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Deborah Hillard and Holland Hillard Warr jointly petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus, raising numerous issues. The Court ordered answers and briefs on one issue raised by Warr: whether the circuit court erred in denying her summary-judgment motion on the counterclaim brought against her by her former husband, Rik Tozzi, which Warr claimed was barred by principles of res judicata. Warr specifically requested that the Supreme Court issue the writ of mandamus directing the circuit court to grant her summary-judgment motion. The Court denied the petition as to that issue. "Warr does not provide meaningful discussion of the precedent she cites or the other relevant precedent ... She has not established that the instant case is controlled by opinions holding that a former spouse was barred from pursuing a tort claim against the other former spouse based on conduct that occurred before a divorce. For example, she has not shown that the allegedly tortious acts and omissions surrounding the execution and delivery of the promissory note were fully litigated in the divorce action or that Tozzi's tort allegations were resolved by a settlement agreement entered in the divorce action or by the final divorce judgment." Because Warr did not demonstrate a clear legal right to a judgment in her favor on Tozzi's counterclaim based on principles of res judicata, the Supreme Court denied the petition. View "Ex parte Hillard and Warr." on Justia Law

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Father sought the return of his children under the Hague Convention of the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction and the International Child Abduction Remedies Act (ICARA), which implements the Convention. The district court found the repatriation of the minor children to Germany posed a grave risk of psychological harm if in father's custody and therefore ordered that the children be transferred back to Germany in mother's custody until a German court made a custody determination.The Ninth Circuit vacated and remanded the district court's alternative remedy order for the district court to reasonably ensure compliance with its alternative remedy in Germany. The court explained that, because mother wrongfully removed the children, as she conceded, the district court in no way exceeded its authority to mandate the children's return to Germany accompanied by mother. However, in the context of an Article 13(b) finding, the district court needed a fuller record to have sufficient guarantees that the alternative remedy will be enforced in Germany. View "Radu v. Johnson Shon" on Justia Law