Frame v. Nehls, Docket No. 102139

CourtSupreme Court of Michigan
Writing for the CourtBOYLE; BRICKLEY; LEVIN; MICHAEL F. CAVANAGH
Citation550 N.W.2d 739,452 Mich. 171
Docket NumberNo. 11,Docket No. 102139
Decision Date03 July 1996
PartiesGina E. FRAME (now Stephens), Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Jay J. Franklin NEHLS, Defendant, and Stephen Nehls, Petitioner-Appellee. Calendar

Page 739

550 N.W.2d 739
452 Mich. 171
Gina E. FRAME (now Stephens), Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Jay J. Franklin NEHLS, Defendant,
and
Stephen Nehls, Petitioner-Appellee.
Docket No. 102139.
Calendar No. 11.
Supreme Court of Michigan.
Argued Nov. 7, 1995.
Decided July 3, 1996.

Page 740

[452 Mich. 174] Miller, Johnson, Snell & Cummiskey, P.L.C. by Harry Contos, Jr., Kalamazoo, for plaintiff.

Ford, Kriekard, Domeny & Byrne by Richard D. Stroba, Portage, for defendant.

BOYLE, Justice.

In this case, we interpret M.C.L.A. § 722.27b; M.S.A. § 25.312(7b), the section of the Child Custody Act, M.C.L.A. § 722.21 et seq.; M.S.A. § 25.312(1) et seq. that involves the right of grandparents to seek visitation of their grandchildren. 1 We granted leave to determine whether the grandparent visitation statute entitles appellee to seek court-ordered visitation, and whether it unconstitutionally deprives appellee-grandfather equal protection of the law.

The Child Custody Act, M.C.L.A. § 722.21 et seq.; M.S.A. § 25.312(1) et seq., does not authorize an order of visitation because the grandchild's father is not deceased, and the father is not involved in a child custody dispute as defined under M.C.L.A. § 722.27b(2); M.S.A. § 25.312(7b)(2). The relevant section of the statute leaves the decision to allow grandparent visitation to the discretion of the parents of the grandchild, whether they are married or unmarried, as long as the parents are living and at least one parent has custody of the grandchild. The one instance in which the statute treats grandparents differently, depending on whether the living child through whom the grandparent claims standing has married the other parent of the grandchild, focuses on the parents' marital status with respect to the grandparents.

The classification created involves neither a suspect class, nor a fundamental right, is rationally [452 Mich. 175] related to a legitimate government purpose, and does not violate equal protection. The decision of the Court of Appeals is reversed. 2

Dustin Nehls was born on March 21, 1991. At the time of Dustin's birth, plaintiff Gina Frame, his mother, was unmarried and living with defendant Jay Nehls. When plaintiff and defendant ended their relationship, plaintiff filed a complaint in the Kalamazoo Circuit Court to determine paternity. The complaint alleged that defendant, Jay Nehls, was the father. Defendant admitted paternity

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of Dustin. The circuit court entered an order of filiation, awarding plaintiff custody and awarding defendant regular visitation. Appellee, Stephen Nehls, Dustin's paternal grandfather, then petitioned the circuit court for visitation.

Plaintiff moved for summary disposition of appellee's petition on the basis of the Court of Appeals decision in Nelson v. Kendrick, 187 Mich.App. 367, 466 N.W.2d 402 (1991). Nelson held that a complaint for determination of paternity does not constitute a "child custody dispute" within the meaning of the grandparent visitation statute. The trial court granted plaintiff's motion.

Appellee appealed, and the Court of Appeals reversed. Frame v. Nehls, 208 Mich.App. 412, 528 N.W.2d 773 (1995). The Court reasoned that the grandparent visitation statute violated the Equal Protection Clause under the federal and state constitutions. U.S. Const., Am. XIV; Const. 1963, art. 1, § 2. It had determined that Nelson was not binding because that Court did not address a [452 Mich. 176] statutory section in the grandparent visitation statute that the Court in Frame believed was necessary for the full resolution of the issue.

We granted plaintiff's application for leave to appeal to determine the scope, as well as the constitutionality, of the grandparent visitation statute. Frame v. Nehls, 449 Mich. 851, 535 N.W.2d 788 (1995).

The Statutory Claim

The familiar interpretive principles need no citation. The goal of statutory construction is to effect the intent of the Legislature. If the statute is clear, we enforce its directive. Judicial construction is authorized only where a statute is unclear and susceptible to more than one interpretation.

The legislative purpose behind the Child Custody Act is to "promote the best interests and welfare of children." Fletcher v. Fletcher, 447 Mich. 871, 877, 526 N.W.2d 889 (1994). The act directs that it is "equitable in nature and shall be liberally construed and applied to establish promptly the rights of the child and the rights and duties of the parties involved." M.C.L.A. § 722.26(1); M.S.A. § 25.312(6)(1). Section 7b of the Child Custody Act deals specifically with grandparent visitation. 3 M.C.L.A. § 722.27b(3); M.S.A. § 25.312(7b)(3). The grandparent visitation statute is consistent with the general purpose of the act, in that it permits a court [452 Mich. 177] to enter a grandparent visitation order "if the court finds that it is in the best interests of the child" to do so. M.C.L.A. § 722.27b(3); M.S.A. § 25.312(7b)(3). However, before such a determination may be made, the court must first resolve a threshold matter: whether the parties before it have standing. The Legislature has granted grandparents standing to petition for visitation of their grandchildren only in "carefully limited circumstances." 4 Subsection 1 of the grandparent visitation statute states:

Except as provided in this subsection, a grandparent of the child may seek an order for visitation in the manner set forth in this section only if a child custody dispute with respect to that child is pending before the court. If a natural parent of an unmarried child is deceased, a parent of the deceased person may commence an action for visitation. Adoption of the child by a stepparent ... does not terminate the right of a parent of the deceased person to commence an action for visitation. [M.C.L.A. § 722.27b(1); M.S.A. § 25.312(7b)(1).]

Page 742

This subsection announces the general rule that a grandparent has standing to seek visitation only if a child custody dispute is pending. 5 An exception to [452 Mich. 178] this rule is created for cases in which the child of the grandparent (the parent of the grandchild) is deceased. This first subsection clearly and unambiguously presents the only two situations in which grandparent visitation can be sought.

Because Dustin's father is alive, appellee, Dustin's paternal grandfather, can only seek visitation if a "child custody dispute" involving Dustin is pending. Subsection two defines child custody dispute clearly and unambiguously. That subsection provides:

As used in this section, "child custody dispute" includes a proceeding in which any of the following occurs:

(a) The marriage of the child's parents is declared invalid or is dissolved by the court, or a court enters a decree of legal separation with regard to the marriage.

(b) Legal custody of the child is given to a party other than the child's parent, or the child is placed outside of and does not reside in the home of a parent, excluding any child who has been placed for adoption with other than a stepparent, or whose adoption by other than a stepparent has been legally finalized. [M.C.L.A. § 722.27b(2); M.S.A. § 25.312(7b)(2) (emphasis added).]

Appellee argues that it is ambiguous whether the statute's definition of "child custody dispute" should be read expansively or narrowly. He contends that liberal construction of the act and use of the word "includes" require that the definition of child custody dispute be read to embrace situations not specifically enumerated in §§ 2(a) and 2(b). A review of the text of the Child Custody Act, as well as the legislative history of the grandparent visitation statute, leads to the opposite result.

When used in the text of a statute, the word "includes" can be used as a term of enlargement or of [452 Mich. 179] limitation, and the word in and of itself is not determinative of how it is intended to be used. Belanger v. Warren Consol. School Dist. Bd. of Ed., 432 Mich. 575, 587, n. 25, 443 N.W.2d 372 (1989). The term "child custody dispute," or a variation thereof, is used in virtually every section of the Child Custody Act. Nowhere but in the grandparent visitation section, however, is the term defined. 6 As recognized by the Court of Appeals in Nelson v. Kendrick, supra, other sections of the act use the term broadly to mean any action or situation involving the placement of a child. 187 Mich.App. at 370, 466 N.W.2d 402. We agree with the Nelson Court that, unlike other sections of the act, the specific definition provided in the grandparent visitation statute must be interpreted as a limitation on the term's broad general usage. Id. at 371, 466 N.W.2d 402.

The legislative history of the grandparent visitation statute supports a narrow reading of the term. Senate Bill 316, introduced in 1991, proposed to amend the grandparent visitation statute to "add to the conditions under which a grandparent may seek visitation rights...." Senate Fiscal Agency Analysis, SB 316-317, May 21, 1991, p 1. The bill, which failed to pass, would have amended the current statute by adding five new subsections to the definition of child custody dispute, one of which would have conferred standing upon grandparents "if the parents [of the grandchild] were never married and were not living in the same household." Had SB 316 passed, this proposed subsection would have conferred grandparent standing under the facts in this case. If the Legislature [452 Mich. 180] intended the present definition of "child custody dispute" to confer standing in situations other than those specified in the provision here in issue, such an amendment would

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have been unnecessary. The proposed amendment of the grandparent visitation statute supports the conclusion that the Legislature intended the current definition of child custody dispute to encompass only those situations specifically enumerated in subsection 7b(2).

In light of the statute's text and legislative history,...

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75 practice notes
  • Driver v. Naini, Docket No. 140922.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Michigan
    • August 1, 2011
    ...of limitations will have expired. 19. When two legislative enactments conflict, the more specific enactment controls. Frame v. Nehls, 452 Mich. 171, 176 n. 3, 550 N.W.2d 739 (1996). FN20. Id. 21. If statutes lend themselves to a harmonious construction, that construction controls. In re Pro......
  • Brown v. Loveman, Docket No. 249016.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Michigan (US)
    • May 14, 2004
    ...the purpose of the act is to promote the best interest of children, and it is to be liberally construed. MCL 722.26(1), Frame v. Nehls, 452 Mich. 171, 176, 550 N.W.2d 739 (1996); Harvey v. Harvey, 257 Mich.App. 278, 291, 668 N.W.2d 187 7. We are not contending that the use of both the D'Ono......
  • In re RFF, Docket No. 221581.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Michigan (US)
    • October 18, 2000
    ...of the law is guaranteed by the federal and state constitutions. U.S. Const., Am. XIV; Const. 1963, art. 1, § 2; Frame v. Nehls, 452 Mich. 171, 183, 550 N.W.2d 739 (1996). The Michigan and federal Equal Protection Clauses offer similar protection. Id. Generally, equal protection requires th......
  • Heltzel v. Heltzel, Docket No. 232736.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Michigan (US)
    • January 10, 2002
    ...Act `to mean any action or situation involving the placement of a child.'" Sirovey, supra at 68, 565 N.W.2d 857, quoting Frame v. Nehls, 452 Mich. 171, 179, 550 N.W.2d 739 (1996). Defendant's March 2000 petition to change the child's custody from the grandparents clearly created an "action ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
75 cases
  • Driver v. Naini, Docket No. 140922.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Michigan
    • August 1, 2011
    ...of limitations will have expired. 19. When two legislative enactments conflict, the more specific enactment controls. Frame v. Nehls, 452 Mich. 171, 176 n. 3, 550 N.W.2d 739 (1996). FN20. Id. 21. If statutes lend themselves to a harmonious construction, that construction controls. In re Pro......
  • Brown v. Loveman, Docket No. 249016.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Michigan (US)
    • May 14, 2004
    ...the purpose of the act is to promote the best interest of children, and it is to be liberally construed. MCL 722.26(1), Frame v. Nehls, 452 Mich. 171, 176, 550 N.W.2d 739 (1996); Harvey v. Harvey, 257 Mich.App. 278, 291, 668 N.W.2d 187 7. We are not contending that the use of both the D'Ono......
  • In re RFF, Docket No. 221581.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Michigan (US)
    • October 18, 2000
    ...of the law is guaranteed by the federal and state constitutions. U.S. Const., Am. XIV; Const. 1963, art. 1, § 2; Frame v. Nehls, 452 Mich. 171, 183, 550 N.W.2d 739 (1996). The Michigan and federal Equal Protection Clauses offer similar protection. Id. Generally, equal protection requires th......
  • Heltzel v. Heltzel, Docket No. 232736.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Michigan (US)
    • January 10, 2002
    ...Act `to mean any action or situation involving the placement of a child.'" Sirovey, supra at 68, 565 N.W.2d 857, quoting Frame v. Nehls, 452 Mich. 171, 179, 550 N.W.2d 739 (1996). Defendant's March 2000 petition to change the child's custody from the grandparents clearly created an "action ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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