18 A.3d 499 (R.I. 2011), 2009-159-Appeal, Sidell v. Sidell

Docket Nº:2009-159-Appeal.
Citation:18 A.3d 499
Opinion Judge:GOLDBERG, Justice.
Party Name:Jacalyn SIDELL v. Moss SIDELL.
Attorney:James A. Bigos, Esq., Pawtucket, for Plaintiff. Moss M. Sidell, Pro Se, for Defendant.
Judge Panel:Present: SUTTELL, C.J., GOLDBERG, FLAHERTY, ROBINSON, and INDEGLIA, JJ.
Case Date:April 19, 2011
Court:Supreme Court of Rhode Island
 
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18 A.3d 499 (R.I. 2011)

Jacalyn SIDELL

v.

Moss SIDELL.

No. 2009-159-Appeal.

Supreme Court of Rhode Island.

April 19, 2011

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Page 501

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Page 502

James A. Bigos, Esq., Pawtucket, for Plaintiff.

Moss M. Sidell, Pro Se, for Defendant.

Present: SUTTELL, C.J., GOLDBERG, FLAHERTY, ROBINSON, and INDEGLIA, JJ.

OPINION

GOLDBERG, Justice.

This case is before the Court on an appeal by Moss Sidell (Moss or defendant) from a Family Court order in favor of Jacalyn Sidell (Jacalyn or plaintiff), his former wife. The parties were divorced in the Rhode Island Family Court in June 2007. When the decree was entered, the plaintiff and the parties' minor child 1 lived in Connecticut; sometime thereafter the defendant relocated to Massachusetts. In 2009, the defendant filed four postjudgment motions about custody and child-support enforcement issues in the Family Court. Upon motion by the plaintiff, these motions were dismissed based on lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. We affirm in part and vacate in part.

Facts and Travel

As part of a marital settlement agreement (MSA), which was incorporated but not merged in the divorce decree, the parties stipulated that " [t]he State of Rhode Island shall retain exclusive jurisdiction of all matters under this Settlement Agreement, and enforcement or modification thereof, and the laws of the State of Rhode Island will be applied to all aspects thereof." Their agreement also provided that " [n]either party shall bring any legal action involving the children, outside of the State or Rhode Island." 2 We are informed

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that Jacalyn and the minor child have lived in Connecticut since approximately April 2007 and that Moss lived in Rhode Island from the time the divorce was granted in June 2007 until July 2008. The record discloses that while Moss remained in Rhode Island, the Family Court heard and decided postjudgment motions filed by Jacalyn.

In January 2009, Moss filed two motions in Family Court, the first captioned a " Motion for Instructions and For Miscellaneous Relief" and the second a " Motion to Adjudge Plaintiff in Contempt, For Instructions and For Miscellaneous Relief." The Family Court found that Moss had not effectuated service on Jacalyn, and therefore the motions were passed. Notably, the hearing justice cautioned Moss that, " [y]ou live in Massachusetts and mother lives in Connecticut. I thought everybody agreed after we finished this the last time that Rhode Island really was out of it." She went on to inform Moss that " if [Jacalyn], in fact, did register the orders in Connecticut, that sounds [like] the place you need to go to file your motions." A party may register the orders in another state based on that state's statute paralleling G.L.1956 § 15-14.1-27 (" Registration of child custody determination" ) and G.L.1956 § 15-23.1-602 (" Procedure to register [support] order for enforcement" ).

The defendant disagreed with these admonitions and filed substantially similar motions in Family Court in February 2009, prompting Jacalyn to appear specially and move to dismiss on the grounds that the Rhode Island Family Court no longer retained personal and subject-matter jurisdiction over the parties and this controversy.3

In defending his decision to seek relief in Rhode Island, Moss argued that, because Jacalyn previously had filed postjudgment motions in Rhode Island, while living in Connecticut, she had " voluntarily submitted herself to the jurisdiction of Rhode Island[.]" The hearing justice rejected this argument and noted that " this [c]ourt has tried to tell you as many times as possible, you don't live here. The plaintiff doesn't live here. * * * Rhode Island is no longer the appropriate place to have this continuing litigation." Specifically addressing the fact that the court previously decided Jacalyn's motion, the trial justice stated:

" [T]he [c]ourt did hear [the motion] because, in fact, there was no other court that had assumed jurisdiction of the matter. [Jacalyn] soon thereafter did register the Rhode Island orders, the custody orders, and the child support orders in Connecticut. * * * Rhode Island was the only place, and the [c]ourt made it clear that that was the end of the road, and that somebody needed to go register the order. [Jacalyn] apparently did that."

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In March 2009, the Family Court entered an order dismissing Moss's motions, declaring that " the Rhode Island Family Court lacks jurisdiction over this matter[.]" The defendant appealed.

Before this Court, Moss assigns two grounds for his contentions that the trial justice erred: first, that Rhode Island has continuing jurisdiction over this controversy because Jacalyn voluntarily submitted herself to the Court's jurisdiction; and, second, because the parties agreed in their MSA that Rhode Island would remain the forum state. The defendant also alleges that the hearing justice committed reversible error by declaring that Jacalyn properly had registered the divorce documents in Connecticut.

Standard of Review

This Court consistently has declared that " a claim of lack of subject matter jurisdiction may be raised at any time." Long v. Dell, Inc., 984 A.2d 1074, 1078 (R.I.2009) (quoting Pollard v. Acer Group, 870 A.2d 429, 433 (R.I.2005)). Because subject-matter jurisdiction is an indispensable ingredient of any judicial proceeding, it can be raised by the court sua sponte. Paolino v. Paolino, 420 A.2d 830, 833 (R.I.1980). We review " de novo whether a court has subject-matter jurisdiction over a particular controversy." Long, 984 A.2d at 1078 (citing Newman v. Valleywood Associates, Inc., 874 A.2d 1286, 1288 (R.I.2005)).

We also review issues of statutory interpretation de novo. Waterman v. Caprio, 983 A.2d 841, 844 (R.I.2009). " It is well settled that when the language of a statute is clear and unambiguous, this Court must interpret the statute literally and must give the words of the statute their plain and ordinary meanings." Id. (quoting Iselin v. Retirement Board of the Employees' Retirement System of Rhode Island, 943 A.2d 1045, 1049 (R.I.2008)). We are mindful that " our ultimate goal is to give effect to the purpose of the act as intended by the Legislature." Webster v. Perrotta, 774 A.2d 68, 75 (R.I.2001) (citing Matter of Falstaff Brewing Corp. Re: Narragansett Brewery Fire, 637 A.2d 1047, 1050 (R.I.1994)).

Analysis

I

The Family Court's Subject-Matter Jurisdiction

The Family Court is a legislatively created court of limited jurisdiction, and its powers are thus restricted to those that are conferred upon it by the General Assembly. State v. Greenberg, 951 A.2d 481, 490 (R.I.2008); Chambers v. Ormiston, 935 A.2d 956, 958 (R.I.2007). Specifically, the Family Court's subject-matter jurisdiction must expressly be contained in the Family Court Act, G.L.1956 § 8-10-3.4 Paolino, 420 A.2d at 833. The Family Court's jurisdiction may not be extended by implication, nor may the question of subject-matter jurisdiction be waived by the parties. Pine v. Clark, 636 A.2d 1319, 1321 (R.I.1994); Britt v. Britt, 119 R.I. 791, 794-95, 383 A.2d 592, 594 (1978). The Family Court's subject-matter jurisdiction over child custody and support decisions is governed by the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Enforcement Act, G.L.1956 chapter 14.1 of title 15 (UCCJEA), and the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act, G.L.1956 chapter 23.1 of title 15 (UIFSA),

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respectively. Each act bestows jurisdiction upon the tribunals of this state through a concept called exclusive, continuing jurisdiction, which we shall detail in our analysis of each act. Before doing so, however, we note with approval, a comment from the Model UIFSA that sums up the intersection and divergence of these uniform acts with respect to the jurisdiction of the Family Court:

" [The] UIFSA and UCCJEA seek a world in which there is but one order at a time for child support and custody and visitation. Both [acts] have similar restrictions on the ability of a tribunal to modify the existing order. The major difference between the two acts is that the basic jurisdictional nexus of each is founded on different considerations. UIFSA has its focus on the personal jurisdiction necessary to bind the obligor to payment of a child-support order. UCCJEA places its focus on the factual circumstances of the child, primarily the ‘ home [s]tate’ of the child * * *." Model UIFSA Comment to Art. 6, § 611 (2008).

With this in mind, we turn to each act to determine whether the Family Court erred when it dismissed Moss's motions.

II

Child Custody and the UCCJEA

The Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act is embodied in chapter 14.1 of title 15. We previously have noted that the General Assembly adopted the UCCJEA " [i]n response to continuing confusion concerning the applicability of the full-faith-and credit clause of the United States Constitution to interstate custody decrees and in an attempt ‘ to stem the proliferation of jurisdiction in custody litigation’ * * *." Nadeau v. Nadeau, 716 A.2d 717, 721 (R.I.1998) (quoting Paolino, 420 A.2d at 835). We further noted that the purpose of the UCCJEA was to " minimize jurisdictional competition and conflict so that custody decisions are rendered in the state best able to...

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