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C.G. v. R.C.

Florida Court of Appeals, First District

September 12, 2019

C.G. and C.G., Appellants,
v.
R.C., Appellee.

         Not final until disposition of any timely and authorized motion under Fla. R. App. P. 9.330 or 9.331.

          On appeal from the Circuit Court for Union County. David P. Kreider, Judge.

          William S. Graessle and Jonathan W. Graessle of William S. Graessle, P.A., Jacksonville, and Carol A. Caldwell, St. Augustine, for Appellants.

          David Maldonado of The Maldonado Law Firm, P.A., Lakeland, for Appellee.

          JAY, J.

         Appellants 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.

         I.

         Appellee 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.

         Appellants, 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.

         According 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 to.

         C.G. 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 "bonded."

         For his 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.

         II.

         The 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.

         A.

         The 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).

         Only 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 the statute.

         The 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 ...

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