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Nebeker v. Orton

Court of Appeals of Utah

February 14, 2019

Shane Nebeker, Appellant,
Trisha Ann Orton, Appellee.

          Sixth District Court, Richfield Department The Honorable Marvin D. Bagley No. 154600140

          Jared L. Peterson, Attorney for Appellant

          Benjamin Kearns, Attorney for Appellee

          Judge David N. Mortensen authored this Opinion, in which Judges Kate Appleby and Jill M. Pohlman concurred.



         ¶1 Shane Nebeker (Father) and Trisha Ann Orton's (Mother) extramarital relationship resulted in the birth of a son (Child). For the first eighteen months of Child's life, Father saw him only a few times. Then, concerned about Mother's illegal activities, Father took Child away from Mother without her consent. Sometime thereafter, Father and Mother worked out an extrajudicial, temporary custody arrangement that they perpetuated until a custody trial. After a bench trial, Mother was awarded primary physical custody of Child, and Father was awarded statutory minimum parent-time. Father appeals. We affirm in part-affirming the district court's decision regarding primary custody-and reverse in part-reversing the district court's decision related to Father's parent-time.


         ¶2 Father and Mother are parents of Child, born in December 2013. Mother and Father ended their relationship before Child was born, and they lived about 100 miles apart. During the first eighteen months of Child's life, Father saw Child on two occasions shortly after his birth. Mother stated that Father "was more than welcome to come down any time he wanted to" visit Child, but Father repeatedly told Mother, "I refuse to have anything to do with you to see my child." Mother did not allow Father to remove Child from her supervision because (1) Child was nursing and (2) Mother felt Child needed "to get to know" Father before he took him for a visit. Father admitted Mother told him he could visit Child at her residence, but Father said it would have been "uncomfortable" because there were "still feelings."[2]

         ¶3 Father did not provide financial support to Child or Mother during the first eighteen months of Child's life. The Office of Recovery Services opened a case, and the matter came before the district court in early May 2015, where Father's support obligation was determined.

         ¶4 In late May 2015, Mother allowed Father to visit Child. Mother's daughter (Daughter) picked up Child and took him to meet Father at a nearby restaurant. Daughter allowed Father to take Child for a few minutes to buy a toy. But Father then sent Daughter a text message informing her that he was not returning Child. Father characterized this action as "rescuing" Child from the dangerous situation created by Mother's drug use. Father took Child to his house. Mother stated that the day Father took Child was the "darkest day of [her] life" and admitted that she "wasn't probably in the best place in [her] life." For the first week after Father took Child, Father allowed Mother to call and read Child a bedtime story, but after that week Father refused to answer the phone, and Mother "was not allowed to see [Child] for six months." Mother did not report Father's taking of Child to the police or any other authority.

         ¶5 Mother realized that she was "never going to get [her] baby back" unless she "got clean." She testified that she "found a new way of life" in a treatment center and "never touched [drugs] again."

         ¶6 In October 2015, Father filed a parentage petition in which he sought sole custody of Child and child support from Mother. Around January 2016, Mother and Father "agreed" to an ongoing extrajudicial temporary custody arrangement under which Child stayed ten out of every twenty-eight days with Mother and the balance of the days with Father.[3] Mother said that she felt "bullied" into accepting the temporary arrangement. Father stated that Child did well under the arrangement.

         ¶7 Ultimately, a two-day bench trial was held in October and November 2016. The district court made the following findings of fact: (1) Mother and Father began a relationship when they were teenagers; (2) each had been married or in relationships with other persons; (3) each had other children from prior marriages or relationships; (4) each had a history of using illegal drugs and violating the law; (5) Father was married and Mother was single at the time of trial; (6) Child had his own bed and bedroom in Father's house; (7) Child had his own bed in Mother's room at Mother's house; (8) Father and Mother resided approximately 105 miles apart and had no plans to move closer to each other; (9) Mother had a good support system where she lived and believed she could avoid adverse influences she might encounter elsewhere; (10) Mother and Father each had family members to provide support and a positive influence on Child; (11) Father's employment required him to be away from home for fourteen hours per day during scheduled work periods; (12)Mother worked six-and-one-half hours daily, Monday through Thursday; (13) Child had been residing with both parents pursuant to an informal, temporary parent-time schedule; (14) Child was well-adjusted and doing well under the informal agreement. The district court also found:

Both parties acknowledged past deficiencies in their parenting abilities. In essence both parties have had periods in their [lives] when they have been less than fit parents. However, at the present time both parties contribute financially to the welfare of [Child]; and both parties spend appropriate time with, and provide appropriate emotional support to [Child]. Essentially, both parents are fit parents. Both are very bonded with [Child].

         ¶8 In its analysis, the district court acknowledged that both parties had a history of drug problems, criminal activities, and extramarital sexual relations. "While Father cleaned his life up sooner than Mother, there is insufficient evidence for [the district court] to make a decision as to whether one of the parties' past conduct was better or worse than the other." Indeed, Father admitted having a history of criminal activity, including "a couple DUIs," methamphetamine and marijuana use with Mother, and being incarcerated more than three times. Mother likewise admitted that she had a history of drug use and selling drugs, but she had been "over a year clean" at the time of the trial. Thus, the district court determined that "evidence relating to past conduct and moral standards is equally balanced between the parties."

         ¶9 In determining which parent should have primary physical care of Child, the district court highlighted four factors. First, in analyzing which party was most likely to allow "frequent and continuing contact with the other parent," the district court noted that the facts did not weigh in Father's favor, particularly because Father "surreptitiously" and "underhandedly" took Child and did not allow Mother to contact Child for a significant period. At the same time, the court acknowledged that taking Child motivated Mother's recovery from drug use. The district court found the evidence supported the conclusion that Child was "doing very well" in the care of both parents and that both parties were cooperating in providing the other "meaningful parent time."

         ¶10 Second, the district court determined that Child had a greater bond with Mother:

While [Child] has recently spent considerable periods of time with Father, [Child] has overall lived more with Mother than Father. Prior to the time Father became concerned enough with Mother's drug use that he took self-help action, Father was content to allow [Child] to live primarily with Mother. The [district court] considers such action (or non-action) on the part of Father to be a tacit acknowledgement that the best interests of [Child] were being best served by [Child] living primarily with Mother.

         Thus, the district court determined that Mother had been the primary caregiver for Child.

         ¶11 Third, "Mother's work schedule is also more conducive to her having primary physical care of [Child]." The court reasoned that Mother could "devote more time to [Child's] needs than Father" because she "works fewer hours, travels less time to and from work, ...

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