In Landon v Sheldon, decided by the Court of Appeals on December 21, 2010, the trial court found that an established custodial environment existed solely with defendant mother. This seriously impacted the father's burden of proof and resulted in a custody award to the mother. This was a paternity case. Although the mother convinced the trial court that the ECE existed with her alone, the COA disagreed and reversed the trial court’s award of sole custody to Mom. This case is a good example of why lawyers should caution clients to testify with complete candor rather than trying to construe facts in their own favor. A half-truth is still only half true. It is also half false.
The testimony was also conflicting as to how much time Dad had with N during the day. Dad testified that he cared for N virtually every day while Mom worked. Mom testified that N was at daycare this entire time, unless N was sick, and that Dad would only care for N if he were sick and couldn’t go to daycare. When pinned down, Mom then testified that N was only was at daycare for the first one and one-half years of his life, and Dad had cared for the child after this time. Thus, by Mom’s own testimony, between the age of 1 ½ and 4, Dad took care of N while Mom worked during the daytime.
The COA concluded there was little doubt that an ECE existed, at a minimum, with the plaintiff-father before January 2008. "Plaintiff's constant presence, caring, and providing, from when" N "was one and one-half years old until he was nearly seven years old, was profound." Plaintiff's reduced parenting time since January 2008 was relevant because a custodial environment can be established through a custody order, temporary or not.
However custody orders, by themselves, do not establish a custodial environment. The existence of a temporary custody order does not preclude a finding that an ECE exists with the noncustodian or that an ECE does not exist with the custodian. "The key is to examine the relationship the child has with each parent." There was no evidence that N did not continue to look to plaintiff for "guidance, discipline, the necessities of life, and parental comfort" after defendant moved out of the house. In fact, N expressed that he missed his father and his room in the house.
The COA held that the evidence clearly preponderated that plaintiff's reduced parenting time with N did not destroy the ECE that existed before January 2008. Plaintiff continued to care and provide for N, albeit in a necessarily reduced capacity. "In short, the five and one-half years of constant presence was not negated simply because plaintiff had reduced time with" N for the last two years. Thus, the trial court's finding that no ECE existed with plaintiff was against the great weight of evidence. Rather, the record demonstrated that there was an established joint custodial environment in this case.
As a result, the trial court was not permitted to alter the custody arrangement with both parents absent clear and convincing evidence. Further, the COA disagreed with the trial court's finding that the best-interest factors favored vesting sole custody with defendant by a clear and convincing evidence standard. Given the COA's determination that many of the trial court's findings related to the best-interest factors were against the great of evidence, a remand was necessary.
"Regardless of how plaintiff acted towards defendant in the pursuit of this custody case," the COA concluded it was apparent that the evidence did not favor defendant by a clear and convincing evidence standard. "While the trial court was free to evaluate and weigh plaintiff's obsessive behavior, it could only do so with respect to his ability to function as a parent."
Although this case is unpublished and it therefore not binding precedent, each point is supported by citation to published cases, and therefore the case is instructive. On these issues, the COA supported its rulings:
Established custodial environment (ECE); Rittershaus v. Rittershaus;
You may read Landon v Sheldon here.
Need help with a child custody issue?