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D.R.L. v. K.L.C.

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

July 26, 2019

D.R.L. AND D.L. Appellants

          Appeal from the Order Dated October 17, 2018 In the Court of Common Pleas of Washington County Civil Division at No(s): No. 2016 - 6488



          McLAUGHLIN, J.

         D.R.L. and D.L. (collectively, "Paternal Grandparents") appeal from the October 17, 2018 order entered in the Court of Common Pleas of Washington County, which denied Paternal Grandparents' Exceptions to the Custody Hearing Officer's Report regarding their minor grandchild, K.P.L. ("Child"). We affirm.

         The Child was born on April 16, 2008 to K.C. ("Mother") and M.L. ("Biological Father"). When the Child was two years old, Mother and Biological Father separated. Mother had primary custody of the Child after the separation. Mother and J.C. ("Adoptive Father") were married on August 10, 2013. Biological Father died on March 24, 2016. Adoptive Father legally adopted the Child on May 30, 2017. The Child has a 5-year old half-brother from Mother and Adoptive Father. Prior to court involvement, Mother informally allowed the biological Paternal Grandparents to have visitation with the Child every other weekend and during the summer for vacation. Paternal Grandparents filed for partial custody on October 21, 2016 and the parties reached a Custody Consent Order dated January 20, 2017. The Consent Order stated that Mother would maintain primary physical and sole legal custody of the Child, and Paternal Grandparents would enjoy partial physical custody every other weekend, half-day on Easter, half-day on Father's Day, all day on Christmas Eve, seven days' vacation during the summer, and additional time when the Child's cousins from Georgia were in town. Paternal Grandparents were also permitted to contact the Child by telephone at reasonable times through FaceTime or other means.

         On December 11, 2017, Paternal Grandparents filed a Modification of Custody. The parties went through a custody conciliation conference in April of 2018, followed by two days of testimony in front of Custody Conference Officer David Rundquist ("CCO") concluding on May 3, 2018. The CCO heard testimony from Paternal Grandparents, Mother, Adoptive Father and the Child. The trial court entered an Order on June 6, 2018, which stated that the previous Consent Order of January 20, 2017 would continue to control except that Paternal Grandparents were to be afforded two non-consecutive weeks of vacation with the Child during the summer. Paternal Grandparents then filed Exceptions to this Order on June 25, 2018. Exceptions were heard before the trial court on October 10, 2018. The trial court denied the Exceptions. Paternal Grandparents then filed the instant appeal raising the following three issues:

I. Did the lower court err by indicating its bias in its assertion that appellant's [sic] "would seek to keep the memory of the [C]hild's biological father alive" through [Child] among other commentary?
II. Did the lower court err by incorrectly considering the "best interests" and in the time spent by grandparents with [Child] and all of the appellant's [sic] relatives which have played a part in [Child's] life and development?
III. Did the trial court err by incorrectly considering the issue of interference as time away from Appellee/[M]other?

         Paternal Grandparent's Br. at 5 (suggested answers omitted).

         We apply the following standard of review when reviewing a custody decision:

In reviewing a custody order, our scope is of the broadest type and our standard is abuse of discretion. We must accept findings of the trial court that are supported by competent evidence of record, as our role does not include making independent factual determinations. In addition, with regard to issues of credibility and weight of the evidence, we must defer to the presiding trial judge who viewed and assessed the witnesses first-hand. However, we are not bound by the trial court's deductions or inferences from its factual findings. Ultimately, the test is whether the trial court's conclusions are unreasonable as shown by the evidence of record. We may reject the conclusions of the trial court only if they involve an error of law, or are unreasonable in light of the sustainable findings of the trial court.

V.B. v. J.E.B., 55 A.3d 1193, 1197 (Pa.Super. 2012) (citations omitted).

         The Child Custody Act provides that grandparents may file an action for partial physical custody or supervised physical custody in certain situations, including where the parent of the child is deceased. 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 5325(1). We have emphasized that the burden is on the grandparents "to demonstrate that partial custody or visitation in their favor is in the child's best interest and will not interfere with the parent-child relationship." Douglas v. Wright, 801 A.2d 586, 590-91 (Pa.Super. 2002). The paramount concern in custody cases, "including those in which grandparents are seeking rights, is the best interests of the child." Id. at 591. "A determination of the best interests of the child is based on consideration of all factors which legitimately have an effect upon the child's physical, intellectual, moral, and spiritual well-being." L.F.F. v. P.R.F., 828 A.2d 1148, 1152 (Pa.Super. 2003).

         Section 5328(a) of the Child Custody Act enumerates sixteen factors that the court must consider when making an order of custody. Specifically, it states:

(a) Factors.--In ordering any form of custody, the court shall determine the best interest of the child by considering all relevant factors, giving weighted consideration to those factors which affect the safety of the child, including the following:
(1) Which party is more likely to encourage and permit frequent and continuing contact between the child and another party.
(2) The present and past abuse committed by a party or member of the party's household, whether there is a continued risk of harm to the child or an abused party and which party can better provide adequate physical safeguards and supervision of the child.
(2.1) The information set forth in section 5329.1(a) (relating to consideration of child abuse and involvement with protective services).
(3) The parental duties performed by each party on behalf of the child.
(4) The need for stability and continuity in the child's education, family life and community life.
(5) The availability of extended ...

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