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In re Parenting of G.M.N.

Supreme Court of Montana

January 22, 2019

IN RE THE PARENTING OF G.M.N, a minor child,
SHAWNNA McLAUGHLIN, Respondent and Appellant. ROBERT NORTHCUTT, Petitioner and Appellee,

          Submitted on Briefs: December 5, 2018

          District Court of the Eighteenth Judicial District, In and For the County of Gallatin, Cause No. DR-14-79A Honorable Holly Brown, Presiding Judge.

          For Appellant: Christopher J. Gillette, The Law Office of Christopher J. Gillette, PC, Bozeman, Montana.

          For Appellee: Kathryn E. Keiser, Kathryn E. Keiser Law, PLLC, Bozeman, Montana.



         ¶1 Shawnna McLaughlin (Shawnna) appeals from the Amended Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Order Re: Respondent's Notice of Intent to Relocate issued November 1, 2017 by the Standing Master in the Eighteenth Judicial District Court and affirmed on March 19, 2018 by the District Court. The parenting plan contained therein provides for the parties' child to reside on a primary basis in Montana. We affirm.

         ¶2 We restate the issue on appeal as follows:

         Did the District Court abuse its discretion in ordering the parenting plan which provides for the child to continue to reside on a primary basis in Montana?


         ¶3 Shawnna and Robert "Brent" Northcutt (Brent) met in Boston, Massachusetts where Shawnna was residing when the parties began their relationship. Shawnna moved to Bozeman in January 2011 to reside with Brent. Although they never married, they resided together in Bozeman until they separated in May 2013. During the time they lived together they had a child, G.M.N., born in July 2011. Brent has another daughter, A.N., from a prior relationship. Brent has had sole custody of A.N. since she was one and one-half years old, and she is now a teenager. A.N. resided with Brent and Shawnna during their entire relationship. A.N. and G.M.N. are very close. G.M.N. resided continuously with A.N. from her birth until the parties separated and since then they frequently spend time together during Brent's parenting time.

         ¶4 On July 30, 2014, the parties entered into a written Stipulated Final Parenting Plan. That plan provided for a two-week rotating schedule, where during Week 1, Brent parented G.M.N. from Tuesday at 6:00 p.m. until Friday at 7:00 a.m., and during Week 2, Brent parented G.M.N. from Thursday at 6:00 p.m. until Sunday at 4:00 p.m. Shawnna and Brent both testified that Brent parents G.M.N. more time than the Stipulated Parenting Plan provides. Both also testified the other was a good parent and had a strong relationship with G.M.N. Given that G.M.N. is in school on a full-time basis and the parties two-week rotating schedule, the time the parties actually spend with G.M.N. when she is awake before and after school and on weekends is nearly equal. The Standing Master found that, "the parties share nearly equal parenting time."

         ¶5 In considering each parent's relationship with G.M.N., the Standing Master found "both parents are actively involved in [G.M.N.'s] care and upbringing." Most importantly, based on the evidence presented at hearing the Standing Master concluded the emotional support and consistency and stability of care each parent provided G.M.N. was substantially equal- G.M.N. had a strong bond with Shawnna and a strong bond with Brent, A.N., and Janelle (Brent's girlfriend)-and it was in G.M.N.'s best interests to have frequent and continuing contact with both families.

         ¶6 Both Shawnna and Brent have specialized occupations. Shawnna worked as a trauma and then an ER nurse prior to moving to Montana. In Montana, Shawnna worked as an ER nurse in Livingston for 6 to 8 months, but her primary work has been as an ER charge nurse for Bozeman Deaconess Hospital (BDH) from November 2012 until September 16, 2016. Shawnna's employment with BDH was terminated after a dispute with BDH which resulted in a Settlement/Non-Disclosure Agreement which prohibits her from future employment with BDH or its owned affiliates in Big Sky and Bozeman. Brent works as a MySQL database engineer with Oracle. Given the specialty of his work, there are few locations where he could work. In the past, he has received other job offers to relocate to Silicon Valley or Seattle but he has turned them down to remain in Bozeman to be close to G.M.N. Although he generally works 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., his work schedule is flexible and he can work from home when needed to accommodate the needs of his children.

         ¶7 Although Brent believes Shawnna to be a good mother, he does not trust her. Brent testified and Shawnna admitted that after her termination from BDH Shawnna did not tell Brent she had lost her job. Not only did she not tell him, she lied to him that she continued to be employed at BDH. Shawnna also did not tell Brent she received a DUI in February 2016, resulting in suspension of her driver's license. At the time she received the DUI, she was exercising parenting time with G.M.N., who was with a babysitter. After being arrested and released, she went home and cared for G.M.N. As a result of the DUI, Shawnna's driver's license was suspended and at the hearing she testified she expected it to be reinstated on March 27, 2017.

         ¶8 Shawnna now desires to move to Boston to live closer to family and where she believes she will have better employment opportunities. She desires G.M.N. to move with her. After being terminated from her employment, Shawnna sought employment with only three places in the Bozeman area, one of which she declined to attend a telephone interview and instead elected to have lunch with girlfriends. Shawnna admitted there is a part-time ER nurse position available in Livingston where she worked before and there are 3 or 4 private urgent cares in Bozeman and Belgrade but she has not sought employment with them. Shawnna also admits she did not seek employment closer to Bozeman in Billings or Missoula and admitted there are ER nurse positions available in Billings.

         ¶9 Finally, rather than discussing her potential move with Brent, Shawnna instead filed a Notice of Intent to Relocate. Brent learned of her desire to move when he was served with the Notice. Brent objected and a hearing was held before the Standing Master on March 17, 2017, following which the Standing Master issued her Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Order denying Shawnna's request to relocate with G.M.N. Shawnna then filed a Notice of Specific Objections and Request for Review, after which the Standing Master issued an Amended Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Order Re: Respondent's Notice of Intent to Relocate on November 1, 2017. Shawnna filed new specific objections and request for review, on which the District Court held a hearing in March 2018. On March 19, 2018, the District Court affirmed the Standing Master's November 1, 2017, amended order denying Shawnna's request to relocate with G.M.N., from which Shawnna now appeals. Additional facts will be referenced in the discussion below.


         ¶10 In a case tried before a standing master, we apply the same standard of review to an adopted master's findings as we do to a district court's. Patton v. Patton, 2015 MT 7, ¶ 17, 378 Mont. 22, 340 P.3d 1242. We review the underlying findings in support of a districts court's decision regarding modification of a parenting plan under the clearly erroneous standard. Guffin v. Plaisted-Harman, 2010 MT 100, ¶ 20, 356 Mont. 218, 232 P.3d 888 (Guffin II). We review a district court's conclusions of law to determine if they are correct. In re the Parenting of C.J., 2016 MT 93, ¶ 12, 383 Mont. 197, 369 P.3d 1028.

         ¶11 A district court has broad discretion when considering the parenting of a child, and we must presume the court carefully considered the evidence and made the correct decision. In re C.J., ¶ 13 (citation omitted). It is not this Court's function to reweigh conflicting evidence or substitute its judgment regarding the strength of the evidence for that of the district court. In re A.F., 2003 MT 254, ¶ 24, 317 Mont. 367, 77 P.3d 266. Rather, the ultimate test for adequacy of findings of fact is whether they are sufficiently comprehensive and pertinent to the issues to provide a basis for decision, and whether they are supported by the evidence presented. In re Marriage of Wolfe, 202 Mont. 454, 458, 659 P.2d 259, 261 ...

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