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Bruegman v. Bruegman

Supreme Court of Wyoming

May 14, 2018

HOLLY LANE BRUEGMAN, Appellant (Plaintiff),
v.
COLTON PAUL BRUEGMAN, Appellee (Defendant).

          Appeal from the District Court of Platte County The Honorable John C. Brooks, Judge

          Representing Appellant: Mary J. Hall and Elizabeth B. Lance, Lance Law Office, LLC, Cheyenne, Wyoming. Argument by Ms. Hall.

          Representing Appellee: Amanda K. Roberts [*], Lonabaugh & Riggs, LLP, Sheridan, Wyoming.

          Before BURKE, C.J., and HILL [†] , DAVIS, and FOX, JJ., and LAVERY, D.J.

          LAVERY, District Judge.

         [¶1] The appellant, Holly Lane Bruegman (Mother), filed for divorce from the appellee, Colton Paul Bruegman (Father). After an evidentiary hearing on temporary custody, visitation, and child support, the district court ordered the parties to share legal and physical custody of their minor child pending a final hearing and required Father to pay temporary child support. The district court also, on its own motion, bifurcated the proceedings by entering a decree of divorce dissolving the marriage and leaving all remaining matters for a future order. After a full bench trial, the district court issued a final decision on custody, visitation, support, and property distribution granting the parties shared legal and physical custody of the minor child until he enters kindergarten, and granting primary physical custody to Father with visitation for Mother after that. Mother appeals claiming the district court should not have ordered shared custody and should have awarded her primary physical custody. We overrule our precedent disfavoring shared custody and affirm.

         ISSUES

         [¶2] Mother raises three issues for review:

I. Did the district court abuse its discretion when it ordered shared custody?
II. Did the district court abuse its discretion in ordering an automatic, anticipatory award of primary physical custody to Defendant when the child enters kindergarten in the absence of evidence or findings that modifying custody is in the child's best interest?
III. Did the district court abuse its discretion in awarding future primary custody to Defendant under the circumstances and evidence presented at trial?

         FACTS

         [¶3] The parties were married July 26, 2008. Mother graduated from Laramie County Community College, worked in admissions for a year and, after obtaining a bachelor's degree at a college in Missouri, was director of admissions from 2006 until 2014. After the birth of their child in the spring of 2014, Mother stayed at home full-time. Father continued to work full-time. He was self-employed through various business ventures largely in the oil and gas industry.

         [¶4] After the birth of their child, the couple began experiencing marital difficulties and in September 2014 Mother moved to Torrington, Wyoming and filed for divorce in Goshen County. During that case, the district court entered a temporary custody order which is not in the record. The record is unclear whether they were ordered to split each week nearly evenly or whether Mother had physical custody seventy percent of the time and Father had physical custody thirty percent of the time. Later in that case, after another temporary custody hearing in the spring of 2015, the parties shared temporary custody, splitting each week. The parties made efforts to reconcile the marriage and Mother later dismissed the first divorce action in February 2016.

         [¶5] A few months later, on May 27, 2016, Mother filed this case. By that time Father had moved to Wheatland, Wyoming and Mother had moved back to Cheyenne, Wyoming. Father began ranching and Mother began working as a realtor at Century 21. After a hearing on temporary custody, visitation, and support on August 23, 2016, the district court divorced the parties and ordered the parties to share custody equally week to week, with exchanges every Sunday. A bench trial was held April 18, 2017, and the district court entered its decision on custody, visitation, support, and property division on May 22, 2017.

         [¶6] The district court viewed this case as close, with two fit, competent parents willing to accept the responsibilities of parenting. Both parents supported the child's best interests by taking advantage of opportunities to spend time with the child and encouraging the child's relationship with the other parent. The district court found the child had a good relationship with both parents but a very close, special bond with Father, who was probably the child's primary caretaker, with Father taking the child with him while he works around the ranch.

         [¶7] The trial court found Father's large extended family and close friends, a strong support system, weighed in his favor. Mother's babysitter and close friend planned to move and Mother's family lived in Nebraska. The court was concerned about Mother's ability to make ends meet. She had just started a new job and testified she took home $2, 000 per month with a $1, 799 per month mortgage. The district court noted Father's work situation was stable, although he had significant debts. While Mother had some flexibility at work, her work obligations were still developing. The court predicted she would likely be able to tailor her work schedule to facilitate what the court characterized as generous visitation during the school year, three weekends per month and one afternoon/evening each week, while Father would be readily available to care for the child after school daily due to his self-employment.

         [¶8] A substantial portion of the evidence was devoted to the level of conflict in the parties' relationship, and the district court carefully weighed this.

Wyo. Stat. § 20-2-201(a)(vii) requests courts to evaluate the "ability and willingness of each parent to allow the other to provide care without intrusion, respect the other parent's rights and responsibilities, including the right to privacy." The Court finds that, at times, the parties have intruded on each other's right to privacy. This may have been partially due to the efforts of the parties to reconcile. Now that they are divorced, continuing to stay the night at each other's residences might result in confusion for [the child]. However, the parties are free to make their own decisions regarding whether they will or will not let the other party see [the child] during their own parenting time. The parties will be ordered to notify each other and get permission before they come to the other's residence for any reason other than scheduled pick-ups. The Court will caution the parents to respect the other's boundaries and parenting time with [the child].

         At trial, Mother introduced three video recordings she took of fights between her and Father. Father testified he was set up, intentionally angered so that Mother could record his outburst. The court was concerned about the context of the recordings but acknowledged that they'd had a tumultuous last couple of years of marriage. The court specifically found no evidence of spousal abuse nor evidence that Father lost his temper with his son or any sort of child abuse occurred.

         [¶9] The district court also considered the child's special needs a relevant factor, concluding this factor did not weigh against allowing shared custody for the child because the federally subsidized non-profit centers serving preschool-aged children with special needs in Cheyenne and Wheatland jointly evaluated the child and developed an individualized education program (IEP) for him. Though it might be challenging, both centers are required to follow the IEP and he would receive the same instruction if he were to switch between centers.

         [¶10] The district court ultimately concluded it was in the minor child's best interests to continue to see each parent as much as possible, ordering shared custody with exchanges every two weeks. The court viewed this as the best way to maintain the close relationship with each parent that had developed to date. As the parties live fairly close to each other but not in the same community, the district court ordered shared custody to continue until the child enters kindergarten, at which time Father would have primary physical custody and Mother would have liberal visitation. Mother filed a timely notice of appeal.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         [¶11] Wyoming "law affords wide discretion to the district court when fashioning custody and visitation provisions for the best interests of the children." Pace v. Pace, 2001 WY 43, ¶ 11, 22 P.3d 861, 865 (Wyo. 2001) (quoting Reavis v. Reavis, 955 P.2d 428, 431 (Wyo. 1998)). This "discretion encompasses one of the most difficult and demanding tasks assigned to a trial judge." Pace, ¶ 11, 22 P.3d at 865 (citing Reavis, 995 P.2d at 431).

This Court has consistently recognized the broad discretion enjoyed by a district court in child custody matters. We will not interfere with the district court's custody determination absent procedural error or a clear abuse of discretion. In determining whether an abuse of discretion has occurred, our primary consideration is the reasonableness of the district court's decision in light of the evidence presented. We view the evidence in the light most favorable to the district court's determination, affording every favorable inference to the prevailing party and omitting from our consideration the conflicting evidence.

Ransom v. Ransom, 2017 WY 132, ¶ 9, 404 P.3d 1187, 1190 (Wyo. 2017) (quoting JCLK v. ZHB, 2015 WY 95, ¶ 8, 353 P.3d 720, 721 (Wyo. 2015) (quoting Durfee v. Durfee, 2009 WY 7, ¶ 6, 199 P.3d 1087, 1089 (Wyo. 2009))). "In determining whether there has been an abuse of discretion, the ultimate issue is whether or not the court could reasonably conclude as it did." Womack v. Swan, 2018 WY 27, ¶ 11, 413 P.3d 127 (Wyo. 2018) (quoting Ready v. Ready, 906 P.2d 382, 384 (Wyo. 1995) (citations omitted)). "A court does not abuse its discretion unless it acts in a manner which exceeds the bounds of reason under the circumstances." Stevens v. Stevens, 2014 WY 23, ¶ 8, 318 P.3d 802, 805 (Wyo. 2014) (quoting Bingham v. Bingham, 2007 WY 145, ¶ 10, 167 P.3d 14, 17-18 (Wyo. 2007)). We "do not overturn the decision of the trial court unless we are persuaded of an abuse of discretion or the presence of a violation of some legal principle." Stevens, ¶ 8, 318 P.3d at 805 (quoting Fink v. Fink, 685 P.2d 34, 36 (Wyo. 1984)).

         [¶12] Mother challenges the sufficiency and weight of the evidentiary findings, to some degree, in every issue presented by her on appeal. "Findings of fact not supported by the evidence, contrary to the evidence, or against the great weight of the evidence cannot be sustained." Id. (quoting Jones v. Jones, 858 P.2d 289, 291 (Wyo. 1993)). Similarly, an abuse of discretion is present "when a material factor deserving significant weight is ignored." Vanasse v. Ramsay, 847 P.2d 993, 996 (Wyo. 1993). However,

"In reviewing a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence, we accept the evidence of the successful party as true and give all favorable inferences to that evidence." Cranston v. Cranston, 879 P.2d 345, 351 (Wyo. 1994) (citing Hill v. Zimmerer, 839 P.2d 977, 981 (Wyo. 1992)). "We leave out of consideration entirely the conflicting evidence of the unsuccessful party." Cranston, 879 P.2d at 351 (citing Kadrmas v. Valley West Homeowner's Ass'n, 848 P.2d 826, 828 (Wyo. 1993) and Hill, 839 P.2d at 981).

Zupan v Zupan, 2010 WY 59, ¶ 16, 230 P.3d 329, 334 (Wyo. 2010).

         DISCUSSION

         I. Shared Custody Standard of Review

         [¶13] Mother claims the district court abused its discretion in ordering shared custody in violation of this Court's clear rule that shared custody arrangements are disfavored. Buttle v. Buttle summarized shared custody precedent.

In Testerman [v. Testerman, 2008 WY 112');">2008 WY 112, ] ¶ 15, 193 P.3d [1141, ] 1145 [(Wyo. 2008)], this Court reviewed our precedent concerning shared custody.
"We have repeatedly said that divided or shared custody is not favored by this Court absent good reason therefore." Eickbush [v. Eickbush, 2007 WY 179');">2007 WY 179, ] ¶ 11, 171 P.3d [509, ] 512 [(Wyo. 2007)]. We have explained that "stability in a child's environment is of utmost importance to the child's well-being, " Reavis, 955 P.2d at 432, while "a measure of instability is inherent" in joint custody arrangements. Gurney, 899 P.2d at 55. We have emphasized that the "success of a joint or shared custody arrangement hinges on the extent to which the parents are able to communicate and agree on the matters relevant to the children's welfare." Reavis, 955 P.2d at 433.
When a district court's exercise of discretion in custody matters involves splitting custody of children between parents or other unconventional custody approaches, we have said it must provide an explanation of its reasoning and place its findings on the record so that, upon review, this Court can be sure that a comprehensive evaluation of all relevant factors occurred prior to determining custody. Pace v. Pace, 2001 WY 43, ¶ 17, 22 P.3d 861, 867 (Wyo. 2001).
… Among the most frequently cited contraindications for joint custody is parents who do not live in close proximity. As one ...

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