Pennsylvania formalized the use of Parent Coordinators in custody cases several years ago when the Superior Court’s rendered their 2008 opinion in the case of Yates v. Yates. As part of the Yates decision, the Superior Court held that the appointment of a Parent Coordinator in a high conflict custody case was a reasonable exercise of discretion and did not constitute the delegation of judicial authority to a quasi-judicial body (i.e. the Parent Coordinator). The Superior Court also established the parties’ due process rights to a de novo review of the Parent Coordinator’s decision by the Trial Court. A de novo review means that the Court is taking a completely fresh look at the issue and is not obligated to make or accept the same conclusions, interpretations, or issue the same Order as the prior level did (in this case, the Parent Coordinator); their job is to look at all of the information as though it is brand new to everyone and reach a decision based on the evidence presented.
The issue of a party’s right to a de novo review and what that review ought to look like was recently considered once again by the Superior Court’s December 18, 2012 opinion in the matter of A. H. vs. C.M., 2012 WL 658 6356 (Pa.Super.). In this case, the mother appealed the Trial Court’s decision not to conduct a de novo review of a decision of the Parent Coordinator and, instead, affirmed the decision without taking testimony or otherwise conducting a hearing on the record; basically, the Trial Court rubber-stamped the Parent Coordinator’s decision.
The first step in looking at what happened in the A.H. case is to consider how the parties are able to get their issues before the Trial Court. The basic procedure for appealing Parent Coordinator Orders was written in the Order appointing the Parent Coordinator to the case and allowed a party who disputed the Parent Coordinator’s decision twenty (20) days to file a Motion for review with the Trial Court. Upon filing for a review of the decision, the Trial Court would then make an independent determination as to whether the decision represents an abuse of the Parent Coordinator’s discretion or is contrary to fact or the law.
In the A.H. case, the mother made the appropriate appeal to the Trial Court, but found a less than receptive audience when she had her day in court; the mother was only given four (4) minutes by the Trial Court to make her argument. The Trial Court relied upon a summation by the attorneys of the Parent Coordinator’s decision in affirming the Coordinator’s Order. Interestingly, the Court recognized that Yates applied to this process, however, they essentially found that the de novo hearing was not needed in this instance. The Superior Court, in reviewing the appeal, determined that the Trial Court’s decision not to conduct a de novo review was wrong and that Yates firmly establishes that Parent Coordination has its own procedure, is subject to due process, and that the Trial Court may not deny mother a hearing de novo. By not giving her the opportunity to present her case in its entirety, the Superior Court found she was denied due process rights.
As a result, the Superior Court reversed the Trial Court’s decision with respect to mother’s appeal of the Parent Coordinator’s Order and directed that a de novo review be held by the Trial Court within thirty (30) days and that the Trial Court outline the Parent Coordinator’s decision in a manner consistent with the Superior Court’s holding in Yates. Worth noting is that the Trial Court may reach the exact same decision as they did the first time, but at least the mother will have had the opportunity to offer evidence into the record.
An interesting side note to this case is that it gives a glimpse into the level of frustration courts can reach when dealing with "frequent flyer" parties who are always bringing each other back to court. The Superior Court points out the reference to the Trial Court not wanting to see the parties back over "some talent show communication." I suspect these individuals were very familiar to the Trial Court judge and had likely litigated similarly inane issues which unnecessarily took up the Court’s time – which is exactly why a Parent Coordinator was appointed in the first place. Access to the Courts, however, is a fundamental right and the Superior Court cites the Pennsylvania Code of Judicial Conduct when addressing the comments from the Trial Court; such comments from the bench could have a chilling effect on people and discourage them from bringing important issues to the attention the court.
Parent Coordination can be a useful tool to address "talent show communications" but it is the procedure for being able to appeal those issues which allows for the overall process to effectively operate in a fair manner towards both parties. The opinion of A.H. v. C. M. affirms the Court’s decision in Yates (which, coincidentally, featured my colleague,
Natalie Famous, Esquire as the Parent Coordinator) and definitively establishes the due process procedure for addressing appeals of the Coordinator’s decision.
Referenced cases can be found at: Yates v. Yates, 963 A.2d 535 (Pa.Super. 2008); A. H. vs. C.M., 2012 WL 6586356 (Pa. Super.)