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In re Marriage of Metzger

California Court of Appeals, Second District, Third Division

March 4, 2014

In re the Marriage of Tammy and RAPHAEL METZGER. TAMMY METZGER, Respondent,
v.
RAPHAEL METZGER, Appellant. EVE LOPEZ et al., Petitioners,
v.
THE SUPERIOR COURT OF LOS ANGELES COUNTY, Respondent; RAPHAEL METZGER, Real Party in Interest.

[As modified Mar. 25, 2014.]

ORIGINAL PROCEEDINGS in mandate. Thomas Trent Lewis, Judge. Los Angeles County Super. Ct. No. ND062399 Order The Petition for Writ of Mandate is dismissed as moot.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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COUNSEL

Raphael Metzger in pro. per., for Appellant and Real Party in Interest.

Brandmeyer Gilligan & Dockstader and Brian K. Brandmeyer for Respondent Tammy Metzger and Petitioner Tammy Metzger.

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Lopez & Grager and Eve Lopez for Petitioners and Minor.

No appearance for Respondent Superior Court.

OPINION

CROSKEY, J.

Appellant Raphael Metzger (Raphael), former husband of respondent Tammy Metzger (Tammy), appeals from an order appointing counsel to represent the parties’ minor daughter, M., in the parties’ custody dispute.[1] On appeal, Raphael contends that the order appointing minor’s counsel violated his constitutional rights and was an abuse of discretion. We disagree and affirm.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Tammy and Raphael were married on November 2, 2003, and their daughter, M., was born the following year. On July 30, 2009, Tammy filed a petition to dissolve her marriage with Raphael. The court ordered a separate trial on child custody issues and scheduled trial for May 2011.

On April 12, 2011, Tammy requested a trial continuance in order to give her time to have M. evaluated for developmental delays. Tammy stated that she had only recently become aware that her daughter might have autism. Raphael opposed the request for a continuance. He argued that Tammy had already obstructed the progress of the proceedings by refusing to stipulate to a separate trial on child custody issues, failing to appear for her deposition, and refusing to agree to alternate dates for her deposition, among other actions. Raphael also argued that Tammy’s “ ‘new’ concern about developmental delay has no basis in reality, [wa]s a stall tactic, and fail[ed] to justify a continuance of the trial.”

It appears that the court granted multiple trial continuances.[2] On January 20, 2012, the court entered a judgment of dissolution as to marital status only. The trial on custody issues appears to have begun in early 2013 and was eventually continued to October 21, 2013. In or around August 2013, it appears that Tammy filed a request for an order for an autism evaluation of M. Raphael opposed the request, arguing that M. had already undergone 12 such evaluation sessions.

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The court denied Tammy’s request and issued an order to show cause as to why Eve Lopez should not be appointed as minor’s counsel for M., and why Raphael should not advance $100, 000 to minor’s counsel as a retainer for her services, $50, 000 of which would be chargeable to each party against their share of community property. Lopez has a master’s degree in Forensic Psychology as well as a juris doctor degree, and has been appointed as minor’s counsel in dozens of cases involving a child with special needs.

Tammy filed a notice of non-opposition to the appointment of minor’s counsel. Raphael opposed the order to show cause on the grounds that the appointment of minor’s counsel violated his constitutional right to determine his daughter’s needs and represent her interests, among other arguments. At the hearing on September 16, 2013, the court noted that the issue of whether M. had autism would affect the court’s custody award because, if M. did not have autism, “her mom wants to subject her to a lot of stuff she should not be[] subjected to, ” and if M. did have autism, “then I need to make sure that she gets the resources that she needs.” The court further indicated that he “fe[lt] that [M.] needs someone to speak for her.”

Raphael argued that Lopez was unfairly biased because she has an autistic child. The court responded that “[t]here’s no evidence but speculation that [Lopez] would be inclined to be biased. And I think whet she might be more inclined to be is knowledgeable.... I see that she may have more knowledge than the average family law lawyer about matters related to autism spectrum disorder. That’s, frankly, why I chose her.... ” The court issued an order appointing Lopez as minor’s counsel “[t]o assist the court in determining the best interests of the child.”

Raphael moved ex parte for the “revocation of the appointment of Eve Lopez as minor’s counsel, ” and the court denied the request. Raphael then appealed the order appointing minor’s counsel. Lopez filed a petition for writ of mandate seeking to have the appeal dismissed, and Tammy filed a joinder. On November 19, 2013, we issued an order consolidating the appeal and petition for purposes of review by this court.

CONTENTIONS

Raphael contends that the court violated his constitutional rights and abused its discretion by appointing minor’s counsel and ordering Raphael to pay counsel’s fees.

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DISCUSSION

1. The Role of Minor’s Counsel in Custody Disputes

Family Code section 3150, subdivision (a) provides that “[i]f the court determines that it would be in the best interest of the minor child, the court may appoint private counsel to represent the interests of the child in a custody or visitation proceeding, provided that the court and counsel comply with the requirements set forth in Rules 5.240, 5.241, and 5.242 of the California Rules of Court."

California Rules of Court, rule 5.240 (CRC Rule) sets forth specific factors the court should take into account in determining whether to appoint minor’s counsel, including whether (1) the issue of child custody is highly contested or protracted, (2) the minor’s counsel would be likely to provide the court with relevant information not otherwise readily available, (3) knowledgeable counsel is available for appointment, and (4) the best interest of the child appears to require independent representation. CRC Rule 5.241 addresses the proper payment of the minor’s counsel, and CRC Rule 5.242 addresses the qualifications, rights and responsibilities of the minor’s counsel.

Family Code section 3151, subdivision (a) provides that “[t]he child’s counsel appointed under this chapter is charged with the representation of the child’s best interests. The role of the child’s counsel is to gather evidence that bears on the best interests of the child, and present that admissible evidence to the court.... The counsel’s duties... include interviewing the child, reviewing the court files and all accessible relevant records available to both parties, and making any further investigations as the counsel considers necessary to ascertain evidence relevant to the custody or visitation hearings.”

2. The Court Did Not Violate Raphael’s Right to “Advance” His Daughter’s Best Interests

Raphael contends that the order appointing minor’s counsel deprived him of “his right as a fit father to determine and advance M.’s best interests” because minor’s counsel was tasked with representing the child’s best interests. However, the court’s order only appointed minor’s counsel for the purpose of providing the court with additional information; it did not preclude the parties from also informing the court what they believe M.’s best interests to be.[3]

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Raphael also argues that the court “substituted its own judgment of M.’s best interests for that of [Raphael]” when it ordered him to pay $100, 000 to minor’s counsel instead of allowing Raphael to use that money for other purposes. Raphael states that he would prefer to use this money for M.’s college education pursuant to his constitutional right to direct and provide for his child’s education. In support of this argument, he cites to Meyer v. Nebraska (1923) 262 U.S. 390 [67 L.Ed. 1042, 43 S.Ct. 625] and Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925) 268 U.S. 510 [69 L.Ed. 1070, 45 S.Ct. 571], two cases holding that the application of statutes limiting the kinds of education a child may receive unreasonably interfered with a parent’s right to direct the education of his child. The reasoning of those cases does not apply here. The payment of the minor’s counsel’s fees in a custody dispute does not in any way restrict the kind of education a child may receive or affect a parent’s right to direct that education.

3. Raphael’s Right to Decide With Whom His Daughter Associates Does Not Trump the Court’s Authority to Act in M.’s Best Interests

Raphael argues that the court’s order would force him to provide minor’s counsel with access to his daughter and, therefore, violate his right to determine with whom his daughter associates. It appears that he is raising an “as applied” challenge to Family Code section 3151 which gives the minor’s counsel the right to “[r]easonable access to the child.” [4] (Family Code, § 3151, subd. (c)(1).) He argues that this statute infringes on his constitutional right as a “fit parent” to determine with whom his daughter may associate. “In determining a statute’s constitutionality, we start from the premise that it is valid, we resolve all doubts in favor of its constitutionality, and we uphold it unless it is in clear and unquestionable conflict with the state or federal Constitutions. [Citation.]” (Rupf v. Yan (2000) 85 Cal.App.4th 411, 423 [102 Cal.Rptr.2d 157].)

A parent’s right to control with whom his child associates stems from the Fourteenth Amendment’s provision that no state shall “ ‘deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.’ ” (Troxel v. Granville (2000) 530 U.S. 57, 65 [147 L.Ed.2d 49, 120 S.Ct. 2054] (Troxel).)

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The substantive component of this due process clause “ ‘provides heightened protection against government interference with certain fundamental rights and liberty interests, ’ ” which includes the right of parents to make decisions concerning the care, custody and control of their children. (530 U.S. at p. 65.) In addition, there is a “presumption that a fit parent will act in the best interest of his or her child. [Citation.]” (Id. at p. 69.) Encompassed within “a parent’s liberty interest in the custody, care and nurture of a child is... ‘ “the right to determine with whom the[] child[] should associate. [Citation.]” ’ [Citation.]” (Herbst v. Swan (2002) 102 Cal.App.4th 813, 819 [125 Cal.Rptr.2d 836].)

However, this right is not unlimited. “California has recognized situations in which the independent rights of children may provide the state with a need to interfere with the parental liberty interest at issue.... ” (Herbst v. Swan, supra, 102 Cal.App.4th at p. 820.) For example, “it has long been recognized that a trial court has the responsibility to protect the rights of a minor who is a litigant in court [citations], and in this role the court has the inherent authority to make decisions in the best interests of the child, even if the parent objects. [Citation.]” (Williams v. Superior Court (2007) 147 Cal.App.4th 36, 49 [54 Cal.Rptr.3d 13].) "The principle of the best interests of the child is the sine qua non of the family law process governing custody disputes.” (Banning v. Newdow (2004) 119 Cal.App.4th 438, 447 [14 Cal.Rptr.3d 447].) "Although a parent’s interest in the care, custody and companionship of a child is a liberty interest that may not be interfered with in the absence of a compelling state interest, the welfare of a child is a compelling state interest that a state has not only a right, but a duty, to protect.” (In re Marilyn H. (1993) 5 Cal.4th 295, 307 [19 Cal.Rptr.2d 544, 851 P.2d 826].)

Raphael relies on case law addressing the visitation rights of relatives, and contends that “[i]f an association with a child’s own blood relatives cannot be forced on a child against the parent’s wishes, certainly an association with a complete stranger cannot be forced on M.” (See Troxel, supra, 530 U.S. at p. 65; Punsly v. Ho (2001) 87 Cal.App.4th 1099 [105 Cal.Rptr.2d 139] (Punsly), disapproved on other grounds in Conservatorship of Whitley (2010) 50 Cal.4th 1206, 1226, fn. 4 [117 Cal.Rptr.3d 342, 241 P.3d 840].) However, this is not a case about visitation but about counsel’s more limited right to meet with the child in order to gather facts to determine the child’s best interests within the context of a custody dispute.

Raphael acknowledges that an infringement on his liberty interest may be permissible if it passes the strict scrutiny test providing that the law is narrowly tailored and justified by a compelling state interest. (Punsly, supra, 87 Cal.App.4th at p. 1107.) Here, Family Code section 3151,

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subdivision (c)(1) is justified by a compelling state interest in protecting a child’s best interests in a custody dispute. When the trial court appoints minor’s counsel, such counsel cannot adequately represent the child’s interests without meeting with the child in order to interview and observe her. Counsel’s “right to reasonable access” to the child is thus necessary to the minor’s legal representation. Although there is a presumption that fit parents act in the best interests of their children, preventing minor’s counsel from meeting with M. would patently not be in M.’s best interests as this would interfere with counsel’s ability to provide competent representation for M. (Troxel, supra, 530 U.S. at p. 67.) Accordingly, Family Code section 3151, as applied to the facts presented, did not unconstitutionally infringe on Raphael’s due process rights as a fit parent to decide who may associate with his daughter.[5]

4. Raphael’s Right to Protect M.’s Medical Privacy

Raphael generally argues that the court violated M.’s right to privacy by “giving” minor’s counsel the right to access minor’s medical records and the right to assert or waive minor’s right to privacy. This right is accorded to minor’s counsel pursuant to CRC Rule 5.242(i)(6) and (11).[6] Raphael appears to be challenging this statute’s constitutional validity as applied to M.’s circumstances, but does not provide any specific analysis of the facts at hand.

An as applied challenge requires the appellant to make a factual analysis of the individual case. (Banning v. Newdow, supra, 119 Cal.App.4th at p. 457.) Here, Raphael only makes the above broad argument, citing to case law for the general proposition that minors have a right to privacy in their medical information. It is unclear from this argument what about M.’s

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circumstances makes the application of CRC Rule 5.242 to her unconstitutional. We, therefore, reject this claim as not properly supported by adequate analysis.[7] (People v. Bonin (1989) 47 Cal.3d 808, 857, fn. 6 [254 Cal.Rptr. 298, 765 P.2d 460].)

5. The Trial Court Did Not Abuse Its Discretion In Appointing Minor’s Counsel

Raphael contends that the court abused its discretion in appointing minor’s counsel because none of the factors set forth by CRC Rule 5.240, subdivision (a) applied. However, at least several factors favored the appointment of minor’s counsel here. First, the evidence showed that the issue of child custody was highly contested and protracted: (1) the litigation has been pending for over four years, (2) the parties contested not only the division of custody but also simple procedural matters such as setting a party’s deposition, and (3) the parties had adopted polar positions on what kind of services and treatment their child needs, if any, which affects the court’s custody decision.

Second, due to Lopez’s prior experience as minor’s counsel in cases involving children with special needs, it was likely she would provide a useful perspective to the court with respect to the parents’ dispute over whether M. has special needs. Third, Lopez was available to work on this case as demonstrated by her acceptance of the court’s appointment. Lastly, the court properly indicated that it believed M.’s best interests would be served if she had an independent voice, presumably because the parties’ perceptions of M. and her needs were so different that minor’s counsel was needed to provide an unbiased perspective to aid the court in its decision. Therefore, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in appointing Lopez as minor’s counsel for M.

6. Requiring Raphael to Advance $100, 000 to Minor’s Counsel Was Not An Abuse of Discretion

Raphael contends that the order requiring him to advance $100, 000 to the minor’s counsel was an abuse of discretion because the completion of trial was scheduled for October 25, 2013, and Lopez could not have billed up to $100, 000 during the time between her appointment and the end of trial.

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However, Raphael also acknowledges that counsel’s appointment would last until “the child reaches the age of majority or is emancipated” unless she were “relieved” or “removed” at an earlier time by the court. (CRC Rule 5.240 (f).) Accordingly, the relevant time frame extended beyond the end of trial.

DISPOSITION

The order is affirmed. The Petition for Writ of Mandate is dismissed as moot. Respondent Tammy Metzger and Petitioners Eve Lopez and M.M., a minor, shall recover their costs in these appellate proceedings.

Klein, P. J., and Aldrich, J., concurred.


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