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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 Super. 100, has officially declared the Wiseman standard obsolete and no longer applicable to Pennsylvania child custody matters.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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College Tennis Player Sues For Religious Discrimination

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

The Washington Times reports on a religious discrimination lawsuit filed last week in Idaho federal district court by a former player on the Idaho State University tennis team.  The suit also alleges negligence, infliction of emotional distress and other causes of action growing out of harassment of plaintiff Orin Duffin by his teammates and his coaches.  The complaint (full text) in Duffin v. Idaho State University, (D ID, filed 5/20/2016) alleges that when the team learned that Duffin was a Mormon, his coaches began to harass him, in part through inappropriate questions about sexual practices and his religious beliefs.  The harassment peaked after he told the team that he would be on his mission call in Taiwan the following school year. While the team was staying in Las Vegas, one of the coaches arranged a trip to a strip club, provided the team with alcoholic beverages, and sent two prostitutes to Duffin’s room to tempt him. Duffin became the butt of jokes and comments after the Las Vegas trip.

You can learn more about this issue here.

Proposed RFRA Amendment Would Bar Its Use To Discriminate or Injure 3rd Parties

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

“Yesterday two members of the U.S. House of Representatives, Joe Kennedy III and Bobby Scott, announced the introduction of the Do No Harm Act (full text). The bill would amend the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to preclude its use in ways that result in discrimination or harm to third parties or impose one person’s religious views on another. More specifically, the bill would preclude using RFRA to create religious exemptions from various civil rights laws or labor laws, or accommodations which limit access to health care, or receipt of goods or services from the government or from government contractors or grantees.”

You can learn more about this issue here.

6th Circuit Remands RLUIPA “Equal Terms” Zoning Challenge

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

In Tree of Life Christian Schools v. City of Upper Arlington, (6th Cir., May 18, 2016), the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in a 2-1 decision reversed and remanded in a RLUIPA land use case, finding that material facts remain as to the application of RLUIPA’s “equal terms” provision.  At issue is an Ohio city’s refusal to rezone a large office building for use as a religious school. The office building is in an area zoned as an “Office and Research District” — an area designed for uses that would maximize the city’s tax revenues. The majority said in part:

The religious land use that TOL Christian Schools proposes is, we assume without deciding, deleterious to the purpose of the regulation at issue (which we assume to be increasing income-tax revenue). But the nonreligious uses that the government concedes it would allow seem to be similarly situated to the regulation….. [T]he government suggested at oral argument that it would prefer that [the property] be used for an ambulatory care center or outpatient surgery center. But we cannot assume as a fact… that an ambulatory care center (or an outpatient surgery center, or a data and call center, or office space for a not-for-profit organization, or a daycare) would employ higher-income workers than TOL Christian Schools would….

You can learn more about this issue here.

Student’s Complaint Over Expulsion From Catholic High School Dismissed Under Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine

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

In In re St. Thomas High School, (TX App., May 1, 2016), a Texas state appellate court held that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine requires dismissal of a breach of contract lawsuit against a Catholic high school brought by a 16-year old student who was expelled and by his parents. The expulsion came after the parents sent the school a letter about the handling of a grade dispute.  The letter complained that the teacher involved had not called the parents as they had requested.  It alleged that when the teacher told the student the reason for failing to call– he was too busy preparing for a romantic night with his wife to celebrate their wedding anniversary– that this amounted to engaging in a discussion with the student “in a sexually harassing fashion.”

The school concluded that the false accusations of sexual harassment against the teacher, made it impossible for other teachers to teach the student without fear of similar charges. The court said in part:

we conclude that St. Thomas’s status as a Catholic high school does not place it outside the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine’s reach. No less than a Catholic church, St. Thomas is a religious institution enjoying First Amendment protection for the free exercise of religion….

This record belies any contention that spiritual standards and religious doctrine play no role in the parties’ dispute. Plaintiffs expressly relied on the Catholic nature of a St. Thomas education to justify their demands….  In addition … this record also demonstrates impermissible interference with St. Thomas’s management of its internal affairs and encroachment upon its internal governance.

You can learn more about this issue here.

4th Circuit Hears Oral Arguments In Graduation Prayer and Venue Case

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

On Tuesday, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in American Humanist Association v. Greenville County School District. (Audio of full oral arguments.) At issue was the graduation ceremony prayer policy of the Greenville County, South Carolina school district, as well as its practice of holding some graduation ceremonies at a religious chapel on a local college campus. (See prior posting.) Greenville News reports on the oral arguments.

You can learn more about this issue here.

Ecclesiastical Abstention Requires Dismissal of Suit Over Sikh Temple Membership

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

In Singh v. Sandhar(TX App., May 10, 2016), a Texas appellate court, on the basis of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, dismissed a suit contesting the membership list that was used by a Sikh temple in determining who was eligible to vote in an election to select members of the temple’s 7-member executive committee known as the Prabandhak Committee. The court held:

The temple’s alleged failure to follow its bylaws on a matter of internal governance involves ecclesiastical concerns, and civil courts may not interfere in these matters when disposition of church property is not at stake.

You can learn more about this issue here.

The Citadel Refuses Religious Accommodation In Uniform Requirement

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

Washington Post reported yesterday on a controversial decision by The Citadel to refuse a religious accommodation to its strict student uniform requirement.  The South Carolina public military college will not allow a Muslim student who has been admitted to wear her hijab. According to the paper:

[T]he fact that [the school] was considering an exception … set off shock waves among alumni. The idea pleased some in the close-knit corps, who felt it could be an important symbol of religious freedom and inclusiveness. But it upset others who felt it would clash with the mission and ideals of the Citadel, where loyalty, teamwork and uniformity are paramount.

At the Citadel, students are expected to leave behind their individuality … and form opinions based on character rather than appearance. Allowing one student to wear something completely different struck many as antithetical to that mission. And some objected, as well, because exceptions have apparently not ever been made for other religions. Christian cadets have been told not to display crosses, for example.

That the exception was being considered at a time when the role of Islam in U.S. culture is so polarizing …  made the issue particularly incendiary far beyond the Charleston, S.C., campus.

You can learn more about this issue here.

Lawsuit Challenges Mississippi’s New Freedom of Conscience Law

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

ACLU of Mississippi announced yesterday that it has filed suit against the state’s Registrar of Vital Records on its own behalf and on behalf of a same-sex couple challenging recently enacted Mississippi H.B. 1523, the Freedom of Conscience From Government Discrimination Act.  While the Act broadly protects various actions of government and private businesses based on religious or moral beliefs that marriage is a union of one man and one woman, that sexual relations should be reserved to heterosexual marriage, or that gender is an immutable characteristic determined at birth (see prior posting), the lawsuit largely focuses on provisions allowing county clerks to recuse themselves from issuing marriage licences. The complaint (full text) in Alford v. Moulder, (SD MS, filed 5/9/2016) seeks declaratory and injunctive relief that the law violates the equal protection and due process clauses of the 14th Amendment.  It argues that the requirement for the Registrar of Vital Records to keep a list of those who have opted out of performing same-sex marriages amounts to creation of a “no-same-sex couples allowed” list.  Alluding to the other provisions of the law, the complaint adds:

HB 1325 subjects same-sex married couples in Mississippi to a lifetime of potentially humiliating denials of ordinary assistance and places a badge of inferiority upon their marriages each time they celebrate one of the ordinary incidents of family life.

You can learn more about this issue here.

 

Suit Challenges 25-Foot Cross In Florida Park

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

The American Humanist Association yesterday announced the filing of a federal court lawsuit against the city of Pensacola, Florida to challenge the city’s ownership, maintenance and display of a 25-foot tall Christian cross that stands alone in the city’s Bayview Park.  The complaint (full text) in Kondrat’yev v. City of Pensacola, Florida, (ND FL, filed 5/4/2016) says that the history of the cross is uncertain, but it is used solely for Christian Easter sunrise services each year. The cross was placed in the park sometime between 1951 and 1965, probably by the Jaycees. Easter services in the park pre-date the erection of the cross there. The lawsuit seeks an injunction ordering removal of the cross from government property.

You can learn more about this issue here.

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