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Zuraff v. Reiger

Supreme Court of North Dakota

June 5, 2018

Matthew Zuraff, Plaintiff and Appellee
v.
Natasha Reiger, Defendant and Appellant and State of North Dakota, Statutory Real Party in Interest

          Appeal from the District Court of Towner County, Northeast Judicial District, the Honorable Lonnie Olson, Judge.

          Brittany T. Wollin (argued) and Megan Essig (on brief), Grand Forks, ND, for plaintiff and appellee.

          Benjamin C. Pulkrabek (argued), Mandan, ND, for defendant and appellant.

          OPINION

          Jensen, Justice

         [¶ 1] Natasha Reiger appeals from a district court judgment granting primary residential responsibility of J.Z. to Matthew Zuraff. We affirm the district court's judgment granting primary residential responsibility to Zuraff.

         I

         [¶ 2] Reiger and Zuraff are the parents of J.Z., born in 2014. In January 2017, Zuraff moved for primary residential responsibility of J.Z. The district court held a bench trial in September 2017 to decide residential responsibility of J.Z. At the time of trial, Reiger was living in Bismarck, North Dakota with her father, and Zuraff was living in Parkland, Washington with his mother.

         [¶ 3] Social services first became involved with the family because of a positive methamphetamine screening when J.Z. was born. Both Zuraff and Reiger have a history of methamphetamine use, although Reiger testified to being sober for approximately ten months and Zuraff testified he was sober for over three years. Both parents have criminal histories related to drug use, and Zuraff was incarcerated for approximately seven months after J.Z. was born.

         [¶ 4] Social services intervened again because Reiger left J.Z. with her mother for days at a time, and Reiger's mother could not locate Reiger. Zuraff was incarcerated at that time. J.Z. was then the subject of a permanency order and placed with Reiger's mother. J.Z. was later placed with Reiger's father, due to Reiger's mother's health problems.

         [¶ 5] Reiger testified Zuraff had been physically violent towards her in the past. Zuraff acknowledged he and Reiger engaged in mutual fighting and both were violent towards each other. Zuraff denied hitting Reiger, but admitted to a "body check" using the blunt force of his chest. Zuraff was also previously convicted of a simple assault in which Reiger was the victim. Reiger previously obtained a protection order against Zuraff, which was later dismissed. Reiger said the protection order did not result from violence in their relationship, but from threats Zuraff made to her father.

         [¶ 6] After Zuraff was released from incarceration, he moved to Washington and completed the interstate compact process to obtain custody of J.Z. Social services in Washington evaluated Zuraff and recommended J.Z.'s placement with him. Beginning March 1, 2017, the district court approved Zuraff to have custody of J.Z. on a trial basis and return to Washington. Despite the district court's order, Reiger and her father attempted to leave the courthouse with J.Z. As a result, court staff requested a deputy sheriff to stay with Zuraff until he was out of town. The North Dakota social worker assigned to J.Z. declined to recommend who should be awarded primary residential responsibility, but noted Zuraff was previously the more appropriate and stable option.

         [¶ 7] After trial, the district court entered a judgment granting primary residential responsibility to Zuraff. The district court concluded N.D.C.C. § 14-09-06.2(1) factors (a), (b), (d), (e), and (h) favored Zuraff. The district court concluded factor (c) slightly favored Zuraff, and factors (f), (g), (i), (k), and (l) were neutral.

         [¶ 8] Relating to factor (j), the district court concluded there was evidence of domestic violence, but did not apply the presumption against awarding primary residential responsibility to Zuraff because there was not sufficient evidence to find that the domestic violence involved serious bodily injury. Although it did not apply the presumption, the district court found factor (j) weighed in Reiger's favor.

         [¶ 9] The district court also considered other evidence under factor (m), questioning Reiger's dedication to parenting J.Z. because of her lack of a relationship with another child and relatively recent sobriety. The district court concluded it was in J.Z.'s best interest to grant primary residential ...


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