This opinion will be unpublished and may
not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (1998).
IN COURT OF APPEALS
In the Matter of the Welfare of the Children of:
Reversed and remanded
Hennepin County District Court
File No. J69963785
Mike Hatch, Attorney General, 900 NCL Tower, 445 Minnesota Street, St. Paul, MN 55101 (for respondent state)
William E. McGee, Fourth District Public Defender, Warren R. Sagstuen, Assistant Public Defender, 317 Second Avenue South, Suite 200, Minneapolis, MN 55401-2700 (for appellant Coats)
Amy J. Klobuchar, Hennepin County Attorney, Donna J. Wolfson, Assistant County Attorney, C-2000 Government Center, Minneapolis, MN 55487 (for respondent county)
Sara L. Martin, 1611 Park Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55404 (for respondent father)
Andrea K. Niemi, John M. Jerabek, Niemi, Barr & Jerabek 510 Marquette Avenue, Suite 700, Minneapolis, MN 55402-1110 (for guardian ad litem)
Considered and decided by Lansing, Presiding Judge, Randall, Judge, and Willis, Judge.
Delores Coats appeals from a juvenile-court order denying her motion to vacate a default termination-of-parental-rights order. Because due process does not permit the default termination of parental rights at a pretrial hearing when a parent is not represented by counsel, we reverse and remand for an expedited hearing on the merits.
In August 1999, the Hennepin County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) petitioned to terminate Delores Coats’s parental rights to her four minor children. At a first appearance in September 1999, the juvenile court appointed a public defender to represent Coats and scheduled a pretrial hearing for October 12 and a final hearing for November 23. Coats signed a combined notice for both hearings requiring her to appear on the scheduled dates. The form notice was captioned “Hearing Notice” and warned that failure to appear could result in judgment by default. But the notice did not indicate whether this warning applied to the pretrial hearing, the final hearing, or both.
Coats failed to appear for the October 12 pretrial hearing. The court then granted DCFS’s motion to proceed by default and agreed to take judicial notice of its February 1999 findings of fact, conclusions of law, and order adjudicating Coats’s children in need of protection and services. It also continued for trial the case against the father of three of the children, who was present at the pretrial hearing. Coats’s counsel moved to withdraw as counsel, claiming he had not spent enough time with Coats to be able to oppose the default or otherwise represent her effectively. The court allowed Coats’s counsel to withdraw and proceeded to hear the testimony of Clare Fossum, the child-protection worker.
Fossum testified that Coats had not complied with the court-ordered case plan, had continued to use cocaine, and had refused to participate in chemical-dependency treatment. She concluded that the best interests of the children required that Coats’s parental rights be terminated. The court agreed and terminated Coats’s parental rights orally at the conclusion of Fossum’s testimony.
A few days later, Coats contacted her lawyer and explained that she had missed the pretrial hearing because of confusion caused by a medication change. On October 28, Coats’s lawyer moved under Minn. R. Civ. P. 60.02 to vacate the default order and set the case for trial. The department and the guardian ad litem opposed the motion.
On November 18, the court denied Coats’s motion to vacate, reasoning that Coats had not met her burden of showing that she had a meritorious defense, that she had a reasonable excuse for failing to appear at the pretrial hearing, and that no substantial prejudice would result to the children or the agency. The court’s order incorporated its November 17, 1999, findings of fact, conclusions of law, and order terminating Coats’s parental rights. Coats appeals from the court’s order denying her motion to vacate the termination order.
Before addressing the merits of Coats’s appeal we note that, unlike the current juvenile-procedure rules, the rules in effect at the time of Coats’s motion to vacate the default judgment did not have a provision comparable to Minn. R. Civ. P. 60.02. See Minn. R. Juv. P. 81.02 (specifying grounds for relief from juvenile-protection order; applicable to juvenile-protection matters filed after March 1, 2000). Rule 60.02 has, however, generally been applied in juvenile proceedings and the parties do not contest its applicability in this case. See, e.g., In re Welfare of B.J.J., 476 N.W.2d 525, 528 (Minn. App. 1991) (finding no basis under rule 60.02 to justify vacating order terminating father’s parental rights).
A reviewing court will uphold the district court’s decision to grant or deny a rule 60.02 motion absent a clear abuse of discretion. Welfare of B.J.J., 476 N.W.2d at 526-27. A party may be relieved from a final order for mistake, inadvertence, surprise, excusable neglect, or any other reason justifying relief from the operation of the judgment. Minn. R. Civ. P. 60.02 (a), (f). To prevail on a motion to vacate a default judgment on those grounds, the moving party must initially establish a reasonable defense on the merits. Hinz v. Northland Milk & Ice Cream Co., 237 Minn. 28, 30, 53 N.W.2d 454, 456 (1952).
When a party timely seeks to obtain relief from a void judgment, however, the district court does not have discretion to deny relief and must vacate the judgment without determining whether the moving party has a meritorious defense. Hengel v. Hyatt, 312 Minn. 317, 318, 252 N.W.2d 105, 106 (1977); see also Bode v. Minnesota Dep’t of Natural Resources, ___ N.W.2d ___, ___, No. C1-98-2200, 2000 WL 714047, at *8 (Minn. June 1, 2000) (requiring that motions to vacate judgments as void under Minn. R. Civ. P. 60.02(d) be brought within reasonable time).
A judgment is void if the court lacks personal or subject-matter jurisdiction. Pugsley v. Magerfleisch, 161 Minn. 246, 247, 201 N.W.2d 323, 323 (1924) (stating default judgment is void for lack of jurisdiction when service of process not properly made); see generally David F. Herr & Roger S. Haydock, 2A Minnesota Practice § 60.23, at 26 (3d ed. 1998). Even when the court has jurisdiction, a judgment may be void if it is entered in a manner inconsistent with due process. See State v. Waldron, 273 Minn. 57, 66-67, 139 N.W.2d 785, 792 (1966) (stating judgment of conviction will be held void for want of due process when circumstances surrounding trial made trial a sham); see also Great Am. Trading Corp. v. I.C.P. Cocoa, Inc., 629 F.2d 1282, 1287-88 (7th Cir. 1980) (stating denial of statutory right to evidentiary hearing may render judgment void); Winhoven v. United States, 201 F.2d 174, 175 (9th Cir. 1952) (stating procedures that deny party meaningful participation in litigation may render judgment void); see generally 12James W. Moore et al., Moore’s Federal Practice § 60.44 (3d ed. 1997).
The district court denied Coats’s motion to vacate the default-termination order, reasoning that Coats had failed to meet her threshold burden of establishing a defense on the merits. But because the juvenile rules do not authorize the default termination of parental rights at a pretrial hearing and Coats has both a due-process and a statutory right to an adversarial hearing, the critical question is not whether Coats established a defense on the merits, but whether the default procedure resulted in a void judgment that must be vacated irrespective of whether Coats has a meritorious defense.
Under Minnesota law, a proceeding for the termination of parental rights may go forward in a parent’s absence provided that the parent has appropriate notice of the hearing and is represented by counsel. See Minn. R. Juv. P. 42.02 (a hearing may proceed in a party’s absence provided party has “appropriate notice” of the hearing) (current version, effective March 1, 2000, at Minn. R. Juv. P. 63.02); In re Welfare of HGB, 306 N.W.2d 821, 825-26 (Minn. 1981) (holding due process did not require mother’s presence at termination hearing when mother was represented by counsel and could have submitted depositions or interrogatories); In re Welfare of A.Y.-J., 558 N.W.2d 757, 760 (Minn. App. 1997) (holding due process did not require father’s presence at termination hearing when counsel represented him throughout proceedings and court allowed father to present deposition testimony at a later date), review denied (Minn. April 15, 1997).
But the juvenile court’s power to proceed in a parent’s absence is not unlimited. Unlike the rules of family-court procedure, the juvenile rules do not provide authority to proceed to the final determination by default because of failure to appear for a pretrial hearing. Compare Minn. R. Gen. Pract. 305.02(b) (providing that if party to family-court proceeding fails to appear at prehearing conference, court may “dispose of the proceedings without further notice to that party”) with Minn. R. Juv. P. 58.01 (providing authority only for court to order pretrial conference) (current version, effective March 1, 2000, at Minn. R. Juv. P. 73.01); see Minn. R. Gen. Pract. 301 & 1992 advisory comm. cmt. (omitting termination of parental rights from list of matters governed by family-court rules 301 through 312).
The juvenile rules authorized the district court to address and decide the pretrial issues on October 12 whether or not Coats was present. Coats had appropriate notice of the pretrial hearing and was represented by counsel. See Minn. R. Juv. P. 42.02 (hearing may proceed in party’s absence if party has notice); Minn. R. Juv. P. 40.01 (parties have right to counsel) (current version, effective March 1, 2000, at Minn. R. Juv. P. 61.01). But the rules do not permit the court to convert a parent’s failure to appear at a pretrial hearing into a default of the entire proceedings.
Coats did not have appropriate notice that the termination hearing could occur at the pretrial hearing, and she was unrepresented by counsel. Although Coats had notice that the termination hearing had been scheduled for November 23 and that she must appear at that time, she did not have adequate notice that her failure to appear at the pretrial hearing could result in a default termination order. The portion of the notice warning Coats of possible default through failure to appear was ambiguous and could reasonably have been understood to apply only to the hearing for which she was required to appear, not to both hearings.
In addition to not having appropriate notice, Coats was denied the representation by counsel guaranteed by the juvenile-procedure rules, because the court granted her attorney’s motion to withdraw as counsel before proceeding with the termination hearing. Over and above the inadequate notice and the lack of representation, the default termination sharply exceeded the usual scope of a pretrial hearing, which is generally limited to pretrial issues and motions. See Minn. R. Juv. P. 58.01 (requiring that “[p]retrial issues and motions” be heard immediately before trial when there has been no pretrial conference) (current version, effective March 1, 2000, at Minn. R. Juv. P. 73.02, providing that pretrial conference take place ten days prior to trial and specifying purposes of pretrial conference including resolving pretrial matters and setting date for trial).
The default termination for failure to appear at the pretrial hearing not only deviated from the procedures prescribed by the juvenile rules, but also violated Coats’s due-process rights. Parents have a substantial and fundamental right to the custody and care of their children. Welfare of HGB,306 N.W.2d at 825. Accordingly, parental rights should be terminated only in accordance with due process and for “grave and weighty reasons.” In re Welfare of M.D.O., 462 N.W.2d 370, 375 (Minn. 1990) (citation omitted). The due-process standard in parental-termination proceedings embodies the notion of fundamental fairness. McKeiver v. Pennsylvania, 403 U.S. 528, 543, 91 S. Ct. 1976, 1985 (1971). Fundamental fairness guarantees a parent facing termination proceedings a right to a meaningful adversarial hearing. Id. The right to a meaningful adversarial hearing is also guaranteed by statute. Minn. Stat. § 260.155, subds. 2, 6 (1998) (providing that parents are entitled to appointed counsel, to be heard, and to present and cross-examine witnesses). We have upheld termination hearings conducted in the absence of a party only when the party is represented by counsel. Welfare of HGB, 306 N.W.2d at 825-26; Welfare of A.Y.-J., 558 N.W.2d at 760.
Proceeding with the termination-of-parental-rights hearing in Coats’s absence, well before the scheduled date, in the face of Coats’s counsel’s plea that he was unprepared for trial, and after allowing counsel to withdraw, deprived Coats of her due-process and statutory right to a meaningful adversarial hearing. Because Coats was not present at the hearing and did not have an attorney present, she was unable to present evidence or cross-examine witnesses and did not, therefore, have a meaningful opportunity to participate in the proceedings.
A proceeding to terminate parental rights seeks to extinguish the parent-child relationship. See Minn. Stat. § 260.241 (1998) (“Upon the termination of parental rights all rights * * *between the child and parent shall be severed and terminated.”). Because of the magnitude of the rights implicated in the termination proceedings, strict adherence to due process is imperative. See Lassiter v. Department of Social Sers., 452 U.S. 18, 27, 101 S. Ct. 2153, 2160 (1981) (stating parents have a “commanding” interest in the care and custody of their children and in the accuracy of the decision terminating their parental rights); State ex rel. Ashcroft v. Jensen, 214 Minn. 193, 195, 7 N.W.2d 393, 395 (1943) (“The sanctity of the home and the maintenance of family life form the foundation of our society and are of paramount importance now as in the past.”). The sharp departure from the procedures provided in the rules and the statute, and the deprivation of due process resulted in an invalid judgment that is essentially void. Accordingly, Coats’s failure to establish a meritorious defense is not a precondition for relief.
Unquestionably, the state has a legitimate interest in promoting the physical and emotional welfare of children. This interest, without a doubt, is best served by proceeding without undue delay to provide the children permanency. But the state’s interest in this case would not have been affected had the court proceeded by default with the pretrial hearing and conducted the trial five weeks later, as scheduled. The record contains no indication that the state had found appropriate permanent placement for the children. Furthermore, the children could not have been permanently placed until their father’s rights were adjudicated, which was not scheduled to occur until November 23. The court did not therefore advance the state’s interest in the children’s welfare by expediting the final hearing and proceeding without the assistance of counsel.
The default termination of Coats’s parental rights at a pretrial hearing did not comply with due process because the termination proceedings exceeded the usual scope of a pretrial hearing, the notice of possible default through failure to appear was ambiguous, and Coats was neither present nor represented by counsel. Because Coats was deprived of her right to a meaningful adversarial hearing, the judgment is void. We therefore reverse the denial of the motion to vacate and remand for an expedited hearing.
Reversed and remanded.