Justia Family Law Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
Estate of M&J Benyo v. Breidenbach
In a matter of first impression, a Pennsylvania superior court held that anti-alienation provisions governing municipal pensions found in various statutes protected assets from attachment and other legal process (including a contract claim) only while those assets remained in the possession of the pension fund administrator. Specifically, the court determined that a spouse’s promise to waive her right to her husband’s pension benefits, including agreeing to transfer such benefits after receiving them from the administrator, was legally enforceable. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined that because the superior court’s interpretation was consistent with the plain language of the statutes, the context in which the provisions appear, and Pennsylvania precedent interpreting similar statutory language, the Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the superior court. View "Estate of M&J Benyo v. Breidenbach" on Justia Law
In Re: J.W.B. & R.D.B.
In a discretionary appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court considered whether the superior court erred in its application of Pennsylvania law to find that L.B., a Colorado resident, was foreclosed from challenging the validity of his consent to permit the adoption of his minor children under the Pennsylvania Adoption Act, but not the requirements of the corresponding Colorado statute. After review, the Court concluded the superior court did not err, and affirmed the termination of L.B.'s parental rights to his children. View "In Re: J.W.B. & R.D.B." on Justia Law
In the Interest of: D.R.
D.R. (Father) and J.R. (Mother) (collectively, Parents) resided in Greene County, Pennsylvania with their five children, ranging in age from six to sixteen years old. Father was an attorney who, as part of his private practice, represented parents under investigation by Greene County Children and Youth Services (CYS). On October 29, 2018, Greene County CYS received a report that on October 12, 2018, Father was observed to be impaired or under the influence while in the presence of one of his children. Because Father was a practicing attorney in Greene County, and to avoid a conflict of interest, the matter was referred to Fayette County CYS (the Agency). The Agency received three reports regarding Father, one of which was an allegation of abuse towards Mother (criminal charges were dropped because she refused to testify). The Agency thereafter moved to compel Parents' cooperation with a General Protective Services Assessment. Following a hearing, orders directing Parents to permit the Agency into their home to assess the living conditions of the children, and directing Parents to cooperate with the Agency were issued. The court also ordered Father to submit observed urine samples for purposes of drug and alcohol assessments. The orders further noted that Parents’ failure to comply would subject them to sanctions. Parents appealed, and a superior court reversed, finding no link between the alleged abuse and conditions in the home. Further, though there were reports of Father's intoxication, there was no specificity as to the type of impairment or whether such impairment caused the children to be abused or neglected. The Agency argued on appeal that the Superior Court erred in holding that it was without authorization to require urine samples as part of its duty to investigate reports of suspected child abuse. Finding no reversible error in the superior court judgment, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed. View "In the Interest of: D.R." on Justia Law
In the Interest of: J.M.G.
Appellant, J.M.G., was born in August 1996. From an early age, J.M.G. experienced chronic mental health issues and a series of resultant hospitalizations. Following an incident in 2013, during which he attempted to choke his adoptive mother (Mother), J.M.G. consented to a voluntary admission into Philhaven, a behavioral health facility treating children and adolescents. Thereafter, J.M.G. agreed to a voluntary admission into Bradley Center, a residential treatment facility. While at Bradley Center, J.M.G. made revelations to Mother that he had been sexually inappropriate with his adoptive sister. Mother referred the matter to Childline. A subsequent investigation resulted in J.M.G. being adjudicated delinquent for one count of misdemeanor indecent assault. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allowance of appeal in this case to decide whether the harmless error doctrine was applicable to determinations made by the trial court under Act 211 when the materials provided to the Sexual Offender Assessment Board (SOAB), and considered by the Commonwealth’s expert in preparing his report and rendering his opinion, erroneously contained privileged communications under 42 Pa.C.S. section 5944 of the Judicial Code, establishing psychologist-patient privilege. After review, the Supreme Court concluded the harmless error doctrine did not apply. View "In the Interest of: J.M.G." on Justia Law
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