Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Arbitration of Family Law Disputes: Arbitrator's Decision in SAPCR Modification Proceeding Confirmed & Affirmed on Appeal

ARBITRATING CHILD CUSTODY & VISITATION MODIFICATION ISSUES AFTER DIVORCE A recent appeal from an order confirming (the opinion says "affirming") an arbitration award in a post-divorce SAPCR dispute in a Houston family court raises a number of interesting issues, including the appropriateness of ADR in a child custody matter when domestic violence is alleged, a potential conflict of an ADR professional serving in the dual role of mediator and arbitrator, the recusal of an arbitrator for perceived bias, etc. The underlying divorce decree incorporated a mediated settlement agreement (MSA) that covered some issues, but not others. Unfortunately, the various arguments were not fully developed, or not appropriately preserved for appellate review, in this case. The 14th Court of Appeals rejected all challenges against the arbitration award, the arbitration process, and the arbitrator, and affirmed the family court's order confirming the decision of the arbitrator - a former judge. M E M O R A N D U M O P I N I O N In this suit affecting the parent-child relationship, appellant, Lynn G., appeals from the trial court's order affirming a post-divorce arbitration award. In five issues, Lynn argues (1) the trial court erred in not hearing and ruling on fourteen “motions," (2) the trial court and the arbitrator erred in not considering Lynn's evidence of family violence and ordering her to arbitration despite such evidence, (3) the trial court erred in appointing Mary Sean O'Reilly as an arbitrator because she had acted as a “de facto" mediator in the case, (4) the arbitrator erred in refusing to grant a continuance based on pleadings and evidence missing from the court's files, and (5) the arbitrator acted beyond her power and the trial court therefore erred in refusing to vacate the award. Because all dispositive issues of law are settled, we issue this memorandum opinion and affirm. See Tex. R. App. P. 47.4. I. Background Lynn and Joseph G. began divorce proceedings in 1999. As part of those proceedings, they executed a Mediated Settlement Agreement (MSA) in which they agreed on certain terms of the divorce and left other matters for trial to the court. On September 19, 2002, the court signed the Final Decree of Divorce, which incorporated the agreed terms of the MSA and set forth the court's rulings on matters tried to the court. Starting before the divorce was final, Lynn filed a petition and amended petitions for enforcement by contempt in which she alleged Joseph had violated provisions of the temporary orders and the divorce decree. On April 2, 2003, Lynn filed a Petition to Modify Parent-Child Relationship and Request for Temporary Orders. On February 18, 2005, on Joseph's opposed Motion for Appointment of Arbitrator, the court appointed the Honorable Mary Sean O'Reilly as the arbitrator. On June 8, 2005, Lynn filed an Opposed Motion for Recusal of Arbitrator, in which she stated she was “no longer comfortable that the arbitrator is capable of reaching independent decisions and has lost confidence in the ability of the arbitrator to make determinations regarding the best interest of the children the subject of the lawsuit." On or around June 15, 2005, Joseph filed an Original Answer and Counter-Petition to Modify Parent-Child Relationship. He subsequently moved the court for an order of referral to arbitration. He represented that the parties' attorneys had met with Judge O'Reilly, but that Lynn had refused to arbitrate and refused to sign any documents that would facilitate arbitration. On August 26, 2005, the trial court granted Joseph's motion and issued an order that the following disputes be arbitrated: all issues raised in Lynn's Petition to Modify Parent-Child Relationship and Joseph's Counter-Petition that related to (1) parental rights and duties of the parties, (2) periods of parental possession of the parties' children, (3) rights to make educational and medical decisions about the parties' children, and (4) extra-curricular activities of the parties' children. At a hearing on December 14, 2005, Lynn's recusal motion was reset for December 22, 2005. In the interim, Lynn's attorney informed Joseph's attorney that Lynn had decided to withdraw her request for recusal, and no one appeared before the court on December 22. On April 18, 2006, the trial court signed an order confirming that arbitration was to occur on May 17 and 18, 2006, before Judge O'Reilly. The arbitration was to cover “all issues other than enforcement." On May 3, 2006, Lynn filed an “Opposed Supplemental Motion for Recusal of the Arbitrator." Lynn alleged the arbitrator was biased as evidenced by the arbitrator's moving the case forward despite the pending motion for recusal and a pending issue regarding Lynn's securing a new attorney. On May 15, 2006, Lynn filed a First Amended Motion for Recusal of the Arbitrator. She alleged the following additional evidence of arbitrator bias: refusing Lynn's request to record the May 4, 2006 motion hearing for continuance and denying Lynn's motion for continuance immediately after Lynn's request for a record. She also referred to having informed the arbitrator, at the end of the hearing, about missing “documents, pleadings and evidence" and difficulty securing counsel because of the missing materials. Arbitration was held on May 17 and 18, 2006.[1] Judge O'Reilly heard and denied Lynn's subsequent motion to reopen evidence on June 23, 2006, and signed the binding arbitration award on July 31, 2006.[2] The award was then filed on August 4, 2006. On September 7, 2006, the trial court heard argument on Joseph's application for confirmation of the arbitration award and Lynn's motion to vacate it. At the hearing, Lynn urged the following grounds for vacation: (1) the arbitrator exceeded her authority; (2) the arbitrator did not recuse herself and the court did not recuse her; (3) the arbitrator did not postpone the arbitration when there was a pending motion challenging the arbitration clause on the ground of fraud in the inducement; (4) the arbitrator did not reopen evidence when Lynn contended there was evidence of family violence; and (5) the arbitrator did not consider the best interests of the children.[3] The trial confirmed the order the same day and modified the Final Decree of Divorce to reflect the arbitration award. Lynn filed a motion for new trial, which the trial court heard and denied.[4] II. Discussion A. Issue One: No Hearings or Rulings on Motions In issue one, Lynn argues, “The trial court erred in not setting hearings on or ruling on [fourteen listed motions] and abused its discretion by not taking action on the motions within a reasonable time."[5] The “motions" were (1) petitions for enforcement by contempt, (2) motions for recusal of the arbitrator, (3) motions for continuances, and (4) motions for evidentiary hearings on selected motions. As an initial matter, we observe that Lynn is not complaining about an adverse ruling by the court. She also does not point to any place in the record where she objected to the trial court's refusal to rule.[6] To preserve a complaint for appellate review, “the record must show . . . the trial court (A) ruled on the request, objection, or motion, either expressly or implicitly; or (B) refused to rule on the request, objection or motion, and the complaining party objected to the refusal." Tex. R. App. P. 33.1(a)(2). Additionally, even were we to assume (and we do not do so) that the trial court somehow erred or abused its discretion by not acting on these motions, Lynn has not suggested any remedy for the error. Her appeal stems from an order of the court that was based on the arbitration award. The enforcement actions were specifically excluded from the arbitration, and the arbitration award did not include disposition of these actions. Any inaction by the court on the motions for enforcement is not relevant to the order Lynn challenges on appeal. Finally, with one exception, original proceedings are the only cases Lynn cites in support of her contention that the trial court was required to act.[7] If Lynn is asking this court to vacate the arbitration award as a result of the court's lack of action as asserted in issue one, she has provided no authority to support her request.[8] For the preceding reasons, we overrule Lynn's first issue. B. Issue Two: Purported Lack of Consideration Given to Family Violence In issue two, Lynn argues (1) the trial court should not have ordered her to arbitration because she was a victim of family violence and (2) the arbitrator erred in refusing to hear evidence of family violence in determining the arbitration award would be in the best interest of the children. Lynn's entire argument on this issue comprises three paragraphs. Her only authority is Texas Code of Criminal Procedure Article 5.08, a provision relating to criminal prosecutions arising from family violence.[9] Lynn provides no citation to the appellate record. See Tex. R. App. P. 38.1(i) (stating appellant's brief must contain clear and concise argument for contentions made, with appropriate citations to authorities and record). Lynn has not adequately briefed this issue. See San Saba Energy, L.P. v. Crawford, 171 S.W.3d 323, 338 (Tex. App.- Houston [14th Dist.] 2005, no pet.) (stating that, even though courts interpret briefing requirements reasonably and liberally, parties asserting error on appeal must put forth some specific argument and analysis citing the record and authorities in support of the parties' argument). Accordingly, we overrule Lynn's second issue. See id. C. Issue Three: Appointment of Judge Mary Sean O'Reilly as Arbitrator In issue three, Lynn argues the trial court “erred in appointing Judge O'Reilly as arbitrator for the reason that she had previously served in the de facto capacity of mediator contrary to the holding of In re Cartwright." See 104 S.W.3d 706 (Tex. App.- Houston [1st Dist.] 2003, orig. proceeding). In Cartwright, a couple proceeded through two lawsuits after a divorce. See id. at 708. The former wife filed a lawsuit stating various property claims, and the former husband later filed a suit affecting the parent child relationship (SAPCR). Id. at 708. The two suits were consolidated, and Judge O'Reilly, the same judge who arbitrated the present case, mediated the Cartwright SAPCR. See id. at 710. The trial court subsequently ordered the parties to arbitrate the property claims before Judge O'Reilly. Id. The former husband filed a petition for writ of mandamus, arguing Judge O'Reilly should not arbitrate the property issues because she had been privy to confidential information during mediation of the related SAPCR. Id. at 713. The court of appeals agreed, stating, The mediation process encourages candid disclosures, including disclosures of confidential information, to a mediator. It is the potential for the use of that confidential information that creates the problem when the mediator, over the objection of one of the parties, becomes the arbitrator of the same or a related dispute. Just as it would be improper for a mediator to disclose any confidential information to another arbitrator of the parties' dispute, it is also improper for the mediator to act as the arbitrator in the same or a related dispute without the express consent of the parties. Id. at 714. In the present case, however, the trial court did not appoint Judge O'Reilly as a mediator, but solely as an arbitrator. Although Lynn complains Judge O'Reilly interviewed the parties, the children, and other witnesses and conducted ex parte meetings, she points to nothing in the record that would suggest confidential information was exchanged in these meetings.[10] Cartwright is inapposite. Additionally, in her motions to recuse Judge O'Reilly, Lynn never alerted the trial court to the complaint she raises in issue three. The trial court appointed Judge O'Reilly on February 18, 2005. On June 8, 2005, Lynn filed a motion to recuse Judge O'Reilly, stating she “was no longer comfortable that the arbitrator is capable of reaching independent decisions and has lost confidence in the ability of the arbitrator to make determinations regarding the best interest of the children the subject of the lawsuit." Before the date set for a hearing on the motion, Lynn's attorney informed Joseph's attorney that Lynn was no longer pursuing the motion, and no one appeared at the hearing. On May 3, 2006, Lynn filed a pro se supplemental motion for recusal of the arbitrator, in which she characterized her June 8 motion as a “Motion to Recuse for Bias" and alleged additional incidents had “occurred to further the bias of the arbitrator." The gravamen of her complaint was the arbitrator's continuing “to move forward and proceed with attempting to set the arbitration before the Movant has had her opportunity to present her [June 8] Motion to this Court." Lynn also alleged her former attorney set the arbitration dates without her knowledge. Finally, on May 15, 2005, Lynn, again pro se, filed a first amended motion for recusal of the arbitrator. She alleged additional bias as evidenced by (1) refusing Lynn's request to record a May 4, 2006 motion for continuance and (2) denying the motion for continuance immediately after the request for a record. In the motion, Lynn also referred to having informed the arbitrator about missing “documents, pleadings and evidence" and difficulty securing counsel because of the missing materials. In short, nothing in Lynn's three motions to recuse Judge O'Reilly presented the trial court with the complaint Lynn now presents in issue three. For the preceding reasons, we overrule Lynn's third issue. D. Issue Four: Multiple Complaints about the Arbitration In issue four, Lynn complains the arbitrator erred (1) by refusing to grant a continuance for good cause (i.e., pleadings, including the 2003 Petition to Modify the Parent Child Relationship, and evidence being missing from the court's file) and counsel's consequential inability to know what was pending before the court and the arbitrator, (2) by conducting the arbitration on issues outside the MSA, and (3) in basing the arbitration award on information previously obtained while serving in the capacity as a mediator.[11] In our discussion of issue five, below, we address whether Judge O'Reilly exceeded the scope of her power; in our discussion of issue three, above, we addressed whether the appellate record supports Lynn's claim that Judge O'Reilly improperly gained information through a mediation process. Under issue four, we therefore consider only the arbitrator's purported error in not granting a “continuance." Under the Texas Arbitration Act, “[o]n application of a party, the court shall vacate an award if . . . the arbitrators . . . refused to postpone the hearing after a showing of sufficient cause for the postponement." Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 171.088(a)(3)(B) (Vernon 2005).[12] To support her claim she was erroneously denied a continuance, Lynn provides a single example: AActing pro se, [Lynn] at the commencement of the May 17, 2006 arbitration objection to the arbitration going forward -based on what was on file with the court.'" Lynn does not provide this court with a citation to the record. Nevertheless, we observe that commencement of the proceedings was delayed on May 17 because Lynn's attorney had not yet arrived. Additionally, Lynn requested arbitration be delayed until the court of appeals ruled on the mandamus she filed. Finally, Lynn stated, “And I also want to say that I object to this hearing going forward pursuant to what I have on file with the Court." Judge O'Reilly responded by confirming she would wait a few minutes for counsel to arrive and asked Lynn to identify her attorney: “I have asked you to identify that person; and if you are willing to do that, now would be the time to do that. If not we'll await that arrival and delay the evidentiary hearing initiation until 9:30 this morning." Lynn did not identify the attorney, but stated she “would prefer to wait until 9:30." After Lynn's attorney, Rick Ramos, arrived, there was further discussion of the mandamus proceedings. Judge O'Reilly confirmed the mandamus was directed at the judge of the trial court, and proceeded to open the arbitration, indicating Lynn's and Joseph's petitions to modify the parent-child relationship were the matters to be arbitrated. Ramos then stated, “My client has had a difficult time tracking pleadings and documents that were filed on her behalf in the case. I do not have a working copy of the pleading [sic] that were filed on her behalf." Judge O'Reilly then provided Ramos with a copy, and Ramos proceeded to call his first witness without further objection. On the record and argument before this court, we cannot conclude Judge O'Reilly's not having further postponed the arbitration warrants vacation of the award pursuant to Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code section 171.088(a)(3)(B). For the preceding reasons and those set forth in sections II. C. and D., we overrule Lynn's fourth issue. E. Issue Five: The Texas Arbitration Act In issue five, Lynn argues (1) Judge O'Reilly erred by violating the provisions of the Texas Arbitration Act and (2) the trial court erred by refusing to vacate the award pursuant to Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code section 171.088. Lynn cites language in the MSA stating that periods of possession, including Jewish holidays, and child support shall “be tried to the Court." Lynn next contends that, contrary to this language, the arbitrator exceeded her powers by modifying periods of possession and changing child support.[13] She then reasons the trial court erred by not vacating the award. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 171.088(a)(3)(A) (providing, on application of party, court shall vacate award if arbitrators exceeded their powers). Contrary to Lynn's representation, the arbitration award contains nothing to indicate the arbitrator changed the child support provided in the final divorce decree. Lynn's argument regarding periods of possession overlooks (1) the relationship of the MSA to the final divorce decree and (2) the arbitration provision in that decree. Lynn and Joseph signed the MSA on October 30, 2001. The trial court subsequently tried the divorce case, and the final divorce decree incorporates matters on which the parties agreed in the MSA and matters, including periods of possession and child support, that were tried to the court. The final divorce decree also contains the following provision: IT IS FURTHER ORDERED AND DECREED that, in the event of disputes regarding periods of possession, extracurricular activities, or rights and duties of the conservators, the parties shall submit the dispute for arbitration with a mutually acceptable arbitrator. If the parties are unable to agree to a mutually acceptable arbitrator, the Court will appoint an arbitrator upon application of a party.[14] Thus, the final decree of divorce specifically required that disputes regarding periods of possession be arbitrated. Judge O'Reilly acted within her power in arbitrating the periods of possession and the trial court did not err in denying Lynn's motion to vacate the award. For the preceding reasons, we overrule Lynn's fifth issue. III. Conclusion Having overruled Lynn's five issues, we affirm the order of the trial court. /s/ Charles W. Seymore Justice -------------------------------- [footnotes omitted] CASE DETAILS AND LINKS: In Interest of EBLG et al (Tex.App.- Houston [14th Dist.] Sep. 29, 2009)(Seymore) (family court mediation and arbitration, numerous challenges to arbitration and arbitrator's decision, attempted recusal of arbitrator, consideration of family violence, appropriateness of mediation) DISPOSITION ON APPEAL: Trial Court's Order/Judgment Affirmed Panel opinion by Justice Charles Seymore Panel members: Chief Justice Adele Hedges, Justices Charles Seymore and Kent Sullivan Appellate case number and link to appellate docket: 14-06-01095-CV Case style on appeal: In the Interest of E.B.L.G, H.L.L.G, and N.L.G. Appeal from 257th District Court of Harris County (Harris County Family Law Center, Houston TX) Trial Court Judge: Hon. Judy L. Warne RELATED SEARCH TERMS: domestic relations, family court case arbitration, arbitrating child custody and visitation issues, conservatorship and possession of child/children submitted to and decided by arbitrator, best interest consideration when SAPCR issues are subject to binding arbitration based on mediated settlement agreement providing for arbitration of subsequent disputes, arbitration vs. mediation in family court cases, mediator also serving as arbitrator, partiality and bias allegations, conflict of interest, challenging the arbitrator, grounds to challenge arbitration award, decision under the Texas Arbitration Act (TAA).

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