JEFFREY M. EHLINGER, JR.
SARAH BARNETT EHLINGER
Appeal from the Twenty-Second Judicial District Court In and
for the Parish of St. Tammany State of Louisiana Docket No.
2011-11826 Honorable Reginald T. Badeaux, III, Judge
P. Tranchina, Jr. Tracy E. Gold Covington, Louisiana Counsel
for Plaintiff/Appellee Jeffrey M. Ehlinger, Jr.
Richard Ducote Covington, Louisiana Counsel for Defendant/
Appellant Sarah Barnett Ehlinger Donahue.
BEFORE: McCLENDON, WELCH, AND THE RIOT, JJ.
custody dispute, the mother appeals a trial court's
judgment that denied her request for sole custody. She also
appeals the trial court's decision to seal the entire
record. For the following reasons, we affirm in part and
AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
M. Ehlinger, Jr. and Sarah Barnett Ehlinger were married in
2001 and had two children together, a daughter born on
September 9, 2002, and a son born on March 11, 2005. Mr.
Ehlinger filed a petition for divorce in March 2011. On May
17, 2011, after the parties reached an agreement, the trial
court signed a consent judgment, granting them joint and
shared physical custody of their two minor children, but
naming no domiciliary parent. The consent judgment also made
provisions for, inter alia, child support, private
school expenses, health insurance, and income tax exemptions.
The parties were divorced on June 14, 2012. Ms. Ehlinger
married Brandon Donahue on June 28, 2012, and they have a son
together, born on January 13, 2013.
January 30, 2015, Mr. Ehlinger filed a "Motion for Sole
Custody, Modification of Custodial Schedule, Designation of
Mover as Domiciliary Parent and Prohibition on Drug and
Alcohol Use." On February 17, 2016, Ms. Donahue filed
her own motion for sole custody of the minor children. A
three-day trial took place on both motions for sole custody
and on Mr. Ehlinger's motion to be named domiciliary
parent, and the trial court took the matter under
advisement. On February 10, 2017, the trial court
rendered its "Judgment on Rule Granting Joint Custody
with Incorporated Implementation Order Pursuant to [LSA-]R.S.
9:335" that maintained shared custody equally between
the parties, with no domiciliary parent. The trial court
sealed its reasons for judgment.
August 15, 2017, this court issued a Rule to Show Cause
Order, stating that the February 10, 2017 judgment appeared
"to lack the specificity required to constitute a final,
appealable judgment, in that it fails to specifically
identify the party or parties in favor of and against whom
judgment was rendered." On September 13, 2017, we issued
an Interim Order, remanding the case to the trial court for
the limited purpose of allowing the parties to seek an
amended judgment. On September 27, 2017, the trial court held
a hearing and signed an Amended Judgment, which was
supplemented into the appellate record.
Donahue has appealed and assigns as error the trial
court's denial of Ms. Donahue's motion for sole
custody and to be designated as the domiciliary
parent.She also assigns as error the sealing of
the written reasons for judgment and then, in the amended
judgment, the sealing of the entire record.
proceeding for divorce or thereafter, the trial court shall
award custody in accordance with the best interest of the
child. LSA-C.C. art. 131. Indeed, the best interest of the
child is the sole criterion to be met in making a custody
award, and the trial court must pursue actively that course
of conduct that will be of the greatest benefit to the child.
It is the child's emotional, physical, material and
social well-being and health that are the court's very
purpose in child custody cases; the court must protect the
child from the real possibility that the parents are engaged
in a bitter, vengeful, and highly emotional conflict.
Hodges v. Hodges, 15-0585 (La. 11/23/15), 181 So.3d
700, 702; Harrell v. Harrell, 17-0561 (La.App. 1
Cir. 12/5/17), 236 So.3d 704, 709, writ denied,
18-0018 (La. 2/2/18), 235 So.3d 1112. The legislature has
mandated that the court look only to the child's
interests so that the court can fulfill its obligations to
the child. Hodges, 181 So.3d at
parents agree who is to have custody, the court shall award
custody in accordance with their agreement unless the best
interest of the child requires a different award. LSA-C.C.
art. 132. In the absence of an agreement, or if the agreement
is not in the best interest of the child, the court shall
award custody to the parents jointly; however, if custody in
one parent is shown by clear and convincing evidence to serve
the best interest of the child, the court shall award custody
to that parent. Id.; Hodges, 181 So.3d at 702.
determining the best interest of the child, the court shall
consider all relevant factors, and such factors may include
those enumerated in LSA-C.C. art. 134. Every child custody
case is to be viewed on its own peculiar set of facts and the
relationships involved, with the paramount goal of reaching a
decision which is in the best interest of the child.
Harrell, 236 So.3d at 709-10.
Because of the trial court's better opportunity to
evaluate witnesses, and taking into account the proper
allocation of trial and appellate court functions, great
deference is accorded to the decision of the trial court. A
trial court's determination regarding child custody will
not be disturbed absent a clear abuse of discretion.
as in most child custody cases, the trial court's
determination as to what is in the best interest of the child
is based heavily on factual findings. It is well settled that
an appellate court may not set aside a trial court's
findings of fact in the absence of manifest error or unless
those findings are clearly wrong. Rosell v. ESCO,
549 So.2d 840, 844 (La. 1989). If the findings are reasonable
in light of the record reviewed in its entirety, an appellate
court may not reverse those findings even though convinced
that had it been sitting as the trier of fact, it would have
weighed the evidence differently. Olivier v.
Olivier, 11-0579 (La.App. 1 Cir. 11/9/11), 81 So.3d 22,
26. Further, in cases where the original custody decree is a
stipulated judgment, as is the case before us, the party
seeking modification must prove (1) that there has been a
material change of circumstances since the original custody
decree was entered, and (2) that the proposed modification is
in the best interest of the child. Tracie F. v. Francisco
D., 15-1812 (La. 3/15/16), 188 So.3d 231, 239-40;
Evans v. Lungrin, 97- 0541 (La. 2/6/98), 708 So.2d
the starting point of our analysis is the legislative
pronouncement that the courts must first and foremost
consider what is in the best interest of the child, with a
strong legislative preference for shared custody on an equal
basis unless otherwise indicated by the evidence. In the
instant case, Ms. Donahue initially argues that the trial
court erred in denying her motion for sole custody. Both
parties raised a number of complaints and concerns about the
other parent's ability to properly parent, and each
asserted that they should be granted sole custody of the
minor children. The trial court, in its thorough reasons for
The acts of bad conduct alleged by father and mother against
the other are numerous and sometimes colorful. In an attempt
at brevity I will only mention here those issues I consider
to be the most relevant. Also, I will not delve into a
complete detailing of all the accusations of the parties in
an attempt to protect their privacy. The family as a whole
has been through extensive counseling and psychological
examinations by experts.
on our review of the record, it is clear that both parents
want the best for their children. However, it is also clear
that they cannot agree on the most effective way to achieve
that goal. The trial court had the benefit of direct
observation of the parties and the difficult task of weighing
the credibility of the witnesses. The trial court, after
hearing and weighing all of the testimony and evidence,
including the expert reports, found that neither party
sufficiently established that there had been a change in
material circumstances warranting a change in custody. The
court determined that it was in the best interest of the
children to maintain joint custody. We cannot conclude that
the trial court abused its discretion in denying Ms.
Donahue's request for sole custody.
Donahue next asserts that the trial court erred in denying
her motion to be designated as the children's domiciliary
parent. She contends that there is no implementation order,
and, therefore, the absence of a named domiciliary parent is