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Circuit court reasonably exercised its discretion in ordering default judgment; terminating parent’s rights

State of Wisconsin v. M.S.H., 2023AP692, District I, 8/1/23, 1-judge decision ineligible for publication; case activity (briefs not available)

A parent’s non-cooperation with an involuntary TPR leads to a default judgment and, despite some compelling arguments, COA rejects her invitation to reweigh the dispositional evidence and reverse the order terminating her parental rights.

The State filed a petition seeking to terminate M.S.H.’s parental rights and, at an initial appearance, M.S.H. was explicitly warned that failure to follow court orders “could result in a default finding where she would lose her right to have a trial.” (¶4). Thereafter, M.S.H. failed to answer the State’s discovery requests, despite being given an extension of time to do so. (¶6). Her attorneys later explained at a motion hearing that they had explained the consequences of non-cooperation with M.S.H. but that she had still not cooperated with the discovery process. (¶7). The circuit court ultimately granted the State’s request for a default judgment, finding that M.S.H.’s actions were “egregious, in bad faith, and without justification.” (¶9).

COA upholds the circuit court’s order granting the State’s motion for a default judgment, as it is “unpersuaded” that an erroneous exercise of discretion occurred. (¶20). Even though M.S.H. explained, at the motion hearing, that “she was thwarted in her efforts to comply by the social workers in her case and the foster parents, and there was past trauma that she had experienced that prevented her from answering the requests for admission”–and the judge “acknowledged that M.S.H. had some challenges in her life”–M.S.H. failed to sufficiently link her “challenges” with her failure to comply. (¶¶19-20). Under an extremely forgiving appellate standard of review, that’s about all COA has to say about M.S.H.’s first claim for relief.

M.S.H. also challenges the circuit court’s exercise of discretion in terminating her parental rights. (¶21). Despite what seems like superficially compelling (and, as is common in these case types, factually depressing) arguments, COA essentially pigeonholes M.S.H.’s argument as a request that it reweigh the dispositional evidence. (¶25). Accordingly, once again invoking the deferential standard of review, COA affirms. (¶26).

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