Previous Litigation in Puerto Rico Stops Mom from Seeking Visitation Modification Order from Maryland Court

One of the many goals of family law cases is to create a degree of stability and finality in the decisions made by the courts. To this end, the law seeks to discourage parents or spouses from using different jurisdictions to re-litigate the same issues repeatedly. This was an issue in one recent Maryland case, in which the Court of Special Appeals upheld a trial court’s decision not to hear a visitation modification case because, according to the lower court, the issue had already been litigated completely elsewhere.

The mother and the father in this dispute were the parents of one child, a daughter who was born in Puerto Rico in 2004. The parents, who never married, litigated the issue of child custody in the Puerto Rican courts. The court there gave the mother sole custody in 2011, with the father receiving visitation in a separate order issued in 2013. Along the way, the mother and daughter relocated to St. Mary’s County, Maryland, while the father remained in Puerto Rico.

In 2014, the mother began taking steps to get the 2011 Puerto Rican order registered in Maryland. The father pursued getting the 2013 order registered in Maryland. Registering your foreign order (and, in this context, “foreign” means an order from any court outside Maryland) is an important step in the process of safeguarding your family and their interests. Registering your order is essential because, if you ever need to go to court to ask a judge to issue an order demanding compliance with that order, the judge cannot do so unless you’ve first registered your foreign order here.

The Maryland court registered the 2013 order. In 2016, the mother filed a motion for an emergency modification order in which she alleged that the daughter had accused the father of sexual abuse. The court refused to hear that motion after consulting the Puerto Rican court and learning that the court there litigated the abuse issue and concluded that there was no proof of abuse.

The mother appealed, but the appeals court also ruled against her. The father’s success in both courts came down to the issue of when a parent can or cannot re-litigate an issue that they have already litigated unsuccessfully in another location. In this case, the mother sought to modify the father’s visitation based upon the father’s alleged sexual abuse of the daughter. She first sought relief in Puerto Rico. The court there heard from three experts, each of whom found no proof of abuse and each of whom concluded that the mother was manipulating the daughter into believing that the father had abused her.

After the Puerto Rican court made that decision, the mother was not entitled to re-litigate the same abuse issue in Maryland. The mother argued that the Maryland court should have heard her motion, based upon the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act. However, as the appeals court pointed out, the UCCJEA’s specific purposes include avoiding “relitigation of custody decisions of other States” and facilitating “the enforcement of custody decrees of other States.” In this case, the trial court was correct when the judge decided not that Maryland courts could not hear the case but that they should not, since the issues in the mother’s motion had already been explored, litigated, and decided thoroughly by the court in Puerto Rico. To have heard the case and issued an order like what the mother sought would have meant entering “an order that conflicted directly with the operative Puerto Rico order—the very problems the UCCJEA and the Parental Kidnapping Statute aim to prevent.”

Experienced Maryland child custody attorney Anthony A. Fatemi has been helping parents and spouses in this state for many years, putting the resources of this office to use on their behalf in the pursuit of beneficial outcomes for their families. To find out how this office can assist you, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

More blog posts:

How Your Move Can Impact Your Child Custody and Visitation Arrangement in Maryland, Maryland Divorce Lawyer Blog, March 23, 2017

Mother and Children’s Exit from the State Leads Maryland Courts to Decline Jurisdiction in Child Custody Case, Maryland Divorce Lawyer Blog, June 29, 2016

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