Pettengill v. Castellow

Citation520 P.3d 105
Decision Date15 November 2022
Docket NumberS-22-0067
Parties Bryan PETTENGILL, Appellant (Petitioner), v. Cortni CASTELLOW, Appellee (Respondent).
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Wyoming

Representing Appellant: James I. Bush, Legal Aid of Wyoming, Inc., Gillette, Wyoming.

Representing Appellee: Stacy M. Kirven, Kirven Law, LLC, Sheridan, Wyoming.

Before FOX, C.J., and KAUTZ, BOOMGAARDEN, GRAY, JJ., and ROBINSON, D.J.

BOOMGAARDEN, Justice.

[¶1] In Castellow v. Pettengill , 2021 WY 88, 492 P.3d 894 (Wyo. 2021) ( Castellow I ), we reversed the district court because its W.R.C.P. 52(a) findings were insufficient to support its order requiring Cortni Castellow (Mother) and Bryan Pettengill (Father) to share physical custody of their daughter CP. On remand, the district court considered no new evidence and awarded Mother primary physical custody. Father appeals, challenging the adequacy of the district court's Rule 52(a) findings. We affirm.

ISSUE

[¶2] We rephrase the single issue Father raises on appeal:

Are the district court's Rule 52(a) findings sufficient to support its order awarding Mother primary physical custody of CP?
FACTS

[¶3] We set forth many of the relevant facts in Castellow I :

CP was born in March 2013. After Father and Mother's relationship ended, Father moved out, but remained in town. He and Mother entered into an informal fifty-fifty shared custody arrangement.
In July 2017, Mother began a new relationship, which strained the informal custody arrangement. Father filed his petition to establish custody, visitation, and child support at the end of August 2017. On November 9, 2017, the district court entered its Order on Temporary Custody and ordered Mother and Father to share physical custody of CP, alternating weekly. During this time, the parties had some difficulty communicating and respecting one another's parenting time and choices. Mother is deeply religious; she accused Father of "attacking" her faith by letting CP watch the Disney movie, Hercules. Mother also made statements to CP about Father's lack of belief—CP reportedly said that, "Dad has sinned in his heart if he didn't believe in God, then he has—he would have the devil in him." Meanwhile, Father withheld CP from Mother for a month prior to the November 2 hearing. After an issue arose between CP and ML, the daughter of Father's fiancée, Father suggested play therapy for CP. Mother declined, but later decided CP should attend counseling. Without consulting Father, Mother selected Dr. Khanh Tran. Despite these difficulties, the parties largely adhered to the shared custody arrangement.
The district court held a one-day hearing on Father's petition September 4, 2019. At the start of the hearing, both parties requested written findings of fact and conclusions of law pursuant to Rule 52(a). Each party also requested primary physical custody with visitation for the other parent. Mother called Dr. Tran who testified that the current week-to-week schedule was not in CP's best interest because there was no way to easily transition between the different homes and parenting styles. Dr. Tran also testified that shared custody could succeed, but only if both parties put in "a lot of work" to learn to effectively co-parent. At the conclusion of the hearing, the district court expressed disappointment that neither parent advocated for a shared custody arrangement, asked the parties to submit proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law no later than September 13, 2019, and ordered the temporary arrangement to remain in place until the court issued its decision.

Castellow I , ¶¶ 3–5, 492 P.3d at 896–97.

[¶4] In October 2020, more than a year after the evidentiary hearing, the district court entered an order requiring the parties to share physical custody of CP. Mother raised two issues on appeal: first, she argued the district court's 13-month delay in issuing a final order constituted reversible error; second, she argued the district court's Rule 52(a) findings were insufficient to support shared physical custody. Id. ¶ 2, 492 P.3d at 896. Though we found the delay troubling, we concluded it was not grounds for reversal.1

Id. ¶¶ 8–9, 16, 492 P.3d at 897–98, 901. But we agreed with Mother that the district court's Rule 52(a) findings were insufficient under the circumstances. Id. ¶¶ 8, 10–16, 492 P.3d at 897, 898–901.

[¶5] We highlighted two main problems with the district court's findings. See id. ¶ 8, 492 P.3d at 897. First, the district court misinterpreted our holding in Bruegman v. Bruegman , incorrectly stating shared custody is the "most favorable custodial arrangement[,]" instead of recognizing it is "on an equal footing with other forms of custody." Id. ¶ 13, 492 P.3d at 899 (quoting Bruegman v. Bruegman , 2018 WY 49, ¶ 16, 417 P.3d 157, 164 (Wyo. 2018) ). Second, "[t]he district court's decision to continue the week-on, week-off shared custody arrangement directly contradict[ed] Dr. Tran's testimony."2 Id. ¶ 14, 492 P.3d at 900. While "the district court touched on some of the statutory [best interest] factors" under Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 20-2-201, it "ignored at least two" that were critical to its shared custody decision given "Dr. Tran's testimony and the challenges the parents had been experiencing with joint custody"—namely, "[h]ow the parents and child interact and communicate with each other and the ability and willingness of each parent to provide care without intrusion and respect the other parent's rights and responsibilities[.]" Id. ¶ 15, 492 P.3d at 900 (citing Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 20-2-201(a)(vi), (vii) ). Noting "more robust finding[s] of fact and conclusions of law" might have allowed us to defer to the district court, we concluded the district court abused its discretion by ordering shared custody based on its "meagre analysis, its clearly erroneous finding regarding the likelihood of success for shared custody, and its misunderstanding of the holding in Bruegman [.]" Id. ¶ 5, 492 P.3d at 900–01. We therefore reversed and remanded. Id. ¶ 16, 492 P.3d at 901.

[¶6] On remand, the district court held a status hearing to determine how best to proceed. The status hearing was not recorded and the record does not reflect what occurred at the hearing. According to Mother, the parties agreed the district court should review the evidence presented at the September 2019 evidentiary hearing and issue a decision without receiving any new evidence. Father does not dispute Mother's characterization of what happened at the status hearing.

[¶7] In its January 2022 order, the district court cited the correct rules governing its custody determination and made findings of fact based on the evidence presented at the September 2019 evidentiary hearing. The district court then found it was in CP's best interest for the parties to have joint legal custody, for Mother to have primary physical custody, and for Father to have reasonable visitation. Father timely appealed, challenging the adequacy of the district court's Rule 52(a) findings to support its order awarding Mother primary physical custody of CP, instead of requiring the parties to share physical custody or awarding him primary physical custody. Additional facts will be set forth as relevant to our analysis.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

[¶8]

Child custody and visitation are within the sound discretion of the [district] court. "A district court does not abuse its discretion if it could reasonably conclude as it did." We review the record to determine if sufficient evidence supports "the district court's decision, and we afford the prevailing party every favorable inference while omitting any consideration of evidence presented by the unsuccessful party." We review the district court's conclusions of law de novo. "Interpretation of court rules is a question of law we review de novo."

Castellow I , ¶ 7, 492 P.3d at 897 (internal citations omitted).

DISCUSSION

[¶9] W.R.C.P. 52(a) states in relevant part:

(a) General and Special Findings by Court.
(1) Trials by the Court or Advisory Jury. — Upon the trial of questions of fact by the court, or with an advisory jury, it shall not be necessary for the court to state its findings, except generally for the plaintiff or defendant.
....
(A) Requests for Written Findings. — If one of the parties requests it before the introduction of any evidence, with the view of excepting to the decision of the court upon the questions of law involved in the trial, the court shall state in writing its special findings of fact separately from its conclusions of law[.]

W.R.C.P. 52(a)(1)(A).

[¶10] We have long encouraged district courts to make findings of fact in custody cases even though generally there is no requirement to do so unless there is a Rule 52(a) request.3 See, e.g. , Castellow I , ¶ 10, 492 P.3d at 898 (citing Kimzey v. Kimzey , 2020 WY 52, ¶ 38 n.2, 461 P.3d 1229, 1241 n.2 (Wyo. 2020) ); Stonham v. Widiastuti , 2003 WY 157, ¶ 16, 79 P.3d 1188, 1193 (Wyo. 2003) (citing Resor v. Resor , 987 P.2d 146, 148 (Wyo. 1999) ; Reavis v. Reavis , 955 P.2d 428, 431–32 (Wyo. 1998) ).

To play fair, a [court] relying on discretionary power should place on record the circumstances and factors that were crucial to [its] determination. [The court] should spell out [its] reasons as well as [it] can so that counsel and the reviewing court will know and be in a position to evaluate the soundness of [its] decision.

Castellow I , ¶ 10, 492 P.3d at 898 (quoting Kimzey , ¶ 38 n.2, 461 P.3d at 1241 n.2 ). Remand may be necessary if it is not obvious from the record that the district court considered the best interest factors under Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 20-2-201, and any relevant non-statutory factors. See Stonham , ¶ 16, 79 P.3d at 1193–94 (citing Fergusson v. Fergusson , 2002 WY 66, ¶ 16, 45 P.3d 641, 646 (Wyo. 2002) ); Ianelli , ¶ 27, 444 P.3d at 68 (collecting cases on non-statutory factors).

[¶11] Where, as here, there is a request pursuant to W.R.C.P. 52(a), the rule plainly requires the district court to "state in writing its special...

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