Arulkumar v. Arulkumar, 2022 OK 90

Opinion:Arulkumar v. Arulkumar, 2022 OK 90
Subject Matter:Family Law
Date Decided:November 15, 2022
Trial Court:District Court of Oklahoma County; Judge Oakes
Route to this Court:Mother gave notice of her intent to relocate with the parties’ only child from Oklahoma City to New York City to which Father timely objected. Although finding Mother’s request was made in good faith, the trial court denied the relocation request finding Father met his burden showing relocation was not in the child’s best interest. Mother appealed the trial court’s ruling.
Facts:Raisa Pinto (“Mother”) and Sailesh Arulkumar (“Father”) were married in 2015. Both parents are trained physicians who attended medical school in India. Mother is licensed to practice in Hematology and Oncology. Father is an anesthesiologist practicing in the area of pain management. In the summer of 2017, the couple moved to Oklahoma to allow Mother to attend a three-year Hematology and Oncology fellowship at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center (“OUHSC”). In July 2017, shortly after beginning her fellowship, Mother gave birth to the couple’s only child.

The couple’s marriage eventually deteriorated, and in April 2018, Mother filed for divorce in Oklahoma County. On January 10, 2020, the trial court granted the couple’s divorce on the grounds of incompatibility. In its order, the trial court designated Mother as the custodial parent, but ordered equal visitation time. On August 17, 2020, prior to accepting an out of state job offer, Mother contacted Father to inquire if he knew of any job openings in Oklahoma. The next day Mother accepted an offer from Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. Later that month, Mother notified Father of her intent to relocate to which Father timely objected.

The trial court received evidence concerning Mother’s job search and employment opportunity in New York; Mother and Father’s relationship with the child; the child’s life and educational opportunities in Oklahoma and New York; the child’s relationship with each parent’s other family members; the likely impact of travel on the child; and the impact of proposed visitation schedules on the child. The trial court determined Mother’s request was made in good faith, which shifted the burden to Father to show the proposed relocation was not in child’s best interest. The trial court found Father met his burden and denied Mother’s request to relocate. Mother appealed.
Standard of Review:The Court has said that “an abuse of discretion occurs when a court bases its decision on an erroneous conclusion of law or where there is no rational basis in evidence for the ruling.” Fent v. Oklahoma Natural Gas Co., 2001 OK 35, ¶ 12. Deference is given to the trial court in reviewing custody decisions because the trial judge had the opportunity to listen to evidence, observe the witnesses and parties, and ask questions. Scocos v. Scocos, 2016 OK 36, ¶ 5.
Analysis:Mother alleged five counts of error: (1) the court erred by placing undue weight on maintaining Father’s existing visitation; (2) the court erred in applying the relocation factors; (3) the court erred by assuming Mother would remain in Oklahoma if relocation was denied; (4) the trial judge erred in failing to consider alternative visitation schedules; and (5) the court erred by relying on prejudicial testimony from the Guardian Ad Litem.

Wife’s first count was based on the ruling of Scocos, 2016 OK 36, that Father did not produce enough evidence other than his interrupted visitation rights. The Court disagreed and found that Husband supplied ample evidence that the move would not be in the child’s best interest, and highlighted that considering a change in visitation is relevant to the best interest of the child inquiry in 43 O.S.2011, § 112.3(J)(1). The Court ruled that the interrelationship of the statutory factors of 43 O.S.2011, 112.3(K) are read in harmony, and not in isolation. Relocations inevitably produce distance and changes in familial relationships, which undoubtedly impact a child’s development and quality of life. Thus, the trial court did not abuse its discretion.

In regard to Wife’s second count, the Court determined that the trial court weighed the effect of relocation on the child’s emotional and educational development, as well as whether the relocation would enhance the general quality of life for the mother and child. Therefore, the trial court was correct in its conclusion that relocation would affect the child’s emotional and educational development but give no material improvement to his quality of life.

Addressing the third count, the Court found that the purpose of § 112.3(J)(2)(b) is to prevent trial courts from considering a relocating party’s intent to remain if relocation is denied. The record demonstrated that Mother made no declaration that she would stay if relocation was denied, therefore, the trial court could not have considered that in its analysis and thus circumvent the statutory factors. Thus Wife’s argument was rejected.

In response to the fourth count, the Court rejected Wife’s interpretation of Harrison v. Morgan, 2008 OK CIV APP 68, that trial courts must consider the parties’ visitation schedule proposals as well as consider other other feasible options. Thus, the Advisory Guidelines are permissive, not compulsory. Nothing in 43 O.S.2011, § 112.3(J)(1)(c) imposes an obligation on the trial court to craft its own visitation schedule that would best suit the parties and the child.

Finally, the Court determined that the record did not show that the trial court improperly relied on the GAL’s testimony. Wife alleged that the GAL violated 43 O.S.Supp.2019, § 107.3(A) by not stating her position to both parties before trial. However, the Court found that the statute requires only that the GAL present factual reports concerning the child’s best interests, not her intention to support one spouse or the other. Thus, Mother failed to demonstrate that GAL’s testimony compromised the integrity of the proceeding that error had a substantial effect on her rights. The trial court noted that GAL’s testimony was just a recommendation and nothing more.
Vote:7-2. Concurring: Darby, C.J., Kane, V.C.J., Winchester, Edmonson, Combs, Rowe (author), and Kuehn, JJ. Dissenting: Kauger and Gurich, JJ.
Other:Although Justices Kauger and Gurich dissented with the Court’s opinion, they did not file their own written dissenting opinions.