Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Patnode v. Urette

Supreme Court of Vermont

November 17, 2017

Lisa Patnode
v.
Garrison Urette

         On Appeal from Superior Court, Chittenden Unit, Family Division, Barry D. Peterson, Acting J., Specially Assigned

          Lisa E. Patnode, Pro Se, South Burlington, Plaintiff-Appellee.

          Cynthia L. Broadfoot of Broadfoot, Attorneys at Law, Burlington, for Defendant-Appellant.

          Reiber, C.J., Skoglund, Robinson, Eaton and Carroll, JJ.

          SKOGLUND, J.

         ¶ 1. Father, Garisson Urette, appeals the superior court's order amending the parent-child contact order. We find that the court improperly modified the original parent-child contact order without the necessary finding of a real, substantial, and unanticipated change in circumstances. Additionally, we find that granting mother, Lisa Patnode, sole authority to sign releases and waivers of liability was an improper infringement on father's parental rights. Accordingly, we reverse.

         ¶ 2. In July 2011, the superior court issued the original order regarding parental rights and responsibilities and parent-child contact (original PCC order), which granted mother physical and legal parental rights and responsibilities, subject to father's substantial parent-child contact.[1]Since that original order, the parties have filed over seventy motions to amend or clarify the orders and have appealed to this Court six times. The superior court issued an amended order regarding parent-child contact (amended 2013 PCC order) in April 2013. This appeal follows mother's September 2016 motion to the superior court to clarify (1) father's legal right to bring the child on private planes, jets, or helicopters without notice and consent of mother, (2) father's ability to sign the child up for activities, and (3) father's ability to sign parental consent forms and release of liability forms.[2]

         ¶ 3. The superior court held a hearing on October 26, 2016. In response, the superior court issued a decision on mother's motions on November 15, 2016, in which it found that "[b]ased on the evidence presented . . . there has not been a real, substantial, and unanticipated change of circumstances since [the original PCC order] to support a modification of the parent child contact order . . . ." The court then issued the following orders: (1) if the child is with father in Vermont on Mother's Day, father's contact "shall be interrupted" by the child spending Mother's Day with mother; (2) mother has the sole authority to make decisions regarding the child's transportation and travel because mother has sole legal rights and responsibilities; and (3) mother has sole discretion to sign any releases or waivers of liability because she has sole legal rights and responsibilities. Father then filed a motion to amend the judgment and, on December 13, 2016, the superior court issued an entry order adding that mother shall not unreasonably withhold her consent for releases and waivers of liability. Father appeals all three orders as inappropriate modifications and infringements on his parental rights. Mother argues that the orders were proper.

         ¶ 4. It is well established that this Court gives substantial deference when reviewing family division rulings on parent-child contact. Patnode v. Urette, 2014 VT 46, ¶ 5, 196 Vt. 416, 98 A.3d 787. "[W]e will not reverse the court's decision unless its discretion was exercised upon unfounded considerations or to an extent clearly unreasonable upon the facts presented." Groves v. Green, 2016 VT 106, ¶ 23, __ Vt.__, 154 A.3d 507 (quotation omitted). However, modification of a parental-rights-and-responsibilities order or a parent-child-contact order requires the superior court to undertake a two-part analysis. The court must first determine if there has been a "real, substantial and unanticipated change in circumstances." 15 V.S.A. 668(a). If this threshold condition is met, only then may the court move on to determine if changes to the orders would be in the best interest of the child and to make changes as it deems necessary. Id.; see also Siegel v. Misch, 2007 VT 116, ¶ 6, 182 Vt. 623, 939 A.2d 1023. Yet not all subsequent orders regarding a standing parental-rights-and-responsibilities order or a parent-child-contact order are considered modifications-an order may be a clarification that does not require the two-part analysis. See Patnode, 2014 VT 46, ¶ 13 ("Where the inherent purpose of an amendment to an existing order is not to change the terms of the original order, but to help the parties meet the original terms, it is well within the court's discretion to view such alterations as clarifying rather than modifying."). For example, in a previous appeal between these parents regarding the modification/clarification distinction, we held that "an addendum which does not alter the terms [of a PCC order] is not necessarily a modification but rather a clarification of the original order." Id.

         ¶ 5. Here, the superior court made an unambiguous finding that there had been no "real, substantial, and unanticipated change in circumstances." However, instead of stopping at the unsatisfied threshold question, the court then went on to order two modifications to father's parent-child contact-one concerning Mother's Day and another concerning the child's travel arrangements.

         ¶ 6. First, the court modified the PCC order regarding Mother's Day. The original PCC order stated, "[i]f possible, the parties will arrange parent child contact so that the child spends Mother's Day with [mother] and Father's Day with [father]." Mother's September 2016 motion to the superior court did not specifically raise the Mother's Day issue, but during the hearing on the motion, both parties discussed scheduling issues around Mother's Day and debated over how many Mother's Days mother had actually spent with child since the original PCC order. Ultimately, the court found that mother spent "one or two" Mother's Days with the child but also found that "[b]ased on the evidence . . ., there has not been a real, substantial, and unanticipated change of circumstances." The court then went on to, in their words, "supplement" the original PCC order, ordering that if the child is with father in Vermont on Mother's Day, "the contact shall be interrupted" so that the child can be with mother from ten o'clock in the morning until six o'clock in the evening.

         ¶ 7. The court's order regarding Mother's Day was more than a mere clarification or supplement-it was a modification. In a previous appeal between father and mother, we held that there was no modification because father's parent-child contact had not been increased and the change merely addressed an ambiguity in the issued PCC order. Id. ¶ 13. We further noted that "[i]t bears emphasizing that the superior court did not in any way alter the amount of time that each parent was awarded with the child under the PCC order." Id. ¶ 12.

         ¶ 8. Here, by changing the operative language from "if possible" to "shall, " the superior court made a discretionary matter into an obligatory order, possibly depriving father of a day of his allotted time. The original order's discretionary language made it clear that, if arrangements could not be made, father's parent-child contact would not be interrupted. With the new order, there is no question that father's time with child will be interrupted if the child is in Vermont and with father, regardless of the ease of arrangements. To modify a discretionary measure into a mandated reduction of father's assigned time, the court must find that there was some real, substantial, and unanticipated change in circumstances. The court did not, and thus the modification was improper and we reverse.

         ¶ 9. Second, the superior court modified the PCC order by granting mother the sole authority to make decisions as to transportation. The original PCC order stated that "[father] shall be responsible for making the travel arrangements and shall notify [mother] of the costs and provide documentation." The amended 2013 PCC order required father provide two weeks' notice to mother of travel plans whenever he intended to travel outside of Vermont. Subsequently, mother's September 2016 motion requested clarification from the court to reinforce that father must give mother two weeks' notice of all travel by any method of transportation other than an automobile and to further clarify that father did not have the legal right to take the child on privately hired transportation. In response to mother's motion, the superior court held that mother has "sole legal rights and responsibilities and therefore makes the decisions as to ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.