Aeda v. Aeda

Decision Date24 July 2013
Docket NumberNo. 31,182.,31,182.
Citation310 P.3d 646
PartiesMaria Magdalena AEDA, a/k/a Magdalena Giron, Petitioner–Appellee, v. Osamah AEDA, Respondent–Appellant.
CourtCourt of Appeals of New Mexico

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Magdalena Giron, Las Cruces, NM, Pro Se Appellee.

Keithly & English, P.C., Shane A. English, Anthony, NM, for Appellant.

OPINION

BUSTAMANTE, Judge.

{1} As a matter of first impression we are asked to decide whether termination of parental rights ends a parent's obligation to make child support payments imposed in a divorce decree. We conclude that a termination of parental rights severs the parent-child relationship completely—including the support obligation. As a result we reverse the district court's order. 1

I. BACKGROUND

{2} Maria Magdalena Aeda (Mother) and Osamah Aeda (Father) were married in 1984 and divorced in 1990. They had two children during the marriage. The divorce decree ordered Father to pay $600 per month in child support until the children reached majority, were emancipated, or until further order of the court.

{3} In March 1993, Mother filed for termination of Father's parental rights, alleging failure to pay child support and physical and mental abuse of her and the children. Father did not respond to Mother's motion on its merits. Rather, he filed a special appearance challenging jurisdiction. Father did nothing in the case after filing his special appearance, failing even to appear at the hearing he requested on the issue.

{4} The district court held a hearing on the motion accepting oral testimony and exhibits. In its order terminating Father's parental rights, the district court found that “the children ... have been abandoned as [Father had] paid no child support since entry of the [divorce decree] and that [t]he children ... have witnessed horrific violence and mayhem to those they love; specifically, their mother and maternal grandmother, which violence was a result of [F]ather's conduct.” The district court also found that Father had kidnapped the children for ten months in 1990, taking them to Texas and not permitting them any contact with Mother during that time. Specifically with regard to the children, the district court determined:

5. There will be no damage to the children if they never have contact with [F]ather again. In fact, the children will be relieved.

....

12. [T]here has been extensive emotional and physical abuse of the minor children and it is in the best interest of these children that the parental rights of [F]ather be terminated forever.

The termination order of November 1, 1993, made no mention of alteration of the child support order. Notably, neither Mother's motion nor the district court's order cited any statutory authority.

{5} In 1991, Mother applied for assistance from the New Mexico Human Services Department, Child Support Enforcement Division (HSD), which prompted collection efforts by HSD against Father. Using a variety of mechanisms, HSD seized approximately $7620 from Father between 1991 and 2005. In 2004, Father contested the seizure of funds from his bank account in an administrative hearing, arguing that New Mexico did not have jurisdiction over his divorce proceedings. The hearing officer in that proceedingdetermined that New Mexico had jurisdiction, HSD had acted properly in seizing the funds, and Father owed over $42,000 in child support at that time. There is no indication in the record that Father ever raised termination of his rights as a defense to HSD's collection efforts.

{6} In October 2008, HSD moved to intervene in the proceedings between Mother and Father (the divorce and termination proceedings were assigned the same case number) and filed a motion to establish a payment plan for child support arrearages. Now represented by counsel, Father moved to dismiss HSD's motion arguing that [b]y terminating his parental rights, the [termination o]rder terminated [Father's] parental relationship with the children such that [Father] thereafter owed no legal duty or obligation to the children, including any duty to support the children.” Father also asserted laches as an affirmative defense. In June 2009, after Father responded, Mother, through private counsel, filed her own motion to show cause through which she sought payment of child support arrearages under the divorce decree.

{7} The district court held a hearing on Father's and Mother's motions in August 2009. At the conclusion of the hearing the district court ruled against Father because in its view parental rights and the duty to support are “separate and distinguishable.” The record does not include an order reflecting this ruling until entry in February 2011 of the final order that is the subject of this appeal.

{8} After the district court's oral denial of Father's motion to dismiss, HSD withdrew as intervenor and “permanently” waived its assignment of rights and financial interests.

{9} In June 2010 the district court determined after a hearing that the defense of laches did not apply to this case. And, after a final hearing, the district court ordered Father to pay past due child support, plus interest, in the stipulated amount of $117,502.41, covering the fourteen-year period from October 1994 through September 30, 2010. Father appealed.

II. DISCUSSION

{10} Father first argues that the district court misconstrued the applicable statutes in ruling that termination of his parental rights did not terminate his child support obligations. He also argues that the district court erred in finding that the defense of laches was inapplicable. Given our conclusion that termination of parental rights does terminate child support obligations, there is no need to address laches.

1. Standard of Review

{11} Interpretation of a statute is a question of law, which an appellate court reviews de novo. See Morgan Keegan Mortg. Co. v. Candelaria, 1998–NMCA–008, ¶ 5, 124 N.M. 405, 951 P.2d 1066. The overriding purpose of statutory construction is to “give effect to the Legislature's intent.” Key v. Chrysler Motors Corp., 121 N.M. 764, 768, 918 P.2d 350, 354 (1996). “In interpreting statutes, we seek to give effect to the Legislature's intent, and in determining intent we look to the language used and consider the statute's history and background.” Id. at 768–69, 918 P.2d at 354–55. If we determine that the language of a statute is clear and unambiguous, there is no need for additional analysis of the statute. Sims v. Sims, 1996–NMSC–078, ¶ 17, 122 N.M. 618, 930 P.2d 153. Rather, “it is ... the responsibility of the judiciary to apply the statute as written.” Martinez v. Cornejo, 2009–NMCA–011, ¶ 11, 146 N.M. 223, 208 P.3d 443 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); see State ex rel. Barela v. N.M. State Bd. of Educ., 80 N.M. 220, 222, 453 P.2d 583, 585 (1969) (We are not permitted to read into a statute language which is not there, particularly if it makes sense as written.”). When the statute's language is not clear and unambiguous, we rely on the history of the statute, Key, 121 N.M. at 768–69, 918 P.2d at 354–55, construction of “other statutes concerning the same subject matter,” Quantum Corp. v. State Taxation & Revenue Department, 1998–NMCA–050, ¶ 8, 125 N.M. 49, 956 P.2d 848, and the principles embodied in the Uniform Statute and Rule Construction Act, NMSA 1978, Sections 12–2A–1 to –20 (1997). Unless a statute violates the Constitution, [w]e will not question the wisdom, policy, or justness of legislation enacted by our Legislature.” Madrid v. St. Joseph Hosp., 1996–NMSC–064, ¶ 10, 122 N.M. 524, 928 P.2d 250. Finally, we note that [l]egislative silence is at best a tenuous guide to determining legislative intent[.] Swink v. Fingado, 115 N.M. 275, 283, 850 P.2d 978, 986 (1993).

2. Which Statute Requires Construction

{12} Our first task is to determine which statute requires construction. Mother filed the petition for termination of Father's rights in March 1993 and the district court granted the petition in November 1993. Between those two dates, the Legislature passed amendments to the Children's Code, which became effective on July 1, 1993. 1993 N.M. Laws, ch. 77, §§ 234, 236. Thus, our review is focused on the construction of the Children's Code as it existed before those amendments were effective, not on the language of the Children's Code after the amendments. See § 12–2A–16(A), (B) (“A pending civil action or proceeding may be completed and a right accrued may be enforced as if the statute or rule had not been amended or repealed.”).

{13} Having determined the temporal focus of our inquiry, we must next determine which statute was operative in this case. Neither Mother's petition for termination of Father's rights nor the district court's order cited a statutory basis for the termination. We conclude that the petition and order were based on the authority granted in NMSA 1978, Sections 32–1–54 and –55 (1985) primarily because there were no other provisions for termination of parental rights extant at the time. In addition, Section 32–1–55 and other sections of the Children's Code were cited by Mother in subsequent pleadings, and the district court found [t]hat there ha[d] been extensive emotional and physical abuse of the ... children and it is in the best interest of these children that the parental rights of [Father] be terminated forever [,] which are some of the required elements of termination under Sections 32–1–54 and –55. See § 32–1–54(A), (B)(3). Our focus here, then, is on construction of Sections 32–1–54 and –55.

3. Sections 32–1–54 and –55 Are Not Clear and Unambiguous

{14} We next examine Sections 32–1–54 and –55 to determine if they are clear and unambiguous. The provision describing the effect of an order of termination reads:

A judgment of the court terminating parental rights divests the parent of all legal rights and privileges, and dispenses with both the necessity for the consent to or receipt of notice of any...

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