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In re Nicaise

Supreme Court of Arizona

January 17, 2019

In Re the Matter of: Robert J. Nicaise, Jr., Petitioner/Appellee,
v.
Aparna Sundaram, Respondent/Appellant.

          Appeal from the Superior Court in Maricopa County The Honorable Theodore Campagnolo, Judge Nos. FC2014-094949 and FC2014-095056

         Opinion of the Court of Appeals, Division One 244 Ariz. 272 (App. 2018) VACATED IN PART

          Law Office of Karla L. Calahan, P.C., Karla L. Calahan (argued), Phoenix, Attorneys for Petitioner/Appellee

          Rader, Sheldon & Stoutner, PLLC, Diana I. Rader (argued), Marc R. Grant, Jr., Phoenix, Attorneys for Respondent/Appellant

          JUSTICE BOLICK authored the opinion of the Court, in which CHIEF JUSTICE BALES, VICE CHIEF JUSTICE BRUTINEL, and JUSTICES PELANDER, TIMMER, GOULD, and LOPEZ joined.

          BOLICK, JUSTICE.

         ¶1 This case concerns whether a family court's award of joint legal decision-making that gives one parent final legal decision-making authority over certain matters necessarily gives that parent sole legal decision-making authority. We hold that final and sole have different meanings in this context.

         I. BACKGROUND

         ¶2 This question arises in the context of a family law dispute, which the family court aptly described as "a troubling and difficult case since its inception in September 2014," between the parents of a now eight-year-old girl. In a fifty-eight-page ruling, the court recounted the case history in painstaking detail, including allegations of domestic violence, child abuse, and medical neglect of the child. Based on extensive findings, including those addressing the child's best interests, the court made numerous orders regarding the parents' respective rights going forward.

         ¶3 Before us is the family court's order regarding legal decision- making authority. The court found that it was in the child's best interests to award joint legal decision-making to Mother and Father. The court ordered, in relevant part, as follows:

Parental decisions shall be required for major issues in raising the child and in meeting on-going needs. When they arise, each parent shall give good faith consideration to the views of the other and put forth best efforts to reach a consensus decision. . . . If they cannot agree after making a good faith effort to reach an agreement, Father shall have the ability to make the final decision as to medical, mental health, dental, and therapy issues. . . .

         The court made other orders that are not before us regarding choice-of-school decisions.

         ¶4 The court of appeals affirmed some orders, vacated others, and remanded. Nicaise v. Sundaram, 244 Ariz. 272, 282 ¶ 35 (App. 2018). However, although the issue was neither raised nor briefed by the parties, the court determined that by giving Father final legal decision-making authority over medical, mental-health, dental, and therapy issues, the family court "effectively create[d] orders for sole legal decision-making, carved out from a general order for joint legal decision-making." Id. at 278 ¶ 19. Construing A.R.S. § 25-401(2), the court determined that "[a]n award of joint legal decision-making that gives final authority to one parent is, in reality, an award of sole legal decision-making. . . . Regardless of the labels used in a decree, when one parent has the final say, that parent's rights are superior and the authority therefore is not joint as a matter of law." Id. ¶ 18.

         ¶5 Mother sought review only of this portion of the court of appeals' opinion. Whether a parent's right to make a final decision following consultation converts joint into sole legal decision-making authority is an issue of first impression with statewide significance. We have ...


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