State, Dept. of Social Services v. Vijil

Decision Date17 August 1989
Docket NumberNo. 20111,20111
Citation784 P.2d 1130
PartiesSTATE of Utah, DEPARTMENT OF SOCIAL SERVICES, Plaintiff and Appellee, v. Daniel S. VIJIL, Defendant and Appellant.
CourtUtah Supreme Court

Steven Boos, Mexican Hat, for defendant and appellant.

David L. Wilkinson, Mark E. Wainwright, Salt Lake City, for plaintiff and appellee.


Daniel S. Vijil appeals from the denial of his motion to vacate the docketed award in the District Court for the Seventh Judicial District that served as the basis for the issuance of a writ of garnishment. The award was in favor of the Utah Department of Social Services ("DSS") and was for amounts expended by the State of Utah to support Vijil's minor children. Vijil claims that the district court erred in exercising subject matter and personal jurisdiction. We find that DSS did not meet its burden of showing that the trial court had subject matter jurisdiction over Vijil; therefore we reverse the district court's denial of the motion to vacate.

Vijil is an enrolled member of the Navajo Tribe living in Aneth, San Juan County, Utah, a town entirely within the boundaries of the Navajo Tribal Reservation. Vijil is the father of three minor children who are in the custody of his ex-wife. DSS made payments to his ex-wife for the support of these children during the months of November and December of 1983. It then sent Vijil a document entitled "Notice of Support Debt," seeking recovery from Vijil of the monies spent for the children's support. This notice was sent pursuant to section 78-45b-5 of the Code, which provides in pertinent part:

(1) In the absence of a court order, the director [of DSS] may issue a notice of a support debt accrued or accruing based upon the furnishing of support by the department for the benefit of any dependent child. That notice shall include a statement of the support debt accrued or accruing, computable on the basis of the amount of assistance paid or to be paid, a statement of the name of the recipient and the name of the minor child for whom assistance is being provided, a demand for immediate payment of the support debt or in the alternative for a written answer from that person to the department setting forth any claimed defenses to liability, and requesting a hearing thereon, and a statement that if neither answer nor full payment are received within twenty days from the date of service the department may assess and determine that support debt and that, subsequent thereto, the property of that person shall be subject to appropriate collection action including, but not limited to, execution upon liens, wage assignments, attachment, and garnishment. This notice shall be served upon the alleged responsible parent in the manner prescribed for service of notices under § 78-45b-4.

Utah Code Ann. § 78-45b-5(1) (Supp.1975) (repealed 1988).

Although the notice of support debt informed Vijil that he was entitled to file a written answer to the notice and to request a hearing on the matter, he did neither. In the absence of any response from Vijil, DSS entered an award against him for $724 on March 6, 1984, representing his support obligation. This was done pursuant to section 78-45b-5(3) of the Code. 1 DSS then had this award docketed by filing an abstract of the award with the clerk of the district court in San Juan County, pursuant to the provisions of section 78-45b-9. 2 Under this section, once docketed, the award then became a lien upon the real and personal property of Vijil located in San Juan County and could be collected in the same manner as a lien resulting from a judgment of the district court. Id.

In an effort to collect on its lien, DSS obtained a writ of garnishment from the district court and served it on Vijil's employer. In response to the writ, Vijil entered a special appearance to challenge jurisdiction. Vijil filed a motion under Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b) to vacate the docketing of the default award and a separate motion to quash the writ of garnishment. In support of the motions, Vijil filed a memorandum and an affidavit. The affidavit stated only that Vijil and his children were enrolled members of the Navajo tribe and that Vijil resided in Aneth, a town located on the Navajo Tribal Reservation. The district court denied the motion to vacate but did not rule on the motion to quash the writ of garnishment.

In denying the motion to vacate, the court stated that the Vijil children's receipt of support from Utah showed that the courts of the State of Utah had "jurisdiction over the subject matter," and the fact that Vijil resides on the reservation does not "deprive [the state] of jurisdiction of his person." The court also noted that it could not "automatically rule that no member of the Navajo tribe is subject to the jurisdiction of the Courts of the State of Utah merely because of membership in the tribe." Vijil appeals from this ruling.

Vijil phrases the question on appeal as whether the court has jurisdiction to enter the judgment against him. We initially note the applicable standard of review. A denial of a motion to vacate a judgment under rule 60(b) is ordinarily reversed only for an abuse of discretion. Katz v. Pierce, 732 P.2d 92, 93 (Utah 1986); Russell v. Martell, 681 P.2d 1193, 1194 (Utah 1984); Baker v. Western Sur. Co., 757 P.2d 878, 881 (Utah Ct.App.1988). However, when a motion to vacate a judgment is based on a claim of lack of jurisdiction, the district court has no discretion: if jurisdiction is lacking, the judgment cannot stand without denying due process to the one against whom it runs. See In re Marriage of Stroud, 631 P.2d 168, 170 n. 5 (Colo.1981); 11 C. Wright & A. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 2862 (1973). Therefore, the propriety of the jurisdictional determination, and hence the decision not to vacate, becomes a question of law upon which we do not defer to the district court. See Ron Case Roofing & Asphalt Paving, Inc. v. Blomquist, 773 P.2d 1382, 1385 (Utah 1989); Madsen v. Borthick, 769 P.2d 245, 247 (Utah 1988).

Moving on to Vijil's claims, his jurisdictional challenges are directed to both subject matter and personal jurisdiction over him. Subject matter jurisdiction is the authority and competency of the court to decide the case. 5 C. Wright & A. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1350 (1969). Personal jurisdiction, on the other hand, is the court's ability to exercise its power over a person for the purposes of adjudicating his or her rights and liabilities. Id. A lack of either is fatal to a court's authority to decide a case with respect to a particular litigant.

We address only Vijil's challenge to the court's finding of subject matter jurisdiction. Because we conclude that subject matter jurisdiction was not shown, we do not consider the separate question of personal jurisdiction. Vijil argues that the assertion of subject matter jurisdiction by the court in this case conflicts with the jurisdiction of the Navajo Tribe, but he advanced no facts in the district court to support that assertion. The United States Supreme Court has established two tests to be used in such situations to determine whether the courts of a state may assert jurisdiction. See Lytle, The Supreme Court, Tribal Sovereignty, and Continuing Problems of State Encroachment into Indian Country, 8 Am.Indian L.Rev. 65, 72-74 (1980); Note, Indian Sovereignty: Confusion Prevails--California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians, 107 S.Ct. 1083 (1987), 63 Wash.L.Rev. 169, 171-73 (1988). The first is the preemption test, under which the question is whether a federal law or treaty exists that sanctions or prohibits any interference with tribal self-government that results from the state action. See McClanahan v. State Tax Comm'n, 411 U.S. 164, 93 S.Ct. 1257, 36 L.Ed.2d 129 (1973). The second is the sovereignty infringement test, under which the question is "absent governing Acts of Congress ... whether the state action infringe[s] on the right of reservation Indians to make their own laws and be ruled by them." Williams v. Lee, 358 U.S. 217, 220, 79 S.Ct. 269, 271, 3 L.Ed.2d 251 (1959). More recent Supreme Court cases have elaborated on these tests. See New Mexico v. Mescalero Apache Tribe, 462 U.S. 324, 103 S.Ct. 2378, 76 L.Ed.2d 611 (1983) (applying and developing tests in context of state's attempt to apply its laws to hunting and fishing by non-Indians on reservation); Ramah Navajo School Bd. v. Bureau of Revenue, 458 U.S. 832, 102 S.Ct. 3394, 73 L.Ed.2d 1174 (1982) (applying and developing tests in context of state taxation of reservation sales to non-Indians); White Mountain Apache Tribe v. Bracker, 448 U.S. 136, 100 S.Ct. 2578, 65 L.Ed.2d 665 (1980) (applying and developing preemption test in context of state's attempt to apply its motor carrier license and use fuel taxes to non-Indian logging company on reservation).

In the present case, however, given the paucity of the factual record, we cannot determine which test should apply, much less what the outcome would be. The record created before the district court reveals no evidence pertinent to the existence of subject matter jurisdiction other than that Vijil's ex-wife received child support from DSS for the benefit of the children, that Vijil and his children are members of the tribe, and that he is a resident of the reservation. Based on the children's receipt of support, the court found that there were sufficient contacts with the state to give the court subject matter jurisdiction. But the district court's exclusive reliance on the contacts between Vijil's children and the state to determine the question of subject matter jurisdiction was insufficient as a matter of law; under neither of the tests can the issue be decided by reference to contacts with the state alone. On the other hand, the evidence is also insufficient to permit a determination that subject matter jurisdiction does not exist.

Because the facts before ...

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