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Parents Who Did Not Object to Temporary Custody Could Not Dispute Permanent Custody Ruling

A juvenile court must conduct a hearing to grant temporary custody to a children services agency within 90 days after the agency files a complaint. If the hearing takes place after 90 days, a parent must object to the court’s decision immediately, and not during a later appeal following the court’s decision to grant permanent custody to the children services agency, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today.

A Supreme Court majority rejected a father’s argument that all judgments by the Butler County Juvenile Court regarding the custody of his children were void because the temporary custody hearing took place after the 90-day deadline imposed by a former state law, which has since been amended.

Writing for the Court, Justice Sharon L. Kennedy stated that failing to timely conduct the temporary custody hearing did not divest the court of subject matter jurisdiction and merely rendered any decision by the court “voidable,” which meant the error had to be challenged in a direct appeal of the judgments granting temporary custody. The father did not raise the issue until he appealed a permanent custody determination. By then the judgments granting temporary custody were valid and the challenge was barred by the principle of res judicata, she wrote.

Justices R. Patrick DeWine, Michael P. Donnelly, Melody Stewart, and Jennifer Brunner joined the opinion. Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor concurred in judgment only.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Patrick F. Fischer stated that at the time of the dispute, R.C. 2151.35(B)(1) required a temporary custody hearing within 90 days. If the juvenile court failed to meet the deadline, the court’s decision was void. Because it was void, a parent could challenge the court’s ruling at any time, he wrote.

Parents Agree to Temporary, But Not Permanent, Custody of Children
In October 2018, the Butler County Department of Job and Family Services – Children Services Division filed a complaint in juvenile court against the mother and father of three children. The county sought temporary custody of the children because the family home was unsafe.

The agency was given emergency temporary custody, and the three children were placed in foster care. A juvenile court magistrate conducted a hearing in March of 2019. The magistrate informed the parents of their right to be represented by counsel, which they declined.

The parents stipulated that two of the children were neglected and dependent, but refused to stipulate as to the third child. The magistrate found the two children were neglected and dependent and granted temporary custody to the agency. The following day, the juvenile court adopted the magistrate’s decision. The order was final and appealable.  The magistrate and juvenile court informed the parents they had the right to appeal the juvenile court’s decision.

In April and June of 2019, the magistrate conducted hearings as to the third child. The magistrate declared the child dependent and granted temporary custody of the child to the agency. The juvenile court then adopted the magistrate’s decision. The order was final and appealable. The parents were again advised of their right to appeal. The hearings regarding all three children took place past the 90-day deadline set in R.C. 2151.35(B)(1), but neither parent sought to have the case dismissed, objected to the magistrate’s decision, or appealed the juvenile court’s judgments based on the missed deadline.

Eight months later, in February 2020, the agency sought permanent custody of the three children. In September 2020, the magistrate conducted a hearing, and both parents were present and represented by an attorney. In October 2020, the magistrate granted permanent custody of the children to the agency. The juvenile court adopted the magistrate’s decision.

Both parents objected to the decision. The juvenile court conducted a December 2020 hearing on their objections. Neither parent raised the issue that the judgments for temporary custody were void because the hearing were not timely held. The juvenile court overruled the objections and granted permanent custody to the agency.

Appeals Court Sided With Parents
The mother and father both raised several challenges in their appeals to the Twelfth District Court of Appeals. The father argued that based on R.C. 2151.35(B)(1), and the Supreme Court’s 2020 In re K.M. decision, the juvenile court’s decisions were void because the temporary custody hearing was not conducted within the 90-day deadline set by law.

The appeals court agreed and reversed the juvenile court’s decision. The Twelfth District also determined its decision was in conflict with a Fourth District Court of Appeals’ decision. The agency appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to consider the case and the conflict among appellate districts.

Supreme Court Analyzed Juvenile Court’s Proceedings
Justice Kennedy explained the Supreme Court needed to address a “narrow” issue: Did failing to comply with the 90-day hearing rule divest the court of its subject matter jurisdiction, which would render all of its subsequent judgments void? Or were the court’s decisions voidable, meaning the decisions had to be challenged at their earliest opportunity or they were forfeited?

The Court determined that today’s decision deals with a separate issue than In re K.M. In that case, the parents moved the juvenile court during the proceedings to dismiss the temporary custody orders because the court failed to hold the hearing within the 90-day timeframe. But in this case, the parents did not object at any time during the temporary custody proceedings, the opinion noted. Instead, the issue was raised for the first time on appeal from the decision on permanent custody.

Resolving this matter required examination of the juvenile court’s “subject matter jurisdiction,” which refers to a court’s power to consider a particular type or class of cases, the opinion explained. If a court lacks the power to rule in a case, then its decisions are void, the opinion stated.

However, a court may have subject matter jurisdiction over a type of case, but lack jurisdiction over a particular case because of certain circumstances. When a court makes such an error, the court’s judgment is merely “voidable.” And, “unless it is vacated on appeal, a voidable judgment has the force of a valid legal judgment,” the Court stated.

The General Assembly vested juvenile courts with exclusive original jurisdiction concerning any child specified in a complaint alleging a neglected or dependent child. Therefore, the matter involving the custody of the three children was within the subject matter jurisdiction of the juvenile court, the Court noted. In contrast to other areas of R.C. Chapter 2151, the legislature did not express an intent in the statutory language of R.C. 2151.35(B)(1) to divest the juvenile court of its subject matter jurisdiction for failing to comply with the 90-day timeframe.  Therefore, the judgment was voidable, not void, the Court stated.

A decision awarding temporary custody to an agency is a final appealable order and an appeal must be filed within 30 days of the judgment entry, the Court stated.

“Because the mother and father failed to timely appeal the judgments of temporary custody, the judgments are valid and the current challenge is barred by res judicata,” the Court concluded.

Court Lost Right to Rule on Case, Dissent Maintained
In his dissent, Justice Fischer wrote the General Assembly wrote laws to require juvenile courts to work expeditiously, for the sake of the parents and children involved, but also to proceed cautiously and intentionally. He stated the law balanced the rights of parents against the interests of protecting children by setting the 90-day hearing deadline.

The dissent emphasized that the juvenile court was created by the General Assembly, so the jurisdictional requirements set forth under the statute must be followed for the juvenile court to render a valid judgment. The General Assembly required the juvenile court to hold the hearing within the deadline or dismiss the case, making it a jurisdictional requirement. Because the deadline is mandatory, based on the Supreme Court’s decision in In re. K.M., any action taken by the juvenile court after the deadline “is taken without authority,” the dissent stated.

“Therefore, the juvenile court’s failure to dismiss the case before us and its decision to resolve the case on the merits rendered the judgments void,” he wrote.

Because the juvenile court’s rulings were void, the parents had the right to appeal the decisions after permanent custody was granted, he concluded.

2021-0822 and 2021-0857. In re K.K., Slip Opinion No. 2022-Ohio-3888.

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