Justia Family Law Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in New Mexico Supreme Court
Russ v. Russ
When Angela Russ (Spouse) and Jeffery Russ (Veteran) divorced, they agreed to divide Veteran’s military retirement pay as part of the community property. Nonetheless, about eight years after their divorce, Veteran waived his retirement pay in order to receive a disability benefit from the federal government. His waiver occurred after Mansell v. Mansell, 490 U.S. 581 (1989) was issued, but before Howell v. Howell, ___ U.S. ___, 137 S. Ct. 1400 (2017) was issued. The question presented for the New Mexico Supreme Court’s review was whether the Court of Appeals correctly determined that Howell did not apply to this case. If the Howell Court’s application of the Mansell rule applied, Veteran could unilaterally change his federal benefit as he did. This change precluded Spouse from receiving any of his retirement benefit from the federal government, regardless of what he agreed to when they divorced. If the Howell Court’s application of the Mansell rule did not apply, then Veteran had to indemnify Spouse for her share of his waived retirement benefit. “Although equitable principles may suggest that we should determine that Howell does not apply in this case, the Supremacy Clause of the federal constitution, U.S. Const. art. VI, cl. 2, precludes that application of equity.” The New Mexico Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals’ determination that Howell was not given full retroactive effect in New Mexico, and remanded for further proceedings. View "Russ v. Russ" on Justia Law
New Mexico ex rel. CYFD v. Mercer-Smith
While the parties in this case litigated contempt proceedings over the course of seven years, the children at the center of the case aged out of the system and became peripheral to a nearly $4,000,000 judgment in favor of Respondents Janet and James Mercer-Smith, who pleased no contest to allegations of abuse against their two minor daughters Julia and Rachel. This case began in 2001 as an abuse and neglect proceeding and turned into a dispute over whether Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) had violated the district court's decision and Julia and Rachel could not be placed with former employees of a group home where they had been residing. After protracted litigation, the district court held CYFD in contempt for violating its placement decision and, almost four years later, imposed the sanction for the violation, ordering CYFD to pay the Mercer-Smiths more than $1,600,000 in compensatory damages and more than $2,000,000 in attorney fees and costs. The award was based on the district court’s determination that the violation of the placement decision resulted in the loss of the Mercer-Smiths' chance of reconciliation with Julia and Rachel. The New Mexico Supreme Court held that the purpose for which the district court exercised its contempt power was not remedial in nature and therefore could not be upheld as a valid exercise of civil contempt power. Accordingly, the Court reversed the contempt order and vacated the award in its entirety. View "New Mexico ex rel. CYFD v. Mercer-Smith" on Justia Law
New Mexico ex rel. CYFD v. Keon H.
The New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department (the Department) appealed a Court of Appeals decision to reverse the district court’s termination of Father’s parental rights with regard to Child. Mother and Father reported that Father had been standing and rocking Child when he accidentally dropped her on the carpet. Child was in critical condition, having sustained multiple fractures, including twenty-three rib fractures and four skull fractures in various stages of healing, facial bruising, liver lacerations, brain bleeding, and a possible detached retina. Doctors determined that the “volume, distribution, and severity of [Child’s] injuries [were] not consistent with a short fall in the home” and instead evidenced multiple incidents of blunt force trauma to Child’s head and body. Child was severely physically and mentally impaired as a result of the injuries. The Court of Appeals concluded that the Department failed to make reasonable efforts to assist Father in remedying the conditions and causes of neglect and abuse that rendered Father unable to properly care for Child. The New Mexico Supreme Court granted certiorari to review whether the district court’s determination that the Department made reasonable efforts to assist Father was supported by substantial evidence. The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals opinion and affirmed the district court order terminating Father’s parental rights. View "New Mexico ex rel. CYFD v. Keon H." on Justia Law
Tran v. Bennett
This case involved three people who agreed to co-parent one minor Child: Tue Thi Tran (Mother); Clinton Demmon (Demmon), Child’s biological father and Mother’s current partner; and Robert Bennett (Bennett), who was married to Mother at the time of Child’s birth. In 2007, the parties entered into a memorandum of agreement that settled the issue of legal paternity in Demmon’s favor yet provided that all three adults were Child’s “co-parents.” The district court adopted the memorandum of agreement as a stipulated order of the court. Disputes arose between the parties, and in 2012 the district court issued a parenting order that expressly awarded joint legal custody of Child to Mother, Demmon, and Bennett. The district court also held Mother and Demmon in contempt of court for violating the vacation and visitation provisions in the memorandum of agreement. On appeal, Mother and Demmon challenged the 2012 parenting order, arguing that Bennett was not Child’s father and that the district court erred by awarding custody to a non-parent. Mother and Demmon also contended that the district court abused its discretion by holding them in contempt of court. After review, the New Mexico Supreme Court concluded the parties effectively settled the issue of paternity under the Uniform Parentage Act when they entered into the memorandum of agreement and that the district court adjudicated the issue of paternity when it issued the stipulated order adopting the agreement. Therefore, the Court held Demmon was Child’s legal father. Furthermore, the parties’ memorandum of agreement did not confer parental rights on Bennett, in addition to Child’s two legal parents. Finally, the Court vacated the contempt order. View "Tran v. Bennett" on Justia Law
Kimbrell v. Kimbrell
Petitioner Kathrin Kinzer-Ellington was appointed guardian ad litem pursuant to Rule 1-053.3 NMRA to help determine the best interests of minor children whose parents were involved in a custody dispute. As the case grew more and more contentious, Father David Kimbrell sued both Mother Lorraine Kimbrell and the guardian ad litem in tort as next friend of his oldest daughter, Lily Kimbrell, alleging that their conduct had injured the child. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine whether a parent has standing to sue a Rule 1-053.3 guardian ad litem during a pending custody proceeding. The Court held that a Rule 1-053.3 guardian ad litem is protected by absolute quasi-judicial immunity from suit arising from the performance of his or her duties unless the guardian ad litem’s alleged tortious conduct is clearly and completely outside the scope of his or her appointment. A parent does not have standing to sue a guardian ad litem appointed in a custody proceeding on behalf of the child because: (1) the parent has been found to be unable to act in the best interests of the child, and (2) such a lawsuit would create a conflict of interest in the custody case. View "Kimbrell v. Kimbrell" on Justia Law
In the Matter of Grace H.
The district court concluded that "Grace H.'s" father's parental rights should be terminated pursuant to a finding of abandonment without establishing that the conditions of neglect, by abandonment, could be not be cured. The father appealed that ruling, arguing that an ambiguity in Section 32A-4-28 led to an incorrect ruling. He averred that the Children Youth and Families Department (the Department) "used its unfettered discretion to pursue a theory of abandonment under Section 32A-4-28(B)(1) without establishing that it made reasonable efforts to cure the causes of neglect, as required by Section 32A-4-28(B)(2)." While the Supreme Court did not agree with the father’s framing of the issue on appeal, it did agree that Section 32A-4-28 was ambiguous with respect to when abandonment may be used as a basis for termination of parental rights. Furthermore, the Court also agreed that this ambiguity led to the improper termination of his parental rights in this case. For that reason, the Court reversed the district court’s ruling. View "In the Matter of Grace H." on Justia Law
Diamond v. Diamond
This case presented the Supreme Court with an issue of first impression: whether the New Mexico Emancipation of Minors Act authorizes a district court to declare a minor emancipated for some rather than all enumerated purposes contained in the Act. Petitioner Jhette Diamond (Daughter), then sixteen years old, petitioned the district court in for a declaration of emancipation pursuant to the Act. Daughter left the home of her mother Adrienne Diamond (Mother) at age thirteen and had been living with several different households. Mother did not appear at the hearing or otherwise oppose the petition. Daughter, represented by counsel, told the district court that she had moved out of Mother’s home due to domestic violence and substance abuse issues. Daughter had no intention of returning to live with Mother, who maintained a relationship with the man whose violent behavior and substance abuse had contributed to Daughter's decision to leave. The district court issued a "Declaration of Emancipation of Minor" in March 2007, finding that Daughter had been living independently and managing her own financial affairs without support from Mother, determining that emancipation would be in Daughter’s best interest, and declaring Daughter "an emancipated minor in all respects, except that she shall retain the right to support from [Mother]" pursuant to the Act. Mother, represented by counsel, objected to child support to an emancipated minor. Agreeing with Mother, the Court of Appeals held that "New Mexico law does not permit a minor emancipated pursuant to [the Act] to collect child support payments," and does not permit “an emancipating court to pick and choose the purposes for which a child is emancipated." Upon review of the legislative history of the Act, the Supreme Court concluded that the Act's directive that emancipation may be declared for "one or more purposes" expressly authorized partial emancipation. Furthermore, the Court did not find "management of one's financial affairs" and entitlement to support as inherently contradictory. In response to Mother's argument that Daughter receiving public welfare benefits was not "managing her affairs" in the same manner as receiving child support is not managing one's affairs, the Court found that Mother did not offer an explanation for why the source of the support should be determinative of Daughter's ability to manage her affairs. In rendering its judgment, the district court "faithfully followed the procedural requirements of the Act and reached a result consistent with the Act's plain language." Because the Court of Appeals failed to give effect to that language, the Supreme Court reversed that court's decision. View "Diamond v. Diamond" on Justia Law
Chatterjee v. King
Bani Chatterjee and Taya King are two women who were in a committed, long-term domestic relationship when they agreed to bring a child into their relationship. King adopted a child from Russia. Chatterjee supported King and Child financially, lived in the family home, and co parented Child for a number of years before their commitment to each other foundered and they dissolved their relationship. Chatterjee never adopted Child. After they ended their relationship, King moved to Colorado and sought to prevent Chatterjee from having any contact with Child. Chatterjee filed a petition in the district court to establish parentage and determine custody and timesharing. Chatterjee alleged that she was a presumed natural parent under the former codification of the New Mexico Uniform Parentage Act, (NMSA), and was the equitable or de facto parent of Child, and as such, was entitled to relief. In response to Chatterjee’s Petition, King filed a motion to dismiss. The district court dismissed the Petition for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. Chatterjee then appealed to the Court of Appeals, which affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded to the district court. The Court of Appeals held that Chatterjee did not have standing to seek joint custody absent a showing of King’s unfitness because she is neither the biological nor the adoptive mother of Child. The Court further held that presumptions establishing a father and child relationship cannot be applied to women, and a mother and child relationship can only be established through biology or adoption. The issue before the Supreme Court was whether Chatterjee pleaded sufficient facts in her Petition to give her standing to pursue joint custody of Child under the Dissolution of Marriage Act. The Court concluded based on the facts and circumstances of this case, that the facts pleaded by Chatterjee were sufficient to confer standing on her as a natural mother because: (1) the plain language of the UPA instructs courts to apply criteria for establishing a presumption that a man is a natural parent, to women because it is practicable for a woman to hold a child out as her own by, among other things, providing full-time emotional and financial support for the child; (2) commentary by the drafters of the UPA supports application of the provisions related to determining paternity to the determination of maternity; (3) the approach in this opinion is consistent with how courts in other jurisdictions have interpreted their UPAs, which contain language similar to the New Mexico UPA; and (4) New Mexico’s public policy is to encourage the support of children, financial and otherwise, by providers willing and able to care for the child. View "Chatterjee v. King" on Justia Law
Freedom C. v. Brian D.
Several months after being granted sole legal and physical custody of Patrick D. (Child), Brian D. and Peggy D. (Grandparents) filed a petition for guardianship and custody pursuant to the Kinship Guardianship Act. Julie Ann D. (Mother), Grandparents’ daughter, consented to the guardianship, but Freedom C. (Father) opposed it. After an evidentiary hearing, the district court found both Mother and Father unfit to raise Child. The district court granted guardianship to Grandparents, granted time-sharing privileges to both Mother and Father, and held that it would review the guardianship arrangement in twenty-four months. Father appealed to the Court of Appeals, which reversed the district court. The Court of Appeals held that the consent provision in Section 40-10B–8(B)(1) was not satisfied because both parents did not consent to the guardianship. The Supreme Court granted a petition for writ of certiorari filed by Grandparents to consider: (1) whether application of the Act is appropriate under the circumstances of this case; and (2) whether any of the prerequisites for its application were met. Because the Court concluded that Section 40-10B-8(B)(3) was met under the facts, circumstances, and procedure of this case, the Court reversed the Court of Appeals and remand to the district court to schedule a hearing to review the guardianship arrangement as previously anticipated by its order. View "Freedom C. v. Brian D." on Justia Law