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Benefiel v. Stalker

Court of Appeals of Indiana

February 21, 2019

Ryan A. Benefiel, Appellant-Petitioner,
v.
Junko M. Stalker, Appellee-Respondent

          Appeal from the Hamilton Circuit Court Trial Court Cause No. 29C01-1703-JP-375 The Honorable Paul A. Felix, Judge

          Attorneys for Appellant Katherine A. Harmon Jared S. Sunday Mallor Grodner LLP Indianapolis, Indiana

          Attorney for Appellee Christine Douglas Harden Jackson LLC Carmel, Indiana

          Vaidik, Chief Judge.

         Case Summary

         [¶1] Ryan A. Benefiel ("Father") appeals the trial court's order that he pay $20, 000 of the nearly $40, 000 in attorney's fees incurred by Junko Makiah Stalker ("Mother") in this paternity action. We affirm.

         Facts and Procedural History

         [¶2] In August 2016, E.B. was born out of wedlock to Mother and Father. Mother and Father lived together from E.B.'s birth until the end of February 2017, when Mother and E.B. moved out. Thereafter, Father filed a petition to establish paternity, custody, parenting time, and child support and requested an expedited hearing. After several continuances and other motions, the trial court ordered the parties to participate in mediation, which was unsuccessful. A preliminary hearing was held in October 2017, during which the trial court heard "evidence and argument on issues of parenting time only." Appellant's App. Vol. II p. 40. Following the hearing, the trial court ordered as follows:

3. The Court finds that Father's request for additional parenting time above what is permitted in the Indiana Parenting Time Guidelines is unreasonable considering that for the first month after the parties separated, Father had no desire to provide care for or have any custody or control of [E.B.], and considering the multiple parenting time opportunities Father missed.

Id. at 41. Accordingly, the court awarded Father parenting time consistent with the guidelines, which, based on E.B.'s age, was one overnight per week. Id.

         [¶3] Following the trial court's order, the parties had many disputes about parenting time. In February 2018, Mother requested a parenting coordinator "to help improve the parties' ability to communicate and to do so more effectively." Id. at 48. Thereafter, the trial court appointed a parenting coordinator.

         [¶4] A final hearing was held in June 2018. Although the parties had stipulated to some of the issues, there were still many issues to be addressed at the hearing, including whether Father should receive additional parenting time, where the parties should meet to exchange E.B. for parenting time, the amount of Father's child-support arrearage, and how much Father should pay toward Mother's attorney's fees. Ex. A. The parenting coordinator testified about the difficulties she had encountered with Father. She described an incident during one of the parenting-time exchanges where Father called Mother a racial epithet in the presence of E.B. The parenting coordinator also testified about a joint phone call she had with the parties. Based on Father's demeanor during that call, she believed he needed anger-management counseling. Finally, the parenting coordinator testified that none of the issues Father raised with her had any merit. Tr. p. 14.

         [¶5] Evidence was also presented about Father's income. Father made $31, 746.13 in 2017. However, he took a new job in January 2018, which has an annual salary of $47, 923.20. Father acknowledged that this was "quite an increase in pay." Id. at 45. In addition to his increased salary, Father received a company car and is eligible for bonuses. In contrast, Mother's annual salary as a waitress is approximately $15, 000.

         [¶6] Finally, Mother's attorney, a certified family-law specialist, testified about her work in this case. She submitted her thirty-page attorney-fee statement, which reflects fees from March 2017 to June 2018 of $35, 936 and expenses of $114.49. Ex. G. She testified that this case was "the most expensive case I have ever done in 20 years." Tr. p. 77. Mother's attorney explained that the facts were not complicated and that it was the type of case that should have been resolved through the attorneys or mediation. However, neither worked in this case. Mother's attorney explained that what "has made this case complicated is the overwhelming amount of requests for attorneys to get involved, specifically me, to work out issues with Father." Id. She then highlighted some of Father's behaviors that caused her to spend so much time on the case: (1) Father requested an expedited hearing and sought a preliminary injunction; (2) Father made allegations about Mother that involved the police; (2) Father alleged that Mother abused drugs; (3) Father did not cooperate in discovery; (4) Father alleged that Mother was physically and emotionally harming E.B., which got CPS involved; and (5) Mother twice sought a protective order. Id. at ...


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