We don’t do family law, at least as advocates, so this blog typically does not address opinions in family law cases, but this morning the Third Court of Appeals handed down an opinion that seems worth mentioning, as the Court took the time to mention the deference that is to be given to mediated settlement agreements, and unusual dispute resolution mechanisms that may be embodied therein.
The case stems from a 1998 mediated divorce. The decree, which incorporated the mediated settlement agreement, stipulated which schools the children were to attend. It further required that, in the event the parents could not agree on an educational decision, “the parties shall follow the recommendations of the person that is the child’s teacher at the time of the decision.” In other words, although the Court did not frame it as such, the child’s teacher was made sort of a de facto arbitrator of subsequent education-related disputes.
At any rate, sure enough, 6 years after the divorce the parents became enmeshed in a dispute over where one of their children ought to go to elementary school. The mother filed an action to amend the decree to give her the exclusive right to make educational decisions on behalf of the children so she could move the child from the school specified in the decree (Bryker Woods) to an Austin private school (St. Andrew’s). The trial court found that the circumstances of the child had materially changed since the decree (the legal standard for modification under the Family Code) and amended the decree as requested by the mother, and the father appealed.
The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision, finding that in fact nothing had materially changed with respect to the child in question since the decree. The evidence put forth as to material change, according to the opinion, was simply evidence that the child had grown up; if it were sufficient, the material change requirement would be meaningless, according to the Court. The Court also noted that the child’s teacher recommended that the child not transfer to the private school. In other words, the potentiality that the parties planned for actually did in fact happen, and the mediated agreement should be allowed to operate as agreed.
As the Court notes, “it would undermine the efforts of mediated settlement agreements for us to allow a modification on circumstances that were clearly contemplated by the parties at the time of the rendition of the original divorce decree.”
All in all, although it’s a bit outside the scope of this blog, the opinion is an interesting read as commentary on the role of the legal system and how we resolve issues like this. In fact, the opinion even quotes the trial judge’s ruminations on that very subject.
Zeifman v. Michels, Cause No. 03-05-00533