Reno v. Gonzales

Decision Date10 May 2016
Docket NumberWD 78439
Citation489 S.W.3d 900
Parties Jeramie Reno, et al., Respondent, v. Robin R. Gonzales, Appellant.
CourtMissouri Court of Appeals

Laura C. Bornstein, Kansas City, MO for appellant.

Jeramie Reno, Pro Se Respondent.

Before Division Four: Alok Ahuja, C.J., Thomas H. Newton, J. and Chares H. McKenzie, Sp. J.

Alok Ahuja
, Chief Judge

Appellant Robin Gonzales appeals from a judgment of the Circuit Court of Clay County. The judgment addressed Respondent Jeramie Reno's petition to determine father-child relationship, custody, and child support and visitation, as well as Gonzales' counter-petition. The judgment awarded Gonzales and Reno joint legal custody over their child, and awarded Gonzales sole physical custody, with Reno receiving substantial unsupervised visitation. On appeal Gonzales argues that the trial court erred by ordering joint legal custody, and awarding Reno unsupervised visitation. We reverse, and remand to the circuit court for further proceedings.

Factual Background

On December 22, 2006, Robin Gonzales gave birth to the parties' son in Buchanan County. Although Gonzales and Reno were not married, Reno held the child out as his biological son from birth and was listed as the father on the child's birth certificate. Reno and Gonzales resided together and raised the child as mother and father until the child was seven years old.

Eventually, the relationship between Reno and Gonzales soured, and the parties separated. On March 14, 2014, Reno filed a Petition for Determination of Father–Child Relationship, Order of Custody, Order of Child Support and Visitation in Clay County Circuit Court. Gonzales filed a counter-petition.

On April 2, 2014, the circuit court entered an Interlocutory Judgment and Order of Paternity declaring Reno to be the child's natural father. On the same date, the court also entered an Order of Temporary Custody granting Reno sole legal custody and joint physical custody to both Reno and Gonzales, with the child principally residing with Reno.

On September 24, 2014, the circuit court modified the Temporary Order to grant Gonzales sole legal and physical custody of the child. The court ruled that Reno's weekly visits with the child should be supervised by Transitions Family Visitation Center until further order of the court, based on the court's finding that “at present, unsupervised visitation would endanger the minor child's physical health or impair his emotional development, pursuant to § 452.400.1 RSMo

.”

Following a bench trial, the court entered its final judgment on February 5, 2015. The court awarded Gonzales and Reno joint legal custody. The court awarded Gonzales sole physical custody, but ordered that Reno have unsupervised visitation with the child every alternating weekend and on Wednesday evenings, as well as on certain holidays. Gonzales appeals, challenging both the award of joint legal custody, as well as the provisions of the judgment giving Reno substantial unsupervised visitation.

Standard of Review

This Court will affirm the circuit court's judgment unless there is no substantial evidence to support it, it is against the weight of the evidence, or it erroneously declares or applies the law.” Pasternak v. Pasternak, 467 S.W.3d 264, 268 (Mo. banc 2015)

(citing Murphy v. Carron, 536 S.W.2d 30, 32 (Mo. banc 1976) ).1

AnalysisI.

Gonzales' first Point challenges the circuit court's award of joint legal custody.

Joint legal custody is defined by statute as an arrangement where “parents share the decision-making rights, responsibilities, and authority relating to the health, education and welfare of the child, and, unless allocated, apportioned, or decreed, the parents shall confer with one another in the exercise of decision-making rights, responsibilities, and authority[.] § 452.375(2), RSMo

.2

Section 452.375.4 contains the following legislative declaration of policy with respect to joint legal custody:

The general assembly finds and declares ... that it is the public policy of this state to encourage parents to participate in decisions affecting the health, education and welfare of their children, and to resolve disputes involving their children amicably through alternative dispute resolution. In order to effectuate th[is] polic[y], the court shall determine the custody arrangement which will best assure both parents participate in such decisions ... so long as it is in the best interests of the child.

Section 452.375.5 then requires that, [p]rior to awarding the appropriate custody arrangement in the best interest of the child,” the court “shall consider” awarding joint legal and physical custody, before entering a judgment awarding sole legal or physical custody to one parent.

The statutory preference for joint legal custody does not displace the paramount consideration in making child custody determinations: the best interests of the child.

The declaration of public policy subsection [4] delivers, that the custody arrangement best assure a shared decision-making responsibility by the parents and significant contact between the child and each parent—abetted by the direction of subsection [5] that the court shall consider each option of custody as listed—announces not only a prior option, but a preference for joint custody if indicated [by] the best interests of the child under all relevant circumstances....
The preference the [statute] enacts, however, is not that of a forced joint custody in order to induce the parents to find a common ground. It is a preference, rather, in favor of parents who show the willingness and ability to share the rights and responsibilities of child-rearing even after they have dissolved the marriage. That is to say the preference for joint custody is one grounded in and validated by the more abiding public policy that in the given circumstances only that custody arrangement is appropriate that best serves the interests of the child. The adjudication of custody under the [statute], as before, begins and ends with that dominant consideration. It is the scheme of the amendment that the court determine first whether under all the relevant circumstances joint custody is in the best interests of the child. If so, the inquiry ends. If not, the court continues to the next option in the order enumerated in subsection [5] until the adjudication of custody is done.

Margolin v. Margolin, 796 S.W.2d 38, 49–50 (Mo.App.W.D. 1990)

(citations and internal quotation marks omitted); see also

In re Marriage of Sutton, 233 S.W.3d 786, 791 (Mo.App. E.D. 2007) ; McCauley v. Schenkel, 977 S.W.2d 45, 51 (Mo.App.E.D. 1998) (“There is no preference for joint [legal] custody unless, in the given circumstances, it is in the best interests of the child”). Section 452.375.4 “does not create a presumption in favor of joint custody.” Kroeger–Eberhart v. Eberhart, 254 S.W.3d 38, 47 (Mo.App.E.D. 2007) (citation omitted).

“The parents' ability to communicate and cooperate is crucial in considering whether joint legal custody is proper.” Pasternak, 467 S.W.3d at 273

(quoting Mehler v. Martin, 440 S.W.3d 529, 536 (Mo.App.E.D. 2014) ). [J]oint legal custody is not always or necessarily inappropriate merely because there is some level of personal tension and hostility between the former spouses.” McCauley, 977 S.W.2d at 50–51. However, such custody is appropriate only if “there is substantial evidence that despite this acrimony the parties nonetheless have the ability and willingness to fundamentally cooperate in making decisions concerning their child's upbringing.” Id. at 51 (citation omitted).

‘If the parents are unable to make shared decisions concerning the welfare of the children, joint custody is not in the best interests of the children.’ Pasternak, 467 S.W.3d at 274

(quoting Mehler, 440 S.W.3d at 536 ). Accordingly, [i]f there is no substantial evidence in the record that the parties have a commonality of beliefs concerning parental decisions and the willingness and ability to function as a unit in making those decisions, a trial court's award of joint legal custody must be reversed.” Sutton, 233 S.W.3d at 790.

The circuit court's own factual findings demonstrate that joint legal custody was unwarranted in this case. The judgment expressly finds that the parties had been unable to co-parent:

In its Order of Temporary Custody entered April 2, 2014, this Court found that the parties had shown no commonality of beliefs concerning parental decisions and had demonstrated neither willingness nor ability to function as a unit in making these decisions. Indeed, [Reno] has demonstrated an unwillingness to communicate with [Gonzales] about issues concerning the minor child. Although the April 2, 2014 Order required [Reno] to promptly inform [Gonzales] of any serious medical condition of the child, [Reno] failed to notify [Gonzales] when he took the child to urgent care for treatment of infected bug bites and when the child was prescribed asthma

medication. [Reno] also failed to notify [Gonzales] of injuries the minor child suffered when [Reno] crashed the motorcycle he and the child were riding. [Gonzales] presented text messages in which [Reno] called her derogatory names, and [Gonzales] testified that [Reno] has used such language towards her in the minor child's presence.

The judgment also finds that, when the child was residing primarily with Reno, he denied Gonzales one of her court-ordered visits, “and habitually denied her telephone contact with the child.” The judgment's findings concerning a pattern of domestic violence, Reno's endangerment of the child's welfare, and his untreated substance abuse problems, which are described in § II, below, provide additional indications that joint legal custody was unjustified. Given the trial court's factual findings, the award of joint legal custody must be reversed. Halford v. Halford, 292 S.W.3d 536, 545 (Mo.App.S.D. 2009)

(reversing award of joint legal custody where judgment contained similar factual findings)...

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4 cases
  • Prevost v. Silmon
    • United States
    • Missouri Court of Appeals
    • March 8, 2022
    ...parental decisions, and lack the willingness and ability to function as a unit in making those decisions. Reno v. Gonzales , 489 S.W.3d 900, 905 (Mo. App. W.D. 2016). Here, we first note that Mother herself asserted a competing motion for sole legal custody below in which Mother argued that......
  • Moore v. Moore
    • United States
    • Missouri Court of Appeals
    • May 17, 2022
    ...parental decisions, and lack the willingness and ability to function as a unit in making those decisions. Reno v. Gonzales , 489 S.W.3d 900, 905 (Mo. App. W.D. 2016).In its judgment, the circuit court specifically discussed a number of factors which, in its view, justified the conclusion th......
  • Prevost v. Silmon
    • United States
    • Missouri Court of Appeals
    • March 8, 2022
    ... ... lack the willingness and ability to function as a unit in ... making those decisions. Reno v. Gonzales , 489 S.W.3d ... 900, 905 (Mo. App. W.D. 2016) ... Here, ... we first note that Mother herself asserted a ... ...
  • Gordon ex rel. G.J.E. v. Epperly
    • United States
    • Missouri Court of Appeals
    • September 27, 2016
    ...and able to make shared decisions affecting the child's welfare and the other party refused to cooperate), with Reno v. Gonzales , 489 S.W.3d 900, 903 (Mo.App.2016) (reversing joint legal custody award where there was no evidence of the parties' past or present ability to make joint decisio......

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