Opinions Released August 25, 2016

In this weekly blog, the Law Offices of Brandy Wingate Voss, PLLC will summarize recent decisions from the Thirteenth Court of Appeals and provide links to decisions on the court’s website.

In the Interest of R.E.R., No. 13-14-00489-CV (Opinion by Chief Justice Valdez; Panel Members: Justices Garza and Longoria)

In this appeal from a suit to modify the parent-child relationship filed by the former same-sex partner of the mother, the appellant appeals from the trial court’s dismissal of the case for lack of standing.  

A.R. and N.G. were female same-sex partners, who desired to have a child. With the help of a sperm donor, N.G. gave birth to R.E.R. on July 21, 2009. The sperm donor relinquished his parental rights and explicitly authorized N.G. to appoint her life partner as the child’s guardian.

A.R. and N.G. parented R.E.R. for four years before separating in June 2013. One month later, N.G. signed an affidavit temporarily giving her parental rights to A.R., while retaining the right to voice an opinion regarding R.E.R.’s well-being. For July 2013, R.E.R. lived with A.R. After N.G. and A.R. agreed to an informal possession schedule, R.E.R. moved to live with N.G. The informal agreement soon created issues as N.G. stopped allowing R.E.R. to spend weekends with A.R., and permitted visitation only occasionally. However, N.G. insisted that there was no need for a court to get involved because she considered A.R. to be R.E.R.’s mom.

Finally, in February 2014, A.R. filed a suit affecting the parent-child relationship (“SAPCR”), seeking custody orders. In an about-face, N.G. challenged A.R.’s standing to bring the suit, claiming A.R. was not the child’s biological mother and did not have “care, control, and possession” of R.E.R.

The trial court entered temporary orders finding that it was in R.E.R.’s best interest to continue her relationship with A.R. Only two weeks later, however, the trial court dismissed the case for lack of standing.

Specifically, the trial court analyzed A.R.’s standing under Texas Family Code section 102.003(a)(11), which allows a SAPCR to be brought by “a person with whom the child and the child’s guardian, managing conservator, or parent have resided for at least six months ending not more than 90 days preceding the date of the filing of the petition if the child’s guardian, managing conservator, or parent is deceased at the time of the filing of the petition.” Finding that A.R. stopped living with N.G. more than 90 days before the filing of the petition, the trial court dismissed A.R.’s case. A.R. appealed, claiming the trial court applied the wrong standing statute.

Held: The trial court applied the wrong standing statute; the court should have evaluated A.R.’s standing under Texas Family Code 102.003(a)(9). The judgment was reversed and remanded.

Although the trial court analyzed A.R.’s standing under section 102.003(a)(11), A.R. never claimed she had standing under 102.003(a)(11). Rather, A.R. asserted standing under Family Code section 102.003(a)(9). Section 102.003(a)(9) allows a person other than a foster parent to bring a SAPCR if the person “has had actual care, control, and possession of the child for at least six months ending not more than 90 days preceding the date of the filing of the petition.” The court of appeals held that A.R. presented some evidence of standing under this statute, and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings.

Read the Full Opinion Here

In the Interest of A.A.T. et al, No. 13-16-00269-CV (Memorandum Opinion by Justice Benavides; Panel Members: Justices Rodriguez and Perkes)

In this appeal from the termination of a father’s parental rights, J.M. claims he was denied his statutory right to a trial de novo.

The Department of Family and Protective Services filed a petition to terminate J.M.’s parental rights to A.A.T., D.R.M., D.M.M., and D.N.M. on numerous grounds. After a bench trial, the associate judge held that J.M. constructively abandoned his children and failed to comply with a prior court order establishing conditions necessary to restore his rights to D.M.M. and D.N.M. Holding that termination was in the children’s best interest, the associate judge terminated J.M.’s parental rights.

J.M. appealed the associate judge’s ruling—challenging “all findings and conclusions” supporting the termination—but the trial court denied the appeal. After J.M. filed a motion for reconsideration, the trial court held a hearing on the motion and adopted the associate judge’s report as its own. J.M. appealed to the Thirteenth Court of Appeals, claiming that the trial court should not have denied the appeal, but instead granted a de novo hearing on his challenge to the associate judge’s ruling.

Held: J.M. was entitled to a trial de novo; the case is reversed and remanded.

J.M. claimed he was entitled to a de novo hearing before the trial court regarding the termination of his parental rights. J.M. pointed to Texas Family Code 201.015, which states:

(a)        A party may request a de novo hearing before the referring court by filing with the clerk of the referring court a written request not later than the third working day after the date the party receives notice of . . . the substance of the associate judge’s report as provided by Section 201.011;

. . . .

 (c)       In the de novo hearing before the referring court, the parties may present witnesses on the issues specified in the request for hearing. The referring court may also consider the record from the hearing before the associate judge, including the charge to and verdict returned by a jury.

J.M. filed a notice of appeal and requested review of “all findings and conclusions resulting in the termination of his parental rights.” The Department conceded that J.M. was entitled to a trial de novo on the issue.  The Court of Appeals thus agreed with the parties, reversing the trial court’s judgment and remanding the case for a “new and independent” review of the associate judge’s findings.

Read the Full Opinion Here