This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (1994).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
In Re the Marriage of:
Lea Lorraine Rouland, petitioner,
Miles Douglas Rouland,
Filed August 20, 1996
Beltrami County District Court
File No. F1-95-252
Thomas T. Smith, Smith Law Firm, P.A., 115 Fifth Street, P.O. Box 1420, Bemidji, MN 56619-1420 (for Respondent)
Mary Kay Klein, Benshoof & Klein, P.A., 403 Fourth Street N.W., P.O. Box 1390, Bemidji, MN 56619-1390 (for Appellant)
Considered and decided by Huspeni, Presiding Judge, Toussaint, Chief Judge, and Foley,
U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N
Miles D. Rouland appeals the trial court's grant of physical custody of the parties' children to respondent Lea L. Rouland. Appellant argues the trial court abused its discretion in crediting the testimony of respondent and her witnesses over the testimony of appellant and his witnesses. Because we find no abuse of discretion in the trial court's decision, we affirm.
The parties were married in March 1985 and have two children, aged four and two at the time of the September 1995 dissolution. Appellant is employed as a heavy equipment mechanic and respondent is a registered nurse.
Respondent took maternity leaves after the births of both children and, at times, took part-time positions to spend more time with the children. She arranged for the children's day care and took care of their medical needs. Respondent testified that she performed basically all of the household duties and was primarily responsible for the children's education and care.
Respondent testified that appellant physically and emotionally abused her during the marriage, but that she did not report the physical abuse because she was trying to keep the marriage together. Respondent stated that there were three or four occasions when appellant hit her hard enough to leave bruises. Respondent's mother, stepfather, and father testified that they observed the bruises described by respondent. She testified that the parties' older child sometimes had witnessed appellant's abusive behavior, and that the child had started to use profanities toward respondent and to hit his younger brother without provocation.
Respondent testified she became depressed due to her marital situation. Respondent's stepfather, a physician, testified that in July 1994 he examined respondent and prescribed the medication Prozac to treat the depression. Respondent's stepfather stated he is not currently prescribing Prozac because respondent is no longer depressed. Respondent stated her depression is now over and that she has more energy.
Appellant denied ever abusing respondent, indicating that respondent would sometimes try to provoke him into a physical confrontation. He testified that respondent became very depressed after the younger child's birth in July 1993 and that she spent most of her time at home sleeping or watching television. Appellant stated he did all of the outside chores and most of the cooking and house cleaning. He testified he was primarily responsible for the children's care, education, and discipline. Appellant's sister, who lived in the basement apartment of the parties' home for about five months in 1994, corroborated appellant's testimony.
In September 1994, respondent arranged for a live-in babysitter to provide child care while the parties were working. The babysitter also assisted with the housekeeping. The babysitter testified that the house was dirty, but that the conditions were not so bad that someone could not live in it. The babysitter stated she felt both parties loved the children very much, but that respondent was often very tired and it was hard for her to keep the house and children in order.
Appellant moved out of the home in February 1995. In May 1995, he regained possession of the marital home; respondent and the children moved to an apartment. There was conflicting testimony regarding the condition of the home when respondent moved out.
The guardian ad litem testified he believed that appellant had abused respondent to some degree, but indicated that it was not a major issue. The guardian also stated he had not visited respondent at her present residence because he did not believe that the cleanliness of the marital home was a significant issue. The guardian recommended that physical custody be awarded to appellant based on respondent's history of low energy and tendency to bury problems rather than confront them.
The trial court granted legal custody of the children to the parties jointly and sole physical custody to respondent. The trial court found that respondent has been the children's primary caretaker, that respondent is better suited to provide guidance to the children, and that the children have been adversely affected by appellant's abuse of respondent.
D E C I S I O N
The scope of appellate review of custody determinations is limited to whether the trial court abused its discretion by making findings unsupported by the evidence or by improperly applying the law.
Ayers v. Ayers
, 508 N.W.2d 515, 518 (Minn. 1993). The trial court's findings must be sustained unless clearly erroneous.
In determining the children's best interests, the trial court must make findings reflecting the court's consideration of the statutory factors listed in Minn. Stat. § 518.17, subd. 1(a) (1994). Appellant contends the record does not support the trial court's finding that respondent has been the children's primary caretaker.
at subd. 1(a)(3). We disagree.
In establishing which parent is the primary caretaker, the trial court shall determine which parent has taken primary responsibility for the performance of certain duties, including (1) preparing and planning of meals, (2) bathing, grooming, and dressing, (3)cleaning, and care of clothes, (4) medical care, (5) arranging for social interaction among peers after school, (6) arranging alternative care, (7) putting child to bed at night, attending to child in the middle of the night, and waking child in the morning, (8) disciplining and toilet training, (9) educating, and (10) teaching elementary skills.
Pikula v. Pikula
, 374 N.W.2d 705, 713 (Minn. 1985). The trial court here made specific findings in support of its determination that respondent is the children's primary caretaker.
Appellant does not dispute the trial court's findings that respondent breast fed the children during their infancy, took extended maternity leaves, and has arranged for the children's health care and day care. Appellant does challenge, however, the trial court's findings that respondent has tended to the children's needs more than appellant and that throughout the marriage both parties contributed to and tolerated a messy house. Appellant contends the findings are not supported by the record, because they are contrary to the testimony of appellant and his witnesses.
The trial court's findings must be sustained unless clearly erroneous, and deference must be given to the opportunity of the trial court to assess witnesses' credibility.
Sefkow v. Sefkow
, 427 N.W.2d 203, 210 (Minn. 1988). The trial court has a position superior to that of an appellate court when assessing the credibility of witnesses. This superiority is particularly evident when the trial court observes the parent and other witnesses whose testimony is crucial to accurately evaluate what is best for the child.
In re the Welfare of A.D.
, 535 N.W.2d 643, 648 (Minn. 1995).
This court must review the evidence in a light most favorable to the trial court's findings.
Kennedy v. Kennedy
, 403 N.W.2d 892, 897 (Minn. App. 1987). The trial court noted that the parties presented starkly contrasting testimony regarding the relevant child custody factors. The court was faced with a credibility contest, the resolution of which led to the court's decision. The court observed that appellant's minimization of his abuse of respondent affected the court's assessment of appellant's general credibility. Appellant has shown this court no basis for reversal of the trial court's credibility determinations.
Appellant contends the trial court ignored evidence from neutral witnesses showing that the house was filthy and unsafe and that respondent was unable to manage the house and the children. However, the guardian ad litem testified that the cleanliness of the marital home was not a significant issue. Further, although respondent suffered from fatigue resulting from depression during the marriage, no evidence was presented contradicting the testimony of respondent and her stepfather that respondent is no longer depressed. The trial court specifically found that respondent has recovered from her depression. There was no evidence that respondent is not maintaining her current residence with the children or that she has not been appropriately caring for the children since she moved out of the marital homestead. The record reflects that the trial court appropriately weighed the disorderly condition of the parties' home during the marriage in determining the custody award.
We note that the trial court also appropriately did not rely solely on the primary caretaker factor in determining custody.
Minn. Stat. § 518.17, subd. 1(a) (primary caretaker factor may not be used as a presumption in determining the best interests of the child). The court found that respondent is better suited to provide the children guidance and that the children were adversely affected by appellant's abuse of respondent.
Minn. Stat. § 518.17, subd. 1(a)(10), (12). Although there was conflicting testimony pertaining to these factors, we again defer to the trial court's assessment of witness credibility.
Appellant argues that the factor pertaining to the stability of the children's environment should have been weighed in his favor, because he continues to reside in the marital home. But the record supports the trial court's finding that the children did not experience a stable environment in the marital home in view of the acrimony between the parties, the domestic abuse, and the periods of separation of the parties. There was no evidence that the children have friends in the neighborhood or any particular attachment to the marital home. The trial court did not err in finding that the children have not resided for an extended period in a stable environment.
Appellant also contends the trial court did not give enough weight to the factor of the children's relationships with extended family members. Again, we disagree. The trial court found that the children have more contact with relatives on appellant's side of the family, but that the children have positive relationships with extended family members of each of the parties. Although this factor slightly favors appellant, the trial court did not err in placing more weight on the primary caretaker and domestic abuse factors.
Finally, appellant argues the trial court did not adequately explain its rejection of the guardian ad litem's custody recommendation. The trial court stated that it did not follow the guardian's recommendation because the guardian's factual findings differed from those made by the court. Because the trial court made specific findings on the relevant best interest factors, a more detailed explanation of the court's rejection of the guardian's recommendation was not required.
See Rutanen v. Olson
, 475 N.W.2d 100, 104 (Minn. App. 1991) (where trial court has conducted thorough best interest analysis, it does not abuse its discretion when it awards custody contrary to recommendation of custody report without specific finding explaining its rationale for rejecting the recommendation).
Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.