Monday, July 22, 2019

PFA - temporary custody - best interest analysis not required to award temporary custody in PFA case

C.H.L. v. W.D.L. – Superior Court – July 8, 2019 – published, precedential

Held:  Lower court’s “meticulous” opinion in PFA case involving award of temporary custody to wife upheld on appeal.  The opinion detailed the “very calculated, complex, web of domestic violence, control and intimidation by Husband against Wife.”  The specific and important language was that: 

Absent guidance from our Legislature or our Supreme Court, we conclude that a PFA court need not conduct a best interests custody analysis to award temporarycustody as form of relief under section 6108 of the Protection From Abuse Act. 

The purpose of the Protection From Abuse Act is to protect victims of domestic violence from the perpetrators of that type of abuse and to prevent domestic violence from occurring. Ferko-Fox v. Fox, 68 A.3d 917, 921 (Pa. Super. 2013)(citation omitted). It is well-settled that trial courts have the authority to enter protection from abuse orders that conflict with custody orders. See Lawrence v. Bordner, 907 A.2d 1109, 1113 (Pa. Super. 2006) (citing Dye for McCoy v. McCoy, 621 A.2d 144, 145 (Pa. Super. 1993)). 

The PFA Act allows the court to award temporary custody or establish temporary visitation rights with regard to minor children. See 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 6108(a)(4). Where the court finds after a hearing that the defendant has inflicted serious abuse, the court may deny the defendant custodial access to a child. See 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 6108(a)(4)(iii). In order to prevent further abuse during periods of access to the plaintiff and child during the exercise of custodial rights, the court shall consider, and may impose on a pre-existing custody award, conditions necessary to assure the safety of the plaintiff and minor children from abuse. See 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 6108(a)(4)(vi).  

Custody wise, a PFA order is not designed to impose anything but emergency relief. See Dye for McCoysupra, 621 A.2d at 145. To understand this, look no further than the PFA Act: “Nothing in this paragraph [relating to temporary custody as a form of relief] shall bar either party from filing a petition for custody under Chapter 53 (relating to custody) or under the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure.” See § 6108(a)(4)(v). 

But while the domestic violence emergency is still pending, a PFA order may alter a pre- existing custody order and remand for clarification to avoid conflict. See Dye for McCoy, 621 A.2d at 145. “To hold otherwise would have the effect of emasculating the central and extraordinary feature of the PFA which is to prospectively control and prevent domestic violence.” Id. 

Moreover, the PFA Act does not require a child to be physically struck before a court can award temporary sole custody to a plaintiff. The court may do so even though the defendant has inflicted serious abuse upon the plaintiff alone. See § 6108(a)(4)(iii)(B).