State ex rel. TRL by Avery v. RLP, 88-253

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Wyoming
Writing for the CourtBefore THOMAS, URBIGKIT, MACY and GOLDEN, JJ., and LANGDON; MACY
Citation772 P.2d 1054
PartiesSTATE of Wyoming, ex rel. TRL, a minor, by Steve M. AVERY, Guardian Ad Litem, Appellant (Petitioner), v. RLP and DLL, Appellees (Respondents).
Docket NumberNo. 88-253,88-253
Decision Date17 April 1989

Myron L. Barton, Riverton, guardian ad litem, Joseph B. Meyer, Atty. Gen., Peter J. Mulvaney, Deputy Atty. Gen., and Shirley A. Kingston, Asst. Atty. Gen., for appellant.

Gary A. Barney, Lander, for appellee RLP.

Andrew Baldwin of Wind River Legal Services, Ft. Washakie, Kathleen Ann Mickey of Legal Services for Southeastern Wyoming, Inc., Cheyenne, and Elaine Bodurtha of Community Legal Services, Kingman, Ariz., for appellee DLL.

Before THOMAS, URBIGKIT, MACY and GOLDEN, JJ., and LANGDON, District Judge.

MACY, Justice.

This is an appeal by the State of Wyoming from the dismissal of its action to set aside a prior order of the district court terminating the parental rights of the father in relation to his minor child. In the unusual posture of this case, both the father and the mother are appellees advocating the validity and finality of the prior termination order and the propriety of the subsequent dismissal of the State's attempted ameliorative action.

We reverse.

The State delineates five issues:

I. Is an order purporting to terminate the rights and responsibilities of a father to his minor child nugatory if the interests of the child were not protected in the proceedings, and the requirements of the termination statute were not complied with?

II. When the needs of the child require, must the State in its role as parens patriae initiate an action in behalf of the child, asserting his fundamental right to a parental relationship with his father?

III. Should it be possible for natural parents to bargain away the rights of their child in pursuit of their own interests, even though they may be adverse to those of their child?

IV. May the doctrine of res judicata apply when the prior proceeding did not address the interests of the real party in interest, a minor child?

V. May a child be deprived of paternal support and relationship because his maternal parent frustrates the father's rights of visitation; or are there other less harmful remedies?

The dispositive issue, as we see it, is whether the order terminating the father's parental rights is valid and, if not, whether it was subject to a subsequent challenge by the State in an action essentially seeking relief from a void judgment. The other issues raised by the State will not be addressed except as they relate to this controlling issue.

The facts in this case primarily relate to its procedural history, and they are not in dispute. This case is rife with procedural irregularities, 1 caused in no small measure by the machinations of the parents in attempting to avoid their responsibilities, resulting in decisions below in which the self-serving interests of the parents prevailed over the best interests of the child. The child was born out of wedlock on January 22, 1985. Shortly thereafter the mother began receiving public assistance from the State (AFDC). On November 13, 1985, at the behest of the State, the mother initiated a paternity action pursuant to Wyo.Stat. §§ 14-2-101 to -120 (1977) against the father, seeking a declaration of paternity, child support, and reimbursement to the State for support funds expended. A guardian ad litem was appointed for the child in accordance with § 14-2-107. After an informal hearing, a judgment was entered on October 28, 1986, establishing the father's paternity, granting primary custody to the mother with detailed visitation rights for the father, ordering the father to pay $138 per month in child support, and ordering the father to pay certain amounts in reimbursement to the State.

The father apparently made only one support payment. The mother, on the other hand, allegedly denied the father his right of visitation. According to subsequent allegations by the father, the mother apparently requested that the father provide her with a relinquishment of parental rights and a consent to adoption. Consequently, counsel for the father prepared a stipulation, signed by both parents, in which the father agreed to execute a relinquishment of parental rights and consent to adoption in return for which the mother agreed that, upon delivery of same, the father would have no further support obligations and that the mother would pay the amounts assessed against the father in the parentage judgment. 2 On March 4, 1987, counsel for the father filed a copy of this stipulation with the district court, apparently with a request that the court enter an order incorporating the terms of the stipulation.

By letter dated March 9, 1987, the district court contacted the guardian ad litem and counsel for both parents indicating understandable confusion as to the purpose of the stipulation. The letter stated in part:

I am now in receipt of a Stipulation terminating parental rights of the father and apparently abrogating all the terms of the previous Order. I do not understand this at all. I will not sign an order based upon that Stipulation without the approval of the Guardian ad Litem, and without a thorough understanding of why the Stipulation was entered into. It seems to me that this child is deserving of support from both parents and of visitation with his father as originally set up by this Court's Order.

The mother's counsel responded by letter indicating that he no longer represented the mother and that he had no prior knowledge of the stipulation. He further expressed the opinion that changing the paternity judgment would not be in the best interests of the child.

Nothing further of record occurred until July 22, 1987, at which time the State filed a notice of delinquency indicating the father's child support obligation was in arrears and that income withholding would commence shortly. In a curious turn of events, the delinquency notice was signed by the guardian ad litem in his new capacity as deputy county attorney representing the State in child support enforcement actions. Counsel for the father responded by filing a document designated "PETITION TO STAY SERVICE OF ORDER FOR WITHHOLDING AND NOTICE TO PAYOR," which alleged that the mother had denied the father visitation, that the mother had sought and obtained the stipulation for relinquishment of parental rights, and that she had waived or was estopped from asserting a right of support. 3 The petition requested entry of an order prepared by counsel incorporating the stipulation.

The district court ordered a conference with counsel. On September 29, 1987, the deputy county attorney (formerly the guardian ad litem ) and counsel for the father conferred with the district court in chambers. As a result of this chambers proceeding, the district court entered an order on October 14, 1987, ratifying the stipulation and expressly adjudging that the father had no past, present, or future support obligation for the child and ordering that, upon the delivery from the father to the mother of an executed relinquishment of parental rights and consent to adoption, the parental rights of the father were terminated.

On March 2, 1988, the State filed a complaint 4 styled as State of Wyoming ex rel. TRL, a minor, versus RLP and DLL, alleging in effect that the termination proceeding was defective because there was no meaningful representation of the child's best interests by the guardian ad litem. The complaint sought the reimposition of a support obligation upon the father with corresponding visitation rights--in essence, a revival of the original parentage judgment. The mother filed a motion to dismiss alleging, inter alia, a failure to appeal and res judicata. The State responded by brief asserting in part that its action was in the nature of a W.R.C.P. 60(b) motion for relief from judgment. The district court appointed a new guardian ad litem for the child, again pursuant to the parentage statutes, and reassigned the case to a different judge. The father, after being located in Michigan, answered, asserted various defenses--including res judicata, and urged dismissal.

A hearing was held before the new judge on July 12, 1988. The district court concluded that the child was not adequately represented in the prior proceeding. The district court found, however, that the best interests of the child had been considered in the prior proceeding, that the State had failed to appeal, and that the action before the court was an improper substitute for appeal. The State's complaint was therefore dismissed, and this appeal was perfected.

Our inquiry initially focuses on whether the State could attack the October 1987 judgment in the fashion that it did. We agree with the district court that the State's action was unorthodox to the extent...

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