329 P.3d 276 (Colo. 2014), 13SC995, People ex rel. S.N. v. S.N.

Docket Nº:13SC995
Citation:329 P.3d 276, 2014 CO 64
Opinion Judge:BOATRIGHT, JUSTICE.
Party Name:the People of the State of Colorado, Petitioner v. S.N., a/k/a S.S., and M.A.S, Respondents In the Interest of Minor Child: S.N.,
Attorney:For Petitioner: Ben H. Pearlman, County Attorney, Boulder County Attorney's Office, Jeanne P. Bergman, Assistant County Attorney, David E. Hughes, Deputy County Attorney, Ruth Becker, Deputy County Attorney, Boulder, Colorado. For S.N., a/k/a S.S., Respondent: Scott T. Poland, Andrew C. Poland, L...
Judge Panel:JUSTICE BOATRIGHT delivered the Opinion of the Court. JUSTICE COATS dissents, and JUSTICE EID joins in the dissent. JUSTICE COATS dissents, and JUSTICE EID joins in the dissent. JUSTICE COATS, dissenting. I am authorized to state that JUSTICE EID joins in this dissent.
Case Date:June 30, 2014
Court:Supreme Court of Colorado
 
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Page 276

329 P.3d 276 (Colo. 2014)

2014 CO 64

the People of the State of Colorado, Petitioner

In the Interest of Minor Child: S.N.,

v.

S.N., a/k/a S.S., and M.A.S, Respondents

No. 13SC995

Supreme Court of Colorado, En Banc

June 30, 2014

Page 277

Certiorari to the Colorado Court of Appeals. Court of Appeals Case No. 12CA2078.

SYLLABUS

The supreme court granted certiorari to consider whether summary judgment is ever appropriate in a dependency and neglect adjudication involving prospective harm. The supreme court now holds that courts must evaluate whether summary judgment is appropriate in a dependency and neglect adjudication involving prospective harm on a case-by-case basis. Accordingly, the supreme court reverses the judgment of the court of appeals and remands the case to that court for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

For Petitioner: Ben H. Pearlman, County Attorney, Boulder County Attorney's Office, Jeanne P. Bergman, Assistant County Attorney, David E. Hughes, Deputy County Attorney, Ruth Becker, Deputy County Attorney, Boulder, Colorado.

For S.N., a/k/a S.S., Respondent: Scott T. Poland, Andrew C. Poland, Lakewood, Colorado.

For M.A.S., Respondent: Robert A. Lubowitz, Denver, Colorado.

Guardian ad Litem for the Minor Child: J. Barry Meinster, Meinster & Associates, PC, Conifer, Colorado.

For Colorado Counties, Inc., Amicus Curiae: Thomas J. Lyons, Malcolm S. Mead, Rachel E. Yeates, Hall & Evans, L.L.C., Denver, Colorado.

JUSTICE BOATRIGHT delivered the Opinion of the Court. JUSTICE COATS dissents, and JUSTICE EID joins in the dissent.

OPINION

Page 278

BOATRIGHT, JUSTICE.

[¶1] We granted certiorari to consider whether summary judgment is ever appropriate in dependency and neglect adjudications involving prospective harm. The court of appeals held that a trial court can never grant summary judgment in prospective harm cases because reasonable minds can always draw differing inferences from the evidence. We, however, conclude that, when the underlying material facts are undisputed, reasonable minds could reach one inference based on the specific facts of the case. We therefore hold that courts must evaluate whether summary judgment is appropriate in a dependency and neglect adjudication involving prospective harm on a case-by-case basis. Thus we reverse the judgment of the court of appeals and remand the case to that court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

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I. Facts and Procedural History

[¶2] The Boulder County Department of Social Services removed baby S.N. from her parents1 at the hospital shortly after her birth. Six days after S.N.'s birth, the trial court terminated both parents' parental rights to S.N.'s three older siblings. The People then filed a petition in dependency and neglect for S.N., after which they filed a motion for summary judgment on adjudication. Because S.N. had never been in her parents' care, the People's argument rested entirely upon prospective harm: that, if S.N. was returned to her parents, (1) she would lack " proper parental care" ; (2) her " environment [would be] injurious to her welfare" ; and (3) her parents would fail or refuse to provide the care that is " necessary for her health, guidance, or well-being." S.N.'s guardian ad litem supported the People's motion for summary judgment. The father filed a verified response in opposition. Additionally, the mother filed a response and supporting affidavit, asking the court to deny the motion.

[¶3] The trial court granted the People's motion for summary judgment, and both parents appealed to the court of appeals. Instead of deciding if summary judgment was appropriate on the facts of this case, the court of appeals found that reasonable minds could always differ about whether the statutory criteria are met in a dependency and neglect adjudication based on prospective harm. See People in Interest of S.N., 2013 COA 157, ¶ 32. It therefore concluded that, as a matter of law, summary judgment is never appropriate in dependency and neglect adjudications where the People's evidence rests on prospective harm. See id. at ¶ 33.

[¶4] We granted certiorari to review the court of appeals' opinion2 and now reverse.

II. Standard of Review

[¶5] This Court reviews issues of law de novo. Lucero v. People, 2012 CO 7, ¶ 19, 272 P.3d 1063. Therefore, we review de novo the court of appeals' holding that, as a matter of law, summary judgment is never an appropriate procedural tool in dependency and neglect adjudications based on prospective harm.

III. Analysis

[¶6] We begin by reviewing the statutory procedures surrounding an action in dependency and neglect as set forth in the Children's Code and then separately examine summary judgment motions. Ultimately, we combine our analyses and conclude that courts should consider whether summary judgment is appropriate in a dependency and neglect adjudication involving prospective harm on a case-by-case basis.

A. Dependency and Neglect Proceedings

[¶7] Dependency and neglect proceedings are brought under the Children's Code, § § 19-1-101 to 19-7-103, C.R.S. (2013), the " overriding purpose" of which is to " protect the welfare and safety of children in Colorado by providing procedures through which their best interests can be ascertained and served." A.M. v. A.C., 2013 CO 16, ¶ 10, 296 P.3d 1026.

[¶8] A dependency and neglect proceeding is initiated when either the local county department of human services or a local law enforcement agency becomes aware of suspected child abuse or neglect. Id. at ¶ 11. The entity receiving the information, after taking " immediate steps . . . as may be required to protect" the child or children, must inform the appropriate juvenile court or district court with juvenile jurisdiction, which then may authorize the filing of a petition in dependency and neglect. § 19-3-312, C.R.S. (2013).

[¶9] A petition in dependency and neglect is filed by the People of the State of

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Colorado. See § 19-3-502(1), C.R.S. (2013). Indeed, the People are the " exclusive party" entitled to do so. A.M., ¶ 12. After the People file a petition in dependency and neglect, the court must issue a summons that informs the parents of the substance of the petition and their rights. § 19-3-503, C.R.S. (2013). Once the parents appear in court, the court must fully advise them of their statutory rights, including their right to be represented by counsel, their right to contest the allegations, and their right to request a trial by either jury or the court. § 19-3-202, C.R.S. (2013). In either trial by jury or the court, the People have the burden of proving, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the " status of the subject child or children warrants intrusive protective or corrective state intervention into the familial relationship." People in Interest of A.M., 786 P.2d 476, 479 (Colo. App. 1989). In determining whether intervention is warranted, the court's " paramount concern" is " the safety of the . . . child, and not the custodial interest[s] of the parent[s]." L.G. v. People, 890 P.2d 647, 655 (Colo. 1995). If a court enters an order of adjudication, it is not made " as to" the parents but relates " only to the status of the child as of the date of the adjudication." K.D. v. People, 139 P.3d 695, 699 (Colo. 2006). Simply put, an adjudication is not meant to punish the parents. L.G., 890 P.2d at 655.

[¶10] Rather, the State's goal is to prevent neglect or abuse. See People ex. rel. S.G.L., 214 P.3d 580, 583 (Colo. App. 2009) (stating that an adjudication is, in part, preventative). An adjudication is also remedial because it allows the State to aid the...

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