It was a busy month at the Minnesota Court of Appeals, with a significant number of family law reversals issued over the last 30 days. Three of the more interesting cases are highlighted below.
Electronics and domestic abuse
The limits of interference with technology in the context of domestic abuse were recently addressed in In re the matter of Smith and Carothers.
Father and Mother were in a romantic relationship from 2011 until 2018. In October 2018, Father and Mother got into an argument.
Father took Mother’s cell phone and read through its contents. Father also took Mother’s laptop and went outside with it. While Father was outside, Mother used a second cell phone to contact the police.
The police arrived and asked Father to return Mother’s property to her. Father complied.
Mother petitioned for an Order for Protection. In addition to the October 2018 incident, Mother alleged that Father previously hit her with a disc-golf disc and implicitly threatened her with his body language.
Shortly after filing, Mother amended her petition to include the minor children. Mother claimed that Father had physically abused them.
An ex-parte OFP was issued by the Court.
At the evidentiary hearing, Mother and Father each called witnesses concerning Father’s alleged abuse of the children. Mother and Father also offered somewhat inconsistent testimony about what happened during their October 2018 argument.
The District Court granted an OFP in favor of Mother and the children for two years.
In the order, the District Court characterized “taking phone & going through it; taking laptop” as an act of domestic abuse.
On the record, the District Court said, “I think in this day and age taking somebody’s phone away and going through it constitutes a statement that ‘I’m in control.’ And taking away somebody’s laptop and phone is an effort to say ‘I’ll decide what part of the world you’ll be in touch with.’”
The District Court did not find that Father committed acts of domestic abuse against the children. Nor did the District Court. Find that Father committed any acts of domestic abuse against Mother – other than the cell phone and laptop incident.
By statute, “domestic abuse” is defined as “physical harm, bodily injury or assault…[or] the infliction of fear of imminent physical harm, bodily injury or assault…” However, the Minnesota Court of Appeals determined that Father’s actions did not meet the statutory definition of domestic abuse.
In reversing, Judge Tracy M. Smith opined that “taking property and going through another’s digital files may be bad conduct, but it does not cause physical harm, bodily injury or assault…”
She further noted that the purported message that Father was “in control” and will “decide what part of the world you’ll be in touch with” do not, by themselves, inflict “fear of bodily injury.”
Finally, Smith suggested that it was inappropriate to enter an OFP relative to the children, writing that “an OFP is not available unless the restrained party committed domestic abuse against the protected parties.” The District Court made no such finding.
The interesting aspect of the Smith decision involves the fact that both parties represented themselves pro se. One has to wonder whether an attorney, presented with Mother’s grievance, would have recommended pursuing an Order for Protection. Father’s conduct seems more like harassment than domestic abuse.
Clarity in timekeeping records
In re the Marriage of Tiedke and Tiedke addressed the merits of a conduct-based attorney fee award. Husband and Wife separated after two years of marriage. They have no minor children together. A two-day trial was held concerning the division of assets and debts, including various rental properties.
After entry of a 63-page judgment and decree, each party filed a Motion for Amended Findings. Both motions were denied, except that the District Court amended a few provisions relating to real property. Both parties appealed.
All issues were affirmed, with the exception of a conduct-based attorney fee award of $20,000.00 granted to Wife in the Judgment and Decree. The District Court awarded said amount in light of Husband’s “flagrant dissipation of marital assets” and “unreasonable position as to property valuation.”
Husband argued that he had a good faith basis for his handling of certain assets during the marriage and had “legitimate concerns” that wife was seeking an interest in his pre-marital property.
In reversing, the Court of Appeals found “nothing in the record” to indicate that Husband’s conduct contributed to the length or expense of the proceeding “in a way that caused [Wife] to incur an additional $20,000.00 in attorney fees.”
Judge Matthew Johnson referenced the Court of Appeals’ review of the timekeeping records of Wife’s counsel and could only identify “three entries, resulting in fees of less than $1,000.00” that related to alleged dissipation or an anti-palimony argument.
Tiedke drives home the need for lawyers to keep detailed time records concerning work that you intend to present as party of a conduct-based fee claim – and not overstate the time required to address an issue.
Drafting with precision
Post-decree allocation of tax debts were addressed in the context of contempt in In re the Marriage of Banerjee and Banerjee. Husband and Wife were married for four years. The District Court dissolved their marriage following a trial.
About a year later, Wife filed a Motion for Contempt against Husband, claiming he failed to pay certain debts. Husband countered that he was entitled to a credit for paying Wife’s share of joint tax liabilities.
Husband had paid $65,000.00 toward a 2014 joint income tax liability. The parties’ divorce decree did not specifically address division of the debt.
Following the contempt hearing, the District Court ordered Husband to assume full responsibility for the parties’ 2014 joint income tax liability and denied his request for reimbursement.
On appeal, Husband argued that the District Court erred in assigning the tax debt solely to him. The Court of Appeals agreed, suggesting that the District Court “went further than clarifying or enforcing the judgment; it modified the final property division.”
The terms of the parties’ divorce decree were somewhat cryptic in terms of the division of tax debt. A few extra minutes of care in drafting may have saved the parties substantial fees and costs.