Alienating behavior such as interference with parent time without the consent of the other parent for extracurricular activities, assisting children who do not want to go on visits, not obeying special master order, and other reasons, can lead to contempt.

Thomas v. Thomas, 2021 UT App 8 (Filed January 22, 2021)

Jeremy and Jody Tasker Thomas were divorced in 2013. The parties have two children: Son and Daughter. The divorce decree provided that during the school year, Jeremy would have primary custody of Son and Jody would have primary custody of Daughter. The parties were to share joint physical custody of the children during the summer. Since their divorce, the parties have had numerous conflicts regarding the children, which ultimately led the parties to stipulate to appointment of a special master to help them resolve their parenting disputes. With respect to establishing an order governing the special master’s authority (Order Appointing Special Master), the parties stipulated to use the “standard Special Master Order as used by
Jay Jensen or Sandra Dredge.” ¶3 The special master issued numerous orders in the years following his appointment. For example, he issued orders governing the children’s communication and cell phone use during parent-time and requiring both the parents and children to participate in therapy. He also issued orders outlining procedures for exchanges for parent-time that were intended to minimize conflict and prevent the children from defying the parent-time schedule. ¶4 Four years after the decree was entered, Jody filed a motion for order to show cause in which she alleged that Jeremy had violated various provisions of the parties’ divorce decree and the special master’s orders. These allegations revolved around one primary issue: that Jody believed Jeremy was alienating the children from her by speaking “derogatorily or disparagingly” about Jody, “[p]utting the children in the middle,” “discussing adult issues with the children,” and denying her parent-time. ¶5 The district court held a hearing on Jody’s motion for order to show cause, as well as various other pending motions, in November 2017. With respect to Jody’s motion, the court found that Jeremy was “using the teenager[s’] busy schedules as a way to triangulate animosity and contempt of the children against their mother,” that his actions made Jody out to be the “bad guy,” and that he had “shown a continued pattern towards alienating the love and affection of the children towards” Jody. The court also found that Jeremy had not complied with an order of the special master that he “engage in individual therapy.”

¶6 Based on these findings, the [district] court [judge] concluded that Jeremy had violated provisions of the divorce decree as well as “multiple orders of the Special Master,” that Jeremy knew of the orders, that he had the ability to comply, and that he willfully refused to do so. As a result, the court found him in contempt and ordered sanctions of thirty days incarceration in county jail, suspension of any licenses issued by the state, and a $1,000 fine (the First Contempt Order).

However, the court stayed the sanctions and gave Jeremy an opportunity to purge the contempt by doing four things: (1) “fully comply[ing] with the Special Master order(s) regarding counseling”; (2) “mak[ing] progress regarding his alienation of the children”; (3) “provid[ing] necessary releases for [his therapist] to provide regular reports to the Special Master and [Jody] regarding [Jeremy’s] progress”; and (4) paying Jody’s attorney fees and costs relating to several motions. The court then set the matter for further review. At the subsequent hearing, the court did not consider whether Jeremy had purged his contempt, but it ordered Jeremy:

  1. To strictly comply with the Custody order.
  2. To make no alterations or changes to the custody order without the prior agreement of [Jody].
  3. To compel the children to comply with the custody order, and to do so without any further alienation of the children.
  4. To not schedule or allow to be scheduled any activity with the children in conflict with the custody order.
  5. To not allow [Son’s] sports and motocross to interfere with [Jody’s] visitation without [Jody’s] agreement to a trade.
  6. To compel [Son] to comply with the custody order.
  7. To not allow the children to refuse to comply with the custody order.

¶7 As the year progressed, tensions between the parties continued. Several contentious issues arose relating to exchanges of the children, in which Jeremy “fail[ed] to ensure the children attend parent-time.” Although Jeremy would take the children to the exchange location, the children would refuse to go with Jody, and Jeremy would then allow them to go home with him. Additionally, when conflicts arose between Son’s extracurricular activities and his parent-time with Jody, Jeremy left it to Son to coordinate scheduling changes and make-up time with Jody, putting the full responsibility of disappointing Son on Jody if changes to the schedule could not be arranged. ¶8 Then, at some point in the summer of 2018, Daughter hatched a plan that would allow her to move in with Jeremy during the school year. She informed Jeremy that Jody had given her permission to register for school in Jeremy’s district. Without verifying this information with Jody, Jeremy went to the school and pre-registered Daughter to attend school where he lived. When it became apparent that Jody had not given permission for Daughter to change schools, Daughter “refused to go to school for a considerable time” in the hope that “if [she] didn’t go to school, they’d let [her] go to [her] dad’s.” Additionally, Daughter made attempts to harm Jody, which culminated in Daughter being placed in juvenile detention and referred to the Utah Juvenile Court system. ¶9 Jody filed another motion for order to show cause in December 2018, in which she alleged that Jeremy had failed to purge his contempt and that he should additionally be held in contempt for failing to obey a subpoena and for violating numerous orders of the court and special master. The district court held an evidentiary hearing on the motion on January 10, 2019, and again found Jeremy in contempt (the Second Contempt Order). In light of the voluminous evidence relating to Jeremy’s alienation of the children submitted to the court at that hearing and throughout the pendency of the case, the court made findings regarding anecdotal incidents that it believed were representative of the alienating behavior. ¶10 First, the court recited text messages from an incident in February 2018 in which Daughter refused to return to Jody’s home after parent-time with Jeremy and Jeremy supported her refusal. It then addressed an incident in July 2018 in which Jeremy “knew the children did not want to do” parent-time with Jody and “failed to do anything to encourage or ensure the children comply with [Jody’s] parent-time as required by the orders of the Court.” The court found that this conflict was “only one example of many where [Jeremy] failed to encourage and/or compel the children’s compliance with” Jody’s parent-time. ¶11 The court also made several findings regarding the school incident. The court found that either (1) Jeremy was lying to the court when he claimed Daughter told him Jody gave permission for her to “look at enrolling and attending school” in Jeremy’s district or (2) Daughter lied to Jeremy and Jeremy made no attempt to communicate with Jody to verify Daughter’s “unbelievable statement that she had [Jody’s] permission.” The court found that “as a result of [Jeremy’s] failure to act, [he] implanted the idea into [Daughter’s] mind that [he] was going to aid [her] in her plot to” live with Jeremy: “[T]he best-case scenario is that [Jeremy] was complicit with [Daughter’s] lies and plans. The worst-case scenario is that [Jeremy] helped [Daughter] orchestrate her plot and is lying to the Court.” The court found that Jeremy’s “willingness to allow [Daughter’s] defiance” was a “significant contributor” to her “pushing the envelope of her defiance” by “refusing to attend school for many weeks” and attempting to harm Jody. ¶14 The court determined that “the alienation of the children . . . is the most critical issue that the Court has taken into consideration.” It therefore found Jeremy “in continued contempt as [he] has failed to purge his contempt previously found, and also continued to violate the same orders,” including provisions of the divorce decree regarding alienation and putting the children in the middle, as well as “multiple orders of the Special Master.”

Jeremy appealed. The court of appeals sided with the district court judge, that the orders of the court and special master were binding on him, that he had the ability to comply, and he did not comply.

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