Although there are standard forms for various pleadings and motions for family matters, they should certainly not be considered formalities or merely boilerplates. In the matter of T.L.G. v. J.D.G., the Pennsylvania Superior Court drove home the importance of pleadings and motions in providing the opposing party notice of what is at issue when going to a family court hearing.
In T.L.G. the parents of two children were subject to a stipulated custody order. One of the two children subject to this order unfortunately suffers from various mental health issues. Her parents both agreed to enroll their daughter in a residential program in North Carolina. At the conclusion of her program in the residential facility, she had the option to enroll in a therapeutic boarding school (which was recommended by the professionals at the residential program), or, in the alternative, she had the option to enroll in a standard public school with in-school and out-of-school therapeutic services. The parents disagreed over where to enroll the child; the child’s mother wanted to follow the recommendations while her father wanted to send her to a public school with additional services.
As the parents were unable to overcome their impasse regarding where to enroll their daughter, the mother filed a petition for special relief requesting the court to enter an order requiring the parties to follow the recommendations of the mental health professionals at the residential program. Accordingly, the court entered a scheduling order that set a hearing date “in consideration of the within petition.”
At the day of the hearing, the judge before whom the hearing took place opened the hearing by announcing that the order he would enter would likely be one that awarded sole legal custody (in the areas of education and mental health issues only). The judge ultimately entered an order granting the father sole legal custody (limited to education and mental health issues), and the mother timely appealed this order to the Pennsylvania Superior Court.
On appeal the mother argued that the trial court abused its discretion and violated her due process rights when it entered an order modifying the custody order (by changing legal custody) despite the fact that there was no petition to modify custody filed by either party. Instead, the mother argued, her petition simply requested an order to resolve a single discreet issue of dispute between the parties, and the trial court’s order should have reflected that.
In ruling on the mother’s appeal, the Superior Court first noted that “notice and an opportunity to be heard are fundamental components of due process.” Furthermore, the court further noted that notice to a party must be provided within a meaningful time in a meaningful manner. Citing the Pennsylvania Superior Court case of Langendorfer v. Spearman, 797 A.2d 303 (Pa.Super.2002) (which in turn cited Choplosky v. Choplosky, 584 A.2d 340 (Pa.Super.1990)) the T.L.G. court also indicated that “if the parties do not receive proper notice that custody is at issue, a trial court cannot ‘assume that the parties had either sufficiently exposed the relevant facts or properly argued their significance.’”
While filing a petition to modify custody is typically the appropriate manner by which to request a custody modification, the court recognized that a trial court, under the right circumstances, may modify a custody order when it is in the best interests of the child, even if a petition to modify had not been filed. The court clarified, however, that such circumstances are only “if notice of the proceeding adequately advises a party that custody will be at issue, a court may entertain the request to permanently modify a custody order after hearing in that proceeding.”
When reviewing the facts of this matter, the court observed that mother’s petition for special relief does not request any modification of the custody order at all. It merely requests the trial court to adjudicate the discreet issue of where their daughter should be enrolled. Furthermore, the court also observed that the trial court’s scheduling order, quoted above, did not reference the potentiality of a modification of custody.
Based on the above, the Superior Court ruled that mother did not have proper notice that custody modification would be an issue at a petition for special relief hearing. In addition, the court did not believe the trial court judge’s opening statement at the hearing that legal custody may be modified constituted notice at a “meaningful time” or in a “meaningful manner.” In the court’s view, requiring the mother to make an objection on the record against the judge’s statement giving her last-minute notice that modification would likely be at issue (indeed, there was not even notice that it would definitely be an issue) is not sufficiently advanced notice to the mother to enable her to prepare or properly advocate. Indeed, the trial court did not even inform the parties that it would, in fact, modify legal custody until it issued its order after the hearing concluded.
In light of the above, the court ruled that the trial court abused its discretion and violated the mother’s due process rights when it awarded the father sole legal custody over educational and mental health matters despite the fact that neither party filed to modify the custody order. The court ruled that the mother did not receive proper notice that the custody order could be modified, vacated the trial court’s order, and remanded the matter. This decision makes it clear that court filings, and the court notices that follow from them, must be specific and provide adequate notice to the parties in order to ensure and protect a party’s basic due process rights.
James W. Cushing is senior associate at the Law Office of Faye Riva Cohen and managing attorney for Legal Research Inc., and sits on the executive committee of the family law section of the Philadelphia Bar Association.