Cuccia v Cuccia -- So.3d-- MS 2012, a recent decision in the area of family law and custody determinations, was delivered by the Supreme Court of Mississippi on June 28, 2012. The Court wrestled with many family law issues related to divorce but an interesting part of the decision dealt with one spouse's ownership of large breed dogs and specifically a pit bull. The facts of the case in large part turned upon the wife's dog rescue operation, which she ran out of her home. She took it upon herself to rescue and care for Rottweilers and Pit-bulls inside the marital home. This upset her husband so much that he sought a divorce. At one point he amended his divorce complaint to be based on the grounds of habitual cruel and inhumane treatment, claiming that the insistence of his wife to keep the Rottweilers and Pit-Bulls in the marital home against his objections constituted cruel treatment under the law. While the two later consented to an irreconcilable differences divorce and submitted the issue of custody of their minor children (among other issues) to the Chancery Court's discretion, the dog issue loomed over the case.
The Chancery Court concluded that although both parents were appropriate custodial parents under the Albright factors, the children would be best served by granting sole legal and physical custody to the mother. The Court of Appeals reversed, awarded joint custody and enjoined the mother from allowing dogs of any kind to roam loose or occupy any portion of her residence utilized by the children. The Appellate Court directed the department of human services [DHS] to investigate the cleanliness and safety of the mother's home and provide the report to the chancery court in order that it may reconsider the issue of the fitness of the mother's home. The Supreme Court of Mississippi granted certiorari and affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded parts of the appellate court's decision.
Without going too far into the specific factual contentions of this case, it is important to note that at the appellate stage there was confusion as to whether or not DHS had already found the mother's home to be safe. The Supreme Court found that there indeed had already been an investigation by DHS and the investigation had found no problems whatsoever with the mother's home. Thus, the Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Court's injunction and stated that the Chancery Court need not revisit the issue on remand. The Court reversed in part, but upheld the overturning of the Chancery Courts grant of sole custody to the mother but reversed the court of appeal's grant of joint custody. The Court reasoned that while joint custody is presumed and there is no custody presumption favoring the mother, joint custody should only be granted where the parties are able to behave amicably so that a joint custody situation is in the best interest of the children. The Court remanded the issue of custody to the Chancery Court to determine if the parties had become too acrimonious for joint custody to be feasible.
An import thing to note about this case is that The Supreme Court of Mississippi says in dicta (meaning not part of the holding) that, "the Appellate Court's concerns about the safety of the children are laudable" and the opinion relies on the existence of a DHS report indicating that the mother's home is safe. This means that court's should consider the effect of dog ownership on the safety of the children. If you are involved in a custody dispute in Mississippi and you own Pit-Bull's, Rottweilers or other large breed dogs, then you may find yourself at the mercy of a DHS report. The mother in this case ran a rescue operation. That means she most likely had taken very strong security measures. Society has differing opinions about the threat that dog breeds pose, especially to children. There is no way of knowing the opinions of your county's chancellor or those of the DHS employee investigating your home. In all custody determinations, the best interest of the child is paramount and potential threats to a child's safety posed by household pets are a legitimate factor for the court to consider.