Appeal from Jefferson Family Court CS-13-719
ON APPLICATION FOR REHEARING
This court's opinion of October 24, 2014, is withdrawn, and the following is substituted therefor.
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.").
Subject-Matter Jurisdiction of the Family Court
Before proceeding to consider the merits of the appeal, we must first consider whether the family court had subject-matter jurisdiction to enter its April 3, 2014, judgment. As stated above, the action was commenced in the circuit court, and that court, sua sponte, transferred the action to the family court. At oral argument, the parties all agreed that, in its judgment, the family court impliedly enforced the Georgia judgment by recognizing V.L.'s right to visitation as an adoptive parent of the children. The family court did not award V.L. visitation under any other theory, having expressly rejected any allegation of dependency or any other claim raised by V.L. in her pleadings. Thus, the preliminary question is whether the family court, when ruling on a child-custody matter, has subject-matter jurisdiction to enforce a foreign judgment.
Act No. 478, Ala. Acts 1935, §§ 2 & 3, established a juvenile and domestic-relations court for Jefferson County, which, by Act. No. 674, Ala. Acts 1967, was renamed the Family Court of Jefferson County. See Placey v. Placey, 51 So.3d 374, 375 n.2 (Ala. Civ. App. 2010). Section 2 of Act No. 478 provides, in pertinent part, that the family court "shall have and exercise original and exclusive jurisdiction" over "[b]ills, petitions or writs involving the custody of minors." Section 3 of Act No. 478 provides that, as to such actions that are ...