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Pankratz v. Pankratz

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

October 25, 2017


          Session August 15, 2017

         Appeal from the Chancery Court for Cheatham County No. 16305 Larry J. Wallace, Judge

         This case involves a post-divorce modification of a parenting plan. The trial court found that there had been a material change in circumstances since the entry of the parties' existing parenting plan. Mother appeals the trial court's modification of the parenting plan insofar as the trial court did not adopt, in toto, her proposed plan. Father appeals the trial court's finding that a material change in circumstances occurred since entry of the parties' existing parenting plan but argues, in the alternative, that the trial court should be affirmed. Discerning no error, we affirm and remand.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Chancery Court Affirmed and Remanded

          Brenda Rhoton Clark, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Christen Nicole Pankratz.

          Irene R. Haude, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Dion Pankratz.

          Arnold B. Goldin, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Brandon O. Gibson and Kenny Armstrong, JJ., joined.



         Background and Procedural History

         Christen Pankratz ("Mother, " or "Appellant") and Dion Pankratz ("Father, " or "Appellee") are the parents of one minor child, born June 2011. Concurrent with their divorce in January 2015, the trial court entered a parenting plan for the child. The plan designated Mother as the primary residential parent but gave each parent equal parenting time. The parenting plan also specified that Mother and Father would have joint decision-making in the areas of education, non-emergency health care, religion, and extracurricular activities. Father has since married Kendra Pankratz ("Step-Mother").

         On December 11, 2015, Mother filed a petition to modify the parenting plan by awarding her additional parenting time and major decision-making authority in all four areas specified in the parenting plan: education, non-emergency healthcare, religious upbringing, and extracurricular activities.

         As grounds for her petition, Mother averred that the parties' conflicting social and religious views concerning the child's upbringing had led to ongoing disagreements, and it would be in the best interest of the child to be raised in a single environment. Mother, a practicing Christian, alleged that, since the parties' separation, Father had converted to Messianic Judaism[1] ("Father's Religion"). Following his conversion, Mother averred that Father had expressed his belief to her that her religion was a form of paganism and many of Mother's lifestyle decisions were sinful. Mother further alleged that it was her understanding that Father's religion prevents him from associating with non-believers.[2]Mother alleged that Father intended to alienate her from the child and that Father regularly made disparaging remarks to the child about Mother, her religion, and her lifestyle choices. Mother believes Father's behavior is causing the child to experience distress, confusion, and anxiety.

         On January 28, 2016, Father answered Mother's petition and filed a counter-petition to modify the parties' parenting plan. The cross-petitions were heard by the Chancery Court for Cheatham County on November 3, 2016. Both parties presented evidence that they were experiencing ongoing conflict with the other party due to their opposing views. As part of her proof at trial, Mother proffered a recorded conversation between her and Father illustrating the nature of the parties' conflict:

Father [to Mother]: When you say you respect our beliefs then you participate in things with (the child) like carving a pumpkin, like putting on costumes, any of the stuff that goes on in this place, actually is a stumbling block for her and it breaks covenant. . . . What is going to happen, and I am just forewarning you, for (the child's) life, there is not going to be both of us, if she decides to walk in covenant in obedience, and I hope that she does for her life's sake, you will become estranged to her, she will not look at you as a mother[.]
. . .
Father [to Mother] . . . She's trying hard to make the two environments work and they don't-they are in opposition to each other. And whether you like it or not, our life is in contrast to your life.

         Father testified that the aforementioned conversation clearly voiced his opinions.

         Both parties presented evidence illustrating their ongoing disagreements relating to the child's non-emergency healthcare, education, religion, and extra-curricular activities. For example, Father does not believe in vaccinations, while Mother is a registered nurse and believes vaccinations are an important component of healthcare. Father desires to homeschool the child, while Mother has enrolled the child in public school. Father believes Christian and secular holidays are sinful, Mother celebrates both.

         On December 7, 2016, the trial court entered its order, which incorporated its ruling from the bench. In its order, the trial court found that a material change of circumstances had occurred since the parties' divorce based on increasing conflict between the parents. After evaluating the statutory factors in light of the evidence, the trial court found it was in the child's best interest to modify the existing parenting plan by: (1) effectively vesting educational and non-emergency healthcare decision-making authority with Mother; and (2) awarding Mother additional parenting time on religious and secular holidays. The trial court also emphasized that the parenting plan prohibits both parties from making disparaging remarks about the other parent or their lifestyle choices in the presence of the child.

         Issues Presented

         The parties present the following issues for review, which we restate and reorder as follows:

I. Whether the trial court erred in finding a material change in circumstances.
II. Whether the trial court erred in finding that modifying the parties' existing parenting plan is in the ...

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