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JAVOR v. RANKIN (2021)

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Appeals Court of Massachusetts.

Attila JAVOR v. Ariel RANKIN.


Decided: February 26, 2021

By the Court (Vuono, Sacks & Hand, JJ.1)


Attila Javor (father) appeals from a judgment of contempt entered in the Probate and Family Court. The judgment was based on a judge's finding that the father violated a modification judgment requiring him to consult with Ariel Rankin (mother) before making major life decisions regarding the parties’ minor child. We agree with the father that, because the judge did not enter sufficient findings of fact to support the judgment, it must be vacated.

Background.2 The parties were never married but are the parents of one child. In 2017, the parties executed a stipulation, which was incorporated into a modification judgment. The stipulation provided that the parties would have shared legal custody, that the father would have primary physical custody, and that the mother would have supervised parenting time every other weekend. The stipulation further provided that each party would confer with each other regarding “major life matters and decisions” for the child, and that each party would have the right to review the child's medical and dental records and to consult with experts providing services to the child.

The mother filed a complaint for contempt in 2018, alleging that the father, among other things, failed to confer with the mother about the child's wellbeing, failed to provide the mother with timely notice of the child's appointments, and withheld the names and contact information for the child's medical providers. Before the trial, the father moved, under Rule 52 (a) of the Supplemental Rules of the Probate and Family Court (2012), that the judge “find the facts specially and state separately [her] conclusions of law thereon.”3 The judge allowed the motion. A two-day trial on the contempt complaint and other matters was held in 2019. The judge entered a contempt judgment in 2019. The entirety of the judge's findings regarding contempt were as follows:

“The [c]ourt finds that [f]ather is [g]uilty of [c]ontempt for failing to notify [m]other timely about the child's appointments and has failed to provide her with the names, and contact information for some of the child's providers. The [c]ourt also finds that [f]ather has failed to confer with [m]other about the child's well being or any decisions that he is making on behalf of the child.

The father then filed a motion asking that the judge enter additional findings or a rationale in connection with the contempt judgment. Another judge denied the motion, stating that the trial judge had retired and that “[t]he undersigned is unable to address the issues raised in this motion.” The father timely appealed.

Discussion. Upon proper motion, a Probate and Family Court judge is required, after trial, to “find the facts specially and state separately its conclusions of law thereon.” Rule 52 (a) of the Supplemental Rules of the Probate and Family Court. See also Mass. R. Dom. Rel. P. 52 (a). The quoted phrase is identical to what appears in Mass. R. Civ. P. 52 (a), as amended, 423 Mass. 1402 (1996). That rule “does not require extensive detail, but does impose on the judge an independent duty to articulate the essential grounds of [her] decision.” Schrottman v. Barnicle, 386 Mass. 627, 638 (1982). “Its purpose is to ensure that the judge ‘may be satisfied that [she] has dealt fully and properly with all the issues’ and that ‘the parties involved and this court on appeal may be fully informed as to the bases of [her] decision’ ” (citation omitted). Id. at 639.

Here, the judge's factual findings are not sufficient to support the contempt judgment, because they do not contain the detail needed to satisfy the parties that the issues have been fully and properly addressed. The findings did no more than paraphrase the nonspecific allegations of the complaint for contempt. Consequently, the contempt judgment cannot stand. The trial judge having retired, we leave it to the mother to determine in the first instance whether to seek a retrial. We need not now address the father's various other arguments as to why the contempt judgment was in error.4

Judgment of contempt entered July 15, 2019, vacated.


2.   The mother did not participate in this appeal.

3.   Although the motion might more appropriately have been filed under the similarly worded Mass. R. Dom. Rel. P. 52 (a), we need not resolve that issue here.

4.   The father's request for appellate attorney's fees under G. L. c. 208, § 38, is denied. That statute concerns proceedings under G. L. c. 208, which governs divorce. The parties here were never married.

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