By Hunter Ferguson and Manmeet Dhami
When considering a parenting plan, trial courts start from the premise that it is ordinarily in a child’s best interest to alter the existing pattern of parent-child interactions only to the extent necessary because of the parents’ changed relationship from physical, mental, or emotional harm. But, as is the case with most general rules and standards, there are exceptions. Under section .191(3) of the Parenting Act of 1987, trial courts may impose limitations on parental contact to guard against “adverse effects” if they find the presence of certain enumerated factors or under a catchall provision, subsection (g). In In re Marriage of Chandola, the Washington Supreme Court clarified that in order to impose limitations under the catchall provision, a trial court must find the presence of factors similar in severity to those enumerated in the statute – i.e., factors that present a relatively severe risk of physical, mental, or emotional harm to a child.
Following the dissolution of his marriage with Neha Vyas Chandola (Vyas), Manjul Varn Chandola sought a schedule that allowed him and Vyas to split residential time with their young daughter equally. Citing to section .191(3), Vyas requested limitations on Chandola’s time with their daughter, and restrictions on the involvement of paternal grandparents. In addition to enumerating several factors warranting limitations to guard against adverse effects (neglect, long-term impairment interfering with performance of parenting functions such as emotional impairment or substance abuse, or abusive use of conflict), section .191(3) also contains a catch-all provision (subsection (g)), allowing limitations where there are “[s]uch other factors as the court expressly finds adverse to the best interests of the child.”
The trial court agreed and imposed the requested restrictions under the catchall provision. The court of appeals affirmed. Chandola sought review, arguing that the trial court misapplied the catchall provision by failing to find factors similar to those enumerated in section .191(3).
Writing for a five-justice majority, Justice Gordon-McCloud employed the familiar interpretive principle that statutory language must be interepted in context, considering related provisions, and clarified that that catchall provision applies only when limitations are necessary to protect children from physical, mental, or emotional harm similar in severity to the factors expressly enumerated in other subsections of .191(3). The Court affirmed certain restrictions on residential time and restrictions on co-sleeping but reversed restrictions on grandparental contact, explaining that the trial court abused its discretion for failing to identify the particular harm resulting from the paternal grandparents’ involvement with the child.
In dissent, Justice Susan Owens (joined by Justices Stephens, Johnson, and Madsen) argued that the majority overstepped its bounds in its review of the evidentiary record on appeal. The dissent specifically noted that the trial court judge presided over a week-long trial and that the majority improperly “substituted its judgment for that of the trial court.”