Stanhope v. Phillips-Stanhope

Decision Date27 March 2008
Docket NumberNo. 20070137.,20070137.
Citation2008 ND 61,747 N.W.2d 79
PartiesEdwin L. STANHOPE, Plaintiff and Appellant v. Heather J. PHILLIPS-STANHOPE, Defendant and Appellee.
CourtNorth Dakota Supreme Court

Paul M. Probst, Probst Law Firm, Minot, N.D., for defendant and appellee.

MARING, Justice.

[¶ 1] Edwin L. Stanhope appeals from an order denying his motion to change custody of his two minor sons from their mother, Heather J. Phillips-Stanhope, to himself. We conclude the district court's finding that there has not been a material change of circumstances for a change of custody is not clearly erroneous. We affirm.

I.

[¶ 2] The parties, who had been living in Minot, were divorced in February 2004. Phillips-Stanhope was granted physical custody of the six and seven year-old children and Stanhope was granted reasonable and liberal visitation. Phillips-Stanhope continues to reside in Minot with the children. Stanhope moved to Bismarck after the parties separated. Stanhope remarried in September 2005 and currently resides in Lincoln. He adopted his wife's adult daughter who does not live with the couple.

[¶ 3] In June 2006, Stanhope moved to change custody of the children. Stanhope alleged the children were not receiving proper "medical and health care" while in Phillips-Stanhope's care. He contended the children have "many behavior problems in school" and were seeing licensed clinical social workers in Bismarck, one of whom believed the older child had Asperger's syndrome. He contended Phillips-Stanhope is unable to manage her household finances, and the children lack adult supervision while in her care because she works at Minot State University during the day and waitresses at a bar several nights a week. He also expressed concern "about the type of nutrition being provided to the boys." Phillips-Stanhope responded with an affidavit disputing Stanhope's allegations. The district court determined Stanhope had established a prima facie case for change of custody, entitling him to a hearing under N.D.C.C. § 14-09-06.6. The court also ordered the parties to select an agreed upon mental health professional to test the oldest child for Asperger's syndrome.

[¶ 4] Following an evidentiary hearing, the district court denied Stanhope's motion to change custody, finding that a material change of circumstances had not occurred since the initial divorce decree had been entered. The court accepted the opinion of the expert agreed upon by the parties that the oldest son did not have Asperger's syndrome. The court further found that although Stanhope's circumstances may have improved in Lincoln, he had failed to establish that there was a significant deterioration in the circumstances of Phillips-Stanhope and the children in Minot.

II

[¶ 5] Stanhope argues the district court erred in finding there had not been a material change in circumstances since the parties' divorce.

[¶ 6] "Before custody may be modified after a two-year period following a prior custody order, the district court must consider whether a material change in circumstances has occurred and, if the court finds a material change in circumstances, the court must decide whether custody modification is necessary to serve the best interests of the child." Dietz v. Dietz, 2007 ND 84, ¶ 9, 733 N.W.2d 225; see also N.D.C.C. § 14-09-06.6(6). Not every change in circumstances is sufficiently significant to rise to the level required under N.D.C.C. § 14-09-06.6. Seibel v. Seibel, 2004 ND 41, ¶ 5, 675 N.W.2d 182. We have defined a material change in circumstances as "important new facts that were unknown at the time of the initial custody decree." In re Thompson, 2003 ND 61, ¶ 7, 659 N.W.2d 864; see also N.D.C.C. § 14-09-06.6(6)(a). "A material change of circumstances can occur if a child's present environment may endanger the child's physical or emotional health or impair the child's emotional development." Selzler v. Selzler, 2001 ND 138, ¶ 21, 631 N.W.2d 564. "Improvements in a noncustodial parent's situation `accompanied by a general decline in the condition of the children with the custodial parent over the same period' may constitute a significant change in circumstances." Kelly v. Kelly, 2002 ND 37, ¶ 20, 640 N.W.2d 38 (quoting Hagel v. Hagel, 512 N.W.2d 465, 468 (N.D. 1994)).

[¶ 7] A district court's decision whether to change custody is a finding of fact subject to the clearly erroneous standard of review. Clark v. Clark, 2006 ND 182, ¶ 18, 721 N.W.2d 6. A finding of fact is clearly erroneous if there is no evidence to support it, if the finding is induced by an erroneous view of the law, or if the reviewing court is left with a definite and firm conviction a mistake has been made. Id.

A

[¶ 8] Stanhope contends the court erred in finding that the oldest son did not suffer from Asperger's syndrome or any other form of autism. He claims Phillips-Stanhope's refusal to accept that the oldest son has Asperger's syndrome results in her being unable to properly care for his needs. Stanhope presented the deposition testimony of Dean Beck, a licensed clinical social worker who observed the children when they were in Bismarck. Beck did not know if the oldest son had Asperger's syndrome, Stanhope also presented the testimony of Tim Gienger, a licensed clinical social worker who graduated with a master's degree in 2004. Gienger had not performed any diagnostic testing but diagnosed the oldest son with Asperger's syndrome.

[¶ 9] The district court found the opinion of the licensed psychologist the parties selected to examine the oldest son to be the most persuasive:

The parties selected Dr. Dion Darveaux, Minot, North Dakota. Dr. Darveaux has a Ph.D. in psychology, and has been in private practice in Minot for many years. Darveaux met and examined [the oldest son]. He determined that [the oldest son] did have some emotional and behavioral problems, however, he believed they stemmed primarily from the divorce of Edwin and Heather, and the continued struggle they had over custody and the children. Darveaux stated it was not unusual to see these sorts of problems in children in divorce situations.

Darveaux presented an Asperger's Syndrome diagnostic scale to seven individuals and asked them to complete the scale. The seven individuals were Heather, Edwin, Angel Stanhope, Chad Fenner (Heather's finance), Taharah Futch (the children's nanny), as well as two of [the oldest son's] teachers. Not surprisingly, Edwin and Angel Stanhope reported seeing the greatest number of Asperger's symptoms; Heather, Chad, and Taharah reported the fewest number of symptoms. [The oldest son's] teachers, the only non-biased observers, reported the existence of some symptoms. However, in the final analysis, the scale revealed that it was "unlikely" that [the oldest son] had Asperger's.

Darveaux further noted that even those symptoms that [the oldest son] did have could just as easily be the result of other conditions, and not Asperger's. The conditions he does have do not, in Darveaux's eyes, cause significant functional impairment in school, or other social settings. [The oldest son] has nearly straight A's on his report card. And, insofar as [the oldest son's] disciplinary problems, being sent to the principal's office, Darveaux stated that this was not significant. In fact, Darveaux stated he would be more concerned about the child who did not, on occasion, get sent to the principal's office while in grade school.

. . . .

Lastly, no matter what problems [the oldest son] may have, Darveaux concluded that these problems have not caused significant impairment in [the oldest son's] academic or social functioning. This is verified by [the oldest son's] school records which show good grades, and only minor disciplinary concerns. Darveaux verified his conclusions by going to others, such as teachers and a school principal.

Based on Dr. Darveaux's conclusion, the district court found that the oldest son's "present environment, and Heather's care for him, are not endangering [his] emotional or physical health." The court also found no evidence to suggest the youngest son's mental or physical health has suffered.

[¶ 10] The district court was in a better position than this Court to weigh the evidence. The district court has the advantage of judging the credibility of witnesses by hearing and observing them and of weighing the evidence as it is introduced, rather than from a cold record. See Ramstad v. Biewer, 1999 ND 23, ¶ 22, 589 N.W.2d 905; Ludwig v. Burchill, 481 N.W.2d 464, 469 (N.D.1992). "[W]hen two parties present conflicting testimony on material issues of fact, as in the instant case, we will not redetermine the trial court's findings based upon that testimony." Roberson v. Roberson, 2004 ND 203, ¶ 10, 688 N.W.2d 380. A district court's choice between two permissible views of the evidence is not clearly erroneous. Burns v. Burns, 2007 ND 134, ¶ 9, 737 N.W.2d 243. We conclude the court's findings that the oldest son did not have Asperger's syndrome or other form of autism, that any of his...

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    ...court's decision to modify custody is a finding of fact, which will not be reversed on appeal unless clearly erroneous. Stanhope v. Phillips-Stanhope, 2008 ND 61, ¶ 7, 747 N.W.2d 79. "A finding of fact is clearly erroneous if there is no evidence to support it, if the finding is induced by ......
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