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Ehlinger v. Ehlinger

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, First Circuit

May 29, 2018


          On 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 Presiding

          Frank 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.


          McCLENDON, J.

         In this 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 remand.


         Jeffrey 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.[1]

         On 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."[2] 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.[3] 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.

         On 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.[4]

         Ms. 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.[5]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.[6]


         In a 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 702.

         If the 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.

         In 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. Id.

         Additionally, 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 731, 738.

         Hence, 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 judgment, stated:

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.

         Based 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.

         Ms. 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 ...

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