The trial court improperly dismissed an authorized petition to terminate the respondent’s parental rights because it did not issue a decision on the merits of the case, the Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled.
In re CJAC, Minor (Docket No. 353755) involved a petition to terminate the respondent-father’s parental rights. The petition was based on allegations the respondent subjected the child to a “substantial risk of harm to his mental well-being” and the home was “unfit” because of the respondent’s purported criminality (alleged sexual abuse of a sibling).
The Genesee County Circuit Court had authorized the petition in 2019. Two pretrial hearings were held. On the trial date, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) reported that, although criminal charges had not been filed against the respondent, it believed a warrant was likely forthcoming. The DHHS filed a motion for an adjournment, which the trial court granted because the criminal matter remained under investigation. A new trial date was set. On the date of the new trial, criminal charges still had not been filed against the respondent. The trial was again adjourned. The next hearing was not held because of COVID-19.
When the parties eventually convened through videoconference, the respondent still had not been criminally charged. The trial court was concerned about the length of time the case had been pending and dismissed the case without prejudice.
The DHHS appealed, arguing the trial court erred by dismissing the case without a proper legal or procedural basis.
The Court of Appeals agreed, noting it was unaware of any statute, court rule or case precedent permitting a trial court to dismiss an authorized petition without first issuing a decision on the merits.
Although MCR 3.962(B)(2) gives a trial court the discretion to dismiss a petition at the preliminary inquiry, the trial court in this case dismissed it “after authorizing it, holding several contested pretrial hearings, and setting multiple trial dates,” the Court of Appeals said. As a result, the case was “beyond the stage” where the trial court could dismiss the petition at its discretion.
Judges James Robert Redford, Michael J. Riordan and Jonathan Tukel were on the panel that issued the opinion.
Authority, Please …
When the trial court decided to dismiss the case, the DHHS asked the trial court for the procedural basis or the authority that authorized the dismissal of the petition without a hearing on the merits.
To this, the respondent stated: “[A]s a general rule, we would let the criminal case play out first because [respondent] couldn’t testify … in a hearing. So, as a practical matter, I think – I think one has to come before the other.”
The trial court then stated: “[A]t this time, with no criminal charges having been brought, the time that’s been involved, the fact that the parties have worked on parenting time at this moment, … without further progress regarding criminal charges, I feel that procedurally a dismissal without prejudice is warranted.”
The DHHS again asked the trial court for a procedural basis that justified dismissal. It pointed out that child-protective proceedings and criminal proceedings have different burdens of proof and that it could choose to proceed on the termination matter with a lower burden of proof.
The trial court responded: “I do realize that basis of the petition were [sic] pending criminal charges. The initial petition sought was termination based upon those criminal charges; and, as of today, there have been no criminal charges brought; and the dismissal without prejudice will allow the petition to be either filed for termination or even jurisdiction if there is some further progress regarding criminal charges. But that issue … may be the subject of further legal analysis at a different time; but I simply am not willing to wait on this specific matter.”
Disposition On Merits Required
According to the Court of Appeals, the trial court committed reversible error when it dismissed the petition without a decision on the merits.
In its brief analysis, the Court of Appeals explained that child-protective proceedings involve two phases: 1) the adjudicative phase, where the trial court determines whether it can take jurisdiction over the child, and 2) the dispositional phase, where the trial court determines a course of action to ensure the child’s safety and well-being.
Moreover, MCR 3.962(B)(2) provides that a trial court has the discretion to dismiss a petition at the preliminary inquiry, the Court of Appeals observed.
“However, in this case, the trial court dismissed the petition after authorizing it, holding several contested pretrial hearings, and setting multiple trial dates,” the Court of Appeals wrote. “Therefore, the case was beyond the stage at which the trial court could dismiss the petition at its discretion. We are unaware of any statute, court rule, or caselaw that would give the trial court authority to dismiss the authorized petition without a decision on the merits. Further, ‘[o]ur legal system favors disposition of litigation on the merits.’”
Therefore, “the trial court erred by dismissing the petition without a decision on the merits,” the Court of Appeals concluded.