Anderson-Harris v. Harris 221 Conn. App. 222 (2023) (incomplete evaluations at time of trial; no right to articulation)
Officially released August 22, 2023
In Short: This case is a disaster of mental health, repetitive ex parte applications, and unsubstantiated repeated allegations of sexual abuse and obsession therewith to the detriment of the children. Its precedential value, if any, is that (1) a trial court may cancel evaluations rather than completing them before trial when circumstances call for such, and (2) there is no right to an articulation when the memorandum of decision is thorough. Although this was unchallenged on appeal, it is also a reminder that the trial court may vest custody or parenting (including pendente lite) with a third party, when the need to do so is supported by the facts.
The parties were married in 2007 and had twins in 2013. Wife was a stay-at-home mother and Husband worked outside the home. The parties suffered marital strain from miscarriages and substantial financial insecurity to the point of food insecurity and eviction threats. Wife suffered from substantial mental health issues and was diagnosed and treated for bipolar disorder, including inpatient treatment. Wife’s mental health trajectory resulted in Husband changing jobs. Wife did not follow treatment recommendations, began to accuse Husband of sexually abusing the children, and began taking the children to the casino so that she could gamble on a regular basis.
Wife filed for divorce in July 2020, and filed the first of many ex parte applications, alleging that Husband was a danger to the children and that sexual abuse occurred, which applications were all denied. Wife began removing the children from school and “disappeared” with the children for one month without notifying Husband, during which time she lived in homeless shelters. The trial court ordered a comprehensive family relations evaluation and later entered an order canceling such evaluation after repetitive ex parte applications interfered with completing the evaluation. A Guardian Ad Litem was appointed during the pendente lite period. Both DCF and the police were involved with the family, resulting in no safety plan or substantiation nor any criminal charges.
The trial court held a hearing in March 2021 on all outstanding motions during which both parties and the GAL testified, resulting in a disturbing picture including Wife having an inappropriate and harmful obsession with the cleanliness of the children’s vaginas and Husband failing to take adequate steps to control the situation. At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court gave the parties the option of temporary custody being vested either with the paternal grandmother or DCF. The trial court placed the children temporarily with the paternal grandmother, terminated the family relations referral, and ordered the parties and children to participate in a psychological evaluation. The parties were unable to afford the evaluation and it was not completed.
Trial was scheduled to begin in July 2021. Wife filed a motion to continue alleging failure to complete the psychological evaluations, which motion was denied. The trial court offered Wife the option of a limited issue-focused family relations evaluation into whether she would be capable of accepting that Defendant was not a sexual predator, as a predicate to an order of joint custody. The trial court then bifurcated the trial into two parts, dissolution of marriage and property division, and then custody and parenting. Wife thereafter continued to make social media allegations regarding sexual abuse by Husband and revoked her authorizations to family relations for purposes of the evaluation. Husband testified that Wife made numerous statements regarding her intention to disappear with the children.
The trial court thereafter issued a memorandum of decision on all aspects of the case dissolving the marriage and awarding sole legal and physical custody of the children to Husband. Wife’s access was limited to two video meetings per week at consistent times and dates to be chosen by Husband.
Wife was ordered to pay $119/week child support based on an earning capacity of $18,000-$21,000/year based on historical earnings as a seamstress. Husband was ordered to pay $1.00 per year alimony for five years and was awarded his retirement accounts free and clear of any claim as well as both cars (subject to large debts). Husband was awarded some $2,750 in attorney and expert fees.
Wife appealed, arguing that (1) the trial court improperly rendered judgment of dissolution before court-ordered evaluations were completed, (2) the trial court abused its discretion in its financial orders including child support and alimony, and (3) the retirement of the trial judge rendered an inadequate record for review, necessitating a new trial.
As to Wife’s first claim on appeal regarding incomplete evaluations, CGS § 46b-7 and PB § 25-60 and § 25-60A provide that a case shall not be disposed until such reports are completed. Husband argued that no such evaluation was pending as of the Judgment. The Appellate Court determined that Wife’s constitutional claim as to due process for such violation was not preserved as Wife did not raise such claim before the trial court and did not request nor brief Golding review. The Appellate Court reviewed Wife’s claim that denial of a continuance request constituted abuse of discretion and found that such denial was not arbitrary, Wife had several months to prepare for trial, and at the time of the continuance denial, the issue of custody was to be deferred for a final resolution after evaluation (which evaluation ultimately did not take place because Wife refused to cooperate).
As to Wife’s second claim on appeal regarding financial orders, Wife alleged that the record was “impossible to follow with all aspects relating to the division of property and the financial orders” and abuse of discretion. The Appellate Court noted that no single criteria is preferred over others, and that the trial court is not required to recite the statutory criteria or make express findings as to each factor. The Appellate Court analyzed the findings of the trial court to justify its decision and the facts before it and found no abuse of discretion.
As to Wife’s third claim that the retirement of the judge rendered the record inadequate, Wife argued that she was prevented from obtaining an articulation from Judge Schofield. The trial court denied Wife’s motion for articulation on the basis of retirement. The Appellate Court thereafter denied the request to set aside such order. Wife sought to analogize this case to Zaniewski where the trial court issued a memorandum that contained essentially no factual findings. The Appellate Court found that this case was readily distinguishable based on the thorough memorandum of decision setting forth its findings and credibility determinations. The Appellate Court determined that no articulation was necessary, and no new trial was required.