IN COURT OF APPEALS
In re the Marriage of:
Leyla Tarlan, petitioner,
Filed September 6, 2005
Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded
Beltrami County District Court
File No. F9-98-935
Kay Nord Hunt, Marc A. Johannsen, Lommen, Nelson, Cole & Stageberg, P.A., 2000 IDS Center, 80 South 8th Street, Minneapolis, MN 55402 (for appellant)
Considered and decided by Lansing, Presiding Judge; Klaphake, Judge; and Halbrooks, Judge.
When a party establishes a prima facie case for limiting the custodial parent’s authority to make health-care decisions, the district court errs by failing to hold an evidentiary hearing pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 518.176 (2004).
challenges the district court’s denial of her motion to compel respondent to reestablish
their children’s residence in
is the most recent appeal in acrimonious and contentious dissolution-related
proceedings. Appellant Leyla Tarlan and
respondent Alan Sorensen dissolved their marriage in February 1999. In a subsequent order dated April 11, 2000,
the district court awarded sole physical and sole legal custody of the parties’
three children to respondent, subject to appellant’s parenting time. In the spring of 2001, respondent was
accepted to three law schools in
In the spring of
2004, respondent graduated from UND and accepted an offer of employment in
moved the district court for an order requiring, among other things, that
respondent (1) reestablish the children’s residency in
1. Did the district court err by denying
appellant’s motion to reestablish the children’s residency in
2. Did the district court err by denying an evidentiary hearing when a prima facie case of endangerment had been established?
court’s amended judgment allowed respondent “to reside with the children in
dissolution judgment is ambiguous is a legal question. Halverson
v. Halverson, 381 N.W.2d 69, 71 (
Here, the same
district court has presided over these proceedings for the past seven
years—ever since appellant initially filed for dissolution in June 1998. While the language of the district court’s
order amending the residency requirement of the judgment contemplates that
respondent could reside in
Appellant next argues that the district court abused its discretion by failing, at a minimum, to hold an evidentiary hearing as to whether the parties’ daughter should undergo mental-health counseling because of respondent’s continuous monitoring of their daughter’s weight. We initially note that as legal custodian of the parties’ daughter, respondent has “the right to determine the child’s upbringing, including education, health care, and religious training.” Minn. Stat. § 518.003, subd. 3(a) (2004) (emphasis added). Under Minn. Stat. § 518.176, subd. 1 (2004),
the parent with whom the child resides may determine the child’s upbringing, including . . . health care . . . unless the court after hearing, finds, upon motion by the other parent, that in the absence of a specific limitation of the authority of the parent with whom the child resides, the child’s physical or emotional health is likely to be endangered or the child’s emotional development impaired.[]
To be clear, it is important to note that appellant has not challenged the current custody arrangement, but instead has challenged respondent’s decisions relating to their daughter’s mental health on this issue. By moving the district court to order mental-health counseling for the parties’ daughter, contrary to respondent’s wishes, appellant challenges respondent’s decisions regarding the daughter’s health care, thereby implicating Minn. Stat. § 518.176, subd. 1.
A. Limitation on Custodial Parent’s Authority and Custody Modification
application of Minn. Stat. § 518.176, subd. 1, is limited. But the statute requires a showing by the
moving party that, absent a court order, “the child’s physical or emotional
health is likely to be endangered or the child’s emotional development impaired.” Minn. Stat. § 518.176, subd. 1. Thus, the considerations involved in
evaluating a motion to limit a custodian’s ability to make health-care
decisions are similar to those used to evaluate endangerment-based motions to
modify custody. See
This similarity of
considerations is consistent with the fact that the statutory language in Minn.
Stat. § 518.176, subd. 1, regarding motions to limit a custodial parent’s
authority to make health-care decisions is nearly identical with the language
relating to custody modifications found in Minn. Stat. § 518.18(d)(iv). Compare
custody-modification context, a district court can deny a motion to modify
custody without an evidentiary hearing if the moving party fails to allege a
prima facie case composed of facts that, if true, would provide sufficient grounds
to modify custody. Nice-Petersen v. Nice-Petersen, 310 N.W.2d 471, 472 (
determining whether a party has established a prima facie case for child-custody
modification, the court must accept the facts alleged in the movant’s affidavit
as true and disregard any contrary evidence.
Abbott v. Abbott, 481 N.W.2d
864, 867-88 (
B. Standard of Review
We review a district court’s decision to deny a motion to modify custody without an evidentiary hearing for an abuse of discretion. Geibe, 571 N.W.2d at 777-78. But under Minn. Stat. § 518.176, subd. 1, the custodial parent may determine a child’s health care “unless the court after hearing, finds . . . that in the absence of a specific limitation of the authority of the [custodial parent], the child’s physical or emotional health is likely to be endangered or the child’s emotional development impaired.” In light of this statute’s explicit requirement of a hearing to impose a limitation on a custodial parent’s authority, a requirement not explicitly found in Minn. Stat. § 518.18, we hold that an evidentiary hearing is required as a matter of law under Minn. Stat. § 518.176, subd. 1, if the moving party establishes a prima facie case. Thus, while Minn. Stat. § 518.18 and Minn. Stat. § 518.176, subd. 1, both give the district court discretion to determine whether the moving party establishes a prima facie case, the analyses under the two provisions are not identical. Under Minn. Stat. § 518.18, a denial of a motion to modify without a hearing is reviewed for an abuse of discretion, but our holding that the presence of a prima facie case for a limitation under Minn. Stat. § 518.176, subd. 1, requires a hearing as a matter of law, means that a denial of a limitation motion without a hearing must be reviewed de novo.
C. Prima Facie Case
Here, appellant has challenged the district court’s decision to deny appellant’s motion to limit respondent’s authority to make certain health-care decisions for the parties’ daughter without an evidentiary hearing. We therefore must determine whether appellant has made a prima facie case for limiting respondent’s authority to make health-care decisions in this instance.
1. Change in Circumstances
A change in circumstances must be significant and must have occurred since the original custody order, rather than being a continuation of conditions that existed prior to the order. Cf. Weber, 653 N.W.2d at 809 (noting same in the custody-modification context). Here, the record reflects that respondent’s reaction to his daughter’s weight did not seem to be an issue at the time of the initial custody determination in April 2000 when she was five years old, although respondent did begin to “express concerns about [her] disproportionate weight gain” around that time. Regardless of specific timing, it cannot be disputed that respondent’s concern about his daughter’s weight has escalated in recent years. Moreover, respondent began to regularly weigh his daughter at home only after the initial custody determination was made. Based on the record before this court, we conclude that a substantial change in circumstances has occurred since the original custody award.
The gravamen of the present dispute centers on whether the parties’ daughter (now 10 years old) has been or is presently endangered or her emotional development impaired by respondent’s vigilant monitoring of her weight. In her affidavit, appellant alleges:
Respondent is being cruel to [our daughter] by refusing the offer to have her see a nutritionist . . ., refusing to enroll her in counseling, disobeying the child protection recommendations and not getting appropriate medical care for [our daughter], being very derogatory to the children including swearing at them and refusing to stop weighing [our daughter] against her will even when she was visibly traumatized by it (he makes her get on [a] scale when she gets out of the shower with only a towel and won’t let her eat if she won’t get on the scale).
(Emphasis added.) Appellant essentially claims that respondent has made detrimental health-care decisions relating to her daughter’s emotional health and development by refusing certain therapeutic treatment.
In addition, the Grand Forks County Social Service Center (social services) recommended counseling for the parties’ daughter because respondent had been “monitoring [the daughter’s] weight on a weekly basis for a good duration of time which has had an emotional impact on her.” Social services ultimately recommended that respondent “refrain from weighing [his daughter] to monitor her weight.”
For his part, respondent explains:
My concern [for my daughter’s weight] is thoughtfully founded on my observation of . . . her eating habits, medical advice and records, [and] information from the Center for Disease Control . . . . I monitored [my daughter’s] weight in a responsible, unobtrusive way, and it did not become an issue until I sent [appellant] a letter during the summer of 2003 setting forth my concerns regarding [my daughter’s] diet while at [appellant’s] residence.
We conclude that the factual allegations asserted by appellant in her affidavit rise to a level of emotional endangerment that, if true, could place the parties’ daughter in a “significant degree of danger.” Ross, 477 N.W.2d at 756. Emotional abuse alone may constitute sufficient endangerment, and when an allegation of such abuse is supported by some evidence, an evidentiary hearing is appropriate. See, e.g., Abbott, 481 N.W.2d at 868-69 (reversing denial of hearing when mother’s history of throwing children out of house created stress and anxiety in anticipation of being thrown out again in the future); Harkema v. Harkema, 474 N.W.2d 10, 14 (Minn. App. 1991) (reversing denial of hearing where allegations of emotional abuse by stepfather who was “yelling, throwing things, hitting walls, and driving the car like a maniac”); Lilleboe v. Lilleboe, 453 N.W.2d 721, 724 (Minn. App. 1990) (reversing denial of hearing where facts alleged might have established endangerment of child’s emotional health or development).
3. Best Interests of the Child
A child’s best interests are determined according to the factors listed in Minn. Stat. § 518.17 (2004). Cf. Weber, 653 N.W.2d at 810 (discussing factors in the custody-modification context). In a challenge to the limits of a custodial parent’s authority, the best-interests factors are closely tied to the endangerment factor. One best-interests factor includes “the mental and physical health of all individuals involved.” Minn. Stat. § 518.17, subd. 1(9) (2004). If a child’s emotional well-being is endangered, her best interests are clearly not being met. Accordingly, if true, the allegations contained in appellant’s affidavit are sufficient to make a prima facie case that limiting respondent’s authority to make health-care-related decisions may be in the daughter’s best interests.
4. Balance of Harm
In order to obtain
an evidentiary hearing, appellant must also show that the advantage of limiting
the custodial parent’s authority outweighs the harm likely to be caused by the change. Cf. Weber,
653 N.W.2d at 811-12 (addressing balance of harm in the custody-modification
context). It is true that
We are not
suggesting that a noncustodial parent may use Minn. Stat. § 518.176, subd.
1, as a means to interfere with the custodial parent’s decision-making regarding
a child’s upbringing. In fact, the very
purpose of this statute, which is identical with the uniform law, is “to
promote family privacy and to prevent intrusions upon the prerogatives of the
custodial parent at the request of the noncustodial parent.” Unif. Marriage & Divorce Act § 408
(1973), 9A U.L.A. cmt., at 437 (1998).
Moreover, courts should not intervene solely because a noncustodial
parent believes that a decision made by the custodial parent is thought to be
contrary to the child’s best interests.
To justify [judicial] intervention, the judge must find that the custodial parent’s decision would “endanger the child’s physical health or significantly impair his emotional development”—a standard patently more onerous than the “best interest” test. The standard would leave to the custodial parent such decisions as whether the child should go to private or public school, whether the child should have music lessons, what church the child should attend. The court could intervene in the decision of grave behavioral or social problems such as refusal by a custodian to provide medical care for a sick child.
9A U.L.A. cmt., at 438 (emphasis added).
In congruence with
this commentary, courts should err on the side of requiring an evidentiary
hearing when a child’s health or emotional well-being are at stake. Lilleboe,
453 N.W.2d at 724. As this court has
previously explained, “[e]videntiary hearings are strongly encouraged in these circumstances to protect the best
interests of the child.”
we defer to the district court’s interpretation of its own judgment, we affirm
its decision to deny appellant’s motion to return the children’s residence to
Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.
also note that while respondent did not formally move the court for an order to
permit removal of the children to North Dakota after completion of his legal
education, in removal cases, there is an implicit presumption that the custodial
parent’s request to move his children to another state should be granted. In order to defeat the presumption, an
opposing party must offer evidence that establishes that the move itself would
be against the children’s best interests and would endanger the children’s
health and well-being or be intended to interfere with visitation rights. Silbaugh
v. Silbaugh, 543 N.W.2d 639, 641 (
 We note that Minn. Stat. § 518.003, subd. 3(a), grants the legal custodian “the right to determine the child’s upbringing, including education, health care, and religious training,” whereas Minn. Stat. § 518.176 seems to grant that right to “the parent with whom the child resides” or the physical custodian. See Minn. Stat. § 518.003, subd. 3(c) (2004) (“‘Physical custody and residence’ means the routine daily care and control and the residence of the child.”). But here, because respondent is both the legal and physical custodian of the children, we need not address whether there is a conflict between the statutes or, if there is, how to resolve it. Contra Novak v. Novak, 446 N.W.2d 422, 424-25 (Minn. App. 1989) (noting possible discrepancies between the rights granted under Minn. Stat. § 518.176, subd. 1, which was enacted in 1978, and rights granted under Minn. Stat. § 518.003, subd. 3, which was enacted in 1981, and resolving discrepancies in favor of the more recently enacted Minn. Stat. § 518.003, subd. 3), review denied (Minn. Dec. 1, 1989).
 In addition, when the district court denies a motion for modification of child custody without holding an evidentiary hearing, it is not required to provide specific findings of fact. See Axford v. Axford, 402 N.W.2d 143, 145 (Minn. App. 1987) (concluding that the “requirements for specific findings do not apply to the evaluation of affidavits”). “[W]hen an evidentiary hearing is denied, the record consists of the affidavits the moving party submitted in support of the modification motion. Because the record is documentary, the appellate court can review the [district] court’s determination in a meaningful manner despite the lack of specific findings.” Abbott, 481 N.W.2d at 867.