Articles Posted in Recent Court Decisions

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As the Washington Post reports, The Maryland Court of Special Appeals upheld the divorce of Marie-Louise Tshiani and Noel Tshiani, stating that their marriage, where Noel was only present by phone, was valid. When Ms. Tshiani filed for divorce in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County, seeking alimony and child support, Mr. Tshiani claimed that he did not know about their marriage. Mr. Tshiani was present for the 1993 ceremony that took place in the Democratic Republic of Congo by way of speaker phone only. He participated by answering questions from another country, but his cousin did stand in his place for the actual ceremony. The Maryland Court of Special Appeals held that this was a valid marriage under state law as Maryland law does not bar the Court “from recognizing a ceremony where on participates by proxy and the ceremony that is valid in another jurisdiction.” The ruling by the Court is especially important as it again confirms that Maryland will recognize a marriage performed elsewhere that would have been otherwise illegal in Maryland.
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Maryland law defines dissipation as when “one spouse uses marital property for his or her own benefit for a purpose unrelated to the marriage at a time where the marriage is undergoing an irreconcilable breakdown.” Sharp v. Sharp, 58 Md. App. 386 (1984). At issue is also whether or not the party spent or depleted the marital funds or property with the principal purpose of reducing the amount of funds that would be available for equitable distribution at the time of divorce. In a recent opinion by Judge Murphy on behalf of the Court of Appeals the Court faced the question as to who has the burden of proving that the assets had been dissipated. The case, Omayaka v. Omayaka was originally heard by the Circuit Court for Prince George’s County for the final divorce hearing in July 2007. At this hearing the attorney for Mr. Omayaka attempted to prove that the wife had dissipated martial assets. Mr. Omayaka claimed that Mrs. Omayaka had opened up an account in her name only during their marriage and had withdrawn over $80,000.00 from the account since 2005. Mr. Omayaka’s attorney questioned Mrs. Omayaka on what the money was spent on and she stated clothing, food, insurance for the baby, rent, credit card debt, a car loan and the babysitter. At the conclusion of the case the Circuit Court found that there had not been a dissipation of assets because the attorney for Mr. Omayaka had not met the burden of proving that the money was spent for a purpose unrelated to the marriage during a time when the marriage is irretrievably broken. The attorney for Mr. Omayaka filed an appeal based on the contention that he had met his burden of proof showing dissipation of the assets. The Court of Appeals, in its’ opinion, clears up the burden of proof question with the following guide:

The alleging party must first put on a prima facie case that the marital assets were taken by one spouse without agreement with the other spouse. Then, the burden shifts to the alleged spending party to produce evidence that generates a genuine question of fact on the issues of whether the assets were taken without agreement, and/or where the funds are, and or were they used for marital or family expenses. However, the court points out that it is clear that the burden lies on the party who claims that the other party has dissipated marital assets to clearly prove that the funds were spent solely to reduce the money available for equitable distribution.
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As stated in our June 30, 2010 blog on Facebook pages used as evidence in family law proceedings, Facebook pages and various other social networking sites such as MySpace are being used as evidence in many legal proceedings. As mentioned, the rules regarding the entry of these pages as evidence are still unclear. In a recent case published by the Court of Special Appeals, Antoine Levar Griffin v. State of Maryland, the Court offers attorneys some guidance on this exact evidentiary issue. The opinion, reported on May 27, 2010 states:

The anonymity features of social networking sites may present an obstacle to litigants seeking to authenticate messages posted on them. See, e.g., Paul W. Grimm et al., Back to the Future: Lorraine v. Markel American Insurance Co. and New Findings on the Admissibility of Electronically Stored Information, 42 AKRON L. REV. 357, 370-71 (2009). That is the issue we encounter here: whether the State adequately established the author of the cyber message in question. Despite the pervasive popularity of social networking sites and their potential as treasure troves of valuable evidence, Maryland appellate courts have not yet addressed the issue of authenticating anonymous or pseudonymous documents printed from social media Web sites. Notably, neither the Maryland Rules of Evidence nor the Maryland Rules of Procedure specifically address the authentication of such evidence. Perhaps this is because courts that have generally considered the issue of authentication of electronic communications have concluded that they may be authenticated under existing evidentiary rules governing authentication by circumstantial evidence. We see no reason why social media profiles may not be circumstantially authenticated in the same manner as other forms of electronic communication – by their content and context. The inherent nature of social networking Web sites encourages members who choose to use pseudonyms to identify themselves by posting profile pictures or descriptions of their physical appearances, personal background information, and lifestyles. This type of individualization may lend itself to authentication of a particular profile page as having been created by the person depicted in it.

In this particular criminal case, the Defendant was disputing that a MySpace page should be used as evidence because one could not prove that it was the person’s page it purported to be.
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Third party visitation cases have become increasing difficult cases to establish ordered child access. The standard has been and remains that in order for grandparents or other third parties to be awarded visitation with a grandchild/child they must show either parental unfitness or exceptional circumstances. For more information regarding third party visitation see our August 11, 2009 blog post. Maryland’s second highest court recently filed an opinion in the case of Brandenburg v. LaBarre on June 2, 2010, which held that in order to prove exceptional circumstances in a third party visitation case, third parties must show that without visitation there will be significant harm to the children. I am of the opinion that prior to this decision, exceptional circumstances could be proven without proving actual/significant harm to the children.

This visitation case was originally heard in 2008 in the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County. The LaBarres, the children’s grandparents, filed a Complaint for Visitation after they had a falling out with their son and daughter-in-law, the Brandeburg’s. The Brandenburgs have four young children and until February 2008 the LaBarres cared for the children often and spent a great amount of time with the children. After hearing testimony from both sides, including the LaBarre’s testimony that exceptional circumstances existed because the children had previously spent so much time with them, the Judge granted the LaBarres one overnight visit a month and one week in the summer with the children. The Judge noted that the LaBarres had shown no evidence that the children had been harmed by lack of contact with them, but that it was unreasonable for them to have to do so given they had no contact with the children for some time. The Court of Special Appeals reversed the Judge’s decision stating that the test for exceptional circumstances is whether or not the children are suffering significant harm because they are not allowed contact with the third party seeking visitation. In this case, because the parents were fit, they have the right to decide who can visit their children unless these exceptional circumstances are proven.
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The Maryland Court of Appeal issued an opinion in Curtis O. Rosemann v. Salsbury, Clements, Bekman, Marder & Adkins, LLC on January 13, 2010 stating that funds received as a part of a settlement in personal injury case are exempt from being executed for a judgment of child support arrearages. Mr. Rosemann, the father and primary custodial parent of two minor children sought to garnish funds received from his ex-wife in a personal injury lawsuit after she failed to pay her child support. Mr. Rosemann’s battle began in 2001 when he obtained two judgments in the Circuit Court for Howard County against his ex-wife for child support arrearages totaling over $33,000.00. Ms. Rosemann and her attorneys were awarded $30,000.00 from America West Airlines in a personal injury lawsuit after being injured while on an America West flight. After learning of this settlement, Mr. Rosemann attempted to garnish the account that held Ms. Rosemann’s share of the settlement.

The Circuit Court found, and the Court of Special Appeals affirmed that the funds were exempt from execution on judgment in accordance with Maryland Code, Courts and Judicial Proceedings § 11-504(b)(2), which states the following: (b) The following items are exempt from execution on a judgment: (2) Money payable in the event of sickness, accident, injury, or death of any person, including compensation for loss of future earnings. This exemption includes but is not limited to money payable on account of judgments, arbitrations, compromises, insurance, benefits, compensation, and relief. Disability income benefits are not exempt if the judgment is for necessities contracted for after the disability is incurred.
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Maryland’s second highest court filed an opinion in the case of Guzman Cruz v. Clemencia Silva on November 25, 2009, which held that a spouse can be awarded alimony absent a divorce. The idea of alimony disconnected from a divorce, although a strange scenario for most to imagine, has long been a reality in Maryland. For more information regarding alimony see our October 2, 2009 and October 13, 2009 blog posts.

The Cruz’s came to the Circuit Court for Princes George’s County on January 9, 2008, both seeking a divorce but did not prove legally sufficient grounds for the divorce. However, the Judge awarded custody of the two minor children to Clemencia, ordered Guzman to pay her $764.00 per month in child support, and $1,500.00 per month in alimony. Guzman appealed to the Court of Special Appeals contending that the trial court erred in awarding alimony to Clemencia without granting a divorce and without properly determining the type and amount of alimony. The Court stated that Maryland has long recognized that the common law obligation of alimony was the obligation of husband to provide support to wife (or wife to husband). This is evidenced by Maryland Code, Family Law Section 11-101(a)(1), which provides that a court may award alimony not only in a decree of divorce, but also in a bill of complaint for alimony. The Court of Special Appeals held that while a spouse can be awarded alimony absent a divorce, that in this case the award was an error as a spouse still has to prove a case that would entitle him or her to alimony.
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The Daily Record reports that the Maryland Court of Special Appeals has decided to vacate the Baltimore County Circuit Court’s decision to allow Larissa S. to visit with her ex-partner Melissa B.’s eight year old son. The couple dated for seven years, before deciding to have a child in 2001, through the help of a friend. After the couple broke up in 2002, Melissa gave birth to a second child. Larissa never adopted either child, but visited with both boys from 2002-2005 until she was denied access, which triggered her to file for visitation rights.

The Baltimore County Circuit Court, namely Judge Daniels, after much back and forth with Maryland’s higher court, found that the third party exceptional circumstances standard was met in this case, and therefore, ordered that there should be visitation between Larissa and the eldest child. For more information regarding third party custody and the exceptional circumstances standard see the August 11, 2009 blog. The Court of Special Appeals found that the lower court erred in finding exceptional circumstances because the Judge improperly refused to hear evidence from Melissa about the potential effects that this visitation with Larissa could have on her eldest son. Such new evidence could include the time that Larissa has been absent from the child’s life, due to this ongoing litigation. The case will return to Baltimore County Circuit Court where a judge will have to listen to all evidence to determine whether exceptional circumstances exist to order visitation between Larissa and the child.

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On September 21, 2009, the Maryland Court of Appeals issued an opinion holding that the Circuit Court for Garrett County had erred in ordering a paternity test for a child without first considering the child’s best interest. The case, Kamp v. Department of Human Resources, began when Darren Kamp, the father of four children with ex-wife, Vicki Duckworth, requested a paternity test for his fourth child after his ex-wife filed a motion to increase child support. The parties had been married for 16 years, had three children whose paternity was not questioned, but then had a fourth child after Darren had had a vasectomy. During the divorce proceedings in 1999, Darren agreed that he had four children.

The trial court, after ordering paternity testing that found that Darren was not the father of the fourth child, denied Vicki’s motion to increase child support and further terminated Darren’s child support obligation. The Department of Human Services appealed the trial court’s ruling, arguing that Darren could not contest paternity. Maryland’s highest court’s judges all agreed that trial court erred in ordering the test and terminating support, but disagree on their reasoning why. Three of the judges would base their decision on Darren’s 13 year delay in challenging paternity of the child, while the other four judge’s base their decision on the trial court’s lack of consideration of the best interest of the child before ordering the test.

The law in Maryland states that “there is a rebuttable presumption that the child is the legitimate child of the man to whom its mother was married at the time of conception.” Maryland Code, Family Law 5-1027. The issue of paternity often arises during a divorce when there are adultery allegations. Based upon this new ruling, if the putative father is unsure he is the biological father, it is his burden at the divorce stage to pursue and resolve the issue. The failure to do so could mean he is financially obligated to support the child until child support would otherwise terminate.
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On June 3, 2009, in the case of Barrett v. Ayres, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals found that Sharon Barrett did not need to show a material change in circumstances in order to modify the current set visitation schedule between her daughter and her daughter’s paternal grandparents, Bryan and Helen Ayres. Sharon Barrett had agreed to a visitation schedule between her daughter and the Ayres after her husband was seriously injured in a car accident in 2004. However, the relationship had become strained and Sharon believed that it was no longer in her daughter’s best interest to visit with her grandparents. The Court stated a parent’s decision that their child’s visitation with a third party should be modified is a material change in and of itself. The burden then shifts to the third party to establish that the parent is unfit or other exceptional circumstances exist. In this case the grandparents now have the burden to prove the parents are unfit or exceptional circumstances exist.

While not seemingly an issue in the Barrett case, some factors used to assess fitness include parental characteristics such as age, stability, and the capacity and interest of a parent to provide for the emotional, social, moral, material, and educational needs of the child. If the Court finds a parent to be fit, the next issue is whether such exceptional circumstances exist to determine what is in the minor child’s best interest in terms of visitation and/or custody. In cases of both custody and visitation there can be any number of factors used to determine whether exceptional circumstances exist. Historically, the Court often makes findings as to (1) nature and strength of ties between child and third party; (2) intense and genuine desire of third party to have custody/visitation of the child; (3) stability and certainty of child’s future; and (4) emotional effect of changing custody. If the Court finds exceptional circumstances exist, then the Court will determine what is in the minor child’s best interest.

In custody matters, Maryland Courts presume that a child’s best interests are better served in the care and custody of his or her natural parents rather than a third party. The third party threshold showing is necessary because parents have a fundamental right to control the upbringing of their children, which includes with whom the children spend their time, i.e. with whom they have visitation. Barrett is a landmark decision in Maryland as it expands the 2007 decision in Koshko v. Haining to apply to not only initial determinations of third party custody or visitation, but also to modifications of it.