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Following the ‘Wiseman’ Standard in Pa. Custody Battles Is Unwise

Although the so-called Wiseman standard, the standard by which shared custody arrangements were determined, stood for many years, the recent Pennsylvania Superior Court case of P.J.P. v. M.M., 2018 Pa. Super. 100, has officially declared the Wiseman standard obsolete and no longer applicable to Pennsylvania child custody matters.

In the matter of P.J.P., a custody case, the father appealed a decision in the trial court regarding his petition to modify a custody order that he believed was not sufficiently favorable for his custody goals.

The father and the mother are a divorced couple who obtained a child custody order in April 2016. This order granted the mother primary physical custody of the child. In January 2017, the father sought more custody, specifically shared physical custody, and filed a petition to modify.

At the trial, in August 2017, the court made many findings of facts that are directly relevant to its ultimate decision to deny granting shared custody to the father. For example, when the mother has custody she sends the father many photographs and videos and encourages the child to call the father. By contrast, the father does not want to call the mother during his custody times and sends no photographs and videos to the mother. The mother further claimed, and the father admitted, that he has insulted the mother in the presence of the child. He also admitted to telling the child to be sure to look up the instant case on Google Scholar when he is older to know what happened during the case. The mother is also conscientious in ensuring that the father has nice gifts from the child for holidays and such, while the father makes only modest efforts to reciprocate. The parties also had disagreements over the procedure and process for dropping the child off at preschool in the morning. The mother claimed the father refused to get the child ready and just dropped him off at her house, while the father claimed the mother “unilaterally” changed the procedure. Co-parenting counseling was also attempted by the parties. Unfortunately, while the mother was trying to fully invest herself in said counseling, The father refused to meaningfully participate, and the counselor believed the counseling was “not going anywhere.” Of course, the father has a different interpretation of much of the above, but the court made its findings, which favored the mother, after a complete review of the facts, testimony and evidence.

On appeal, the father challenged the denial of shared custody, arguing it was contrary to the best interests of the child. The Superior Court first noted that the trial court made certain credibility determinations that were within its discretion. The court then mentioned that child custody is governed by 23 Pa.C.S.A. Section 5328, which lays out 16  factors for the court to consider when making a custody determination. Superior Court observed that the trial court analyzed each factor and noted that most were either inapplicable or weighed equally for both; however, there were four factors (namely the likelihood to encourage and permit contact with the other party, availability of extended family, attempts to turn the child against the other parent, and the level of conflict and willingness to cooperate with the other party) which weighed heavily on the mother’s side. No factor weighed heavily on the father’s side.

The father argued that the trial court abused its discretion by failing to apply the Weisman standard. In Weisman v. Wall, 718 A.2d 844 (Pa. Super.1998), the court ruled that courts must make four findings when ruling on shared custody “both parents must be fit, capable of making reasonable child rearing decisions and willing and able to provide love and care for their children; both parents must evidence a continuing desire for active involvement in the child’s life; both parents must be recognized by the child as a source of security and love; a minimal degree of cooperation between the parents must be possible.” The father further argued that since he and the mother, in his view, meet the above four factors, shared custody should be awarded.

Superior Court ruled that the father’s reliance on Weisman is misplaced. As noted above, Weisman was decided in 1998 while Section 5328 became law in 2011. The court does not believe the difference between Weisman and Section 5328 is trivial. Specifically Weisman “required the court, before awarding shared custody, ‘to make at least a minimal finding that the parties were able to cooperate before awarding shared custody” while, under Section 5328, the court “must determine the best interest of the child by considering all relevant factors, including but not limited to, ‘the level of conflict between the parties and the willingness and ability of the parties to cooperate with one another.”’

Superior Court noted that the plain language of Section 5328 contradicts Weisman. Unlike Weisman, the court is not obliged to make any specific findings before awarding shared custody. Instead, the court must consider all 16 of the relevant factors, and poor cooperation need not be dispositive. In sum, therefore, Superior Court specifically described Weisman as obsolete.

Finally, the court explained that its citing to Weisman in the recent case of R.S. v. T.T., 1133 A.3d 1254 (Pa.Super.2015) does not belie the above analysis. In R.S., the court used the Weisman factors to supplement its own analysis where it seemed Section 5328 did not appear to lead to a reasonable conclusion in light of the available evidence. Moreover, the court in R.S. never once said trial courts “must” make Weisman findings. Instead, Weismanmerely holds persuasive value as the its factors have been assimilated into Section 5328.

Upon full review of the decision, it appears that P.J.P. has hammered the final nail into the casket of the Weisman analysis. Weisman, for all intents and purposes, no longer appears to be the law for Pennsylvania child custody.

Originally published in The Legal Intelligencer on July 5, 2018 and can be seen here.

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11th Circuit: Florida Prisons Must Offer Kosher Food

This is from religionclause.blogspot.com which you can find here:

In United States v. Secretary, Florida Department of Corrections, (11th Cir., July 14, 2016), the US 11th Circuit Court of Appeals held that under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, Florida must provide kosher meals for inmates with a sincere religious basis for demanding such meals. The court wrote in part:

The Secretary argues that denying a kosher diet statewide is the least restrictive means of furthering Florida’s interest in cost containment, but she fails to rebut three arguments to the contrary. First, she fails to explain why the Department cannot offer kosher meals when the Federal Bureau of Prisons and other states do so…. Second, the Secretary fails to explain why the Department cannot offer kosher meals when it offers vegan, medical, and therapeutic diets at similar marginal costs…. Third, the Secretary fails to explain why the less restrictive alternative of enforcing rules that limit access to, and continued participation in, the program would not further her stated interest. The United States produced evidence that the Department is not screening out insincere applicants or enforcing the rules of participation in the program, and the Secretary does not contest that evidence. She instead responds that enforcing the rules would be too time intensive….

AP reports on the decision, pointing out that it was handed down only two days after oral argument in the case.

You can learn more about this issue here.

Anti-Islamic Group Sues Claiming Federal Law Shields Social Media Censorship

This is from religionclause.blogspot.com which you can find here:

Yesterday the American Freedom Defense Initiative, its President Pamela Geller, its Vice President and the organization Jihad Watch sued the federal government contending that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act shields Facebook, Twitter and YouTube when they censor anti-Islamic postings by plaintiffs.  The complaint (full text) in American Freedom Defense Initiative v. Lynch, (D DC, filed 7/13/2016), alleges that censorship and discrimination by social media outlets violate California anti-discrimination laws, but the CDA section on “Protection for ‘Good Samaritan’ blocking and screening of offensive material” allows Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to engage in discriminatory conduct. Among the allegations in the complaint against the social media sites are:

The discriminatory way in which Facebook applies its restrictions is evidenced by the fact that Facebook allows vicious posts and pages against Israel to stand, but when Plaintiff Geller and others expose the truth behind that Islamic hatred, the speech is prohibited.,,,

The Twitter policy, in effect, mirrors Islamic blasphemy standards as applied to censor speech critical of Islam, such as Plaintiffs’ speech.

The Center for Security Policy issued a press release announcing the filing of the lawsuit.

You can learn more about this issue here.

Title VII Is Sole Basis For Claims of Religious Discrimination Against Federal Employee

This is from religionclause.blogspot.com which you can find here:

In Holly v. Jewell, (ND CA, July 11, 2016), a California federal magistrate judge held that Title VII is the sole remedy for discrimination in federal employment.  Neither the First Amendment nor RFRA may be used as the basis for a religious discrimination claim by a federal employee.  In the case, plaintiff who was employed as a maintenance worker at the  San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park was also a Baptist minister.  While on a break and out of uniform, he performed a baptism at the seashore adjoining the park.  He was terminated for this– though plaintiff also complained that he was questioned about a Bible that he kept to read on breaks.  The court dismissed plaintiff’s RFRA claim, holding that recent Supreme Court RFRA decisions have not changed the rule that Title VII is the exclusive remedy for discrimination in federal employment.  The court also dismissed plaintiff’s free exercise claim to the extent that it challenges conduct protected by Title VII, but held that plaintiff can file an amended complaint to the extent that he has a First Amendment claim that is separate from his Title VII claim.

You can learn more about this issue here.

Court Rejects Churches’ Challenge To California’s Abortion Coverage Requirement

This is from religionclause.blogspot.com which you can find here:

In Foothill Church v. Rouillard, (ED CA, July 11, 2016), a California federal district court rejected challenges brought by three churches to letters issued by the California Department of Managed Health Care to seven health insurance companies informing them that under California law they cannot exclude abortion services from coverage when they cover maternity services.  Initially finding that the churches have standing to challenge the directive, the court dismissed with leave to amend plaintiffs’ free exercise and equal protection challenges.  The court concluded that the directive was a neutral law of general applicability that survives the rational basis test.  The court dismissed without leave to amend the churches’ free speech and establishment clause claims. (See prior related posting.)

You can learn more about this issue here.

Suit Alleges Grants For Church Preservation Projects Violate Massachusetts No-Aid Provision

This is from religionclause.blogspot.com which you can find here:

A suit was filed yesterday against the town of Acton, Massachusetts by 13 of the town’s residents and taxpayers challenging the town’s approval of three Community Preservation grants to restore core facilities and religious imagery of two active local churches. The complaint (full text) in Caplan v. Town of Acton, Massachusetts, (MA Super. Ct., filed 7/7/2016) alleges that the grants violate Article XVIII, Section 2 of the Massachusetts Constitution that prohibits use of public funds “for the purpose of founding, maintaining or aiding any church, religious denomination or society.” Grants to Acton Congregational Church funded a master plan for historic preservation of the 170-year old church building and for repair of major stained glass window’s in the church’s building. A grant to the South Acton Congregational Church funded roof repairs. Americans United issued a press release announcing the filing of the lawsuit. Boston Globe reports on the lawsuit.

You can learn more about this issue here.

Court Refuses To Apply Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine

This is from religionclause.blogspot.com which you can find here:

In Jackson v. Mount Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church Deacon Board(IL App., June 30, 2016), an Illinois state appeals court refused to apply the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine in a breach of contract suit by a pastor who employment was terminated by his church.  The pastor contended that the church had agreed that his employment would be governed by the church’s bylaws.  The court held:

[P]laintiff alleges that defendants failed to (1) provide a written notice of dissatisfaction; (2) hold a special meeting; (3) provide notice of a vote to the members; and (4) have a proper membership vote. To resolve this dispute, we need only look to the plain text of the church’s bylaws and the relevant facts to determine whether or not defendants breached their oral agreement by failing to comply with its bylaws. Since we need not inquire into any religious doctrines, and can address this issue employing neutral principles of civil law, we have jurisdiction to decide whether defendants breached their oral agreement with plaintiff.

The court went on to agree with the trial court’s finding that defendants were completely compliant with the bylaws in dismissing the pastor.

You can learn more about this issue here.

DC Circuit In Procedural Reversal Allows Religious Discrimination Suit To Proceed

This is from religionclause.blogspot.com which you can find here:

In Al-Saffy v. Vilsack, (DC Cir., July 1, 2016), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit reversed the district court and allowed a religious and national origin discrimination claim against both the Department of Agriculture and the Department of State to proceed.  As stated by the court, “Determining whether Al-Saffy’s lawsuit was properly brought requires us to navigate a quagmire of procedural rules.”  BNA Daily Labor Report summarizes the court’s holding:

Mohamed Tahwid Al-Saffy raised genuine factual issues about whether Agriculture and State were his joint employers when he directed the trade offices in Saudi Arabia and Yemen…. Although Al-Saffy wasn’t “officially employed” by the State Department, he reported directly to the ambassadors of Saudi Arabia and Yemen, who are State employees, the court said…..

The court also rejected arguments that Al-Saffy did not file his lawsuit in a timely manner.  Again BNA summarizes the court’s holding:

An EEOC order that omits that required information can’t trigger the 90-day deadline, the court said. Al-Saffy therefore retained the option to sue at any time after 180 days had elapsed from his filing of the original administrative complaint….

You can learn more about this issue here.

Denial of Use Permit Did Not Impose “Substantial Burden” Under RLUIPA

This is from religionclause.blogspot.com which you can find here:

In Livingston Christian Schools v. Genoa Charter Township(ED MI, June 30, 2016), a Michigan federal district court held that a township’s denial of a special use permit did not impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise rights of a Christian school.  The school sought to move to a building currently owned by a church and recently leased to the school. The court said in part:

The term “substantial burden” is not defined in the RLUIPA. The Sixth Circuit in Living Water Church of God v. Charter Twp. of Meridian articulated a standard which requires LCS to show that, “ . . . the government action place[s] substantial pressure on [it] to violate its religious beliefs or effectively bar[s] [it] from using its property in the exercise of its religion[.]” … While it may be less convenient or more expensive for LCS to operate its school from a different location, the circumstances present here do not constitute a substantial burden…. Because LCS has not “proffered evidence showing that it cannot carry out its church missions and ministries due to the Township’s denial,” it has not established a substantial burden on its free exercise of religion.

The court also rejected the school’s 1st and 14th Amendment challenges.

You can learn more about this issue here.

In Settlement, Good News Clubs Win Equal Access To After-School Facilities

This is from religionclause.blogspot.com which you can find here:

In Cleveland, Ohio, Child Evangelism Fellowship has won equal treatment with non-religious community groups in use of public school facilities for after-school activities.  The consent order (full text) in Child Evangelism Fellowship of Ohio, Inc. v. Cleveland Metropolitan School District, (ND OH, June 28, 2016) provides that the school district will revise its equal access policy for community use of district facilities.  Under the revised policy, the school district will accept the services provided to students by Good News Clubs as in-kind payment of fees for using facilities to the same extent as it accepts services of non-religious groups. The federal court consent order also provides that the school district will pay nominal damages of $100 and attorneys’ fees of $149,900 because its prior unequal treatment of Child Evangelism Fellowship violated the 1st and 14th Amendments. Liberty Counsel issued a press release announcing the consent order.

You can learn more about this issue here.

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