COA splits over custody modification, rules against mom who proceeded pro se after attorney quit

A split Court of Appeals of Indiana has affirmed a child custody switch from mother to father, finding that although the mother had to proceed pro so at the custody hearing, she was not prejudiced by the denial of her motions to continue after her counsel quit.

Bianca Teamer and Theophilus Muhammad had a child together, A.M., in 2012. The parents never pursued a formal custody or support order, and the child lived with Teamer while Muhammad exercised parenting time on the weekends “once [Child] started . . . first or second grade[.]”

In 2021, Teamer informed Muhammad that she intended to relocate to Dallas with her husband and A.M., prompting Muhammad to file an “Emergency Verified Petition to Establish Paternity, Custody, Support and Parenting Time and Verified Request for Temporary Restraining Order Preventing Relocation of the Child from Indiana Pending Hearing.”

Muhammad claimed he was “gravely concerned,” alleging a history of domestic abuse by Teamer’s husband against Teamer in the presence of A.M., including an incident when her leg was broken. He also noted that the Indiana Department of Child Services had previously opened a child in need of services case as a result of the abuse against Teamer and had ordered Teamer to dissolve her marriage, which she never did.

Teamer and A.M. moved to Texas as scheduled, and the parties agreed to allow A.M. to remain in Teamer’s custody until a final hearing in the case, which was scheduled for Sept. 8, 2021.

But on Aug. 31, Teamer filed a motion to continue, alleging she had just learned that her attorney had resigned, “was not notified nor included when this decision was made” and needed “additional time to hire new representation.” The attorney, however, claimed a notice was sent to Teamer on Aug. 16 stating “there has been a breakdown of the attorney client relationship” and “there has been a misrepresentation of the material facts related to your matter[.]”

The Marion Superior Court allowed the attorney to withdraw and denied the continuance, as well as Teamer’s oral motion to continue at trial. She thus proceeded pro se, and Muhammad was ultimately granted primary physical custody of the child. The trial court also denied Teamer’s subsequent motion to correct error alleging the initial resignation letter was sent to her old Indianapolis address and not her new Dallas address.

A split Court of Appeals affirmed the custody ruling in IN RE Paternity of A.M.: Bianca Teamer v. Theophilus Muhammad, 21A-JP-2261, finding that Teamer did not demonstrate prejudice and that the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it denied her motions to continue.

The COA found that although Teamer claimed she did not know what she “misrepresented” to her former attorney, “a client’s maintenance of her relationship with her attorney and her representation of facts to her attorney is at least partially in her control, unlike the conflict of interest in” Koors v. Great Southwest Fire Ins. Co., 530 N.E.2d 780 (Ind. Ct. App. 1988), on which Teamer had relied.

Also, although Teamer claimed she was prejudiced by the denial of her motions to continue, she didn’t explain what that prejudice was or how a continuance would have cured it.

“During the hearing, Mother was able to cross-examine witnesses, sometimes with the assistance of the judge; raise objections to exhibits, some of which the trial court sustained; and make closing arguments. The trial court also gave Mother substantial leeway in terms of inserting narrative into her cross-examination of witnesses,” Judge Melissa May wrote. “Based thereon, we conclude the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it denied Mother’s motion to continue because even if Mother was not at fault for her lack of counsel at the final hearing, she has not demonstrated that she was prejudiced by the denial.”

Judge Rudolph Pyle concurred.

But Judge Elaine Brown dissented, arguing that the trial court abused its discretion by denying Teamer’s motions for a continuance.

The dissenting judge noted the difficulty Teamer faced in trying to find new counsel over a holiday weekend and said the trial court never appeared to question Teamer or her attorney regarding the alleged reason for the withdrawal.

Brown further argued that the Sept. 2, 2021, grant of the attorney’s request to withdraw was premature under the Marion County Local Rules, and the Sept. 1, 2021, motion to withdraw was premature under Indiana Trial Rule 3.1(H).

The dissent concluded that Teamer demonstrated good cause for a continuance, that the case involved at least some complexity as well as a fundamental right, that she was prejudiced by the denial of her motion for a continuance, and that a delay would not have prejudiced Muhammad to an extent to justify denial of the continuance.

“In light of the fundamental parent-child relationship involved and the record, I would hold that the trial court abused its discretion in denying Mother’s motion to continue,” Brown wrote.

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