The expanded subject matter jurisdiction of the Virginia Court of Appeals that took effect on January 1 of this year has rightfully been the subject of well-deserved attention among litigators in the Commonwealth. Visit here and here for two excellent discussions by my colleagues Jeff Geiger and Karissa Kaseorg of the Court of Appeals’ expanded subject matter jurisdiction.
Last month, the Court of Appeals had occasion in Simms v. Alexandria Department of Community and Human Services (Record No. 0479-21-4)(April 5, 2022), to consider whether its own jurisdiction and that of a trial court in a related matter could be independently maintained. The intriguing question presented was whether the Alexandria Circuit Court had jurisdiction to enter an order terminating parental rights while an abuse and neglect determination involving the same parent and child was pending before the Court of Appeals.
The appeals court ruled that the trial court had jurisdiction. In so holding, the Court of Appeals engaged in a thorough analysis of important jurisdictional issues, which is certain to be instructive to litigation attorneys in the Commonwealth.
An Overview of the Case
In June 2019, the plaintiff mother gave birth prematurely to twins who were hospitalized for seven weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit. The mother had five other children but did not have custody of any of them, and her parental rights for three of those children were previously involuntarily terminated. The mother suffers cognitive limitations, has bipolar personality disorder, and is inconsistent with her mental health treatment. A 2017 report concluded that she was at risk for future child neglect.
After receiving allegations that the mother had physically neglected the twins, the Alexandria Department of Community and Human Services (ADCHS) quickly filed abuse and neglect petitions.
The Alexandria Juvenile and Domestic Relations District (JDR) court entered emergency removal orders at the end of July 2019, placing the twins in foster care. As required by the statute, the JDR court held a preliminary hearing after these emergency removals and found that ADCHS had proved abuse or neglect by the preponderance of the evidence and entered corresponding adjudicatory and dispositional orders. The dispositional order returned the twins to foster care with the goals of either returning the twins to the care of their father or adoption. The mother appealed these orders to the circuit court. While the circuit court appeal was pending, the JDR court held a foster care review hearing which approved the singular goal of adoption.
In March 2020, the circuit court held its de novo hearing and found that the mother had abused or neglected the twins. The mother then appealed the circuit court’s adjudicatory and dispositional orders to the Court of Appeals. A month later, ADCHS petitioned for permanency planning with the JDR court requesting termination of the mother’s parental rights to facilitate the goal of adoption.
The JDR court entered permanency planning orders approving the foster care goal of adoption and also terminated the mother’s parental rights to the twins in May 2020. The mother appealed the JDR court’s rulings to the circuit court. Before the hearing, the mother moved to stay the proceedings, arguing that the circuit court should not hear her appeal of the JDR court’s termination orders until after the Court of Appeals had ruled on her pending appeal of the adjudicatory and dispositional orders, purportedly because one would impact the other.
The circuit court denied the mother’s motion to stay, finding that if the mother prevailed on her appeal, ADCHS was “on the record” saying that any ruling “would be null and void.” The hearing proceeded on the merits and, after hearing all the evidence and arguments, the circuit court terminated the mother’s parental rights to the twins and approved the foster care goal of adoption. The mother filed her notice of appeal on the termination orders on May 7, 2021.
A month later, the Court of Appeals affirmed the circuit court’s first ruling on the abuse and neglect adjudicatory and dispositional orders.
In the appeal on the termination orders, the mother argued that the circuit court erred by not granting her motion to stay or continuing the hearing to terminate her parental rights because the circuit court had no jurisdiction to terminate her parental rights while her appeal of the abuse and neglect determination was pending before the Court of Appeals.
Because the mother questioned whether the trial court had jurisdiction to terminate her parental rights, the Court of Appeals first addressed that “fundamental question.”
It found that once a final order is entered, a timely notice of appeal transfers jurisdiction over that matter to the appellate court. However, an appeal does not divest the trial court of jurisdiction over ancillary matters reserved to the trial court by statute. As such, whether the mother had abused and neglected her twins needed to be decided by the appellate court. And, when she timely noticed her appeal of the final dispositional orders of abuse and neglect, jurisdiction over the parental termination proceeding was not transferred to the appellate court despite being the same matter.
As a result, the Court of Appeals held that the circuit court had jurisdiction over the termination hearing and that the circuit court did not abuse its discretion in denying the motion to stay or continue. The Court of Appeals went on to confirm that the circuit court’s conclusion that termination was warranted on the facts of the case was not plainly wrong.
How the Court Reached Its Conclusion
The Court noted that its primary goal is to ascertain and give effect to the intention of the legislature and that, when a given controversy involves a number of related statutes, they should be read and construed together in order to give full meaning, force, and effect to each.
Applying those principals, the Court found that several aspects of the statutory framework at issue led it to conclude that the Virginia General Assembly intended for an adjudication of abuse and neglect to be considered a separate matter in controversy from parental termination. Some key concepts the Court identified included the following:
- The General Assembly separately conveyed jurisdiction for dispositions of abuse and neglect and for parental termination, signifying that they are separate matters.
- The legislature has affirmed that foster care placements should be temporary and that parental termination should not be delayed unnecessarily. This is further persuasive evidence that the General Assembly did not intend for termination petitions to be delayed while an appeal of an abuse and neglect determination takes place.
- The separate statutory processes for disposition of an abuse and neglect petition and for parental termination confirm that they are separate matters. In comparing a disposition on an abuse and neglect petition with an order terminating parental rights, several differences are immediately obvious. “There is simply no overlap in the claims or relief contemplated,” the Court concluded.
A Note About Jurisdictional Challenges
As the jurisdiction of a court to entertain a lawsuit is a threshold issue of great importance in every case, having insight on how courts are likely to view expected jurisdictional challenges is an important skill.
Now that an appeal of right to the Virginia Court of Appeals will be available to litigants in most civil cases, it is important for Virginia practitioners who are not familiar with the Court of Appeals to acquaint themselves with its jurisprudence with due dispatch.
If you have questions about this blog or any other appellate issues, contact Lee Byrd at firstname.lastname@example.org.