Loar v. Loar

Decision Date18 August 2021
Docket Number0895-2020
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland

Circuit Court for Queen Anne's County Case No C-17-FM-19-000300

Berger, Shaw Geter, Wells, JJ.


Wells J.

This appeal arises from a two-day bench trial in the Circuit Court for Queen Anne's County. On May 29, 2018, the District Court of El Paso County, Colorado entered a Decree of Dissolution of Marriage and Final Order between Bridget Loar ("Mother"[1] or "Appellant") and Christopher Loar ("Father" or "Appellee"). The Decree was enrolled in Maryland on September 27, 2019. Less than three months later, on December 17, 2019, Mother moved to modify custody and visitation alleging that material changes had occurred in the lives of their three children. She ultimately filed an amended motion to modify, adding a request to also modify the amount of child support that Father paid to her. Specifically, she sought to modify the custody agreement from joint to sole custody for her, restrict Father's access to the children, and increase the amount he paid in child support.

The trial court, citing Md. Rule 10-350(a)(2), declined to hear the issue of child support as Father was not a Maryland resident. After a hearing, the circuit court found that Mother "failed to prove a material change in circumstance that affected the well-being of the children" and denied the motion to modify custody and visitation. The court also awarded attorney's fees to Father. Mother timely appealed.

On appeal, Mother raises four questions for our review, which we slightly rephrase:[2]

1. Did the trial court err when it declined to modify the custody and access schedule without conducting the two-step analysis for custody modifications?
2. Did the trial court err by awarding Appellee counsel fees?
3. Did the trial court abuse its discretion by failing to interview the parties' fourteen-year-old daughter or consider her preference?
4. Was Appellant deprived of her right to a fair and impartial trial because the trial court had a predetermined bias against her?

For the following reasons, we perceive no error and affirm the circuit court's rulings.


Mother and Father divorced in May 2018. At that time, the couple lived in Colorado. After the divorce, Mother moved to Maryland and Father moved to Ohio.

The parties have three children: K[3], who, at the time of the September 2020 hearing, was fourteen years old, C, who was then twelve years old, and J, who was then eleven years old. At the time of the divorce, the parties agreed on a custody arrangement where the children would spend Christmas and President's Day with Father on odd years and Thanksgiving and spring break with him on even years. During the summer the children would stay with Father in Ohio from the second full week after school ended until the two weeks prior to the start of school in the fall.

A. Father's Life in Ohio

Father moved to Ohio with his then-girlfriend and current wife, Jen Greth ("Jen"), along with her three children. Mother alleges that Jen and Father were together before Mother and Father's divorce was finalized. Father denies this, however, claiming there is no evidence to support Mother's assertion. Mother claims that Father neglected to tell the children about his living arrangements with Jen until they were on their way to Ohio in the summer of 2019. Father argues that he waited to explain this news until he was alone with the children because he "can't have a conversation with the kids without Mother intervening when she disagrees."

Father and Jen became engaged in October 2019, and Father's next scheduled visitation was Christmas of that year. Because, according to Mother, Father had "plenty of time" to inform the children of Jen becoming their stepmother but failed to do so, Mother decided to tell them herself, despite Father explicitly asking that she not tell the children. Father explained that because Christmas is a hectic time, he did not have the time to tell the children about his engagement. Father did not tell the children about his marriage until the summer 2020 visitation. Father claims that he wanted to tell the children sooner, but that he could not have a FaceTime or Skype chat with the children without Mother being present and injecting herself into the conversation. None of the children were a part of the wedding ceremony, because, Father claims, they told him they were not interested in participating.

B. Father's Alleged Lack of Commitment to Visitation

Father has never returned the children late after his visitation. However, Mother kept track of the times Father returned the children early from visits with him. For example, in the summer of 2018, Mother claims Father asked her if he could return the children early so that he could go on a vacation with Jen, but at trial Mother "could not remember if the children came back early or not." For Thanksgiving 2019, Father brought the children back two days early because "K had an argument with her aunt." On President's Day Weekend 2020, Father returned the children on Sunday night instead of Monday morning. For Father's Day 2019, Mother claims she offered Father extra time, but he declined. Father, however, explained that he planned to pick the children up on Father's Day. Due to snow, school was cancelled for that Monday, but was open the next day, which, according to Mother, the children could not miss. In summer 2020, Father returned the children one week early. But Father said he agreed to the early return because C was scheduled to tour his new school. The tours were later canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even though the tours were canceled, Father still returned the children early because he "was scared that [Mother] was going to manipulate the situation with the kids and make it into [him] keeping the kids when they're suppose (sic) to be with their mother."

C. Father's Participation in the Children's Lives

Mother alleges that Father does not participate in any of the children's daily activities. Father, however, argues that traveling roundtrip from Ohio to Maryland costs nearly $1, 000 and requires roughly eighteen hours of driving, which hinders his ability to visit more often. Mother claims Father's life in Ohio always takes precedence, as he spends his money on items other than his children. Father counters that he is involved as much as possible, but that Mother always interferes and rarely allows him to speak privately with the children.

D. Mother's Concerns for the Children's Health and Safety

Mother also highlighted her concerns about the children's health and safety when they are with Father, specifically regarding C's condition.[4] Mother asserted that after spending the summer with Father, C's speech and pronunciation regressed and he re-adopted bad habits, such as biting his fingernails. However, Father pointed out that Mother's witness, Molly Melvin, concluded that C's speech had not regressed during the summer. Additionally, C needs to use hearing aids. The parents agreed to follow certain rules regarding use of the hearing aids, but Mother believes Father disregards those rules.

Further, Mother also identifies several incidents where she had concerns about the children's health and safety. First, there was an incident where the children were severely sunburnt, which Mother argues is a health and safety issue. Second, Father left the children with Jen's teenage children for a short time while attending to an emergency. Third, one evening during a visit, the children called Mother from a closet in Father's house. Mother claims the children were "crying uncontrollably" whereas Father claims that the children were playing in what the children refer to as "their secret hideout." In response to the phone call, Mother called the police. The trial court stated that this was a "completely inappropriate" response.

Mother and other witnesses testified that the children are "clingy" when returning from Father's home and are reluctant to leave her house to visit him, but she provided no evidence to show this behavior would change if the agreement was modified.

E. Extended School Year ("ESY") Summer Services for C

The parties disagree on whether C required ESY summer services. Mother attempted to qualify Ms. Melvin, the speech pathologist, as an expert witness, but the trial court only accepted her as a fact witness. In her brief, Mother asks this Court to view Ms. Melvin as an expert witness. In September 2018, the parties met with Ms. Melvin. She wanted to do a cognitive assessment of C, but Mother rejected the assessment without discussing the matter with Father. Ms. Melvin first assessed C in December 2018. She did not notice any speech regression, but this was also the first time she had met with him. In her 2018 report, Ms. Melvin indicated C was not eligible for the ESY service. In April 2019, C was recommended for ESY, but Father declined the service.

In fall 2019, Ms. Melvin reported C's language intelligibility was "somewhat reduced," but the deficit was quickly corrected. While Ms. Melvin admitted C did not truly regress she still recommended C for ESY in summer 2020. C's paternal aunt, Deana Strudwick ("Deana"), testified as an expert in special education. As an expert, Deana confirmed that speech services during the summers would be beneficial. Deana explained there were likely more resources available for C in Maryland rather than Ohio, but there was no evidence provided as to whether Ohio would be able to accommodate C's needs. C participated in virtual speech therapy during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mother claims the sessions were not beneficial because they occurred while Father was working, so he could...

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