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Tag: adjudicated

In re K.A.S. – 2023 UT App 138 THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF K.S., A PERSON OVER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

STATE OF UTAH, Appellee, v. K.S., Appellant. Opinion No. 20210291-CA Filed November 16, 2023 Third District Juvenile Court, Salt Lake Department The Honorable Mark W. May No. 1108274 Monica Maio, Marina Pena, Sam Pappas, and Hilary Forbush, Attorneys for Appellant Sean D. Reyes and Jeffrey S. Gray, Attorneys for Appellee JUDGE RYAN D. TENNEY authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER and DAVID N. MORTENSEN concurred.

TENNEY, Judge:

¶1        K.S., a minor, spent several weeks babysitting the infant child of some family members while they were at work. When the infant’s parents returned home one day, the infant was in pronounced distress. The infant was taken to the hospital, but she died a few days later.

¶2        K.S. was charged in juvenile court with having committed child abuse homicide. At the close of trial, the juvenile court found that K.S. had committed the crime and adjudicated K.S. delinquent as a result. K.S. now appeals that adjudication, arguing that there was insufficient evidence to support it. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm.

BACKGROUND

¶3        A.M., a four-month-old infant, died on May 10, 2019. Several medical experts later testified that the cause of death was a brain injury and that the fatal injury was likely inflicted in a non-accidental manner. The question at the heart of this case is who inflicted the fatal injury.

¶4        A.M.’s parents (Mother and Father) both worked and needed someone to watch their two children (A.M. and a two-year-old son) during the day. After an arrangement with a previous babysitter fell through, Mother and Father learned that K.S., the 16-year-old son of Mother’s cousin, was available to babysit. Although K.S. had no prior child-care experience, he began watching the children in April 2019. Because of K.S.’s lack of experience, Father had to teach him the basics of childcare, including how to prepare a bottle, how to change a diaper, and how to calm A.M. down and “hold her correctly.” K.S. frequently stayed overnight to save on gas, sleeping on a couch in the front room.

¶5        On May 2, Mother and Father took A.M. to the emergency room because A.M. had been sick for a few days. On examination, the ER doctor found “nothing worrisome,” and tests indicated that her heart rate, oxygen saturation, and temperature were all “reassuring.” The ER doctor concluded that A.M. “might have a bug” and sent her home. By May 6, A.M. seemed to be “feeling a little better.”

¶6        K.S. slept over at the house on the night of May 6 to 7, and A.M. was “real fussy” that night. According to her parents’ subsequent accounts, though, A.M. was “crying normal[ly]” and even “cheery, smiling, [and] glowing” by the next morning. Mother left for work by 9:30 a.m.[1] Father later testified that he left for work between 8:30 and 8:45 a.m. (though, as will be discussed below, testimony from an officer suggested that Father didn’t actually leave until 10:55 that morning).

¶7        At some point between 11:36 and 11:56 a.m., K.S. sent Mother a video that showed A.M. experiencing troubling symptoms—specifically, A.M. had a limp arm and labored breathing. K.S. texted, “Is this normal?” After viewing the video, Mother asked her sister (Aunt) to stop by on her lunch break to check on A.M.

¶8        Aunt arrived at about 1:20 that afternoon. A.M. seemed “lethargic” to her, and it seemed like “moving her was upsetting her more, almost like it was causing her pain.” Aunt thought that A.M. might have an ear infection, so she gave her some ibuprofen. After returning to work, Aunt told Mother her concern about the ear infection and encouraged Mother to take A.M. to the hospital after Mother’s shift ended. During her own lunch break an hour later, Mother returned home and checked on A.M., who was “fussy and whiney”; when Mother picked A.M. up, she also observed her legs “dangling down.” Mother was concerned enough to schedule an appointment with a pediatrician, but she made lunch and returned to work without taking further action.

¶9        There was no additional contact between K.S. and the parents until around 7:45 that evening, when K.S. called Mother and reported that A.M still didn’t seem to be feeling better. Mother said she was on her way. After picking Father up from his work, Mother arrived home to find A.M. “pale as a light.” Father performed CPR while Mother called 911. Mother told the 911 dispatcher that A.M. had been “fine throughout the day and stuff.”

¶10 A.M. was first taken to the Intermountain Healthcare hospital, then life-flighted to Primary Children’s Medical Center (Primary Children’s). Doctors at Primary Children’s concluded that A.M. had suffered a severe brain injury.

¶11      Police detained Mother and Father for questioning before allowing them to see A.M. While awaiting the arrival of a detective, Father engaged police officers in light-hearted banter, telling them “a story about getting drunk and . . . dancing on the table,” as well as a story about a woman beating up a man in their apartment complex. Mother and Father eventually met with a detective who questioned them about the events of the day. This detective later testified that, during these interviews, Father told him that he had left for work around 10:55 that morning.

¶12      The following day, K.S. sent Father two text messages. The first said: “im so sorry. . . . if it weren’t for my laziness and wanting to relax [A.M.] wouldn’t be like this and if i had never tossed her up in the air to try and cheer her up.” The second said: “im truly sorry plz tell [Mother] im so so so sorry and i would never intentionally hurt your kids out of anger or frustration.”

¶13      A.M. died two days later. Later that week, Dr. Christensen, the medical examiner, performed an autopsy and determined that the “primary cause” of death was “blunt injuries” to A.M.’s head. Dr. Christensen classified the death as a homicide.

¶14 The State subsequently charged K.S. with child abuse homicide in juvenile court. Over the course of eight days of trial, the court heard testimony from, among others, both parents, several medical experts, and the responding officer.

¶15      Mother and Father testified about the events on May 7 and A.M.’s health in the relevant period. Mother testified that A.M. was “pretty fine” and “cheery, smiling, [and] glowing” before she left for work that morning. Father testified that, after a few days of being fussy, A.M. “was feeling a little better” and that there was “nothing out of the ordinary” that morning. Father testified that he remembered leaving home between 8:30 and 8:45 a.m. so that he could catch the bus.

¶16 The court also heard testimony from three medical experts—Dr. Thorn, Dr. Hatch, and Dr. Christensen—about the nature of A.M.’s injuries and the timing of those injuries.

¶17 Dr. Thorn. Dr. Thorn was an ER doctor who had “extensive training and expertise specialization in the management of head injury,” and he was the doctor who treated A.M. on May 7 at the Intermountain Healthcare hospital. Dr. Thorn testified that A.M.’s symptoms likely resulted from “non-accidental trauma,” which “is a nice way of saying a child . . . was physically abused.” Dr. Thorn also testified that A.M.’s injuries would have required the application of “[e]xtremely violent” force, though he opined that it might have been “possible” that a person might not have “recognize[d] the severity” of the injury that he or she had inflicted.

¶18      On a CAT scan, Dr. Thorn observed two layers of blood in A.M.’s brain, which suggested to him that A.M. had sustained “at least two” discrete injuries. He estimated that the earlier of the two injuries occurred “within days” to “maybe a week” before May 7. Dr. Thorn speculated that the symptoms that prompted A.M.’s visit to the hospital on May 2 had come from the first brain injury, but he acknowledged that “[w]e’ll never know.” With respect to the injuries that led to A.M.’s death, Dr. Thorn testified that the “most severe injury leading eventually to the death” happened anywhere from “sometime within hours” to “almost right before” the video that was taken on May 7. He further testified that there was “some event soon before arrival [at the ER] that had caused” A.M.’s “respiratory depression.” Dr. Thorn felt unable to narrow the timeframe any further, and he expressed doubt that any doctor “would be able to comment as to a more definitive timeframe.” Dr. Thorn also testified that A.M. “was very, very sick at the time that that video was taken.”[2]

¶19 Dr. Hatch. Dr. Hatch was a recent medical school graduate who was completing a post-residency fellowship in child abuse pediatrics at the University of Utah, and he was part of the team that treated A.M. at Primary Children’s. Dr. Hatch testified that it would have required a significant amount of force to cause A.M.’s symptoms, such as “shaking by itself” or shaking combined “with some form of impact, or impact by itself.” He added that “we don’t observe these kinds of injuries from falls” or even from “significant” car accidents. In Dr. Hatch’s view, A.M.’s symptoms “suggest[ed]” that A.M. had “experienced significant force to her head.” He also opined that anyone who was present when the injuries were inflicted “would know that the force was excessive and that an injury was likely” to follow.

¶20 Dr. Hatch thought there were two potentially plausible explanations for the two layers of blood in A.M.’s brain: he thought it was possible that the blood represented two different injuries that were separated by time, and he also thought it was possible that the blood represented a single injury where some of the blood had changed colors when it mingled with cerebral spinal fluid. Thus, in Dr. Hatch’s opinion, A.M. was definitely injured on May 7, and it was possible that she had suffered an earlier brain injury as well.

¶21      As to the question of timing of the May 7 injury, Dr. Hatch testified that “the head injury immediately preceded the development of any symptoms that [A.M.] had. So in this situation where she became unconscious, the injury would immediately precede that.” Continuing, Dr. Hatch testified that the “medical literature would support that in almost all cases with this severe of an injury,” the resulting symptoms would appear “immediately afterward.”

¶22 Dr. Christensen. Dr. Christensen is the chief medical examiner for the Utah Department of Health and, as noted, performed A.M.’s autopsy. Dr. Christensen testified that A.M. had suffered a “traumatic” “axonal injury” to her brain and that the injury was “not consistent with having occurred accidentally.” In his view, the force involved would have been “noticeably violent.”

¶23      Like Dr. Thorn, Dr. Christensen saw signs of both an earlier and a later injury. Dr. Christensen agreed that “some of [A.M.’s] prior symptoms”—including the nausea that led to her May 2 visit to the hospital—could have been “related to a prior head injury.” On questioning from the State, however, Dr. Christensen seemed to agree that the later injury was “the ultimately fatal” one.

¶24      Dr. Christensen testified that in “some cases,” fatal injuries can be inflicted as many as three to ten days before the child actually dies. But Dr. Christensen explained that doctors look to “other aspects of the case as well” when estimating the time at which the injuries were inflicted, such as “what was the child’s behavior at various points along the way.” He said that in this case, he thought the fatal injury “occurred around the time” that A.M. arrived at the hospital. He also testified that with “traumatic axonal injury, you would expect [A.M.] to be symptomatic essentially immediately. I mean very, very quickly. It’s not going to be the kind of thing where she is going to be normal for a few hours . . . . It’s a global insult to the brain that is going to manifest as . . . abnormal behavior very soon after infliction.”

¶25      After the conclusion of the trial, the court entered a single-sentence ruling determining that the State had met its burden of proving that K.S. committed child abuse homicide. K.S. timely appealed.

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶26      K.S. argues there was insufficient evidence to support his adjudication for child abuse homicide. In cases tried without a jury (which include juvenile court proceedings), factual determinations “must not be set aside unless clearly erroneous, and the reviewing court must give due regard to the trial court’s opportunity to judge the credibility of the witnesses.” Utah R. Civ. P. 52(a)(4); cf. In re Z.D., 2006 UT 54, ¶ 29, 147 P.3d 401 (holding that an “appellate court must launch any review of factual findings from rule 52(a) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure and its ‘clearly erroneous’ test”). “The content of Rule 52(a)’s clearly erroneous standard, imported from the federal rule, requires that if the findings (or the trial court’s verdict in a criminal case) are against the clear weight of the evidence, or if the appellate court otherwise reaches a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made, the findings (or verdict) will be set aside.” State v. Walker, 743 P.2d 191, 193 (Utah 1987) (quotation simplified).

¶27 The parties agree that we should apply the above-cited standard of review to this case. We pause here to note, however, that the parties have disputed whether we should apply an additional layer of deferential gloss in this case as well.

¶28 It’s well-settled that when an appellate court reviews a jury’s verdict, the court views the evidence and all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the verdict. See, e.g.State v. Green, 2023 UT 10, n.2, 532 P.3d 930; State v. Bonds, 2023 UT 1, n.3, 524 P.3d 581; State v. Winfield, 2006 UT 4, ¶ 2, 128 P.3d 1171. But there’s a divergence in Utah’s caselaw about whether an appellate court does the same when reviewing a verdict from a bench trial. On this, some Utah cases say no. See, e.g.In re Z.D., 2006 UT 54, ¶ 35 (“An appellate court must indulge findings of fact made by a jury that support the verdict. No such indulgence is required of findings made by a judge.”); Alta Indus. Ltd. v. Hurst, 846 P.2d 1282, 1284 n.2 (Utah 1993) (holding that “an appellate court does not, as a matter of course, resolve all conflicts in the evidence in favor of the appellee” when findings were made by a judge); Walker, 743 P.2d at 193 (noting that “it is not accurate to say that the appellate court takes that view of the evidence that is most favorable to the appellee” when reviewing findings of the court (quotation simplified)). But other Utah cases—including some from our court that reviewed adjudications from juvenile court delinquency proceedings—say yes. See, e.g.State v. Layman, 1999 UT 79, ¶¶ 12–13, 985 P.2d 911 (holding that when “reviewing a conviction, an appellate court should consider the facts in a light most favorable to the verdict,” and then applying that standard to a ruling from “the trial judge, who was the finder of fact” in the bench trial at issue); In re J.R.H., 2020 UT App 155, ¶ 9, 478 P.3d 56 (applying the “light most favorable” standard to a juvenile court adjudication (quotation simplified)); In re V.T., 2000 UT App 189, ¶ 8, 5 P.3d 1234 (relying on Layman for the proposition that “[w]hen reviewing a juvenile court’s decision for sufficiency of the evidence, we must consider all the facts, and all reasonable inferences which may be drawn therefrom, in a light most favorable to the juvenile court’s determination”); see also In re C.C.R., 2011 UT App 228, ¶ 10, 257 P.3d 1106; In re M.B., 2008 UT App 433, ¶ 5, 198 P.3d 1007.

¶29      We need not resolve this conflict here. Again, the parties at least agree that K.S. can only prevail on his sufficiency challenge if he establishes that the verdict was against the clear weight of the evidence, or, instead, if we reach a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made. And the parties further agree that we give “due regard” to the juvenile court’s opportunity to “judge the credibility of witnesses.” Utah R. Civ. P. 52(a)(4). For the reasons set forth below, we affirm the juvenile court’s adjudication under these agreed-upon standards alone. We accordingly leave for another day (and, more likely, another court) the question of how to resolve the tension in the cases about whether the additional deferential gloss that applies to jury verdicts should apply to juvenile court decisions as well.

ANALYSIS

¶30      K.S. argues there was “insufficient evidence that [he], as opposed to someone else, caused the injuries that resulted in A.M.’s death.” We disagree.

¶31      The State’s case against K.S. relied on the interplay between three propositions: (i) A.M. died from an injury to her brain that was caused by violent force; (ii) A.M.’s symptoms would have manifested very quickly after the injury was inflicted; and (iii) K.S. was alone with A.M. immediately prior to the symptoms’ initial appearance. There was competent testimony to support each of these propositions.

¶32 Injury. All three medical experts agreed that A.M. died from a brain injury that was caused by violent force. Dr. Thorn testified that A.M.’s injury would have been caused by “[e]xtremely violent” force or a “violent, blunt act,” such as the “shaking back and forth of a child’s brain.” In his view, this was “not an accidentally dropped child.” Dr. Hatch similarly testified that a significant amount of force would have been required, either “shaking by itself,” or shaking combined “with some form of impact,” or “impact by itself.” He added that doctors “don’t observe these kinds of injuries from falls” or even from “significant” car accidents. Dr. Hatch believed anyone “who witnessed an incident like this occur would know that the force was excessive and that an injury was likely” to follow. Finally, Dr. Christensen testified that the injury was “not consistent with having occurred accidentally” and that the force involved would have been “noticeably violent.”

¶33 Timing of symptoms. There was also testimony from medical experts that A.M.’s symptoms would have manifested very quickly after the force that caused the fatal injury. Dr. Hatch testified that “the head injury immediately preceded the development of any symptoms that [A.M.] had” and that the “medical literature would support that in almost all cases with this severe of an injury,” the resulting symptoms would appear “immediately afterward.” Dr. Christensen similarly testified that with “traumatic axonal injury, you would expect [A.M.] to be symptomatic essentially immediately.” He added: “It’s not going to be the kind of thing where she is going to be normal for a few hours . . . . It’s a global insult to the brain that is going to manifest as . . . abnormal behavior very soon after infliction.”[3]

¶34 K.S. was alone with A.M. Finally, there was testimony establishing that K.S. was alone with A.M. immediately before the symptoms’ initial appearance. Mother and Father both testified that A.M. was in good health that morning. Father stated that after a few days of being fussy, A.M. was “feeling a little better” and that there was “nothing out of the ordinary.” Mother also testified that A.M. was “cheery, smiling, [and] glowing” that morning.

¶35      Mother left for work by 9:30 a.m., and at trial, Father testified that he left for work between 8:30 and 8:45 a.m. (though there was some suggestion that he may have left at 10:55 a.m.). At some point between 11:36 and 11:56 that morning, K.S. sent Mother a video showing A.M. with limp limbs and having difficulty breathing.

¶36      The collective import of these propositions is clear. Since K.S. was alone with A.M. for at least a half hour (if not several hours) before A.M.’s symptoms appeared, and since two medical experts testified that A.M.’s symptoms would have appeared very quickly (if not immediately) after the infliction of the injury, it stands to reason that K.S. caused the fatal injury. This would provide a basis to sustain the adjudication.[4]

¶37 K.S. nevertheless argues that there was insufficient evidence to support the adjudication because of various problems with the above evidence and with other aspects of the State’s case. While we certainly agree that there was conflicting evidence on certain points, the problems that K.S. identifies are not so conclusive that we can overturn the adjudication as a result.

¶38      Much of K.S.’s argument is focused on ambiguities in the record about the critical question of timing. K.S. points out that while Dr. Christensen opined that the symptoms likely manifested soon after the injury, Dr. Christensen also acknowledged that “those things”—apparently meaning medical conclusions about the time at which an injury occurred—“are not precise.” K.S. also relies heavily on Dr. Thorn’s testimony that the injury could have occurred anywhere from “almost right before” the symptoms appeared to “hours” earlier. And K.S. further points to Dr. Thorn’s testimony that he didn’t think “you could find anyone else that would be able to comment as to a more definitive timeframe.”

¶39 But when Dr. Thorn opined that he didn’t think that “anyone else” could provide “a more definitive timeframe,” Dr. Thorn was mistaken. As discussed, the State called two medical experts—Dr. Christensen and Dr. Hatch—who each testified under oath that they thought that A.M.’s symptoms would have appeared very quickly (if not immediately) after the fatal injury was inflicted. And to the extent that there was any conflict between the experts’ conclusions on this, the juvenile court was in a better position than we are to determine which version to believe. See, e.g.In re M.M., 2023 UT App 95, ¶ 35 n.9, 536 P.3d 102, petition for cert. filed, October 25, 2023 (No. 20230944) (recognizing that it “is the role of the juvenile court, not this court, to assess the weight and credibility of expert witnesses and to choose among their testimonies” (quotation simplified)); Knowlton v. Knowlton, 2023 UT App 16, ¶ 59 n.13, 525 P.3d 898 (noting that a trial court “is in the superior position to assess the weight of evidence,” including questions about which expert’s testimony to accept), cert. denied, 531 P.3d 730 (Utah 2023); Woodward v. Lafranca, 2016 UT App 141, ¶ 13, 381 P.3d 1125 (noting that a “fact-finder is in the best position to judge the credibility of witnesses and is free to disbelieve their testimony, even if that testimony comes from an expert witness” (quotation simplified)).

¶40      K.S. also points to testimony showing that Mother left for work by 9:30 a.m., as well as testimony that Father told a detective that he didn’t leave until 10:55 that morning. Since K.S. maintains that the window in which the injury could have been inflicted was several hours long, K.S. posits that Mother or Father could have inflicted the injury before they left for work. But again, on the question of timing, Dr. Christensen and Dr. Hatch both spoke of symptoms appearing very quickly after the fatal injury was inflicted. This testimony, alone, undermines this theory, and the juvenile court was entitled to credit it.

¶41 And there are other problems with this theory too. After all, K.S.’s suggestion that Mother or Father caused the injury that morning or overnight is at odds with their sworn testimonies. Again, both of them testified under oath that A.M. was healthy when they left the house. And it also seems possible (if not probable) that K.S. would have noticed something if Mother or Father had used violent force against A.M. that morning—after all, he’d spent the night there and was at the house all morning. But K.S. never claimed to have heard or witnessed either parent injuring A.M. earlier that day. Thus, to have accepted this theory, the court would have had to discredit the injury-to-symptoms chronology testimony of two medical experts, disbelieve the testimonies of Mother and Father, and then infer that Mother or Father had used violent force against A.M. without K.S. noticing or deciding to comment on it.

¶42 K.S. also points to evidence suggesting that A.M. had sustained a prior brain injury sometime before May 7, and he then argues that this prior injury might have been responsible for A.M.’s death. But while Dr. Christensen and Dr. Thorn both believed that A.M. had suffered multiple injuries, Dr. Hatch thought it was possible that there weren’t two injuries at all. Regardless, even assuming that the earlier injury did occur, K.S. could have inflicted that injury too given that he’d been babysitting for weeks. And more to the point, Dr. Christensen testified that the earlier injury wasn’t the cause of death. Dr. Christensen explained that both the earlier injury and the later injury had caused “subdural hemorrhage[s]” but that a subdural hemorrhage “didn’t ultimately lead directly to the child’s death.” Instead, Dr. Christensen testified that “diffuse axonal injury” in the brainstem created “respiratory compromise” that led to “brain swelling and ultimately death.” And when the prosecutor asked Dr. Christensen whether the “fatal” or “ultimately fatal” injury occurred close in time to A.M. arriving at the hospital, Dr. Christensen agreed with the State’s timeline. He reiterated that after the infliction of the “traumatic axonal injury,” which he had previously identified as the ultimate cause of death, symptoms would appear “essentially immediately.”[5]

¶43                Finally, K.S. points to various problems with the version of

events offered by Mother and Father, including Mother’s decision not to take the baby to the hospital that afternoon, Father’s seemingly odd storytelling while waiting for detectives that night, and certain discrepancies between the parents’ initial statements to officers and their testimonies at trial. We’ve reviewed the record and acknowledge the potential problems identified by K.S. But these problems all go to the perceived credibility (or lack thereof) of Mother and Father, particularly as it relates to their sworn testimonies that they did not injure their child. Our supreme court, however, has directly cautioned the appellate courts to avoid second-guessing lower courts about credibility issues like these. As the court explained in In re Z.D.:

Appellate courts are removed temporally and geographically from trial courts. They do not see juries impaneled or oaths administered to witnesses. They do not view first-hand witnesses’ “tells” of posture, inflection, or mood that strengthen or erode credibility. It is the lot of appellate judges to take their sustenance from the printed page; to peer into the facts as deeply as the flat plane of paper will permit. By the time the trial transcript reaches the hands of the appellate judge, the universal adjective describing its condition is “cold.”

2006 UT 54, ¶ 24, 147 P.3d 401. It’s of course possible that the court could have chosen to disbelieve the testimonies of Mother and Father. But given its adjudication, it’s clear that the court did accept their accounts (or, at least, those portions that suggested that it was K.S., not Mother or Father, who inflicted the fatal injury on A.M.). Without something more, it’s not our place to second-guess that determination.

¶44      In short, this evidentiary picture could certainly have been clearer, and we do see this as something of a close case. But the fact that it’s a close case is the reason we shouldn’t overturn this adjudication. In In re Z.D., our supreme court stressed that an “appellate court must be capable of discriminating between discomfort over a trial court’s findings of fact—which it must tolerate—and those that require the court’s intercession. It must forebear disturbing the ‘close call.’” Id. ¶ 33. And again, under even the standard of review that both parties agree on, K.S. must convince us that the verdict was against “the clear weight of the evidence,” or, instead, we must be left with “a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made.” State v. Walker, 743 P.2d 191, 193 (Utah 1987) (emphases added, quotations otherwise simplified).

¶45      On this record, the juvenile court could have sided with K.S. based on certain evidence about the timing of the injuries and who was around A.M. during a potentially relevant window. But the State’s narrower view of the timing window was backed by two medical experts, and its view of who was where and when was backed by sworn testimony as well. And under the State’s evidence, K.S. was the only person who could have caused the fatal injury.

¶46      Unlike members of this court, the juvenile court observed the relevant testimony firsthand. As a result, it was in a better position than we are to evaluate the credibility of that testimony and make determinations about the key facts. While K.S. has highlighted some problems with the State’s case, we don’t see those problems as being so pronounced that the court’s decision was against the clear weight of the evidence, nor are we left with a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made. We accordingly see no basis for overturning this adjudication.

CONCLUSION

¶47 There was sufficient evidence to support the juvenile court’s adjudication that K.S. committed child abuse homicide. The adjudication is therefore affirmed.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

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Scott v. Benson – 2023 UT 4 – Fraudulent Voluntary Declaration of Paternity

2023 UT 4

IN THE

SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF UTAH

TAYLOR LYNN SCOTT,

Respondent,

v.

SARAH CATHERINE BENSON,

Petitioner.

No. 20210922

Heard October 3, 2022

Filed April 20, 2023

On Certiorari to the Utah Court of Appeals

Third District, Salt Lake

The Honorable Richard D. McKelvie

No. 194903038

Attorneys:

Jeremy G. Jones, Jeffrey C. Jensen, Sandy, for respondent

Julie J. Nelson, Millcreek, Alexandra Mareschal, Salt Lake City,

for petitioner

ASSOCIATE CHIEF JUSTICE PEARCE authored the opinion of the Court in

which CHIEF JUSTICE DURRANT, JUSTICE PETERSEN, JUSTICE HAGEN, and

JUDGE REUBEN RENSTROM joined.

Having recused herself, JUSTICE POHLMAN did not participate;

DISTRICT COURT JUDGE REUBEN RENSTROM sat.

ASSOCIATE CHIEF JUSTICE PEARCE, opinion of the Court:

INTRODUCTION

¶1 Utah law permits parents to establish the paternity of their child by signing and filing a voluntary declaration of paternity (VDP) with the Office of Vital Records and Statistics. UTAH CODE §§ 78B-15-301-302. Sarah Benson and Taylor Scott, an unmarried couple, signed a VDP in which they both represented that Scott was the father of Benson’s child (Child). Problem was, Scott was not Child’s biological father, and both Scott and Benson knew that when they signed the VDP.[1]

¶2 After they submitted the VDP to the state, Benson continued to allow Scott to act as a father to Child, much as she had since Child’s birth. But she eventually cut off contact between Scott and Child. Scott filed a complaint, asserting he was Child’s father and asking the court for joint legal and physical custody. Benson challenged the VDP and asked the court to declare that Scott was not Child’s father.

¶3 The district court applied the Utah Uniform Parentage Act and concluded that the VDP should be set aside because of the parties’ fraud and a mutual mistake. See id. § 78B-15-307(1). But it also concluded that, under the Act, Scott should be adjudicated to be Child’s father. See id. § 78B-15-608. Benson appealed, and the court of appeals affirmed.

¶4 Before us, Benson argues that the court of appeals misinterpreted the Act because once the district court concluded that the VDP was the product of fraud and mistake, the Act did not provide a path for Scott to continue to assert that he should be deemed to be Child’s father.

¶5 We reject Benson’s reading of the Act and affirm.

BACKGROUND

¶6 Benson was pregnant with Child when she met and began dating Scott. Scott knew that Benson was pregnant with Child while they were dating and that he was not Child’s biological father.

¶7 But Scott attended Child’s birth and played a substantial role as a parental figure in Child’s life for the next seven years. Child’s biological father passed away shortly after Child’s birth.

¶8 During their dating relationship, Benson became pregnant with Scott’s biological child (Sibling). Before Sibling was born, Benson and Scott—who had never married—split up.

¶9 Because the couple never married, Utah law did not consider Scott to be Sibling’s “presumed father.” Benson initiated a paternity action, which established that Scott was Sibling’s biological father. See supra ¶ 31 n.7. Scott and Benson settled that action by agreeing to sign a voluntary declaration of paternity (VDP)—in which Scott acknowledged that he was Sibling’s father—and by obtaining an order that gave Scott joint custody of and required him to pay child support for Sibling.[2] Under their custody agreement, Scott enjoyed near-equal parent-time with Sibling.

¶10 Scott often cared for Child at the same time and in the same manner that he cared for Sibling. This pattern continued even after Scott married someone other than Benson.[3]

¶11 At some point, Benson was arrested and charged with driving under the influence. Benson pleaded guilty, and her driving privileges were suspended. For the next several months, Scott—at Benson’s request—was the primary caregiver to both Child and Sibling.

¶12 Benson suffered from mental health issues during this period. She wanted a plan to ensure that both of her children would be cared for if she were no longer around. This thinking culminated in Scott and Benson signing and submitting a VDP that represented to the state that Scott was Child’s biological father, even though both Scott and Benson knew that representation was false. The Office of Vital Records updated Child’s birth certificate to reflect Scott’s paternity.

¶13 For a year or so after signing the VDP, Scott and Benson maintained contact and shared parenting responsibilities for both children. Eventually Benson—who had married and whose husband wanted to adopt Child—cut off contact between Scott and Child.

¶14 Scott filed a paternity action, seeking to be declared Child’s legal father and asking for joint legal and physical custody of Child. Benson counter-petitioned, challenging Scott’s paternity and asking to have the VDP set aside.

¶15 The district court treated Benson’s counter-petition as an action to invalidate the VDP under the Utah Uniform Parentage Act. The Act provides that a VDP can be challenged because of fraud, duress, or material mistake of fact. UTAH CODE § 78B-15-307. Benson also filed a motion asking the court to compel Scott to submit to genetic testing, which she asserted would demonstrate that Scott was not Child’s biological father.

¶16 Scott agreed that a genetic test would prove he was not Child’s biological father, and the parties stipulated to that fact. But Scott asked the court to disregard the biological reality under section 608 of the Act—a provision that allows a court to disregard genetic test results in certain circumstances.[4]

¶17 Benson moved for summary judgment and asked the court to set aside the VDP because the parties had made a “material mistake of fact,” a term statutorily defined to include situations in which “genetic test results . . . exclude a declarant father.” Id. § 78B­15-307(5). Benson’s motion also asked the court to find that Scott and Child did not have a father-child relationship because the VDP had been “successfully challenged.”

¶18 The court denied the motion, reasoning that, even though genetic test results would show Scott was not Child’s father, there was no “mistake” because both parties knew Scott was not Child’s biological father when they signed the VDP, and because they “chose at the time to jointly raise a child.”

¶19 After denying Benson’s summary judgment motion, the court held a three-day evidentiary hearing. The district court found that Scott and his witnesses were “generally credible” and that Scott’s description of his relationship with Child was “particularly credible.” The court found that Benson’s own testimony was also “generally credible” but rejected her testimony regarding some aspects of Scott and Child’s relationship.

¶20 The district court reversed the reasoning it had employed to deny summary judgment and concluded that the parties had been operating under a “material mistake of fact” when they signed the VDP. The court also found that Scott and Benson did not defraud each other but that the VDP was still the product of fraud because it committed “fraud against the Utah State Division of Vital Statistics.” The district court determined that the VDP should be set aside and that it was void ab initio and had “no legal force or effect.”

¶21 The district court also accepted the parties’ stipulation that Scott was not Child’s biological father as the “genetic testing” the Act references. The district court also accepted that this “testing” confirmed Scott was not Child’s biological father.[5]

¶22 But the district court ultimately determined that Scott was Child’s legal father, reasoning that its conclusion that the VDP should be set aside “draws the court to [section 608].” The court determined that Benson’s conduct estopped her from denying Scott’s parentage and that it would be inequitable to disrupt Scott and Child’s relationship. The district court also concluded that, after a review of the factors in section 608, it was in Child’s best interest for Scott to be Child’s legal father. The court found that Scott “played a substantial role in [Child’s] life for the first seven years of [Child’s] life, and that role was involuntarily terminated” by Benson. The court also found that “[t]here is and has been a strong bond and attachment between [Scott] and [Child], and there has been since [Child’s] birth.”

¶23 Benson appealed to the court of appeals, which upheld the district court’s ruling. Scott v. Benson, 2021 UT App 110, ¶ 1, 501 P.3d 1148. Like the district court, the court of appeals concluded that Scott was Child’s legal father even though Benson successfully challenged the VDP under section 307 of the Act. See id. ¶¶ 31–32. But, unlike the district court, the court of appeals reasoned that a successful 307 challenge did not render the VDP void from its inception. Id. ¶ 40. The court of appeals instead held that a successful 307 challenge meant that a VDP could be “set aside, on a going-forward basis,” but only as long as section 608 “does not counsel otherwise.” Id. And it concluded that section 608 did not demand a different conclusion than the one the district court reached. See id. ¶¶ 40, 43.

¶24 Benson petitioned for certiorari review contending that the court of appeals misinterpreted the Act.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶25 “We review questions of statutory interpretation for correctness, affording no deference to the lower court’s legal conclusions.” Cardiff Wales, LLC v. Washington Cnty. Sch. Dist., 2022 UT 19, ¶ 16, 511 P.3d 1155 (cleaned up).

ANALYSIS

¶26 Benson first claims that the court of appeals wrongly opined that the Act permitted the district court to conduct a section 608 analysis after it concluded that the VDP was fraudulent and based on a material mistake of fact. According to Benson, the court of appeals erred because once a VDP is successfully challenged, the court’s analysis should end in favor of the challenger. Benson also claims that the court of appeals’ interpretation of the statute raises constitutional issues, leads to absurd results, and promotes bad policy.

I. THE COURT OF APPEALS DID NOT ERR WHEN IT APPLIED
SECTION 608 TO DISREGARD THE GENETIC TEST RESULTS

A. The Court of Appeals Correctly Upheld the District Court’s
Decision to Apply Section 608

¶27 Benson first argues the court of appeals incorrectly upheld the district court’s decision to set aside the genetic test results that showed that Scott was not Child’s biological father.[6] Benson argues that section 608 “does not apply to every proceeding commenced under 307” and that, in this case, section 608 “has no application that is consistent with the language of the statute.”

¶28 The Act outlines two ways a VDP can be set aside. It allows either of the signatories to rescind a VDP by filing a voluntary rescission within sixty days of the date the VDP became effective or before “the date of notice of the first adjudicative proceeding to which the signatory is a party, before a tribunal to adjudicate an issue relating to the child, including a proceeding that establishes support,” whichever is earlier. UTAH CODE § 78B-15-306(1). If neither signatory rescinds the VDP—as in this case—they must look to section 307 to challenge the VDP.

¶29 Section 307 provides:

After the period for rescission . . . has expired, a signatory of a declaration of paternity or denial of paternity, or a support-enforcement agency, may commence a proceeding to challenge the declaration or denial only on the basis of fraud, duress, or material mistake of fact.

Id. § 78B-15-307(1).

¶30 In other words, after the VDP has been signed, either of the signatories can rescind it before the earliest of sixty days or notice of an adjudicative proceeding. Id. § 78B-15-306(1). After the statutory rescission period passes, either a signatory or a support-enforcement agency can challenge the validity of the VDP. This challenge can be based on fraud, duress, or material mistake of fact. Id. § 78B-15­307(1). A challenge based on fraud or duress can be brought at any time. Id. § 78B-15-307(3). A challenge based on material mistake of fact can only be brought within four years after the declaration is filed. Id. § 78B-15-307(4).

¶31 The Act also contemplates that, in some situations, a court can ignore genetic test results when determining paternity. Id. § 78B­15-608. Section 608 permits the district court to do this when “the conduct of the mother or the presumed or declarant father estops that party from denying parentage” and “it would be inequitable to disrupt the father-child relationship between the child and the presumed or declarant father.” Id. § 78B-15-608(1).[7]

¶32 Subsection 608(2) outlines factors a court must consider to determine whether disregarding test results is in the best interest of the child. These factors include how long a presumed or declarant father acted as a child’s father, the nature of the relationship between the child and potential father, and harm to the child if the relationship between the child and potential father is disrupted.[8]

¶33 Benson argues that the court of appeals misread the statute when it endorsed the district court’s decision to conduct the section 608 analysis after it set aside the VDP under section 307. She claims that genetic testing, and therefore section 608, is “irrelevant” to this inquiry “because the ground to set aside the VDP was already established: fraud.” In Benson’s view, the district court starts with the section 307 inquiry and cannot look to section 608 if the court finds that the VDP is the product of fraud, duress, or mistake of fact.

¶34 The court of appeals disagreed with Benson’s argument and held that the district court appropriately applied section 608 because, while other provisions of the Act state when the VDP should be considered “invalid from its inception,” section 307 does not. Scott v. Benson, 2021 UT App 110, ¶¶ 34, 37–38, 501 P.3d 1148. The court of appeals concluded the central question was about “the consequence of a successful Section 307 challenge.” Id. ¶ 36. The court of appeals determined that “the Act’s silence on this point must be viewed in tandem with the specific instructions” given for successfully voiding or rescinding a VDP in other sections of the Act. Id. ¶ 38.

¶35 The court of appeals reasoned that “there is no statutory basis for concluding that a declaration of paternity is void simply because a Section 307 challenge is successful.” Id. ¶ 32. The court of appeals therefore concluded that a district court may look to section 608 to decide whether to disregard genetic testing even after the district court finds a ground to set the VDP aside under section 307.

¶36 In other words, the court of appeals sees the process to challenge a VDP as requiring two steps. In the first step, the district court examines the VDP under section 307 and determines if a challenge to its validity is successful. Id. ¶ 40. If the challenge is successful, the district court moves to step two and applies section 608 to assess whether principles of equity and estoppel should prevent the court from allowing the declaration to “be set aside, on a going-forward basis.” Id. Benson also appears to see this as a two-step process, but she reads the Act to end the inquiry after the first step if the section 307 challenge is successful.

¶37 The aim of statutory interpretation “is to ascertain the intent of the legislature,” and the “best evidence of the legislature’s intent is the plain language of the statute itself.” Castro v. Lemus, 2019 UT 71, ¶ 17, 456 P.3d 750 (cleaned up). We “read the plain language of the statute as a whole, and interpret its provisions in harmony with other statutes in the same chapter and related chapters.” State v. Barrett, 2005 UT 88, ¶ 29, 127 P.3d 682 (cleaned up). Occasionally, “statutory text may not be plain when read in isolation, but may become so in light of its linguistic, structural, and statutory context.” Bryner v. Cardon Outreach, LLC, 2018 UT 52, ¶ 12, 428 P.3d 1096 (cleaned up).

¶38 When we read the statute’s plain language, we see a different structure than Benson and the court of appeals did. The Act does not contemplate the sequential inquiry that the court of appeals describes and that Benson wants. Rather, when a party challenges a VDP, the Legislature intends that, in appropriate cases, the section 608 factors be considered as part of the question of whether the VDP should be invalidated.

¶39 Section 308, titled “Procedure for rescission or challenge,” sets forth the procedure a court must employ to decide whether to set aside a VDP. UTAH CODE § 78B-15-308. Among the instructions section 308 provides to the district court is the mandate that a “proceeding to rescind or to challenge a declaration of paternity or denial of paternity must be conducted in the same manner as a proceeding to adjudicate parentage under Part 6, Adjudication of Parentage.” Id. § 78B-15-308(4) (emphasis added).

¶40 This means that when Benson challenged the VDP under section 307, the procedure to challenge the VDP had to be conducted in the same manner as adjudication of parentage under Part 6.[9] And, under Part 6, section 608, a district court can ignore genetic test results in appropriate circumstances. Thus, by section 308’s plain language, the court must follow the procedures of Part 6, which, in appropriate cases, incorporates the section 608 analysis into a proceeding challenging a VDP’s validity. This causes us to read the statute as calling for a single-step rather than a two-step inquiry.[10]

¶41 This reading resolves the first problem that Benson identifies. Benson claims that the district court erred (and the court of appeals erred in blessing the district court’s decision) because it looked to section 608’s factors after it concluded that the VDP was the product of mutual mistake and fraud on the state. Benson claims that the district court should not have moved to “step two” (a section 608 analysis), because the inquiry ended after “step one” (a conclusion under section 307 that the VDP was the product of fraud and mutual mistake)[11]

¶42 That problem does not arise when the statute is read correctly. A district court conducts a proceeding on a section 307 challenge in the same manner it conducts a proceeding on a challenge to paternity. Thus, in a proceeding challenging a VDP, the court can consider whether or not to set aside genetic testing based on the factors in section 608, just as it could in a proceeding to challenge paternity.[12]

B. Benson’s Argument that the Court of Appeals’ Reading Creates a
Conflict with Other Provisions of the Act Is Unavailing

¶43 Benson next argues that the court of appeals erred because its reading of the statute creates a conflict between section 608 and section 617.[13]

¶44 Section 617 states:

The tribunal shall apply the following rules to adjudicate the paternity of a child:

The paternity of a child having a presumed, declarant, or adjudicated father may be disproved only by admissible results of genetic testing excluding that man as the father of the child or identifying another man as the father of the child.

Unless the results of genetic testing are admitted to rebut other results of genetic testing, a man identified as the father of a child under Section 78B-15-505 must be adjudicated the father of the child, unless an exception is granted under Section 78B-15-608.

. . . .

(4) Unless the results of genetic testing are admitted to rebut other results of genetic testing, a man properly excluded as the father of a child by genetic testing must be adjudicated not to be the father of the child.

UTAH CODE § 78B-15-617.

¶45 Benson argues that Scott was “properly excluded” as Child’s father and therefore must “be adjudicated not to be the father of the child” without the section 608 analysis, because subsection 617(2) mentions section 608, and subsection 617(4) does not. Id. § 78B-15­617.

¶46 The court of appeals “acknowledge[d] the apparent inconsistency between subsections (2) and (4) of Section 617,” but held that, if they followed Benson’s interpretation, “Section 608— which exists only to give courts an opportunity to disregard genetic evidence in appropriate circumstances—would be effectively excised from the Act.” Scott, 2021 UT App 110, ¶ 38 n.9. Because the court did “not perceive therein a legislative intent to abrogate Section 608,” it held that Benson’s reading was unpersuasive. Id.

¶47 We see neither the conflict Benson perceives nor the inconsistency the court of appeals described. Section 617(2) refers to “a man identified as the father” and requires that a man whom genetic testing identifies as the father must be adjudicated the father unless the district court disregards the test results under section 608. UTAH CODE § 78B-15-617(2).

¶48 Section 617(4) refers to a man “properly excluded as the father of a child by genetic testing.” Id. § 78B-15-617(4). That subsection also provides that a man properly excluded by genetic testing must be adjudicated to not be the father. Id. Although subsection 617(4) does not explicitly reference section 608, it does so implicitly by referring to a man “properly excluded” by genetic testing. A man is not “properly excluded” by genetic testing if the district court disregards that testing under section 608.

¶49 Here, Scott was identified as the non-genetic father. But he was not “properly excluded as the father” of Child because the genetic testing in this case was set aside as the statute contemplates. There is no conflict between sections 608 and 617.

II. BENSON’S CONSTITUTIONALITY, ABSURDITY, AND PUBLIC POLICY RGUMENTS DO NOT DICTATE A DIFFERENT RESULT

¶50 For her next set of arguments, Benson strays from the text and contends that we should reject the court of appeals’ interpretation because it raises constitutional issues, leads to absurd results, and is contrary to public policy.

A. Benson Has Not Demonstrated that the Court of Appeals’ Reading

of the Statute Raises Constitutional Concerns That Require

a Different Interpretation

¶51 Benson contends that the court of appeals interpreted the Act in a way that raises constitutional concerns. She further argues that the court of appeals’ reading of section 608 is one that “allows a legal and genetic stranger to take advantage of its provisions” and thus “diminish[es] a mother’s fundamental right to ‘direct the upbringing of [her] children,’” (quoting Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57, 65 (2000)). Benson asserts that we should apply the constitutional avoidance canon and reverse the court of appeals.

¶52 The constitutional avoidance canon permits a court to “reject[] one of two plausible constructions of a statute on the ground that [one interpretation] would raise grave doubts as to [the statute’s] constitutionality.” Utah Dep’t of Transp. v. Carlson, 2014 UT 24, ¶ 23, 332 P.3d 900. But when we can, we “decide cases on the preferred grounds of statutory construction, thereby avoiding analysis of underlying constitutional issues unless required to do so.” Id. ¶ 24 (cleaned up).

¶53 Moreover, we do not usually invoke the canon just because we have “doubts about the constitutionality” of a statute. Id. ¶ 25. Nor can we use the canon to “break faith with the statute’s text” and “rewrite the statute” to save an unconstitutional statute. State v. Garcia, 2017 UT 53, ¶ 59, 424 P.3d 171. We simply recognize that where there are two plausible constructions of a statute, and one steers clear of constitutional problems, we presume that the Legislature intended to enact the constitutional interpretation.[14] See Carlson, 2014 UT 24, ¶ 23.

¶54 We take Benson’s point that the Act has the potential to tread into constitutional territory. This court has recognized that “parents have a fundamental right to make decisions concerning the care and control of their children.” Jensen ex rel. Jensen v. Cunningham, 2011 UT 17, ¶ 73, 250 P.3d 465. Section 608, in which the Legislature provides a path to declare a person who is not genetically related to the child a parent, has the potential to compromise the genetic parent’s constitutional right.

¶55 But Benson does not offer us a plausible reading of the Act that avoids the potential constitutional concern. Instead, Benson’s proffered solution is to read the Act so that section 608 does not apply to most non-biological fathers. This would require us to rewrite the statute, something that we cannot do.

¶56 Where Benson cannot offer a plausible interpretation of the text that avoids the constitutional concern, Benson’s obligation is to demonstrate that the statute is unconstitutional. Benson has not made that argument.

¶57 That is not to say that we do not understand Benson’s concern. The Act allows someone who is not a genetic parent to gain parental rights and to potentially exercise them at the expense of the genetic parent’s rights. But Benson does not explain how, under the circumstance before us, this would violate her constitutional rights. She does not discuss the impact of her own role in seeking to defraud the State by conspiring to sign a VDP she knew was inaccurate. Nor has she analyzed the impact on her parental rights of permitting Scott to exercise parental-like rights for a number of years. Nor has she explained the impact of the district court’s unchallenged finding that it was in Child’s best interest to not set the VDP aside.

¶58 With neither a plausible interpretation of the statute that both adheres to the text and avoids the constitutional concerns, nor briefing aimed at demonstrating that sections of the Act should be struck as unconstitutional, we reject Benson’s challenges.

B. The Court of Appeals’ Interpretation Does Not Lead to Absurd Results in This Case

¶59 Benson asks us to employ the absurd consequences canon to overturn the court of appeals’ interpretation of the statute. According to Benson, holding that Scott was the “declarant father,” after the district court found the VDP was successfully challenged, leads to absurd results. As an initial matter, for the reasons we outline above, we do not agree that the VDP was “successfully challenged.” But even assuming we could accept that premise, the absurd consequences canon does not require a different interpretation. Benson claims, by way of example, that it would be absurd for a woman who was coerced into signing a VDP to have to endure a section 608 analysis where a district court would consider whether it was in the best interests of her child to set aside the VDP she was coerced to sign.

¶60 The absurd consequences canon allows us to “resolve an ambiguity by choosing the reading that avoids absurd results when statutory language plausibly presents us with two alternative readings.” Utley v. Mill Man Steel, Inc., 2015 UT 75, ¶ 47, 357 P.3d 992 (Durrant, C. J., concurring in part on behalf of the majority) (cleaned up). We conclude that statutory language yields absurd results when those results are “so overwhelmingly absurd no rational legislator could have intended them.” Id. ¶ 46.

¶61 Even if we can conceive of scenarios where the statute the Legislature enacted might produce an absurd result, we do not stray from the statute’s text in a case where the application of the Act in the case before us does not lead to an absurd result. See, e.g.State v. Sanders, 2019 UT 25, ¶ 54 n.13, 445 P.3d 453.

¶62 In Sanders, for example, we upheld Sanders’ conviction for illegal possession of a firearm. Id. ¶ 2. Sanders argued that the State’s proffered statutory construction—which did not leave room for an innocent possession defense—was absurd because there were circumstances where the application of that construction could yield an absurd result. Id. ¶ 51. We agreed with Sanders that it was “not difficult to conceive of factual scenarios where the lack of an innocent possession defense might lead to an absurd result,” such as a felon taking a gun from a toddler to place it safely out of reach. Id. ¶ 54. But the potential for an absurd result in a hypothetical case did not help Sanders, because this was “not the case before us.” Id. Sanders’ arguments were unavailing because they did not demonstrate absurd legislative policy or “that the application of that policy to [Sanders], under the circumstances presented [in that case], yielded an absurd result.” Id. ¶ 51.

¶63 As in Sanders, Benson does not meet her burden of demonstrating that the court of appeals’ statutory interpretation led to absurd results in her case. A rational legislature could have intended the result the district court ordered. At least, Benson has not convinced us that a rational legislature could not have intended that the district court look to the real-world effects on Child if it divested Scott of the parental relationship Benson had allowed to grow.

C. Benson’s Policy Arguments Do Not Allow Us to Ignore or Modify the Statute’s Text

¶64 Benson also advances policy arguments to support a different reading of the Act. Benson claims that conducting a section 608 analysis after a VDP is successfully challenged ignores “a statutory preference for genetic paternity” and would thereby “undermine[] the purposes and policies that form the basis of the comprehensive statutory scheme.”[15] She also claims this interpretation would encourage fraudulent VDPs, possibly at the expense of biological fathers.

¶65 When we can glean the Legislature’s intent from the statute’s text, we have no reason to entertain arguments that we might be able to enact better policy by placing judicial glosses on the text. We have advised that “[w]here the legislature has spoken[,] our role is limited. In the face of duly-enacted legislation we no longer have a primary policymaking role. We are left only to interpret the terms of the statute and then to implement them.” M.J. v. Wisan, 2016 UT 13, ¶ 69, 371 P.3d 21 (cleaned up). Benson may have legitimate policy concerns and may even be able to articulate a statutory scheme that better promotes public policy than the one on the books. But “we have repeatedly declined invitations to interpret statutes contrary to their plain language even when a party offers an interpretation that might better advance the Legislature’s purpose.” Zilleruelo v. Commodity Transporters, Inc., 2022 UT 1, ¶ 40, 506 P.3d 509. We do so again.

CONCLUSION

¶66 The court of appeals correctly concluded that the district court did not err when it looked to the factors in Utah Code section 78B-16-608 to disregard the genetic test results that would have excluded Scott as Child’s father.

¶67 We affirm the court of appeals’ decision and remand the case to the district court for further proceedings.

 

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

[1] The record refers to the appellant as both Benson and Cooper— Cooper being the last name she took when she married. To remain consistent with the court of appeals’ opinion, we refer to the appellant as Benson.

[2] Utah Code section 78B-15-301 creates and authorizes the use of VDPs. Utah law permits the “mother of a child and a man claiming to be the genetic father of the child . . . [to] sign a declaration of paternity to establish the paternity of the child.” Id. The VDP must be signed or authenticated “under penalty of perjury, by the mother and by the declarant father.” Id. § 78B-15-302(1)(b). By signing, the mother and declarant father aver that “the child whose paternity is being declared: (i) does not have a presumed father, or has a presumed father whose full name is stated; and (ii) does not have another declarant or adjudicated father.” Id. § 78B-15-302(1)(d). The VDP is effective once it is “filed and entered into a database established and maintained by the Office of Vital Records.” Id. § 78B­15-302(9).

[3] Benson and Scott disagree on the extent to which Scott had equal parenting time with both Sibling and Child, but Benson’s brief concedes that Scott “continued to have a relationship with Child.”

[4] Under section 608, a court can disregard genetic test results that exclude a declarant father from genetic parentage if the behavior of one of the VDP signatories estops that party from denying parentage and if disrupting the child and declarant-father relationship would be inequitable. Id. § 78B-15-608(1). When a court decides whether to ignore genetic testing, the Act instructs it to focus on the child’s best interest by examining several factors, including the bond between the declarant father and child, and the potential harm to a child if paternity is disestablished. Id. § 78B-15-608(2).

[5] The Act provides a detailed description of what constitutes genetic testing. See id. § 78B-15-102(13). Notably, that definition does not include a stipulation concerning what the genetic tests would show had a test been performed. The district court nevertheless concluded: “Genetic testing has confirmed that Petitioner is not the biological father of [Child].” This conclusion was not directly challenged on appeal, so we do not address it further other than to emphasize that we explicitly offer no opinion on whether a stipulation can be the genetic testing the Act contemplates.

[6] Benson also argues that genetic tests were unnecessary because the parties agreed Scott was not Child’s biological father, so section 608, which only allows the court to set aside genetic testing (or deny a motion for testing), does not apply. But Benson does not directly challenge the district court’s conclusion that the stipulation qualifies as genetic testing for the purposes of section 608. Because Benson has not mounted a challenge to the district court’s conclusion, we accept, without comment, the district court’s decision that the stipulation was the equivalent of a genetic test. See supra ¶ 21 n.5.

[7] A “presumed father” must be someone who, at one point, was married to the mother. See id. § 78B-15-204(1) (defining when a man is a presumed father). Because Benson and Scott were never married, Scott is not and never was Child’s presumed father.

[8] The full list of factors is

(a) the length of time between the proceeding to adjudicate parentage and the time that the presumed or declarant father was placed on notice that he might not be the genetic father;

(b) the length of time during which the presumed or declarant father has assumed the role of father of the child;

(c) the facts surrounding the presumed or declarant father’s discovery of his possible nonpaternity;

(d) the nature of the relationship between the child and the presumed or declarant father;

the age of the child;

(f) the harm that may result to the child if presumed or declared paternity is successfully disestablished;

(g) the nature of the relationship between the child and any alleged father;

(h) the extent to which the passage of time reduces the chances of establishing the paternity of another man and a child-support obligation in favor of the child; and

(i) other factors that may affect the equities arising from the disruption of the father-child relationship between the child and the presumed or declarant father or the chance of other harm to the child.

Id. § 78B-15-608(2).

 

 

[9] Although Benson sometimes references “section 307” in her briefs, it bears noting that section 307 does not outline what a party must show to successfully challenge a VDP. Rather, section 307 details the circumstances in which a party can bring a challenge after the sixty-day period has expired. Id. § 78B-15-307. Section 308 contains the Legislature’s instructions on how to proceed with a VDP challenge, and that section directs a court to proceed in the same manner as any other adjudication of parentage under Part 6.

[10] It is not difficult to envision why the Legislature would structure the statute this way. In many—if not most—cases, a party will use genetic test results to prove the fraud or mutual mistake of fact that could be used to set aside the VDP.

[11] The court of appeals also opined that a successfully challenged VDP “is subject to being declared ineffective on a forward-looking basis.” Scott, 2021 UT App 110, ¶ 31. The Act itself is largely silent on the effects of setting aside a VDP. We know that the Legislature told us that a declarant father whose VDP is rescinded cannot claw back child support he paid. See UTAH CODE § 78B-15-308(6) (“If the declaration is rescinded, the declarant father may not recover child support he paid prior to the entry of an order of rescission.”). And we know that the Legislature has declared that at “the conclusion of a proceeding to rescind or challenge a declaration of paternity, . . . the [court] shall order the Office of Vital Records to amend the birth record of the child, if appropriate.” Id. § 78B-15-308(5). But the Act does not tell us what other consequences might flow from setting a VDP aside. Since we don’t need to answer that question to resolve this case, we vacate the court of appeals’ conclusion that a successfully challenged VDP may be “ineffective on a forward-looking basis.” See Scott, 2021 UT App 110, ¶ 31. And we leave the question for a case where that determination matters to the outcome and is specifically briefed.

[12] Benson also argues that the district court erred when it applied section 608 because that section applies to declarant fathers, and “[o]nce the court granted [Benson’s section 307] challenge, Child was no longer a child ‘having a declarant father.’” Benson additionally claims that Scott was not a declarant father because subsection 201(2) of the Act, the provision on father-child relationships, means a successful VDP challenge disestablishes a father-child relationship. UTAH CODE § 78B-15-201(2). As we have explained, if the section 307 challenge is conducted in the same manner as a paternity determination—as the statute requires—the district court applies section 608 as part of the determination to set the VDP aside. And someone in Scott’s position does not lose his declarant father status unless the court invalidates the VDP.

[13] 13 Benson also argues that the court of appeals erred because the Act should be interpreted in light of the Act’s purported purpose— favoring the recognition of genetic parentage. Benson argues that the court of appeals’ interpretation of the statute “which would allow the signatory to a successfully challenged VDP to nonetheless rely on section 608, undermines the purposes and policies that form the basis of the comprehensive statutory scheme.” But we don’t normally interpret the statute in light of its supposed purpose when the plain text tells us how the Legislature intended the statute to operate. See Zilleruelo v. Commodity Transporters, Inc., 2022 UT 1, ¶ 31, 506 P.3d 509 (“In general, where a statute’s language is unambiguous and provides a workable result, we need not resort to other interpretive tools, and our analysis ends.” (cleaned up)). Sticking to the text helps us avoid “the peril of interpreting statutes in accordance with presumed legislative purpose” as “most statutes represent a compromise of purposes advanced by competing interest groups, not an unmitigated attempt to stamp out a particular evil.” Olsen v. Eagle Mountain City, 2011 UT 10, ¶ 23 n.6, 248 P.3d 465. Thus, in a case like this, where the statutory language is plain, we have no need to start poking around the statute’s purposes in hopes of finding a gloss to put on the text.

 

[14] In State v. Garcia, for example, we employed the canon to choose between two interpretations of “unlawful user” in determining how to read a statute. We chose the interpretation that “comport[ed] better with the statute’s text” because following the text of the statute best “preserve[d] the legislative intent.” Garcia, 2017 UT 53, ¶ 61.

[15] We again note that we do not agree with Benson that the VDP had been “successfully challenged.” We nevertheless engage with the substance of her arguments.

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I suspect my husband fathered a child with someone else. Can I challenge our divorce ruling?

If I suspect my ex-husband fathered a child with someone else while we were married, can I challenge our divorce ruling?

If, by this question, you mean that

  1. you are the wife; and
  2. you discovered, after you divorced, that your husband had fathered a child during the marriage, but this fact was not known or adjudicated during the divorce proceedings,

it is unlikely that raising the discovery of the bastard/illegitimate (whatever term you want to use to describe the innocent) child would benefit you as the wife, if you tried to assert the discovery of this child as the basis for “challenging” or modifying the terms of the decree of divorce. Why? Because unless you could show that the discovery of this child has led to the discovery that the terms of your decree of divorce are unfair to you and would have been different had the court been aware of and taken the child’s existence into consideration when entering the orders that comprise your decree of divorce, discovery of the child may be irrelevant.

However, it may be worth your while to raise the discovery of this child with the divorce court, if for no other reason than to protect yourself from being deemed the child’s mother, given that the child was born, or at least conceived, during your marriage because it is possible for your husband to claim that the child is now your legal responsibility.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

https://www.quora.com/If-I-suspect-my-ex-husband-fathered-a-child-with-someone-else-while-we-were-married-can-I-challenge-our-divorce-ruling?__nsrc__=4

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