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Do Sanctions Apply to Best Interest of Child?

New case out of Dallas Court of Appeals holds trial court did not abuse its discretion by reversing sanction imposed by associate judge. In Re F.A.V., ___ S.W.3d ___, 2009 WL 1314165 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2009, no pet. h.) (5/13/09)

Facts: Father and mother filed for divorce. On 6/23/06, associate judge appointed a parenting coordinator and ordered father and mother to pay part of his fee. On 8/24/06, associate ordered father and mother to pay for 12 more hours of work. On 10/4/06, associate judge ordered mother to pay $375 by 10/6/06 or face sanctions, including striking her pleadings under TRCP §215.2(b)(5). On 10/12/06, father moved for sanctions for mother’s failure to pay. On 11/15/06, associate judge granted father’s motions and struck mother’s pleadings. Mother requested a de novo hearing before trial court on the sanctions. At the de novo hearing, the district 27
court found that mother had paid the coordinator and reversed the associate judge’s ruling. Father appealed the final ruling on the sole issue that trial court abused its discretion by reversing the associate judge’s order.

Held: Affirmed.

COA Opinion: District courts review associate judge’s orders de novo. A district court’s decision to grant or not grant sanctions is reviewed on an abuse of discretion basis. There are no cases where an appellate court found a trial court abused its discretion by not striking a party’s pleadings. Striking pleadings is an extreme measure and rarely appropriate in suits affecting the parent-child relationship. Therefore, trial court did not abuse its discretion.

In my experience as a divorce lawyer in Dallas, Texas, the best interest of the child is the overriding concern in any SAPCR proceeding. This requires the trial court to prioritize the child’s best interest over sanctionable conduct of the parties. To limit a party’s proof at trial as a sanction also necessitates a limitation on the evidence to be presented regarding the child’s best interest. For the trial court to make a fair determination on the best interest of the child, both parties must be allowed to present evidence. Thus, a trial court must weigh the best interest of the child in a fair trial when considering sanctions against a party.

I serve as a guest editor for the State Bar of Texas Family Law Section newsletter. This commentary originally appeared in the June 2009 edition.