a father lays in the grass holding his small child above him

San Diego Trial Court REVERSED for Failing to Exercise An "INFORMED DISCRETION" in Refusing to Permit Sole Legal Custody Father Who Had PRIMARY PHYSICAL CUSTODY to MOVE OUT OF STATE

San Diego County Move-Away Cases

F.T. vs. L.J. (2011) 194 Cal.App.4th 1

On April 6, 2011, the California Fourth Appellate District, Division One, in a strongly (and painfully) worded opinion reversed a San Diego trial judge's refusal to permit a father to relocate with the parties' four-year old son to the State of Washington to join his new wife and her family. While recognizing that the standard of appellate review of trial court custody and visitation orders is the "deferential abuse of discretion test," the appellate justices found that Superior Court Judge Lisa C. Schall's decision was influenced by her misunderstanding of the law applicable to several subjects, including move-away, and accordingly that "a discretionary order based on the application of improper criteria or incorrect legal assumptions is not an exercised of informed discretion and is subject to reversal even though there may be substantial evidence to [otherwise] support that order." Traditionally most judges have lived and ruled under the assumption that if it a decision is "discretionary" their orders are impervious to reversal unless they almost shock the conscience of the reviewing court. This is a big flag waving otherwise.

Following on the heels of Irmo Duris & Urbany, Irmo Tharp, and Irmo Fong all within the past six months, it is clear that a movement is afoot among the State's appellate courts to force family court trial judges to expand their knowledge of family law beyond 'seat of the pants' decisions. However, for the lawyers, therapists, psychologists, and family court services folks who may read this Blog - beware: What is being demanded from all of the [us] professionals is an entirely new level of knowledge and expertise that is long overdue. In my opinion the appellate judges are undertaking an admirable effort to triage and correct the very mistakes that historically made family law - the one area that most law-abiding citizens ever personally experience within our government sponsored legal system - the under-appreciated step-child of the courts. Such a transformation is vitally important to the rule of law, due process, the public's perception of government and fairness, and the functioning of our ever-increasingly complicated society and personal relationships.

It is time that judges, lawyers like me, mental health professionals, and everybody else involved in the family law justice system increase our commitment and expertise to serving the people - possibly such as yourself - who are and will remain not only our reason for being, but the source of our livelihoods.

Want to Understand the Move-Away Principles?

F.T. v. L.J. is an important opinion for move-away applicants and their attorneys not just because it clarifies existing law and provides guidance on a host of issues commonly encountered in litigation over these arguably unfortunate situations, but it is going to be widely talked about by the mental health community and will influence how Evidence Code 730 and Family Code section 3111 evaluators report to the courts because of this appellate court's attention to the details for what various FCS ("family court service" employees) and MHP's ("mental health professionals") opined. It appears that some of them, including the court mediators, took their eye off the ball as established by earlier legal precedent on this topic and the information presented to them.

The parties in this case dated for five or six months and this brief time together produced a bouncing baby boy in January, 2006. For the first thirteen months of his life, the child lived with Mom. On February 17, 2007, however, Mother burned her baby's arm with a hot curling iron "apparently to each him a lesson by showing him how hot it was." Father picked the boy up that evening, saw the injury, and took him to the hospital. Hospital staff called CPS and the police. Criminal charges were filed against the mother.

The child was placed with Dad and Mother's visitations were ordered supervised. Two weeks later he filed a petition to establish paternity and an OSC requesting orders for sole legal and physical custody. The parties were directed to attend custody mediation through Family Court Services but were unable to reach agreement, and so the mediator recommended that the child's primary residence be with Father and that Mother have supervised visits. In April, 2007, the parents stipulated to the recommended order "without prejudice to either party."

Five months later Father filed an OSC request seeking an order allowing him to move with the child to Texas. The parties were ordered back into mediation. At that time following a custody review hearing, the trial court removed the supervision requirement for Mom's visitation. Once again (surprise!) the parties could not agree in mediation, and the mediator recommended that Father have primary physical custody and that he be allowed to move, noting that in November, 2007, Mother had pleaded guilty to one count of simple battery on the child and was given four years' probation, and that she had an eleven year old child from a previous relationship who lived with the paternal grandparents.

For unknown reasons Father's request went off calendar at the time of the scheduled December, 2007, move-away hearing. In February, 2008, he refiled his application and psychologist Yanon Volcani, PhD., was appointed to conduct a psych evaluation of the parents and child. He issued a report in September, 2008.

Volcani recommended against the Father's proposed move to Texas, believing that it would interfere with this 2 1/2 year old's bonding with Mother because of the distance (based upon current best mental health opinions on the developmental stages of children). Volcani concluded that telephone, webcam, and other means of contact would not be well suited for a child this age, and had concerns whether Father would "enthusiastically" support the child's relationship with his mother. He also felt that mother had learned from her experience of burning the child, and while her action was 'rash, impulsive, and insensitive' the data did not suggest a "broader abusive intent." He recommended that Mother's timeshare be incrementally expanded.

On September 18, 2008, the trial court adopted Volcani's proposed parenting plan as a temporary order pending an evidentiary hearing, without prejudice, based upon findings that this was in the best interests of the minor. The matter was then lost in the limbo of hearing continuances and further court services mediations ultimately until March 5, 2010.

By now Father was requesting permission to move to Washington instead of Texas, and was intending on marrying a woman living there. Mother had married. Lynn Waldman, a Family Court services counselor, reported to the Court that she had learned that the minor child in 2009 began exhibiting rage, temper tantrums, and other behavioral issues at school and that this three year old was seeing a counselor who couldn't explain "where [Child's] anger is coming from. She interviewed Dr. Volcani but developed incorrect impressions about whether he'd last met with the parents over the two ensuing years after his initial report, and other misconceptions. She recommended against the move to Washington, but stated that Father should remain in his role as the primary caregiver.

In February, 2010, Volcani issued a report supplementing his opinions from September, 2008. Father by then had married his fiancé, who herself had two teenagers. Volcani had re-interviewed the parents, the new spouses, and the minor's preschool teacher and therapist. He noted that since the initial evaluation that the parents had been co-parenting in a "relatively cooperative and stable manner." The minor was continuing to have rage issues (e.g., throwing a chair and punching another student) but these were improving. Still, because of the child's age it was difficult to know what was causing it.

On March 5, 2010, the trial court held a hearing but did not permit live testimony and denied the Father's request to move. The court made a number of findings which were not supported by the record. Chief among them was the conclusion that the parents "are not communicating" - when in fact Dr. Volcani actually stated otherwise and that their communications had vastly improved over the two years that had passed. Moreover, without any rational MHP support, the trial court concluded that the evidence proved the child's rage, speaking out in his sleep, and bed wetting all had to do with the parents' lack of a meaningful dialog. The court stated it "feels that the anger is coming from the tension between the two parties."

Maybe, but the court didn't pull this conclusion from any evidence before it in terms of an expert assessment and conclusion that this was the case (the child's own therapist couldn't explain the child's behaviors). Some conclusions apparently exceed what common sense would otherwise suggest.

By the way, what is a three year old doing with a therapist?

Anyway, the Court adopted Volcani's conclusion that the child's healthy development was being impeded, although on different grounds than Volcani had expressed. The court concluded "Father's reasons for the move, that is to join a new wife and family, are not sufficient and a new wife and family in Washington is not a sufficiently necessary reason to move the residence of [Child] to Washington...."


Moreover, the Court implied that if Father decided to move anyway that the Court would take custody away from dad and give it to mother, a really bad idea under existing caselaw because of its coercive overtones.

Enter the Established Law of Move-Away

This is what makes this case important - a judge that was justifiably bothered by the impact that the relocation would have on the relationship between a parent (mother) and child understandably struggled not to permit the move. But she was wrong and the appellate court scolds her harshly for it. Her decision was not an exercise of informed discretion.

At the same time, some of the Father's arguments were off-track as well. For instance, he argued that he had a presumptive right to move under authority of Family Code section 7501 which states: " A parent entitled to the custody of a child has a right to change the residence of the child, subject to the power of the court to restrain a removal that would prejudice the rights or welfare of the child." The Fourth Appellate District ruled that 7501 only applies to "final" custody determinations, and not those that are "temporary," following the case of Montenegro v. Diaz (2001) 26 Cal.4th 249. Here the parties had lived under a "stipulation" for two years, but had never reduced it to a final agreement and no court had ever ruled as to any contested matter within the context of an evidentiary hearing. This is a rule that most family law attorneys already know well (which is why the smart ones write their orders to declare the custody agreements favoring their clients as "final" orders). The practical effect of this fact in this case was that "Mother did not have an initial burden to show [that] Child would suffer detriment were he to move with Father to Washington."

Father also argued that because Mother had been convicted of battering her son, a presumption arose under Family Code section 3044 that she should not have custody of the boy that was possibly "conclusive" if not merely rebuttable. While the idea that the presumption might be conclusive based evidently upon the appalling seriousness of intentionally burning a child is ... creative ... it doesn't track in the slightest what California law says on the subject, and was quickly disposed of by the appellate judges. The justices ruled that "[a] section 3044 finding of domestic violence 'in a family law case changes the burden of persuasion as to the best interests test, but it does not limit the evidence cognizable by the court, and it does not eliminate the best interest requirement." "Nor does the statute establish a presumption for or against joint custody; again, the paramount factor is the child's health, safety and welfare. And where the section 3044 presumption has been rebutted, there is no statutory bar against an award of joint or sole custody to a parent who was the subject of the order. This is particularly important in move-away cases." In this case the trial court had not made any express findings under section 3044 anyway, so on remand that is a subject the court is directed to pick up.

However, what the trial court did wrong is this:

The father had no burden to prove his move was "necessary". When the trial court opined that "Father's reasons for the move, that is to join a new wife and family, are not sufficient and a new wife and family in Washington is not a sufficiently necessary reason to move the residence of [Child] to Washington...." it supplanted the rule of law with an understandable discomfort with the effects the move would have on Mom's relationship with her son. The issue instead was the best interests of the child, and that decision must be considered in light of the established rule that "the paramount need for continuity and stability in custody arrangements - and the harm that may result from established patterns of care and emotional bonds with the primary caretaker [father here] - weigh heavily in favor of maintaining ongoing custody arrangements."

Hence, Judge Schall's "order denying Father's motion reveals a misunderstanding of the determination a trial court must make in deciding a move-away motion by a custodial parent. In this case, the trial court, in effect, avoided the ultimate question whether a change in custody would be in Child's best interests were the custodial parent (Father) to move to Washington.... The question ... is not whether the parent may be permitted to move; the question is what arrangement for custody should be made [if and when the custodial parent moves]." A custodial parent is not required to show a planned relocation is necessary.

In other words, the trial court has to assume the plan for the proposed move is a serious one, and has to address the issue of custody as though the move will occur. Moreover, and this is the heart of the decision and the basis for reversal, "[t]o the extent the trial court denied Father's move-away motion with the goal of maintaining the status quo and/or coercing Father to abandon his plan to move to Washington, it erred." [Italics added].

Finally, while the effect of a move will naturally be detrimental to the child's relationship with the remaining parent, this is but one factor for the court to consider and cannot be the sole basis for denying a move. The case of Marriage of LaMusga (2004) 32 Cal.4th 1072 (hand's down the most important move-away case to know), establishes a litany of factors for trial courts to consider in their totality - which is the subject for another Blog.

This case is reversed and remanded to the trial court to evaluate all the LaMusga factors and so exercise an informed discretion before summarily denying Father's request to move.

Okay, sorry, I'm tired now - I'll be back to add some more thoughts!

T.W. Arnold