In re Lee

Citation411 S.W.3d 445,56 Tex. Sup. Ct. J. 1247
Decision Date27 September 2013
Docket NumberNo. 11–0732.,11–0732.
PartiesIn re Stephanie LEE, Relator.
CourtSupreme Court of Texas


Marcela Halmagean, M. Halmagean PLLC, Scott Rothenberg, Law Offices of Scott Rothenberg, Houston, TX, for Stephanie Lee.

John A. Ramirez, Office of The Attorney General, Houston, TX, Rande K. Herrell, Office of the Attorney General of Texas, Austin, TX, for Real Party in Interest State of Texas.

Clinton Fancher Lawson, Law Offices of Clinton F. Lawson, San Antonio, TX, for Real Party in Interest Benjamin Jay Redus.

Georganna L. Simpson, Georganna L. Simpson, P.C., Steven Randall Morris, Attorney at Law, Dallas, TX, Richard R. Orsinger, McCurley Orsinger, McCurley Nelson & Downing LLP, San Antonio, TX, Thomas L. Ausley, Ausley Algert Robertson & Flores LLP, Austin, TX, for Amicus Curiae State Bar of Texas Family Law Council.

Bill Davis, Jonathan F. Mitchell, Solicitor, Office of the Attorney General, Austin, TX, for Amicus Curiae Office of the Solicitor General of Texas.

Justice LEHRMANN announced the Court's decision and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II, III, V, and VII, in which Justice JOHNSON, Justice WILLETT, Justice GUZMAN, and Justice BOYD joined, and delivered an opinion with respect to Parts IV and VI, in which Justice JOHNSON, Justice WILLETT, and Justice BOYD joined.

“If a mediated settlement agreement meets [certain requirements], a party is entitled to judgment on the mediated settlement agreement notwithstanding ... another rule of law.” Tex. Fam.Code § 153.0071(e) (emphasis added). We are called upon today to determine whether a trial court abuses its discretion in refusing to enter judgment on a statutorily compliant mediated settlement agreement (MSA) based on an inquiry into whether the MSA was in a child's best interest. We hold that this language means what it says: a trial court may not deny a motion to enter judgment on a properly executed MSA on such grounds. Accordingly, we conditionally grant the writ of mandamus.

I. Background

Relator Stephanie Lee and Real Party in Interest Benjamin Redus are the parents and joint managing conservators of their minor daughter. Stephanie has the exclusive right to designate the child's primary residence under a 2007 order adjudicating parentage. Benjamin petitioned the court of continuing jurisdiction to modify that order, alleging that the circumstances had materially and substantially changed because Stephanie had relinquished primary care and possession of the child to him for at least six months. SeeTex. Fam.Code § 156.101. Benjamin sought the exclusive right to determine the child's primary residence and requested modification of the terms and conditions of Stephanie's access to and possession of the child, alleging that Stephanie's “poor parenting decisions” had placed the child in danger. He also sought an order requiring that Stephanie's periods of access be supervised on the basis that she “has a history or pattern of child neglect directed against” the child. Additionally, Benjamin sought an order enjoining Stephanie from allowing the child within twenty miles of Stephanie's husband, Scott Lee, a registered sex offender, and requiring Stephanie to provide Benjamin with information on her whereabouts during her periods of access so that Benjamin could verify her compliance with the twenty-mile restriction.

Before proceeding to trial, the parties attended mediation at which they were both represented by counsel. The mediation ended successfully with the parties executing a mediated settlement agreement modifying the 2007 order. The MSA gives Benjamin the exclusive right to establish the child's primary residence, and it gives Stephanie periodic access to and possession of the child. Among the terms and conditions of Stephanie's access and possession, the MSA contains the following restriction concerning Scott:

At all times[,] Scott Lee is enjoined from being within 5 miles of [the child]. During [Stephanie]'s periods of possession with [the child,] Scott Lee shall notify [Benjamin] through Stephanie Lee by e-mail or other mail where he will be staying ... [a]nd the make and model of the vehicle he will be driving. This shall be done at least 5 days prior to any visits. [Benjamin] shall have the right to have an agent or himself monitor Mr. Lee's location by either calling or driving by the location at reasonable times.

The introductory paragraph of the MSA explains that [t]he parties wish to avoid potentially protracted and costly litigation, and agree and stipulate that they have carefully considered the needs of the child[ ] ... and the best interest of the child.” The MSA also contains the following language in boldfaced, capitalized, and underlined letters:


The MSA was signed by both Stephanie and Benjamin, as well as their attorneys.

Benjamin appeared before an associate judge to present and prove up the MSA. During Benjamin's testimony in support of the MSA, the associate judge inquired about the injunction regarding Scott. Benjamin informed the judge that Scott was a registered sex offender, and he testified that Scott “violated conditions of his probation with [Benjamin's] daughter in th[e] house” and that he “sle [pt] naked in bed with [Benjamin's] daughter between [Scott and Stephanie].” Stephanie did not attend the hearing and therefore was not able to respond to these allegations.1 Based on this testimony, the associate judge refused to enter judgment on the MSA.

Stephanie filed a motion to enter judgment on the MSA, and Benjamin filed a written objection withdrawing his consent to the MSA, arguing that it was not in the best interest of the child. At the hearing on Stephanie's motion, the district judge heard brief testimony on the MSA from Benjamin and Stephanie, including testimony regarding whether the MSA was in the child's best interest. Stephanie testified that she believed the MSA was in the child's best interest, and Benjamin also admitted on cross-examination that, at the time of execution, he thought the MSA was in the child's best interest. Both Stephanie and Benjamin testified that Benjamin was not a victim of family violence.

The judge also heard testimony on Scott's status as a registered sex offender. Stephanie testified that, in 2009, Scott was served with a violation of his deferred adjudication because of his contact with the child.2 Stephanie admitted that, although Scott was placed on additional probation conditions in 2011, she allowed Scott to have contact with the child and to reside in the same house with her and the child in violation of those conditions. Stephanie specifically denied that she ever allowed Scott to take care of the child without her supervision. Notably, although Benjamin testified that he knew about Scott's status as a registered sex offender, he did not repeat the allegation that Scott had slept naked with the child.

The district court concluded that entry of the MSA was not in the best interest of the child and denied Stephanie's motion to enter judgment. The court advised the parties that they were free to reach a new agreement on their own, but the court declined to send the parties back to mediation and instead set the case for trial.

Stephanie petitioned the court of appeals for a writ of mandamus ordering the trial court to enter judgment on the MSA. Stephanie argued that the trial court lacked discretion to refuse judgment based on the best interest determination. No. 14–11–00714–CV, 2011 WL 4036610, at *1. The court of appeals held “that the trial court [did] not commit[ ] a clear abuse of discretion in refusing to enter judgment on a mediated settlement agreement that is not in the child's best interest.” Id. at *2. Stephanie then timely petitioned this Court for a writ of mandamus.

II. The Need For Mediation in High–Conflict Custody Disputes

Encouragement of mediation as an alternative form of dispute resolution is critically important to the emotional and psychological well-being of children involved in high-conflict custody disputes. Indeed, the Texas Legislature has recognized that it is “the policy of this state to encourage the peaceable resolution of disputes, with special consideration given to disputes involving the parent-child relationship, including the mediation of issues involving conservatorship, possession, and support of children, and the early settlement of pending litigation through voluntary settlement procedures.” Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem.Code § 154.002 (emphasis added). This policy is well-supported by, inter alia, literature discussing the enormous emotional and financial costs of high-conflict custody litigation, including its harmful effect on children.3 Children involved in these disputes—tellingly, referred to as “custody battles”—can face perpetual emotional turmoil, alienation from one or both parents, and increased risk of developing psychological problems.4 All the while, most of these families have two adequate parents who merely act out of fear of losing their child. For the children themselves, the conflict associated with the litigation itself is often much greater than the conflict that led to a divorce or custody dispute. 5 The Legislature has thus recognized that, because children suffer needlessly from traditional litigation, the amicable resolution of child-related disputes should be promoted forcefully. With the Legislature's stated policy in mind, we turn to the statute in question.

III. Statutory Interpretation

The sole issue before us today is whether a trial court presented with a request for entry of judgment on a validly executed MSA may deny a motion to enter judgment based on a best interest inquiry.6 While Texas trial courts have numerous tools at their disposal to safeguard children's welfare, the...

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