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No error in entering default judgment in TPR based on parent’s conduct

State v. L.C., 2020AP796, District 1, 7/28/20 (one-judge decision; ineligible for publication); case activity

Whether to grant a default judgment in a TPR proceeding as a sanction for a parent’s egregious conduct is left to the circuit court’s discretion, and the circuit court properly exercised its discretion in defaulting L.C.

After L.C. missed two depositions dates, the state filed a motion for default judgment on the grounds of the TPR petition filed against her. The circuit court ultimately didn’t grant that motion out of concern for her emotional, psychological, and competency issues, but told her she needed to attend the depositions or risk a default on the grounds phase. She missed two more depositions, and the state filed another motion, on which the court again deferred action. But after missing the fifth deposition, the court granted the state’s third motion for default. (¶¶2-12).

A party may be sanctioned with default judgment when the party’s conduct is egregious or in bad faith without clear and justifiable excuse. L.C. argues the circuit court erred because it didn’t expressly consider whether she had a clear and justifiable excuse for her conduct—namely, her severe mental health problems. (¶¶20-25)

But L.C.’s mental health condition was referred to throughout the proceedings, and the court recognized and responded to L.C.’s mental health challenges by appointing a GAL without ordering a competency examination in order to safeguard L.C.’s rights and participation. Moreover, the record does not support that L.C. made her mental health an excuse for her conduct that delayed the TPR proceedings, and when offered the opportunity to reopen the default judgment—an opportune time to raise mental illness as a justifiable excuse—she declined to do so. On this record, the circuit court’s exercise of discretion was proper. (¶¶25-31).

Nor did the circuit court err in failing to consider the alternative route of simply doing away with the deposition requirement, as the court properly considered that this route could have allowed L.C. to delay the case in other ways. (¶¶32-33).

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