In re A.R., 02-21-00449-CV

CourtCourt of Appeals of Texas
Writing for the CourtDana Womack, Justice.
PartiesIn the Interest of A.R. and A.R., Children
Docket Number02-21-00449-CV
Decision Date23 November 2022

In the Interest of A.R. and A.R., Children

No. 02-21-00449-CV

Court of Appeals of Texas, Second District, Fort Worth

November 23, 2022


On Appeal from the 467th District Court Denton County, Texas Trial Court No. 15-10810-16.

Before Kerr, Birdwell, and Womack, JJ.

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MEMORANDUM OPINION

Dana Womack, Justice.

I. Introduction

This appeal concerns a suit affecting the parent-child relationship (SAPCR) involving Appellant G.M. (Mother), Appellee M.R. (Father), and their two children, A.R. and A.R. (collectively, the Children). In two issues, Mother complains about a final order entered in the SAPCR following a two-day trial in May 2021 (the 2021 Order) and an order sealing the reporter's record of an interview between the trial court[1] and the Children (the Sealing Order). In her first issue, Mother argues that the 2021 Order is void because a final order had already been signed in the SAPCR, referring us to an order signed in March 2018 (the 2018 Order).[2] In her second issue, Mother complains that the Sealing Order is void and that the trial court abused its discretion by signing the Sealing Order.

As to Mother's first issue, we will hold that the 2018 Order is not a final order because it does not state with unmistakable clarity that it is a final order as to all claims and all parties and because, regardless of its language, it does not actually dispose of all claims and parties. As to Mother's second issue, we will hold that the Sealing Order is not void, that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by entering it,

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and that even if the trial court had abused its discretion, Mother has not demonstrated harm. We will thus affirm.

II. Background

A. Mother and Father Divorce, and Mother Seeks to Modify the Divorce Decree

In 2016, Mother and Father divorced in the underlying SAPCR. At that time, the SAPCR was litigated in the 16th District Court of Denton County. Pursuant to the divorce decree, Mother and Father were appointed joint managing conservators of the Children, with Mother having the exclusive right to designate the Children's primary residence, and Father being ordered to pay child support to Mother.[3]

In 2017, Mother filed a petition seeking to modify the 2016 divorce decree. Through her petition, Mother sought, among other things, to modify Father's childsupport obligations, to modify the geographic area in which the Children's primary residence could be maintained, and to order Father to pay Mother's attorney's fees. Father answered Mother's petition and sought his attorney's fees.

A month after Father answered Mother's petition, Father and Mother signed a "Mediated Settlement Agreement on Temporary Orders" (the Settlement Agreement on Temporary Orders). Pursuant to the Settlement Agreement on Temporary Orders, Father's child-support obligations were discontinued, Mother was only

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allowed supervised periods of possession with the Children, and the parties agreed to a child-custody evaluation.

B. The 2018 Order

In March 2018, after considering the Settlement Agreement on Temporary Orders, the presiding judge of the 16th District Court signed the 2018 Order. The 2018 Order was titled "Agreed Order for Termination of Child Support Payments." The 2018 Order-which Mother now contends is a final order-states:

On this day, the Court considered the agreement of the parties on the termination of child support and the recovery of child support payments made in excess of the child support order
1. Appearances
[Mother] did not appear in person but has agreed to the terms of this order as evidenced by [her] signature below.
[Father] has agreed to the terms of this order as evidenced by [his] signature appearing below.
2. Jurisdiction
The Court, after examining the record and the agreement of the parties and hearing the evidence, finds that all necessary prerequisites of the law have been legally satisfied and that the Court has jurisdiction of this case and of all the parties.
3. Record
A record of the testimony was waived with the consent of the Court.
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4. Findings
The Court finds that [Father] is not in arrears and that [Father's] obligation to pay child support to [Mother] has terminated, pursuant to the [Settlement Agreement on Temporary Orders] signed by the parties on November 28, 2017.
5. Judgment
IT IS ORDERED that [Father's] obligation to pay child support was terminated on November 28, 2017.
6. Relief Not Granted
IT IS ORDERED that all relief requested in this case and not expressly granted is denied.

The 2018 Order contains the signature of the presiding judge of the 16th District Court, along with the signatures of the parties' respective attorneys under a heading stating, "Approved as to Form Only."

The same day that the 2018 Order was signed, the presiding judge of the 16th District Court also signed an "Order for Child Custody Evaluation." That order appointed a child custody evaluator, required the parties to contact the child custody evaluator within ten business days of the order, and ordered the child custody evaluator to conduct an evaluation regarding the custody of the Children and prepare a report regarding his findings.

C. The SAPCR Moves Toward Trial Following the 2018 Order, and the 2021 Order is Signed After a Two-Day Bench Trial

In January 2019, the SAPCR was transferred from the 16th District Court to the 462nd District Court. In April 2019-over a year after the 2018 Order was

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signed-Mother filed a "Motion for Pre-Trial Conference" in the SAPCR, in which she requested that the 462nd District Court "set this matter for a Pre-Trial Conference for the purpose of scheduling a final trial date and issuing a Discovery Control Plan and Scheduling Order." In September 2019, Mother filed a motion to modify the scheduling order and discovery control plan, and in October 2019, Mother requested a jury trial.

In March 2020, Father filed a counterpetition to modify the 2016 divorce decree. Father requested, among other things, that Mother be ordered to pay him child support and that he be given the rights and duties of a sole managing conservator, contending that Mother had engaged in "a history or pattern of child neglect/abuse." Mother filed a general denial to Father's counterpetition and later filed an amended petition to modify.

In January 2021, the SAPCR was transferred from the 462nd District Court to the 467th District Court. In May 2021, the 467th District Court conducted a two-day bench trial in the SAPCR. The trial court ultimately signed the 2021 Order following trial. The 2021 Order modified Mother and Father's divorce decree, and it ordered, among other things, that Mother pay Father child support, that Mother and Father remain joint managing conservators of the Children, and that Father have the exclusive right to designate the Children's primary residence within certain counties. Mother appeals from the 2021 Order.

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D. The Sealing Order

Nine months before trial, Mother filed a "Motion for Judge to Confer with Children," in which she requested that the trial judge "confer with [the Children], in chambers, to determine the [C]hildren's wishes as to which parent shall have the exclusive right to designate the [C]hildren's primary residence and the [C]hildren's wishes regarding each party's possession of and access to the [C]hildren."[4] Later, at the trial's conclusion, the trial court granted Mother's request to interview the Children. Father's counsel requested that a record be made of the interview, and the trial court indicated that a court reporter would be present for the interview. The trial court later interviewed the Children in chambers, and a reporter's record was made of the interview.

On July 6, 2021, Mother filed a motion requesting that the trial court order the court reporter to release a copy of the reporter's record of the trial court's interview of the Children.[5] On July 9, 2021-three days after Mother filed her motion to release the reporter's record-the trial court signed the Sealing Order. The Sealing Order states, in pertinent part, "The Court finds that good cause exist[s] to seal the Court's record/Court Reporter's record of the Court's interview with the [C]hildren.

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Therefore, the Court ORDERS that the Court's Record/Court Reporter's record of the Court's interview with the [Children] shall be sealed." In October 2021, following a hearing on Mother's motion to release the reporter's record of the trial court's interview with the Children, the trial court denied Mother's motion.

While the case was pending on appeal, Mother's attorney moved that we release the reporter's record of the trial court's interview with the Children to Mother's attorney. We granted the motion, allowing Mother's attorney to obtain a copy of the reporter's record of the interview provided that he sign an affidavit in which he agreed to abide by the Sealing Order and that he would "not reveal the contents of these records to any person not authorized by the court." Mother's attorney later signed the affidavit and checked out the reporter's record of the interview.

III. Discussion

A. Mother's Complaint that the 2021 Order is Void Because of the 2018 Order

In her first issue, Mother argues that the 2021 Order is void because the 2018 Order was a final order, and, therefore, the trial court's plenary power had expired by the time it signed the 2021 Order.

1. Standard of Review

Whether an order is final impacts jurisdiction and is a legal question we review de novo. Shetwey v. Mediation Inst. of N. Tex., LLC, 624 S.W.3d 285, 287 (Tex. App.-Fort Worth 2021, no pet.);

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Redwine v. Pekinpaugh, 535 S.W.3d 44, 48 (Tex. App.-Tyler 2017, no pet.).

2. We Reject Father's Argument that Mother has Waived Her First Issue and Should Be Estopped from Bringing Her First Issue

As a...

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