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In re H.M. – 2023 UT App 122 – termination of parental rights

In re H.M. – 2023 UT App 122

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF H.M. AND D.M.,

PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

G.B.,

Appellant,

v.

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20220774-CA

Filed October 13, 2023

First District Juvenile Court, Logan Department

The Honorable Kirk M. Morgan

No. 1187751

Julie J. Nelson and Alexandra Mareschal,

Attorneys for Appellant

Sean D. Reyes, Carol L.C. Verdoia, and John M.

Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee State of Utah

Jonathan P. Thomas, Attorney for Father

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

JUDGE RYAN D. TENNEY authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and DAVID N. MORTENSEN concurred.

TENNEY, Judge:

¶1 Mother and Father separated in 2015 and were divorced in 2018. They had two children during their marriage—D.M. and H.M. (collectively, the Children). From 2015 until 2020, Mother repeatedly told state authorities that Father had physically and sexually abused the Children. In several instances, Mother prompted the Children to make allegations against Father too.

Although authorities investigated the reports, none of the investigations resulted in a finding that Father had abused the Children. Also, on two occasions in 2020, Mother absconded with the Children during times in which she did not have custody. Both times, law enforcement was involved in locating and returning the Children to Father’s custody.

¶2        After Mother encouraged one of the Children to file a new report of abuse against Father in January 2022, the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) filed a petition to terminate Mother’s parental rights. At the close of a several-day trial, the juvenile court issued an order finding that Mother “cannot stop her destructive behavior” of making “false allegations” against Father. The court then terminated Mother’s parental rights.

¶3        Mother now appeals the termination decision. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm.

BACKGROUND

¶4        Mother and Father had two children during their marriage: D.M., who was born in 2012, and H.M., who was born in late 2014. Mother and Father separated in 2015 when H.M. was approximately three months old, and their divorce was finalized in 2018. Mother subsequently married another man (Stepfather).

Allegations of Abuse from 2015 Through 2020[1]

¶5        The reports of abuse began in February 2015, when DCFS received a referral alleging that during the marriage between Mother and Father, Father would “throw things, but not at [Mother], and punch holes in the doors.” DCFS chose not to accept this referral as a basis for action. In June 2015, DCFS received a referral alleging that Father views pornography “including teenaged girls.” This referral was unaccepted because there were no allegations that the Children were being abused or neglected.

¶6 In May 2016, DCFS received a referral alleging that after D.M. came back from parent-time with Father, he would not sit down because “his bottom hurt” and his anus was “red and inflamed.” The referral was not accepted because D.M. did not make any disclosure that any abuse had occurred. In September 2016, DCFS received a referral alleging that the Children had returned from parent-time with Father with black eyes and that Father commonly yelled at the Children, which allegedly made D.M. fearful to get out of bed to use the bathroom at night. The referral was unaccepted because the Children did not report any injuries from Father or provide specific details about what Father was saying to the Children.

¶7        In early October 2016, DCFS received a referral alleging that the Children were being physically abused by Father and that H.M. had been sexually abused by Father. The referral was accompanied by photographs of a bruise on H.M.’s leg. When a DCFS worker interviewed D.M. about these allegations, D.M. reported that Father had pushed him into a “monkey bag,” but D.M. couldn’t explain what a “monkey bag” was. D.M. made no disclosures of sexual abuse.

¶8        In late October 2016, Mother contacted law enforcement and reported that H.M. had complained of his “bum hurting” after returning from parent-time with Father. Mother also said that she changed H.M.’s diaper and that there was blood present and that she had also observed tearing on his anus. Mother told law enforcement that H.M. had said that Father put his finger “in there.” DCFS interviewed H.M. the following day. During that interview, H.M. said that he had been “hurt” at “daddy’s house,” but he made no other disclosures. Shortly thereafter, H.M. underwent a physical examination at the Children’s Justice Center (the CJC), but no evidence of sexual or physical abuse was discovered during this examination.

¶9      In September 2017, DCFS received a referral alleging that D.M. had been physically abused by his paternal grandfather. When DCFS interviewed D.M., D.M. said that “grandpa pushed him backwards and he fell on the rocks, because he didn’t hear grandpa.” When the grandfather was then interviewed, he acknowledged that he had accidentally knocked D.M. over during a recent visit when moving him away from something.

¶10      In June 2018, DCFS received a referral alleging that during a parent-time exchange, Mother had pulled Father’s beard and kicked him and that Father had ripped out one of Mother’s hair extensions. This case was not accepted.

¶11      In November 2018, DCFS received a referral alleging that Father attempted to hit Mother with his car and that Father had threatened to kill Mother by loosening the screws on her car. While investigating this referral, DCFS interviewed both of the Children. H.M. reported that he gets “hurt” at “all of my parents’ houses,” that his parents get frustrated with each other, and that Father punches Mother. D.M. reported that his parents are “always fighting.”

¶12 In December 2018, March 2019, and April 2019, Father made reports against Mother suggesting that she was using illegal drugs and wasn’t taking proper care of the Children. None of the referrals were accepted.

¶13 In April 2019, DCFS received a referral alleging that the Children had been “sodomized” by both Father and the paternal grandfather during visits with Father and that the paternal grandmother was aware of the abuse but not intervening. The referral also alleged that Father had punched D.M. in the stomach and testicles. As part of an investigation into these allegations, both of the Children were interviewed at the CJC. Though somewhat unclear, the record suggests that D.M. said nothing about abuse in his interview. H.M., however, said that his “old dad” is “going to be in the car when it explodes” “because he was mean to me.” H.M. also said that Father “put his penis in my bum” and “spanks [my] bum.” H.M. said that Father did the same thing to his cousins and that Mother told him this. When the interviewer spoke to Mother about what the Children had said, Mother asked the interviewer to talk to D.M. again, which the interviewer declined to do. During this investigation, Mother was “jittery and unable to finish sentences.”

¶14      In May 2019, Mother sought a protective order against Father. The protective order request was later denied. Around this same time, Mother informed DCFS that H.M. had bloody stools and that H.M. had reported that Father had “punched and kicked him.” Later that month, DCFS received information that H.M. had allegedly said Father “peed in his butt.” Father denied all allegations when interviewed by a detective from the Smithfield City Police Department.

¶15      In June 2019, DCFS received another referral alleging that the Children were being physically, sexually, and emotionally abused by Father. DCFS visited with the Children and observed no suspicious bruises. DCFS also found the accusations of physical abuse to be without merit. As part of this investigation, a DCFS caseworker and a Smithfield City Police Department detective interviewed Mother. During this interview, Mother alleged that the Children had told her that they “are being raped” and “punched in the crotch” by Father.

¶16      On July 1, 2019, Mother brought the Children to the CJC for an interview. At the outset of H.M.’s interview, and before the DCFS interviewer had even finished explaining the nature of the interview to him, H.M. said, “Well, my dad puts his penis in my bum.” H.M. said that Mother was present when this occurred, and that Father, paternal grandfather, and paternal grandmother “did it.” H.M. further reported that Father punches him with a “real hammer that is metal and black.” H.M. also reported that Father punches him in the penis and “punches me with his butt.” When asked what he saw when Father put his penis in his bottom, H.M. said, “That’s all I needed to tell you. I didn’t see anything.” When asked again what he saw, H.M. responded, “That’s all I have to tell you.” D.M. was also interviewed at the CJC that day. D.M. responded “nothing” and “I don’t know” to the majority of the interviewer’s questions. He also said that “nothing happened” at Father’s house and that “nothing happened to his brother that hurt him.” In addition, D.M. told the interviewer that Mother would talk to H.M. about events that happened at Father’s house. After finishing the interviews with the Children, the interviewer and a Smithfield City Police Department detective interviewed Mother. They encouraged Mother “not to press” the Children “for information and not to question them.”

¶17 Later that month, Mother contacted law enforcement during a parent-time exchange with Father. Mother told law enforcement that the Children wanted to share “their concerns” regarding Father. The Children spoke to law enforcement, and nothing further was reported to DCFS.

¶18      On February 21, 2020, DCFS received another referral alleging that the Children were being physically, sexually, and emotionally abused by Father. This referral alleged that Father had threatened to kill the Children and Mother if the Children reported the abuse. The referral further alleged that, within the past few days, Father had touched the Children’s genitals and “‘go[ne] inside’ their bums.” The referral also alleged that Father would give D.M. medicine to induce vomiting when D.M. would make a mistake on his homework and that Father would not allow the Children to use the bathroom in the middle of the night.

¶19      While investigating this latest referral, a DCFS investigator met with Father and the Children at Father’s home. Father denied each allegation. The DCFS investigator also observed that the Children interacted with her appropriately, appeared happy and healthy, and had no marks or bruises. During this investigation, DCFS came to believe that the Children were being emotionally abused by Mother.

¶20      On February 25, 2020, DCFS received a report that Father takes the Children to “drinking parties,” that Father stalks Mother and Stepfather, and that Father “rapes” the Children. The Smithfield City Police Department conducted a welfare check but failed to find any support for the allegations or anything out of the ordinary with the Children. At this point, the Smithfield City Police Department informed DCFS that it would no longer conduct welfare checks on the Children “because of the number of reports made and lack of findings of concern.”

¶21      DCFS interviewed the Children again at the CJC on March 2, 2020. H.M. reported that Father and neighbors put cameras outside his house and that the “cameras are made from poisonous stuff that make[s] people go crazy and rip kids’ heads off.” H.M. said that the cameras have speakers to “do bad stuff to [Mother].” H.M. denied having ever been hurt and denied that anyone told him what to say at the interview. In his interview, D.M. reported that he didn’t “remember if anything has happened to him” and that there was “nothing he needs to talk about” happening at either parent’s house. D.M. also stated that no one told him what to say at the interview.

¶22      On March 20, 2020, Mother obtained an ex parte protective order against Father. A few days later, DCFS received a report alleging that Father had been sexually inappropriate in front of the Children, that Father had raped Mother in the presence of the Children, and that Father had been telling the Children that there are cameras at Mother’s house watching them. Father denied these allegations.

¶23      On March 26, 2020, the court held a hearing on the ex parte protective order. Less than an hour before it began, Mother texted a DCFS employee and alleged that the Children wanted to tell her about abuse from Father. Mother then brought a recording of the Children alleging sexual abuse by Father to the court hearing, so the hearing was continued. At a hearing that was held on April 30, the court ordered that despite Mother’s allegations, Father could resume his previously ordered parent-time.

¶24      A few days later, Mother refused to bring the Children to the exchange point, telling law enforcement that she believed the Children were in danger. That same day, the Children were interviewed at a DCFS office. Without prompting, and without waiting for the interviewer to explain what the interview would be about, H.M. said that Father had “choked him, peed in his mouth, and put his penis in his bum and it bled, and that [H.M.’s] neck was broken.” H.M. said that these things all occurred in the middle of church and that “they” were wearing church clothes when it all happened. When asked for more detail, H.M. said, “that’s all I said, that’s all I needed to tell you about,” and he continued to reply “that’s all” and “that’s all he did” to further questions. H.M. then became emotional and visibly upset, and when asked why, H.M. responded, “[B]ecause that’s what I needed to say to you!” When asked if someone had told him what to say, H.M. said that he and Mother had “talked on the iPad about it.”

¶25      When Mother was asked about H.M.’s statements later that day, Mother claimed that H.M. must have been referring to the recorded disclosure he had previously made and which Mother had previously brought to court. Following the interview, Mother asked DCFS if she still needed to send the Children to Father for parent-time the following day. DCFS informed Mother that there was not enough information to support the allegations and that it was not recommending any adjustment to parent-time.

¶26      On May 3, 2020, law enforcement was called to conduct a welfare check at Mother’s home after she reported that she was afraid Father was going to come shoot her and the Children. A week later, DCFS received a report that Father had been unable to retrieve the Children for his parent-time. Law enforcement soon learned from the maternal grandfather that Mother and the Children were staying at a local hotel, but he would not disclose its location. On May 9, 2020, Mother brought the Children to the Bountiful City Police Department to demonstrate to law enforcement that the Children were physically safe.

¶27      On May 11, 2020, Mother called law enforcement in Tooele to report that the Children’s paternal aunt and uncle were sexually and physically abusing the Children. The next day, DCFS received an additional report that Mother had told law enforcement in Layton that the Children had been sexually abused by Father and were being victimized by a sex trafficking ring. Law enforcement stated that Mother was speaking rapidly and that the conversation “went in circles.” Law enforcement was concerned that Mother was under the influence of a substance or was suffering from a mental illness. H.M. also called law enforcement that day and reported that he had been abused.

¶28 On May 14, 2020, Father obtained a writ of assistance, authorizing the help of law enforcement to retrieve the Children from Mother. Mother refused to cooperate with this order, so Father received a second writ of assistance on May 21, 2020, authorizing law enforcement to locate Mother through cell phone tracking. The Children were eventually recovered from a hotel by law enforcement.

Protective Supervision Services Case

¶29      On May 26, 2020, the State filed an expedited verified petition for protective supervision with the juvenile court. The State requested that the Children remain in Father’s custody, with DCFS providing protective supervision services. In June 2020, the juvenile court ordered DCFS to supervise the Children’s visits with Mother moving forward.

¶30      During a supervised visit at a DCFS office on July 2, 2020, Mother, Stepfather, and a step-grandfather took the Children and left the building. H.M. cried, yelled, and became upset when the step-grandfather picked him up and carried him out. Mother and the others left with the Children despite DCFS employees telling Mother that law enforcement would be called. Law enforcement soon located Mother, Stepfather, the step-grandfather, and the Children in a nearby canyon and, pursuant to a warrant, returned the Children to Father.

¶31      On July 13, 2020, the juvenile court found that Mother had neglected the Children by attempting to alienate them from Father and by making repeated reports that Father had abused the Children. The court ordered the Children to remain in Father’s custody, and it further ordered that Mother’s visits must be supervised by a professional visit supervisor and a security guard. The court also ordered Mother and Stepfather to participate in psychological evaluations and receive treatment. Mother and Stepfather subsequently participated in the ordered psychological evaluations and participated in follow-up treatment with a psychologist specializing in high-conflict custody cases. The evaluating psychologist concluded that Mother “is stuck in her narrative about what has transpired with the Children” and that she “lacks insight into her own behaviors.”

¶32      The Children began receiving therapy from a trauma therapist (Therapist). Therapist initially diagnosed both of the Children with an acute stress disorder, though she later modified the diagnoses to post-traumatic stress disorder. Therapist opined that the Children had suffered cumulative and complex trauma because of Mother’s actions, and Therapist noted that their symptoms included intrusive thoughts, negative moods, sleep disturbances, irritable behavior, angry outbursts, and physical aggression. In an August 2020 letter to the court, Therapist said that both Children, and more particularly H.M., had expressed fear of being “stole[n]” by Mother again and of having the police “chase [them] down.” Therapist also described D.M.’s stress related to the May 2020 hotel stay.

¶33      As noted, Mother began having supervised visits with Children in July 2020. DCFS’s progress notes indicate that Mother asked “some inappropriate questions during the visits,” e.g., that she had asked the Children “multiple times if they are ok or if there is anything wrong” and that Mother also questioned the Children about “where they live, who lives with them, and if anyone is telling them not to tell her things.” Although Mother had been told several times not to talk to the Children about the case, Mother asked the Children in September 2020 “if they could tell someone about the things they told her and the things she said were not crazy,” and that if they did, “they could go home with her because ‘they think that I’m lying.’” When the supervising DCFS caseworker (Lead Caseworker) told Mother not to talk about these things with the Children, Mother became defensive and told Lead Caseworker to “back off.”

¶34      Mother’s supervised visits began proceeding without serious incident, though, and in March 2021, the juvenile court removed the requirement that a security guard be present. The court also ruled that the Children could have visits in Mother’s home if Mother provided a minimum of three negative drug tests and was in compliance with all other provisions from a Child and Family Plan. In April 2021, Therapist noted that D.M. had said that he had “mixed up feelings” about the possibility of staying at Mother’s home. D.M. said that he wanted to “stay overnight at [his] mom’s house,” but he was “scared” that she would “ask questions about [him] getting hurt” and felt like he had “to answer those things she asks.” Therapist also noted that D.M. felt pressured by Mother to say that “bad things” had happened at Father’s house. Therapist noted that D.M. feels like he “disappoint[ed]” Mother if he told her that he was safe at Father’s house.

¶35 In May 2021 and again in July 2021, the juvenile court increased the length of Mother’s visits with the Children. In September 2021, the court began allowing unsupervised visits at Mother’s home. In October 2021, however, the Children told DCFS that Mother “was starting to ask questions” about Father’s “house like before and they [didn’t] like it when” she did that. In November 2021, the Children reported to DCFS that “the visits have been going well” and that Mother “hasn’t asked them questions about [Father’s] house anymore.”

¶36      At a December 8, 2021, review hearing, the Guardian Ad Litem (the GAL) recommended closing the protective supervision services case due to the substantial completion of services provided to Mother and Stepfather. At the close of the hearing, Father was awarded primary custody of the Children, and the juvenile court ordered the Children to be released from the protective supervision of DCFS. The case was then closed.

Mother’s Allegations Against Father Resume

¶37      Less than a month after the protective supervision case was closed, a series of events occurred in rapid succession that again involved Mother implicating Father in alleged abuse.

¶38 On January 3, 2022, D.M. reported to a school counselor that Father was hitting him. D.M. was unable to provide any further context or detail about the alleged abuse. On January 4, DCFS received a referral that Mother was acting erratically and had perhaps used methamphetamine. That same day, Mother refused to return the Children to Father following a mid-week visit. On January 5, DCFS received a referral alleging that Father “may have” physically abused D.M. On January 6, Mother attempted to take the Children from their school, even though that day was not hers under the parent-time schedule. Law enforcement was called, and in the presence of both the Children and other school children, Mother accused Father of attempting to kidnap the Children. The Children went home with Father.

¶39      On January 10, D.M. was interviewed at the CJC. During the interview, DCFS received an additional report that Father was physically abusing D.M. and sexually abusing him by putting “his private parts in [D.M.’s] private parts.” When the interviewer asked D.M. about this information, D.M. stated that Father “hits [him], spanks [him], chokes [him], and hurts [him],” but he denied that Father had done anything else to his body. When D.M. was asked why he decided to talk about these things that day, D.M. stated he “wanted to get it out” and was “too scared to talk about it before.” H.M. was also interviewed at the CJC that day, but he said nothing about any abuse.

¶40      That same day, DCFS learned that the Cache County Sheriff’s Office had just received a letter that was written by D.M. in which D.M. alleged that Father had physically and sexually abused D.M. and H.M. When a detective spoke with Mother that day, Mother told him that she had “no idea” that D.M. had written the letter. On January 11, D.M. was interviewed at his school regarding the letter by a detective (Detective). D.M. said that “nobody knows about the letter” and that he had ridden his bike to drop it off in a mailbox. When asked for further details, D.M. responded, “I don’t know” and “I don’t remember.” D.M. also said that he “knew” the address for the sheriff’s office and that he had run a Google search and used YouTube on his tablet to learn how to send a letter.

¶41      Detective obtained a search warrant allowing him to examine the tablets used in Mother and Stepfather’s home. Pursuant to this search, Detective found no evidence of any searches like those described by D.M. But Detective did learn that Mother had searched “when does Sheriff read the mail” on January 10, 2022.

¶42      After obtaining this evidence, Detective interviewed Mother again at the sheriff’s office. Mother now acknowledged that she had taught D.M. how to “write this letter.” She also admitted to having looked up the address of the sheriff’s office and having taken D.M. to the post office to mail the letter. Mother then said that D.M. had told her that Father has “hit, choked, and sodomized” him and that H.M. had said that the first time Father “sodomized him” was when he was three years old. Mother said that H.M. couldn’t sit down because it hurt and that “something came out of his butt when he went to the bathroom.” Mother said she was having his underwear “tested for DNA” “in Florida,” but she refused to give Detective any more information about the alleged DNA testing. Mother said that she “knows this stuff is true” and that the Children were being “put back with” a “pedophile.”

¶43      On January 12, D.M. was again interviewed at school, this time by Lead Caseworker. D.M. began crying and stated that Mother “made me write that letter.” D.M. said that the “choking, the spanking and the hitting” “didn’t really happen” and that Mother had instructed him to write a letter about “something bad about” Father and “all the mean stuff she thinks has happened” to D.M. He said that he did not ride his bike to the post office but that Mother had helped him address the envelope and had then driven him there. Lead Caseworker also interviewed H.M. at school that day. H.M. reported that Mother “forced” D.M. to write a letter to the police because Mother “is trying to get dad arrested” “so they can live with her forever.” At trial, Therapist testified that both Children told her the same things about the events surrounding this letter and that both Children had also told her that as they were mailing the letter, Mother exclaimed, “This is a day we will celebrate every year.”

Termination Proceedings

¶44      DCFS sought protective supervision services for the Children on January 19, 2022. In February 2022, DCFS filed a petition for the termination of Mother’s parental rights.

¶45      The Children soon resumed regular therapy with Therapist. Therapist later testified that “D.M. came in very tearful, very confused. He had been through four to five interviews” in one week and was “wrestling with himself because he had lied during some of them because he felt like that was the right thing to do for” Mother. Therapist testified that D.M. was “having a lot of shame towards himself” and that D.M. told her that he felt like he had “to say that these things have happened in order to make [Mother] happy.” Therapist said that H.M. told her that he was “tired of all the asking stuff with [Mother].”

¶46      From January 2022 through the termination trial in July 2022, Mother was only allowed to have supervised visits with the Children. Therapist later testified that H.M. was initially “very, very vocal about not wanting to do the visits.” H.M. told Therapist that Mother “just—she comes at me and comes at me. I don’t want to go. I don’t want to deal with it.” After a March 2022 visit, H.M. reported to Therapist that he “didn’t like it and it didn’t feel safe.” H.M. said that “it sort of made [his] stomach hurt and like maybe she was going to take [him] again.”

¶47      Lead Caseworker later affirmed Therapist’s view that H.M. was initially hesitant to have visits with Mother after the January 2022 incidents. She subsequently testified that H.M. refused to attend one visit with Mother and that when he had visits with Mother early on, he was “emotionally dysregulated.” But Lead Caseworker also testified that H.M. eventually warmed up to the visits and that by the time of trial, he would sit in Mother’s lap and hug her. Lead Caseworker testified that D.M. was “very good” with Mother and that they “like to play together.”

¶48      The GAL was still concerned, though, and requested that Mother’s supervised visits be suspended. The court held a hearing in May 2022 to consider this request. At the close of the hearing, the juvenile court found that there was “no evidence whatsoever of any harm or trauma being caused to D.M. from the visits with [Mother] that have occurred subsequent” to January 2022 and that “[s]upervised visitation is in the best interest of the Children.” The court emphasized that it intended “for the visits between the Children and [Mother] to occur, regardless of whether the Children want to go or not.” Shortly before trial, D.M. indicated that he wanted visits with Mother to “last longer,” and H.M. indicated that he wanted the visits to be at Mother’s house.

Trial

¶49 In July 2022, the juvenile court held a four-day trial on DCFS’s petition to terminate Mother’s parental rights. The court heard testimony from 17 witnesses, including numerous professionals.

¶50      The State called Mother as a witness on the first day of trial. During her testimony, Mother claimed that she hadn’t personally seen the letter that D.M. wrote to the sheriff in January 2022 and that she was now seeing it in court for “the first time”; Mother also claimed that she didn’t know what its contents were. But the State introduced evidence showing that Mother’s assertions about the letter were not true. For example, the State introduced a video of Mother’s interview at the sheriff’s office, and this video showed Mother reading the letter. The State also introduced an email that Mother had written to her father (the Children’s maternal grandfather) after the incident that showed that she was aware of the letter’s contents.

¶51      As for the long-term allegations of abuse that had been made against Father, Mother testified twice that she didn’t know if Father had actually abused the Children. And with respect to the allegations she’d made against Father, Mother testified that she had “followed the rules” and that she had “made sure” she didn’t talk to the Children about their disclosures to authorities.

¶52      Lead Caseworker testified at trial. She testified that the Children had been traumatized by “the fear of them being taken,” noting that H.M. has “dreams about a commander coming into a hotel room,” which Lead Caseworker linked to the incident in 2020 in which law enforcement retrieved the Children from the hotel. Lead Caseworker also testified that DCFS sought termination of parental rights instead of another round of protective supervised services because DCFS had “exhausted all options.” She said that while Mother “in her own testimony has said that she learned a lot [from the protective supervision services case] and that she . . . knew at the time what to do in that situation,” Lead Caseworker didn’t “know what more we could provide.”

¶53      Therapist testified at trial too. According to Therapist, when she began seeing the Children in January 2022, the Children “expressed a fear” about “what possibly may happen again,” wondered if Mother “would take [them] again,” and asked whether they would “have to go to the hotel again.” When Therapist was asked whether she thought there was “anything less significant than the complete termination of [Mother’s] rights that can adequately protect these Children,” she responded, “if we look at adequate protection coupled with normalcy, the answer to that is no.” Therapist further testified that her recommendation for terminating Mother’s parental rights “was based on the cumulative therapy [she] had done with the [Children] in the last few years” and that she thought that termination was in “their emotional best interest.” Therapist testified that H.M.’s “exact words” to her were, “How would you feel if this were always happening to you? I just want a normal life.” When she was asked how Mother could be stopped from continuing to traumatize the Children, Therapist testified, “We stop the interaction.” She also testified that although DCFS “may have talked about the possibility of supervised visitation,” “that’s not really along the normal, natural developmental means, and so I didn’t feel like that was the best option.”

¶54      In the GAL’s closing argument, she emphasized that “[c]ontact that isn’t highly structured and supervised, holding [Mother] accountable, results in trauma to these Children. They’ve expressed discomfort about the idea of being in [Mother’s] presence without a protective third party present.” The GAL further asserted that Mother “cannot be trusted to follow a court order. She cannot be trusted to act in the best interest of her children. Supervising visits for the rest of these Children’s childhood is not feasible, it’s not in their best interest, it’s not appropriate. Nothing less than termination of this relationship can adequately protect these Children now and into the long term.”

¶55      After the GAL’s closing argument concluded, Mother’s counsel asserted in her own closing argument that “[t]o presume that—first of all, that there’s no other choice but termination in this case, I don’t think it’s a reasonable position.” Mother’s counsel argued that

there were no specific reasons given during trial as to why these other options were not possible. Some of these less—you know, short of termination options would be to reopen the [protective supervision services] case and to implement . . . a reliable source for the kids to contact directly as to eliminate . . . the possibility of them making reports to either parent, to implementing a high-conflict therapist/family counselor . . . . Or start a new [protective supervision services] case . . . . Or permanent legal custody and guardianship with the dad, but which would allow the mom to remain in the kids’ lives and continue playing an active role in that. There are other options that would—that are short of termination that would preserve—that would enable the kids to continue having a relationship with their mother.

Mother’s counsel asserted that Mother had “worked hard and earnestly” to “be a better mom” and “did everything she was asked to do.” Mother’s counsel admitted that after the close of the protected supervision services case, “not all of the recommendations made by the therapist were followed,” but counsel suggested that if there had been “an assigned family therapist in place . . . we wouldn’t be here today.” Counsel concluded her argument by requesting that the court reopen the prior protective supervised services case and “require the parties to comply with the recommendations as given by the service providers.”

Termination Decision

¶56      The juvenile court subsequently issued a written decision terminating Mother’s parental rights to the Children.

¶57      Early in this ruling, the court found the testimony of Therapist to be “both credible and helpful in provid[ing] understanding of the harm done to the Children due to the actions of [Mother].” By contrast, the court found that Mother’s testimony at trial “was not credible and at times was simply untruthful.” Specifically, the court contrasted Mother’s testimony that she had never seen D.M.’s January 2022 letter and that she was unaware of its contents with the video showing her reading the letter at the sheriff’s office. The court also found that Mother had given “different versions of her story of how [D.M.] wrote the letter and how the letter was then mailed to the sheriff’s office.”

¶58      Addressing the January 2022 letter, the court found that D.M. “first lied to the sheriff deputy and stated that he wrote the letter without the help of his mother and rode himself to the post office to mail the letter,” and the court opined that it “cannot find any other reason for [D.M.] to lie about how the letter was written and delivered to the post office other than [Mother] telling him to do so.” The court found that “the allegations stated in the letter were false and were contrived by [Mother] to cause harm to and further alienate [Father] with his Children.”

¶59      The court then found that six grounds for termination had been established: abuse, neglect, unfitness, failure to provide care, token efforts, and “other.” As part of its unfitness analysis, the court found that “[a]fter years of unsubstantiated allegations of abuse against Father,” Mother “still fails to show any real remorse for her actions and their consequences on the Children. She simply testified that she ‘doesn’t know’ whether or not the Children have been or are being abused by” Father. The court found that “[a]fter years of therapy and services by DCFS, [Mother] refuses to take any responsibility for her behavior.” The court concluded that Mother “has shown that she cannot stop her destructive behavior regarding false allegations and refuses to take any responsibility regarding the Children’s statements to DCFS and law enforcement.”

¶60      The court then determined it was in the Children’s best interest to terminate Mother’s rights and that it was also strictly necessary to do so. In its best interest determination, the court found that Mother “is unable to accept any court order that does not grant her primary care and custody of the children and will distort facts and perceptions until it makes sense to her that she should have custody.” The court found that Mother

has not demonstrated the ability to sustain progress in treatment that shows that the Children would be safe in her care. Her actions taken less than a month after the protective supervision services case closed demonstrates that she has not responded to the extensive services provided to her. [Mother] has shown that when she is not subject to the strict oversight of DCFS and this Court, she reverts to allegations of abuse against [Father].

¶61      Under a separate subheading devoted to the strictly necessary determination, the court found it had “considered less-restrictive alternatives than termination of [Mother’s] parental rights” and that a “permanent custody and guardianship arrangement is unworkable and not in the best interest of the Children.” The court found that Mother “has made or caused to be made a multitude of false allegations of physical and sexual abuse against [Father] throughout a period [of] seven years, causing the Children to be interviewed repeatedly and examined and having their lives investigated.” The court further found that “[a]ny contact” that Mother has with the Children “is likely to result in an additional false allegation, necessitating additional investigation, interviews, etc., all to the serious detriment of the Children.” Finally, the court found that even when it “ordered [Mother] to be restricted to supervised visits by DCFS with the children, [Mother] absconded with the children. The Court cannot perceive a less-restrictive alternative which would protect the Children from further trauma without terminating [Mother’s] parental rights.”

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶62    Mother challenges the termination order on two primary grounds. First, she argues that in its best interest analysis, the juvenile court “failed to consider all the facts” and improperly relied on past events rather than engaging in a present-tense inquiry. Second, she argues that the court “did not make findings as to why supervised visitation was not feasible.”

¶63      This court applies “differing standards of review to findings of fact, conclusions of law, and determinations of mixed questions of law and fact.” In re E.R., 2021 UT 36, ¶ 14, 496 P.3d 58. “A best interest determination involves neither a pure finding of fact nor an abstract conclusion of law. This is a mixed determination of law and fact—in which the abstract law is applied to a given set of facts.” Id. ¶ 17. “The juvenile court’s decision can be overturned only if it either failed to consider all of the facts or considered all of the facts and its decision was nonetheless against the clear weight of the evidence.” Id. ¶ 31 (quotation simplified).[2]

ANALYSIS

¶64      The Utah legislature has determined that “[a] child’s need for a normal family life in a permanent home, and for positive, nurturing family relationships is usually best met by the child’s natural parents.” Utah Code § 80-4-104(8). In light of this, a “juvenile court should only transfer custody of a child from the child’s natural parent for compelling reasons and when there is a jurisdictional basis to do so.” Id. “When the [juvenile] court considers a child’s welfare and best interest, the court’s focus should be firmly fixed on finding the outcome that best secures the child’s well-being.” In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 64, 472 P.3d 827.

¶65      To terminate a parent’s rights, a court must find that (1) a statutory ground for termination exists and (2) termination is in the child’s best interest. See id. ¶¶ 19–20. With one minor exception that we address below in Part III, Mother’s appeal does not challenge the court’s determination that there were grounds to terminate her parental rights. Rather, Mother’s appeal is focused on the best interest portion of the court’s ruling.

¶66      “The best-interest inquiry is wide-ranging and asks a court to weigh the entirety of the circumstances of a child’s situation, including the physical, intellectual, social, moral, and educational training and general welfare and happiness of the child.” In re J.J.W., 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 26, 520 P.3d 38 (quotation simplified). By statute, a court can only find that termination is in the best interest of a child if it also finds that “termination of parental rights, from the child’s point of view, is strictly necessary.” Utah Code § 80-4-301(1); accord In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 66. The “statutory language uses the verb ‘is,’ indicating that the best-interest inquiry is to be undertaken in a present-tense fashion.” In re Z.C.W., 2021 UT App 98, ¶ 13, 500 P.3d 94. Moreover, Utah law presumes that “Lilt is in the best interest and welfare of a child to be raised under the care and supervision of the child’s natural parents.” Utah Code § 80-4-104(8). In light of this, a juvenile court “must determine whether a feasible option short of imposing the ultimate remedy of terminating the parent’s rights exists, and if it does, the court must choose it.” In re K.Y., 2022 UT App 149, ¶ 34, 523 P.3d 1159 (quotation simplified).

¶67      As noted, Mother advances two main challenges to the court’s ruling. First, Mother argues that the court did not properly account for the present-tense best interest of the Children, but that it instead improperly relied “on outdated information.” And second, Mother argues that the court erred by not determining on the record whether an order of ongoing supervised visitation was a feasible non-termination option. We reject both challenges.

  1. Present-Tense Best Interest of the Children

¶68      Mother argues that the court’s conclusion that it was in the best interest of the Children to terminate her parental rights was “based on outdated information.” In Mother’s view, the court failed to properly account for the fact “that between January 2022 and July 2022, Mother had supervised visits without incident.” We disagree.

¶69    Again, it’s settled that “the best-interest inquiry is to be undertaken in a present-tense fashion.” In re Z.C.W., 2021 UT App 98, ¶ 13. “Because children inhabit dynamic environments in which their needs and circumstances are constantly evolving,” the best interest inquiry must “be undertaken in a present-tense fashion, as of the date of the trial or hearing held to decide the question.” In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 34, 518 P.3d 993 (quotation simplified), cert. granted, 525 P.3d 1279 (Utah 2023). “In a best-interest inquiry, the relevant question is almost always this one: what outcome is in the child’s best interest now?” In re Z.C.W., 2021 UT App 98, ¶ 12 (emphasis in original).

¶70      The juvenile court’s order in this case was properly couched in present-tense terms. In its findings on unfitness, for example, the court found that Mother “still fails to show any real remorse for her actions and their consequences on the children.” (Emphasis added.) The court also found that Mother “has shown that she cannot stop her destructive behavior regarding false allegations and refuses to take any responsibility regarding the children’s statements to DCFS and law enforcement.” (Emphases added.) Then, in a subsection that was specifically directed at the best interest determination, the court found that Mother’s “intent and the effect of her actions is to disrupt any semblance of stability the children might enjoy regarding [Father] while in his care,” and it further found that Mother “is unable to accept any court order that does not grant her primary care and custody of the children and will distort facts and perceptions until it makes sense to her that she should have custody.” (Emphases added.) And in another subsection that was specifically devoted to the strictly necessary determination, the court found that “any contact [Mother] has with the children is likely to result in an additional false allegation, necessitating additional investigation, interviews, etc., all to the serious detriment of the children,” that “Mother has not shown that she can stop the false allegations” against Father, and that Mother “fails to even acknowledge that the allegations are false or that she is in any way responsible for them.” (Emphases added.) In these and other instances in the ruling, the court made it clear that it was making a determination about the present-tense best interest of the Children.

¶71      Given this, Mother’s argument is ultimately focused on the alleged lack of evidentiary support for that conclusion. Mother asserts that although the court’s ruling may have been written in the present tense, the information that it relied on was so old or stale that the court had no valid basis for concluding that termination was in the Children’s present-tense best interest. We disagree.

¶72      In virtually any decision that’s made in law or life, questions about the present must in some measure be answered through consideration of relevant events from the past. As famously put by Faulkner, the “past is never dead. It’s not even past.” William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun 92 (1951).

¶73      Our cases have recognized as much in this very particular legal context. Although it’s true that the best interest determination is made in the present-tense, it’s also true that “considering what a child’s best interest is at the time of trial does not require ignoring historical patterns.” In re A.K., 2022 UT App 148, ¶ 8 n.3, 523 P.3d 1156 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 527 P.3d 1106 (Utah 2023). Rather, “a juvenile court judge conducting a best interests analysis must weigh evidence forecasting future events in order to predict what course of action will best protect and nurture the child.” In re C.L., 2007 UT 51, ¶ 22, 166 P.3d 608 (quotation simplified). Since neither judges nor expert witnesses are soothsayers, the evidence that a court would rely on to “forecast[] future events” would naturally include evidence of things that had happened in the past between the parent and the children. In this sense, a court is tasked with “weigh[ing] a parent’s past conduct with her present abilities” in order to make the statutorily required determination. In re B.R., 2007 UT 82, ¶ 13, 171 P.3d 435.

¶74    Mother recognizes this, but she nevertheless argues that there must be some point at which the evidence is too distant to support a determination about a child’s present-tense best interest. In concept, we agree. But in application, we disagree with Mother’s suggestion that the evidence in this case was so remote that it could not be relied on.

¶75 Mother first points out that much of the court’s ruling was based on events that had occurred years before trial. And she’s right—the court did make repeated reference to events that had occurred years earlier. But even so, we think it significant that the court was not focused on an isolated event or two that had occurred in the far distant past. Rather, the court was focused on a pattern of events that had unfolded over the course of several years. As recounted at some length above, Mother began making allegations of sexual and physical abuse against Father in 2015, and she kept making such allegations over the course of the next five years. Mother kept doing so despite the apparent lack of any corroborating evidence. And she repeatedly encouraged her young children to make allegations against Father as well, even though this resulted in the Children being subject to repeated interviews and even physical examinations, and she also did so despite the transparently imaginative nature of some of the allegations.[3] Given that the juvenile court’s inquiry in this case was in some measure predictive, its focus on a pattern of behavior that had extended over several years would of course have probative value.

¶76    Even so, Mother points out that her behavior had improved enough by the later months of 2021 to prompt the juvenile court to close the protective supervision services case in December 2021. But as the juvenile court stressed in its termination order, within just a few weeks of that case being closed, Mother encouraged D.M. to write a letter to law enforcement with yet another allegation of abuse, Mother lied to authorities when questioned about her involvement in that letter, and Mother publicly accused Father of attempting to kidnap the Children during a confrontation at a school (and she did so in front of other children, no less). These events certainly gave the court some basis for reassessing its conclusion from December 2021 that Mother’s pattern of troubling behavior had come to an end.

¶77      This leads to Mother’s final assertion, which is that the January 2022 events could not support the termination order that was entered in July 2022 because no further incidents occurred during the January-to-July interim. As an initial matter, we have some skepticism about Mother’s suggestion that events that occurred five months before trial are indeed so remote that they could not inform the court’s present-tense best interest determination. And our skepticism of this argument is particularly warranted here, where the events that occurred in January 2022 are consistent with a prior pattern of events that had stretched out over the course of several years. After all, even during the 2015 through 2020 period, there were several stretches of several months in which Mother didn’t make any allegations. Yet each time, the period of dormancy was later interrupted by new allegations of abuse.

¶78      But more importantly, we disagree with Mother’s suggestion that nothing of note had occurred in the January-to-July interim. In reviewing the juvenile court’s termination decision, two things stand out.

¶79      First, at the time of the July trial, the court now had access to new information (primarily from Therapist) about the harm that Mother’s long-term behavior had inflicted on the Children. On January 24, 2022, Therapist wrote that D.M. reported “feeling very confused because [Father] never did that stuff” but that D.M. did not want to disappoint Mother. Therapist said D.M. felt “sort of unsafe” because of the events surrounding the January 2022 letter and “all the question asking.” And Therapist also said that H.M. reported feeling “tired of all the asking stuff” with Mother and that H.M. thought that life felt “sad and mad and scary” as a result. In a June 2022 letter, Therapist then informed the court that after a March 2022 visit with Mother, H.M. told her that he “didn’t like it and it didn’t feel safe.” She said that H.M. told her that “it sort of made [his] stomach hurt and like maybe she was going to take [him] again.”

¶80      Therapist’s testimony at trial gave the court even more insight into these harms. Therapist testified that D.M. was tearful in his January 2022 session and that he was “wrestling with himself because he had lied during some of [the interviews] because he felt like that was the right thing to do for [Mother].” Therapist testified that D.M. was “having a lot of shame towards himself” and that D.M. had told her he felt like he had “to say that these things have happened in order to make [Mother] happy.” Therapist also testified that after the January 2022 incidents, H.M. was “very, very vocal about not wanting to do the visits” with Mother. She testified that H.M. told her that “[m]y mom just—she comes at me and comes at me. I don’t want to go. I don’t want to deal with it.” She further testified that H.M.’s “exact words” to her were, “How would you feel if this were always happening to you? I just want a normal life.”

¶81      The court didn’t have this information when it closed the case in December 2021, but it did have this information at trial. And this information could properly inform any decision about what was in the best interest of the Children moving forward.

¶82      Second, the court also had new information about Mother’s mindset. In its order, the court found that Mother’s trial testimony “was not credible and at times was simply untruthful.” For example, the court noted that Mother testified twice that she was seeing D.M.’s January 2022 letter for the first time in the courtroom, even though a video of an earlier interview with law enforcement showed Mother reading that letter then. The court also highlighted Mother’s contrasting stories about how D.M. had written the letter. And the court further determined that Mother’s “statements that she has no opinion on whether she believes” that Father abused the Children were “not credible[,] taking into account the history of her actions in this matter.”

¶83      Based in part on Mother’s July 2022 trial testimony, the court found that Mother “still fails to show any real remorse for her actions and their consequences on the Children.” And the court found that although Mother “believes it improves her standing to now say that she ‘doesn’t know’ or has no opinion on whether or not the Children have been abused,” she “continues to deny responsibility for the continuous harm of false allegations.” Mother’s testimony and the court’s observations of her mindset were, of course, new information. And this new information would have some proper bearing on the court’s assessment of whether it was presently in the Children’s best interest to terminate Mother’s parental rights.

¶84      Pushing back, Mother points to some contrary evidence showing that there had been some improvement in her relationship with the Children. For example, Lead Caseworker testified that while H.M. initially showed some hesitancy at the visits, by the time of trial he would “sit in mom’s lap now where he wouldn’t do that before. You know, he’ll hug her. Things like that.” Lead Caseworker also testified that “D.M. is very good with his mom. I mean, it seems like they like to play together. And they just have fun when he’s there.” And at trial, Lead Caseworker said that she could not remember any time since January 2022 that the Children expressed to her “any concerns or anxiety about contact with their mom.” Also, minutes from a March 2022 hearing indicate that Mother had “been appropriate on her visits.” And in a DCFS Progress Report written a month before trial, D.M. “report[ed] that he wants the visits to last longer and [H.M.] asked to have the visits in [Mother’s] house.”

¶85      But again, a “juvenile court’s decision can be overturned only if it either failed to consider all of the facts or considered all of the facts and its decision was nonetheless against the clear weight of the evidence.” In re E.R., 2021 UT 36, ¶ 31, 496 P.3d 58 (quotation simplified). Here:

  • The events that occurred from 2015 through 2020 gave the court ample reason to find that Mother had a long-term and persistent desire to make allegations of abuse against Father, that she was willing to directly involve the Children in those efforts, and that she was willing to ignore court orders (such as those she ignored when absconding with the Children on two occasions in 2020).
  • The events of January 2022 and Mother’s non-remorseful testimony at trial gave the court reason to believe that Mother’s good behavior in late 2021 had been temporary, rather than permanent, and that Mother still persisted in her beliefs about Father and her willingness to manipulate the Children or court processes to support her views.
  • And the new evidence that the court received leading up to trial and then at trial gave it additional information about the harm that was being done to the Children by Mother’s behavior.

¶86      In short, the court was tasked with making a present-tense determination, and its decision reflects that it did. In making that determination, the court could properly consider past and present events together. Although the court had concluded in December 2021 that the protective supervision case should be closed, more recent events had given the court reason to reassess its conclusions about Mother’s ongoing danger to the Children. Given the evidence that was before the court at trial, we see no basis for concluding that the court’s decision was improperly based on stale evidence. We therefore reject this argument.

  1. Supervised Visitation

¶87      A court may only terminate a parent’s rights if it finds that termination is in the child’s best interest and that “termination of parental rights, from the child’s point of view, is strictly necessary.” Utah Code § 80-4-301(1). “The strictly necessary language is designed to ensure that the court pause long enough to thoughtfully consider the range of available options that could promote the child’s welfare and best interest.” In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 69. “If the child can be equally protected and benefited by an option other than termination, termination is not strictly necessary” and “the court cannot order the parent’s rights terminated.” Id. ¶ 66. Moreover, when a juvenile court is presented with a readily apparent non-termination option, the court must “state, on the record, its reasons for rejecting feasible alternatives.” In re K.Y., 2022 UT App 149, ¶ 43 (quotation simplified). This “leaves no room for implicit rejection.” Id. (quotation simplified).

¶88      As noted, the court heard both evidence and argument suggesting that supervised visitation was not a viable solution moving forward. Therapist testified that although DCFS “may have talked about the possibility of supervised visitation,” “that’s not really along the normal, natural developmental means, and so I didn’t feel like that was the best option.” And in closing argument, the GAL argued that “[s]upervising visits for the rest of these children’s childhood is not feasible, it’s not in their best interest, it’s not appropriate.” As also noted, the juvenile court then made a series of findings about why it was strictly necessary to terminate Mother’s parental rights. Despite these findings, Mother argues that the juvenile court “erred as a matter of law when it did not make findings as to why supervised visitation” was not a feasible alternative to termination. We disagree with Mother’s claim that the ruling was lacking in this respect.

¶89      The cases in which we’ve found that a court erred by not addressing a feasible alternative have involved termination orders that were far less clear than the one at issue here. In In re K.Y., for example, the court’s best interest analysis was just two paragraphs long. See 2022 UT App 149, ¶ 28. After the State asserted on appeal that the juvenile court had at least “implicitly” rejected a potential guardianship within those two paragraphs, id. ¶ 42, we rejected that assertion, explaining that it was unclear to us “which conclusion” the court would have even reached about a potential guardianship, id. ¶ 44. The order at issue in In re J.J.W. had similar infirmities. There, “the court’s best-interest analysis consisted of a single paragraph.” 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 16. And while we agreed that the court had “by necessity” implicitly rejected guardianship as an option, id. ¶ 32, we still reversed because we still saw no explanation for why the court thought that guardianship was not a viable option, id. ¶ 35.

¶90      The ruling at issue in this case is decidedly different. The court devoted nearly three pages of analysis to the best interest inquiry alone, and it then devoted an additional page and a half to the strictly necessary determination. In addition, the ruling as a whole spans over 40 pages, and many of the court’s findings and conclusions from the other sections were interconnected and had obvious bearing on the best interest and strictly necessary determinations. Thus, unlike the orders at issue in prior cases where we’ve found this kind of error, the court here issued a detailed order that gave clear insight into its thinking about the relevant questions.

¶91      This leads to the question of whether the court’s ruling left any room for ongoing supervised visits as a non-termination option. Here, the subsection on the strictly necessary determination began with the court’s declaration that it “ha[d] considered less-restrictive alternatives than termination of [Mother’s] parental rights” and its conclusion that a “permanent custody and guardianship arrangement is unworkable and not in the best interest of the Children.” Under the same subheading, the court recounted the incidents in which Mother had previously absconded with the Children. The court specifically highlighted the fact that the second absconding incident had occurred when Mother “abducted the children from a division-supervised visit at the Division’s offices in July 2020.” The court then stressed that “[e]ven when the Court ordered the mother to be restricted to supervised visits by DCFS with the children, mother absconded with the children.” With this as something of a springboard, the very next sentence read, “The Court cannot perceive a less-restrictive alternative which would protect the children from further trauma without terminating mother’s parental rights.” The court’s focus was thus explicit and clear: the court had concluded that the only way to protect the Children from Mother inflicting “further trauma” on them by absconding with them again was to terminate her parental rights.

¶92      Mother nevertheless stresses that she had not absconded with the Children recently, and in light of this, she suggests that it’s unclear why, or perhaps even whether, the court was ruling out supervised visits as a viable option moving forward. But in cases such as In re K.Y. or In re J.J.W., we were left guessing at the court’s ruling or rationale. Here, however, it requires no guesswork to see that the court had indeed rejected ongoing visitation as an option, nor is there any question about why the court had done so. Again, in the subsection of its ruling that addressed the best interest determination, the court found that Mother “is unable to accept any court order that does not grant her primary care and custody of the children and will distort facts and perceptions until it makes sense to her that she should have custody.” And in the subsection that more particularly addressed the strictly necessary inquiry, the court found that “Mother has not shown that she can stop the false allegations against” Father and that “[a]ny contact the mother has with the children is likely to result in an additional false allegation, necessitating additional investigation, interviews, etc., all to the serious detriment to the children.”

¶93      This ruling thus foreclosed the possibility of ongoing supervised visits as a viable alternative to termination. Taking the court at its word, the court’s express finding that “any contact” carried the risk of causing potential harm to the Children by definition ruled out ongoing supervised visits. And the court’s focus on the prior absconding events, coupled with its findings about Mother’s current lack of remorse, collectively explained why the court thought that even supervised visits would still present an unacceptable risk—whether it be of Mother absconding with the Children again or of using any visits (even supervised ones) to raise new allegations of abuse against Father. All of this is drawn directly from the court’s ruling.

¶94      In short, the juvenile court was sufficiently clear about its finding that termination was in the best interest of the Children and that termination was also strictly necessary, and the rationales given by the court directly foreclosed ongoing supervision as a feasible option. We see no basis for reversing the decision.

III. Mother’s Additional Arguments

¶95      Mother briefly raises three additional issues on appeal. But none of them warrant reversal.

  1. Adoption

¶96      At the back end of the best interest section of its ruling, the juvenile court found, “It is in the children’s best interests to terminate the parental rights of [Mother] so they may be free from abuse and neglect, so they may receive the proper safety, parenting, bonding, love, affection and stability they need, and so they may be adopted where they are safe, secure and stable.” Mother now argues that the court should not have relied on adoption in its best interest analysis because “adoption by a stepparent is wholly unnecessary” since “Father has sole custody.”

¶97      Our best interest cases have suggested that a court should not terminate a parent’s rights based on the “categorical concern” that adoption provides more stability to children than some other non-termination option. See, e.g.In re J.A.L.2022 UT 12, ¶ 25, 506 P.3d 606. But we disagree with Mother’s suggestion that the ruling here was categorical in nature. The court’s ruling was not only extensive, but it was focused on particular findings of the harm inflicted on the Children by Mother. We see no basis for overturning the decision based on the court’s stray reference to adoption in a single portion of the ruling.

  1. “Piling On”

¶98 Mother also argues that the court “piled on its grounds rulings by basing all six of its grounds-related findings on the same ‘emotional abuse.’” Mother argues that this practice violated “the spirit of the ‘grounds’ statutes, if not the letter,” because “[p]iling on multiple grounds based on the same subset of facts simply renders the additional ‘grounds’ superfluous.”

¶99      But Mother concedes that this practice “do[es] not provide independent grounds for relief on appeal.” And while Mother points to some caselaw from the attorney discipline context that might suggest that it’s problematic to “pile on” multiple overlapping charges, Mother provides no authority that supports her view that a juvenile court cannot base a termination decision on multiple grounds if the statutorily defined elements of those multiple grounds have some or even substantial overlap. We’re aware of no such authority either, and we therefore see no basis for overturning this ruling as a result of this alleged problem.

  1. Mandatory Reporting

¶100    Finally, Mother argues that “the court’s findings of emotional abuse are not supported by Utah law, where parents have both a right and a responsibility to report perceived abuse to authorities.” In Mother’s view, the “court’s decision sets up a scenario that fails to protect” children from “physical abuse and instead deems them ‘emotionally abused’ if one parent reports repeated, suspected abuse by the other.” Mother thus argues that the “court’s decision faults” her “for protecting [the] Children as she thought best.”

¶101    But the juvenile court’s extensive findings in this case leave no room for the conclusion that Mother’s rights have been terminated for anything like a good faith effort to protect the Children. The juvenile court found, with ample support, that Mother has engaged in a years-long campaign of filing unsupported or false reports of abuse against Father, that Mother has co-opted her children into being participants in this campaign (despite the fact that doing so caused them to be subjected to multiple police interviews and even physical examinations), that Mother has defied court orders and absconded with her children on two occasions, and that Mother lied to law enforcement and the court during the course of official interviews and proceedings.

¶102    We thus emphasize that a parent’s rights should not be terminated for making a good faith report of suspected abuse. But we likewise emphasize that nothing like that happened here. Rather, under the terms of the court’s order, Mother’s rights were terminated because of her years-long pattern of abusive behavior toward her children, not because of a good faith attempt to protect them.

CONCLUSION

¶103 The juvenile court did not err in relying on past events to support its present-tense best interest analysis, nor did it fail to account for the possibility of ordering ongoing supervised visits in its strictly necessary determination. Its decision to terminate Mother’s parental rights is accordingly affirmed.

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


[1] It’s appropriate at the outset to explain some of the word choices and information gaps in our recitation of the history of this case. As indicated in the introductory paragraphs of this opinion, this case centers on a years-long history of reports of abuse that were made against Father. The reports themselves are not in the record, so the record is limited to descriptions of those reports that came from others (most commonly the juvenile court in its various rulings).

In many instances, the passive voice was used when describing who had made an individual report—i.e., the record would say something like, “a referral was made.” To be faithful to the record, we’ve proceeded similarly. Also, the record sometimes says that a report was made but doesn’t then say what DCFS or law enforcement did with that report. And in some instances, the record makes passing reference to a reason a report was unaccepted without then providing much (or even any) explanatory detail. Our silence reflects those omissions too.

While acknowledging these caveats upfront, we note that the clear implications of the record generally and of the juvenile court’s termination decision more particularly are that (1) with the exception of the reports that were made by the Children themselves, it was Mother who was making most (if not all) of the reports of abuse against Father and (2) none of the reports of physical or sexual abuse that were made against Father were corroborated or accepted by DCFS or law enforcement.

[2] Mother also advances a few additional arguments relating to the grounds for termination and the broader scope of the allegations against her. These arguments are subject to this same standard of review, and we address them together in Part III.

[3] 3. As noted, the allegations included such things as an exploding car, Father allegedly punching a child in the bottom with a hammer, and Father somehow assaulting and even breaking a child’s neck in the middle of a church service.

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Nelson v. Nelson – 2023 UT App 38 – Claim Preclusion and Child Support

2023 UT App 38

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STASHIA NELSON,

Appellee,

v.

ISAAC SCOTT NELSON,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20210345-CA

Filed April 13, 2023

First District Court, Logan Department

The Honorable Brian G. Cannell

No. 154100713

Sara Pfrommer, Ronald D. Wilkinson, and Nathan S. Shill, Attorneys for Appellant

Jacob A. Watterson and James C. Jenkins, Attorneys for Appellee

JUDGE JOHN D. LUTHY authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES DAVID N. MORTENSEN and RYAN D. TENNEY concurred.

LUTHY, Judge:

¶1        This case raises issues regarding the claim preclusion

branch of the doctrine of res judicata in the context of divorce proceedings. Two years after Stashia and Isaac Nelson divorced, their circumstances had changed enough that Isaac[1] asked the district court to modify their divorce decree to give him shared physical custody of their children and to lower his monthly child support obligation. Isaac was behind in his support payments, and in response to his petition, Stashia asserted that Isaac’s “claims [were] barred, in whole or in part, because of [his] unclean hands in not being current in his child support obligation.”

¶2        The parties engaged in mediation and were able to agree on a new custody and parent-time arrangement and on a reduced monthly child support obligation for Isaac going forward. They presented their agreement to the court, and it entered a modified divorce decree that incorporated the terms of the agreement.

¶3        Stashia then initiated a separate proceeding to collect the child support that Isaac had failed to pay under the original decree. Isaac argued that all child-related financial matters, including his child support arrears, had been resolved in the proceeding to modify the divorce decree and that Stashia was therefore barred under the claim preclusion branch of the doctrine of res judicata from collecting the unpaid support. The court disagreed and ordered Isaac to pay past-due support. In response, Isaac filed a certificate of readiness for trial on an issue that he had not raised previously, namely, whether the reduction in his monthly support obligation should be backdated to when he filed his petition to modify the divorce decree. The district court ruled that there were no issues to certify for trial and entered judgment against Isaac for unpaid support in the amount of $2,835.40 plus interest. Isaac appeals.

¶4        We see no error in the conclusion that claim preclusion does not bar Stashia’s claim for unpaid child support. We also see no error in the district court’s ruling that there were no issues to certify for trial. We therefore affirm.

BACKGROUND

The Parties’ Marriage and Divorce

¶5        Isaac and Stashia married in 2007 and together had two children. Stashia later initiated divorce proceedings, during which the parties reached an agreement that was incorporated into a divorce decree in March 2016.

¶6        The divorce decree provided for the parties’ joint legal custody of the children, while giving Stashia sole physical custody and Isaac parent-time. The decree also ordered Isaac to pay $768 per month in child support, based on Stashia having sole physical custody of the children and on her lack of employment at the time.

Isaac’s Petition to Modify the Divorce Decree

¶7        In June 2018, Isaac petitioned to modify the divorce decree, based on “substantial and material changes in the circumstances of the parties.” In support of modifying the decree’s custody order, Isaac alleged that he had a more “stable residence” and “flexible work schedule” than when the parties divorced; that he was also more able to “provide additional familial support” because he had recently remarried; and that Stashia, on the other hand, had violated several of the custody and parent-time provisions in the divorce decree. Based on these allegations, Isaac requested “increased parent time” and “joint physical custody.”

¶8        In support of modifying the decree’s child support order, Isaac alleged that Stashia had become employed full time and that her increased income, along with the parties’ joint physical custody of the children, if the court awarded it, merited a reduction in his child support obligation.

¶9        In her answer to Isaac’s petition, Stashia alleged, among other things, that Isaac was “not current in his child support obligation.” She then asserted, as one of several affirmative defenses, that Isaac’s “claims [were] barred, in whole or in part, because of [his] unclean hands in not being current in his child support obligation.”

¶10 During discovery, the parties exchanged financial declarations outlining their incomes, assets, and expenses, but neither party produced documents or information regarding Isaac’s past child support payments or alleged arrears.

¶11      In October 2018, the parties participated in mediation and stipulated to a temporary modification of the divorce decree. The stipulation, the terms of which were incorporated into an order, contained temporary parent-time provisions and an agreement to participate in a custody evaluation. It did not mention or modify child support, and it concluded by saying: “All issues not specifically addressed herein that have been raised or could have been raised by the parties are, hereby, reserved.”

¶12      After the agreed-upon custody evaluation was completed, the parties again participated in mediation, in May 2019. Later the same day, the district court commissioner held a settlement conference at which the parties orally presented stipulated terms to be incorporated into an amended divorce decree.

¶13      As to custody, the parties’ attorneys told the commissioner that the parties had agreed to “a joint legal, joint physical custody arrangement,” and the attorneys then explained the details of that arrangement. As to child support, they said that the parties had agreed that “[c]hild support would be 600 per month effective June 1st, 2019.” The attorneys then said that the parties had agreed that “all prior orders that are not specifically modified here . . . would remain in full force and effect.”

¶14 Toward the end of the settlement conference, the commissioner asked Isaac and Stashia if they were “willing to accept those terms as a final resolution of the issues that [were] currently pending in [the] matter.” Each responded, “Yes.”

¶15 In October 2019, the court issued an amended divorce decree incorporating the terms the parties had orally agreed to during the settlement conference. The amended decree sets forth the parties’ custody arrangement; contains provisions regarding parent-time; restates the parties’ parenting plan; provides that Isaac’s “child support obligation shall be modified to $600.00 per month effective June 1, 2019”; contains provisions regarding claiming the minor children for tax purposes; and states the parties’ responsibilities regarding medical and childcare expenses. It then provides: “This order shall be a consolidated order on custody, parent-time, and child related financial matters.”

Stashia’s Motion for an Order to Show Cause

¶16 In February 2020, Stashia filed a motion for an order to show cause,[2] alleging that Isaac owed child support arrears that had accrued between September 2016 and February 2020.

¶17 Isaac opposed Stashia’s request for unpaid child support. He noted that in response to his petition to modify the original divorce decree, Stashia “had raised the issue that [Isaac] had child support arrearage.” He pointed to the parties’ statements during the May 2019 settlement conference that they were willing to accept the terms outlined at that conference “as a final resolution of the issues that [were] currently pending in [the] matter.” (Emphasis omitted.) And he pointed to the language of the amended decree that says that the amended decree is “a consolidated order on custody, parent-time, and child related financial matters.” The district court commissioner “reviewed the pleadings on file and . . . considered the evidence and arguments presented” and disagreed with Isaac, finding that “[Stashia] did not waive [Isaac’s] child support arrears at the [May 2019] mediation between the parties or by stipulating to the Amended Decree of Divorce.”

¶18      Isaac objected to the commissioner’s recommendation. He argued that, based on “the principles of the ‘claim preclusion’ prong of the doctrine of res judicata,” the modification proceedings and amended divorce decree had “a preclusive effect” on a claim for child support arrears that accrued before entry of the amended decree. The district court overruled Isaac’s objection and entered judgment against Isaac for child support arrears “in an amount to be determined . . . based on the accountings submitted by the Parties.” After the parties submitted their accountings, the court found that Isaac’s child support arrears totaled $2,835.40.[3]

Isaac’s Certificate of Readiness for Trial

¶19      Isaac then filed, in March 2021, a certificate of readiness for trial, in which he asserted: “This case is ready for trial on the reserved issue of [whether] the June 1, 2019 child support adjustment should be backdated to the date of the filing of the Petition to Modify (June 2018).” Isaac had not previously asked the court to backdate the modified child support order to June 2018.

¶20      The district court ruled that “[t]here [were] no issues to certify for trial” and entered judgment against Isaac in the amount of $2,835.40 plus interest. Isaac now appeals.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶21      Isaac asks us to reverse the district court’s judgment against him for unpaid child support. He contends that Stashia’s claim for unpaid child support is barred by the claim preclusion branch of res judicata.[4] Ultimately, “[w]hether a claim is barred by res judicata is a question of law that we review for correctness.” Gillmor v. Family Link, LLC, 2012 UT 38, ¶ 9, 284 P.3d 622.

¶22      Part of our claim preclusion analysis in this case, however, requires a determination of the intended scope of ambiguous language in the stipulated amended divorce decree. Where the language of a written stipulation is ambiguous, “the trial court ordinarily considers extrinsic evidence in an effort to resolve the ambiguit[y] and will make findings of fact to resolve any disputed evidence.” Christensen v. Christensen, 2018 UT App 53, ¶ 6, 420 P.3d 106 (footnote omitted). When a court looks outside the four corners of a written stipulation to determine its intended scope, that determination presents a question of fact, “which we review for clear error.” Fuller v. Bohne, 2017 UT App 28, ¶ 9, 392 P.3d 898, cert. denied, 398 P.3d 51 (Utah 2017).

¶23      Isaac also asks us to reverse the district court’s ruling, in response to his filing of a certificate of readiness for trial, that “[t]here [were] no issues to certify for trial.” The legal effect of a certificate of readiness for trial is a question of law, and “[w]e review questions of law for correctness, giving no deference to the ruling of the court below,” see Madsen v. Washington Mutual Bank FSB, 2008 UT 69, ¶ 19, 199 P.3d 898.

ANALYSIS

I. Stashia’s Claim for Unpaid Child Support
Is Not Barred by Res Judicata.

¶24 Isaac contends that the district court erred in allowing Stashia to bring a claim for unpaid child support. As we have noted, the substance of his argument is that Stashia’s claim for unpaid support is barred by the claim preclusion branch of res judicata. See supra note 3. This court has previously observed that, indeed, “[t]he principles of res judicata apply fully in the context of divorce proceedings.” Krambule v. Krambule, 1999 UT App 357, ¶ 13, 994 P.2d 210 (citing Jacobsen v. Jacobsen, 703 P.2d 303, 305 (Utah 1985)), cert. denied, 4 P.3d 1289 (Utah 2000). But this observation merits explanation.

¶25 Both res judicata and the law of the case doctrine can operate to give an earlier decision on a particular claim or issue preclusive effect when the same claim or issue is raised again. See Utah State Bar v. Rasmussen (In re Discipline of Rasmussen), 2013 UT 14, ¶¶ 17–18, 299 P.3d 1050. A key difference between the two doctrines, however, is that generally “[r]es judicata applies as between multiple cases while the law of the case doctrine applies to successive proceedings within one case.” State v. Waterfield, 2014 UT App 67, ¶ 39 n.12, 322 P.3d 1194, cert. denied, 333 P.3d 365 (Utah 2014).

¶26 This distinction could suggest that in a single divorce case—over which a district court has continuing jurisdiction to enter orders modifying the original decree, see Utah Code § 30-3-5(5)—only the law of the case doctrine would ever apply. To the contrary, however, we have held that res judicata applies as between “[original] divorce actions and subsequent modification proceedings.” Smith v. Smith, 793 P.2d 407, 410 (Utah Ct. App. 1990). Accordingly, in Krambule v. Krambule, 1999 UT App 357, 994 P.2d 210, cert. denied, 4 P.3d 1289 (Utah 2000), we concluded that a petition to modify a divorce decree to require an ex-husband to pay support for a child conceived through artificial insemination without the ex-husband’s knowledge was “barred under the principles of res judicata” since that claim “could and should have been asserted in the original divorce action.” Id. ¶ 16. And in Throckmorton v. Throckmorton, 767 P.2d 121 (Utah Ct. App. 1988), we upheld on res judicata grounds the denial of a petition to modify a divorce decree to give an ex-wife an interest in her ex-husband’s retirement benefits, which had not been included in the original decree. See id. at 123.

¶27 In other words, we treat an original divorce proceeding and each subsequent proceeding to modify the divorce decree as separate “cases” for res judicata purposes. At the same time, we treat a divorce proceeding leading to a decree or an amended decree and any subsequent proceeding to enforce that decree or amended decree as successive proceedings within the same case. Thus, in this second context, we apply the law of the case doctrine. See Robinson v. Robinson, 2016 UT App 32, ¶¶ 26–29, 368 P.3d 147 (holding, in a proceeding to enforce a stipulated divorce decree, that law of the case barred a husband from relitigating a factual issue decided previously), cert. denied, 379 P.3d 1185 (Utah 2016).[5]

¶28      This appeal is somewhat unusual in that the “first case” for

purposes of res judicata is the modification proceeding and the “second case” is the order to show cause proceeding to enforce the child support order from the original decree. But because the order to show cause proceeding is based on the original decree, it is a separate “case” from the modification proceeding that resulted in the amended decree. We therefore apply the principles of res judicata as we analyze the potential preclusive effect of the amended decree in the order to show cause proceeding.[6]

¶29      “The doctrine of res judicata embraces two distinct branches: claim preclusion and issue preclusion.” Macris & Assocs., Inc. v. Neways, Inc., 2000 UT 93, ¶ 19, 16 P.3d 1214. “[C]laim preclusion corresponds to causes of action[;] issue preclusion corresponds to the facts and issues underlying causes of action.” Oman v. Davis School Dist., 2008 UT 70, ¶ 31, 194 P.3d 956.

¶30      “Claim preclusion . . . is premised on the principle that a controversy should be adjudicated only once.” Pioneer Home Owners Ass’n v. TaxHawk Inc., 2019 UT App 213, ¶ 41, 457 P.3d 393 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 466 P.3d 1073 (Utah 2020). It “bars a party from prosecuting in a subsequent action a claim that has been fully litigated previously.” Hansen v. Bank of N.Y. Mellon, 2013 UT App 132, ¶ 5, 303 P.3d 1025 (cleaned up). “Whether a claim is precluded from relitigation depends on a three-part test.” Mack v. Utah State Dep’t of Com., 2009 UT 47, ¶ 29, 221 P.3d 194.

First, both cases must involve the same parties or their privies. Second, the claim that is alleged to be barred must have been presented in the first suit or be one that could and should have been raised in the first action. Third, the first suit must have resulted in a final judgment on the merits.

Id. (cleaned up).

¶31 Here, it is undisputed that Stashia and Isaac were the parties to both the proceeding on Isaac’s petition to modify the divorce decree—the “first case”—and the proceeding on Stashia’s subsequent claim for unpaid child support under the original decree—the “second case.” It is also undisputed that Isaac’s petition to modify the divorce decree resulted in a final judgment on the merits, in the form of the amended divorce decree. Thus, we focus our analysis on the second requirement of the claim preclusion test: whether Stashia presented or was required to present her claim for unpaid child support during the proceeding on Isaac’s petition to modify the decree.

A. Stashia did not present a claim for unpaid child support in the modification proceedings.

¶32 The second requirement of the claim preclusion test is satisfied if the claim at issue was presented in a prior action. See Mack, 2009 UT 47, ¶ 29. Isaac argues that Stashia’s answer to his petition to modify the divorce decree presented a claim for unpaid child support. Specifically, he points to Stashia’s allegation that Isaac was “not current in his child support obligation” and to her assertion, as an affirmative defense, that Isaac’s “unclean hands in not being current in his child support obligation” should bar modification of his support obligation.[7]

¶33      However, while Stashia alleged that Isaac was in arrears in

his child support payments, neither that allegation nor the affirmative defense based on that allegation presented a “claim.” “An original claim, counterclaim, cross-claim or third-party claim must contain a short and plain: (1) statement of the claim showing that the party is entitled to relief; and (2) demand for judgment for specified relief.” Utah R. Civ. P. 8(a). Stashia’s answer to Isaac’s petition to modify the divorce decree did not allege how much Isaac owed in unpaid child support or make a demand for relief. We cannot, therefore, say that Stashia’s affirmative defense presented a claim for res judicata purposes. See Airfreight Express Ltd. v. Evergreen Air Center, Inc., 158 P.3d 232, 237 (Ariz. Ct. App. 2007) (holding that “affirmative defenses are not claims” for purposes of “[t]he doctrine of claim preclusion”); cf. Norman A. Koglin Assocs. v. Valenz Oro, Inc., 680 N.E.2d 283, 288 (Ill. 1997) (“A counterclaim differs from an . . . affirmative defense. A counterclaim is used when seeking affirmative relief, while an . . . affirmative defense seeks to defeat a plaintiff’s claim.”).

¶34      This is consistent with our analysis in Berkshires, LLC v. Sykes, 2005 UT App 536, 127 P.3d 1243. In that case, the plaintiffs were poised to purchase and develop multiple parcels of land when the defendants recorded a document purporting to grant an easement that would significantly hinder the anticipated development. Id. ¶ 4. The plaintiffs sued “for slander of title and interference with economic relations, claiming that [the defendants] had intentionally fabricated the [e]asement [d]ocument.” Id. ¶ 6. Late in the litigation, the defendants moved for partial summary judgment, asserting that as a matter of law under the undisputed evidence “Hope Lane, a road running [across the parcels at issue], was a public road.” Id. ¶ 9. The trial court denied the motion on the ground that the defendants had not presented a claim for Hope Lane to be declared a public road because their “original answer merely stated that ‘[a]s a separate and affirmative defense, [the] [d]efendants . . . allege that Hope Lane is a public road,’ without making any further affirmative claim for relief.” Id. (first alteration and omission in original).

¶35 On appeal, the defendants argued that the trial court improperly refused to treat their Hope Lane affirmative defense as a counterclaim. See id. ¶¶ 16–17. We said that among the factors a court could consider when deciding whether to treat an affirmative defense as a counterclaim was “whether the defense as argued or articulated in the pleadings sufficiently states a claim for relief and a demand for judgment as required by rule 8(a) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure.” Id. ¶ 18. In concluding that the trial court had not abused its discretion by refusing to treat the Hope Lane affirmative defense as a counterclaim, we explained:

At the heart of the matter here is whether Plaintiffs should have recognized that Defendants’ statement “Hope Lane is a public road” was in reality a counterclaim, though labeled an affirmative defense. Here, the statement on its face is not readily identifiable as a counterclaim; it requests no relief and does not demand judgment. . . . Defendants did not properly plead a counterclaim . . . .

Id. ¶ 19. In sum, although it was in a different context, we have previously concluded that an affirmative defense that requests no relief and does not demand judgment does not present a claim. Our reaching the same conclusion here in the res judicata context “is not much of a jurisprudential leap.” Atkinson v. Stateline Hotel Casino & Resort, 2001 UT App 63, ¶ 19 n.6, 21 P.3d 667.

B. The district court’s finding that the amended divorce decree did not preclude Stashia’s claim for unpaid child support was not clearly erroneous.

¶36      Even if a party does not present a claim in her pleadings or otherwise during litigation, she might still agree to settle that unpled claim with the intent to foreclose its future litigation. If such an agreement becomes the basis of a stipulated decree, the second requirement of claim preclusion is met, and claim preclusion may apply to the settled but unpled claim. See Keith v. Aldridge, 900 F.2d 736, 741 (4th Cir. 1990) (holding, in the context of a “consent judgment,” that “[i]f the parties intended to foreclose through agreement litigation of a claim, assertion of that claim in a later suit, whether or not formally presented in the earlier action, is precluded”); 18A Charles Alan Wright, Arthur R. Miller & Edward H. Cooper, Federal Practice and Procedure § 4443 (3d ed. April 2022 update) (“[Following a consent judgment,] [i]f it is clear that the parties agreed to settle claims that were not reflected in the original pleadings, preclusion may extend to claims that were not even formally presented.”).[8]

¶37      Isaac relies on this principle. He contends that the amended

divorce decree, which was the product of a settlement agreement and stipulation, “expressly and unambiguously resolved” any claim for child support arrears that predated the amended decree. In support, he points to the provision of the amended decree that states: “This order shall be a consolidated order on custody, parent-time, and child related financial matters.” (Emphasis added.) Isaac interprets the phrase “child related financial matters” to mean that the amended decree was an order resolving all child related financial matters, including his child support arrears. But this is not the only plausible reading of this provision.

¶38 The amended decree addresses several child-related financial matters explicitly: the modified child support award, income tax deductions related to the children, health insurance and medical expenses for the children, and childcare expenses. It never mentions child support arrears. Thus, the phrase “child related financial matters” can plausibly be read as encompassing only the child-related financial matters explicitly addressed in the amended decree. Because this provision of the amended decree supports two plausible readings, it is ambiguous. See Moon v. Moon, 1999 UT App 12, ¶ 19, 973 P.2d 431 (“Language in a written document is ambiguous if the words may be understood to support two or more plausible meanings.” (cleaned up)), cert. denied, 982 P.2d 89 (Utah 1999).

¶39 “Ordinarily, we interpret a divorce decree as we would any other written instrument, construing it in accordance with its plain meaning and according no deference to the district court’s interpretation.” Christensen v. Christensen, 2018 UT App 53, ¶ 6,

420 P.3d 106. “But where, as here, the agreement is ambiguous, the trial court ordinarily considers extrinsic evidence in an effort to resolve the ambiguit[y] and will make findings of fact to resolve any disputed evidence . . . .” Id. (footnote omitted).

¶40      The district court here considered extrinsic evidence to determine whether Stashia’s claim for unpaid child support was encompassed within the amended decree, and it made a factual finding that the claim for unpaid child support was not encompassed within the decree. Among the evidence considered were the oral representations the parties made during their May 2019 settlement conference and a declaration provided by Isaac, both of which Isaac directed the court to when he opposed Stashia’s motion for an order to show cause. The district court considered this evidence and found that Stashia did not waive her claim for unpaid child support.

¶41      When, as here, a court looks outside the four corners of a stipulated judgment to determine its intended scope, that determination is a determination of fact, which we review for clear error. See Noel v. James, 2022 UT App 33, ¶ 11, 507 P.3d 832 (“The scope of a stipulation presents a question of fact, which we review for clear error.” (cleaned up)); Fuller v. Bohne, 2017 UT App 28, ¶ 9, 392 P.3d 898 (same), cert. denied, 398 P.3d 51 (Utah 2017). And “[f]indings of fact are clearly erroneous only if no reasonable factfinder could review the evidence presented and arrive at the disputed finding.” Blackhawk Townhouses Owners Ass’n Inc. v. J.S., 2018 UT App 56, ¶ 23, 420 P.3d 128.

¶42      We see no clear error in the district court’s finding that the parties’ amended decree was not intended to be preclusive of Stashia’s claim for child support arrears. Isaac’s child support arrears were not mentioned at all during the May 2019 settlement conference. A reasonable factfinder might therefore believe it a stretch to assume that when Stashia and Isaac told the commissioner they were “willing to accept [the] terms [that had been outlined in the settlement conference] as a final resolution of the issues that [were] currently pending in [the] matter,” they would have thought that those issues included Isaac’s alleged child support arrears.

¶43 Moreover, after the parties said that the modified child support obligation would become effective June 1, 2019, they told the commissioner that “all prior orders that are not specifically modified [as outlined in the settlement conference] . . . would remain in full force and effect.” A reasonable view of this evidence is that when the parties accepted the terms of the stipulation “as a final resolution of the issues that [were] currently pending in this matter,” these were the terms that they intended to accept: that the child support order prior to June 1, 2019, as well as any outstanding obligations under it, “would remain in full force and effect.”

C. Stashia was not required to present her claim for unpaid child support in the modification proceeding.

¶44      Even if a claim was not presented or settled in an initial action, the second requirement of the claim preclusion test can be met by showing that the subsequently raised claim “could and should have been raised in the first action.” Mack v. Utah State Dep’t of Com., 2009 UT 47, ¶ 29, 221 P.3d 194 (cleaned up). A subsequent claim could and should have been brought in an earlier action “if [both claims] arise from the same operative facts, or in other words from the same transaction.” Id. ¶ 30. To determine if two claims arise from the same transaction, a court may consider “whether the facts [of each] are related in time, space, origin, or motivation, whether they form a convenient trial unit, and whether their treatment as a unit conforms to the parties’ expectations.” Gillmor v. Family Link, LLC, 2012 UT 38, ¶ 14, 284 P.3d 622 (cleaned up). But “no single factor is determinative.” Id. (cleaned up). “Therefore, every consideration need not be addressed or considered in every case.” Id.

¶45      Here, Isaac’s claims for modification of the divorce decree were not related in origin to Stashia’s later claim for unpaid child support. Isaac’s claims to modify the divorce decree originated from alleged changes to his work and home life since the entry of the original decree (including his recent remarriage), alleged violations by Stashia of the divorce decree’s custody and parent-time provisions, and Stashia’s recent full-time employment. In contrast, Stashia’s claim for unpaid child support originated from Isaac’s alleged failure to abide by the divorce decree’s child support order. These differing origins suggest that the parties’ respective claims do not arise from the same transaction. See In re Marriage of Potts, 542 N.E.2d 179, 181–82 (Ill. App. Ct. 1989) (observing that “[t]here [was] no significant evidentiary overlap” between a father’s claim for unpaid child support and the mother’s claim for modification of the support obligation and, thus, holding that res judicata did not bar the father’s separate action for unpaid support); Zickefoose v. Muntean, 399 N.W.2d 178, 180–81 (Minn. Ct. App. 1987) (concluding that a stipulation to amend a divorce decree to reduce the father’s child support obligation was “a totally different and distinct action” from the mother’s later “motion to compel payment of child support arrearages” and, thus, that res judicata did not bar the mother’s later action for arrearages).

¶46 Additionally, neither Isaac nor Stashia conducted discovery related to Isaac’s alleged child support arrears during the modification proceeding, which suggests that it was not their expectation that Isaac’s claims for modification of the original decree and Stashia’s claim for unpaid child support under the original decree would be treated as a single trial unit.

¶47      Moreover, Utah Code section 78B-12-210(9)(a) provides for the filing of a petition to modify a child support order based on a substantial change of circumstances, while our rules require a motion—previously a motion “for an order to show cause,” see Utah R. Civ. P. 7(q) (2020), and now “a motion to enforce order,” see Utah R. Civ. P. 7B—to recover unpaid child support. By providing different procedures for modifying a child support order and enforcing a child support order, our code and rules also implicitly recognize that these two types of actions generally do not arise from the same transaction. Cf. In re P.D.D., 256 S.W.3d 834, 842, 844 (Tex. App. 2008) (reasoning in part that because the Texas Family Code “does not require their joinder,” actions for “delinquent child support” and actions for “modification of . . . future child support obligations” are “separate and definable questions” and the one is not barred by the other under a “transactional approach” to res judicata).

¶48      The differing origins of Isaac’s and Stashia’s respective claims, the apparent expectations of the parties, and the procedural scheme set forth in our code and rules demonstrate that Isaac’s claim for modification of the original child support order and Stashia’s claim for enforcement of the original order did not arise from the same transaction. Thus, Stashia was not required to present her claim for unpaid child support during the proceeding on Isaac’s petition to modify the divorce decree.

¶49      Because Stashia neither presented nor settled her claim for unpaid child support during the proceeding on Isaac’s petition to modify the divorce decree, and because she was not required to present her claim for unpaid child support during that proceeding, the doctrine of claim preclusion does not apply to bar Stashia’s claim.[9]

II. The District Court Did Not Err by Concluding that There
Were No Issues to Certify for Trial.

¶50      Isaac also argues that “[t]he district court erred when it

refused to allow [him] to counter Stashia’s Order to Show Cause with his request to retroactively apply the child support modification.” His request to retroactively apply the child support modification took the form of a certificate of readiness for trial filed nearly a year and a half after the modification proceeding to which it related had concluded. Because the modification proceeding had concluded, and because Isaac filed no rule 59 or 60(b) motion to alter or relieve him from the resulting judgment—i.e., the amended divorce decree, with its June 1, 2019 effective date for the modified support order—Isaac’s certificate of readiness for trial landed in a legal vacuum and had no legal effect.[10] With no pending proceeding to which retroactive application of the modified support order applied, the district court was correct to conclude that “[t]here [were] no issues to certify for trial.”

CONCLUSION

¶51      Stashia did not present an affirmative claim for child support arrears during the modification proceeding. The district court did not clearly err in finding that Stashia’s claim for those arrears was not encompassed within the modified divorce decree. And Stashia’s claim for those arrears did not arise out of the same transaction as the claims Isaac made in his petition to modify the decree. Accordingly, Stashia’s claim for unpaid child support is not barred by res judicata. Additionally, the district court’s ruling in response to Isaac’s certificate of readiness for trial—that there were no issues to certify for trial—was not in error.

¶52 Affirmed.

 

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[1] As is our practice, because the parties share the same last name, we use their first names, with no disrespect intended by the apparent informality.

[2] The “motion to enforce order” procedure outlined in rule 7B of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure has now “replace[d] and supersede[d] the prior order to show cause procedure” in the context of “domestic relations actions, including divorce.” Utah R. Civ. P. 7B(a), (i), (j). A similar “motion to enforce order” procedure outlined in rule 7A now applies in the context of other civil proceedings. See id. R. 7A. In recommending rule 7B, the Utah Supreme Court’s Advisory Committee on the Rules of Civil Procedure left untouched rule 101(k), which addresses motion practice before district court commissioners and still recites requirements for “[a]n application to the court for an order to show cause.” Id. R. 101(k). The committee may wish to revise rule 101(k) to conform rule 101(k)’s provisions to those of rule 7B.

 

[3] Our resolution of this appeal makes determining the portion of this amount that accrued before entry of the amended divorce decree unnecessary.

[4] Isaac does not always frame his argument in terms of “claim preclusion” or “res judicata.” In one section of his principal brief, he asserts that the claim for unpaid child support was “resolved” by the amended divorce decree. In another, he argues that “the issues to which the parties have stipulated [have] become ‘settled’ and ‘not reserved for future consideration.’” And at one point he does explicitly invoke “the ‘claim preclusion’ prong of the doctrine of res judicata.” Regardless of their phrasing, each of these arguments is, in substance, an argument for application of the doctrine of res judicata. See infra ¶¶ 26-28; Mel Trimble Real Estate v. Monte Vista Ranch, Inc., 758 P.2d 451, 453 (Utah Ct. App.) (explaining that res judicata “bars the relitigation . . . of a claim for relief previously resolved” (emphasis added)), cert. denied, 769 P.2d 819 (Utah 1988); Res judicata, Black’s Law Dictionary (abridged 6th ed. 1991) (defining res judicata as “a thing or matter settled by judgment” (emphasis added)).

Because Isaac never uses the terms “issue preclusion” or “collateral estoppel” and never cites a case applying that branch of res judicata, and because he did not do so in the district court, we address only the claim preclusion branch of res judicata. See generally 438 Main St. v. Easy Heat, Inc., 2004 UT 72, ¶ 51, 99 P.3d 801 (“Issues that are not raised at trial are usually deemed waived.”); State v. Sloan, 2003 UT App 170, ¶ 13, 72 P.3d 138 (declining to address an inadequately briefed issue).

[5] Application of res judicata in the divorce context might be seen as “distinguish[able]” from its application in other contexts in another way as well. See Smith v. Smith, 793 P.2d 407, 410 (Utah Ct. App. 1990). That is because in the divorce context the preclusive effect of res judicata can be avoided based on “the equitable doctrine that allows courts to reopen [prior] determinations if the moving party can demonstrate a substantial change of circumstances.” Id. In fact, some prior determinations in divorce cases may be reopened on a showing of a material change of circumstances that is less than substantial. See, e.g.Miller v. Miller, 2020 UT App 171, ¶ 18, 480 P.3d 341 (observing that “when modifying parent-time (as opposed to custody), the petitioner is required to make only some showing of a change in circumstances, which does not rise to the same level as the substantial and material showing required when a district court alters custody” (cleaned up)). Though this might be seen as a distinguishing feature of res judicata in the divorce setting, it is consistent with our statement that “[t]he principles of res judicata apply fully in the context of divorce proceedings,” Krambule v. Krambule, 1999 UT App 357, ¶ 13, 994 P.2d 210, cert. denied, 4 P.3d 1289 (Utah 2000), because a decision based on a changed set of material facts is not a decision on the same question as the one presented previously.

[6] We are not alone in this approach. See, e.g.In re Marriage of Potts, 542 N.E.2d 179, 180–82 (Ill. App. Ct. 1989) (applying res judicata principles to hold that, under the facts of the case, an amended divorce decree that modified a child support obligation did not bar a claim for child support arrears that accrued under the prior decree); Zickefoose v. Muntean, 399 N.W.2d 178, 180–81 (Minn. Ct. App. 1987) (same).

[7] “The doctrine of unclean hands expresses the principle that a party who comes into equity for relief must show that his conduct has been fair, equitable, and honest as to the particular controversy in issue.” Goggin v. Goggin, 2013 UT 16, ¶ 60, 299 P.3d 1079 (cleaned up).

[8] “In Utah, . . . the rules of claim preclusion are ‘virtually identical’ to the federal rules . . . .” Haik v. Salt Lake City Corp., 2017 UT 14, ¶ 9, 393 P.3d 285 (citation omitted).

[9] The district court expressed its ruling against Isaac’s claim preclusion argument by finding that Stashia “did not waive” her claim for unpaid child support. Our ruling is that Stashia neither waived nor forfeited her right to assert that claim. “Though principles of waiver and forfeiture are often used interchangeably, the two concepts are technically distinct.” Reller v. Argenziano, 2015 UT App 241, ¶ 30, 360 P.3d 768 (cleaned up). “Forfeiture is the failure to make the timely assertion of a right, whereas waiver is the intentional relinquishment or abandonment of a known right.” Id. (cleaned up). Stashia did not waive her known right to bring a claim for unpaid support since, as we have concluded, she did not intentionally relinquish it through settlement or otherwise. Nor did she forfeit that right by the issue of failing to timely assert it since, as we have concluded, she was not required to present her claim during the modification proceeding. See id. ¶ 31 (holding that failure to timely amend a complaint to assert a claim for retroactive child support amounted to a forfeiture). We leave for another day the question of whether or how a claim for unpaid child support may be settled without running afoul of the statutory limitation on the waiver of child support claims. See generally Utah Code § 78B-12-109(1) (“Waiver and estoppel [of child support] shall apply only to the custodial parent when there is no order already established by a tribunal if the custodial parent freely and voluntarily waives support specifically and in writing.”); Cahoon v. Evans, 2011 UT App 148, ¶ 3, 257 P.3d 454 (holding that Utah Code section 78B-12-109 “rules out waiver and estoppel in all instances where there is a child support order already in place”).

[10] Isaac makes no attempt to address this procedural reality. Instead, he uses the certificate of readiness for trial as a vehicle to argue that he stipulated to a June 1, 2019 effective date for the modified child support order only “[i]n exchange” for Stashia giving up the right to pursue her claim for child support arrears. But the district court found that the parties did not intend such an exchange, and we have affirmed that finding. See supra ¶¶ 36–43.

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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.

 

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[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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