Dobson v. Dobson, S-18167

CourtSupreme Court of Alaska (US)
PartiesJAMES W. DOBSON, Appellant, v. TONI L. DOBSON, Appellee.
Docket NumberS-18167
Decision Date14 September 2022

JAMES W. DOBSON, Appellant,
v.

TONI L. DOBSON, Appellee.

No. S-18167

Supreme Court of Alaska

September 14, 2022


UNPUBLISHED See Alaska Appellate Rule 214(d)

Appeal from the Superior Court No. 3AN-11-09818 CI of the State of Alaska, Third Judicial District, Anchorage, Jennifer Henderson, Judge.

James W. Dobson, pro se, Wasilla, Appellant.

Notice of nonparticipation filed by Toni L. Dobson, pro se, Chugiak, Appellee.

Before: Winfree, Chief Justice, Maassen, Carney, and Borghesan, Justices.

[Henderson, Justice, not participating.]

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND JUDGMENT [*]

I. INTRODUCTION

This is the third appeal arising from a decade-long custody dispute between the parents of five children.[1] Last year the court-appointed parenting coordinator resigned from the case after submitting a final update and list of recommendations concerning the parents' visitation arrangement. The superior court adopted those

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recommendations and entered a visitation order. The father appeals, arguing that the superior court erred by (1) failing to rule on an earlier motion challenging the parenting coordinator's authority, (2) expediting consideration of the parenting coordinator's recommendations, (3) failing to hold a hearing before adopting the recommendations, and (4) denying him discovery.

We hold that the court did not abuse its discretion by declining to address the parenting coordinator's authority because that issue had already been decided. Nor did the court err by declining to hold a hearing or order discovery, because the father raised no dispute of material fact requiring a hearing to resolve and never asked the court to compel discovery. Finally, although it was error to grant a motion for expedited consideration without first giving the father an opportunity to respond, the error caused no discernable prejudice. We therefore affirm the superior court's decision.

II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

James and Toni Dobson divorced in 2011. Toni had primary physical custody of the parties' five children, although only one still is a minor. Toni was awarded sole legal custody in 2013.

In February 2017 the superior court appointed a parenting coordinator pursuant to Alaska Civil Rules 53 and 100.[2] The parenting coordinator was authorized to resolve the parties' subsequent disputes in certain areas, including scheduling and communication with the children. The parenting coordinator was also authorized to recommend modifications to the custody arrangement, though she was barred from making any modifications herself.

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A. Initial Challenges To Parenting Coordinator's Authority

In October 2017 the parenting coordinator instructed James not to contact any of the children while authorities conducted an investigation into an incident involving James and the parties' youngest child. James contested the parenting coordinator's authority in the case, including her authority to issue a no-contact order. The superior court rejected these challenges. In an order denying a motion James filed shortly after the parenting coordinator issued the no-contact order, the superior court explained that the parenting coordinator had "continuing authority in this matter" and "may impose . . . [these] stringent limits on contact." The superior court later limited James to supervised visitation on the parenting coordinator's recommendation.

In April 2020 James moved for reconsideration of the superior court's appointment of the parenting coordinator, arguing that the no-contact order exceeded the scope of the parenting coordinator's authority. The superior court denied that motion "as duplicative of prior motion work filed by [James] and addressed by the [superior] [c]ourt." We affirmed that decision on appeal.[3]

In January 2021 the parenting coordinator submitted an update and set of recommendations to the court proposing a plan to increase James's visitation with the children. The parenting coordinator also advised against joint counseling, explaining that this type of counseling would not be beneficial to the children at that time and would instead more likely cause them additional harm.

That same month James filed a responsive motion asking the court to disregard the parenting coordinator's comments, again arguing that the parenting coordinator lacked the authority to order no contact with his children in October 2017. James suggested that all of the parenting coordinator's actions after she issued the

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allegedly unlawful order were invalid and urged the superior court not to rely on her observations and recommendations.

B. Changes In Visitation And Parenting Coordinator's Resignation

In February 2021 the superior court issued an order designed to transition James back to "more normalized" visitation with the parties' children. The court mostly adopted the parenting coordinator's recommendations, including those outlining a six-phase period of visitation, and found that it was not appropriate to mandate joint therapy for James and the parties' youngest child at that time. Recognizing that circumstances could change in the future, the court ruled that "[a]n appropriate trigger for . . . joint therapy . . . would be a recommendation by the [child's] counselor for such therapy."

On July 19, 2021, the parenting coordinator filed a notice that she would resign from the case effective August 19, 2021. Attached to this notice were her final update and recommendations to the superior court. Relevant to this appeal, the parenting coordinator urged the court to give the parties' youngest child full control over the decision whether to have any contact with his father.

The parenting coordinator also moved for expedited consideration of her recommendations in case the court required more input from her to decide visitation before she resigned from the case. The parenting coordinator emailed each of the parties a copy of her notice of resignation, final recommendations, and request for expedited consideration on July 19.

The court granted the request for expedited consideration the same day it was filed, without having received a response from James. It ruled that the parties' responses to the parenting coordinator's recommendations were due on July 26.

On July 22 James opposed the parenting coordinator's request to expedite consideration, stating he was on vacation and that a therapist he wished to call as a

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witness was unavailable at that time. James requested until August 2 to respond to the recommendations.

James then filed an opposition to the parenting coordinator's recommendations on July 26. He first reiterated his opposition to expedited consideration. He then referenced his January 2021 motion to disregard the parenting coordinator's comments, arguing that the motion was still outstanding and implying that the court should rule on it before proceeding. James also indicated that he wanted "a hearing to present written and verbal evidence the [superior] [c]ourt should consider before [issuing] a final order." Specifically, James stated that he wished to "enter testimony from [several counselors] on possible benefits of joint counseling" for him and the parties' youngest child, reasoning that those counselors "believed [joint counseling] could be beneficial."

C. Superior Court's Order Adopting The Parenting Coordinator's Recommendations

On August 2 the superior court issued an order adopting the parenting coordinator's final recommendations, noting that James had not offered any substantive arguments opposing them. The court did not hold a hearing before issuing the order.

The order did not explicitly address joint counseling involving James and the parties' youngest child, but the superior court emphasized that the child or his therapist - not James - shall decide whether and how the two eventually resume contact. The court also denied James's opposition to expedited consideration and request for more time to respond to the parenting coordinator's recommendations. The court suggested that James's timely filing of his opposition, as well as his filing of a new motion on a separate issue on the July 26 deadline,...

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