The Flip Side of Restricting the GAL

June 1, 2020 § Leave a comment

Last week we visited the MSSC’s majority decision in Barber v. Barberwhich held that it was error for the chancellor to exclude a GAL report from evidence and to limit the GAL’s testimony based on the GAL’s conclusion that allegations of abuse were unfounded.

Today we will look at Justice Ishee’s dissent, joined by Chief Justice Randolph and Justice Griffis. It’s somewhat lengthy by this blog’s standards, but it’s worth a read:

¶42. The statute requires the appointment of a guardian ad litem “when a charge of abuse and/or neglect arises in the course of a custody action as provided in Section 43-21-151 . . . .” Miss. Code § 93-5-23 (Rev. 2018). As the majority acknowledges, more than a mere allegation is required to invoke the statute; the chancellor “is provided discretion to determine if issues of abuse or neglect have sufficient factual basis to support the appointment of a guardian ad litem.” Maj. Op. ¶ 27 (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Carter v. Carter, 204 So. 3d 747, 759 (Miss. 2016)). “The statute should not be read ‘as requiring . . . the appointment of a guardian ad litem based merely on an unsubstantiated assertion found in the pleadings of one of the parties.’” Carter, 204 So. 3d at 759 (quoting Johnson v. Johnson, 872 So. 2d 92, 94 (Miss. Ct. App. 2004)).

¶43. The majority sidesteps the question of whether there was a sufficient factual basis to trigger the statute. It appears instead to be satisfied with its supposition that “at the time of the appointment, the chancellor considered the requirements for a mandatory appointment to be met.” See Maj. Op. ¶ 34 n.6. From my own review of the record, I disagree; it appears that the chancellor appointed the guardian ad litem out of an abundance of caution, not because he had found that doing so was statutorily required. But regardless of the chancellor’s subjective intent, the appointment was not statutorily required because the allegation the children were abused was never substantiated. See Carter, 204 So. 3d at 759.

¶44. Sylvia leveled a cursory allegation of abuse after the chancellor awarded temporary custody to Mark—Sylvia alleged just that “Mark is guilty of conduct constituting abuse towards the minor children, inclusive of physical, verbal and emotional abuse.” The chancellor appointed a guardian ad litem to look into Sylvia’s allegation. The guardian ad litem was instructed to report back to the court whether appointment of a guardian ad litem was mandatory, but she was also to “report to this [c]ourt if there is even a shred of thought that there might be any danger to the child[ren].” The guardian ad litem reported back with no details about the allegations, just her conclusion that the allegations were “unsubstantiated at this time”—unsubstantiated is, again, a word this Court and the Court of Appeals have used to describe allegations that do not require the appointment of guardian ad litem. See Carter, 204 So. 3d at 759. Nonetheless, the guardian ad litem went on to recommend that the allegations “[rose] to the level that the [guardian ad litem] should be appointed as a permanent [guardian ad litem].” The chancellor then entered an order finding that the appointment of a guardian ad litem was “necessary and warranted.” The order instructed the guardian ad litem to “conduct an investigation” and to “make a recommendation,” but it did not say the appointment was mandatory under the statute. In fact, the chancellor’s order indefinitely appointing the guardian ad litem said nothing at all about the allegations of abuse.

¶45. Later, after the chancellor heard the details, he changed his mind about the need to hear the guardian ad litem’s report or recommendation. The chancellor found unequivocally that the appointment had been discretionary and that the allegation Mark had abused the children was not credible. He held,

[T]his Court is the ultimate arbiter of whether or not there is credible evidence of abuse or neglect that would trigger this Court appointing [a] guardian ad
litem.

And there is absolutely no doubt in this Court’s mind that after hearing the testimony, if this Court were to be asked to appoint a guardian ad litem based
upon the credible evidence, this Court would not appoint a guardian ad litem in this matter.

This matter is chock full of bad parenting, bad judgment, general knucklehead behavior and immaturity, which makes it consistent with about 90 percent of the cases that come to this Court.

As such, as the ultimate foundation upon which the guardian ad litem was appointed, and that is potential abuse, neglect of the minor child, in this Court’s view, not being credible or substantiated in any way, the Court would indeed grant the motion to exclude the guardian ad litem report, as well as this
Court would exclude the testimony of the guardian ad litem herein.

The chancellor reached this conclusion after hearing three days of testimony and conducting in camera interviews with the two oldest children.

¶46. In changing the guardian ad litem’s assignment to suit the needs of the case as it unfolded, the chancellor acted according to this Court’s prior direction—the chancellor’s order appointing a guardian ad litem “should not permanently bind the court should needs change as the litigation progresses.” S.G. v. D.C., 13 So. 3d 269, 281 (Miss. 2009). A chancellor has the authority to expand or limit the role of a guardian ad litem “as the needs of a particular case dictate . . . .” S.G., 13 So. 3d 281. “The guardian ad litem may serve in a very limited purpose if the court finds such service necessary in the interest of justice” and her “role at trial may vary depending on the needs of the particular case.” Id. at 280-81. The majority notes these holdings but fails to give them effect. See Maj. Op. at ¶¶ 24-25.

¶47. I submit that reversible error cannot be found without a showing that the allegation of abuse was sufficiently substantiated and credible to make the appointment of a guardian ad litem mandatory under the statute. See Porter, 23 So. 3d at 449; Carter, 204 So. 3d at 759. No such showing has been made.

¶48. The Court of Appeals addressed a very similar scenario in the recent Kaiser v. Kaiser, 281 So. 3d 1136 (Miss. Ct. App. 2019). There, a chancellor appointed a guardian ad litem to investigate allegations the children had been endangered when the mother exposed them to her abusive boyfriend. Id. at 1140. The guardian ad litem was subsequently released without giving a final report or recommendation to the chancellor, after it became clear that the children had not been abused or neglected. Id. at 1141-42. The Court of Appeals found no error because the appointment had been discretionary:

Because allegations of abuse mandating the appointment of a GAL were not present in this case, the chancellor’s appointment of the GAL was discretionary and not statutorily mandated pursuant to section 93-5-23. When an appointment of a GAL is discretionary, the chancellor is not required to include his or her reasons for rejecting the GAL’s recommendation. Id. at 1142 (citing Porter, 23 So. 3d at 449).

¶49. Here, before trial, the allegation that the children were abused was bare and “unsubstantiated,” as the guardian ad litem found. It is not mandatory to appoint a guardian ad litem “based merely on an unsubstantiated assertion found in the pleadings of one of the parties.” Carter, 204 So. 3d at 759 (emphasis added) (internal quotation mark omitted) (quoting Johnson v. Johnson, 872 So. 2d 92, 94 (Miss. Ct. App. 2004). At trial, the most severe allegations leveled against Mark were that he had struck one of the boys on the top of the head with the handle of a kitchen knife (to get his attention) and had pushed his stepson (the oldest, about fourteen years of age) into a nest of yellow jackets. The appointment of a guardian ad litem is only mandatory when “the allegations of abuse and/or neglect rise to the level of a ‘charge of abuse and/or neglect’” under the Youth Court Law. Carter, 204 So. 3d at 759 (quoting Miss. Code Ann. § 93-5-23 (Rev. 2013)). The chancellor had substantial evidence to support his ultimate finding that the credible allegations amounted to little more than “bad parenting, bad judgment, [and] general knucklehead behavior and immaturity.”

¶50. Applying Carter and Porter and Kaiser, I would find that the appointment of the guardian ad litem here was discretionary, not mandatory under the statute, and that no error resulted from the chancellor’s decision not to hear the guardian ad litem’s recommendation. See Porter, 23 So. 3d at 449; Kaiser, 281 So. 3d at 1142.

¶51. Finally, I would point out that this issue should be procedurally barred for two reasons. First, even though Sylvia admitted at trial that the allegation of abuse had to be sufficiently credible for the appointment of a guardian ad litem to have been mandatory, on appeal she entirely neglected to brief the question of whether her allegation of abuse was substantiated. See Carter, 204 So. 3d at 759. Like the majority, Sylvia just assumes the question was finally decided by the appointment of a guardian ad litem following allegations of abuse. I do not agree and would hold that reversible error cannot be found without a showing that the appointment really was required by the statute. See Porter, 23 So. 3d at 449. Since Sylvia failed to brief that question entirely, she has waived the issue on appeal. See Rosenfelt v. Miss. Dev. Auth., 262 So. 3d 511, 519 (Miss. 2018) (“The appellant must affirmatively demonstrate error in the court below, and failure to do so waives an issue on appeal.” (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Jefferson v. State, 138 So. 3d 263, 265 (Miss. Ct. App. 2014))).

¶52. Sylvia also failed to proffer the guardian ad litem’s report or testimony. A party complaining of the exclusion of evidence is required to proffer that evidence. Gordon v. Wall (In re Estate of Waller), 273 So. 3d 717, 720 (Miss. 2019). This is so the trial court will have an opportunity to correct its mistake (if there was one) and so a reviewing court can judge whether the error was sufficiently important to require reversal. See id. Reversible error could only result here if the chancellor’s decision was contrary to the guardian ad litem’s recommendation. See Porter, 23 So. 3d at 449. Silvia elected not to make the guardian ad litem’s report and recommendation part of the record, so this Court can only speculate about whether its exclusion from evidence was reversible error.

¶53. The statute does not require the appointment of a guardian ad litem in response to a bare, unsubstantiated allegation of abuse. Carter, 204 So. 3d at 759. The appointment of a guardian ad litem here was therefore discretionary, so there was no error in the chancellor’s decision not to receive a report or recommendation from the guardian ad litem. Porter, 23 So. 3d at 449; Carter, 204 So. 3d at 759; Kaiser, 281 So. 3d at 1142. The issue is also procedurally barred because Sylvia failed to fully brief it and failed to proffer the guardian ad litem’s recommendation. I would affirm the chancery court’s judgment.

My thoughts:

  • I am persuaded by Justice Ishee’s reasoning. I think the chancellor intended this to be a discretionary appointment, and he changed the GAL’s role as the S.G. case had actually encouraged. Most significantly he did so only after three days of testimony and interviews with the children.
  • You can avoid a similar problem simply by asking your chancellor to include in the order appointing the GAL a finding whether it is discretionary or mandatory. Or, if you prepare the order, make sure you specify whether it is discretionary or mandatory.
  • This case highlights the importance of including more than mere allegations in your pleading if you are serious about charging abuse or neglect. You’ve got to give the judge facts that would be sufficient to support a case in Youth Court.
  • You should read ¶52 carefully, then copy it, print a few copies, and tape it to your computer screen, bathroom mirror, and your forehead; the concept is that important. If the judge excludes your evidence, you must make an offer of proof, aka proffer, or you may not bring it up on appeal. It’s enshrined in MRE 103(a). I’ve posted about this numerous times. When you try a case, you must be mindful that only part of your job is to persuade the chancellor; you also are making a record to win on appeal.

 

 

 

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