Arizona Supreme Court

Nicaise v. Sundaram

Summary

Nicaise v. Sundaram (2019) was a published opinion where the Arizona Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s award of joint legal decision-making with final say and held, contrary to the Court of Appeals opinion, that this designation does not confer the same authority as sole legal decision-making.

Background

Originally, this case involved unmarried parents who both petitioned the family court to establish legal decision-making, parenting time, and child support. From the beginning, the family court expressed concerns about the parents’ ability to cooperate and co-parent effectively, but nevertheless ordered joint legal decision-making on a temporary basis. It initially restricted Father’s parenting time to once-per-week supervised visits until Father completed a psychological evaluation.

The parents engaged in constant conflict, especially concerning the child’s developmental condition. Multiple doctors diagnosed the child with autism and recommended treatments, though Mother disagreed and retained an expert witness to support her position.

The parents also disagreed about the child’s education. Mother enrolled the child in three different preschools before ultimately deciding to homeschool the child. Conversely, Father wished for the child to attend a public school and retained an expert witness to support his position.

When the case finally made it to trial, the trial court entered a 58-page minute entry detailing its findings. Summarily, it found that both parties behaved unreasonably during the litigation, though it awarded final say decision-making authority to Father with respect to the child’s medical decisions. Other legal decisions were to be made jointly. Because the parties could not agree on school choice, the trial court ruled in favor of public school enrollment. The family court also ordered Mother to pay a portion of Father’s attorney’s fees.

Court of Appeals Opinion

On appeal, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision-making and parenting time awards. It analyzed “final say” as legally akin to sole decision-making, rather than joint decision-making.

Significantly, the Court of Appeals vacated the trial court’s school choice. It reasoned that there is no statutory authority to enable a family court to make substantive legal decisions for parents who are unable to agree. It further directed courts to choose one parent to decide issues whenever the parents cannot agree.

Finally, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s award of attorney’s fees to Father. Mother argued that Father should not be awarded fees because the trial court found he behaved unreasonably during litigation, pursuant to A.R.S. § 25-324. The Court of Appeals acknowledged this finding but ruled that a party’s unreasonableness does not preclude an award of attorney’s fees, it is merely one of the factors the trial court must consider when fees are requested.

Supreme Court Opinion

The Arizona Supreme Court granted review and vacated the portion of the Court of Appeals opinion where it concluded joint legal decision-making with final say is effectively sole legal decision-making.

Joint legal decision-making means the parents share equal rights and must agree before making any non-emergency legal decisions for their children. Final say is a concept commonly used by the Arizona family courts to give one parent the ability to make the decision whenever the parties cannot agree.

Historically, judges and attorneys have considered this arrangement to be functionally equivalent to joint legal decision-making, in that it required the parents to consult before any non-emergency decisions are made. If the parties cannot agree, final say enables the designated parent to “break the tie” and ultimately make the decision. Critically, a parent with final say cannot unilaterally make decisions without consulting with the other parent. Final say was characterized as tie-breaking authority, unintended to confer any other rights to one parent.

But the Court of Appeals disagreed and interpreted final say to be “in reality, an award of sole legal decision-making … as a matter of law.” Unlike joint legal decision-making, sole legal decision-making entitles one parent to unilaterally make legal decisions without consultation with or any input from the other parent.

The Court of Appeals relied on A.R.S. § 25-401(2) which provides that joint legal decision-making “means both parents share decision-making and neither parent’s rights or responsibilities are superior except with respect to specified decisions as set forth … in the final judgment or order.” From this the Court of Appeals concluded that because final say necessarily gives superior rights to one parent, it cannot be “joint” under the statute.

The Arizona Supreme Court held that family courts do have authority to order final say and that these orders do not convert to sole legal decision-making. This reinstated the prevailing interpretation that final say functions as joint legal decision-making, meaning parents still must consult in good faith before any non-emergency decisions are made. If parents disagree after consultation, a parent with final say may exercise that authority to make the decision.

SC OpinionCOA Opinion