Following the most recent blog (In re Jones, blog dated March 21, 2016) about the Supreme Court’s continued interest in the Hatcher rule,the Michigan Court of Appeals has vacated an order terminating a father’s parental rights because the trial court effectively deprived him of an adjudication trial and, as a result, his due process rights were violated.
The published ruling in In re Collier (Docket No. 328172) makes two things clear:
- before the state can infringe on the constitutionally protected parent-child relationship, due process requires an adjudication trial on the parent’s fitness, and
- challenging a termination of rights order is not an impermissible “collateral attack” on the trial court’s exercise of jurisdiction when the parent has effectively been denied an adjudication hearing.
In Collier, the respondent-father never appeared at the scheduled adjudication trial in St. Clair County Circuit Court. At the adjudication proceeding, the respondent’s attorney was excused, at her request, from further representing him and she exited the proceedings. The trial court then entered a default against the respondent for failing to appear. The hearing continued without the respondent and his attorney, and the petitioner presented unopposed evidence.
Afterward, the respondent attended subsequent dispositional hearings without having an attorney. He remained without legal representation for about one year.
A petition was ultimately filed to terminate the respondent’s parental rights. At the termination hearing (where the respondent had legal representation), the trial court held the respondent’s parental rights should be terminated pursuant to MCL 712A.19b, and an order was entered to that effect.
The respondent appealed the termination order, claiming his due process rights were violated.
Adjudication Effectively Denied
In its analysis, the Court of Appeals cited the Michigan Supreme Court’s decision in In re Sanders, 495 Mich 394 (2014), which struck down the one-parent doctrine as unconstitutional.
Turning to Collier, the Court of Appeals said the respondent was “effectively denied the adjudication trial to which he was entitled.”
In reaching this conclusion, the Court of Appeals said the Michigan Court Rules do not indicate that a default can be entered in child-protective proceedings and that due process requires an adjudication trial on a parent’s fitness before the state can infringe on the constitutionally protected parent-child relationship.
According to the appeals court, a default is not an adjudication trial as to the fitness of a parent, and it cannot serve as a substitute for a trial.
The Court of Appeals also rejected the petitioner’s argument that the respondent did, indeed, receive an adjudication trial. “Plowing forward with an adjudication trial in the absence of both respondent and an attorney who can represent respondent offends due process by any stretch of the imagination,” the appeals court said.
The Court of Appeals further pointed out that, because counsel had initially been appointed, the respondent was entitled to “assume” that counsel was representing him at the adjudication trial. “[W]e find a violation of due process given that petitioner was permitted to proceed unopposed at adjudication, thereby effectively depriving respondent of an adjudication trial,” the appeals court said.
In addition, the respondent was deprived of effective assistance of counsel throughout the proceedings, the Court of Appeals explained. “We are … troubled by the fact that it appears … that respondent did not have counsel for nearly the entirety of the dispositional phase of the proceedings,” the appeals court noted.
“Given all that occurred in this case, we simply cannot conclude that respondent was afforded a ‘specific adjudication’ regarding his fitness or lack thereof,” the Court of Appeals said, finding the respondent was denied due process.
No Impermissible Collateral Attack
Turning to the petitioner’s argument that the respondent’s challenge was an impermissible collateral attack on the trial court’s exercise of jurisdiction, the Court of Appeals noted the respondent waited until after the termination order was entered to file his appeal.
If In re SLH, 277 Mich App 662 (2008), and In re Hatcher, 443 Mich 426 (1993), were followed, the appeals court said the challenge would be an impermissible collateral attack because the appeal was not filed until after the respondent’s parental rights were terminated.
However, “we decline to find that the collateral-attack rule bars respondent’s challenge,” the Court of Appeals declared. In reaching this conclusion, the appeals court relied on In re Kanjia, 308 Mich App 660 (2014), saying Collier presented the same situation as Kanjia — the respondent effectively never received an adjudication as to his fitness as a parent.
“Consequently, just as in Kanjia, … we conclude that respondent ‘is not collaterally attacking the trial court’s exercise of jurisdiction, but rather is directly challenging the trial court’s decision to terminate the respondent’s parental rights without first having afforded the respondent sufficient due process, i.e., an adjudication hearing at which the respondent's fitness as a parent was decided,’” the Court of Appeals said.
Accordingly, the Court of Appeals vacated the order terminating the respondent’s parental rights and the order of adjudication, and remanded the matter for further proceedings.
Labels: adjudication trial, appeal, appeals, child-protective proceedings, Family, family law appeal, In re Hatcher, In re Sanders, In re SLH, Law, Michgian, Michigan Family Law Appeal, termination of parental rights