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Haugrose v. Anderson

May 14, 2009


Appeal from the District Court of Bottineau County, Northeast Judicial District, the Honorable Donovan John Foughty, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sandstrom, Justice.


[¶1] Corey Anderson appeals a district court order denying his motion for change of custody of his minor son from the mother, Wendy Haugrose, formerly known as Wendy Anderson, to himself. We reverse and remand, concluding the district court's findings of fact lacked sufficient specificity to allow us to conduct a meaningful appellate review.


[¶2] Anderson and Haugrose divorced in 2002. They have one son, C.A., born in 1993. Haugrose was awarded sole custody of their son, and Anderson was granted visitation rights. Shortly thereafter, Haugrose remarried and relocated with her new husband, J.D. Haugrose, her daughter, and C.A. to outside Williston. Anderson continues to live in Bottineau, where he currently resides with his fiancée. C.A. attends school in Trenton, North Dakota, and has a learning disability for which he has followed an individual education plan.

[¶3] In 2004, Anderson moved for a change of custody. Haugrose opposed his motion and the district court denied it, ruling that a prima facie case had not been established.

[¶4] In 2007, Anderson again moved for a change of custody. In his affidavit, he alleged the following: Haugrose's remarriage and relocation from Bottineau to Williston has been difficult for C.A.; Haugrose makes visitations and phone calls between himself and C.A. difficult; Haugrose does not allow C.A. to have a relationship with his maternal grandparents; C.A. does not get along with his stepfather, and Haugrose pays attention to C.A. only when she is mad at him; and C.A.'s grades have dropped significantly. Finding Anderson had established a prima facie case sufficient for an evidentiary hearing, the district court scheduled one for March 2008. Following the hearing, the district court, finding that there has been no material change in circumstances and that Anderson does not fully appreciate the educational needs of C.A., denied Anderson's motion.

[¶5] The district court had jurisdiction under N.D. Const. art. VI, § 8, and N.D.C.C. § 27-05-06. The appeal was timely under N.D.R.App.P. 4(a). This Court has jurisdiction under N.D. Const. art. VI, §§ 2 and 6, and N.D.C.C. § 28-27-01.


[¶6] Anderson argues the district court erred in finding there was no material change in circumstances, because his affidavit in support of the custody modification motion provided facts establishing a prima facie case that would support a custody modification.

[¶7] "A district court's decision whether to change custody is a finding of fact subject to the clearly erroneous standard of review." Stanhope v. Phillips-Stanhope, 2008 ND 61, ¶ 7, 747 N.W.2d 79. "A finding of fact is clearly erroneous if there is no evidence to support it, if the finding is induced by an erroneous view of the law, or if the reviewing court is left with a definite and firm conviction a mistake has been made." Id. According to N.D.R.Civ.P. 52(a), a district court trying an action upon the facts without a jury "shall find the facts specially." Moreover, the district court is required to make such findings of fact and conclusions of law that are sufficient to enable the appellate court to understand the factual determinations made by the district court and the basis for its conclusions of law. Rothberg v. Rothberg, 2006 ND 65, ¶ 14, 711 N.W.2d 219. To this end, the district court's "findings of fact . . . should be stated with sufficient specificity to assist the appellate court's review and to afford a clear understanding" of the district court's decision. Id.

[¶8] To modify an original custodial placement, the district court needs to make a two-step analysis. N.D.C.C. § 14-09-06.6(6). Accordingly, a district court may modify a prior custody order if it finds a material change in circumstances following the original custody determination and decides custody modification is necessary to serve the best interests of the child. The burden of proof rests with the parent seeking to modify custody. Mosbrucker v. Mosbrucker, 1997 ND 72, ¶ 6, 562 N.W.2d 390. A court does not reach the consideration of the best interest factors unless it first finds a significant change in circumstances. Niemann v. Niemann, 2008 ND 54, ¶ 14, 746 N.W.2d 3.

[¶9] Not every change is sufficient to warrant a change of custody. Siewert v. Siewert, 2008 ND 221, ¶ 17, 758 N.W.2d 691. We have previously defined a material change in circumstances as "`important new facts that were unknown at the time of the initial custody decree.'" Stanhope v. ...

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