Deborah S., Matter of

Citation115 Misc.2d 177,453 N.Y.S.2d 1007
CourtNew York Family Court
Decision Date11 August 1982
PartiesIn the Matter of the Petition of The Catholic Home Bureau For Dependent Children for the Transfer and Commitment of Guardianship and Custody of DEBORAH S., A Child under the age of Eighteen Alleged to be Permanently Neglected. (Catholic Home Bureau, Petitioner).

NANETTE DEMBITZ, Judge:

This proceeding was brought by the Catholic Home Bureau, the foster-care agency for 10 year-old Deborah S., to terminate her mother's parental rights in order to free her for adoption by her foster-parents. Deborah has been in foster-care since birth, except for a period of 14 months with her mother, which ended in a court-ordered replacement in foster-care because of the mother's neglect.

The Catholic Home Bureau (CHB) moves for summary judgement in the instant termination case, on the basis of "collateral estoppel (or issue preclusion as is its more modern name...)," 1 arguing that all material issues of fact have been decided in the prior extensive litigation about Deborah's care. Petitioner's motion must be denied despite the fact that a lengthy re-trial of issues will thereby be required. While the criteria for collateral estoppel are largely fulfilled (Point I below), its use is nevertheless precluded, in this court's opinion, by the repercussions of the Supreme Court's recent decision in Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 102 S.Ct. 1388, 71 L.Ed.2d 599 (1982), establishing a new standard of proof for the termination of parental rights. As explained below (Point II), respondent's opportunity in prior proceedings to litigate regarding compliance with the Santosky standard, was insufficient to support issue-preclusion in the instant case.

I. Collateral Estoppel Factors in Petitioner's Favor
A. Determination of Same Issues in Prior Litigation

As petitioner contends, the purpose of the collateral estoppel doctrine--to "relieve parties of the cost and vexation of multiple lawsuits ... (and) conserve judicial resources" 2--would undoubtedly be served by grant of the CHB motion for summary judgement. For, the question of Deborah's custody and welfare has already been the subject of three lengthy trials before three different judges as well as three appeals. 3

The prior cases all arose under the foster-care review section of the Social Services Law (section 392); and they concerned the question of whether Deborah should remain with or be returned to, her foster-parents. (She had gone into their care directly from the hospital of delivery after her birth with drug withdrawal symptoms, and remained with them for the first five years of her life.) The question in the instant case is of course a much graver one than foster-care, which is envisioned as a short-term measure during temporary parental incapacity. Instead of the foster-care review provisions of S.S.L. 392, this suit arises under the "permanent neglect" provisions of S.S.L. 384-b and article 6 of the Family Court Act; and the question is whether respondent-mother's rights and connection with Deborah should be finally and completely severed so that the child may be afforded the stability and exclusivity of adoption in place of the limbo of foster-care.

The collateral estoppel doctrine "requires an exploration of the various elements which make up the realities of litigation" (Schwartz v. Public Administrator, 24 N.Y.2d 65, 72, 498 N.Y.S.2d 955, 246 N.E.2d 725). Here, despite the difference between the prior and instant causes of action and the statutory provisions therein, the "realities of litigation" show, as petitioner contends, that findings tantamount to those required in a termination case were made by this judge in the 1979 Family Court foster-care proceeding. See Matter of Deborah S., 100 Misc.2d 485, 419 N.Y.S.2d 803 (and filed Supplemental Findings therein), affd. 77 A.D.2d 492, 433 N.Y.S.2d 789, app. dism. 53 N.Y.2d 602, 439 N.Y.S.2d 1026, 421 N.E.2d 853.

In a permanent neglect-termination case, the findings required in the crucial and customarily lengthy "fact-finding" stage are that the parent has neglected the child in a specified fashion despite the foster-care agency's "diligent efforts" to strengthen the parent-child relationship. See Fam.Ct.Act, sec. 614, 1(c), (d); Social Services Law 384-b, 7(a), (c), (f). It is true that the findings in the foster-care case--including the finding as to the Catholic Home Bureau's "diligent and conscientious efforts ... to help the mother with her psychological, medical, financial, and housing problems," 4 do not parrot the words of the termination statute. However, it certainly is more significant to flesh out the statutory phrases than to recite them. Comparing the substance of the 1979 findings with those required for a "fact-finding" in the instant termination proceeding, they are sufficiently identical to establish collateral estoppel, or issue preclusion, in the instant case.

Finally, collateral estoppel is applicable to preclude re-trial of the "fact-finding" issues despite the interim between the periods involved in the 1979 findings and the date of filing of the instant termination petition. One of the "realities of litigation" (see Schwartz, supra, 24 N.Y.2d at p. 72, 428 N.Y.S.2d 955, 246 N.E.2d 725) is the doctrine that parental neglect during any "period of more than one year" of a child's foster-care can support a fact finding in a permanent neglect case, 5 and activate the "dispositional" stage, in which the court determines whether adoption is in the child's best interest. However, the disposition must focus on the child's current best interests. (Fam.Ct.Act, secs. 623, 624). Petitioner's suggestion that a dispositional order for a child's adoption could be based on collateral estoppel and a past determination of his interests, must therefore be rejected. At the same time, as pointed out above, petitioner's contention is valid regarding the preclusion of the "fact-finding" issues because of their past determination.

B. Identity of Parties and Equivalent Interest in Prior and Present Litigation

The question in collateral estoppel cases of whether the parties in the relevant litigation are sufficiently identical, 6 need not detain us. Not only are the parties the same in the past and instant cases, but even the attorneys for petitioner and respondent are the same who have been joined in battle ever since the first proceeding about Deborah.

Somewhat more complex is the question of whether respondent can reasonably be expected to have pursued the relevant issues with the same zeal in the prior litigation as she would in the instant case. Unless the test of equivalent zeal is met, it is deemed unfair to preclude the losing party from litigating or re-litigating the issue. 7

In support of respondent's argument that this criterion of collateral estoppel is here unsatisfied, it is true that termination of parental rights--petitioner's goal herein--is the most serious step of any in parent-child relations. 8 Further, it was clear in the prior contest as to Deborah's foster-care that the drastic remedy of termination could only be ordered in a separate, future action. On the other hand, it was also clear that a termination suit against respondent would be likely only if she lost the foster-care suit. 9 Thus, in the specific legal framework here involved, respondent "had every incentive to litigate ... fully and vigorously" in the previous action (see Parklane Hosiery Co. v. Shore, 439 U.S. 322, 332, 99 S.Ct. 645, 652, 58 L.Ed.2d 552). The case at bar is therefore clearly distinguishable from Shanley v. Callanan Industries, 54 N.Y.2d 52, 444 N.Y.S.2d 585, 429 N.E.2d 104, where the "foreseeability of future litigation" prohibited the use of collateral estoppel because that prospect seemed to have narrowed the presentation of evidence in the prior case. (54 N.Y.2d at p. 56, 444 N.Y.S.2d 585, 429 N.E.2d 104). Here respondent's zeal in the past litigation was likely for the very reason of the foreseeability of a termination suit.

II. Denial of Collateral Estoppel Because of Supreme Court Decision

Despite the above points in favor of petitioner's motion for summary judgement, its denial is required in this court's opinion because of the new rule as to the quantum of proof in termination cases established by Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 102 S.Ct. 1388, 71 L.Ed.2d 599 (1982).

At the time of the 1979 foster-care proceeding the quantum of proof applicable in foster-care review and in a permanent neglect-termination case was substantially the same: proof by a preponderance of the evidence. 10 If that standard still prevailed in the latter proceedings, the findings in the 1979 foster-care case would suffice to establish collateral estoppel as to the fact-finding in the case at bar.

However, in Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 102 S.Ct. 1388, 71 L.Ed.2d 599 (1982), the Supreme Court held that the quantum of proof prescribed by statute for a permanent neglect case violated the Constitutional guarantee of due process. Because of the importance of a parent's right to a relationship with his child, the right can not be terminated, according to the Supreme Court holding, unless the allegations are supported by at least "clear and convincing evidence." (102 S.Ct. at p. 1402). As a result of this new standard of evidence in termination cases, there is a fatal flaw in petitioner's argument for collateral estoppel: the flaw is that respondent has not had the opportunity to attempt to show the deficiency of petitioner's evidence under the current standard. And a "full and fair opportunity" in a prior proceeding to litigate the instant...

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