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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.

Court’s Determination of Church’s Voting Membership Upheld

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

“In Fairfield Pentecostal Church v. Johnson, (LA App., June 3, 2015), a Louisiana state appeals court upheld a trial court’s decision determining a church’s voting membership for purposes of a special vote on whether to dismiss the pastor, saying in part:

The trial court determined at the hearing that none of the members on the original roll had been disfellowshipped; and it allowed another list of members gathered in November 2013 by Reverend Franks, who had kept no roll since his installment in 2010, to be counted toward the membership roll. In order to prevent the solicitation of new members for purposes of litigation, the trial court limited the membership to these two lists. We can think of no more equitable solution.”

You can learn more about this issue here.

7th Circuit Keeps RLUIPA Suit Against Chicago Alive

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

“In World Outreach Conference v. City of Chicago, (7th Cir., June 1, 2015), the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals breathed new life into a RLUIPA case that has been in litigation for 9 years. The court reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the city of Chicago as to claims against the city for damages because of delays in granting licenses to World Outreach so it could operate a former YMCA building for its religious purposes. World Outreach argued it lost some $591,000 that it could have made by housing Hurricane Katrina evacuees in the building. The court’s opinion by Judge Posner included comments about the power of aldermen in Chicago politics.  Judge Cudahy concurred with one of the shortest and most cryptic opinions ever:

Unfortunately; and I think the opinion must be stamped with a large “MAYBE.”

(See prior related posting.) RLUIPA Defense blog reports on the decision”

You can learn more about this issue here.

Connecticut Legislature Makes Religious Exemption From Vaccination Requirements Marginally More Difficult

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

“On Tuesday, the Connecticut General Assembly gave final passage to HB 6949 (full text) and sent it to the governor for his signature.  The bill places additional procedural requirements on parents seeking to exempt their children on religious grounds from vaccination requirements.  As reported by WNPR:

Currently, [parents or guardians] must simply present a statement that the immunization would be contrary to the child’s religious beliefs. But under the bill which cleared the Senate Tuesday, such statements must be submitted annually and officially “acknowledged” by a notary public, attorney, judge, family support magistrate, court clerk, deputy clerk or justice of the peace.

However another bill pending in the legislature would, if enacted, require the notarized statements be submitted only when the child enters kindergarten and when he or she enters 7th grade.”

You can learn more about this issue here.

Oregon Tax Court Says Rectory Not Tax-Exempt

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

“In St. Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church, Astoria v. Clatsop County Assessor, (OR Tax Ct., May 6, 2015), an Oregon Tax Court magistrate held that a residential structure located 1.5 miles from the church used as a church rectory did not qualify for a property tax exemption “because the evidence shows the rectory is not reasonably necessary to carry out the religious aims of the church…”  The court said in part:

Although [the parish priest] does write sermons and homilies at the rectory, those duties do not require close physical proximity to the church…. The other uses of the rectory have no direct connection to the church; they certainly do not require a rectory in close proximity to the church. There was generalized testimony about the availability of guest bedrooms for visiting priests, deacons, and seminarians, but no specific testimony or other evidence that such officials have stayed at the subject property and, if so, how many and how often they were there….

Forbes reports on the decision.”

You can learn more about this issue here.

Church Sues Over Zoning Restrictions That Are Forcing It To Move

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

“The San Diego Reader reports on a lawsuit filed May 28 by the San Diego Christian Worship Center against the city challenging zoning restrictions that will force the church to relocate in September.  The city granted the church a 5-year conditional use permit in 2010, and the church made $700,000 of improvements to its site. In 2014 the city changed the zoning in the area to “prime industrial,” which does not allow churches, and the city says it will not renew the conditional use permit. The church lacks the resources to find a new building. Apparently the complaint contends that the new zoning designation, which excludes instructional studios and entertainment venues as well as churches, amounts to a prior restraint on First Amendment expression.  The church also claims– presumably invoking RLUIPA– that the cost of preparing an application every 5 years to renew its conditional use permit imposes a substantial burden on its exercise of religion.  It will cost $50,000 to $100,000 to prepare the application, which must include an environmental impact statement. ”

You can learn more about this issue here.

Supreme Court Rules Against Abercrombie In Title VII Religious Accommodation Case

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

“In Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., (Sup. Ct., June 1, 2015), the U.S. Supreme Court today reversed the 10th Circuit’s holding on when employers must offer a reasonable accommodation for an employee’s religious practices.  The 10th Circuit had held that Abercrombie & Fitch did not violate Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act when it failed to reasonably accommodate Samantha Elauf’s need to wear a headscarf because Elauf had not informed the company that she wore the hijab for religious reasons and would need an accommodation. (See prior posting.)  In an opinion by Justice Scalia, 7 justices held:

Motive and knowledge are separate concepts. An employer who has actual knowledge of the need for an accommodation does not violate Title VII by refusing to hire an applicant if avoiding that accommodation is not his motive. Conversely, an employer who acts with the motive of avoiding accommodation may violate Title VII even if he has no more than an unsubstantiated suspicion that accommodation would be needed.

Thus, the rule for disparate-treatment claims based on a failure to accommodate a religious practice is straightforward: An employer may not make an applicant’s religious practice, confirmed or otherwise, a factor in employment decisions….

A request for accommodation, or the employer’s certainty that the practice exists, may make it easier to infer motive, but is not a necessary condition of liability.

Justice Alito concurred only in the judgment, urging a different test for liability.  He concluded that Abercrombie is liable only if it had knowledge that Elauf wore her headscarf for religious reasons, but that there was sufficient evidence that Abercrombie had such knowledge that the court should not have granted summary judgment to defendants.

Justice Thomas dissented, arguing that Abercrombie’s actions did not amount to disparate treatment (or intentional discrimination):

Abercrombie refused to create an exception to its neutral Look Policy for Samantha Elauf ’s religious practice of wearing a headscarf…. In doing so, it did not treat religious practices less favorably than similar secular practices, but instead remained neutral with regard to religious practices. To be sure, the effects of Abercrombie’s neutral Look Policy, absent an accommodation, fall more harshly on those who wear headscarves as an aspect of their faith. But that is a classic case of an alleged disparate impact.

Politico reports on the decision.”

 

District Court Applies Hobby Lobby To Auto Dealership

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

“In Holland v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, (D WV, May 29, 2015), a West Virginia federal district court, applying the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling, issued a permanent injunction barring federal authorities from enforcing the Affordable Care Act contraceptive coverage requirement, as in effect June 30, 2014, against a West Virginia auto dealership. The complaint (full text) in the case was brought by Joe Holland Chevrolet, Inc., a closely-held corporation, and its 91% owner who became a born-again Christian in 1996. Joe Holland objects to providing coverage for Plan B and ella, contraceptives that he considers abortifacients. Charleston Daily Mail reports on the decision. Liberty Institute issued a press release on the decision.”

You can learn more about this issue here.

ERLC: Town’s sign code violates church freedom

This is from anglicansablaze.blogspot.com which you can find here.

The excerpt of the Anglicans Ablaze post is as follows: “The Southern Baptist Convention’s religious freedom entity has called for the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down a municipal sign ordinance it says violates a church’s free speech and assembly rights.

The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) joined in a friend-of-the-court brief filed Sept. 22 that contends the sign code of Gilbert, Ariz., discriminates against churches while favoring political and ideological messages. The brief, filed by the Christian Legal Society (CLS), asserts the code is based on a sign’s content and therefore abridges the First Amendment’s free speech clause.

The high court will hear oral arguments in the case, Reed v. Town of Gilbert, in January or thereafter. It is expected to announce an opinion in the significant church-state case before it adjourns early in the summer of 2015.”

You can learn more about this issue here.

 

 

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