The Court of Appeals (COA) reversed the decision of the probate court, confirmed by the circuit court, because of the incorrect application of preclusion principles to the Petitioner’s Petition for a change of Guardianship. The matter was returned to the Probate Court for further proceedings.
This case (In re Guardianship of Alexander VictorBibi and Nadia Francis Wallace, also known as Nadia Bibi, Minors. No. 327159) began in Canada. The Canadian case was started by the Windsor-Essex Children’s Aid Society because of the neglect of the parents. The grandmothers, Bibi and Wallace, agreed to a consent judgment, which placed the children with Wallace for a period of 6 months. The following spring, the father died and the mother was incarcerated.
The children and their grandmothers moved to Michigan. Bibi petitioned the probate court, asking it to appoint her as the children’s full guardian. The probate court denied her request finding that Bibi’s petition was barred by the preclusion principles of collateral estoppel and res judicata. In other words, the matter had been fully decided by the Canadian Court. Wallace remained as guardian. Bibi appealed to the Circuit Court.
The Circuit Court upheld the probate court decision stating that Bibi failed to establish proper cause or a change of circumstances sufficient to reopen the guardianship decision of the Ontario Court.
The Court of Appeals analysis.
1) The Court of Appeals (COA) first looked at whether the Michigan or Canadian law governed the effect of the Canadian consent judgment. While, generally, the interpretation of a contract is governed by the state in which it is created, there is an exception when the ultimate decision is not final. The COA concluded Michigan law applied since Canadian law sees preclusion principles as flexible and discretionary, not final.
2) The Canadian court, in answer to a query by the Probate Court, stated it had nothing pending in the matter and would terminate its jurisdiction as soon as the probate court assumed jurisdiction.
3) Collateral Estoppel. Bibi argued that the probate court was wrong when it applied collateral estopped to bar her petition. The COA agreed. While collateral estoppel is a flexible rule designed to bring finality to decisions, for it to bar further action, the decision must be final and fully argued. The consent agreement in Canada was not a final decision but merely an agreement between parties creating a temporary placement for the children.
4) Res Judicata, as applied by the Probate Court, didn’t apply because the consent agreement left open more decisions when it placed the children with Wallace until further Order of the Court. And, the situation of the children’s parents had changed drastically. The father had died and the mother was incarcerated thus neither was available for their children.
5) The Circuit Court, when considering Bibi’s appeal, used alternative grounds for upholding the Probate Court’s decision. It decided that Bibi’s failure to establish proper cause or changed circumstances under the Child Custody Act (CCA) was a valid reason for supporting the Probate Court. The COA noted that the CCA applies to child custody actions and allows guardians to bring custody actions as long as the probate judge acts as circuit judge for those child custody actions. In this case, there was no circuit court custody decision regarding the children and thus, the probate court order couldn’t modify an order from the circuit court. The Circuit Court was in error.
6) The COA denied Bibi’s request to assign the case to a different judge on remand. While agreeing that some of the probate judge’s remarks were inappropriate, the COA stated they didn’t rise to the level of reassignment.
The COA reversed the decisions of both the Probate and the Circuit Courts and sent the matter back to the Probate Court for a consideration of the Petitions on the Merits.