Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Michigan Supreme Court Affirms Father's Child Support Obligation Even When Parental Rights Terminated

There has been some buzz among family law practitioners this week concerning the Michigan Supreme Court's decision in the DHS vs Beck case.

Earlier this year, we posted on the Michigan Court of Appeals decision that held a father, whose chronic drugging resulted in the complete neglect of his children and termination of his parental rights, nevertheless remained obligated to pay child support for his two children.  The published Court of Appeals decision was just affirmed by the Michigan Supreme Court.

This case arose from the Oakland County Family Court; it was Judge Martha Anderson that initially terminated Mr. Beck's parental rights.  Both parents had been abusing drugs so their two children were placed with grandparents.  For her part, the mother  got straight, and otherwise complied with a DHS parenting plan; she now has the children.

The Supreme Court's Beck decision is remarkable in that it is the first decision to be issued by the Court in the current term.  Also, although the decision affirms the holding of the Court of Appeals, it does so on grounds different then those relied on by the intermediate appellate court.

The father in Beck did not appeal the termination of his parental rights; only the family court's ruling that he remained obligated to pay support for his children.  On appeal, the father argued that he was denied due process because he was arbitrarily deprived of his property (i.e. his support payments).  Like the intermediate appellate court, the Supreme Court was not convinced, ruling that the father failed to articulate how, exactly, his due process rights were implicated.

One of the issues to arise in the Beck case was that the parental termination provisions of the Juvenile Code are silent as to the corresponding "parental responsibilities".

The Court analyzed the rights and duties implicated by a family court's decision to terminate parental rights while continuing to obligate support payments.  Michigan common law has long established a minor child's right to support from both parents.  The appellate courts also recognized a parent's right to the "companionship, care, custody and management of his or her children."

In affirming the Court of appeals, the Supreme Court not only separated parental "rights" enumerated in the juvenile code, from the duties set out in the Child Custody Act, it also held that parental rights contained in the Custody Act were distinct and thus independent from the duties created by that same Act.

Of note in the dicta of the Court of Appeal's decision was an express acknowledgment of the current "times of difficult financial circumstances."  The Beck panel realized that in such difficult economic times, public policy is served by not shifting all support and maintenance obligations onto the custodial parent or, in some cases, the state.

This is the right decision.  If getting high is more important to a father than parenting, the rest of us should not have to pick-up the slack for that father and supply public benefits for such a man's children.  He should pay as well, even if he can no longer see his children.

Such are the choices we make in life.



Saturday, December 11, 2010

Child's Aging Held to be Sufficient Change of Circumstance to Justify Parenting-Time Modification

Very recently, the Michigan Court of Appeals published their decision in the parenting time modification case of Shade v Wright.  That case, and its effect on our "family law" jurisprudence, is the subject of our fellow Oakland County law blogger, Cameron Goulding, Esq.

Cameron produces the North Oakland Divorce Blog.  This post is his original content; thanks Cam.

Altering child visitation time (technically parenting time modification) just became easier in Michigan. Many judges and friend of the court referees believed that in order for a person to obtain more parenting time with their child or to limit the parenting time of the other party, one had to provide proof equal to that which would be required to change custody. I have long argued that this did not make sense because parenting time and custody are two very different things. 

There was really no published Michigan Court of Appeals case or Michigan Supreme Court case that dealt directly with this issue directly. There have been unpublished opinions from the Court of Appeals, however, unless a case is published it is not precedent. What this means is that the trial courts and friend of the court referees do not have to follow what the Court of Appeals has said in a case regarding any given issue unless it is a published case. The Michigan Court of Appeals issued a new published decision on December 3, 2010, Shade v Wright, Mich. App Docket No. 296318 (2010) which held that it should be, and now is due to this case, easier to change the parenting time schedule than it is to alter custody. 

This case stated that in order to decrease or increase child visitation with a parent there is a more relaxed burden of proof regarding a change of circumstances or proper cause as a threshold issue than there is with custody. The court went further and stated that normal life changes such as those described above are properly considered when deciding this issue. 

In the Shade v Wright case cited above, the change that allowed the mother to change the child’s visitation with the father was that their daughter had started high school and her schedule of activities changed. This is exactly the type of change that trial courts specifically can not consider in order to change custody. Many trial courts and friend of the court referees also believed, before this opinion, that this was exactly the type of change of circumstances that they could not consider in order to allow a change to either increase or limit child visitation. Those courts and referees that believed this were wrong and hopefully they will now follow this case when considering these issues because Shade v Wright is binding precedent.

Children do grow older and as they grow older their relationship with each parent will most likely change as they hopefully grow more independent. As much as it may pain a parent, their own child visitation may have to change to allow the child to find his or her own path which may have the child spend more or less time with either parent despite what the court has previously decided or the parent’s previously agreed. One must also consider that as children grow, they are involved in different activities. As their developmental needs change, both parents must be flexible with their parenting time schedule as much as it may pain the parent.

Cameron's email: goulding@camerongoulding.com

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Bankrolling the Divorce Settlement

We've all heard about lenders that specialize in loaning to personal injury plaintiffs in advance of their settlement. These firms front the money to the plaintiff, at a significant discount from the amount expected to be realized in the ultimate settlement.

This same princple is being applied to divorce judgments.  Get your money now and your divorce later.

Mind you, this is not for folks with middle-class marital estates.  Rather, this brand new industry is developing on the left and now the right coasts for married couples that have estates north of 2 or 3 million.

For example, Balance Point Divorce Funding of Beverly Hills, CA was started last year by an attorney, Stacey Napp, with funds she obtained from her own divorce.

In New York City, it looks like it's going to be Churchill Divorce Finance; a firm gearing-up for a mid-winter opening with the promise of, "leveling the legal playing field."

Each of these lending firms will specialize in lending money to parties involved in divorce who are expecting to walk away from court with a fair amount of hard cash; millions in fact.  Hard to believe here in Michigan, but those folks are out there.

One advantage of such firms is the ability for a "non-earning" spouse to obtain money in order to pay lawyers and forensic accountants to go after hidden assets, or "cooked" books in the family-owned business.

For others, it's simply an opportunity to get the money now in order to fuel that new, post-divorce lifestyle.  In  many cases, a little money up front goes a long long way.



Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Overreaching, Post-Divorce Style: Michael Douglas' Ex Demonstrates "Greed is Good"

Michael Douglas divorced his ex-wife, Diandra, in California back at the turn of the century.  She reportedly received $45 million as well as rights to half Douglas' earnings from the "spinoffs" of his completed movie work.

Demonstrating the chief principle from Douglas' hit movie Wall Street, that "greed is good", Diandra filed suit in Manhattan last summer seeking half the actor's royalties from the reprise of Douglas' character, Gordon Geckko. A Manhattan Supreme Court Judge dismissed the case on procedural grounds, finding that venue was improperly laid.

The judge got it right.  Diandra's rights to Douglas' earnings would come from the terms of their divorce decree rather than a separate cause of action filed in another state.

Here at the Law Blogger, we have to wonder why Diandre's attorney advised her to file in Gotham rather than California.  The reason stated in the pleadings was that both parties currently reside in New York.

Procedural defects aside, Douglas' lawyer asserted that Diandre was not entitled to any of Douglas' earnings from his new movie to the extent they are derived from a "sequel" to the original movie and thus does not qualify as a "spinoff", as referenced in the divorce judgment.

Sequel vs Spinoff?  Sounds like Diandre's lawyers have twice let her down...



Thursday, November 11, 2010

Macomb Woman Obtains Divorce from the Grave

In a recent case originating from Macomb County, the Michigan Supreme Court held that a woman, scorned by her long-time but absentee husband, could effectively divorce him from her grave. The case, Tkachik v Mandeville, reversed the Court of Appeals' decision that ruled she could not do so.

In this case, the wife became ill and died of breast cancer after nearly three decades of marriage. Although the long-married couple was estranged at the time of wife’s death, they never filed for divorce or legal separation (known as separate maintenance in Michigan).

Because her husband had abandoned her during the 18-months she battled breast cancer, the wife executed a trust and will which left him nothing and appointed her sister as personal representative of her estate. At the time she died in 2002, the wife had spent years maintaining the “marital home” as well as a vacation property near West Branch. She paid all the property-related expenses without contribution from her husband.

Six-months after his wife’s death, the husband filed a petition in the Macomb Probate Court to set aside his deceased wife’s will and trust and to remove the cloud his wife placed on their marital properties. In the resulting probate court battle, the wife’s sister, relying almost extensively on out-of-state caselaw, asserted equitable contribution and abandonment theories, arguing that allowing husband to posthumously reap the benefits of his deceased spouse’s labors amounted to an unjust enrichment.

The sister was granted summary disposition and the Husband's challenge to his deceased wife's will and estate plan was thrown out of the Macomb County Probate Court.  In doing so, the probate court made a finding that Husband should not be considered a "surviving spouse" because he had abandoned his wife for more than a year.

Next, the sister went on the attack, suing her former brother-in-law on behalf of her sister's estate and seeking a determination that the probate court's finding (i.e. that Husband was not a "surviving spouse") destroyed the "tenancy by the entireties"; the mode of ownership of the former marital home.

When that didn't work, the sister amended her complaint to seek contribution from the Husband for Wife's sole maintenance of the properties.

The Court of Appeals was not persuaded by the sister's legal arguments in equity, deciding that a married person cannot execute an estate plan that effectively acts as a “posthumous divorce”. The appellate court’s ruling emphasized the sanctity of marital property intact and declined to “invent a claim” from which a decedent spouse can reach her surviving husband from her grave.

In reversing the intermediate appellate court, the Supreme Court extended the doctrine of contribution to find Husband liable for his portion of the maintenance of the property.  The high court was persuaded to fashion an equitable remedy where Sister had no remedy at law.

Essentially, the Supreme Court found that Husband had been unjustly enriched by reaping the benefits of his wife's maintenance and improvements to the properties, while contributing nothing.

The case is illustrative of how our court system processes a case.  The initial decision is never final.  In this case, the sister's case went all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court; went back down to the Court of Appeals for an opinion after that court passed on the case; then went back up to the Supremes.

After its epic journey, this case is binding common law and will determine the result for other subsequent and similar cases.  Lesson: if your spouse abandons you with ongoing obligations, he or she may be liable, either in family or probate court, for past maintenance and the cost of  improvements on an equitable contribution theory.



Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Cheating Spouse App Gets Pulled by Droid

A controversial new application for Motorola's popular Droid phone has apparently been pulled before it had a chance to hit the cell phone application market-place.

The idea behind the "Secret SMS Replicator" application is to forward text messages from the target phone to a designated phone.  What's more, the application on the target phone is invisible and cannot be detected.

Similar applications have failed Apple's application store approval process.  In the case of the SMS Replicator, Google said the covert application violates the "Android Market Content Policy."

Just because this application did not make it to market does not mean it won't be applied.  The technology is available to those who do not mind installing rogue applications.

In Michigan, it is illegal to download the emails of another person without permission by using spyware and keystroke programs.  These products, however, remain on the market.

Perhaps the best policy if you are in a marriage or a committed relationship is to stay faithful.  On the other hand, if you believe your spouse or significant other has strayed, or is thinking of doing so, it may be time to move on through separation or divorce.

Often, a cuckholded spouse feels the need to acquire rock-solid proof of infidelity. Sometimes, this is sound pre-divorce strategy. Getting the goods on your significant other, however, should never come via breaking the law.

Good luck out there!



Friday, October 29, 2010

Change of Domicile Case From Clarkston Gets Supreme Court Treatment

One of the saddest things in a divorce proceeding is when a parent moves the family court for permission to change the domicile of the minor children.  When that occurs, not only is the family rocked by the initial shock of divorce, the future relationship with the parent left behind is placed in jeopardy.

A case from Clarkston, MI is instructive on the factors considered when such a motion is brought before the family court judge.

In Sunde v Sunde, mother petitioned the court to change domicile.  After considering evidence presented during a hearing on the issue, Family Court Judge Mary Ellen Brennan denied the motion.  Although mother's application for  leave to appeal was denied by the Court of Appeals, the Michigan Supreme Court issued an order remanding the case to the family court for further evidentiary proceedings.

Specifically, the Supreme Court found that Judge Brennan erred by not considering mother's proffered evidence of domestic violence; one of the five statutory factors the court must consider when deciding a domicile motion.  The high court also instructed the family court to consider "up-to-date information or evidence of other changes in circumstance arising since the trial court's most recent order."

Essentially, the Supreme Court has allowed mother a second evidentiary bite at the "domicile" apple.  The fate of the Sunde children continues to hang in the balance.

As in all family court cases that are brought to trial, the family court judge is charged with deciding what is in the children's best interest rather than weighing the competing interests of the parents.  Hopefully, after hearing all the evidence on each statutory factor, the path becomes clear to the judge.

This case pits long-time Clarkston-area attorney Lawrence Russell against Ann-Marie Okros, also from the Clarkston area.

Our firm has an excellent track-record of prevailing in domicile trials.  If you or a family member would like a free consultation on this, or any other family law issue, use the contact information below to schedule an appointment.



Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Specialized Foreclosure Courts Spring-Up in Florida

If you lost your home to foreclosure, would you know who steps into your shoes as the next owner?

Uncertainty answering that question is plaguing an innovative specialized court-system in Florida designed to speed-up the foreclosure process.  The recently tallied second quarter found Florida leading the nation in the proportion of delinquent or foreclosed mortgages: 20.13%.

This high mortgage failure rate is nurtured by the poor economy which has driven home values so far down, nearly half of all Floridian home-owners now owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth.  To combat this problem, the Florida legislature recently allocated ten million dollars to implement a high-speed "foreclosure only" court system.

Florida's Ninth Judicial Circuit Chief Judge, Belvin Perry, Jr, reported last month in the Florida Bar News that the foreclosure court disposed of 1,319 cases in July alone.  While impressive, this case-completion rate will not make a dent in the nearly half million homes awaiting the requisite repossession adjudication under Florida law.

And speed does not always equate with justice.  Some attorneys that represent borrowers in the Jacksonville area complain that the retired judges enlisted to process the foreclosure "rocket docket" do not spend adequate time reviewing often-complex files, and the homeowners' motions contained therein.  Another common complaint is that as these judges slash through the backlog, they tend to favor lenders over borrowers.

In some cases, judges have awarded foreclosure rights to plaintiffs who have not proved ownership of the subject property; a threshold issue.  In other cases, the retired visiting judge on a particular date is simply not adequately advised in the premises of the multitude of cases on the docket that day.

Another problem facing the court is the large number of cases that feature sketchy documentation presented by a lender to prove ownership.  Added to this are the multiple transfers characterizing many mortgage transactions, each draped with a bewildering assortment of documentation

These problem are so bad, the Florida Attorney General recently announced an investigation of the three largest law firms in the state that represent foreclosing lenders.  Alleging that the firms are acting as foreclosure mills, the Florida AG has accused instances of document fabrication and post-dating.  One of the targeted firms, Law Offices of David J. Stern, filed more than 70,000 foreclosures last year.

Another practice that distorts the identity of home-ownership in foreclosure court is the use of bank affidavits when a particular document can no longer be located or produced for the court.  Borrowers' attorneys assert this common practice is improper when the bank official has a stake in the outcome of the case.

For many of the residents of these homes, foreclosure is just one stop on the way to bankrutpcy.  These folks would probably not see the humor in the name of Attorney Stern's new $20 million dollar yacht: Miss Understood.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Oakland Circuit Judge-Shuffle Shaping Up

Recently, President Obama appointed Oakland Circuit Judge Mark Goldsmith to the federal bench in Detroit. His appointment has been approved by the U.S. Senate and he is expected to assume his place at the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan by year's end.

Goldsmith's appointment creates an opening on the general docket of the Oakland County Circuit Court.  Oakland Family Court Judge James M. Alexander has announced that he will vacate his place in the Family Court to assume Judge Goldsmith's docket.

Judge Alexander will be handling general civil cases, and a criminal docket.  This means that attorneys, and parties that had matters pending with Judge Alexander in the Oakland Family Court will have their matters re-assigned to another judge.

This also means that another judge will be appointed, perhaps by the end of the year, to fill Judge Alexander's spot on the family court in Oakland County.  Rumors are rampant relative to Governor Jennnifer Granholm's appointment for this seat.  Among a few others, we've heard that 51st District Chief Judge Phyllis McMillen is under active consideration.

McMillen would be well-suited for the family court appointment.  A judge's judge, McMillen brings plenty of judicial experience as well as a valuable even-handed judicial demeanor to fill this important vacancy.  Unfortunately, in our system of political judicial appointments, the right person does not always get the job.

Our system of judicial elections for at-large seats, and gubernatorial vacancy appointments makes for an ever-changing bench at the county and municipal levels.  Good judges help to instill in the general public the proper confidence in our judicial system.



Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Dividing Retirement Assets: Who's Loss; Who's Gain?

In mid 2008, many divorce attorneys faced the problem of apportioning sudden significant losses in the stock and real estate markets.  Those cases depended on valuing IRAs and 401(k) plans to neutralize the risk for both parties.

The economy fell too fast and too far, however, for many sagging marriages.  During the first two quarters of 2008, many divorce litigants locked-in on values established over appreciable time.  Unless their divorce attorneys had the qualified domestic relations order (QDRO) ready at the trial date (a rare bit of forethought), significant value was lost each day of the delay.  In some cases, more than six-figures.

One such case decided during that era by Oakland County Family Court Judge Elizabeth Pezzetti, Skinner v Skinner, was upheld last week by the Michigan Court of Appeals.

The MCOA opinion in Skinner is a guide for divorcing partners relative to what constitutes premarital or "separate" retirement property and defines "passsive income" relative to retirement assets.  The case also illustrates the consequences of stipulating to division dates for retirement assets, then suffering a long delay prior to full-resolution of the divorce litigation.

In Skinner, Husband stipulated to a date for purposes of valuation of the couple's retirement assets, including the pre-marital portion of his 401(k).  A two or three day trial and other dispositive court hearings were then spread over the next 3-months, during which time investment portfolios tanked, eroding nearly half the accrued value in retirement assets, across the board.

The issues in the case were: how to classify the significant interest income generated from Husband's pre-marital, and thus separate, retirement asset; and what date to use for division of the parties' IRA.

Coming into the marriage, Husband had invested approximately $15,000 in his Ford Motor Company 401(k) plan.  Over the course of the couple's 23-year marriage, more than $150,000 in marital earning contributions were made to the Ford plan.

As of the (pre-Great Recession) trial date, the value of the parties' other significant retirement asset, an IRA, was nearly $500,000.  By the time the judgment of divorce entered in mid-November, the IRA was only worth $330,000, and the Great Recession was upon us.

At trial, Husband presented a mathematically sound formula to calculate the interest generated from his pre-marital investment; these calculations were uncontested.  In her opinion dividing the marital estate, however, Judge Pezzetti ruled that 100% of the appreciation on the retirement plan was part of the marital estate.

The court of appeals affirmed Pezzetti's decision, including such gains as a component of the marital estate when a spouse, in this case the Wife, assists in the growth of the separate asset.  In the Skinner case, this assistance took the form of Wife's role as homemaker for the parents' four children.

Husband in Skinner took a double hit due to the losses incurred from the stipulated valuation date and the delay in getting the divorce judgment entered.  He cried "unfair" to the appellate court, to no avail.

In many of these cases, investor(s) nearing traditional retirement age were caught napping; some had a significant portion of their life-savings  invested in stock-based retirement assets rather than a more liquid, diversified portfolio.  Once the Great Recession took hold of the economy, divorce attorneys whose clients had already agreed to valuation dates for retirement assets lost significant value each and every day until their final judgment was entered.

Even when (painfully) aware of the issue, attorneys simply could not complete these divorces fast enough.  One of the parties, like in Skinner, usually came up short, suffering a complete loss of retirement value.

Once an agreement is reached, or when a divorce trial begins, it is crucial for the attorneys to work diligently in order to complete the often painful and emotional process of ending a long-term marriage.  Skinner tells us that no good can come from a delay.


Sunday, May 23, 2010

Family Court's Custody Rulings Must Cite Findings

Last Thursday, the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed a custody ruling of the Eaton County Family Court.  The tortured case, Wilbur v Carter, arose from a paternity suit, not a divorce.

The couple in this case conducted a protracted custody battle over their now 11-year old child.  The case features just about every tool available to the family court judge: supervised parenting time; temporary orders; in camera interviews with the child (twice) and evidentiary hearings.

The family court made a series of custody rulings in Father's favor over the years, keeping Mother's custody hopes alive by scheduling review hearings.  Father had been awarded sole legal custody and the stated purpose of the review hearings were to determine whether joint legal custody could be reinstituted.

Although the unpublished decision does not contain the underlying facts, the family court judge apparently did not approve of Mother's life style, removing her as a joint legal custodian of her child, and ordering supervised parenting time with Mother.

Over the past seven years, the parents kept filing motions for custody.  The lower court flip-flopped on the issue, alternating between temporary orders of sole legal custody to Father; then switching back to joint custody.  What troubled the Court of Appeals was that none of the requirements contained in the Child Custody Act were followed.

Before a family court judge changes custody, it must first determine whether an "established custodial environment" exists with either, or both, parents.  This term is defined in the custody act to mean:
if over an appreciable time the child naturally looks to the custodian in that environment for guidance, discipline, the necessities of life, and parental comfort. The age of the child, the physical environment, and the inclination of the custodian and the child as to permanency of the relationship shall also be considered.
The Eaton County Family Court neglected to make this determination in the case.  This is important because a court's determination of an established custodial environment determines the burden of proof which the moving parent must satisfy before a change in custody can be made.

In addition, the Court of Appeals was also disturbed because the lower court failed to make any determination that a "change of circumstances" or "just cause" existed to justify the requested custody modification.  Finally, it also reversed the family court because it made no findings of fact based on the 11 statutory custody factors set forth in the custody act.

Often, family courts feel constrained by their crowded dockets and the sometimes "informal" nature of the family court.  Attorneys foster this environment by allowing decisions on custody matters without the requisite findings by the court.

This case stands for the proposition that a family court cannot properly change custody without first: determining whether an established custodial environment exists; then determining whether the requisite "change of circumstances" exists; and finally making a factual determination after an evidentiary hearing as to all 11-factors.

The case calls for good lawyering in each and every custody battle, regardless of the court's resources or the resources of the parties.


Sunday, April 11, 2010

Same-Sex Marriage Cases Go Constitutional

A federal law suit filed last year by two California same-sex couples (one gay; one lesbian) has raised constitutional issues in the gay marriage context and is unfolding in a momentous trial.  In Massachusetts, another federal case tests whether a federal statutory provision that draws a sexual-preference distiniction is constitutional.

The complaint in Perry v Schwarzenneger, filed in the Northern District of California and assigned to Judge Vaughn R. Walker, has high-powered lawyers seeking far-reaching relief for the rights of (gay) individuals.  The case is another chapter in the tumultuous world of 21st Century Californian sex-gender politics.  The "all-in" nature of the Perry case, however, will have effects that touch most families in America.

You may or may not recall that back in 2004, the newly-elected young and dashing San Fransisco mayor Gavin Newsom made an international splash by presiding over same-sex civil marriage ceremonies conducted at City Hall.  The California Supreme Court squashed the practice in about 30-days, voiding all the marriage licenses issued as a result of Gavin's project.

In a May 2008 change of course, the California Supreme Court decided (4-3) the case known as In Re Marriage Cases, holding that any California laws, "that treat persons differently because of their sexual orientation should be subjected to strict scrutiny..."  The California high court decision struck down proposed state legislation seeking to ban same-sex marriage on the grounds the initiative violated the California constitution.

Six months later, in yet another change of course, the California electorate (narrowly) approved Proposition 8, defining marriage as between opposite-sex couples only.  The California Supreme Court swiftly followed suit in Strauss v Horton, upholding the passage of Proposition 8, but applying that referendum prospectively, thereby preserving the approximately 18,000 marriages that had been performed prior to the passage of the referendum; and perhaps unwittingly creating an arbitrary class of persons to which other gays can point in an equal protection analysis.

Enter the lesbian couple Kris Perry and Sandy Stier (Berkeley) and gay couple Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo (San Fernando Valley), pictured in the above link emerging from the federal courthouse following the first day of court proceedings.  The couples, very carefully selected by well-funded and well-connected gay rights activists, were apparently up for the arduous task of prosecuting constitutional federal litigation.  Neither couple were among the tens of thousands to take advantage of the narrow 6-month window to obtain a marriage license in mid-2008, making them ideal constitutional-litigants.

Some gay rights activists have criticized the suit as premature and ahead of the public opinion curve on the same-sex marriage issue.  While the concept seems to be gaining ground in abstract opinion polls, to date, only 5-states allow same-sex marriages:  Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont.  On the other hand, 29-states (including Michigan) have amended their Constitutions to outright ban gay marriage by defining a marriage as between a man and a woman.

Many in the front-lines of the gay rights movement prefer the slower, state-by-state approach to "resolving" the same-sex marriage issue.  They worry that the Supreme Court could hand their movement a serious setback by issuing a neutral or worse, an anti-gay, decision along the lines of the 1986 Bowers v Hartwick decision (upholding a Georgia sodomy law on the basis there was no constitutional protection for sexual privacy).  It took the high court 17-years to reverse the dubious Bowers decision in the seminal 2003 case of Lawrence v Texas, which expressly overruled their prior decision as defining the liberty and privacy interests of two consenting adults too narrowly to survive a Due Process analysis.

There is also a notion that gay-marriage was removed via the ballot box and that's where the battle should be won.  In our Democracy, however, core individual rights (once defined) are not subject to the ebb and flow of majority rule.

Other gays are tired of waiting, however, genuinely offended by the series of referendums passed which discriminate against their sexual orientation.  For example, California already has a progressive civil union statute to protect property rights and employment benefits.  But the Perry case is about much more than property rights and benefits; it is about individual liberty and the sacred right to chose one's life partner, one's spouse, without interference from the state.  Court watchers equate the Perry case to that of Brown v Board of Education (abolishing the "separate but equal" fallacy in public schools) and Loving v Virginia (holding that a state could not prohibit interracial marriages).

Whatever the outcome of the trial, an intermediate appeal to the Ninth Circuit is guaranteed to send this one to the United States Supreme Court.  Plaintiffs are represented by the unlikely but outstanding duo of Ted Olson and David Boies of Bush v Gore fame.  The former represented Bush as Solicitor General; the latter represented Vice President Al Gore in the famous case settling the 2000 presidential election.

Olson's conservative credentials have led some to wonder whether he is serving as a "double agent" planted to hand the movement a serious setback at the high court.  Olson should be taken at his word, however, when he states that, separate is not equal and that a "civil union" is not the same as a marriage.  With 44-wins already before the high-court, Olson likes his chances at that level and genuinely believes he's on the correct side of this issue.

In the meantime, the Perry case has already been to SCOTUS; Judge Walker's decision to televise the trial on YouTube was appealed from the other end of the state by Senator Dennis Hollingsworth.  The appeal stayed the trial judge's decision to stream the trial to the Internet and subject all of us to reading about the case, or suffering through a painful re-enactment of the trial.  Several key depositions (Paul Nathanson and Katherine Young) taken last fall, however, have been leaked to YouTube, and effectively convey the background surrounding what is shaping-up as our next great civil rights struggle.

5-votes will be required to establish precedent once a writ of certiorari is inevitably issued by the high-court in the case.  Olson and Boies will probably need to persuade Justice Anthony Kennedy, an oft-breaker of ties at the Court.

SCOTUS-watchers figure the so-called liberal bloc of Justices (Ruth Bader Ginnsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, and John Paul Stevens) will vote to condemn Proposition 8 as unconstitutional on Equal Protection grounds.  Since Justice Stevens announced his retirement on Friday, effective at the close of this session of the Court in June, President Obama's second high-court nomination takes on critical importance in the Perry case.  Justice Stevens' replacement will most-likely be a confirmed sitting Justice by the time Perry is on the high-court's docket sometime in 2012; the day-after-tomorrow from the Supreme Court's usual long-range perspective.

Of note:  Perry is not the only "gay-rights" case percolating through the federal courts at the moment.  Also destined for certiorari is Gill v Office of Personnel Management.   That case presents a more narrow constitutional challenge to a specific provision of the Defense Against Marriage Act preventing same-sex couples from receiving benefits that other non-gay federal employees receive for their families.

Plaintiff's counsel in Gill, Mary Bonauto, prevailed in the Massachusetts case that legalized gay-marriage.  While Bonauto acknowledges that her more-recent federal case is not the left-coast headline-generator that Perry is, she is mindful that both cases seek to expose the federal government's "double standard" when it comes to same-sex marriage; the feds recognize a wide-variety of marriages once they are licensed by a state, except in the case of gay-marriages.  Bonauto and other legal professionals fear that Perry seeks too momentous and far-reaching relief; the decision, after all, could invalidate anti-gay-marriage laws in nearly 40-states.

Michigan Connection:  In addition to those of us who have a family member involved in a same-sex union (my brother) or who are themselves involved in such a union, the left-coast Perry case could invalidate the 2004 Marriage Amendment to Michigan's constitution.

Also, the electronic divorce attorney (yours truly) will be admitted to the bar of the United States Supreme Court on the final day of this session, June 21st; Justice Stevens' final day of his long career on the high-court.

Stay tuned for the outcomes of these cases folks as we strive to keep you informed of significant developments.


Sunday, March 14, 2010

Child Support Still Owed When Parental Rights Involuntarily Terminated

There has been some buzz among family law practitioners this week concerning the Michigan Court of Appeals' decision in the DHS vs Beck case.

The COA held that a father, so neglectful and abusive that his parental rights were terminated, nevertheless remained obligated to pay child support for his two children.  The decision, arising from an Oakland County abuse case, will be published and thus binding on all Michigan family courts.

The father did not appeal the termination of his parental rights; only the family court's ruling that he remained obligated to pay support for his children.  On appeal, the father argued that he was denied due process because he was arbitrarily deprived of his property (i.e. his support payments).  The intermediate appellate court, however, was unimpressed, ruling that the father failed to articulate how, exactly, his due process rights were implicated.

One of the issues to arise in the Beck case was that the parental termination provisions of the Juvenile Code are silent as to the corresponding "parental responsibilities".

The Court went on to analyze the rights and duties implicated by a family court's decision to terminate parental rights while continuing to obligate support payments.  Michigan common law has long established a minor child's right to support from both parents.  The Court also recognized a parent's right to the "companionship, care, custody and management of his or her children."

In upholding the Oakland County Family Court, the COA ruled that a child's right to support cannot be bargained away in a termination proceeding.  The Beck panel decided that if the legislature had intended to terminate a parent's obligations along with his parental rights, it would have said so in the statute.

The Court also relied on it's earlier decisions that held support obligations continued in the wake of a voluntary termination or adoption.

Also of note in the dicta of the Court's decision was an express acknowledgment of the current "times of difficult financial circumstances."  The Beck panel realized that in such difficult economic times, public policy is served by not shifting all support and maintenance obligations onto the custodial parent or, in some cases, the state.

Finally, in deciding the case, the COA was careful to avoid the unintended consequence of encouraging the neglect and abuse of innocent children by seeking a parental termination.  Since an irresponsible parent cannot escape his support obligations by abusing or neglecting his children, the better interests of those children are served.

This is a sound decision by the intermediate appellate court.  Good thing the COA granted father's delayed application for leave to appeal (a discretionary appeal as opposed to an appeal of right).  Making a parent pay for their children despite their neglect is in both the child's and the community's best interest.


Sunday, February 21, 2010

No Joke: What's the Difference Between a Divorce and a Tatoo?

This blog post is from the SBM Blog and is the original content of the State Bar of Michigan.

As Michigan lawyers go about the work of convincing our state legislators that a tax on legal services would be a fundamental and costly mistake (see "Unfair, Unwieldy, Unwise, Unethical, and Unconstitutional"), we face the same response again and again:  "if we exempt one service we have to exempt them all."  In Georgia, policymakers are also gearing up for a tax on services, and a recent white paper from Georgia's venerable Tax Foundation asks: "Can anyone really keep a straight face while justifying a tax exemption for legal services, tattoos, haircuts, car repair,health club memberships and other common services?"  Well, we can.  In fact, we wonder how serious policymakers can keep a straight face equating legal services with personal grooming and adornment services.Bottom line: government shouldn't tax behavior that is good for society. We're all better off when people get the legal advice they need to secure justice or comply with the law.  Tatoos, not so much.

Monday, February 15, 2010

UM Law School Challenges Constitutionality of Felony Child Support Statute

The mighty UM Law School has its hands all over the recent constitutional challenge to the felony child support statute.  The case was originally charged by UM Law Alumni and Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox.  The appellant-defendant in the case is represented by the Michigan Innocence Project, run out of the UM Law School by Professor David Moran.

The case, People vs Likine, was the subject of a one-day jury trial in the Oakland County Circuit Court back in November 2008.  Years earlier, Selesa Likine was ordered to pay child support for her three minor children pursuant to her divorce proceedings; also in Oakland County.  The criminal case against Likine charged that she fell behind on the support payments from 2005 through 2008, creating arrears in the amount of nearly fifty thousand dollars.

Ms Likine attempted to assert the defense of an "inability to pay" the support ordered by the family court.  She claimed disability via the Social Security Administration stemming from her diagnosis of Schizoaffective Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder.  Likine also asserted that she was unemployed due to a lengthily hospitalization at the beginning of the charging period.  She further claimed that her support obligation was erroneously calculated by the family court, as it was based on a "phantom" imputed income of $5000 per month; a wage she claims she never earned in her entire life.

The felony child support statute is one of strict liability.  The Michigan Court of Appeals ruled in a 2004 published case (People v Adams) that a defendant cannot assert a defense at trial of his or her, "inability to pay" the court-ordered child support.

Accordingly, in the Likine case, the Attorney General requested trial judge John McDonald to preclude Likine from introducing any of the above facts regarding her disability and resulting lack of income from jury consideration.  The AG's motion was granted based on the Court of Appeals' Adams ruling.

Just prior to the beginning of her criminal trial, Likine's attorney moved for reconsideration of Judge McDonald's evidentiary ruling; this time arguing that precluding her from presenting evidence of her "ability to pay" and of her employment history, violated Likine's constitutional Due Process rights under the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution.  The motion was again denied.

Not surprisingly, Likine was convicted by the jury of failing to pay court-ordered child support and sentenced to one-year probation.  When the jury was deliberating her case, however, they sent out a note to Judge McDonald asking for information about Ms Likine's employment history.  Due to his earlier rulings in the case, Judge McDonald refused to answer the jury's query.

Following her jury trial, Likine secured appellate representation from UM's Professor Moran, who filed a motion for new trial; this time asserting that Likine's conviction violated the Michigan Constitution.  McDonald, stating that he sometimes disagreed with the Court of Appeals' Adams decision, nevertheless denied the motion.

In her appeal currently pending before the Michigan Court of Appeals, Likine relies on a Michigan Supreme  Court decision from 1889 which held that statutes cannot criminalize conduct which, through no fault of the defendant, is impossible to avoid.  Professor Moran asserts that such a criminal law lacks the requisite, "voluntary actus reus" (bad act).

Along the same lines, Professor Moran raises a claim of violation of federal Due Process under the U.S. Constitution.  In this fashion, Likine argues on appeal that the Court of Appeals' Adams decision wrongly eliminates the actus reus requirement of the felony child support statute, rendering it unconstitutional on its face.

In response, the Attorney General asserts that Adams remains controlling in felony child support convictions. The AG's argument is that the Michigan Constitution is not offended when a "prior judicial determination" establishes a payment obligation for which it is a crime to ignore.  Since Likine's support obligation was established by the family court, she was afforded Due Process.

In a somewhat surprising move given the high-powered counsel on both sides, the Court of Appeals has submitted the case to a 3-judge panel for decision without the benefit of oral argument.  The order to dispose of the case solely on the briefs was issued last week, despite both sides filing timely briefs which requested oral argument.

The losing side on this one will probably try to take the issue before the Michigan Supreme Court.

Update:  The Court of Appeals "changed its mind" and, on its own motion, granted the parties a very brief oral argument on March 4, 2010; ten minutes for each side.

The Court of Appeals issued it's unpublished per curiam opinion affirming Defendant's conviction on grounds her constitutional right to Due Process was not violated.  The Court held that, because she availed herself of numerous hearings in the family court, she was afforded Due Process.

When I discovered this opinion had been issued, I contacted Professor Moran to get his take on the result.  He simply stated that he did not believe the panel fully understood the facts of Ms. Likine's case.  Also, Professor Moran said he was applying for certiorari to the Michigan Supreme Court and then, if necessary, on to SCOTUS.


Sunday, January 3, 2010

2009 Michigan Child Custody Update

This post summarizes some of the more interesting 2009 family law decisions from the Michigan Court of Appeals dealing with child custody.

In 2009, the Court of Appeals looked at the interplay between the juvenile code and the child custody act in two important cases.  The first case discussed was published and thus binding precedent; the second case is unpublished and does not bind subsequent courts in Michigan.

In a case from Wayne County, In the Matter of A.P., Mother had sole custody of her child from a paternity action.  She was accused of abusing the child.  The resulting juvenile proceedings re-introduced the child’s biological father into the child’s life.  In the lengthily proceedings, the juvenile court’s rulings intersected and conflicted with prior orders from the family court.

The Court of Appeals held that the juvenile court supersedes the family court:

Once a juvenile court assumes jurisdiction over a child and the child becomes a ward of the court under the juvenile code, the juvenile court’s orders supersede all previous orders, including custody orders entered by another court, even if inconsistent or contradictory. In other words, the previous custody orders affecting the minor become dormant, in a metaphoric sense, during the pendency of the juvenile proceedings, but when the juvenile court dismisses its jurisdiction over the child, all those previous custody orders continue to remain in full force and effect. 
 DHS v Gunther is significant as it also addresses jurisdiction via the juvenile code over children that are already under the jurisdiction of the family court.  In this case, Mother had “physical custody” of the parties’ children resulting from a divorce judgment.

The Gunther children came to the attention of DHS due to school truancy allegations resulting in temporary placement of the children with their father.  Mother moved for their immediate return, asserting that the juvenile court referee could not alter the children’s “established custodial environment” without first conducting a hearing, as required by the Child Custody Act.

Again, the Court of Appeals held that once a juvenile court assumes jurisdiction over a minor pursuant to the juvenile code, the juvenile court’s orders supersede all other previous orders; including those issued from a family court.

In Pobanz v Pobanz, the Court of Appeals decided the issue of whether a 17-year old could be court-ordered to participate in parenting time within the context of a custody challenge.  As in the two other cases discussed in this post, Pobanz also featured a co-occurring neglect petition in the juvenile court. 

The trial court stated that it would not force a 17-year to participate in parenting time when she stated that she did not want to see her Father.  Although the Pobanz panel agreed with the trial court that a seventeen year old’s reasonable custody preference is given wide-deference, it held that the lower court erred by not conducting an evidentiary hearing to determine whether the many other statutory factors supported the decision.  The case was sent back to the Huron County Family Court to conduct the hearing.

Surprisingly, the Court of Appeals allowed the trial court to change judges based on the subsequent juvenile case.  The family court judge was first assigned to the Pobanz family in the divorce proceedings, but the trial court transferred the divorce, and Father’s custody motion, to the judge presiding over the subsequent juvenile proceedings.

This ruling is interesting in that it seems to violate the “one family, one judge” concept set forth in 1996 with the creation of the family courts across the state.  According to the reorganization statute, multiple cases involving the same family were all to be assigned to the first judge in the county assigned to that family.

In Bonner v Bonner, the Court of Appeals decided the issue of whether a child could be compelled to testify at hearing on his parents’ competing change of custody motions.  The case featured the open-court testimony of the parties’ minor child, limited to matters of alleged abuse by the Mother.

The case is most interesting for featuring the testimony of a well-respected psychologist that had observed the parties and child at the court hearing(s).  The psychologist then provided testimony to the family court as to his observations of both parents and the child.  Note: The family court judge did not find the child’s testimony about the conditions of his Mother’s home to be credible.

Also, the case is significant in that a child was compelled to testify in order to satisfy his parents’ right to due process.  Unlike in camera testimony of children called into a judge’s chambers to express their custodial preference under seal, this case featured the open-court testimony of a son against his own Mother.

Next, the Court of Appeals, in Roguska v Roguska, examined whether a family court could reject a settlement agreement on custody reached at court-ordered mediation by both parties and their respective attorneys.  In that case, the Mother subsequently attested that her husband lied during mediation, that she and her husband had serious communication problems, and that she subsequently obtained a PPO against the husband.

The Roguska panel held that such facts freed the family court from having to follow the settlement agreement on the custody issue.  In cases of domestic violence, arbitration and mediation are allowed, but disfavored due to the coercion that can sometimes be brought to bear against the victim of abuse.

The case of Hoeve v Hoeve continues the series of Court of Appeals decisions holding that the parents' school-district decision may be, by itself, proper cause to change custody.  In Hoeve, the pre-school child spent week-on-week-off with mom and dad.  Father sought and was awarded sole physical custody, however, once the child became eligible for kindergarten.

The parents lived about 70-miles apart.  Father's motion to acquire sole physical custody succeeded at trial and was affirmed on appeal.

According to family law appellate attorney Scott Bassett, the Hoeve case suggests that parental school choice disputes is the "new frontier" in child custody litigation.

This is a summary of what came out of the Court of Appeals on matters of custody in 2009.  Many other decisions addressed the important issues of domicile and parenting time which will be addressed in future posts.

Only time will tell what 2010 will bring.