In re C.L.S.

Decision Date09 April 2021
Docket NumberNos. 20-256 & 20-293,s. 20-256 & 20-293
Citation253 A.3d 443
CourtVermont Supreme Court
Parties IN RE C.L.S., Juvenile

Matthew Valerio, Defender General, and Kerrie Johnson, Juvenile Defender, Montpelier, for Appellant Father.

Thomas J. Donovan, Jr., Attorney General, Montpelier, and Jody A. Racht, Assistant Attorney General, Waterbury, for Appellee State.

Michael Rose, St. Albans, for Appellee Juvenile.

PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Robinson, Eaton, Carroll and Cohen, JJ.

EATON, J.

¶ 1. Father appeals the dismissal of his motion to vacate the family court's order terminating his parental rights to son C.L.S. In his motion, father argued that the termination order must be set aside under Vermont Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b) because he received ineffective assistance of counsel. The family court determined that it lacked jurisdiction under 33 V.S.A. § 5103(d) because father filed the motion after C.L.S. was adopted, and dismissed the motion. We conclude that the family court correctly interpreted § 5103(d) and that its application of the statute did not deprive father of his rights to due process or equal protection. We therefore affirm.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

¶ 2. C.L.S. was born in February 2018. Shortly after his birth, the Department for Children and Families (DCF) filed a petition alleging that C.L.S. was a child in need of care or supervision (CHINS) due to concerns about mother's use of illegal drugs during and after pregnancy. Mother subsequently stipulated that C.L.S. was CHINS. Following a hearing in July 2019, the court terminated the parental rights of both parents. They appealed to this Court, and we affirmed the decision on January 10, 2020. In re C.L.S., 2020 VT 1, 211 Vt. 344, 225 A.3d 644. On February 6, 2020, by order of the probate court, C.L.S. was adopted by the foster parents who had cared for him since birth.

¶ 3. On February 26, 2020, father moved for relief from judgment from the termination order pursuant to Rule 60(b), arguing that he received ineffective assistance of counsel at multiple critical points during the CHINS proceeding. He asserted that the attorney who represented him at the beginning of the case failed to notify the court at the outset that he was a custodial parent, did not object to DCF conducting a suitability assessment of his home, arrived twenty minutes late to a critical temporary-care hearing, and did not request a contested merits hearing. He further alleged that his subsequent attorney failed to present exhibits or evidence or call relevant witnesses at the termination hearing. He supported his motion with an affidavit from another attorney, who opined that the errors of father's pretrial and trial attorneys undermined confidence in the outcome of the proceeding and deprived father of due process.

¶ 4. C.L.S. and DCF jointly moved to dismiss father's motion, arguing that the family court's jurisdiction over the case had terminated under 33 V.S.A. § 5103(d) because the child had been adopted. In response, father argued that the court had jurisdiction to consider the motion under 33 V.S.A. § 5113(a), which permits the family court to set aside "an order" in a CHINS proceeding in accordance with Rule 60. Father argued that he had not received notice of the child's adoption, making it impossible for him to know the deadline for filing his motion. He claimed that if the court accepted DCF's interpretation of § 5103(d), the statute was unconstitutional because it would deprive him of the opportunity to seek redress for ineffective assistance of counsel and because it would unjustly discriminate against parents whose children have been adopted.

¶ 5. In August 2020, the family court issued a written decision granting the motion to dismiss. The court concluded that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction to consider father's motion because the child had been adopted. The court rejected father's argument that § 5113(a) gave it authority to consider the motion, concluding that the more specific provision in § 5103(d) terminating the court's jurisdiction after adoption controlled. The court alternatively found that father's motion was not filed within a reasonable time as required by Rule 60(b)(6) because it was filed after the child's adoption. The court rejected father's argument that its interpretation of § 5103(d) violated due process by depriving him of a remedy for ineffective assistance, noting that this Court has not expressly recognized a right to effective assistance of counsel in termination-of-parental-rights proceedings. The court also rejected father's argument that its interpretation of § 5103(d) would violate federal and state equal protection guarantees.

¶ 6. Father appealed the court's decision. He also moved for reconsideration, arguing that Vermont Rule of Probate Procedure 60 allows the probate court to reverse an adoption if the motion is filed within six months. Thus, he argued, it was unreasonable to interpret § 5103(d) to bar the filing of a Rule 60 motion after adoption. The court declined to consider this argument because father had failed to raise it in his original motion. Father filed a second appeal from the decision denying reconsideration. We consolidated father's appeals for review.

II. Father's Claims on Appeal

¶ 7. Father argues that we should expressly recognize a statutory or constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel in CHINS proceedings. He urges us to adopt a less-stringent standard for ineffective-assistance-of-CHINS-counsel claims than the standard applicable to criminal proceedings that is set forth in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984). Father argues that the family court had jurisdiction to hear his motion to vacate the termination order pursuant to 33 V.S.A. § 5113(a). He claims that the court's interpretation of § 5103(d) deprived him of due process and equal protection because it precluded him from being able to challenge a termination order that was invalid due to ineffective assistance of counsel.

¶ 8. We conclude that the trial court correctly determined that it lacked jurisdiction under 33 V.S.A. § 5103(d) to consider father's post-adoption Rule 60 motion. We further conclude that the court's interpretation of § 5103(d) did not violate father's rights to due process and equal protection. Accordingly, we find it unnecessary to decide in this case whether parents have the right to effective assistance of counsel in CHINS proceedings or what standard would apply to ineffective-assistance claims in that context.

III. Analysis
A. Standard of Review

¶ 9. Rule 60(b) permits the court to vacate an order, upon motion, for six enumerated reasons. See V.R.C.P. 60(b) ; V.R.F.P. 2(a) (making V.R.C.P. 60 applicable to CHINS proceedings). As the family court found, the only potentially applicable basis for granting father relief in this case was Rule 60(b)(6), which permits the court to vacate an order for "any other reason justifying relief from the operation of the judgment." V.R.C.P. 60(b)(6). We ordinarily apply a deferential standard of review to a court's exercise of its discretion under Rule 60(b)(6). Richwagen v. Richwagen, 153 Vt. 1, 3-4, 568 A.2d 419, 420 (1989) (reviewing decision regarding Rule 60(b)(6) request to modify property division in divorce order for abuse of discretion). In this case, however, the court declined to exercise its discretion at all because it determined that it no longer had subject matter jurisdiction over the proceeding under the CHINS statute. "Whether the court has authority to exercise its discretion is a legal issue that we review de novo." Penland v. Warren, 2018 VT 70, ¶ 6, 208 Vt. 15, 194 A.3d 755 ; see also State v. Pecora, 2007 VT 41, ¶ 4, 181 Vt. 627, 928 A.2d 479 (mem.) (explaining that interpretation of statute is subject to de novo review).

B. Whether the Family Court Lacked Jurisdiction to Consider Father's Rule 60 Motion

¶ 10. The family division of the superior court is a court of limited jurisdiction, the scope of which is determined by statute. In re R.L., 163 Vt. 168, 171, 657 A.2d 180, 183 (1995) ; see In re A.M., 2019 VT 79, ¶ 9, 211 Vt. 198, 222 A.3d 489 ("A CHINS case is a legislatively created proceeding in which the family division of the superior court is vested with special and limited statutory powers."). "We strictly construe the family court's grant of authority, and we do not infer jurisdiction where it does not explicitly exist." Office of Child Support ex rel. Lewis v. Lewis, 2004 VT 127, ¶ 7, 178 Vt. 204, 882 A.2d 1128. "Because the jurisdiction of the trial courts is shaped by the legislature, subject matter jurisdiction is a question of statutory interpretation." Baron v. McGinty, 2021 VT 6, ¶ 29, ––– Vt. ––––, 252 A.3d 291 (quotation and citation omitted). When interpreting a statute, our primary goal is to effectuate legislative intent as expressed in the words of the statute itself. Shires Hous., Inc. v. Brown, 2017 VT 60, ¶ 9, 205 Vt. 186, 172 A.3d 1215.

¶ 11. Under § 5103(a) of Title 33, the family court has "exclusive jurisdiction over all proceedings concerning a child who is or who is alleged to be a delinquent child or a child in need of care or supervision brought under the authority of the juvenile judicial proceedings chapters, except as otherwise provided in such chapters." 33 V.S.A. § 5103(a). However, § 5103(d) states that "[i]f the child is not subject to another juvenile proceeding, jurisdiction shall terminate automatically ... upon the adoption of a child following a termination of parental rights proceeding."

The language of § 5103(d) is unambiguous: the adoption of the child who is the subject of the CHINS proceeding automatically divests the family court of subject matter jurisdiction over the proceeding.

¶ 12. Here, both parents’ rights to C.L.S. were terminated in July 2019. That decision became final on February 3, 2020, when this Court issued its mandate.1 C.L.S. was adopted on February 6,...

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4 cases
  • In re C.L.
    • United States
    • Vermont Supreme Court
    • August 27, 2021
    ...Rule 60, even from a termination order, while an appeal is pending, as permitted by § 5113(a). See In re C.L.S., 2021 VT 25, ¶ 22, ––– Vt. ––––, 253 A.3d 443 (explaining that party could file Rule 60(b) motion to vacate termination order at any time before child was adopted, including while......
  • In re C.L.
    • United States
    • Vermont Supreme Court
    • August 27, 2021
    ...Rule 60, even from a termination order, while an appeal is pending, as permitted by § 5113(a). See In re C.L.S., 2021 VT 25, ¶ 22, ___ Vt. ___, 253 A.3d 443 (explaining that party could file Rule 60(b) motion to vacate termination order at any time before child was adopted, including while ......
  • In re B.E.
    • United States
    • Vermont Supreme Court
    • October 21, 2022
    ...primary goal is to effectuate legislative intent as expressed in the words of the statute itself." In re C.L.S., 2021 VT 25, ¶ 10, 214 Vt. 379, 253 A.3d 443. If the statutory language is clear on its face, we consider the plain meaning of the language to represent the Legislature's intent. ......
  • In re D.K.
    • United States
    • Vermont Supreme Court
    • August 12, 2022
    ...protect the best interests of children and to ensure permanency for them within a reasonable time." In re C.L.S., 2021 VT 25, ¶ 15, 214 Vt. 379, 253 A.3d 443. Conditional custody is a disposition option designed to allow the court to temporarily monitor a parent or other custodian while det......

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