S.B. v. S.S., No. 39 WAP 2019

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
Writing for the CourtJUSTICE BAER
Citation243 A.3d 90
Parties S.B. v. S.S. Appeal of: S.S., Richard Ducote, Esquire, and Victoria McIntyre, Esquire
Decision Date22 December 2020
Docket NumberNo. 39 WAP 2019

243 A.3d 90

S.B.
v.
S.S.

Appeal of: S.S., Richard Ducote, Esquire, and Victoria McIntyre, Esquire

No. 39 WAP 2019

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

Argued: May 27, 2020
Decided: December 22, 2020


JUSTICE BAER

In this appeal, we examine an order entered in a custody matter that places restrictions on the speech of a parent and her counsel to determine whether the order violates the right to free speech as guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 7 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. Finding that the order restricted only the manner of speech and not the content, the Superior Court upheld the order, concluding that the restriction of speech furthered the important governmental interest of protecting the psychological well-being and the privacy of the child at the center of the custody dispute. For the reasons set forth herein, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.

I. Background

At the heart of this case is a protracted and contentious battle between S.B. ("Father") and S.S. ("Mother") over the custody of their son, F.B.H. ("Child"), who was born in 2006.1 In 2007, Father adopted Child with his first wife, who died in 2008, when Child was two years old. For the next four years, Father raised Child on his own, with continued support from his first wife's extended family.

243 A.3d 95

In September of 2012, Father married Mother, who adopted Child in 2013. The marital union was short-lived, as later that year, Mother and Father separated and entered into a custody agreement.2 In June of 2015, Father filed an action seeking custody of Child, and Mother later counterclaimed for primary custody. Following a hearing on October 9, 2015, an interim custody order was entered, which expanded Father's custody time. Five days later, Mother filed a protection from abuse ("PFA") petition on behalf of herself and Child, alleging that Father had sexually abused Child. Accordingly, the trial court entered a temporary PFA order, limiting Father's contact with Child.

The trial court subsequently conducted a five-day trial to address the claims set forth in the PFA petition. Discrediting the allegations of sexual abuse, the trial court dismissed Mother's PFA petition, vacated the temporary PFA order, and granted Father supervised partial custody. On February 2, 2016, a few weeks after the trial court scheduled a custody trial for later that year, Mother filed a second PFA petition, again alleging Father's sexual abuse of Child. The trial court subsequently denied the second PFA petition.

On May 20, 2016, the trial court commenced the custody trial, which spanned over twenty-three days, and ultimately concluded on November 18, 2016. At trial, the parties presented twenty-four witnesses, including Mother, Father, Child, and Child's Guardian ad litem , and the trial court also admitted nearly two hundred exhibits. On December 12, 2016, the trial court entered an order, which the court amended on December 14, 2016, granting Father sole legal and physical custody of Child.3 The orders also directed Father and Child to participate in the Family Bridges Workshop for Troubled and Alienated Parent-Child Relationships, and ordered Mother not to have any contact or partial custody with Child for a period of ninety days.

In an opinion dated December 22, 2016, the trial court explained its ruling and set forth detailed findings of fact. Relevant here, the trial court concluded that Father did not sexually abuse Child. The court reached this conclusion after evaluating Child's testimony in open court; reviewing videos of forensic interviews in which Child made detailed allegations of purported sexual abuse; reading Child's testimony in the PFA proceeding, which had been introduced into the record of the custody trial; listening to the testimony of experts who evaluated Father; and considering the testimony of witnesses who had observed the nature of the relationships between both Father and Child and Mother and Child, before and after the allegations were made. The trial court explained that the details of Child's in-court descriptions of the alleged sexual abuse were not credible and that the timing of the allegations were suspect, i.e. , they arose shortly after Father's partial custody time had been expanded.

To be precise, the trial court did not believe that Child deliberately lied. Rather, the court reasoned that Child may have believed that abuse occurred years earlier, but Child's testimony contained statements that were "simply not true and which [were] contradicted by other credible evidence." Trial Court Opinion, 12/22/2016, at

243 A.3d 96

7. The trial court further relied upon expert testimony, establishing that Father "is a low risk to perpetrate physical, psychological, emotional, or sexual abuse." Id. at 8. Finally, the trial court concluded that Mother had isolated Child from everything he knew before she adopted him, and alienated Child from Father, as well as Child's extended family. Id. at 53, 55.

The Superior Court affirmed the trial court's custody order in a memorandum opinion filed on October 20, 2017, holding that the record supported the trial court's findings that Mother alienated Child from Father, and that Father did not sexually abuse Child. Mother filed a petition for allowance of appeal in this Court, which we denied on February 22, 2018. S.B. v. S.S., 645 Pa. 692, 182 A.3d 430 (2018).

Meanwhile, on February 7, 2018, a few weeks prior to this Court's denial of allocatur in the custody matter, Mother's attorney Richard Ducote, Esquire, held a press conference on the online video-sharing platform, YOUTube, expressing Mother's fervent disagreement with the trial court's findings and orders in the custody matter. Mother has described the press conference as a means to draw "attention to child sexual abuse victims everywhere and the role of the courts in granting custody of children to their identified abusers." Brief for Appellant at 5. According to Mother, "[a]dvocates and parents from various organizations around the country gathered at the press conference to shed light upon and to educate the public about the ways that family courts nationwide have been failing child abuse victims, as well as to highlight pending legislation in the United States House of Representatives and the Pennsylvania legislature." Id. at 5-6.

While Child was not named during the press conference, Attorney Ducote identified Mother by name and, notably, included a link providing access to a reproduction of Child's in-court testimony and forensic interview, during which Child sets forth detailed allegations of Father's sexual abuse, which the trial court had deemed unfounded. Mother's name is included in these documents, while Child's name is redacted and replaced by the first letter of his first name. However, Child obviously could have been identified by virtue of the disclosure of Mother's identity.

Further, on February 28, 2018, an article about the custody matter appeared in the Pittsburgh City Paper , quoting the identical intimate and detailed account of Child's sexual abuse allegations that were highlighted in Mother's press conference. See Rebecca Addison, Children's advocates say family courts unfairly favor father, even when they're the abusers , PITTSBURGH CITY PAPER (February 28, 2018). Although the article did not state the name of Child, Mother, or Father, it referenced Child's age, the first name of Child's best friend, and the fact that Attorney Ducote had represented the mother in the custody matter. The article asserted that the Pennsylvania Legislature was considering a bill to require additional training for court personnel in child custody cases to prevent courts from granting custody of children to fathers who abused them.

On April 19, 2018, Father filed a motion for sanctions and other relief in the trial court, seeking an order prohibiting Mother and her counsel (Richard Ducote, Esquire, and Victoria McIntyre, Esquire) from speaking publically about the case in any forum, directing them to remove any information about the case that they had posted publically or disseminated, and imposing monetary sanctions.

By order dated April 27, 2018, the trial court denied Father's motion for sanctions because there had been no court orders preventing the parties from speaking publically

243 A.3d 97

about the custody matter at that time, and the record had not been sealed.4 The trial court's order, however, granted in part Father's motion for other relief, stating:

It is hereby ORDERED that [Mother]; Richard Ducote, Esquire; and Victoria McIntyre, Esquire shall NOT speak publicly or communicate about this case including, but not limited to, print and broadcast media, on-line or web-based communications, or inviting the public to view existing on-line or web-based publications. The following is also ORDERED.

1. [Mother]; Richard Ducote, Esquire; and Victoria McIntyre shall NOT direct or encourage third parties to speak publicly or communicate about this case including, but not limited to, print and broadcast media, online or web-based communications, or inviting the public to view existing online or web-based publications.

2. [Mother]; Richard Ducote, Esquire; and Virginia McIntyre may provide public testimony in the State House and/or
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15 practice notes
  • Woodford v. Insurance Department, No. 65 MAP 2019
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • December 22, 2020
    ...was a penal statute subject to strict construction). Moreover, our Court has expressly refused to read an implied compliance requirement 243 A.3d 90 into a statute we considered penal in nature, whenever the legislature did not include such a requirement, because we deemed this as violative......
  • Oberholzer v. Galapo, 794 EDA 2020
    • United States
    • Superior Court of Pennsylvania
    • April 18, 2022
    ...at 2044-45 ; City of Ladue v. Gilleo , 512 U.S. 43, 48, 114 S.Ct. 2038, 129 L.Ed.2d 36 (1994) ( Gilleo );8 S.B. v. S.S. , ––– Pa. ––––, 243 A.3d 90, 104 (2020) ; Klebanoff , 552 A.2d at 678 ; see also SmithKline Beecham Corp. v. Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty USA , 959 A.2d 352, 356-57 (Pa.......
  • Oberholzer v. Galapo, 794 EDA 2020
    • United States
    • Superior Court of Pennsylvania
    • April 18, 2022
    ...or picketing. Compare id., with Mahanoy, 141 S.Ct. at 2044-45; City of Ladue v. Gilleo, 512 U.S. 43, 48 (1994) (Gilleo);[8] S.B. v. S.S., 243 A.3d 90, 104 (Pa. 2020); Klebanoff, 552 A.2d at 678; see also SmithKline Beecham Corp. v. Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty USA, 959 A.2d 352, 356-57 (P......
  • Oberholzer v. Galapo, 794 EDA 2020
    • United States
    • Superior Court of Pennsylvania
    • March 7, 2022
    ...or picketing. Compare id., with Mahanoy, 141 S.Ct. at 2044-45; City of Ladue v. Gilleo, 512 U.S. 43, 48 (1994) (Gilleo);[8] S.B. v. S.S., 243 A.3d 90, 104 (Pa. 2020); Klebanoff, 552 A.2d at 678; see also SmithKline Beecham Corp. v. Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty USA, 959 A.2d 352, 356-57 (P......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
15 cases
  • Woodford v. Insurance Department, No. 65 MAP 2019
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • December 22, 2020
    ...was a penal statute subject to strict construction). Moreover, our Court has expressly refused to read an implied compliance requirement 243 A.3d 90 into a statute we considered penal in nature, whenever the legislature did not include such a requirement, because we deemed this as violative......
  • Oberholzer v. Galapo, 794 EDA 2020
    • United States
    • Superior Court of Pennsylvania
    • April 18, 2022
    ...at 2044-45 ; City of Ladue v. Gilleo , 512 U.S. 43, 48, 114 S.Ct. 2038, 129 L.Ed.2d 36 (1994) ( Gilleo );8 S.B. v. S.S. , ––– Pa. ––––, 243 A.3d 90, 104 (2020) ; Klebanoff , 552 A.2d at 678 ; see also SmithKline Beecham Corp. v. Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty USA , 959 A.2d 352, 356-57 (Pa.......
  • Oberholzer v. Galapo, 794 EDA 2020
    • United States
    • Superior Court of Pennsylvania
    • April 18, 2022
    ...or picketing. Compare id., with Mahanoy, 141 S.Ct. at 2044-45; City of Ladue v. Gilleo, 512 U.S. 43, 48 (1994) (Gilleo);[8] S.B. v. S.S., 243 A.3d 90, 104 (Pa. 2020); Klebanoff, 552 A.2d at 678; see also SmithKline Beecham Corp. v. Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty USA, 959 A.2d 352, 356-57 (P......
  • Oberholzer v. Galapo, 794 EDA 2020
    • United States
    • Superior Court of Pennsylvania
    • March 7, 2022
    ...or picketing. Compare id., with Mahanoy, 141 S.Ct. at 2044-45; City of Ladue v. Gilleo, 512 U.S. 43, 48 (1994) (Gilleo);[8] S.B. v. S.S., 243 A.3d 90, 104 (Pa. 2020); Klebanoff, 552 A.2d at 678; see also SmithKline Beecham Corp. v. Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty USA, 959 A.2d 352, 356-57 (P......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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