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Court of Appeals: Trial Court Made Correct Schooling Decision

Posted on Wednesday, July 15, 2020

The trial court’s decision regarding the minor child’s schooling was appropriate because the court did not abuse its discretion in changing the child’s established custodial environment after evaluating the statutory best interest factors, according to the Michigan Court of Appeals.

In Brown v Walker (Docket No. 345917), the parties were not married and had one child, MW, together in 2013. The parties abided by an informal custody and parenting-time arrangement for several years. When a dispute arose in 2017, the plaintiff-mother filed a custody, parenting time and child support action in the Wayne County Circuit Court.

The trial court granted the parties joint legal custody, gave the plaintiff sole physical custody and set a shared parenting-time schedule. The defendant-father also requested that MW go to school in the Bloomfield Hills School District. The trial court, however, held that it was in MW’s best interests to stay in the Grosse Pointe School District “until further order of the court.”

The defendant appealed, arguing the trial court’s findings regarding the best interest factors in MCL 722.23 were against the great weight of the evidence. He claimed the trial court abused its discretion in changing MW’s established custodial environment and, as a result, in making its rulings regarding MW’s schooling.

“We disagree,” the Court of Appeals held.

Given that the trial court found the plaintiff had met the heightened burden to show that a change in the established custodial environment was in MW’s best interests, the defendant could not show that his claim for joint physical custody should prevail based on the lesser preponderance of the evidence standard of proof, the Court of Appeals explained. Further, the trial court’s error in not considering joint physical custody as an option under MCL 722.26a(1) was harmless, the Court of Appeals said.

Regarding MW’s schooling, the defendant offered no evidence that the Bloomfield Hills School District was superior to the Grosse Pointe School District, or that removing MW from a familiar school and placing him in a new environment “would be in his best interests,” the Court of Appeals explained.

Judges David H. Sawyer and Thomas C. Cameron joined the majority opinion. Judge Jane M. Beckering concurred in the result only.

Background

After MW was born, the parties lived in the defendant’s house in Rochester Hills. They later moved into the plaintiff’s house in Grosse Pointe Woods. Shortly after, the plaintiff believed her relationship with the defendant was deteriorating. The parties concluded they could not reconcile their differences and they separated in November 2016. The defendant then lived with his brother and his mother for brief periods of time and later rented a home in Bloomfield Hills.

From November 2016 until September 2017, the parties abided by an informal agreement to share legal and physical custody of MW. The parties followed a “split schedule,” where each had physical custody of MW for part of the week. They jointly made decisions regarding MW’s schooling, medical care and living arrangements.

During the summer months, the parties changed the informal parenting-time agreement so the plaintiff and the defendant would each have almost a full week of time with MW on an alternating basis. When MW was enrolled in preschool in 2017, the defendant wanted to maintain this summer parenting-time schedule. The plaintiff, however, did not agree. As a result, the parties experienced a breakdown in their amicable relationship, which led to the plaintiff filing a complaint for custody, parenting time and child support.

The trial court ultimately entered an order granting the parties joint legal custody of MW and granting the plaintiff sole physical custody of MW. The trial court also ordered a parenting-time schedule that allowed both parties an equal amount of parenting time and ruled that it was in the MW’s best interests to remain in the Grosse Pointe School District.

The defendant appealed.

School Choice

The defendant made several arguments on appeal regarding custody and parenting time, including that the trial court erred by concluding it was in MW’s best interests to remain in the Grosse Pointe School District.

According to the Court of Appeals, the trial court discussed whether enrollment in the Bloomfield Hills School District was in MW’s best interests when it evaluated the best interest factors in MCL 722.23, specifically factor (h) pertaining to MW’s home, school and community record. In a separate section of its opinion, the trial court reiterated its finding that “it is in [MW]’s best interest to remain in the Grosse Pointe School system until further order of the court.”

On appeal, the defendant referenced this portion of the trial court’s opinion, claiming that it was not in MW’s best interests to remain in the Grosse Pointe School District.

“However, … defendant proffered no evidence to show that the Bloomfield Hills School District was in any way superior to the Grosse Pointe School District, or that removing MW from a familiar school and placing him in an entirely new environment would be in his best interests,” the Court of Appeals wrote. “Defendant argues, once again, that enrollment in the Bloomfield Hills School District would provide MW with an opportunity to participate in a better speech and language therapy program than the program he previously attended.”

The defendant offered no evidence that MW needed to be enrolled a speech therapy program or that he still suffers from a speech impediment, the Court of Appeals observed. In addition, the defendant “admitted that he did not know if the Bloomfield Hills School District’s speech and language therapy program was any better than the program that MW participated in through the Grosse Pointe School District.”

Accordingly, the trial court “did not err by determining that remaining enrolled in the Grosse Pointe School District was in MW’s best interests,” the Court of Appeals said.

The defendant also asserted that the trial court should have waited until MW was older to make a final decision regarding school placement. “Defendant observes that MW was only enrolled in a part-time preschool program and suggests that it would have been better for the trial court to wait until MW is older to decide whether MW should be placed in a different school district,” the Court of Appeals noted. “Defendant suggests that the trial court should have waited until MW was a full-time first grade student to make a final decision.”

However, the defendant’s argument “clearly misinterprets the trial court’s provision regarding MW’s schooling,” the Court of Appeals explained. “The provision clearly states that MW should remain in the Grosse Pointe School District ‘until further order of the court.’ The final order of custody, child support, and parenting time also states that MW should remain in the Grosse Pointe School District ‘until further order of the court.’ This language suggests that the trial court is open to revisiting the issue at a later date.”

Therefore, the defendant’s argument “that the trial court made a final or irreversible decision regarding MW’s schooling lacks merit,” the Court of Appeals concluded.

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