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Pennsylvania Family Law Updates, Events & Useful Tips Surrounding Family Law Issues

CONTEMPT COURT IS NOT A PLACE FOR CUSTODY MODIFICATION

Posted in Custody

In a recent custody case, the Court denied Father contact with his children except for supervised visits while they underwent therapy.  Mother filed a contempt petition asserting that Father violated the custody order when he went to a school concert and videotaped both the Mother and the child while there.

The trial court correctly dismissed the contempt petition after Father testified that he understood no contact to mean no physical contact or conversation with the children. But, as sometimes happens, the Court used the contempt proceeding to “clarify” what the order was meant to accomplish.  Specifically, the trial judge told the Father that he could not appear at the children’s activities.  Father appealed and in P.H.D. v. R.R.D. the Superior Court vacated the

“clarification.”

 

This is an important decision because trial court judges are frequently charged with the duty of managing unruly families who like to push the envelope when asserting their parental rights.  It may well be in this case that this was precisely what Father was trying to do.  In contempt court, however, the sole question is whether an explicit order was violated.  Period.  It is not an opportunity to “fix” an otherwise imperfect order by changing its terms.  And Superior Court judges Wecht, Bowes and Musmanno have served a purpose in reminding trial judges that if they want to amend an order, all parties need to have notice of the fact that an amendment is being considered so that they can prepare for such a hearing.  This is in accord with longstanding precedent that contempt court is not a place to modify custody orders.

 

Lest it appear that we are siding with Father, we note that there may well be a solid ground to amend the order.  For Father to have appeared at a recital and videotaped his child is clearly not a contempt of a no contact order.  But when we read that Father also videotaped Mother (assuming she was not part of the child’s performance) one questions whether the motivation was to record or to harass.  But if that is the issue, the P.H.D. case makes clear that everyone needs to have due process notice what the issue is so each party can prepare and bring witnesses who might show how the videotaping was either innocent or menacing.  If menacing perhaps a modification was in order.  We also note that the judge may have been trying to do the right thing but the opinion clearly points out that he skipped a procedural step (notice and hearing) which the principles of jurisprudence demand.

 

N.B. A curious event is reported in the case.  The guardian ad litem asserted a procedural irregularity on Father’s part that could have resulted in this appeal being quashed. Query: Is that part of a guardian’s role?

 

P.H.D. v. R.H.D. 2012 Pa. Superior. 246 (Nov. 13. 2012)