Jakab v. Jakab

Annotate this Case
JAKAB_V_JAKAB.94-348; 163 Vt 575; 664 A.2d 261

[Filed 23-Jun-1995]

NOTICE:  This opinion is subject to motions for reargument under V.R.A.P. 40
as well as formal revision before publication in the Vermont Reports. 
Readers are requested to notify the Reporter of Decisions, Vermont Supreme
Court, 109 State Street, Montpelier, Vermont 05609-0801 of any errors in
order that corrections may be made before this opinion goes to press. 


                                 No. 94-348


Paula Jakab                                       Supreme Court

                                                  On Appeal from
    v.                                            Windham Family Court

Danny Jakab                                       January Term, 1995


Paul F. Hudson, J.

Jean Anne Kiewel of Kiewel & Harris, P.C., Brattleboro, for plaintiff-appellee

Richard H. Coutant of Salmon & Nostrand, Bellows Falls, for defendant-appellant


PRESENT:  Allen, C.J., Gibson, Dooley, Morse and Johnson, JJ.


     DOOLEY, J.   Defendant Danny Jakab appeals the Windham Family Court's
decision in the divorce action brought by plaintiff Paula Jakab.  Defendant
raises three arguments on appeal:  (1) that the trial court erred by taking
judicial notice of testimony given by one of the parties' children at a prior
proceeding; (2) that the trial court violated defendant's religious freedom
under the United States and Vermont Constitutions because it improperly based
its visitation order on evidence relating to his religious beliefs; and (3)
that the trial court improperly awarded the marital residence to plaintiff
based on a request made after the evidence was closed. Although we reject
defendant's arguments, we strike part of the visitation order because it
violates 15 V.S.A.  664(1).  In all other respects, we affirm. 

     The parties were married in 1976 and separated in 1991.  They have five
children, the oldest of whom is plaintiff's by a previous marriage.  The
trial court found that the marriage was marred by defendant's extreme
outbursts of rage and cruelty, which were often targeted directly at the
couple's children or plaintiff.  In 1992, the trial court issued a temporary
order that gave plaintiff full parental rights over the minor children, and
strictly limited defendant's 

  

visitation with his children.  In 1993, the Commissioner of Social and
Rehabilitation Services (SRS) took custody of the children due to plaintiff's
prolonged illness and reports of child abuse against defendant; the family
court conducted a Child in Need of Care and Supervision (CHINS) merits
hearing in April of 1993.  By the final divorce hearing in December of 1993,
all of the children except one had been returned to plaintiff's custody.(FN1)

                                I.

     Defendant first argues that the trial court erred by taking judicial
notice of testimony given by one of the children at the CHINS merits hearing
in April of 1993.  The testimony given by the child concerned defendant's
abusive methods of disciplining the children, and the trial court used much
of this testimony to corroborate its findings on this point.  Defendant
argues that the determination of parental rights and responsibilities, the
visitation order and the property distribution all rest on these findings,
and must be reversed because of the alleged error. 

     Prior to the adoption of the Vermont Rules of Evidence we held that
"[i]t is improper for a court to take judicial notice of the files, records
and judgment in a case other than that on trial."  In re Estate of Leno, 139
Vt. 554, 557, 433 A.2d 260, 262 (1981).  Leno was based, in part, on the
concern that "matters might be considered that a party has no opportunity to
meet and explain."  Condosta v. Condosta, 139 Vt. 545, 547, 431 A.2d 494, 495
(1981).  Thus, Condosta suggested that judicial notice might be appropriate
if the opposing party had an opportunity to respond.  See id. at 547, 431 A.2d  at 495-96.  An opportunity to be heard on matters proposed for judicial
notice is now built into V.R.E. 201(e).  The broad statement of Leno goes too
far in light of this procedural safeguard of the rule. 

     The use of judicial notice here, however, is of a different kind than
that addressed in Leno or Condosta.  The court took judicial notice not only
of the fact of the prior testimony, 

  

but also its content to use as evidence in the proceeding before it. Rule 201
permits judicial notice of adjudicative facts if "not subject to reasonable
dispute" because "generally known within the territorial jurisdiction of the
trial court" or "capable of accurate and ready determination by resort to
sources whose accuracy cannot reasonably be questioned."  V.R.E. 201(b).  The
content of the testimony in the CHINS proceeding does not fit within the
limits of the rule.  See In re Zemple, 489 N.W.2d 818, 820 (Minn. Ct. App.
1992) (testimony in prior related proceeding "not properly the subject of
judicial notice" because "not beyond dispute" and thus did not meet
requirements of Minnesota Evidence Rule 201(b)).  It is improper to
judicially notice the content of testimony in another proceeding.  See id.;
United States v. Sixty (60) Acres in Etowah County, Ala., 736 F. Supp. 1579,
1581 (N.D. Ala. 1990) rev'd on other grounds, 930 F.2d 857 (11th Cir. 1991);
Sutherland v. Sutherland, 831 S.W.2d 283, 285 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1991); May v.
May, 829 S.W.2d 373, 376 (Tex. Ct. App. 1992). 

     Our rules present a clear, albeit limited, method of introducing
testimony from a past proceeding into the proceeding before the court.  The
testimony of witnesses must normally "be taken orally in open court." 
V.R.C.P. 43(a); V.R.F.P. 4(g)(1) (governing divorce proceedings). We allow
former testimony of a witness to be admitted, however, when the witness is
unavailable and the testimony meets the requirement of a hearsay exception,
as follows: 

    (1) Former testimony.  Testimony given as a witness at another
    hearing of the same or a different proceeding, or in a deposition
    taken in compliance with law in the course of the same or another
    proceeding, if the party against whom the testimony is now
    offered, or, in a civil action or proceeding, a predecessor in
    interest, had an opportunity and similar motive to develop the
    testimony by direct, cross, or redirect examination.

V.R.E. 804(b)(1).  There is no indication here that the child witness was
unavailable to allow admission of her former testimony under the hearsay
exception.  In any event, the fact that the former testimony "would be easily
admissible under the hearsay exception . . . does not render [it] . . .
subject to judicial notice under V.R.E. 201."  Leuders v. Leuders, 152 Vt.
171, 173, 566 A.2d 404, 405-06 (1989). 

 

     The fact that it was improper to take judicial notice of the former
testimony does not end our inquiry, however.  The consideration of the former
testimony is error only if "a substantial right of the party is affected." 
V.R.E. 103(a).  Thus, we will not reverse if the error is harmless.  See
State v. Veach, 157 Vt. 473, 475, 599 A.2d 1374, 1375 (1991).  Put another
way, the rule requires that the appealing party demonstrate "prejudice" from
the erroneous ruling.  See Keus v. Brooks Drug, Inc., ___ Vt. ___, ___, 652 A.2d 475, 480 (1994). 

     We recognize, as defendant stresses, that the trial court's findings
were explicitly based upon "judicially noticed material" along with the
evidence, that a few of the many findings came from the CHINS testimony, and
that defendant denied the allegations of physical abuse.  We conclude,
however, that the evidence supporting the allegations of physical abuse of
the children by excessive discipline was overwhelming so that the use of the
CHINS testimony was harmless. Both plaintiff and her daughter from an earlier
marriage testified at length, and in detail, to defendant's acts of abuse. 
An evaluation of the family was done by a psychiatrist who is the medical
director of the Brattleboro Retreat.  After the evaluation, the psychiatrist
reported the case to SRS because he concluded that the children were at risk
of physical abuse from defendant and that it would be dangerous to allow the
children to reside with defendant.  His opinion was based in part on a
meeting with the children where: 

     They spoke of explicit events where they felt as though they'd
     been physically abused.  [One child] . . . spoke of having a coffee
     can thrown at her back.  [Another] . . . said a rock was thrown at
     her.  They spoke of being hit with the hand, the strap, the belt,
     and a paddle.  They were being spanked in the face.

It was also based on the fact that defendant admitted to him the conduct
which the children characterized as physical abuse. 

     A social worker for SRS also testified about the family situation.  She
had a lengthy conversation with defendant about appropriate discipline,
stating that SRS policy permitted spanking if done "with an open hand on
clothed buttocks."  She noted that in response to this policy, defendant
expressed frustration.  Defendant questioned how children could be adequately

  

controlled, and stated that children need more discipline.  SRS continued to
maintain an open case on the family to protect the children. 

     In light of all the evidence, the trial court found that "[d]efendant
incredibly minimizes his over-discipline of the children."  The court
concluded that defendant was physically abusive to the children and to
plaintiff.  We can say with sufficient certainty that the conclusion would
have been the same even if the CHINS testimony had not been considered. 
Consideration of this testimony was harmless. 

                                II.

     Defendant next argues that the trial court violated his free exercise of
religion as protected by the United States and Vermont Constitutions by
restricting his visitation rights.  The visitation order to which defendant
objects provides visitation with his two sons for only seven hours every
other week and then only if supervised by a person approved by the guardian
ad litem and the attorney for the children.  It encourages, but does not
require, that the youngest daughter join in this visitation.  Visitation for
the other daughter, who is seventeen years of age and in SRS custody, is to
be determined by her legal guardian and custodian. The order provides that
defendant "may obtain expanded visitation with one or all of the children
upon a demonstration before this Court that he has remediated his beliefs and
attitudes that led to child abuse in the past."  It further provides that
"the children shall not be compelled to attend religious services against
their will."  Defendant argues that the restrictions were imposed in response
to religiously motivated actions and beliefs. 

     We note at the outset that defendant's claim here is not the same as
that made before the trial court.  In the trial court, when defendant's
step-daughter testified to the influence of the Jehovah's Witnesses faith on
her and plaintiff and how plaintiff reached the decision to leave the church,
defendant objected that religious beliefs were not proper for consideration. 
In this Court, defendant argues that the trial court infringed on the free
exercise of his religion, a claim that is maintainable only if there is
evidence of the nature of his religious belief and how his free 

  

exercise of religion is burdened by the action of the court.  See State v.
DeLaBruere, 154 Vt. 237, 249, 577 A.2d 254, 261 (1990) (noting that one
element of a First Amendment violation claim is that exercise of religion is
burdened by challenged government action).  Even with respect to
constitutional claims, we ordinarily require that the issue on appeal be
raised below. See Varnum v. Varnum, 155 Vt. 376, 382-83, 586 A.2d 1107,
1110-1111 (1990). 

     Defendant's position at trial makes his claim far less tenable here. 
Apart from the religion claim, he has not argued that the visitation
restrictions were inappropriate given the court's findings that he physically
abused the children by excessive discipline over an extended period of
time.(FN2)  Thus, he could attempt to justify his actions only by injecting
religion into the case.  Instead, he tried to keep religion out. 

     Not surprisingly, defendant's position has resulted in an inadequate
record to consider his challenge here.  Although the step-daughter testified
that Jehovah's Witnesses believe in the maxim "Spare the rod and spoil the
child" and the psychiatrist testified that defendant believed in this policy,
there was no showing of the nature of defendant's religious belief and
whether it motivated the physical abuse which the trial court found.  The
only relevant evidence is defendant's statement that he believed in corporal
punishment "[b]ased on my principles that I was brought up, and based on the
scripture backing, that discipline is something . . . that the Creator
expects parents to do."  Because of the mixing of lessons from defendant's
upbringing with "scripture backing" and the use of the vague term
"discipline," this statement falls far short 

  

of a claim that defendant's actions were motivated "by a sincerely held
religious belief" or that curtailment of such physical abuse would burden
defendant's free exercise of religion.  See DeLaBruere, 154 Vt. at 249, 577 A.2d  at 261 (stating elements of free exercise of religion claim).  Of
course, it was difficult for defendant to make a record for a free exercise
claim when he denied engaging in the physical abuse that motivated the
visitation restrictions. 

     The inadequate record puts this case in a posture similar to that in
Varnum, where the free exercise claim was not raised below and the mother,
who was a Jehovah's Witness and had been denied custody in the trial court,
argued that interference with her religious freedom violated her
constitutional rights.  We noted the inadequate record in Varnum and found
"there is no specificity on the exact nature of her religious belief and the
extent to which it commands the practices."  Varnum, 155 Vt. at 386-87, 586 A.2d  at 1113.  In Varnum the record established "that physical discipline is
associated with the child-rearing practices of a Jehovah's Witness" but did
not show that religious beliefs required the mother to hit the children "with
instruments like the butter paddle and spoon," which the evidence showed had
been used.  Id. The record here does not establish a clear relationship
between the religious faith of a Jehovah's Witness and physical discipline of
children, nor does it show that defendant's religious beliefs required him to
hit his children with a paddle, a fireplace poker or a strap, as the court
found he did.(FN3)

     Even if we could review defendant's claim, the court's findings support
its order.  As Varnum states, religious practices may be considered in
custody and visitation decisions if they "have a direct and immediate
negative impact on the physical and mental health of the child." 

  

Id. at 384, 586 A.2d  at 1111.  The evidence supported, and the court found,
such direct and immediate negative impacts.  The psychiatrist's opinion, and
the resulting SRS intervention, are particularly strong support for this
conclusion. 

     Nor are we persuaded by defendant's argument that the family court
sought to punish him for his religious beliefs by ordering that he change
them before obtaining greater visitation.  We read the court's conclusions as
referring to defendant's disciplinary beliefs, not his religious beliefs. 
Nothing in the court's decision otherwise refers to defendant's religious
beliefs. 

     One other point requires some attention.  In passing, defendant
complains about the provision of the order that prohibits the parties from
requiring the children "to attend religious services against their will" as
evidence of the court's hostility to his religious beliefs.  Although we do
not agree with defendant's claim, we are troubled by the order because the
trial court awarded plaintiff sole physical and legal responsibility of the
children. Legal responsibility includes the right to "determine and control
various matters affecting a child's welfare and upbringing, [including] . . .
religion."  15 V.S.A.  664(1)(A).  Nothing in the statute suggests that
children may determine their religious upbringing; this is a decision that
belongs to the custodial parent. See, e.g., Dunlap v. Dunlap, 475 N.E.2d 723,
726 (Ind. Ct. App. 1985) (custodial parent's failure to take child to church
not grounds for change of custody because statute leaves choice of religious
training to custodial parent); Wilhelm v.Wilhelm, 504 S.W.2d 699, 700-01 (Ky.
Ct. App. 1974) (visitation order permitting noncustodial parent right to
enroll children in religious school violated statute that granted custodial
parent right to determine children's religious training). 

     Plaintiff has defended the provision of the order as necessary to
prevent proseltyzing of the children by defendant.  We note, however, that
the order limits plaintiff's rights, as well as those of defendant.  Indeed,
the restriction on defendant is more symbolic than real because of the
limited visitation available to him.  If a point arrives in the future where
plaintiff's right to determine the religious upbringing of the children is
violated by defendant's actions, plaintiff 

  

may seek appropriate relief.  At this time, we believe the children's veto on
their religious upbringing is inappropriate, and we shall strike that part of
the family court's order. 

                               III.

     Finally, defendant argues that the trial court's award of the marital
home to plaintiff, exclusive of any interest of defendant, was erroneous. 
His primary complaint is that he received no notice that plaintiff was
seeking the house outright until after the evidence was closed and he had no
opportunity to respond.  He argues that plaintiff's testimony at the hearing
supported division of the equity of the home rather than an outright award to
plaintiff. 

     In Lalumiere v. Lalumiere, 149 Vt. 469, 472, 544 A.2d 1170, 1172 (1988),
we held that it was error to award maintenance where it had not been
requested at any point prior to the order.  See also Nichols v. Nichols, 133
Vt. 370, 371, 340 A.2d 73, 74 (1975) (same). The concern in Lalumiere was
that the opposing party "was given no notice or opportunity to be heard on
the issue."  149 Vt. at 472, 544 A.2d  at 1172; see Brown v. Brown, 154 Vt.
625, 629, 580 A.2d 975, 978 (1990) (party entitled "to reasonable notice of
what was in issue"). 

     This case is different from Lalumiere.  Plaintiff sought an appropriate
property disposition in her divorce complaint.  See Nevitt v. Nevitt, 155 Vt.
391, 398, 584 A.2d 1134, 1138 (1990) (Lalumiere distinguished where plaintiff
sought "other relief as may be appropriate" in divorce complaint).  Following
plaintiff's testimony, her counsel stated, "I . . . ask the Court for
permission to submit plaintiff's requests in writing as opposed to having her
testifying about it."  Defendant indicated no objection, and the court
granted the request.  The written requests were submitted on time and
included the request for the home.  In the two and one-half months following
submission of the requests, defendant never objected to the request for the
award of the home or sought to put on new evidence.  Defendant had fair
notice of the procedure and the request.  We find no error because the
request for the home came after the evidentiary hearing. 

      Vermont's property distribution statute requires the court to equitably
divide and assign the property and sets out twelve factors that the court may
consider.  15 V.S.A.  751.  The 

  

trial court has wide discretion in considering these factors, and its
decision will be upheld unless its discretion was abused, withheld, or
exercised on clearly untenable grounds.  See Semprebon v. Semprebon, 157 Vt.
209, 215, 596 A.2d 361, 364 (1991).  The court need not specify the weight
given to each factor, but is required only to provide a clear statement as to
what was decided and why. Id.  The court's decision in this case meets that
standard. 

     The court noted and evaluated each of the statutory factors set out in
 751.  It observed the inconsistency between plaintiff's testimony and her
requested findings, but determined that, given the "extremely substantial"
fault of defendant and the needs of the children, the marital home was to be
awarded to plaintiff free and clear of defendant's interest.   Sufficient
findings exist to support these conclusions, see Kanaan v. Kanaan, No.
91-378, slip. op. at 2 (Vt. Mar. 24, 1995), and we cannot conclude that the
award amounted to an abuse of discretion.  See Lalumiere, 149 Vt. at 471, 544 A.2d  at 1172 (upholding 70%-30% property division). 

     Paragraph #18 of the final order, which states that the children will
not be compelled to attend defendant's religious services against their will,
is stricken.  In all other respects, the decision is affirmed. 

                              FOR THE COURT:



                              _______________________________________
                              Associate Justice



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                           Footnotes

FN1.  All of the petitions were ultimately dismissed, but one of the children
returned to SRS custody on a separate petition. 

FN2.    Although we do not read defendant's argument as challenging the
visitation restrictions apart from his religious freedom claim, we have
considered the propriety of the visitation order. The family court has the
discretion to limit visitation where it finds it to be in the best interest
of the children.  See Bissonette v. Gambrel, 152 Vt. 67, 69-70, 564 A.2d 600,
601 (1989).  The findings support the court's order.  The children were
fearful of defendant and reluctant to visit with him. Defendant has
physically abused the children but is in denial about it.  He expresses
frustration about limitations on his ability to discipline them.  The
visitation order balanced the need for the children to have an ongoing
relationship with defendant against their safety.  The court indicated that
it was prepared to modify the order if defendant confronted his physical
abuse of the children and changed his approach to discipline. 


FN3.  Defendant acknowledges in his brief that if he committed "the acts of
abuse described in the court's findings, these actions were not based on
[his] religious beliefs."  The court's visitation order is based on its
findings, and those findings are fully supported by the evidence.
Essentially, defendant admits that his religious beliefs have nothing to do
with the court's visitation order.