Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Law Schooled

Hanson-Metayer v. Hanson-Metayer, 2013 Vt. 29 

Let’s talk about learning by doing. 

As with any profession, many of us who choose the legal path come, at some point, to seriously second-guess the wisdom of that decision.  For some, the existential crisis occurs in the throes of a difficult exam period.  While for others it might not happen until they lose their first case. 

—Note, the first rule of being a lawyer is:  Do not cry in court; neither the client nor the judge will appreciate your sensitivity.   

Who knows, your first crisis might even occur when you observe an unjust result from bad law or unfortunate facts. 

Then, of course, there is the first time you see your final loan calculation. 

For many would-be lawyers, these difficulties lead to disillusionment and, perhaps, the pursuit of a less contentious career path.  (Cheese making, anyone?)  For others, however, such adversity serves only to strengthen their resolve and fortify their determination to become an effective legal advocate.  Let’s hope today’s defendant falls into the latter category.

Parties to this case were married in 2007, and are the parents of a young daughter, born in 2006.  After graduating from college in 2011, wife began making plans to go to law school.  Although husband supported her educational aspirations, the two disagreed on one major issue.  Wife wanted to spread her wings and relocate to Washington, D.C. for school, but husband thought she should nest a little closer to home in South Royalton and attend Vermont Law School so that he could continue to work in Vermont and the two could enjoy the support of their extended families. 

In May 2011, wife left with daughter and obtained a relief from abuse order evicting husband from the couple’s shared home and prohibiting him from contact with daughter.  Following an initial hearing, the trial court issued a temporary custody order awarding wife primary legal and physical rights and responsibilities, and granting her permission to relocate to Maryland with daughter, which she did in August 2011.

After an evidentiary hearing in early 2012, the trial court issued oral findings of fact and granted husband primary parental rights and responsibilities.  After an additional evidentiary hearing was held to address the division of property, and to clarify the parent–child contact schedule, the trial court issued a written decision in June 2012, which reaffirmed the grant of primary parental rights and responsibilities to husband.  The order also divided the marital property and awarded husband his attorney’s fees. 

Naturally, on appeal to the SCOV, wife takes issue with all of the above.

Given that a highly deferential standard applies to a review of the custody determination, wife faces an uphill battle, and the SCOV makes no bones about it.  Wife’s challenge focuses on the trial court’s conclusions on three out of the nine mandatory statutory factors used to guide it in reaching a custody determination.  And the SCOV disagrees on all three points.

First, the SCOV concludes that the trial court properly compared the housing, school, and community arrangements in Maryland with those in Vermont.  Although wife urges the court to assess only the present living arrangements in Maryland, the SCOV finds that an analysis of those factors necessarily involves a comparison between the two possibilities, and that the evidence of the daughter’s academic performance and family ties in Vermont supported a conclusion in favor of husband.  In the absence of any corroborating evidence, the SCOV finds it appropriate to give less weight to wife’s testimony that daughter was thriving in the educational environment afforded in Maryland.  In light of the conflicting inferences allowed by the evidence, the SCOV also defers to the trial court with respect to the amount of time daughter would spend in daycare under either arrangement.

Second, the SCOV analyzes the quality of the relationship daughter had with the primary care provider.  Although the trial court found this factor to be neutral—both parents were equally devoted to the daughter, and each of them, at different times, have acted as primary caregiver—wife asserts that this factor should weigh more heavily in her favor.  On that issue, SCOV finds that the weight afforded this factor depends upon the evidence of the likely impact a change in custodian would have on the child.  In light of the evidence, the trial court was not required to conclude that daughter should stay with wife as primary caregiver.

Third, and most significantly, the SCOV finds that the record supports the trial court’s findings in concluding that husband would foster a positive relationship between daughter and wife, whereas wife had demonstrated a pattern of conduct intended to prevent husband from maintaining a relationship with daughter.  Although the SCOV agrees with wife’s assertion that some of the trial court’s findings were technically incorrect, it nonetheless concludes that the findings were, for the most part, accurate, and that the unsupported facts were not dispositive of the ultimate custody decision.  The SCOV further finds that the custody determination was supported by the factual findings, which were, in turn, supported by the record evidence.

The trial court’s division of the marital property is different story.  Wife challenged both the award of the marital home to husband and a monetary award to reimburse him for personal property she had removed from the home.  The SCOV finds that the decision to award the marital home to the husband was based on a mistaken belief that the wife had consented to that award.  Wife had consented to the award of the marital home, but if and only if she was not required to pay anything else.  To the extent that the trial court also ordered wife to reimburse husband for his equitable share of the personal property she removed from the home, the SCOV reverses and remands the issue back to the trial court for additional findings.  The SCOV explains that the trial court must, at a minimum, provide an explanation for its property distribution.

Finally, wife argued that husband’s attorney’s fees were improper because he requested them through an oral motion rather than in writing as required by statute.  The SCOV rejects this argument because wife failed to lodge a timely objection at trial.  Nevertheless, the SCOV finds that the award is unsupported by the evidence and reverses the award. 

So wife has to settle for a 7–10 split.  While she does not prevail on the issue of custody, she does get a second crack at some of the property allocations and escapes the attorney fee award.  While certainly not an ideal outcome, it is enough to get another day in court. 

Unfortunately for wife, this is not just an internship completed on the way to graduation.  Although she did not represent herself, this budding lawyer has gained hard-earned practical experience with serious personal implications. 

Rather than make light of the serious consequences of her first case, let us say that if this is not enough to put her off the legal path for good, she may just have what it takes to survive in one of the most complicated and emotionally taxing areas of law.  If you can handle your own divorce, the sky is the limit for a future in the game.

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