MH v. First Judicial Dist. Court of Laramie Cnty.

Citation465 P.3d 405
Decision Date10 June 2020
Docket NumberS-19-0256
Parties MH, Appellant (Petitioner), v. FIRST JUDICIAL DISTRICT COURT OF LARAMIE COUNTY, Honorable Peter H. Froelicher presiding, Appellee (Respondent).
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Wyoming

Representing Appellant: Kathryn A. Jenkins, Attorney at Law, Cheyenne, Wyoming; George E. Powers, Jr., Sundahl, Powers, Kapp & Martin, LLC, Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Representing Appellee: Bridget L. Hill, Attorney General; Michael J. McGrady, Deputy Attorney General.

Before DAVIS, C.J., and FOX, KAUTZ, BOOMGAARDEN, and GRAY, JJ.

FOX, Justice.

[¶1] M.H. petitioned the district court for an order recognizing her change of sex and gender so that she could amend her birth certificate. The district court denied the petition, concluding that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction. We reverse.

ISSUE

[¶2] Did the district court have subject matter jurisdiction over M.H.’s petition?

FACTS

[¶3] M.H.’s birth certificate identifies her as male; however, M.H. identifies and holds herself out as female. M.H. attempted to amend the sex on her birth certificate with the Wyoming Department of Health (WDOH), and the WDOH informed her that it could not do so until she provided a court order that complied with WDOH regulations. M.H. petitioned the district court for an order recognizing her change of sex and gender, pursuant to its "power of general jurisdiction" and Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 35-1-424(a), which governs correction and amendment of vital records. She also alleged compliance with WDOH regulations providing for amendment to the sex stated on a person's birth certificate upon receipt of an affidavit, a statement from a physician, and a court order. The district court considered whether the Wyoming Constitution, Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 35-1-424, or the WDOH's rules granted it subject matter jurisdiction, concluded they did not, and denied the petition. M.H. timely appealed.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

[¶4] "The existence of subject matter jurisdiction is a question of law that we review de novo ." Harmon v. Star Valley Med. Ctr. , 2014 WY 90, ¶ 14, 331 P.3d 1174, 1178 (Wyo. 2014) (quoting Excel Constr., Inc. v. Town of Lovell , 2011 WY 166, ¶ 12, 268 P.3d 238, 241 (Wyo. 2011) ). This case requires us to interpret the Wyoming Constitution, Wyoming statutes, and WDOH regulations—also questions of law that we review de novo. Saunders v. Hornecker , 2015 WY 34, ¶ 8, 344 P.3d 771, 774 (Wyo. 2015) ("The interpretation and application of the Wyoming Constitution is a question of law, reviewed de novo ."); Herrick v. Jackson Hole Airport Bd. , 2019 WY 118, ¶ 17, 452 P.3d 1276, 1281 (Wyo. 2019) ("Statutory interpretation is a question of law that we review de novo."); Bailey v. State ex rel. Wyo. Workers’ Safety & Comp. Div. , 2010 WY 152, ¶ 9, 243 P.3d 953, 956 (Wyo. 2010) ("[I]nterpretation of the agency rules and regulations implementing statutory directives is a question of law, reviewed de novo .").

DISCUSSION

[¶5] "Subject matter jurisdiction is the power to hear and determine cases of the general class to which the proceedings in question belong." Devon Energy Prod. Co., LP v. Grayson Mill Operating, LLC , 2020 WY 28, ¶ 11, 458 P.3d 1201, 1205 (Wyo. 2020) (alteration, quotation marks, and citation omitted); Linch v. Linch , 2015 WY 141, ¶ 17, 361 P.3d 308, 313 (Wyo. 2015) (quoting Brush v. Davis , 2013 WY 161, ¶ 9, 315 P.3d 648, 651 (Wyo. 2013) ). If a court lacks subject matter jurisdiction, " ‘action taken by that court, other than dismissing the case, is considered to be null and void.’ " Devon Energy Prod. Co. , 2020 WY 28, ¶ 11, 458 P.3d at 1205 (quoting Weller v. Weller , 960 P.2d 493, 496 (Wyo. 1998) ). However, in construing the subject matter jurisdiction of district courts, we presume that jurisdiction exists and any intent to limit it must be clearly stated. Harmon , 2014 WY 90, ¶ 48, 331 P.3d at 1188.

[¶6] The Vital Records Act provides that the WDOH is responsible for installing, maintaining, and operating a system of vital records throughout Wyoming. Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 35-1-402 (LexisNexis 2019). The Act governs the maintenance of birth certificates and allows for their amendment. Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 35-1-401(a)(i), 35-1-410(a), 35-1-424. Section 35-1-424 provides:

(a) A certificate or record registered under this act ... may be amended only in accordance with this act and regulations thereunder adopted by the division of health and medical services to protect the integrity and accuracy of vital records. ...

Pursuant to that authority, the WDOH promulgated rules for the amendment of vital records, including amendment of the sex on a birth certificate when the individual's sex has changed, with "an affidavit and a statement from a physician." Rules Wyo. Dep't of Health, Vital Records Servs. , ch. 10, § 4(e). WDOH rules provide that "[a]ny item" can be changed upon receipt of a court order. Id. § 3(a).

[¶7] The district court concluded that neither the statute nor the agency rules "expressly, directly, or impliedly authorize a district court or confer jurisdiction on a district court to issue an order amending a person's gender on an original birth certificate." It further contends on appeal that, because the Vital Records Act identifies specific proceedings that can result in an order for a name change1 but contains no specific proceeding for gender change, we must conclude that the legislature intended to limit the district court's jurisdiction to those proceedings specifically identified. The district court reasons that the "basic tenet of statutory construction [ ] that omission of words from a statute is considered to be an intentional act by the legislature" prohibits jurisdiction over M.H.’s petition because a court cannot "read words into a statute when the legislature has chosen not to include them." Merrill v. Jansma , 2004 WY 26, ¶ 29, 86 P.3d 270, 285 (Wyo. 2004). This reasoning illustrates the fundamental flaw in the district court's approach to determining the existence of its subject matter jurisdiction—it applied a presumption against district court jurisdiction, when the Wyoming Constitution requires a presumption in favor of jurisdiction.

[¶8] The Wyoming Constitution grants broad general jurisdiction to the district courts:

The district court shall have original jurisdiction of all causes both at law and in equity and in all criminal cases, of all matters of probate and insolvency and of such special cases and proceedings as are not otherwise provided for. The district court shall also have original jurisdiction in all cases and of all proceedings in which jurisdiction shall not have been by law vested exclusively in some other court.

Wyo. Const. art. 5, § 10. This section's plain language grants district courts original jurisdiction "in all cases and of all proceedings," except those placed within the exclusive jurisdiction of another court. Id. ; Christiansen v. Christiansen , 2011 WY 90, ¶ 5, 253 P.3d 153, 155 (Wyo. 2011) (district courts "have original jurisdiction over all cases, excepting only cases placed within the exclusive jurisdiction of another court"); Granite Springs Retreat Ass'n, Inc. v. Manning , 2006 WY 60, ¶ 6, 133 P.3d 1005, 1010 (Wyo. 2006) ("District courts have general original jurisdiction in all cases ‘in which jurisdiction shall not have been by law vested exclusively in some other court.’ ") (quoting Joslyn v. Prof'l Realty , 622 P.2d 1369, 1373 (Wyo. 1981) ). The legislature can only restrict that jurisdiction by expressing a clear intention to do so. Harmon , 2014 WY 90, ¶ 48, 331 P.3d at 1188 ; L-MHB , 2018 WY 140, ¶¶ 10-11, 431 P.3d at 564-65. See, e.g. , Life Care Center of Casper v. Barrett , 2020 WY 57, ¶ 18, 462 P.3d 894, 899 (Wyo. 2020) (holding that statute providing for appointment of wrongful death representative "[b]y its plain terms" limits the proceeding to a "separate action brought solely for appointing the wrongful death representative") (emphasis in original).

[¶9] The district court takes the position that Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 35-1-424(c) limits the district court's jurisdiction to amendments "changing the name of a person." Section 424(c) states:

(c) Upon receipt of a certified copy of a court order changing the name of a person born in this state and upon request of such person or his parent, guardian, or legal representative, the state registrar of vital records shall amend the certificate to reflect the new name, by attaching an abstract of the court order.

This section merely identifies, and imposes requirements for, one type of vital records amendment. Our precedent makes plain that statutory authority to grant a particular remedy, and any statutory requirement attendant to such a remedy, does not affect district court jurisdiction.

[¶10] For example, in In re Guardianship of MKH , we considered the distinction between subject matter jurisdiction and statutory authority to grant a particular remedy. 2016 WY 103, 382 P.3d 1096 (Wyo. 2016). There, the district court appointed a guardian for a child who had not yet been born. Id. at ¶¶ 5-7, 382 P.3d at 1097-98. We concluded that the district court had acted outside the scope of its authority under the guardianship statutes because they did not apply to an unborn child. Id. at ¶ 24, 382 P.3d at 1102. However, we held that the error did "not rise to the level of a jurisdictional defect" because the proceeding belonged to the general class of cases over which the district court's authority extended. Id. at ¶¶ 27-30, 382 P.3d at 1102-03. We reasoned that district courts "are endowed with broad subject-matter jurisdiction" and that they lack jurisdiction only in "the exceptional case" where a court "lack[s] even an ‘arguable basis’ for jurisdiction." Id. (quoting Christiansen , 2011 WY 90, ¶ 5, 253 P.3d at 155 and Linch , 2015 WY 141, ¶ 19, 361 P.3d at 314 ). Thus, we adhered to our presumption in favor of district court jurisdiction. See also State, Dep't of Transp. v. Robbins , 2008 WY 148, ¶¶ 11-12, 197 P.3d 1243, 1246 (Wyo. 2008) (agency...

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