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Sole Legal Custody Means Solo Decision-Making

In the matter of M.P. v. M.P., 54 A.3d 950 the Superior Court of Pennsylvania clarified the extent of authority of a parent who enjoys sole legal custody s/he has over a child.

In M.P., the mother of the child at issue in the case is from Ecuador.  Most of mother’s family, including her own parents, still reside in Ecuador.  Mother was granted primary custody of the child in July 2009 and Father was awarded supervised visits for two hours per week.  Despite receiving such minimal custody, Father did not take advantage of it to spend time with his child.  In or about November 2011, after a hearing, Mother was awarded sole legal custody of the child.  Mother filed a petition to permit her to take the child to Ecuador for three weeks, a trip which Father opposed.  The lower court entered an order prohibiting Mother from taking the trip to Ecuador which led to Mother filing an appeal to Superior Court and it is the Superior Court’s decision that is the focus of this article.

Mother wanted to take the child to Ecuador as it is her own ancestral home and most of her family lives there.  It was not feasible for Mother’s family to come to the United States as there was testimony that Mother’s parents would have difficulty in securing visas to come to the United States and Mother’s mother has health issues which makes flying difficult for her.

Father opposed Mother’s proposed trip to Ecuador as he views Ecuador as a third-world nation filled with potentially dangerous diseases and crime.  He also had concerns about the compatibility of the child’s health insurance coverage with Ecuadorian hospitals and the difficulty retrieving the child if something unfortunate happened to the Mother.

The lower court, by its own volition, investigated international law and the terms of the Hague Convention regarding international custody arrangements and had concerns regarding Father’s options to retrieve the child if Mother failed to return her to the United States.

When reviewing this matter, the Superior Court reversed the lower court’s decision and permitted Mother to go to Ecuador with the child for her proposed three week trip.

The Superior Court first looked at what it means for a parent to have sole legal custody.  Legal custody is the right and ability to make major decisions for the child.  Sole legal custody is the granting of one parent exclusive and final right to make major decisions; indeed, specifically exclusive from the other parent.  The Superior Court ruled that the lower court, by allowing Father to block Mother’s trip to Ecuador, enabled him to undermine Mother’s sole legal custody, and, essentially, render it meaningless.  As a result, the Superior Court ruled that if a party has sole legal custody, the other parent cannot move to prevent it from being exercised but for a formal petition to modify the custodial arrangement.

In terms of the lower court’s reliance upon international treaties and the Hague Convention, it is notable that Father did not raise them at the hearing but the lower court took judicial notice of them.  Regardless, the Superior Court noted that it is not unusual for a court to take judicial notice of such things, so the lower court’s reliance upon them was not objectionable, at least in principle.  Instead, the Superior Court took issue with the fact that the lower court relied on that information after the hearing had concluded and without notice to the parties.  The Superior Court ruled that a party has the right to be heard as to the propriety of a court taking judicial notice of an issue, especially one as critical as international law.

Based on the above, the Superior Court reversed the lower court’s decision, ruling that sole legal custody cannot be undermined or otherwise disturbed without an order altering the custodial arrangement and a court taking judicial notice of an issue must indicate doing so on the record and allow the parties involved to address it.

Originally published in The Legal Intelligencer on March 16, 2015 and can be found here and reprinted in Volume 37, Issue No. 3, September 2015 edition of the “Pennsylvania Family Lawyer” (see here).

Pa. Justices Clarify Evidentiary Standard for Child Abuse Registry

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court weighed in on the burden of proof required to place someone onto the statewide ChildLine Registry (“Registry”) in the matter of G.V. v. Department of Public Welfare, et al., 91 A.3d 667 (2014).

In September 2009 the Lancaster County Children and Youth Services (“CYS”) received a referral alleging that Plaintiff sexually abused his sixteen (16) year old niece, of who he had custody. After an investigation, CYS filed an “indicated” report against Plaintiff upon finding substantial evidence that Plaintiff had abused his niece.

Upon the finding that Plaintiff abused his niece, he was listed on the statewide Registry pursuant to 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 6301-6386. Subsequently, Plaintiff sought the expungement of his name from the Registry through DPW. DPW denied his request to expunge his name from the Registry and he appealed to an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). After a hearing before the ALJ at which several witnesses testified against Plaintiff, the ALJ concluded that the “indicated” report was supported by substantial evidence and, therefore, denied Plaintiff’s appeal. Ultimately Plaintiff appealed to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court which vacated the ALJ’s decision on the basis of using an improper evidentiary standard, and remanded the matter back to the ALJ.

The Commonwealth Court agreed that there was substantial evidence but further noted that there was no statutory direction as to what standard of proof is required to be placed onto the Registry and ultimately ruled that clear and convincing evidence is required to be placed onto the Registry. The Commonwealth Court’s decision was appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and it is that appeal which is the subject of the case described herein.

The Supreme Court noted that an indicated report is warranted if there is substantial evidence, which is defined as “evidence that outweighs inconsistent evidence and which a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” This is in contrast to the clear and convincing standard urged to be applied by the Commonwealth Court and the Plaintiff, which is defined as “evidence that is so clear, direct, weighty, and convincing as to enable the trier of fact to come to a clear conviction, without hesitancy, of the truth of the precise facts in issue.” Customarily, the clear and convincing standard is applied when a person’s “individual interests at stake in a state proceeding are both particularly important and more substantial than mere money” and especially when there is a potential for “significant deprivation of liberty or stigma.”

After an indicated report, and a placement of a person onto the Registry, that person must report his placement onto the Registry whenever he accepts some sort of position (whether through employment or volunteer work and the like) where he would have contact with children. In its review of the applicable case law the Supreme Court established that the substantial evidence standard is what has been historically used in cases such as the instant case despite an absence of a statutory directive to use that standard.

In its review of the Commonwealth Court’s decision, the Supreme Court acknowledged that the Commonwealth Court did not err in determining that the preservation of one’s reputation is protected under Pennsylvania’s Constitution. Nevertheless, it ruled that it did err by overestimating the significance of the Registry as something covered by the above-mentioned reputation protections as to warrant the application of the clear and convincing standard instead of the substantial evidence standard.

The Supreme Court pointed out that only a limited number of people in a limited number of circumstances could access the names on the Registry. Consequently, the Supreme Court suggested that the Commonwealth Court overstated both the potential and probability for disclosure of the information on the Registry as well as overstated the potential risk of the deprivation of a fundamental interest of someone on the Registry. As a result, the stigma that the clear and convincing standard is supposed to address is simply not present. In addition to the above, the Supreme Court found that the Commonwealth Court did not take appropriate consideration of the fact that the government has a legitimate interest in ensuring the safety of children.

Ultimately, in sum, the Supreme Court ruled that even though being placed on the Registry is significant, there is no legal justification to apply the clear and convincing evidence standard as opposed to the substantial evidence standard when deciding whether to place someone on it.

Originally published in The Legal Intelligencer on January 20, 2015 and can be viewed here.

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