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People in Interest of E.E.L-T.

2024 COA 12. No. 22CA1714. Family Law—Allocation of Decision-Making Responsibility—Impasse Between Joint-Decision-Makers—Best Interests of the Child—Endangerment Finding.

February 8, 2024

Mother and father are the unmarried parents of E.E.L-T (the child). Under their court-approved parenting plan, mother and father have shared responsibility for the child’s medical decisions since 2015. In 2021, they reaffirmed their agreement for shared decision-making responsibility for medical decisions but could not agree on whether the child should receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Father then filed a verified motion to modify decision-making or, alternatively, to authorize the child to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Following a hearing, a magistrate found, among other things, that the child was endangered by not having a party in place to make decisions about the minor child’s treatment surrounding the COVID-19 virus. The magistrate’s order does not state that father has decision-making authority in this area but ordered that the child may receive COVID-19 vaccines. Mother filed a C.R.M. 7(a) petition seeking relief from the magistrate’s order, arguing, as relevant here, that the evidence did not support what mother characterized as the magistrate’s finding that the child was endangered by not receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. The district court denied the motion, characterizing the magistrate’s decision as having “modified decision-making ability finding it was in the best interest of the minor child to have someone in place to make these decisions for the minor child.”

As an initial matter on appeal, the court of appeals determined that mother’s appeal was not moot, notwithstanding the fact that the child received a COVID-19 vaccine before mother filed her notice of appeal, because the magistrate’s order authorizes the child to receive an initial COVID-19 vaccine “along with subsequent boosters” as needed.

Mother argued that the magistrate erroneously found that the child was endangered by not receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. Here, while the language in both the magistrate’s and the district court’s orders is ambiguous as to whether the allocation of parental decision-making authority was modified, the court concluded that the magistrate did not modify the allocation of decision-making authority. Instead, when faced with an impasse between the joint decision-makers, the magistrate broke the tie by making the court the decision-maker. Mother contended that the court can only break an impasse between joint decision-makers if it finds that the child is endangered. However, a district court need not find endangerment before breaking an impasse between parents with joint decision-making responsibility by making the disputed decision for them. In this case, the magistrate broke the parties’ impasse by making the decision in accordance with the child’s best interests, and mother did not challenge the magistrate’s best interests determination.

Mother also argued that the magistrate erred by allowing Drs. Staat and Dickinson to offer expert opinion testimony. However, the magistrate’s order clearly reflects that she did not rely on the testimony of Dr. Staat or Dr. Dickinson, finding that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is the authority in this matter. Accordingly, any errors in allowing Drs. Staat and Dickinson to testify did not substantially influence the magistrate’s decision.

The order was affirmed.

Official Colorado Court of Appeals proceedings can be found at the Colorado Court of Appeals website.

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