Justia Family Law Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
Thompson v. Thompson
At issue before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was whether the Superior Court erred in holding a suspended sentence imposed upon appellee Ashley Thompson for civil contempt of a child support order was illegal because suspended sentences were not authorized by the Domestic Relations Code section 4345. The Supreme Court determined a suspended sentence was not a legal sanction for contempt of a support order, thus affirming the Superior Court. View "Thompson v. Thompson" on Justia Law
In the Interest of: N.B.-A.
At issue was whether the evidence presented against mother E.A. was sufficient to establish she was a perpetrator of child abuse under the Child Protective Services Law ("CPSL"). In 2016, Mother presented to a Philadelphia emergency room with her six year old daughter, N.B.-A. ("Child"). Mother reported that Child had been experiencing vaginal discharge for three days. In response to questions by hospital staff, Mother indicated that she had no concerns that Child may have been sexually abused. Lab testing of the vaginal swabs revealed that Child had chlamydia, a sexually-transmitted infection. Although Mother told hospital staff no males lived in the home, Child stated that she lived with Mother, Grandmother, and three adult male “uncles.” In actuality, the males were Mother’s husband and Mother’s two stepsons. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined that the evidence in this case was insufficient to establish Mother abused her child: "Applying the Section 6381(d) presumption to cases such as the one before us, where DHS presented no evidence that Mother was or should have been aware that Stepbrother posed a risk to Child, or that he or anyone else was abusing Child, would essentially allow a parent to be deemed a perpetrator of child abuse by omission in every case where a child is abused, placing the burden on the parent to prove that they had no reason to believe that their child was at risk." View "In the Interest of: N.B.-A." on Justia Law
In Re: Estate of Easterday
Michael Easterday (“Decedent”) and Colleen Easterday (“Easterday”) married in 2004. Prior to marriage, Decedent worked for Federal Express and became a participant in a pension plan established by this former employer. He also purchased a $250,000 life insurance policy. Decedent designated Easterday the beneficiary of both during their marriage. The parties separated in 2013, and ultimately filed for divorce under section 3301(c) of the Pennsylvania Divorce Code, which provided for a divorce by mutual consent of the parties. She and Decedent subsequently settled their economic claims in a property settlement agreement (“PSA”) executed December, 2013. Pertinent here, the PSA provided that the parties would each retain "100% of their respective stocks, pensions, retirement benefits, profit sharing plans, deferred compensation plans, etc. and shall execute whatever documents necessary to effectuate this agreement." The issue this case presented was one of first impression for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, namely, the interplay between provisions of the Divorce Code, the Probate, Estates and Fiduciaries Code, and the Rules of Civil Procedure. An ancillary issue centered on whether ERISA preempted a state law claim to enforce a contractual waiver to receive pension benefits by a named beneficiary. It was determined Decedent’s affidavit of consent was executed more than thirty days prior to the date it was submitted for filing (and rejected). The Superior Court ruled that because the local Prothonotary rejected the filing of Decedent’s affidavit of consent due to a lack of compliance with Rule 1920.42(b)(2)’s thirty-day validity requirement, grounds for divorce had not been established in accordance with section 3323(g)(2) of the Divorce Code at the time of Decedent’s death. Because the Decedent’s affidavit of consent was not filed, section 6111.2 of the PEF Code did not invalidate Easterday’s designation as the beneficiary of Decedent’s life insurance policy. Furthermore, the Superior Court determined ERISA did not preempt the state law breach of contract claim to recover funds paid pursuant to an ERISA-qualified employee benefit plan. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the Superior Court's judgment. View "In Re: Estate of Easterday" on Justia Law
In the Interest of: L.J.B
The issue presented to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court by this case was one of first impression: whether a woman’s use of opioids while pregnant, which results in a child born suffering from neonatal abstinence syndrome(“NAS”), constitutes “child abuse.” In 2016, A.A.R. (“Mother”), was released from incarceration, after which she relapsed into drug addiction, using opioids (pain pills) and marijuana. Mother subsequently learned that she was pregnant with L.J.B. (“Child”). She sought treatment for her addiction, first through a methadone maintenance program and then with subutex. Mother again relapsed, and in mid-January 2017 she tested positive for opiates, benzodiazepines and marijuana, none of which were prescribed for her. Mother gave birth to Child on January 27, 2017; at the time of Child’s birth, Mother tested positive for marijuana and subutex. By the third day of life, Child began exhibiting symptoms of NAS, including tremors, excessive suck, increased muscle tone and loose stools, which doctors treated with morphine. Mother reportedly left Child in the hospital and did not consistently check on her or stay with her (despite the availability of a room for her to do so). Hospital personnel communicated all of this information to the Clinton County Children and Youth Social Services Agency (“CYS”), which ultimately took emergency custody of the child. The Pennsylvania Child Protective Services Law (“CPSL”) defined “child abuse,” in relevant part, as “intentionally, knowingly or recklessly ... (1) [c]ausing bodily injury to a child through any recent act or failure to act,” or “(5) [c]reating a reasonable likelihood of bodily injury to a child through any recent act or failure to act.” The Supreme Court concluded,based on the relevant statutory language, that a mother cannot be found to be a perpetrator of child abuse against her newly born child for drug use while pregnant. The Court therefore reversed the decision of the Superior Court and remanded the matter for reinstatement of the trial court’s order. View "In the Interest of: L.J.B" on Justia Law
In Re: T.S., E.S., minors, Apl. of: T.H.-H. –
This appeal involved a proceeding in which parental rights were involuntarily terminated. Throughout the termination proceedings, up to and including the hearing on the termination petition, an attorney guardian ad litem represented the best interests of the children involved. The primary issue presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's review was whether the common pleas court erred in failing to appoint a separate attorney to represent their legal interests. The Court held a child’s statutory right to appointed counsel under Section 2313(a) of the Adoption Act was not subject to waiver. During contested termination-of-parental-rights proceedings, where there is no conflict between a child’s legal and best interests, an attorney-guardian ad litem representing the child’s best interests can also represent the child’s legal interests. As illustrated by the facts of this case, if the preferred outcome of a child is incapable of ascertainment because the child is very young and pre-verbal, there can be no conflict between the child’s legal interests and his or her best interests; as such, the mandate of Section 2313(a) of the Adoption Act that counsel be appointed “to represent the child,” 23 Pa.C.S. 2313(a), is satisfied where the court has appointed an attorney-guardian ad litem who represents the child’s best interests during such proceedings. View "In Re: T.S., E.S., minors, Apl. of: T.H.-H. -" on Justia Law
Hanrahan v. Bakker
In a discretionary appeal, at issue before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was whether the high income child support guidelines found at Pa.R.C.P. 1910.16-3.1 inherently accounted for the reasonable needs of the children such that any discrete analysis of those needs by a fact-finder was improper. The Court also examined whether a voluntary contribution to an irrevocable non-grantor trust for the benefit of the children was an appropriate factor for a court to consider for purposes of deviating from the guidelines amount of child support under Pa.R.C.P. 1910.16-5(b). Furthermore, the Court considered the propriety of an award of attorney’s fees to the obligee in this case. The Court concluded: (1) Rule 1910.16-3.1 did not render independent examination of the reasonable needs of the children by the fact-finder improper in high income cases; (2) a voluntary contribution to an irrevocable non-grantor trust for the benefit of the children was an inappropriate factor to consider for deviation purposes under Rule 1910.16-5(b); and (3) the obligee is not entitled to an award of attorney’s fees in this case. View "Hanrahan v. Bakker" on Justia Law
In Re: D.C.D.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted review in this case to consider what constituted a “compelling reason” for early termination of delinquency supervision under Pennsylvania Rule of Juvenile Court Procedure 632. At the time of the May 2014 delinquency termination hearing at issue herein, D.C.D. was an intellectually low-functioning and socially immature twelve-year-old boy who was a victim of sexual abuse. He originally entered the delinquency system in the fall of 2012, at age ten, due to allegations that he committed indecent assault against his five-year-old sister. Rather than formally adjudicating him delinquent at that time, the juvenile court entered a consent decree pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S. 6340, which allowed for the suspension of delinquency proceedings prior to formal adjudication, and placed D.C.D. in a specialized foster care program administered by Pressley Ridge. In subsequent years, D.C.D. would be placed in multiple foster homes, removed each time for sexual harassment against foster family members, and for trying to start fires in the homes. Some residential treatment facilities (RTF) were unwilling to accept children who had incidents of fire-starting, and others could not provide services for his level of intellectual functioning. Given the available options, the parties agreed that D.C.D. should be moved to the Southwood Psychiatric Hospital - Choices Program (Southwood), a RTF which had a bed immediately available and which focused specifically upon his cohort: intellectually low-functioning, sexual offenders. Despite the parties’ agreement to place D.C.D. at Southwood, Southwood informed them that it could not accept him due to his adjudication of delinquency for a sexual offense. However, the director stated that they could accept D.C.D. if the delinquency supervision was terminated. As a result, D.C.D.’s counsel filed a motion for early termination of delinquency supervision under Pa.R.J.C.P. 632 to which the York County District Attorney objected and requested a hearing. After review, the Supreme Court concluded the Superior Court properly determined that the juvenile court acted within its discretion in granting early termination to the juvenile in this case to allow him to obtain necessary and immediate treatment, after properly taking into account the three aspects of balanced and restorative justice (BARJ) embodied in the Juvenile Act and incorporated into the Rules of Juvenile Court Procedure. View "In Re: D.C.D." on Justia Law
In Re: Adoption of L.B.M.
J.L.P. (“Mother”) and J.D.M. (“Father”) were the parents of A.D.M. (born March 2007) and L.B.M. (born May 2011). Franklin County Children and Youth Services (“CYS”) conducted a home visit with Mother. The visit was prompted by a referral alleging that Mother was on the verge of becoming homeless. Mother contacted CYS seeking to place the children due to her unstable living conditions. At the time, Father was incarcerated. That same day, the trial court ordered the children to be placed with CYS. Soon after, the children were adjudicated dependent. As required by statute, the trial court appointed a GAL for the children at the beginning of the dependency proceedings. Mother pleaded guilty to possession of drug paraphernalia and was sentenced to twelve months of probation. Following Mother’s repeated periods of incarceration, CYS filed a TPR petition. The trial court declined to terminate Mother’s parental rights, finding that Mother, while only recently released from jail, had obtained both housing and employment. However, she would be incarcerated again for probation violations. A second termination hearing was scheduled. The trial court recognized that A.D.M.’s bond with Mother was much stronger than L.B.M.’s, and that A.D.M. would be affected adversely by the termination. However, the trial court found that A.D.M. also had a strong bond with his foster parents, and that it was in A.D.M.’s best interests to sever the bond with Mother because his most important need was permanency. The trial court terminated Mother’s parental rights, finding that Mother had not remedied the conditions leading to the children’s placement. In assessing the children’s best interests, the court found that L.B.M.’s primary bond was with his foster parents. Mother appealed, alleging that the trial court erred in denying Mother’s motion for the appointment of counsel, and that the trial court abused its discretion in terminating Mother’s parental rights. This case required the Supreme Court to determine whether 23 Pa.C.S. sec. 2313(a), which mandated the appointment of counsel for children involved in contested involuntary termination of parental rights proceedings, was satisfied by the appointment of a GAL provided that the GAL is an attorney. The Supreme Court held that it was not. "Because the trial court erred in failing to appoint counsel for the children, and because that error is structural, we remand for a new TPR proceeding following the appointment of counsel. Because of the remand, we need not reach, and we express no opinion regarding, Mother’s challenge to the trial court’s finding on the merits that Mother’s parental rights should be terminated." View "In Re: Adoption of L.B.M." on Justia Law
D.P. v. G.J.P.
This was a direct appeal from a common pleas court order invalidating a statutory provision giving grandparents standing to seek custody of their minor grandchildren. The question this case presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's review was whether the parents’ fundamental rights were violated by the conferral of standing based solely on a parental separation lasting at least six months. Appellees G.J.P. and A.P. (“Parents”) married in 2006 and had three children. Parents separated in October 2012, albeit they did not initiate divorce proceedings. Because they were in agreement as to custody matters while living separately, Parents never sought court involvement and no custody order was issued prior to this litigation. In December 2012, Parents mutually agreed that all contact between the children and their paternal grandparents, appellants D.P. and B.P. (“Grandparents”), should have been discontinued. The grandparents filed suit seeking partial custody of the minor children. Grandparents did not suggest that Parents were unfit or that the children were in any danger. As their basis for standing, they relied on Section 5325 of the Domestic Relations Code (the “Code”). "Section 5325 cannot survive strict scrutiny and, as such, it violates the fundamental rights of parents safeguarded by the Due Process Clause." Upon review, the Supreme Court "salvag[ed the] statute to the extent possible without judicially rewriting it" by severing the first half of paragraph (2) from the remainder of paragraph (2) and the remainder of Section 5325 generally. The Court then affirmed dismissal of the grandparents' petition. View "D.P. v. G.J.P." on Justia Law
In Re: Adopt. of M.R.D. and T.M.D.
M.D. (“Mother”) met M.C. (“Father”) in 2002, when she was teaching in South Dakota, and the two became romantically involved, residing together until Mother returned to Pennsylvania in October 2003. Father briefly moved to Pennsylvania in January 2004 to be with Mother; however, the relationship quickly ended, and he ultimately returned to South Dakota. Shortly thereafter, Mother learned that she was pregnant with twin boys, and she moved in with her parents, who resided in Lycoming County. Although Father was aware that Mother was pregnant with his children, Father and Mother spoke infrequently throughout the pregnancy, and he did not visit. In October 2004, Mother gave birth to M.R.D. and T.M.D. Father visited for a few days following Children’s birth and returned for visits in December 2004 and January 2006; however, Father did not visit again, and his subsequent efforts at maintaining a relationship with Children were marginal at best. When Mother discussed the possibility of traveling with Children to South Dakota to visit with Father and his family, Father refused. In this appeal by allowance, the issue before the Supreme Court was whether, in order to facilitate the termination of a biological father’s parental rights, a grandfather could adopt his grandchildren with the children’s mother - his daughter. After review, the Supreme Court found the “cause” exception in the Adoption Act, 23 Pa.C.S. section 2901, did not under such circumstances, excuse a mother from the Act’s requirement that she relinquish her parental rights. Accordingly, as the contemplated adoption could not proceed, the Court reversed the order affirming the termination of the father’s parental rights. View "In Re: Adopt. of M.R.D. and T.M.D." on Justia Law