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In re Parenting of R.J.N.

Supreme Court of Montana

October 10, 2017

IN RE THE PARENTING OF: R.J.N. and H.E.N., Minor Children. CHELLIE NEWMAN, Petitioner and Appellant, and WILLIAM H. NEWMAN, Respondent and Appellee.

          Submitted on Briefs: August 30, 2017

         APPEAL FROM: District Court of the Eighteenth Judicial District, In and For the County of Gallatin, Cause No. DR-07-12C Honorable John C. Brown, Presiding Judge

          For Appellant: Jeremy S. Yellin, Attorney at Law, Havre, Montana

          For Appellee: John P. Nesbitt, Jr., Attorney at Law, Bozeman, Montana

          OPINION

          Jim Rice Justice.

         ¶1 Chellie Newman (Chellie) appeals the summary dismissal of her petition to modify the parenting plan for her two sons with William Newman (William), by the Eighteenth Judicial District Court, Gallatin County. We affirm, addressing the following issue:

         Did the District Court err by dismissing the petition to modify the parenting plan without conducting a hearing?

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         ¶2 Chellie and William were married in 1999 and had two children together, R.J.N. and H.E.N. The marriage was dissolved in 2007, and the parties' stipulated parenting plan was approved and ordered.

         ¶3 In 2011, Chellie gave notice of her intention to move to California, and proposed a parenting plan amendment that would substantially restrict William's time with the children. In response, William also moved to modify the parenting plan. The Standing Master conducted a hearing on the proposed modifications and, on January 10, 2013, entered findings of fact, conclusions of law and an order adopting an amended parenting plan that provided the children would spend a majority of their time with William. The Master concluded that a threshold change of circumstances necessitating a hearing had occurred because of Chellie's intention to relocate to California with the children, and her asserted "acts of parental alienation" against William. The Master found that Chellie had "engaged in various acts which are forms of parental alienation, " including refusing to allow William to exercise his scheduled time with the children despite his repeated requests, and found that there was "strong evidence that Father's relationship with his children has been severely damaged as a result of [Chellie's] proposed relocation to California with the children."

         ¶4 In February 2015, Chellie moved to modify the 2013 Amended Parenting Plan. Her motion stated "[t]he basis for this motion is that R.J.N. will be fifteen [15] years of age as of April, 2015, and H.E.N. is twelve [12] years of age, and both children desire a change from the children residing primarily with [William] to a new parenting plan where they reside primarily with [Chellie.]" Her supporting affidavit simply reiterated the children's ages and their desire to live primarily with Chellie. William moved to dismiss Chellie's motion, arguing that it failed to demonstrate changed circumstances necessary for a hearing to be conducted on modification of the parenting plan. The Master entered an order summarily denying Chellie's motion. Chellie filed objections, arguing the Master should have held an evidentiary hearing and conducted an in camera interview of the children. After briefing and a hearing in which argument was received, the District Court affirmed the order, reasoning that "Chellie failed to meet the threshold showing for a hearing, and the Standing Master correctly granted [William's] Motion to Dismiss. . . ." Chellie appeals.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         ¶5 When considering parenting plan modifications, we review conclusions of law for whether they are correct. In re Marriage of Guffin, 2010 MT 100, ¶ 20, 356 Mont. 218, 232 P.3d 888. Two standards of review are relevant in a case involving both a standing master and the district court: the standard the district court applies to the master's report and the standard we apply to the district court's decision. In re Marriage of Davis, 2016 MT 52, ¶ 4, 382 Mont. 378, 367 P.3d 400 (citing In re Marriage of Kostelnik, 2015 MT 283, ¶ 15, 381 Mont. 182, 357 P.3d 912). We review a district court's decision de novo to determine whether it applied the correct standard of review to a standing master's findings of fact and conclusions of law. Kostelnik, ¶ 15 (citing In re Marriage of Patton, 2015 MT 7, ...


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