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Layton v. Layton

Supreme Court of Delaware

October 23, 2018

HANNA LAYTON and LINDA COSTAS, [1] Respondents Below, Appellants,
JACKSON P. LAYTON, Petitioner Below, Appellee.

          Submitted: August 17, 2018

          Court Below-Family Court of the State of Delaware C.A. No. CN15-04403, Petition Nos. 17-22998, 17-24587

          Before VAUGHN, SEITZ, and TRAYNOR, Justices.



         Upon consideration of the parties' briefs and the record on appeal, it appears to the Court that:

         (1) The appellants, Hanna Layton ("Mother") and Linda Costas ("Grandmother"), filed these consolidated appeals from three Family Court orders. The underlying case involves Jackson Layton ("Father") and Mother's two daughters ("the Children") and Father's efforts to visit and reunify with the Children. At the time these appeals were filed, the Children were under the guardianship of Grandmother.[2] In the orders on appeal, the Family Court found Mother and Grandmother in contempt of its prior orders regarding Father's visitation and reunification therapy with the Children. The Family Court also ordered Mother to pay attorneys' fees to Father's counsel[3] and ordered Grandmother to pay $2000 to secure the services of a new reunification therapist. After careful consideration, we find no merit to these consolidated appeals. Accordingly, we affirm the Family Court's judgments.

         (2) The Children were born on April 28, 2004 and March 25, 2007. The family's history is long and complicated. It appears that Mother and Father became estranged from one another in 2011, and Mother was awarded sole custody of the Children in November 2013. In August 2015, Grandmother, through counsel, filed a petition for guardianship of the Children. Mother's whereabouts were unknown at the time. Although she failed to file an answer to the guardianship petition, she later appeared in person to support the petition. Father, through counsel, objected to the petition. In March 2016, the parties reached an agreement for a temporary guardianship order pending a hearing in July 2016. The temporary order included the parties' stipulation that Father and the Children would engage in reunification therapy with Dr. Samuel Romirowsky in consultation with the Children's therapist, Jennifer Cutrona.

         (3) After a two-day trial, the Family Court granted Grandmother's petition for guardianship on August 10, 2016 ("the Guardianship Order").[4] As part of the Guardianship Order, the Family Court cautioned Mother and Grandmother to cooperate with the previously agreed-to reunification therapy between Father and the Children. The Family Court stated that it would "not tolerate interference with Father's attempts to improve" his relationship with the Children.[5] The Family Court further warned Mother and Grandmother that, while it did not want to uproot the Children and remove them from Grandmother's home at present, "the Court will seriously consider moving the children to Ohio [where Father lives] on a permanent basis if the maternal family acts as an impediment to Father's efforts."[6] The Guardianship Order awarded Father visitation with the Children "as determined appropriate by Dr. Romirowsky," and stated that, if Dr. Romirowsky believed that the maternal family was interfering with Father's visitation, then the Court would consider imposing sanctions that might include granting "additional visitation to Father, fines, incarceration, or a change in custody…."[7]

         (4) In December 2016, Father filed a petition for a rule to show cause, alleging that Grandmother and Mother were in contempt of the Guardianship Order by thwarting the progress of his reunification with the Children. After two days of hearings, the Family Court issued an order dated June 5, 2017, finding both Mother and Grandmother in contempt ("the First Contempt Order").[8] The Family Court warned them against "continuing to display a negative and hateful attitude towards Father to the girls" and stated that the Court would "tolerate no contempt of this Order."[9] The Court ordered that "Dr. Romirowsky shall schedule reunification therapy/visits between Father and the girls at his discretion and shall solely be responsible for setting the frequency, date, time and length of the contact."[10]

         (5) Thereafter, Mother and Grandmother filed a petition for a rule to show cause in July 2017, alleging that Father was in contempt of the First Contempt Order and requesting, among other things, that the reunification therapy with Dr. Romirowsky be discontinued. Father, in turn, filed a petition for a rule to show cause, alleging that Mother and Grandmother were in contempt of the First Contempt Order. Among other things, Father asked the Family Court to rescind Grandmother's guardianship as a sanction for her ongoing contempt and interference with Father's attempts to reunify with the Children.

         (6) The Family Court held three days of hearings in January and February 2018 on the parties' cross-petitions. Dr. Romirowsky testified that, before Mother and Grandmother cut off his contact with the Children, he had had more than twenty sessions with the Children and Father. When they started therapy, the Children indicated they had no memories of Father, either good or bad, but they were interested in developing their relationship with him. Dr. Romirowsky testified that, on multiple occasions, the therapy sessions would be interrupted by members of the maternal family. On one occasion, when Father was participating in the session via Skype, Mother walked into the session unannounced and ended it prematurely, stating that the Children needed to have their dinner. Dr. Romirowsky finally told the maternal family members that they were not allowed in his office but had to wait outside during his sessions with the Children and Father.

         (7) Dr. Romirowsky testified that, while sometimes the sessions started with the Children protesting, the sessions quickly dissipated into warm, playful and affectionate interaction between Father and the Children. Based on his experience with the parties and in light of the Family Court's order giving him the discretion to do so, Dr. Romirowsky testified that he approved Father taking the Children for visits in the community on two dates in July 2017. Those visits were to be followed by debriefing with the parties in his office, and if Dr. Romirowsky determined those visits had gone well, then Father would be permitted to have two overnight visits with the Children in August 2017. Dr. Romirowsky testified that Grandmother refused to cooperate with his approved visitation plans, telling him that the Children would not attend any of those visits.

         (8) In September 2017, Grandmother and Mother appeared at Dr. Romirowsky's office without an appointment while he was in session with another patient, demanding that he turn over the Children's files. Dr. Romirowsky explained that he could not release the files unless a proper release was signed by both Grandmother and Father. One of the women then called the police on her cell phone and began yelling into the phone that the doctor was a liar. Dr. Romirowsky testified that one of his patients in the waiting room was so disturbed by the ruckus that he left the office. Dr. Romirowsky also testified that he received a letter from Mother in November 2017 stating that he was not permitted to have any further contact with the Children.

         (9) Dr. Romirowsky expressed the opinion that Mother and Grandmother had created a toxic environment for the Children's reunification efforts and had placed enormous pressure on the Children not to have a relationship with Father. He believed that the maternal family was planting false memories in the Children and, in short, that the Children were being "brainwashed." Dr. Romirowksy testified that, because Grandmother was blocking the reunification process, he would not continue undertaking reunification therapy while the Children remained under Grandmother's guardianship.

         (10) In addition to Dr. Romirowsky, the Family Court also heard testimony from Father, Mother, Grandmother, Father's stepfather, Mother's father, the Children's therapist, and Dr. Romirowsky's office assistant. The Family Court also spoke briefly with the Children and listened to numerous recorded Skype conversations between Father and the Children, which had been made without Father's knowledge and were offered into evidence by Mother and Grandmother.

         (11) On February 8, 2018, the Family Court issued a twenty-six page opinion, setting forth all of the testimony and evidence presented during the three-day hearing ("the Second Contempt Order").[11] The Court concluded that the First Contempt Order gave Dr. Romirowsky sole discretion for scheduling therapy and visits between Father and the Children. Dr. Romirowsky had determined that it was appropriate for Father to go straight to community visits with the girls rather than engaging in further therapy sessions in Dr. Romirowsky's office. Thus, Father was not in contempt of the First Contempt Order for failing to engage in ...

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