Family Law Keyed to Weisbergback
Citation. 2010 U.S.79 U.S.L.W. 3329
Brief Fact Summary. Mother appealed the court’s orders terminating her parental rights and granting the petition for adoption by her son’s foster parents based upon the claim that her son lacked the capacity to bring suit due to nonage.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. The disability of nonage prevents a minor from initiating or maintaining an action for termination of parental rights.
Facts. Rachel Kingsley, natural mother of Gregory, appeals the court’s final orders terminating her parental rights based upon findings of abandonment and neglect, and granting the petition for adoption filed by Gregory’s foster parents. In June of 1992 Gregory, 11, filed a petition for termination of the parental rights of his natural parents. He separately filed a declaration of rights and adoption by his foster parents. The trial court ruled that he had standing to initiate the action for termination of parental rights, and implicitly accorded him the capacity to file the petition even though he was an unemancipated minor. The court appointed one of Gregory’s attorneys as his attorney ad litem. The court made no ruling concerning Gregory’s standing to file the adoption proceeding, however his foster parents filed a petition for adoption with the written consent of Gregory and his father. The court tried the termination of parental rights and adoption proceeding together, and
terminated the mother’s parental rights and granted the foster parents’ adoption petition.
Issue. Did the trial court err in holding that Gregory has the capacity to bring a termination of parental rights proceeding in his own right?
Held. The trial court erred because the disability of nonage prevented Gregory from initiating or maintaining an action for termination of parental rights. Such error was harmless due to identical actions by individuals with capacity and standing.
Capacity to sue means the absence of a legal disability which would deprive a party of the right to come into court. Historically unemancipated minors do not have the legal capacity to initiate legal proceedings in their own names. A guardian ad litem or next friend is required to represent a minor by the orderly administration of justice and the procedural protection of a minor’s welfare and interest. The fact that the minor is represented by counsel is not sufficient. The next friend does not become a party to the suit, the minor is the real party in interest. The disability of nonage is procedural, rather than jurisdictional.
Objective criteria, such as age limits, are not unconstitutional unless they unduly burden the minor’s pursuit of a fundamental right. Gregory’s lack of capacity is procedural, not substantive, and minimally restricts his right to participate as a party in proceedings brought to terminate the parental rights of his natural parents. This Court concludes that this procedural requirement does not unduly burden a child’s fundamental liberty interest to be free of physical and emotional violence at the hands of his most trusted caretaker.
The court’s error in permitting Gregory to file the petition was rendered harmless by the fact that separate petitions for termination of parental rights were filed on behalf of Gregory by the foster father, the guardian ad litem, HRS, and the foster mother.
Dissent. Concurring in part. I concur with the majority in that so long as the parents do nothing to forfeit their fundamental liberty interest in the care, custody and management of their child, no one can interfere with that interest. The focus in a termination case is on the alleged misconduct of the biological parent. Termination proceedings require a two step analysis: 1) did the parents do something the State has determined to be sufficiently egregious to permit forfeiture of their right to continue as parents? 2) Is termination in the best interest of the child? The second step is unnecessary unless the answer to the first question is affirmative. The majority’s finding of harmless error ignores the fat that the best interest factors themselves should not have been considered until after the court determined there was abandonment.
Discussion. The majority finds that the child lacked the capacity to sue due to the disability of nonage, but the trial court’s error was harmless because identical petitions were filed by individuals with capacity and standing.