This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2006).
IN COURT OF APPEALS
In the Matter of the Welfare
of the Child of:
H.N.B. and A.B., Parents.
Filed May 22, 2007
Anoka County District Court
File No. J1-06-51083
Melissa Chawla, Walling, Berg
& Debele, P.A.,
Sherri D. Hawley, 13055 Riverdale Drive Northwest, Suite 500, PMB 246, Coon Rapids, Minnesota 55448-8403 (for appellant H.N.B.)
Samantha Gemberling, Gemberling
Robert M.A. Johnson,
Considered and decided by Lansing, Presiding Judge; Halbrooks, Judge; and Hudson, Judge.
U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N
In these consolidated termination-of-parental-rights appeals, appellant-father argues that the district court (1) should have vacated father’s voluntary termination of his parental rights; (2) should not have ruled that termination was in the child’s best interests; and (3) failed to make adequate best-interests findings. Appellant-mother argues (1) the district court should have accepted mother’s voluntary termination of her parental rights; and (2) because of the district court’s refusal to accept the termination, the district court should have amended its findings of fact or granted a new trial. We affirm.
The morning of the first day of the termination-of-parental-rights (TPR) trial, mother filed a petition for the voluntary termination of her parental rights. When the proceedings began, mother asked the court to accept her petition and excuse her from the trial. The court declined to accept the mother’s petition and proceeded with trial. When the trial resumed in the afternoon after the lunch break, mother refused to return to court. The court ordered that the trial proceed, and if mother did not return to court, the district court would proceed in default against her.
The next morning, mother again failed to appear for trial, and the district court proceeded in default against her. After taking testimony regarding the mother’s default, the court again denied mother’s request, through her attorney, to voluntarily terminate her parental rights and stated: “The County is not willing to let you stipulate to their case and turn it into a voluntary termination. This is the third child she would have terminated her parental rights on. The County wishes to proceed with a contested hearing. She’s failed to show up to basically contest it.”
Before testimony resumed, father filed a petition to voluntarily terminate his parental rights. The county agreed to waive its right to notice on the petition. Father then took the stand to testify in support of the petition. He testified about his child’s significant medical needs and that he did not believe he was capable of properly caring for him. Father also stated that he believed termination was in his child’s best interests and that no one was forcing him to make that decision.
After a brief cross-examination, the court accepted father’s petition to voluntarily terminate his parental rights. Mother’s attorney objected to the default judgment regarding his client and again asked the court to enter a voluntary termination on her behalf. The district court denied mother’s attorney’s request and instead found that there was clear and convincing evidence to support an involuntary termination of her parental rights.
Very early the next morning, July 13, 2006, the child had problems breathing and was brought to the hospital, where he arrived “in a cardiac standstill.” He died around noon on July 13, 2006, by which time the district court had apparently already signed the TPR order.
On July 14, 2006, both parents filed motions with the district court. Father moved to withdraw his petition to voluntarily terminate parental rights and vacate the TPR order; mother moved for amended findings or a new trial pursuant to Minn. R. Juv. Prot. P. 45.03. The parties argued their motions at a hearing before the district court on October 20, 2006. On October 25, 2006, the district court issued an order denying the parents’ motions to vacate, for amended findings, and for a new trial. This appeal follows.
D E C I S I O N
Father argues that the district court abused its discretion by denying his motion to withdraw his petition to voluntarily terminate his parental rights. Specifically, he argues that he is entitled to relief because he was “operating under extreme undue influence at the time of the entry of his voluntary admission.” He argues that he suffered undue influence because he was not allowed to see his child after the child was released from the hospital; the mother, H.N.B., refused to return to court; the county wanted to proceed against the mother on a petition to involuntarily terminate her parental rights; the guardian ad litem testified that she suspected the mother may be pregnant again; he was informed that his relatives could apply to adopt the child; he was repeatedly told he could not provide for the child; and he believed his son was receiving good care.
district court has discretion to decide a motion to vacate a judgment, and this
court will not disturb a district court’s decision absent an abuse of that
discretion. Nelson v. Siebert, 428 N.W.2d 394, 395 (
None of the circumstances cited by father amount to duress or undue influence entitling him to relief. First, father’s claim that he was operating under undue influence because he was repeatedly told that he could not provide for the child is disingenuous since he admitted more than once that he was unable to care for the child. Furthermore, father knew about the county’s intention to seek the involuntary termination of H.N.B.’s parental rights because the petition was filed in April 2006. And mother chose of her volition not to return to court for trial; her actions cannot be construed as coercion by the county. In addition, there is no evidence in the record to support father’s assertion that his child was not receiving good care or that the county was not considering his relatives as placement options for the child. Finally, while giving testimony in support of his own petition to voluntarily terminate his parental rights, father stated on the record that no one forced him to make the decision to terminate his parental rights and that he was comfortable asking the court to accept his voluntary petition. These statements directly contradict his present claims of undue influence.
Father also argues that because the death of the child was a “surprise,” he is entitled to relief under Minn. R. Juv. Prot. P. 46.02(a). “Upon a motion and upon such terms as are just,” a court may relieve a party from a final order and may grant a new trial or other relief because of:
(a) mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect;
(b) newly discovered evidence which by due diligence could not have been discovered in time to move for a new trial;
(c) fraud (whether denominated intrinsic or extrinsic), misrepresentation, or other misconduct of an adverse party;
(d) the judgment is void; or
(e) any other reason justifying relief from the operation of the order.
The death of his child, while unexpected, does not qualify as a “surprise” within the meaning of this rule. Although our research has not revealed any caselaw (and the parties cite to none) discussing the meaning of “surprise” in the context of the juvenile protection rules, it seems clear from the plain language of the rule that the child’s death does not qualify. The word “surprise,” listed with the words “mistake,” “inadvertence,” and “excusable neglect,” implies some event that took place during a trial or hearing, not something that happened after the fact or subsequently changed circumstances. We conclude that father is not entitled to relief under rule 46.02(a).
Father also seems to allege that he is entitled to relief under rule 46.02(b) because his child died shortly after leaving the hospital and therefore, there is newly discovered evidence regarding whether the child was receiving adequate care under the supervision of the county. This argument fails because the fact that the child died is not evidence that the child was receiving inadequate care.
Father also argues that he is entitled to relief under rule 46.02(c) because of fraud, misconduct, and/or misrepresentation on the part of the county. He argues that “fraud or . . . misrepresentations were made regarding the status of the child and his health in foster care.” Father’s argument that misrepresentations were made regarding the child’s health in foster care is contradicted by his admission that “it appears that the foster parents had been trained on how to care for the child and had the assistance of home health nurse aides. No one could have anticipated the death of the child.” Furthermore, he provides no evidence to support this allegation. The unexpected death of a child with significant medical issues, while tragic, does not indicate misrepresentation or fraud on the part of the county regarding the child’s health.
Next, father argues that it was “wholly inappropriate” for the county to allow the child to be buried under a different name. While the record supports the fact that the child was not buried under his given name, the record does not support father’s allegation that the county knowingly engaged in fraud or misrepresentations of fact.
Father further contends that he was assured that his relatives would be considered for placement of the child, and that for the foster parents to “take the child and bury him using a name chosen by them indicates that it is very possible that they deemed themselves the ‘parents’ of the child,” and therefore, “it appears that Anoka County had already chosen the child’s permanent placement.” There is no factual support for this allegation in the record.
Father also argues that he should be allowed to withdraw his petition to voluntarily terminate his parental rights because he indicated during his testimony that he did not understand that giving up his parental rights would prevent him from receiving information regarding the child’s welfare. Father relies on In re Welfare of K.T., in which a referee denied a petition for voluntary termination of parental rights when the 16-year-old mother stated during the hearing that she did not understand that if her child “were to die tomorrow,” she would not be told about it. 327 N.W.2d at 15. Father argues that the district court should have adjourned the proceedings or “inquired further of Appellant.” But the record shows that this is exactly what occurred. After father declared that he did not understand that upon terminating his parental rights he would not be informed of any changes in his child’s health, a lengthy discussion was held on the record during which father’s attorney attempted to explain the situation to him. At the conclusion of that discussion, father clearly expressed his understanding of the fact that he may not be entitled to receive medical information about his child once his parental rights were terminated. Based on the record, we conclude that father fully understood the ramifications of relinquishing his parental rights.
Father argues that the interests of justice entitle him to relief. He states that “[i]f anything, the child’s interests are clearly best served by allowing his natural parent to find out what happened to end his life, and what, if anything, could have been done to prevent his tragic death.” This argument clearly focuses on father’s best interests and the “hypothetical” best interests of his deceased child. Father’s concern is understandable, but it does not entitle him to relief. Moreover, father’s argument presupposes that no one is investigating the child’s death, which the record shows is not true. The district court specifically asked the child’s guardian ad litem to conduct an investigation of the circumstances regarding the child’s death. We recognize that this is an unusual and tragic situation, but we agree with the court in N.M.C. which stated:
While this Court recognizes that a parent who loves her child . . . goes through great anxiety, stress and grief over a decision to give that child up for adoption, it is also possible that such emotions could be confused with undue influence and duress as a means of regaining that child when the natural parent changes her mind. If the courts were to always allow the argument that an individual was unduly influenced or placed under duress during an otherwise emotional decision to give up a child for adoption, the door of certainty and finality would never be closed and the best interests of the child could never be served.
In re Welfare of N.M.C., 447 N.W.2d at 17 (quoting language taken from a district court’s order.)
For all of the above reasons, we conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion by denying father’s petition to vacate the TPR order and withdraw his petition to voluntarily terminate his parental rights.
Finally, father contends that the district court did not address the child’s best interests when deciding whether to vacate the order terminating his parental rights.
While there is no relevant caselaw directly on point, there is authority that suggests that a district court should consider the child’s best interests when deciding whether to set aside a voluntary termination order: “[s]tability is a factor which must be given high priority. . . . Some serious and compelling reason must exist in order to once again uproot the child and dramatically change his living environment.” In re K.T., 327 N.W.2d at 18. Here, however, the child is deceased, and therefore the district court could not take the child’s best interests into account. Therefore, we conclude that the district court did not err by not addressing the child’s best interests when deciding whether to vacate the order terminating the father’s parental rights.
Father argues that the district
court did not make sufficient findings regarding the best interests of the
child in the order terminating his parental rights. On appeal in a termination proceeding,
“appellate courts are limited to determining whether the findings address the
statutory criteria, whether those findings are supported by substantial
evidence, and whether they are clearly erroneous.” In re
Welfare of D.D.G., 558 N.W.2d 481, 484 (
In its order terminating father’s parental rights, the district court stated in its findings that “[t]ermination of the parents’ parental rights is in the best interests of the child.” It also stated in its conclusions of law that “[i]t is in the child’s best interests that parental rights be terminated.” Other than those two statements, the district court did not address the best interests of the child in its order, nor did it make any oral findings regarding the child’s best interests during the proceedings.
part of the termination proceedings, the district court was required to
consider and make findings regarding the child’s best interests at the time the
TPR was issued, when the child was obviously alive.
However, the facts of this case are quite unusual. In light of the child’s death, and with the understanding that the guardian ad litem is conducting an investigation regarding the circumstances of the child’s care and subsequent death, remanding for the district court to make sufficient findings regarding the child’s best interests is the height of form over substance. We conclude that, in this case, remanding for best-interests findings is unnecessary.
Mother argues that the district court erred by refusing to accept her petition to voluntarily terminate her parental rights. Specifically, she argues that the district court erred by concluding that (1) there was a basis for distinguishing between the two parents with respect to their petitions to voluntarily terminate their parental rights; and (2) the county was entitled to notice under Minn. R. Juv. Prot. P. 33.02. We disagree.
appeal in a termination proceeding, “appellate courts are limited to
determining whether the findings address the statutory criteria, whether those
findings are supported by substantial evidence, and whether they are clearly
erroneous.” In re Welfare of D.D.G., 558 N.W.2d at 484. “Interpretation of a statute involves a
question of law, which is subject to de novo review.” In re
Welfare of Children of R.W., 678 N.W.2d 49, 54 (
On review, “[c]onsiderable deference
is due to the district court’s decision because a district court is in a
superior position to assess the credibility of witnesses.” In re
Welfare of L.A.F., 554 N.W.2d 393, 396 (
Mother argues that the district court erred by refusing to accept her petition to voluntarily terminate her parental rights when it later accepted father’s petition to voluntarily terminate his parental rights.
First, the district court was not required to accept mother’s petition to voluntarily terminate her parental rights. Nothing in Minn. Stat. § 260C.301 requires a district court to accept a petition to voluntarily terminate parental rights after a petition to involuntarily terminate parental rights has been filed; mother does not cite any legal authority that suggests otherwise. Here, not only had a petition to involuntarily terminate mother’s parental rights been filed, but mother also entered a denial to the petition, and then, on the day of the adjudicatory hearing, she submitted a petition to voluntarily terminate her parental rights. To allow a parent to transform an involuntary termination of parental rights into a voluntary termination of parental rights by simply submitting a petition to voluntarily terminate her parental rights would allow a parent to, at the last minute, circumvent the TPR process and avoid the presumption an involuntary termination creates.
Second, we note that there were legitimate reasons for the district court to distinguish between the parents with respect to their petitions to voluntarily terminate their parental rights. Although both parents submitted petitions to voluntarily terminate parental rights, father attended the entire trial and gave testimony under oath supporting his petition, while mother left the trial early and refused to return. In her brief, mother argues that she was present in court and ready to testify, but that the district court “refused to allow her to proceed.” But at the motion hearing on October 20, the district court stated that the mother
was given an opportunity when I denied the voluntary termination to sit through a trial. She walked out. We continued the trial. She was informed she could come back. She failed to come back that afternoon. The next morning she again failed to show up, and at that point in time she was defaulted, with the understanding that the record being open, all that information would be considered as well as the testimony.
Because father was present at the hearing, the district court had the opportunity to take sworn testimony from him regarding his understanding of his legal rights and the voluntariness of his petition. As noted by the district court, there was “no factual basis established under oath from [mother] in regards to her understanding the issues that we’ve covered with [father].”
Finally, the record contains extensive evidence documenting mother’s ingestion of illegal drugs during three pregnancies and that two of her children were seriously affected by her decision to ingest those drugs. The record also shows, as the district court noted, that mother has a “ten-year history of being unable to parent any of her children.” All of these factors were absent in the case of father.
On this record, we conclude that the district court did not err by distinguishing between mother and father regarding their separate petitions to voluntarily terminate their parental rights and by refusing to accept mother’s petition to voluntarily terminate her parental rights.
Mother also argues that it was error for the district court to decline to accept her petition to voluntarily terminate her parental rights because the county did not agree to “waive notice requirements for that petition.” It is not entirely clear from the record what rule the district court was referring to, but because we conclude that the district court had no obligation to accept mother’s petition to voluntarily terminate her parental rights, we do not reach this issue.
argues that the district court erred by denying her motion for amended findings
or a new trial. Because the district
court has the discretion to grant a new trial, we will not disturb the decision
absent a clear abuse of that discretion.
Halla Nursery, Inc. v. Baumann-Furrie & Co., 454 N.W.2d 905,
a TPR proceeding, “[u]pon motion, the court may amend its findings or make
additional findings, and may amend the order accordingly.”
(a) irregularity in the proceedings of the court, referee, or prevailing party, or any order or abuse of discretion whereby the moving party was deprived of a fair trial;
(b) misconduct of counsel;
(c) fraud, misrepresentation, or other misconduct of the county attorney, any party, their counsel, or their guardian ad litem;
(d) accident or surprise that could not have been prevented by ordinary prudence;
(e) material evidence, newly discovered, which with reasonable diligence could not have been found and produced at the trial;
(f) errors of law occurring at the trial and objected to at the time, or if no objection need have been made, then plainly assigned in the motion;
(g) a finding that the statutory grounds set forth in the petition are proved is not justified by the evidence or is contrary to law; or
(h) if required in the interests of justice.
Without citing any legal authority, mother argues that termination of her parental rights should be deemed voluntary because it “would at least create a more just outcome for the Appellant.” Mother argues that the death of the child constitutes material evidence which could not have been found or produced before trial under Minn. R. Juv. Prot. P. 45.03(e), and that the interests of justice require a new trial. The district court found that there was no basis to vacate its order regarding the mother, amend its findings, or grant a new trial.
Minnesota Supreme Court has stated that “[g]enerally, to be newly discovered
evidence . . . evidence must have been in existence at the time of
the trial but not known to the party at that time.” Swanson
v. Williams, 303
As is the case with father, the district court failed to make adequate findings regarding the best interests of the child in its order terminating mother’s parental rights. See Tanghe, 672 N.W.2d at 625 (remanding for failure to make findings adequate to facilitate effective appellate review). However, as we noted above, on the unique facts of this case, remanding for best-interests findings is unnecessary.