Heather M. Landauer
Gebhardt Emerson Moodie Bonanno, LLC
Your case has hit a roadblock or maybe has taken an unexpected turn. If you wait until the next scheduled hearing to address the issue, disaster may strike, or, you may simply be stuck and unable to proceed forward without some more immediate resolution. What options exist in these situations? How do you keep the case moving forward in a constructive way for both the parties and the court? Enter: the status conference.
Pursuant to Colorado Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 16.2(b), “(t)he court shall provide active case management from filing to resolution or hearing on all pending issues.” Additionally, pursuant to 16.2(c)(2)(D), “(t)he judge or magistrate may enter interim orders at any status conference either upon the stipulation of the parties or to address emergency circumstances.” For those newer to family law, you may be asking yourself: What does this mean for my case? When is an appropriate time to ask for a status conference? How can I effectively employ a status conference?
Requesting a status conference is an underutilized tool for family law practitioners, despite the many benefits that such conferences may have. Often, we are seeing family law matters open and pending for well over a year. In our post-COVID world, many courts are still catching up from the delays from 2020 through 2022. A status conference is a way to access the court more expeditiously and to keep the case moving forward and on track.
In a pre-decree matter, if parties do not already have temporary orders in place, there are a multitude of issues that may arise and may be easily resolved by requesting a status conference with the court. Even in matters where temporary orders have been issued, conflict may still rear its head when the orders become untenable, or there is difficulty or flat-out refusal to comply. While a motion for contempt citation may seem appealing when refusal to comply begins, it’s possible that the issue can be addressed and resolved during a status conference in a significantly shorter amount of time than a contempt proceeding will take, which, even during a pending pre-decree matter, could be several months. Additionally, many family law judges are not inclined to initiate contempt proceedings during a pre-decree dissolution matter, and in fact, will often suggest or order that a status conference is scheduled on a forthwith basis instead.
Take, for example, a party’s ongoing refusal to comply with the court’s automatic temporary injunction; or perhaps a sudden refusal to honor the financial status quo. Often, these issues can be resolved with a stern lecture from the judge during a quick status conference.
Likewise, emergent issues may arise in post-decree matters. Post-decree matters are frequently much more litigious than any conflict existing at the time of the initial proceedings. For example, requests to modify parenting time or decision-making are usually heavily contested, not to mention emotionally charged. The stress involved with modification proceedings can begin to take its toll on parties. Some common areas where conflict may begin to arise include telephone contact provisions, exchange locations and exercising holiday and vacation parenting time, to include obtaining travel permissions. Perhaps the original terms of these provisions are too vague and parties begin to use this vagueness to their advantage. This conflict may continue to brew until it eventually boils over, and one party decides to take action, whether it be a motion to enforce, a motion for contempt citation or similar formal action. If that party had thought to instead request a status conference to discuss and resolve the issue, he or she may have saved significant time and resources. If the judicial officer ultimately prefers a more formal enforcement motion, the instruction may be given at the time of the status conference.
One important item to note is that Rule 16.2(b) is clear that courts will provide this active case management “from filing to resolution or hearing on all pending issues.” If a matter has been administratively closed by the court, requesting a status conference may not be successful, as the judicial officer may determine that the court cannot hold a status conference unless or until a post-decree motion has been filed. However, once an action is open, it is the court’s obligation to make sure it is run in an efficient and effective manner, considering the individual needs of the case. Cite to this provision in your request.
There are also limits on what should be addressed during a status conference. While it is true that the judicial officer may enter interim orders during a status conference (upon stipulation of the parties or to address emergency circumstances), this does not mean that a party should request a status conference with the hope of receiving a modification order under the guise of an “emergency.” A court may hear brief argument from counsel during a status conference, but it is very unlikely the court will receive any testimony or evidence. For a true modification under C.R.S. 14-10-129 or 131, there must be appropriate notice and an opportunity to be heard.
Typically, most judicial officers are more than willing to hold status conferences and genuinely do want to provide active case management. Judicial officers will often remind the parties and attorneys that if they do need anything, that they should not hesitate to reach out and request a status conference. In fact, many judicial officers caution against the filing of discovery dispute motions and instead instruct the parties to contact the clerk for a status conference instead. At the initial status conference, it is always prudent to ask the judicial officer about their policy and practice when it comes to requesting and holding status conferences.
Family law practitioners should strive to use this tool as needed and to educate their clients on all potential avenues to take when conflict arises. Those newer to family law would be remiss to not familiarize themselves with the ins and outs of Rule 16.2, including the requirement of active case management. It is also important to know that Rule 16.2 is the unique rule that governs case management of domestic relations cases only. Therefore, while Rule 16.2 not may apply to other civil matters, any general practitioner or civil practitioner should also keep in mind their ability to request a brief conference with the court. There’s nothing wrong with saying “Hey, Judge — we’re stuck and we need a little help.” A simple 30-minute status conference could guide your case in the right direction and nip impending conflict in the bud.
– Heather Landauer is of counsel at Gebhardt Emerson Moodie Bonanno, LLC (GEM Family Law), where she also offers parenting coordinator/decision-maker and child and family investigator services.