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L.R.B. v. J.C.

Alabama Court of Civil Appeals

April 20, 2018

L.R.B.
v.
J.C. L.R.B.
v.
J.C.

          Appeals from DeKalb Juvenile Court (JU-12-188.01 & JU-12-189.01)

          THOMAS, JUDGE.

         In 2009, L.R.B. ("the father") and J.C. ("the mother") were divorced by the DeKalb Circuit Court. According to the parties, the divorce judgment awarded custody of the parties' two children to the father. In April 2012, the mother filed in the DeKalb Juvenile Court ("the juvenile court") an emergency motion for custody of the children; she also filed two form complaints, which initiated a separate action for each child, seeking to have the children declared dependent and in which she alleged that the father had been arrested in Tennessee, had recently been committed to and released from a mental-health-care facility, had a history of mental-health issues and drug use, and, at a recent visitation, had "attempted to fight" the mother.

         In August 2012, the juvenile court rendered a judgment that was entered in each action, incorporating the parties' agreement respecting custody of the children. By agreement, the children were placed in the custody of the mother, and the father was awarded specific visitation. In 2015, the mother instituted contempt actions against the father in the juvenile court; the father counterclaimed, requesting a modification of the 2012 judgment and that the mother be held in contempt. The parties reached an agreement regarding the 2015 claims as well, and the juvenile court modified the 2012 judgment only insofar as it specified the location for the exchange of the children for visitation.

         In September 2017, the father filed in the juvenile court a motion pursuant to Rule 60(b)(4), Ala. R. Civ. P., requesting that the juvenile court set aside the 2012 judgment as void. The father argued in his motion that the juvenile court had lacked jurisdiction to enter the 2012 judgment and that both that judgment and the 2015 modification judgment were void. He contended that the juvenile court had not determined that the children were dependent and that, therefore, the juvenile court had lacked jurisdiction to determine their custody.

         The juvenile court rendered a judgment that was entered in each action, denying the father's motion and indicating that it considered the father's motion to have come too late and that the father had assented to the juvenile court's jurisdiction by litigating the 2015 modification actions. The father sought review of the denial of his Rule 60(b) motion via a petitions for the writ of mandamus, which we have treated as appeals. See M.M. v. K.J.Z., [Ms. 2160520, September 29, 2017] ___ So.3d ___, ___ (Ala. Civ. App. 2017) (electing to treat petitions for the writ of mandamus seeking review of the denial of Rule 60(b) motions as appeals from the denial of those motions). This court consolidated the appeals ex mero motu.

         The father's motion sought relief from the 2012 judgment under Rule 60(b)(4) based on allegations that the juvenile court had lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to enter the 2012 judgment. Motions seeking relief from a void judgment may be brought at any time. Ex parte McCrory & Williams, Inc., 155 So.3d 1018, 1020 (Ala. Civ. App. 2014). Thus, despite the juvenile court's conclusion that the father's motion was filed too late, the father's motion was timely filed. Furthermore, we note that "'"[a] lack of subject-matter jurisdiction is not subject to waiver by the parties, "'" B.L.R. v. N.M.N., 69 So.3d 868, 869 (Ala. Civ. App. 2011) (quoting K.C. v. R.L.P., 67 So.3d 94, 95 (Ala. Civ. App. 2011), quoting in turn Ex parte T.C., 63 So.3d 627, 630 (Ala. Civ. App. 2010)), so the father's participation in the 2012 actions and the 2015 actions could not imbue the juvenile court with subject-matter jurisdiction.

"'The standard of review on appeal from an order granting [or denying] relief under Rule 60(b)(4), Ala. R. Civ. P. ("the judgment is void"), is not whether the trial court has exceeded its discretion. When the decision to grant or to deny relief turns on the validity of the judgment, discretion has no field of operation. Cassioppi v. Damico, 536 So.2d 938, 940 (Ala. 1988). "If the judgment is void, it is to be set aside; if it is valid, it must stand.... A judgment is void only if the court which rendered it lacked jurisdiction of the subject matter, or of the parties, or if it acted in a manner inconsistent with due process." Seventh Wonder v. Southbound Records, Inc., 364 So.2d 1173, 1174 (Ala. 1978) (emphasis added).'"

L.T. v. W.L., 159 So.3d 1289, 1291 (Ala. Civ. App. 2014) (quoting Ex parte Full Circle Distrib., L.L.C., 883 So.2d 638, 641 (Ala. 2003)).

         The juvenile court is a court of limited jurisdiction, having "exclusive original jurisdiction of juvenile court proceedings in which a child is alleged to have committed a delinquent act, to be dependent, or to be in need of supervision." Ala. Code 1975, § 12-15-114(a). The mother's 2012 dependency complaint contained allegations that, if proven, could have established that the children were dependent. Thus, her complaint invoked the jurisdiction of the juvenile court. See T.K. v. M.G., 82 So.3d 1, 4 (Ala. Civ. App. 2011) (explaining that a father's allegations that the mother was using illegal drugs and was not properly caring for the parties' children were sufficient allegations upon which to base the juvenile court's exercise of its dependency jurisdiction). However, the juvenile court never took evidence regarding the children's alleged dependency; instead, the parties entered into a settlement agreement respecting the custody of the children. The settlement agreement does not stipulate to the children's dependency, and, as a result, the settlement agreement merely resolves a custody dispute between parents, over which the juvenile court lacked jurisdiction. See § 12-15-114(a) ("A dependency action shall not include a custody dispute between parents."); S.J.S. v. H.M., 103 So.3d 823, 826 (Ala. Civ. App. 2012).

         The mother contends that, pursuant to Rule 8(d), Ala. R. Civ. P., the father's failure to file an answer to the dependency complaint resulted in his admission of the facts giving rise to the children's dependency. Thus, she argues, the juvenile court had jurisdiction to enter its 2012 judgment incorporating the parties' settlement agreement because the children's dependency was admitted. The application of Rule 8(d) does obviate the need for proof of an admitted factual averment at trial or in a motion for a summary judgment. See Howard v. Jordan, 390 So.2d 1053, 1054 n.1 (Ala. 1980); but see Edwards v. National Speleological Soc'y, Inc., 502 So.2d 337, 339 (Ala. 1987) (indicating that because "[t]he filing of an answer is not a prerequisite to the consideration of a motion for summary judgment, " Rule 8(d) cannot always be used to deem facts admitted when no answer has been filed). However, the juvenile court did not try the 2012 actions or enter a summary judgment in those actions. Instead, the parties agreed to resolve their differences, which, based on the language used in the settlement agreement, were based on a custody dispute between them.[1] We cannot agree that Rule 8(d) is applicable in this situation, where the facts were not required to be proven to the juvenile court before it entered its 2012 judgment incorporating the parties' settlement agreement.

         Because the juvenile court lacked jurisdiction to enter the 2012 judgment, that judgment is void; the 2015 judgment purporting to modify the 2012 judgment is also void. See S.J.S., 103 So.3d at 826. The father's Rule 60(b)(4) motion was not untimely and is due to be granted. The judgment of the juvenile court is therefore reversed, and the causes are remanded for the entry of a judgment consistent with this opinion.

         2170306- REVERSED AND REMANDED.

         2170307- ...


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