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Court of appeals affirms default judgment against parent in TPR proceeding

State v. Samantha J., 2014AP988, 2014AP989, 2014AP1017, District 1, 9/17/14 (1-judge opinion, ineligible for publication); case activity

This case is noteworthy in 2 respects.  First, the court of appeals upheld a default judgment as to grounds for terminating a mother’s parental rights–always a significant step, given the stakes.  And, second, the court of appeals complimented a brief–specifically, the brief filed by the GAL, Linnea Matthiesen.

Default judgment on grounds for termination

Samantha missed 3 court hearings and her own pre-trial deposition without notifying the court, the parties, or her counsel.  So the court struck her “contest posture,” conducted a fact-finding hearing where it heard from the Lead Ongoing Case Manager for Integrated Family Services about Samantha’s shortcomings as a parent, and told Samantha that she would receive an opportunity to present testimony at the dispositional hearing. Only after those steps, did it enter a default judgment against Samantha. Slip op. ¶19.

Samantha moved to vacate the default judgment and provided explanations for her absences. The trial court denied it without addressing whether she had established “excusable neglect,” but this did not trouble the court of appeals:

The circuit court was within its discretion to find Samantha in default without making a specific determination of excusable neglect, because the facts support the implicit conclusion that the explanation was inadequate to establish excusable neglect. Therefore, the court did not erroneously deny Samantha’s motion to vacate the default finding. Slip op. ¶21.

The court of appeals’ analysis seems off. Citing a string of commercial cases, it held that a default is appropriate for acts that are egregious or in bad faith.  See Slip op. ¶18. Okay.  But why ignore a whole body of case law governing default judgments in TPR proceedings, most notably the very recent SCOW case  Dane County DHS v. Mable K., 2013 WI 28?  Mable K explained that to be egregious, the party’s failure to follow orders must be “extreme, substantial and persistent”; to act in bad faith, the party must “intentionally or deliberately” delay, obstruct, or refuse to comply with the court order. (¶¶70-71). See our analysis of Mable K here.  The court of appeals decision does not recite or apply this legal standard. As for the circuit court’s failure to address excusable neglect, this seems like a classic “erroneous exercise of discretion” because the record on appeal does not “reflect the circuit court’s reasoned application of the appropriate legal standard to the relevant facts in the case.” Milwaukee Women’s Med. Serv. Inc. v. Scheidler, 228 Wis. 2d 514, 524, 598 N.W.2d (Ct. App. 1999).

“Best interests of the child” at the dispositional hearing

Like most disposition decisions, this one rested upon many, many facts specific to Samantha and her 3 children.  Suffice it to say that the court of appeals deemed the circuit court’s application of §48.426(3) to be “very thorough” and “well-reasoned” and agreed that placement with Samantha was against the children’s best interests.  See ¶29 for details.

When the court of appeals pauses to comment on a party’s brief, it is usually only to criticize.  Here, the court of appeals (Judge Kessler) applauded an attorney for her work:

We express our thanks to the guardian ad litem for the children in these proceedings. We appreciate the clear analysis, the detailed citations to the record, and the thorough and careful presentation of the circuit court’s findings. Her brief in this case was of great assistance to this court. Slip op. ¶29, n.3.

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