Special Master orders are effective as orders when made and a court may find contempt for disobeying them.

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).

Jeremy appealed. The court of appeals sided with the district court judge:

¶24…The parties in this case stipulated to the appointment of the special master and to the Order Appointing Special Master that would be used. The grant of limited decision-making power in an Order Appointing Special Master is permitted under the “considerable discretion” rule 53 grants district courts in using a special master. See Wight, 2011 UT App 424, ¶ 16. Thus, the court’s acknowledgment of the binding nature of the special master’s directives in this case is not contrary to rule 53. As in Wight, “nothing in the [Order Appointing Special Master] limited either party’s ability to challenge the decisions of the special master by filing objections with the trial court.” Id. But unless and until such an objection was made and ruled on, the special master’s directives were “effective as orders” under the Order Appointing Special Master.

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