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Pa. Superior Court: Family Court Notice Must Be Meaningful

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.

 

PA Superior Court Says QDRO’s Take Effect Upon Execution of Marital Agreement

Conway v. Conway v. City of Erie Police Relief and Pension Association, 209 A.3d 367 (PA Super. 2019)

Brief Summary of the Facts:

Michael Conway (“Husband”) and Julie Conway (“Wife”) were married on July 12, 1991 and separated in August 2007.  Husband was employed as a police officer and filed for divorce on July 28, 2009. The parties executed a Marital Settlement Agreement (“MSA”) on Aug. 19, 2016, that directed the parties to prepare, execute, and file a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (“QDRO”) to allow Wife to receive her marital share of Husband’s pension. At the time of the execution of the MSA, Husband’s pension plan stated, with regard to a QDRO, “a former spouse of a Participant shall be treated as the spouse or surviving spouse for all purposes under the Plan.” A divorce decree was entered on Aug. 22, 2016, that incorporated the MSA. On Aug. 23, 2016, the municipality for which Husband worked amended the pension plan to read “a former spouse of a Participant shall not be treated as the spouse or surviving spouse for any purposes under the Plan,” (emphasis added). Wife submitted the QDRO to the pension plan administrator on Aug. 29, 2016, which denied the QDRO on the basis that as it was filed after the Aug. 23, 2016 pension plan revision and is inconsistent with the same. Wife filed a Motion for Entry of QDRO, which was denied by the trial court, prompting Wife to appeal to Superior Court.

Issue:

Did the trial court err by failing to enter the QDRO submitted by Wife to secure her post-divorce rights to Husband’s pension when the MSA and Divorce Decree were both filed/entered and in effect prior to the revision to the pension plan? Holding A QDRO is an order “which creates or recognizes the rights of an alternate payee to receive all or a portion of the benefits payable to a participant under [a pension] plan.” A QDRO merely implements the terms of a preexisting MSA and does not in itself create new rights or terms. In the instant matter, the MSA was entered and incorporated into a Divorce Decree before the pension plan was revised; therefore, as the QDRO only serves to recognize and implement settled rights, it is enforceable as the underlying MSA predates the pension plan revisions. The denial of the QDRO amounts to an unlawful ex post facto application of the revised pension plan. Based on the above, the court directed the QDRO to be entered.

Comments/Impressions:

The court also pointed out that the objective of the Divorce Code “is to effectuate economic justice” for the parties to a divorce. In the court’s estimation, to rule against Wife “would deny [her] the benefit she bargained for and would cause an unfair and severe injustice concerning the parties’ settlement of their existing rights” and would be “contrary to the goal of achieving economic justice.”

Originally published in the Pennsylvania Family Lawyer in Volume 41, Issue number 3 (Autumn 2019)

Finding Attorneys in Contempt for Clients’ Actions in Divorce Case

No one wants to be held in contempt of court, and attorneys do their best to try and keep their clients from being held in contempt, but there are times when an attorney can be held in contempt of court for what his client does or does not do.

No one wants to be held in contempt of court, and attorneys do their best to try and keep their clients from being held in contempt, but there are times when an attorney can be held in contempt of court for what his client does or does not do. The recent Pennsylvania Superior Court case of Farrell v. Farrell, No. 1424 WDA 2018 (Pa. Super), should serve as a cautionary tale for all attorneys to keep in mind when discerning how much involvement their clients should have in the drafting and serving of legal documents.

Farrell is a divorce matter that involved two represented parties, the husband and the wife. The husband initiated the divorce action against his wife who, for the first two years of the case, elected to proceed on a pro se basis. When it was time for the case to be advanced to a divorce master, the wife hired an attorney. In the months leading up to the divorce master’s hearing, the husband issued the wife informal discovery requests. The wife ignored the requests, which led to the husband issuing follow-up correspondence, to which, again, the wife provided no response. As a result, the husband filed a motion to compel the responses to the discovery requests. The trial court granted the motion, and gave the wife 20 days to comply with the discovery requests.

Instead of taking an active role in helping her client respond to the discovery requests, the wife’s attorney simply allowed her client to type up the responses herself, which the attorney then forwarded to the husband’s attorney, unedited. In her responses, the wife refused to disclose some information, declared some requests “N/A,” and leveled personal attacks upon the husband in others.

The wife’s pro se responses provoked the husband’s attorney to file a motion to compel, for sanctions and for attorney fees. The court scheduled a hearing on the husband’s motion three days after the responses were filed, as the master’s hearing was scheduled for four days after the responses were filed. As a response to the husband’s aforesaid motion, the wife’s attorney immediately filed her own motion to compel and for attorney fees.

At the motion hearing, the husband admitted that more documents were produced by the wife, but her responses were still inadequate. Furthermore, the wife’s attorney indicated that she had not prepared the discovery responses for the husband, but simply allowed her client to type up the responses where provided on her own. The court took note of when the wife filed her above-mentioned motion and found that it was filed for the sole purpose of trying to “equalize” the motion filed by the husband, and not for any actual legally cognizable purpose.

At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court dismissed the wife’s motion and granted the husband’s motion, ordering that the wife may not produce any documentation not already produced in support of her own case. The court also found the wife’s attorney to be in contempt, ordering her to pay the husband’s attorney fees. The wife’s attorney filed for reconsideration and appealed this ruling to the Superior Court.

The wife’s attorney argued in both her motion for reconsideration and the appeal that she cannot be personally found in contempt as she was never actually ordered to do anything (only her client was) regarding discovery. To this end, she maintained that no evidence was ever produced demonstrating that she, personally, had any court order directing her to do anything, therefore there is no evidence that she disregarded a court’s order. She further argued that there was no evidence belonging to the wife that she had in her possession that was requested to be produced; therefore, she did not personally withhold anything from being produced in discovery.

As an initial matter, the Superior Court first noted that the wife’s attorney cited to no authority for the proposition that she cannot personally be held in contempt for her client’s actions or inactions. As a result, under established case law, her arguments, on that issue, were deemed waived as unsupported by authority.

Regardless, the court cited to Pa.R.C.P. 4019(g)(1) which states that “the court on a subsequent motion for sanctions may, if the motion is granted, require the … attorney advising such conduct … to pay the moving party the reasonable expenses, including attorney’s fees …”

Based on Pa.R.C.P. 4019(g)(1), the court determined that the wife’s attorney’s decisions to allow the wife to personally produce deficient and attacking discovery responses without the attorney offering any input or edits, did not comply with the trial court’s order to compel, and her filing of what appears to be a retaliatory motion to compel are all adequate grounds to hold the wife’s attorney in contempt of court.

So, while it is rare, practitioners should always be cognizant of the fact that they could be held in contempt of court for the actions of their clients, even if they were not personally directed by the attorney and there is no order directing the attorney to do anything.

James W. Cushing is a senior associate at the Law Office of Faye Riva Cohen and is a research attorney for Legal Research Inc.

Originally published in The Legal Intelligencer on December 16, 2019 and can be found here.

Family Law’s Alphabet Soup: To Spell It Out or Stick With Initials

Over the last several years it has been increasingly common for the captions of child custody cases when taken on appeal to be referred to by the initials of the parties, as opposed to using their full names. Contrary to what many assume, the trend to initialize is not due to some established procedural rule or directive from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, but, rather, it is due to a provision in the Pennsylvania Superior Court’s internal operating procedures.

Although initialization has been the practice of the Superior Court for around 10 years at this point, many attorneys, especially those who are more senior in the practice, have not been supportive of initialization, as it makes it difficult to remember the names of the cases, and makes any discussion of case law rather difficult. Indeed, the term “alphabet soup” has been applied to this practice. Furthermore, some trial courts have adopted the practice of initializing independently, which has made referring to a custody order with a third party rather difficult. So, for example, when a party or child’s name is initialized in a custody court order, a third party (e.g., a school or a doctor) may not comply with its terms as it has no objective way of knowing whether the initials in the order actually refer to the party or child seeking its application at that doctor’s office or school.

In order to create a uniform practice and consistent direction about when and why to initialize, two revisions to the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure, R.C.P. 1915.10 and 1930.1 are currently bring proposed.

The revision to Rule 1915.10 definitively authorizes trial courts to initialize custody cases if the facts of the case are considered sufficiently “sensitive” in order to protect the privacy and reputation of the parties and children involved. As an additional layer of privacy protection, any initialized court order or opinion must also take steps to obscure the names of schools or activities and other specific references to things that could be used identify the child(ren) and parties in the case; instead, general terms should be used when possible. For example, instead of identifying a child’s soccer league, an order should simply state something like “soccer league,” and instead of using a child’s school’s name, it should merely refer to a “school.”

In addition to the above, the suggested revisions to Rule 1930.1 require the full names of the parties involved to be used in captions unless the case involves “sensitive facts” and with consideration of the child’s best interests or violates the above revisions to R.C.P. 1915.10 protecting the privacy of sensitive cases. It is in the estimation of the drafters of the revisions that the typical custody case does not involve such sensitive information, or shocking and outrageous facts, that would require taking the additional measure of initialization to protect the privacy of the children or parties involved.

So, family attorneys, particularly those who focus on custody law, need to monitor these developments to ensure they remain compliant with the rules and sufficiently respect the privacy of the parties and children involved in their custody cases.

Published on October 1, 2019 in The Legal Intelligencer and can be found here and reprinted in The Pennsylvania Family Lawyer in Volume 41, Issue No. 4 which you can see here.

Custody of Nonbiological Children—Burden and Proof Issues

In the matter of R.L. v. M.A., Case No.: 2740 EDA 2018, the Pennsylvania Superior Court delved into the leading edge of family law when it ruled upon whether an individual in a same-sex relationship can be awarded custody of a child with whom she has no biological relationship.

In R.L., the appellant, M.A., entered into a romantic relationship with R.L. (appellee) in 2012. During the relationship, the parties decided to impregnate the appellant via artificial insemination using sperm from the appellee’s brother.

The couple proceeded to prepare for the birth of the child by setting up the baby’s room and purchasing typical baby supplies. R.L. was present for the baby’s birth, chose the baby’s first name, and gave the baby her own surname. Not long after the child was born, the couple broke up.

Instead of litigating, the parties entered into an informal agreement for the custody of the child. The child lived primarily with the appellant and spent every other weekend with the appellee. This arrangement lasted until 2014 when the parties informally elected to equally share custody of the child. This 50/50 arrangement lasted nearly four years until R.L. called the daycare center where the appellant worked and which the child attended. R.L. complained that the appellant was having too much contact with the child while in daycare and even inappropriately (in her opinion) removed the child from the daycare premises.

In response to the above-mentioned telephone call, the appellant unilaterally discontinued their customary 50/50 arrangement, which led to R.L. filing a complaint for custody of the child. R.L. was granted in loco parentis over the child fairly quickly, which conferred R.L. standing to have custody of the child. The matter went to trial and the trial court entered an order granting each party equal custody, alternating on a weekly basis; the appellant appealed this order to Superior Court.

On appeal, the appellant argued that the appellee did not meet the burden of clear and convincing evidence that a nonparent should have custody equal to a parent, and that the court erred in weighing the evidence presented.

In support of her argument that appellee did not meet her burden of proof, the appellant argued that 23 Pa.C.S. Section 5327 requires a trial court to apply a presumption in favor of parents over nonparents, and, as a “nonparent,” the appellant did not meet her burden to overcome the presumption in favor of the appellee. The appellant also argued that the trial court erred in considering the parties’ informal shared custody arrangement when rending its decision.

In making its ruling, the Superior Court acknowledged that “even before the proceedings start, the evidentiary scale is tipped, and tipped hard, to the biological parents’ side.” In saying that, the Superior Court also recognized that this principle does “not preclude an award of custody to the nonparent.”

Additionally, the court made it clear that the “best interests” standard is still the touchstone when entering a child custody order. Furthermore, once someone is granted in loco parentis, she need not demonstrate that the other party is unfit, but rather merely demonstrate that it is in the best interests of the child (as proven by clear and convincing evidence) to be with the nonparent party.

The Superior Court ruled that the appellant did meet her burden of clear and convincing evidence, specifically by demonstrating that the parties lived out an agreed shared custody arrangement for a number of years, indeed most of the child’s life, and only discontinued that arrangement due to the appellee being upset over the appellant’s telephone call to the daycare center, as opposed to anything directly related to custody.

The Superior Court also indicated that the appellant’s interpretation of the law is incorrect. Namely, while the scales do tip heavily toward a parent over a nonparent, there is a distinction as to whether that nonparent is seeking shared, as opposed to primary, custody. As she was only seeking shared custody, the appellant only had the burden of clear and convincing evidence to bring the scales even with the appellee. Only if the appellant were seeking primary custody would she have to tip the scales hard toward herself under the burden of clear and convincing evidence.

Ultimately, a nonparent seeking shared custody of a child has to have standing and demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that such a custody arrangement is in the best interest of a child.

This article was originally published in The Legal Intelligencer on June 27, 2019 and can be found here.

What is the Global Economy?

Whenever the topic of the local economy is brought up, economic pundits quickly remind us that we live in a “global economy,” but what exactly does that mean? Does it mean that economic activity now takes place across the globe whereas it previously did not? Does it mean that economic activity occurs much more rapidly than it previously did? Does it mean that human society has changed to the point where the economies of different countries with different cultures are irrevocably linked together? The answer to each of these questions is no.

Global economic activity has been around for over 2,000 years. The speed at which economic activity takes place is certainly faster, but this increased speed is of little to no consequence to the small and medium-sized business—in other words the overwhelming majority of businesses in the world. In what way have our economies become linked together that the failure of a small percentage of the mortgages in the USA resulted in a world-wide economic crisis, the consequences of which are still affecting us after four years? Is this link something that is irrevocable? What does it really mean when economists talk about the “global economy,” and why is it brought up as some sort of argument against supporting the local economy?

I submit that the global economy is really nothing more than the fact that the banking industry and some very large companies have expanded to the point where they don’t really have any national loyalty. Any claim to a national identity is merely a facade; they hold no national allegiance and their only interest in any country is the ability to make a profit. The large international companies make claims of nationality, their headquarters have to be somewhere, but their operations, offices and factories span the globe. Their national claims often appear to nothing more than marketing in their countries of origin. They love free trade agreements because these allow them to lay off more expensive workers in their country of origin and replace them with less expensive workers in another. This increases their profits without regard to the impact in their home country or to their employees.

The only interest the international banks seem to have in any country is the ability to give it loans. It is true that some of them perform a specific function within a country that is integral to that country. The U.S. Federal Reserve controls the currency in the United States. Likewise with the Bank of England and the European Central Bank. However, all of these institutions participate in the funding of governments all around the world. When they do not do so directly, they act through an intermediate financial institution like the International Monetary Fund. They do not function for the benefit, even in a primary sense, of their supposed country.

Because so many countries have relinquished their sovereign right to control their own currencies to these international entities, and have become so indebted to them, they have become completely dependent on them. The claims that these banks have become “too big to fail” raises the question of why they are too big to fail. If they fail, the governments dependent on them fail with them. Without the seemingly endless lines of credit to fund them, governments would have to stop making promises to provide programs they cannot afford. That is a reality no politician wants exposed to the public. If a government had its loans called, it would be shown to be bankrupt. This is why the giant banks, rather than small businesses, had to be bailed out. In the case of global corporations, the ones “too big to fail” were those with extensive ties to the government through contracts and political influence (lobbying and economic power) that they could exert.

The “global economy” is nothing more than near complete dependence of governments on the global banks and international corporations. No State is prepared to operate without them. In other words, the “Global Economy” is not about providing for the economic needs of the community, the region, or even the state. It is not about the production of wealth for the people of a country. It is mainly about finance, which is only one part of economics, and maintaining the consolidated state of wealth on which governments depend so that they can redistribute that wealth through social programs. This may explain why the efforts to solve the economic crisis are ineffective and inadequate for the average family and business. Interest rates are not kept artificially low so that people can get out of debt, but so that they can remain in debt to the banks.

This situation, regardless of how emphatically the economic pundits would like us to believe otherwise, is not a necessary one, and it is certainly no argument against advocating for the local economy. After all, why should the cost of the groceries in your local market be influenced by something that happens in another country? The reason is that we have forgotten the value of the local economy, and, consequently, have lost the local economy itself. I am not discussing city planning and budgeting, that is not “the local economy.” The local economy is the ability of the local community to be self-sufficient and to support its own productive economic activity. It is the next logical expansion of the root meaning of economy in general—which is home management.

Take a look at the typical large city of today. From where do the products needed for daily life come? How would the families and businesses cope if a disaster in another region cut off their normal supply chain for food? For example, The city of Seattle is surrounded by smaller cities (urban areas) and suburban areas which do not produce anywhere near the amount of products used by its population. Seattlites sit in chairs and work at desks made in other cities and even other countries. They drink from cups, use pens and pencils, and wear clothes that are all made somewhere else. The surrounding rural areas do not produce anywhere near the amount of food needed to support the area. Seattlites are dependent upon remote suppliers, typically large industrialized farms which are the central providers for many large cities around the country and the world. When a production problem occurs on one of these giant farms, the ramifications are wide-spread. When another city experiences a disaster, the extra resources sent to assist them can create a shortage in other regions. The widespread dependence on centralized providers of basic necessities creates a situation where continued access to those necessities is more tenuous than most of us would like to believe.

Another example of widespread dependence on centralized production can be seen by a recent issue for the computer industry. Global free trade was supposed to make the market more diverse and ensure that we had a ready supply of needed items from anywhere in the world. What actually happened is that production of parts needed around the world became centralized, not just to single countries, but to single regions in those countries. The case to which I am referring is the manufacture of hard disks for computers. Flooding in one region of one country resulted in a worldwide shortage of hard disks, which impacted the ability of businesses around the world to maintain existing servers or install new ones.

In the past, a city viewed the surrounding rural community as an integral part of its life. The city provided goods and services for the rural community, and the rural community provided the basic necessities of food and other agricultural products needed by the city. In other words, each functioned as the primary market for the other and their combined economic activity established a complete, self-sufficient community in which families were able to provide for their needs and wants. Every producer and service provider in the community viewed the other members of the community as their primary customers. Rather than looking for cut-throat prices, they understood it was in their best interest to give their custom to local businesses. The best way to ensure their own economic success was to ensure the economic success of their customers. This works to make the local economy stable because most economic activity ends up being circular and self-supporting. I buy from you and you buy from me. By being each others’ customers, we keep each other in business, which allows both of us to remain each others’ customer.

Am I, by saying this, arguing against global trade, or trade in general? Not at all. The merchants in the city engaged in trade, which not only brought in desired goods from distant lands, but also opened up those distant markets to any excess production of the local community. Because most economic activity was local, it was also resilient. Not only would a problem in another community have little impact on the overall local economic situation, but the local community could more directly assist that other community. This could circumvent the need for state or federal assistance for all but the most wide-spread of disasters.

If economic activity across the country was primarily local, the overall economy of the country would be self-sufficient because the local economies would be self-sufficient. The overall economy of the country would be stable because the local economies would be stable. The overall economy of the country would be resilient because the local economies would be resilient. There would still be regional and global trade because the desire for other goods would still be present, but there would not be a dependence on those goods.

By David W. Cooney and originally published in The Distributist Review on August 18, 2012 and can be found here.

Religious baker who refused to make a wedding cake for gay couple deserves protection whether you agree with him or not

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article the warrants posting here; I recently came across one in The Philadelphia Inquirer which, I thought, was pretty insightful. Be edified.

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Our nation is seeing a surge of “corporate conscience,” where companies make decisions apart from their bottom line. This is good for all Americans. The New York Times recently described the growing “moral voice of corporate America” after a wave of companies, including Google, Airbnb, Uber, and PayPal, severed ties with white supremacist groups in response to the riots in Charlottesville.

This phenomenon is not new, nor is it limited to opposing white supremacy. For years,Pfizer has refused to sell some of its drugs to state prisons because the company doesn’t want them used in capital punishment. Chipotle refused to cater a Boy Scouts’ Jamboree because of the scouts’ then-policy about gay scout leaders. A gay coffee shop ownerrecently refused to serve a group of pro-life activists, ejecting them from his store. These business owners made moral choices about what they’re going to support.

A similar moral choice is at the heart of the Masterpiece Cakeshop case currently before the Supreme Court. The store’s owner, Jack Phillips, is a baker who is willing to sell any items off-the-shelf in his store to anyone, no questions asked. All he is asking is not to be compelled to use his artistic talent to create a custom-designed cake celebrating an event contrary to his deeply held beliefs. This is a standard that Phillips applies across the board. He does not create custom work that celebrates Halloween, divorce, profanity, or racism.

Phillips is not the first baker in Colorado who objected to using his talents to support something he disagreed with, but he’s the first one to be punished for it. Another Colorado bakery refused to create a Bible-themed cake that condemned homosexuality. But here, Colorado upheld these bakers’ rights, explaining that they shouldn’t be forced to create a cake they disagreed with. The state even said bakers have the right to decline to bake a cake for the Aryan Nations Church, or a cake denigrating the Koran.

This double standard was a cause of concern for multiple Supreme Court justices during the recent oral argument in Phillips’ case. Justice Alito called it “disturbing” that a baker could “refuse to create a cake with a message that is opposed to same-sex marriage,” but “when the tables are turned,” Phillips was “compelled to create a cake that expresses approval of same-sex marriage.” Justice Kennedy suggested that Colorado officials demonstrated “a significant aspect of hostility to a religion” and ironically, that the state had “been neither tolerant nor respectful of Phillips’ religious beliefs.”

Critics argue that his actions should not be entitled to protection because his denial of service was offensive. But this was not a consideration when the baker turned away the customer requesting a Bible cake, or when Chipotle refused to cater the Boy Scouts, or when the gay coffee shop owner ejected the Christian group. The Supreme Court has always said that offensive expression is still entitled to First Amendment protection. Otherwise, those who need constitutional protection the most — those with unpopular views — would be protected the least.

Phillips’ opponents also exaggerate his claim and assert that a ruling for Phillips would quickly take our country back to a Jim Crow era where large swaths of businesses are allowed to deny basic services to an entire class of Americans. But the Supreme Court has already laid out factors to protect against that type of discrimination.

When First Amendment rights must be balanced against norms of equal service, the ultimate question is whether the would-be customer can freely access the market for desired services or products. That is not an issue here. Many bakers were eager for the couple’s business; they even received offers for a free cake.

This case really boils down to the following question: Do we want to have a country where the government is allowed to pick one correct view on hot topics like marriage, and to force objecting organizations to use their talents and resources to support that position? Our Constitution prohibits that result. That’s why elsewhere, we prioritize the ability of organizations to speak out with a range of viewpoints on important moral issues. The chairman of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, said it best: “Not every business decision is an economic one … [W]e are fighting for what we love and believe in, and that is the idealism and the aspiration of America.” Schultz is right: These expressive rights are an ideal worth fighting for. That’s why the Supreme Court should uphold this principle for Phillips, too.

By Stephanie Barclay who is legal counsel at Becket, a public interest law firm that defends religious liberty for all faiths

Originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer on January 19, 2018 and can be found here.

Superior Court Navigates ‘Twists and Turns’ in Case Involving Paternity Tests

Pennsylvania Superior Court recently heard a rather complex and tangled case regarding how, when and what significance a paternity test may have in determining the paternity of a child. In the matter of H.Z. v. M.B., 2019 Pa.Super. 33, the Superior Court offered insights that may be instructive for other similar matters, especially in cases where attempted clever tactics and intrigue are elements.

In H.Z., the mother, seeking child support, filed for paternity testing in New York shortly before the child was born in March 2005. The results of the testing excluded M.B., the putative father. Consequently the parties entered into a stipulation providing that the mother would discontinue her paternity and support actions against M.B. with prejudice.

Two years later, the mother hired a private investigator to surreptitiously secure a sample of the father’s DNA. Specifically, the investigator followed M.B. to a Starbucks where he picked M.B.’s discarded coffee cup out of a trash can, and submitted it for genetic testing that resulted in a finding of a probability of over 99 percent percent that M.B. is the father of the child.

About a year later, the results of the investigator’s test motivated the mother to file a new paternity case against M.B., this time in New Jersey, where the mother had relocated. The case was transferred to Pennsylvania as New Jersey had no jurisdiction over M.B., who was a resident of Pennsylvania. A few months later, the parties again entered into a stipulation dismissing the mother’s case.

Undeterred, the mother almost immediately filed a third case, this time in Montgomery County, to which M.B. filed preliminary objections, a motion to dismiss and a motion to stay the testing, primarily on the basis of res judicata. While M.B. successfully had the Starbucks test excluded as evidence, per a motion in limine, the case, for some reason, was not scheduled for a hearing until about five years later. After that hearing the trial court ordered M.B. to submit to genetic testing once again. The father appealed, primarily on the basis of res judicata. In an unpublished opinion, the Superior Court ruled that the stipulation entered in the New York matter was in violation of New York law and, therefore, not controlling.

Finally, after another year’s time, M.B. submitted to a buccal swab genetic test requested by the mother’s petition requesting blood and hair testing, which again excluded M.B. as the father of the child. Upon receiving the result of this test, M.B. requested the dismissal of the case. The mother countered by requesting M.B. to submit to more rigorous testing on the basis that M.B.’s DNA samples had irregularities, and M.B.’s genetic profiles in the various tests all differed from one another which, she averred, means they did not come from the same person. The parties subsequently filed various motions seeking sanctions and striking filings. A trial court hearing on these issues was finally scheduled for December 2017.

At the hearing, the mother called two officials from the Montgomery County Domestic Relations Office who testified that, despite many years of experience and their knowledge of  hundreds of cases, neither have had a case where the DNA sample they collected was insufficient for testing. In opposition to these witnesses, M.B. called a DNA lab director who testified that there was no evidence of tampering, no issues with the chain-of-custody of the DNA sample, and no issues with testing protocols. While the lab director did note that the DNA that was recently tested did degrade, she could not come to a definite conclusion as to why.

After some of the witnesses testified at the hearing (as described above), the trial court scheduled at least two more days of testimony. Without explanation or apparent reason, the trial court suddenly entered an order concluding that M.B. is the father and directed that an appropriate support order be awarded. M.B. immediately appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court.

On appeal, M.B. argued that the mother’s case should be dismissed on the basis that the Montgomery County test excluded him as father. M.B. specifically argued that a paternity hearing could only be scheduled if the results of a genetic test did not indicate that the putative father was not excluded from being the father. Consequently, per M.B.’s argument, in the instant matter, as the Montgomery County test excluded him as the father, the aforesaid rule required the mother’s case to be dismissed. The Superior Court rejected this argument and decided that the rule does not limit the scheduling of a hearing only when a test does not indicate an exclusion. The court also pointed out that the rule does not provide that a genetic test—by itself—is sufficient to establish paternity but, instead, indicates that a hearing on the reliability of genetic testing is permissible. The Superior Court also found that Rule 1910.15(d)(4) sets forth “a clear course of conduct addressing every possible result of the genetic testing” and M.B.’s request for dismissal was not relief afforded to him by the rule.

M.B. further argued that the Uniform Act on Blood Tests to Determine Paternity (23 Pa.C.S.A. Section 5104) eliminates any discretion on the part of the trial court to rule in this matter. Superior Court ruled that the aforesaid statute does not apply as no blood test ever took place in this matter, rejecting M.B.’s argument that it applies to all manner of genetic testing, not just blood testing.

M.B. then argued that 23 Pa.C.S.A. Section 4343 also requires the dismissal of an action for paternity when a man is excluded from paternity after genetic testing. The court rejected this argument as well, pointing out that the statute cited by M.B. actually directly opposes his argument. The Superior Court noted that the statute “does not provide that genetic tests are conclusive of the issue of paternity,” but such a determination may only be made by “a court in a civil action.” Additionally, the statute also allows for additional testing if a party contests the initial test.

M.B. proffered a cursory argument that additional testing would violate his Fourth Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution. However, as he did not raise this argument in a timely manner, the Superior Court did not consider it. Instead, it indicated that additional testing may be permitted if the first test can be demonstrated to be unreliable by the preponderance of the evidence.

M.B. finally argued that the trial court abused its discretion by basing its ruling on excluded evidence (the Starbucks cup) and the Montgomery County test (which he argued had no facts to suggest it was unreliable). The Superior Court was sympathetic to this particular argument, however it directed its focus to the fact that the trial court never completed the record due to inexplicably entering an order before finishing the hearing. As a result, the court could not sufficiently review the facts and evidence in the case as it was left incomplete. Indeed, the Superior Court ruled that 23 Pa.C.S.A. Section 4343 affords the mother the right to an additional genetic test at her own expense as a matter of right.

After all of the twists and turns in this case, the Superior Court ruled that the trial court committed an abuse of discretion when it ruled that M.B. is the father as the hearing was not complete. The Superior Court ultimately ruled that an additional test is to be administered if no stipulation between the parties is reached. If the new test indicates M.B. is the father, then a hearing may be scheduled to determine the reliability of the test. If M.B. is excluded as the father, then the parties may proceed to a hearing on the issue of paternity. If any additional testing is requested, then evidence of any prior tests’ unreliability must be presented, and Fourth Amendment implications can be considered. As a result, the trial court’s order was vacated and the matter was remanded for further proceedings and testing.

May this case be a warning to those who think that genetic testing to determine paternity speaks conclusively as to who a child’s father is or is not. While modern technology has made significant contributions in this area, there still remains sufficient doubt to warrant other forms of evidence and inquiry before a court.

This article was originally published in The Legal Intelligencer on March 19, 2019 and can be found here.

Who is fighting the war on science?

Every now and again I come across something that warrants posting here.  I have seen a recent proliferation of articles in respected publications pointing out, bemoaning, and/or highlighting increasing problems with the trustworthiness of the alleged findings of the contemporary scientific community.  I find these articles to be particularly interesting given how our society looks to science as a (the?) source of ultimate truths (often as a mutually exclusive alternative to spirituality).  This sort of scientism may be misplaced, and these articles delve into the pitfalls that come with such an approach.

Here are the links the other articles I posted on this subject:

Be edified.

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Ministerial Exception Defense Rejected In Suit To Apply Labor Code To Preschool Teachers

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

In Su v. Stephen S. Wise Temple, (CA App., March 8, 2019), a California state appellate court held that teachers in a Reform Jewish Temple’s preschool are not covered by the ministerial exception rule.  In the case, California’s Labor Commissioner sued on behalf of 40 teachers alleging that the school violated the state’s Labor Code by failing to provide rest breaks, uninterrupted meal breaks, and overtime pay.In rejecting the Temple’s ministerial exception defense, the majority said in part:

Although the Temple’s preschool curriculum has both secular and religious content, its teachers are not required to have any formal Jewish education, to be knowledgeable about Jewish belief and practice, or to adhere to the Temple’s theology.  Further, the Temple does not refer to its teachers as “ministers” or the equivalent, nor do the teachers refer to themselves as such. Accordingly, we conclude the teachers are not “ministers” for purposes of the ministerial exception.

Presiding Judge Edmon filed a concurring opinion contending that the court need not reach the question of whether the teachers held “ministerial” positions, saying in part:

I would conclude that the Temple has not demonstrated that the ministerial exception has any application to the present dispute, which does not touch on the Temple’s freedom to choose its ministers or to practice its beliefs….

[T]he constitutional imperative against encroaching on a church’s selection of its ministers does not, as a logical matter, suggest that churches must be exempted from all laws that would regulate the employment relationship between a religious institution and its ministers. Given the number and variety of federal and state employment laws, it stands to reason that some laws will impose a greater burden on religious interests than will others. Accordingly, courts can, without doctrinal inconsistency, exempt churches from the application of some employment laws without exempting churches from all such laws.

You can learn more about this issue here.

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