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Thornton v. Bosquez

Supreme Court of Minnesota

October 2, 2019

In re the Matter of: Matthew Lawson THORNTON, Appellant,
v.
Jessica Ortiz BOSQUEZ, Respondent.

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          Syllabus

         1. The statutory rebuttable presumption against an award of joint custody when domestic violence has occurred between the parents, found in Minnesota Statutes section 518.17, subdivision 1(b)(9) (2018), applies only against a joint physical or joint legal custodial arrangement, and not against a particular party.

          2. The district court’s custody award was not an abuse of discretion.

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          Court of Appeals

          Rodd A. Tschida, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for appellant.

         Robert J. Lawton, Rogosheske Lawton, PC, Saint Paul, Minnesota; and Mary Catherine Lauhead, Law Offices of Mary Catherine Lauhead, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for respondent.

         Christopher W. Bowman, Yaeger & Jungbauer Barristers, PLC, Saint Paul, Minnesota; and Michael P. Boulette, Barnes & Thornburg, LLP, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for amicus curiae Minnesota State Bar Association.

         Katherine S. Barrett Wiik, Best & Flanagan LLP, Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Rana S. Alexander, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for amicus curiae Standpoint.

          Kristine Lizdas, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for amicus curiae Battered Women’s Justice Project.

          Elizabeth J. Richards, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for amicus curiae Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women.

          OPINION

         CHUTICH, Justice.

          This appeal concerns a dispute over the custody of a 4-year-old girl and the proper application of a statutory rebuttable presumption against an award of joint custody in cases when domestic abuse has occurred between the parents. Soon after the child’s first birthday in November 2015, appellant Matthew Lawson Thornton ("Thornton"), the child’s father, sued the child’s mother, respondent Jessica Bosquez ("Bosquez"), for sole physical and legal custody. After a

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two-day trial, the family court referee found that Bosquez had committed domestic abuse against Thornton but that the child’s best interests required that the parents be awarded joint physical custody and equal parenting time. The referee further found that the statutory presumption against joint legal custody was not rebutted and awarded sole legal custody to Bosquez. The district court agreed and the court of appeals affirmed.

         Thornton now asks us to reverse the district court’s order and award him sole legal and physical custody. He contends that the district court misapplied the rebuttable presumption against awarding joint custody when domestic violence has occurred between the parents. See Minn. Stat. § 518.17, subd. 1(b)(9) (2018). Thornton further challenges the district court’s application of the statutory best-interests factors, asserting that the district court improperly considered the friendly-parent factor in its best-interests analysis. See Minn. Stat. § 518.17, subd. 1(a)(11) (2018).

          We conclude that the district court did not misapply the domestic-abuse presumption or the friendly-parent factor, and appropriately exercised its broad discretion in analyzing the best-interests factors. Accordingly, we affirm.

          FACTS

          Thornton and Bosquez first met when Thornton, an attorney, represented Bosquez in a personal injury matter. They became intimate sometime in 2010, after the attorney-client relationship ended. Until this lawsuit, the parties’ on-again-off-again relationship was tumultuous, conflict-riven, and, as described by the referee, "toxic." After Bosquez became pregnant with the child in early 2014, she began living at Thornton’s house. The parties never married, but they signed a Recognition of Parentage establishing Thornton as the child’s father.

          Bosquez and the child continued to live with Thornton until November 2015, when Thornton sought an award of child custody and simultaneously petitioned for an ex parte order for protection on behalf of himself and the child. The district court granted a temporary, ex parte order for protection for Thornton and the child and ordered an evidentiary hearing. At the hearing, Bosquez stipulated to an order for protection for Thornton, without factual findings, and the district court dismissed the petition that sought protection for the child. The referee ordered temporary custody to Thornton subject to shared parenting time with Bosquez. The referee also appointed a guardian ad litem to provide final recommendations on physical custody, legal custody, and parenting time. Because Ramsey County follows a "one judicial officer per family" policy in family law matters, the same referee presided over the order for protection matters and the custody proceedings.

          The guardian ad litem recommended that the parties share joint physical custody, joint legal custody, and parenting time according to a court-ordered schedule. The guardian’s findings and recommendations were based on court-ordered psychological evaluations, parenting assessments, chemical dependency assessments, home visits with the parties and the child, discussions with the child’s daycare provider, discussions with the parties’ mental health care providers, and two personal references for each parent. The guardian also reviewed court files, medical records, correspondence between the parties, social media posts, and audio recordings.

          At the 2-day bench trial in January 2017, Thornton testified and presented testimony from eight witnesses and over 90 ...


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