The "Independent" Standard of Review on Objections to Commissioners Clarified

July 27, 2018

In this appeal, the court clarified that an objection to a ruling by a commissioner is independent, and not a burden on the objecting party to show that the commissioner's ruling was incorrect.  In this case, a commissioner made a ruling (a recommendation) in a custody case, denying a mother's motion to relocate a child from Utah to Massachusetts.  When the objection hearing was held by the district court judge, the judge seemed to place a burden on the mother in "demonstrating that the Commissioner’s recommendations
were incorrect."  It is this authors opinion that there is a long-standing difference in how various judges review an objection to a commissioner.  Some judges review an objection, like in this case, with a standard of having the objecting party carry the burden of showing how the commissioner was incorrect or made a mistake, or abused their authority.  This is a high standard and the objecting party starts "behind" the starting line in an objection hearing. Some judges treat the objection as a de novo review--meaning that the court starts from the beginning and makes its own findings and conclusions without consideration of what the commissioner did. The appeals court clarified that an objection hearing is an independent review. Therefore, in this case when the district court "concluded that [a] party objecting to the Commissioner’s recommendation has the burden of demonstrating that the Commissioner’s recommendation is incorrect," the appeals court reversed and remanded back to the district court. This is because Rule 108 governing objections requires “independent findings of fact and
conclusions of law based on the evidence.” Utah R. Civ. P. 108(f).  The appeals court noted that perhaps there would not be a different result using the correct standard, but using the incorrect standard may have made "the district court’s findings and conclusions were weighed on an unbalanced scale."  From a practitioner's point of view, it is nice after so many years to have the standard clarified so that there is more uniformity and thus predictability among the district court judges in objection hearings as to what standard will (or should) be used.

Day v. Barnes, 2018 UT App 143

You can read the entire case here

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