C.G. and C.G., Appellants,
final until disposition of any timely and authorized motion
under Fla. R. App. P. 9.330 or 9.331.
appeal from the Circuit Court for Union County. David P.
William S. Graessle and Jonathan W. Graessle of William S.
Graessle, P.A., Jacksonville, and Carol A. Caldwell, St.
Augustine, for Appellants.
Maldonado of The Maldonado Law Firm, P.A., Lakeland, for
C.G. and C.G. filed a petition to terminate the parental
rights of Appellee R.C. to the minor child, R.-Appellee's
son by C.G.-pending adoption of R. by C.G.'s husband.
Appellee, who is incarcerated, refused to give his consent to
the adoption. Therefore, Appellants set out to prove by clear
and convincing evidence that Appellee had abandoned R. by
being incarcerated during a significant period of R.'s
minority. Following a hearing, the trial court entered its
Order Denying Petition to Terminate Parental Rights and
Petition for Adoption, in which, through its interpretation
of the relevant statute, denied Appellants' petition. We
agree with Appellants that the trial court misconstrued the
relevant statutory provisions and reverse the final order.
was incarcerated on drug trafficking charges in January 2010,
less than a month before R.'s fifth birthday. His
tentative release date is March 17, 2023. R. will be eighteen
at the time of release. Prior to Appellee's
incarceration, he had physical custody of R. and his
daughter-R.'s biological older sister-since R. was six
months old. When R. was four, however, his sister went
missing while Appellee was working. Tragically, the sister
has never been found.
who had gone through an on-again, off-again relationship for
approximately eleven years, ultimately married in December
2014. After Appellee was arrested on drug trafficking charges
and incarcerated in 2010, the mother, C.G., sought and
obtained custody of R. She testified that her son was "a
broken little boy" when she gained custody of
him-abusing animals and urinating on the floor. She described
him as being "real quiet, just . . . like empty."
As a result, the trial court ordered counseling for R. with
Dr. Christy Monaghan, who saw him once a week for a little
over a year.
to C.G., R. knew his father was in prison, but to her
knowledge, did not know why he was in prison until she later
told him he had been incarcerated for drugs. Until 2013, once
or twice a month, R. would be taken to the prison to visit
Appellee by his paternal grandmother and great-grandmother.
But C.G. testified that when R. returned home from the
visits, he would be angry and "act out." Appellee
sent cards to R. at Christmas and on his birthday, but C.G.
left it up to R. whether to respond to Appellee; he chose not
admitted that the Department of Children and Families removed
R. from her custody in 2013 when a dependency case was
opened. In 2015, R. was reunited with his mother, but
Appellee was denied visitation rights. R. also resumed
counseling through the Department due to what his mother
claimed were "really bad anger outbursts." To her
knowledge, R. made it clear to the counselor that he did not
want to have anything to do with Appellee. C.G. announced she
had been "sober" since the end of 2013. At the time
of the hearing, C.G. testified that R. was in the eighth
grade, was doing well, was happy, and laughed. She stated
that her husband, C.G., functioned as a "dad" for
R., and expressed her belief that the two had
part, Appellee testified that when he was first incarcerated,
his mother and grandmother would bring R. to visit him in
prison once or twice a month, testimony that was confirmed by
both women. During these visits, Appellee's mother would
present R. with clothes and other gifts because Appellee had
no independent source of income to purchase such items.
Appellee "absolutely" believed he had formed a bond
with his son. He did not want his parental rights to R.
terminated, because he loved him. He agreed with counsel that
he had done everything in his power to remain in R.'s
life while incarcerated and testified that he would not be a
danger to his son. He admitted that he had not been in favor
of the counseling R. received after his sister disappeared,
and insisted R. never exhibited any behavioral problems while
he was living with him. In a turnabout, however, Appellee
later conceded his son had been traumatized and had possibly
needed counseling over the past years.
trial court's decision to deny Appellants' petition
to terminate Appellee's parental rights to R. pending
their petition for stepparent adoption, was predicated on a
complex, interlocking interpretation of the factors in
section 63.089, Florida Statutes (2017). Those factors placed
on Appellants multiple, overlapping burdens to prove by clear
and convincing evidence not only that Appellee's period
of incarceration was for a significant period of R.'s
minority, but also that Appellee had, in general,
"abandoned" R., as that term is defined in section
63.032, Florida Statutes, and further, that Appellee had
abandoned R. according to the elements set forth in section
63.089(4)(a)1.-4., Florida Statutes.
order on review presents a pure question of law and statutory
interpretation. Therefore, our review is de novo.
Townsend v. R.J. Reynolds, 192 So.3d 1223, 1225
(Fla. 2016) (citing Daniels v. Fla. Dep't of
Health, 898 So.2d 61, 64 (Fla. 2005)). Our analysis must
begin with "the actual language used in the
statute." Id. at 1228 (citing Joshua v.
City of Gainesville, 768 So.2d 432, 435 (Fla. 2000));
accord Lopez v. Hall, 233 So.3d 451, 453 (Fla. 2018)
(citing Holly v. Auld, 450 So.2d 217, 219 (Fla.
1984)). It is beyond dispute that "'[w]here the
statute's language is clear or unambiguous, courts need
not employ principles of statutory construction to determine
and effectuate legislative intent.'" Id.
(quoting Trinidad v. Fla. Peninsula Ins. Co., 121
So.3d 433, 439 (Fla. 2013) (citing Fla. Dep't of
Children & Family Servs. v. P.E., 14 So.3d 228, 234
(Fla. 2009))). "Instead, when clear and unambiguous,
'the statute's plain and ordinary meaning must
control . . . .'" Id. (quoting
Daniels, 898 So.2d at 64-65); see also In re
Adoption of Baby E.A.W., 658 So.2d 961, 966 (Fla. 1995).
when the language of the statute is ambiguous does a court
turn to the rules of statutory interpretation and
construction. Anderson v. State, 87 So.3d 774, 777
(Fla. 2012). One such rule of construction mentioned in
Anderson is the doctrine of in pari
materia, which "requires courts to construe
statutes that relate to the same subject matter together to
harmonize those statutes and give effect to legislative
intent." Id. Anderson went on to observe that
similar to the doctrine of in pari materia is the
principle that a statute "be read as a consistent
whole," according "meaning and harmony to all of
its parts, with effect given to every clause and related
provision." Id. (citing Larimore v.
State, 2 So.3d 101, 106 (Fla. 2008)). Although the trial
court in the present case did not expressly cite to these two
rules of construction, the tenor of its analysis suggests
that it effectively employed them. It is our view, however,
that the court needlessly went beyond the plain meaning of
language of section 63.089(4) is clear and unambiguous.
Unpacked, it provides a cascade of independent factors for
the trial court to evaluate in determining the issue of
abandonment. To begin with, section 63.089(3), Florida
Statutes, provides in relevant part:
Grounds for terminating parental rights pending
adoption.--The court may enter a judgment
terminating parental rights pending adoption if the court
determines by clear and convincing evidence, supported by
written findings of fact, that each person ...