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By: Jennifer A. Crissman, Attorney, Woodruff Family Law Group

            If you have been involved with a highly contentious custody case in the Triad, you know that family members will start coming out of the woodwork to ask for custody of the minor children. This phenomenon is even more prevalent when the parents are not adequately caring for their children. This multi-part series will examine who can have standing to apply for custody of the minor children under North Carolina law, and the analysis the Court must follow. In part one of our series, we will examine the Constitutional Rights of the biological parents, which is the bedrock for all subsequent analysis by the Court.

The seminal North Carolina case on parents’ constitutional rights is Petersen v. Rogers, 445 S.E.2d 901 (N.C. 1994). At the outset, the Petersen court recognizes that the right to conceive and raise one’s children is an essential basic civil right which is far more precious than property rights. The Court then discusses in depth both the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions regarding parental rights to custody, as well as North Carolina case law.

With regard to U.S. Supreme Court decisions, the Petersen Court notes that the integrity of the family unit has been recognized as a fundamental right protected by the U.S. Constitution. The Supreme Court has held “It is cardinal with us that the custody, care and nurture of the child reside first in the parents…”. Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158 (1944). This right has been protected both by the Due Process Clause and Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, as well as under the Ninth Amendment by the U.S. Supreme Court.

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By Carolyn J. Woodruff, North Carolina Family Law Specialist

Winston Salem, North Carolina: Malecek v. Williams (2017)

Derek Williams is a Forsyth County doctor who had an affair apparently, or at least allegedly, with his nurse. Playing doctor-nurse games got them in trouble with the nurse’s husband, Marc Malecek. The nurse’s then-husband Marc sued Derek for alienation of affection and criminal conversation.

What is alienation of affection? This heart balm tort is something like an automobile accident where a marriage is rear-ended. This alienation of affection requires a spouse to prove that he or she had a genuine marital relationship and that marriage relationship was interfered with by a third party paramour, causing damages. What is criminal conversation? That is simpler. That is sex with someone’s spouse creating damages. Frequently the damages might be one dollar, which is required to reward if sex is found with someone else’s spouse. Of course, in North Carolina damages for alienation of affection and criminal conversation has been as much as $30 million.

Interestingly enough, Derek Williams was sued by Marc Malecek in May of 2016. The Honorable Todd Burke dismissed the lawsuit indicating that alienation of affection and criminal conversation were unconstitutional. There had been several other cases wherein judges had found or not found alienation of affection and criminal conversation to be unconstitutional.

For now, the North Carolina Court of Appeals has spoken on the constitutionality of alienation of affection and criminal conversation. These heart balm torts are constitutional, according to Court of Appeals Judge Richard Deitz. Continue reading →

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Dear Carolyn,

I have been reading the horrid stories about children being left in hot cars.  I also have been troubled by my next door neighbor leaving her seven-year-old son alone this summer while she goes to work.  I have seen this mother lock the door when she leaves in the morning with the child apparently inside.  I do think the seven-year-old has a cell phone.  I don’t like this situation for the seven-year-old who just finished first grade. Is there anything I can do?

Danger Lurking Next Door

Dear Danger,

Ohhhhhh! It is a crime for someone to leave a child under eight years of age unattended.  Further, a child under age eight cannot be left locked up, as this is also a crime.  Children under eight years of age must be left with a supervisor of suitable age and discretion.   The parent can and will be prosecuted.  The placement in the law of this statute is interesting as it is presented as a “fire protection” for little children.  However, I do believe that leaving an unattended child under eight in a car would be a crime under this statute as well. (North Carolina General Statutes 14-318.)

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Dear Carolyn,

I know I should have kept my mouth shut during the divorce, but I didn’t. My daughter-in-law ended up with custody (not that it wasn’t somewhat justified), but now she is taking it out on us and won’t let my husband and I see our own grandchildren.  We worked hard and saved all of our lives, and now we have time and enough money for trips to the beach, mountains, even Disney World, and would love to take our grandchildren, but we aren’t even allowed to take them out for ice cream.  As grandparents do we have any rights?

Carolyn Answers….

You are in luck! The judge can help you, in his or her discretion.  The glitter of Disney with your grandchildren may very well be in your future.

North Carolina General Statute 50-13.5(j) covers the rights of custody and visitation of grandparents. You will need to file a motion (a written request to the court filed with the clerk of court) if you cannot obtain the visitation with your grandchildren from one of the parents. Continue reading →

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Dear Carolyn,

I have a two-year-old and a five-year-old, and I am separated from their Father.  I am filing for custody and divorce.  I hear I am going to have to go to mediation with the Father, and I really don’t want to see him. I am not exactly afraid of him, but it sure is unpleasant being around him.  Do I have to go to mediation, really?

Curious

Dear Curious,

You are likely going to have to go to a court ordered session of mediation to see if you can settle custody and visitation of your children with their Father.  Hopefully, the mediation process will end with a settlement and improve the situation with the children’s Father.  Do not worry as you will not

Mediation was added by the legislature to the custody statutes with five aspirational goals: (1) reducing acrimony; (2) developing custody solutions in the best interests of children; (3) providing parents with informed choices; (4) providing a structured, confidential and cooperative facility for discussion of co-parenting; and (5) reducing litigation and litigation of custody cases.

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by Carolyn Woodruff, North Carolina Family Law Specialist

Opioids are the growing problem in family law. Opioids and domestic violence do not mix and yet yield dreadful consequences. From Greensboro, North Carolina, a 28-year-old woman named Marie Aman will spend many years in prison for the death of a man, who may or may not have been her boyfriend.

The problem? She ran over him, and her opioid addiction played into it.

More tragically, she already has two children. What prospects do these two children have? Life in foster care? Being adopted? Hopefully, in prison she will beat her opioid addiction which is very hard to do, but where will her children be while she is in prison? I don’t know anything about her extended family, and perhaps there are fabulous grandparents out there.

For the life of Dona Auzins, her son is dead. Aman ran over the Auzins’ son after what appears to be a domestic dispute. The story of what happened is unclear, but whatever happened, Auzins is dead. He was found on the street having been hit by the automobile driven by Aman. Her story: She put her boyfriend out of her car to walk home. She planned to drive to her own home, and she says she suddenly say Auzins in front of her. He allegedly shouted: “What are you going to do? Run me over?”

The case came on for trial yesterday in Greensboro, North Carolina. Aman took an Alford plea to second-degree murder, which has a minimum sentence of approximately eight years. The Alford plea means she does not admit guilt. She is the only one alive who was there. What she says happened is that she and Auzins argued. Domestic violence. She saw Auzins later in the road in front of her, and she ran over him crushing the right side of his brain. He was delivered to Moses Cone and was brain dead. That’s when his mother found out.

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Leesa M. Poag, Attorney, Woodruff Family Law Group

After the death of their eight-year-old son earlier this year, two parents in Ohio have filed a lawsuit against Cincinnati Public Schools. The child hanged himself with a necktie from his bunk bed, an act that his parents claim was a result of bullying he suffered at his elementary school.  The parents claim that the child was repeatedly bullied at his school, as were several of his fellow classmates.

This is, unfortunately, not the first such lawsuit to arise over the issue of school bullying.  As discussions surrounding bullying are becoming more prominent in our society today, so are parents seeking to recover damages as a result. In 1999, the Supreme Court addressed the issue of school liability in bullying cases.  In the case of Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, the Supreme Court held that damages were recoverable from a school board in bullying cases, but only if the Plaintiff proves that the school was deliberately indifferent to the bullying.  The Court held that a Plaintiff must show that the harassment was so severe and pervasive that it effectively barred the child from access to educational opportunities. This standard creates an extremely high bar for a plaintiff to meet in a bullying case.

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By: Jennifer A. Crissman, Woodruff Family Law Group

 

Bullying in the classroom is, unfortunately, a continuing epidemic both nationally, as well as in the Triad. A new case out of Ohio has recently made news on this topic. An eight-year-old boy named Gabriel Taye from Ohio hanged himself from his bunk bed after being continually bullied at his grade school. The parents of the young boy have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Cincinnati Public Schools, asserting that the school is liable for the child’s death. The lawsuit states that school officials knew about the bullying but were indifferent to the situation and allowed a dangerous school environment to flourish for Gabriel.

Currently, the case law on school liability in the suicide of a student is somewhat sparse. There are two cases which make up the primary law on the issue: Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, which deals with sexual harassment in schools, and Stiles v. Grainger County Board of Education, No. 01-91360 (6th Circuit, March 25, 2016), a 6th Circuit case which deals with bullying and sexual harassment. The main thrust of the cases is that schools are liable where the school’s deliberate indifference to the harassing behavior makes students vulnerable to further harassment or causes them to undergo harassment. Ultimately, the Court must determine what the school was aware of, and what, if any, remedial actions the school took after learning of the harassing behavior.

These two cases do not deal with the issue of suicide, as the students in these cases survived the bullying. In some ways, it may be more difficult for the Ohio court to ascertain the school’s liability as the student Gabriel Taye is not present to testify to the bullying behavior he had to endure and what the school and his teachers were aware of.           Continue reading →

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By: Benjamin N. Neece, Attorney

               Bullying is not a new or novel occurrence; however, the effects bullying may have come as a surprise to many.  Advancements in technology and the associated effects in society have created many new challenges in combating bullying, especially in schools.  Whereas before, a child who was bullied at school was able to achieve some relief upon the bell ringing and returning home- an escape was possible. Today cyber bullying creates a new outlet for tormentors to attack their victims, often anonymously, anytime day or night in front of a limitless audience. A dangerous problem is evolving into an uncontrollable one. So where do we look for help? A recent trend takes the position that bullying is a legal issue that should be confronted in a court of law, but should it?

Gabriel Taye, a young boy lost in the worst way possible, where bullying is believed to have played a major role. His tragic story raises an interesting question as to what role schools play in policing and monitoring bullying, and whether or not they should be held liable when the unthinkable happens.  Children today are smarter and more resourceful than ever; this is especially true with the introduction to electronics and technology at very young ages.  Bullying can be as obvious as physical abuse and as inconspicuous as verbal harassment via social media or messaging apps.  So how does the Court system come into play in enumerating the responsibility and liability of schools when it comes to bullying?               Continue reading →

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Leesa M. Poag, Attorney, Woodruff Family Law Group

Recently, the North Carolina Court of Appeals has taken steps to hold medical professionals accountable when they become involved in legal proceedings.  Family law attorneys in North Carolina are familiar with the process of a custody evaluation performed by a licensed psychologist.  The Court of Appeals recently held that these licensed psychologists can be disciplined by their licensing board if their performance of the evaluation negatively affects clients, or even attorneys involved in a case.

Dr. Annette Baker was appointed by the court to complete a custody evaluation in relation to a modification of custody hearing.  Dr. Baker initially met with both the mother and father involved in the case, as well as the minor children.

Initially, Dr. Baker was in communication with both parents, as well as the father’s attorney, Archie Futrell.  When the evaluation began to drag out past the point that the parties had expected it to be completed, the mother, father, and Mr. Futrell all began what would be a long and arduous process of attempting to communicate with Dr. Baker.  As the months dragged on and the evaluation still had not been completed, all parties involved became frustrated with Dr. Baker’s lack of progress and lack of communication.  Mr. Futrell attempted to contact Dr. Baker via phone, emails and letters but received no meaningful communication from her through any medium.            Continue reading →