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A Better Partnership
March 15, 2015

COA distinguishes standards affiliated with a modification of custodial environment and a modification of parenting time

In Kaeb v. Kaeb, No. 319574, the Court of Appeals held that a motion for a change in conditions on parenting time is not subject to the same stringent standard as a motion for a change in custodial environment. The Court of Appeals concluded that a father showed proper cause for his motion to change conditions on parenting time when he presented reports that he be released from alcohol and mental treatment; therefore, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s order granting sanctions against the father for bringing a frivolous claim.
Stephanie and Darin Kaeb, who have three children, divorced in 2010. The original judgment granted the parties joint legal and physical custody of their children. In February 2012, the court modified the parties’ judgment of divorce because Darin was struggling with alcohol dependence and mental problems. The new order granted Stephanie sole legal and physical custody of their children and also provided that Darin participate in alcohol treatment and therapy as a condition to his parenting time. In June 2013, after a series of contentious hearings between the parties, the trial court found evidence that Darin complied with the court’s requirements and expanded Darin’s parenting time. The trial court further ordered that Darin continue with alcohol treatment and counseling.  Two months later, Darin moved to amend the trial court’s June order, and asked the trial court to remove the requirement that he continue treatment. Darin supported his motion with reports from a doctor and counselor that stated he should be released from counseling. The trial court found that Darin’s motion was frivolous and ordered him to pay Stephanie’s costs and attorney’s fees. Darin appealed.
The Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court clearly erred when it found that Darin’s claims had no legal basis. The Court reasoned that the trial court applied the standard affiliated with a change in custodial environment, which is the wrong standard in this case. The Court explained that because Darin was merely trying to change conditions related to his ability to expand parenting time, he needed to establish the less stringent standard affiliated with a change of circumstances or proper cause to bring the motion. The Court held that the reports from Darin’s doctor and counselor were sufficient to establish proper cause for the trial court to reconsider whether treatment was in the children’s best interests. Therefore, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s order granting sanctions against Darin, vacated the orders requiring Darin to pay costs and fees, and remanded the case back to the trial court for further proceedings. The Court also affirmed the trial court’s holding that the case should not be assigned to a different judge.
Judge Murphy concurred in part and dissented in part. Judge Murphy agreed that the case should not be assigned to a different judge, but disagreed that the trial court erred with regards to Darin’s motion. He explained that there was no change of circumstances or proper cause to bring the motion because the reports presented to the court could have been presented at the hearing conducted two months prior. Judge Murphy further reasoned that the motion was brought merely because there was a change in Darin’s legal strategy to thwart treatment and therefore no cause existed to modify the court’s previous order. 

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