Affirming Jury’s Verdict After a Modification Trial: Opinions, Oct. 17, 2017

The First District Court of Appeals released a published opinion in Epps v. Duboise, No. 01-16-00285-CV, this morning, affirming a jury’s decision in a custody modification. The COA affirmed.

Mother and father had a child in 2009, ended their relationship, and, in 2011, signed an agreed order regarding conservatorship in which mother was designated as primary. Mother filed a modification in 2013 seeking changes to the child support and possession and access. Father filed a counter-petition, seeking to be named primary. Trial took place in October 2015 and the only question submitted to the jury was who should be named primary. The jury named father. The mother appealed, challenging the legal and factual sufficiency of the determination.

The original order required the mother to inform the father of significant information concerning the health, education, and welfare of the child and required her to furnish father with copies of the child’s insurance policy, the schedule of benefits, and the insurance card. During exchanges, the parents were required to transfer the child’s medication. For health care appointments, each parent was required to notify the other parent of the appointment in advance so the other parent could attend. Psychological or psychiatric treatment was to be consented to by both parents. Also, the order required a possessory parent to notify the other parent if they were going to be absent for more than four hours during their possession; in such situations, the other parent had a right of first refusal.

The father testified that in 2011 he became concerned about a lump on the child’s back. He asked the mother for information about the child’s insurance and the medical card but she refused. He also asked her to schedule a doctor’s appointment but she did not. Medical records for the child were admitted and the father testified that he did not attend medical appointments because he had not been informed of them ahead of time. The mother testified that, until it was pointed out to her at trial, she didn’t realize she was required to notify the father of the doctor’s visits. He was also not informed of counseling sessions the child attended after the agreed order had been entered.

There was substantial testimony about the child’s asthma, medications, and other concerns for the child’s health which the COA summarizes in its opinion. Both parties also claimed at trial that the other had failed to honor the right of first refusal.

In her first issue, the mother argued the father failed to meet his burden to show a material and substantial change . The COA disagreed, observing the evidence showed that the requirements to provide medical and school information did not exist before the first order and the same was true of the right of first refusal. Further, the child was not diagnosed with allergies until after the first order. Because the jury could have reasonably concluded that the mother failed to notify the father of various medical visits, failed to obtain his consent before the counseling, failed to provide the child’s medications to the father at exchanges, etc., the father met his burden to show a material and substantial change.

Next, the COA examined whether there was evidence to support the jury’s determination that a change in primary was in the child’s best interest by examining the Holley factors.  On appeal, the mother argued there was significant evidence that, under the Holley factors, it would be in the child’s best interest for her to remain primary. The COA agreed this was true, but “[n]one of it, however, was so compelling that it established the implied finding of the best interest of the child to be against the great weight and preponderance of the evidence.”

On appeal the mother also argued the trial court erred in denying her motions for mistrial and her MNT.

At trial, a witness made a statement that the mother argued violated the court’s instructions on relevant testimony. The father called one Mr. Flemming as a witness. The mother had a had a child with Mr. Flemming. Apparently there was evidence that Mr. Flemming and the mother had had conflicts with visitation in the past. The mother objected, arguing the testimony of Mr. Flemming’s conflicts with the mother was not relevant. The trial court agreed and instructed father’s attorney not to solicit that testimony in front of the jury. When Mr. Flemming took the stand, father’s attorney asked him how he knew the father and Mr. Flemming responded, “I contacted him through Facebook because, well, she wasn’t letting me see my daughter so I know he was going to court for their marriage.” Mother’s attorney objected and moved for a mistrial; the trial court sustained the objection and instructed the jury to disregard the statement but denied the motion for mistrial. The COA found there was nothing in the record that indicated the jury did not disregard this statement. The issue was overruled.

The mother also argued on appeal that the jury received an improper instruction (“In determining the terms and conditions of conservatorship, you shall consider the qualifications of each party without regard to the gender of the party or the child.”)  because the instruction should not have been included because it was not raised by the evidence and constituted an improper comment on the weight of the evidence. The COA assumed without admitting that it was somehow error for the trial court to submit the instruction, and concluded that the mother failed to establish any harm by the alleged error. No dispute arose between the parties about whether the sex of either parent was relevant to the determination of primary. The issue was overruled and the trial court was affirmed.



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