Appeal from Jefferson Family Court (CS-13-719)
E.L. ("the mother") appeals from a judgment of the Jefferson Family Court ("the family court") awarding V.L., the mother's former same-sex partner, periodic visitation with the mother's biological children, S.L., N.L., and H.L. (hereinafter referred to collectively as "the children"). We reverse and remand.
On October 31, 2013, V.L. filed a petition in the Jefferson Circuit Court ("the circuit court"). In that petition, V.L. asserted that she and the mother had engaged in a same-sex relationship from 1995 to 2011; that, during the course of their relationship, the mother had given birth to S.L. on December 13, 2002, and to twins, N.L. and H.L., on November 17, 2004, through the use of assisted reproductive technology; that, at all times since the birth of the children, V.L., in addition to the mother, had acted as a parent to the children; that, on May 30, 2007, with the mother's consent, the Superior Court of Fulton County, Georgia ("the Georgia court"), had entered a judgment approving V.L.'s adoption of the children ("the Georgia judgment"), which judgment, V.L. asserted, was entitled to full faith and credit by the courts of this state; and that V.L. is listed as a parent on the children's Alabama birth certificates.
V.L. further asserted that the mother had denied her the traditional and constitutional parental rights to the children she had secured in the Georgia judgment, including visitation and access to their educational and other information. V.L. averred that the children have known both parties as their parents since their births and that the children were being harmed by the mother's denying them association with her. V.L. further averred that she was fit to assume the children's custody.
V.L. requested that the circuit court register the Georgia judgment; declare her legal status, rights, and relations to the children pursuant to the Georgia judgment; award her custody of the children or, alternatively, award her joint custody with the mother and establish a schedule of custodial periods; order the mother to pay her child support and attorney's fees; and provide her any such other relief to which she might be entitled.
On November 4, 2013, the circuit court transferred the matter to the family court. On December 17, 2013, the mother moved the family court to dismiss V.L.'s petition, asserting, among other things, that the family court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction and that V.L. lacked standing to invoke the family court's jurisdiction. On December 27, 2013, V.L. amended her petition to reassert the allegations in the original petition, but also to allege the dependency of the children based on their separation from her. On February 3, 2014, the mother filed a memorandum of law to support her motion to dismiss. That same date, V.L. filed a response to the motion to dismiss. On March 11, 2014, the mother "renewed" her motion to dismiss, attaching her affidavit. That same date, V.L. responded to the renewed motion to dismiss, attaching her affidavit and several exhibits.
On April 3, 2014, without a hearing, the family court denied the mother's motion to dismiss and awarded V.L. scheduled visitation with the children. On April 15, 2014, the family court entered a supplemental order specifically denying all other requested relief and closing the case. On April 17, 2014, the mother moved the family court to alter, amend, or vacate its judgment. On May 1, 2014, the mother's postjudgment motion was deemed denied by operation of law, and on May 12, 2014, the mother timely filed her notice of appeal. See Rule 1(B), Ala. R. Juv. P.; Rule 4(a), Ala. R. App. P.; and Holifield v. Lambert, 112 So.3d 489, 490 (Ala. Civ. App. 2012) ("[C]ases filed in the Jefferson Family Court and docketed with a case number having a 'CS' prefix are governed by the Alabama Rules of Juvenile Procedure.").
Although the mother raises five different arguments for reversing the judgment of the family court, we find one issue to be dispositive –- that the Georgia judgment was rendered without subject-matter jurisdiction. Hence, we do not address the other arguments raised by the mother.
We begin by noting that the family court acts as a juvenile and domestic-relations court with jurisdiction equal to the circuit courts in matters relating to child custody. See Act No. 478, Ala. Acts 1935, §§ 2 & 3; and Placey v. Placey, 51 So.3d 374, 375 n.2 (Ala. Civ. App. 2010). As such, the family court had the power to act on the petition filed by V.L. pursuant to the Uniform Enforcement of Foreign Judgments Act ("the UEFJA"), Ala. Code 1975, § 6-9-230 et seq. See Nix v. Cassidy, 899 So.2d 998, 1002 (Ala. Civ. App. 2004) ("The circuit court had jurisdiction to accept the judgment creditor's filing of the Georgia judgment pursuant to § 6-9-232[, Ala. Code 1975]."). V.L. followed the procedure established under the UEFJA by filing an authenticated copy of the Georgia judgment with the clerk of the family court, see Ala. Code 1975, § 6-9-232, and by filing an affidavit setting forth the information required by Ala. Code 1975, § 6-9-233. "A judgment [filed pursuant to the UEFJA] has the same effect and is subject to the same procedures, defenses and proceedings for reopening, vacating, or staying as a judgment of a circuit court of this state and may be enforced or satisfied in like manner ...." § 6-9-232. "Therefore, once the judgment is domesticated, [a party attacking the validity or enforceability of the judgment] must resort to procedures applicable to any other judgment originally entered by a circuit court in order to set it aside." Greene v. Connelly, 628 So.2d 346, 350 (Ala. 1993), abrogated on other grounds, Ex parte Full Circle Distrib., L.L.C., 883 So.2d 638 (Ala. 2003). In this case, the mother argued in her renewed motion to dismiss that the Georgia judgment should be set aside because it is void for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, a ground recognized by Rule 60(b)(4), Ala. R. Civ. P. We, therefore, treat that portion of her motion to dismiss as a Rule 60(b)(4) motion, which is an appropriate mechanism to vacate a domesticated foreign judgment. See Bartlett v. Unistar Leasing, 931 So.2d 717, 720 n.2 (Ala. Civ. App. 2005).
"Before giving effect to a foreign judgment, Alabama courts are permitted to inquire into the jurisdiction of the foreign court rendering the judgment." Feore v. Feore, 627 So.2d 411, 413 (Ala. Civ. App. 1993); see also Pirtek USA, LLC v. Whitehead, 51 So.3d 291, 295 (Ala. 2010). Generally speaking, "[t]he scope of inquiry is limited to, '(1) whether the issue of jurisdiction was fully and fairly litigated by the foreign court and (2) whether the issue of jurisdiction was finally decided by the foreign court.'" Feore, 627 So.2d at 413 (quoting Alston Elec. Supply Co. v. Alabama Elec. Wholesalers, Inc., 586 So.2d 10, 11 (Ala. Civ. App. 1991)). However, if the court entering the foreign judgment did not litigate and decide the question of its subject-matter jurisdiction, an Alabama court may make its own determination of subject-matter jurisdiction on a Rule 60(b)(4) motion. See Lanier v. McMath Constr., Inc., 141 So.3d 974 (Ala. 2013). "[T]here is a presumption that the court rendering the judgment had the jurisdiction to do so, and the burden is placed on the party challenging the judgment to overcome the presumption." McGouryk v. McGouryk, 672 So.2d 1300, 1302 (Ala. Civ. App. 1995).
In this case, the Georgia court rendered a three-page judgment in which it found that the mother had conceived the children via artificial insemination through an anonymous sperm donor. According to the judgment, V.L. acted as "an equal second parent to the children" after their births. The judgment recites that it would be in the best interests of the children, and consistent with their life-long parenting arrangement, to allow V.L. to adopt the children without terminating the parental rights of the mother. In that judgment, the Georgia court did not expressly address its legal authority to approve the adoption of the children by the same-sex partner of the biological mother without terminating the biological mother's parental rights. From the affidavit filed by the mother in support of her renewed motion to dismiss, it is apparent that she fully supported V.L.'s petition and that she never contested the ...