This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2002).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
In the Matter of the Welfare of the Children of M.N., Parent.
Filed November 2, 2004
Gordon W. Shumaker, Judge
Hennepin County District Court
File No. J7-03-053336
David DeSmidt, Rapoport & DeSmidt, 3001 Hennepin Avenue South Suite 309B, Minneapolis, MN 55408 (for appellant M.N.)
Amy Klobuchar, Hennepin County Attorney, Mary M. Lynch, Assistant County Attorney, 1200 Health Services Building, 525 Portland Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55415 (for respondent Hennepin County Human Services Department)
Eric Rehm, 202 Firstar Bank Building, 301 West Burnsville Parkway, Burnsville, MN 55337 (for guardian ad litem)
Considered and decided by Shumaker, Presiding Judge; Lansing, Judge; and Harten, Judge.
GORDON W. SHUMAKER, Judge
On appeal from the district court’s denial of appellant M.N.’s motion to vacate an order accepting her consent to the adoption of her three children, appellant argues that the district court (a) should have allowed inquiry into whether she was competent to provide consent; and (b) should have granted appellant’s motion to vacate the order accepting her consent where that consent was, in part, based on fraud. We affirm.
In February of 2003, the Hennepin County Children, Family, and Adult Services Department filed a petition to terminate appellant M.N.’s parental rights to her three children. At a hearing on May 16, 2003, appellant signed a consent-to-adopt form, along with a contact agreement permitting her one annual visit with her children. In addition, the children’s father voluntarily terminated his parental rights. Child services and appellant’s mother identified distant family members, Wes and Wendy Richmond, as prospective adoptive parents. Appellant’s mother, the child services worker, and a legal disposition advisor assisted in and witnessed the consent process. In June, the Richmonds gave official notice that they would not be adopting appellant’s children.
On June 16, 2003, the district court issued an order accepting appellant’s consent to adopt and terminating father’s parental rights. Appellant filed a notice of appeal on grounds that she was incompetent to give adequate consent, and that the consent she did give was not knowing, voluntary, or intelligent. On August 26, 2003, we questioned jurisdiction, asking whether the issues appellant raised on appeal were properly preserved and, if not, whether we could otherwise review her case. We also noted the possibility of relief under Minn. R. Juv. P. 81.02. Appellant voluntarily moved to dismiss the appeal, and on September 12, 2003, we dismissed without prejudice, again noting the possibility of relief under Minn. R. Juv. P. 81.02.
Appellant then moved to vacate the June 16 order accepting her consent to adopt under rule 81.02 on grounds that she lacked the legal capacity to consent; that the consent she gave was induced by fraud, duress, or both, and was not knowing, voluntary, or intelligent. The case was reassigned to a different judge who ordered an evidentiary hearing on the sole issue of whether appellant was fraudulently induced into consenting to the adoption of her children.
At the evidentiary hearing, appellant testified that her mother had prior knowledge of the Richmonds’ intent not to adopt the children, and that her mother told appellant as much at the May 16 hearing. Appellant testified that she was overly emotional that day, did not quite understand all that was happening, and was misled into signing the consent to adopt by all those involved in the proceedings.
But appellant also testified to meticulously reading through every line of the consent form and the contact agreement with her lawyer, her mother, and the others assisting in the procedures. She testified that she understood the nature of both and that it was the meaning of the contact agreement (permitting her to visit her children once annually) that convinced her to willingly sign the consent to adopt. She testified that she understood the ten-day rule for withdrawing her consent, that she understood the care alternatives for her children if the Richmonds were to opt out, and that she was very disappointed when she subsequently learned that they had in fact chosen not to go forward with the adoption. Appellant acknowledged that she had a difficult choice to make that day, but that it was her choice nonetheless.
In addition, the child services worker testified that appellant understood the nature of the proceedings that day, and that there was nothing to suggest that anyone involved knew about Richmonds’ intent not to adopt. She testified that around the time of the May 16 hearing, the Richmonds had actually begun to remodel their home to accommodate the children. She testified to talking with appellant’s mother after the hearing about scheduling a final goodbye meeting between appellant and the children. She testified that the Richmonds did not change their mind until after their Memorial Day weekend visit with the children and that appellant’s mother told appellant of the change at one of the children’s birthday parties in June. She testified that appellant’s mother was devastated by the Richmonds’ change of mind. The disposition advisor corroborated the child services worker’s testimony.
Based on the testimony at the evidentiary hearing, the district court denied appellant’s motion to vacate the June 16 order. This appeal followed.
D E C I S I O N
We review a district court’s interpretation of the adoption statutes de novo. In re Adoption of C.H., 554 N.W.2d 737, 742 (Minn. 1996). “When interpreting a statute, we first look to see whether the statute’s language, on its face, is clear or ambiguous. A statute is only ambiguous when the language therein is subject to more than one reasonable interpretation.” Am. Family Ins. Group v. Schroedl, 616 N.W.2d 273, 277 (Minn. 2000) (citation and quotation omitted).
The Minnesota Rules of Juvenile Protection Procedure (formerly the Rules of Juvenile Procedure) “govern the procedure for juvenile protection matters in the juvenile courts in Minnesota.” Minn. R. Juv. Protect. P. 1.01. A “juvenile protection matter” is a matter relating to (1) children in need of protective services; (2) neglected children and children in foster care; (3) out-of-home placement of children; (4) termination of parental rights (TPRs); or (5) permanent placement of children. Minn. R. Juv. Protect. P. 2.01(k). With respect to TPRs, juvenile protection rule 46.02 (formerly rule 81.02) provides relief from a final order or judgment on the basis of, among other things, fraud and misrepresentation. Minn. R. Juv. Protect. P. 46.02(c). Voluntary termination orders, in particular, may be vacated upon a showing of fraud, duress, or undue influence. In re Welfare of K.T., 327 N.W.2d 13, 17-18 (Minn. 1982).
But consents to adopt are distinct from voluntary TPRs. Adoption procedures, in general, are not included in the list of juvenile protection matters governed by the juvenile protection rules. Minn. R. Juv. Protect. P. 2.01(k). While consents to adopt may ultimately have the same effect as a voluntary TPR, they are in fact “an alternative to a voluntary termination proceeding.” In re Welfare of A.M.P., 507 N.W.2d 616, 619 (Minn. App. 1993), superseded by statute on other grounds, Heidbreder v. Carton, 645 N.W.2d 355, 363-66 (Minn. 2002). Indeed, one of the purposes for allowing voluntary TPRs is “to facilitate adoption procedures by providing a means by which existing parental rights may be voluntarily terminated.” In re Welfare of Alle, 304 Minn. 254, 257, 230 N.W.2d 574, 576 (1975) (emphasis added).
The formal requirements for a valid consent to adopt make clear this distinction. Among other language, the following sentence must be included in the consent form in capital letters: “The consent itself does not terminate your parental rights.” Minn. Stat. § 259.24, subd. 5(2) (2002). The only way in which a consent to adopt may be interpreted as a voluntary TPR is if it fails to meet these strict statutory requirements of form. A.M.P., 507 N.W.2d at 619-20. All of this is consistent with the advisory committee deliberations on the scope of the juvenile protection rules, which state that “[t]he Committee intentionally excluded adoption cases from the definition of ‘juvenile protection matter’ . . . . Until adoption rules are promulgated and incorporated into the Juvenile Protection Rules, the Committee recommends that adoption matters continue to be covered by the Minnesota Rules of Civil Procedure.” 13 Robert Scott & John O. Sonsteng, Minnesota Practice, Minn. R. Juv. P. 38.01, advisory comm. deliberations (2002).
This raises the related issue of whether appellant might pursue similar relief under the Minnesota Rules of Civil Procedure. Minn. R. Civ. P. 60.02 is the counterpart of juvenile protection rule 46.02. In re Welfare of Children of Coats, 633 N.W.2d 505, 510 n.4 (Minn. 2001). Similar to juvenile protection rule 46.02, civil rule 60.02 provides relief from a final judgment or order relating to, among other things, fraud and misrepresentation. Minn. R. Civ. P. 60.02(c). But the rules of civil procedure do not govern the adoption provisions of chapter 259 insofar as they are inconsistent or in conflict with the rules. Minn. R. Civ. P. 81.01(c).
Rule 60.02 and the adoption provisions of chapter 259 are inconsistent in at least two material respects. First, rule 60.02 provides five grounds for relief in addition to fraud, Minn. R. Civ. P. 60.02; section 259.24 limits a party’s request for relief to fraud alone, Minn. Stat. § 259.24, subd. 6(a) (2002). Second, rule 60.02 requires that a motion be made either “within a reasonable time” or “not more than 1 year after the . . . order . . . was entered,” Minn. R. Civ. P. 60.02; section 259.24 requires that a motion for withdrawal be made within ten days. Minn. Stat. § 259.24, subd. 6a. To the extent that the relief afforded a party in section 259.24 is substantially more narrow than that of rule 60.02, the rules of civil procedure “do not govern . . . practice and procedure in the statutory . . . proceedings” of the adoption provisions of chapter 259. Minn. R. Civ. P. 81.01(a).
Because this is an appeal from an order denying a motion to vacate a previous order accepting a consent to adopt, and is therefore not a juvenile protection matter, the analysis afforded under Minn. R. Juv. Protect. P. 46.02 is not applicable. Furthermore, because the adoption provisions of chapter 259 are inconsistent with the rules of civil procedure, the broader analysis afforded under Minn. R. Civ. P. 60.02 is equally inapplicable. We conclude that appellant’s request for relief is limited to Minn. Stat. § 259.24, subd. 6a, the “plain language [of which] notes that ‘fraud’ alone is a basis to revoke one’s consent to adopt after the ten-day grace period.” In re Anderson, 565 N.W.2d 461, 464 (Minn. App. 1997).
To successfully challenge a district court’s findings of fact, the challenging party “must show that despite viewing that evidence in the light most favorable to the trial court’s findings . . . the record still requires the definite and firm conviction that a mistake was made.” Vangsness v. Vangsness, 607 N.W.2d 468, 474 (Minn. App. 2000). An appellate court defers to the district court’s credibility determinations. Id. at 472. “That the record might support findings other than those made by the trial court does not show that the court’s findings are defective.” Id. at 474. Appellant argues that the district court’s findings on the issue of fraud were clearly erroneous.
Again, a motion to withdraw a consent to adopt must be made “within ten working days after the consent is executed and acknowledged.” Minn. Stat. § 259.24, subd. 6a. After that period, such consent then becomes irrevocable “except upon order of a court of competent jurisdiction after written findings that consent was obtained by fraud.” Id. The traditional elements of fraud in Minnesota, which must be proved by a preponderance of the evidence, consist of (1) a false representation of a material fact; (2) knowledge of its falsity (or an assertion of the fact without knowledge of its truth or falsity) on the part of the person representing; (3) an intention on the part of the person representing that it induce the other party into action (or circumstances justifying reasonable action); and (4) a detrimental act based on the representation. Anderson, 565 N.W.2d at 465.
The district court’s findings on the issue of fraud were not clearly erroneous. Some of appellant’s ambiguous testimony at the evidentiary hearing suggests that her mother had prior knowledge that the Richmonds were not going forward with the adoption and that her mother revealed this fact to appellant at the May 16 hearing. Other testimony suggests that appellant was largely unaware of what was going on, and thus was misled into consenting to the adoption. But the thrust of appellant’s testimony as a whole supports a contrary inference. Appellant testified to having read through the consent form and the contact agreement with her lawyer, and having understood the nature of both. She testified to having signed the form on the basis of what the contact agreement allowed. She testified to having understood the care alternatives for her children, and remembered being disappointed when she found out that the Richmonds had decided not to go forward with the adoption. She testified to understanding the nature of the ten-day rule for withdrawal. She acknowledged that she had a difficult choice to make that day, but that her decision was the best of two less than desirable alternatives.
In addition, the child services worker testified that appellant understood what she was signing that day, and that there was no indication that anyone involved knew that the Richmonds had changed their minds. She testified that the change of mind came in June, after a visit over the Memorial Day weekend; and that prior to the visit, around the time of the May 16 hearing, the Richmonds had actually begun to remodel their home to accommodate the children. She testified to scheduling a goodbye visit between appellant and her children with appellant’s mother after the hearing. She testified that appellant’s mother, like appellant, was devastated when she learned in June that the Richmonds had changed their mind. She testified that appellant’s mother told appellant of their change of mind at one of the children’s birthday parties in June.
Because this testimony, along with the corroborating testimony of the disposition advisor, is sufficient to support the district court’s finding that there was no intentional misrepresentation upon which appellant could have been compelled to act to her detriment, appellant is not entitled to relief on these grounds.