S.S. v. J.F. (In re E.M.F.), 20200490-CA

CourtCourt of Appeals of Utah
Writing for the CourtPOHLMAN, Judge
Citation509 P.3d 214
Parties In the MATTER OF the ADOPTION OF E.M.F. and M.S.F., persons under eighteen years of age. S.S. and B.S., Appellants, v. J.F., Appellee.
Docket Number20200490-CA
Decision Date31 March 2022

509 P.3d 214

In the MATTER OF the ADOPTION OF E.M.F. and M.S.F., persons under eighteen years of age.

S.S. and B.S., Appellants,
v.
J.F., Appellee.

No. 20200490-CA

Court of Appeals of Utah.

Filed March 31, 2022


Jason B. Richards, Attorney for Appellants

Emily Adams and Sara Pfrommer, Park City, Attorneys for Appellee

Judge Jill M. Pohlman authored this Opinion, in which Judges Michele M. Christiansen Forster and Ryan D. Tenney concurred.

Opinion

POHLMAN, Judge:

¶1 In this stepparent adoption case, B.S. (Mother) and S.S. (Stepfather) appeal the district court's order denying their petition to terminate the parental rights of J.F. (Father), with whom Mother shares two children, E.M.F. and M.S.F. (collectively, the Children). We do not reach the merits of the case, however, because we dismiss this appeal for lack of jurisdiction. Although Mother and Stepfather contend that the court rule dictating this result is unconstitutional on its face and as applied, we conclude that Mother and Stepfather have not demonstrated that exceptional circumstances exist for us to consider their constitutional argument.

BACKGROUND

¶2 Mother and Father were involved in a relationship between 2009 and 2014, during which time the Children were born. Mother has always had full physical custody of the Children since her separation from Father.

509 P.3d 217

Later, Mother married Stepfather. Mother and Stepfather then petitioned for Stepfather to adopt the Children and to terminate Father's parental rights.

¶3 The matter proceeded to a two-day bench trial in December 2018. After hearing the evidence, the district court concluded that Mother and Stepfather had "not met their burden by clear and convincing evidence of any of the statutory requirements for terminating [Father's] rights," and the court accordingly denied the petition for adoption. The court announced its findings of fact and conclusions of law in court, explaining, "That will be the order of the Court." It further announced that it did not "inten[d] to do written findings of fact and conclusions of law" but that "[c]ertainly anybody who would like to can do it themselves and submit it to the Court for approval."1 Similarly, the court's December 11, 2018 minute entry from trial states, "The court does not intend on issuing written findings of facts and conclusions of law, either party may submit their own consistent with the court's ruling for approval if they wish." That minute entry was signed electronically and designated as an order of the court on December 13, 2018.

¶4 Neither side chose to submit findings and conclusions consistent with the court's decision,2 and neither side submitted a proposed judgment pursuant to rule 58A(c)(1) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. Aside from the court's exhibit tracking record filed a few days after trial, nothing more was filed in the case until Father, acting pro se, moved to release the trial transcripts on March 11, 2019. In his motion, Father asserted that the "records and transcripts [were] required for [him] to prepare findings of fact and conclusions of law requested by [the district court judge]." One month later, the court entered a certificate of destruction, stating that the court clerk had destroyed the exhibits on April 4, 2019.

¶5 Nothing else was entered on the court's docket until December 2019, when Mother and Stepfather's attorneys withdrew, and then Mother and Stepfather, acting pro se, filed an objection to a proposed findings of fact, conclusions of law, and order prepared by Father.3 Among other objections, Mother and Stepfather complained that Father "failed to properly provide a copy of the proposed order to [them] before filing the document with the Court." The court held a telephone conference the next month during which it indicated that the proposed findings "will be held due to the pending objection." At a later hearing, the court decided to "sustain[ ]" Mother and Stepfather's objection and ordered Father to submit amended findings with two specific revisions.

¶6 As ordered, Father then filed a proposed amended findings of fact, conclusions of law, and order. Finally, on June 9, 2020, the district court signed the amended findings of fact, conclusions of law, and order. The court reiterated its conclusion—rendered 546 days earlier—that, as a matter of law, Mother and Stepfather had "not met their burden to show by clear and convincing evidence any of [the] statutorily required bases for terminating [Father's] parental rights," and the court thus denied the petition for adoption. On June 22, 2020, Mother and Stepfather filed a notice of appeal.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶7 On appeal, Mother and Stepfather challenge the district court's denial of

509 P.3d 218

their adoption petition. But Father contends that this court lacks jurisdiction to consider the merits of the appeal, arguing that Mother and Stepfather did not timely file a notice of appeal in light of rule 58A of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. In response, Mother and Stepfather insist that they timely appealed under their view of the relevant timeline and rule 58A. "Whether appellate jurisdiction exists is a question of law." Greyhound Lines, Inc. v. Utah Transit Auth. , 2020 UT App 144, ¶ 22, 477 P.3d 472 (cleaned up). Likewise, the interpretation of a rule of civil procedure is a question of law. See Ghidotti v. Waldron , 2019 UT App 67, ¶ 8, 442 P.3d 1237.

¶8 In the event that this court agrees with Father on the correct operation of rule 58A, Mother and Stepfather assert that the rule is unconstitutional on its face and as applied to the facts of this case. Constitutional challenges present "questions of law." Menzies v. State , 2014 UT 40, ¶ 27, 344 P.3d 581, abrogated on other grounds by McCloud v. State , 2021 UT 51, 496 P.3d 179. But when, as here, an issue was not preserved in the district court, "the party must argue that an exception to preservation applies." State v. Johnson , 2017 UT 76, ¶ 27, 416 P.3d 443.

ANALYSIS

¶9 We begin by addressing Father's contention that this court lacks appellate jurisdiction over this matter. We then address Mother and Stepfather's constitutional argument aimed at defeating Father's jurisdictional contention.

I. Appellate Jurisdiction

¶10 Father contends that this court does not have appellate jurisdiction to consider this appeal. According to Father, because a separate judgment was not filed after the district court announced its findings and order from the bench on December 11, 2018, the decision was considered final and appealable 150 days after that date under rule 58A(e)(2)(B) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure and any notice of appeal should have been filed within thirty days of May 10, 2019. Father asserts that the court's amended findings of fact, conclusions of law, and order—entered on June 9, 2020—could not "restart the period for filing a notice of appeal" and that Mother and Stepfather's June 22, 2020 notice of appeal was therefore untimely. In contrast, Mother and Stepfather contend that the June 9, 2020 order constituted the required separate judgment and that they timely filed their notice of appeal from that order.4 We agree with Father.

¶11 This case turns on the application of rule 58A of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure to determine when the time to appeal began to run. Rule 58A(a) provides that "[e]very judgment and amended judgment must be set out in a separate document ordinarily titled ‘Judgment’—or, as appropriate, ‘Decree.’ " Utah R. Civ. P. 58A(a). Of particular import here, rule 58A(e) states,

(e) Time of entry of judgment.

(e)(1) If a separate document is not required, a judgment is complete and is entered when it is signed by the judge and recorded in the docket.

(e)(2) If a separate document is required, a judgment is complete and is entered at the earlier of these events:

(e)(2)(A) the judgment is set out in a separate document signed by the judge and recorded in the docket; or

(e)(2)(B) 150 days have run from the clerk recording the decision, however designated, that provides the basis for the entry of judgment.

Id. R. 58A(e). This provision "makes explicit the time of entry of judgment" and resolves the problem of "endlessly hanging appeals."

509 P.3d 219

Griffin v. Snow Christensen & Martineau , 2020 UT 33, ¶¶ 12, 14, 467 P.3d 833 (cleaned up).

¶12 The parties agree that "a separate document" was required in this case, so they therefore agree that rule 58A(e)(1) does not apply here. See Utah R. Civ. P. 58A(a) ; see also Griffin , 2020 UT 33, ¶ 17, 467 P.3d 833 (stating that a judgment "must be set out in a separate document that is prepared by the prevailing party and signed and docketed by the court"). Accordingly, this case falls under rule 58A(e)(2).

¶13 Rule 58A(e)(2) sets forth two events, the earlier of which will trigger the time when a judgment becomes complete and entered. The first occurs when "the judgment is set out in a separate document signed by the judge and recorded in the docket." Utah R. Civ. P. 58A(e)(2)(A). In Griffin , the Utah Supreme Court explained that when rules 58A(a) and 58A(e)(2)(A) are "properly implemented, the separate judgment signals...

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2 practice notes
  • State v. Salazar, 20200561-CA
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Utah
    • March 31, 2022
    ...evidence, the Voxer messages would have "affected the overall evidentiary picture," see id. , and the jury may well have found Shannon 509 P.3d 214 less credible, regardless of the other testimony. Thus, had Trial Counsel further undercut Shannon's credibility by introducing the Voxer messa......
  • 11500 Space Ctr. v. Private Capital Grp., 20200280-CA
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Utah
    • July 29, 2022
    ...document in the case, including the decision that gave rise to it." Id. ¶ 24; see also In re adoption of E.M.F., 2022 UT App 43, ¶ 12, 509 P.3d 214 (recognizing and applying the "separate document" requirement of rule 58A(a)). And in a departure from past practice, such a document is requir......
2 cases
  • State v. Salazar, 20200561-CA
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Utah
    • March 31, 2022
    ...evidence, the Voxer messages would have "affected the overall evidentiary picture," see id. , and the jury may well have found Shannon 509 P.3d 214 less credible, regardless of the other testimony. Thus, had Trial Counsel further undercut Shannon's credibility by introducing the Voxer messa......
  • 11500 Space Ctr. v. Private Capital Grp., 20200280-CA
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Utah
    • July 29, 2022
    ...document in the case, including the decision that gave rise to it." Id. ¶ 24; see also In re adoption of E.M.F., 2022 UT App 43, ¶ 12, 509 P.3d 214 (recognizing and applying the "separate document" requirement of rule 58A(a)). And in a departure from past practice, such a document is requir......

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