Court Opinions- Jan 27, 2020

Marriage of Wright

Wayne Wright Jr. contended that the property division with his ex-wife, Karen Wright, was inequitable, arguing that the court failed to value personal property; failed to include Karen Wright’s Jamaican property as part of the marital estate; and ordered him to pay more of the marital debts. Wayne Wright appealed from the property division, maintenance award and an attorney fees sanction entered in connection with the dissolution of his marriage to Karen Wright. 

A division of the Court of Appeals discussed the specific findings a district court must make when determining a maintenance award and concluded that a district court erred by failing to follow the detailed procedure set forth in section 14-10-114 of the Colorado Revised Statutes. The division affirmed in part, reversed in part and remanded for further proceedings. The division set forth in detail the step-by-step procedure the district court must follow when determining maintenance.  

People in the Interest of S.R.N.J-S.

In an earlier dependency and neflect proceeding, the Denver Department of Human Services removed the children, a twin boy and girl, shortly after their births because their mother was using controlled substances. The case was closed a year later, and the Department returned the children to the mother, A.N.J-S. The Father, J.A.G., was living in Mexico and visited the children sporadically. 

The Department initiated this case in July 2017 due to A.N.J-S.’s possible methamphetamine use and reported domestic violence and abuse. The juvenile court adjudicated the then 3-year-old twins dependent or neglected and entered treatment plans for the parents. J.A.G. was still living in Mexico when the Department filed the case. Although the department served him with notice of the proceeding, J.A.G. did not contact the department until March 2018, when he began relocating to Colorado.

Two weeks after J.A.G. made his first court appearance, the children’s guardian ad litem moved to terminate the parents’ parental rights. The department opposed the motion and moved, instead, to increase parenting time and transition the children home.

The juvenile court held a 12-day hearing on the competing motions between August 2018 and February 2019. At the end of the hearing, the court granted the GAL’s motion and terminated both parents’ parental rights. J.A.G. and A.N.J-S. appealed the juvenile court’s judgment terminating their parent-child legal relationships. 

A division of the Court of Appeals clarified that the termination of parental rights statute, section 19-3-604(1)(c) of the Colorado Revised Statutes requires a finding that a parent is unfit to terminate parental rights and not “semi-fit” as the juvenile court found.

The division further clarified that without a parental unfitness finding supported by the evidence, the need for permanency is not enough to terminate parental rights. Because the court’s findings of evidentiary facts are separate from the court’s fitness conclusion and the evidentiary facts were clearly erroneous and did not support a conclusion that the parents were unfit, the division concluded that the juvenile court erred in terminating the parents’ parental rights.

People in Interest of M.B.

In this termination of parental rights case as to M.B., the juvenile court’s paternity determination raised a novel question about whether, in a dependency and neglect proceeding, paternity must be resolved “as soon as practicable” — the standard under the Uniform Parentage Act. 

B.B., whom the juvenile court found to be a presumptive father of the child, appealed the court’s order that J.G., the biological father — another presumptive father — is the child’s legal father. 

According to B.B., the court erred in two ways. First, by not resolving the child’s paternity until more than one year into the proceeding, the court violated the UPA, resulting in a denial of due process. 

Second, by adjudicating the child as to J.G but not as to B.B., and then providing only J.G with a dispositional hearing and a treatment plan, the juvenile court subjected B.B. to disparate treatment that denied him equal protection. The Arapahoe County Department of Human Services disputed preservation of the due process and equal protection contentions.

In this termination of parental rights case, a division of the Court of Appeals agreed that these contentions were unpreserved. It declined B.B.’s invitation to extend the plain error doctrine into dependency and neglect proceedings. And so, it refused to address these contentions because B.B.’s due process argument did not implicate a miscarriage of justice, and because the record is inadequate to address equal protection as applied. 

Therefore, the division affirmed the paternity determination in favor of the J.G as to the child. In doing so, the division addressed whether, in a dependency and neglect proceeding, paternity must be resolved “as soon as practicable” — the standard under the UPA. The division also declined to review unpreserved due process and equal protection contentions under the plain error doctrine but did so for a miscarriage of justice. 

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