I don’t write about much family law at Ziff Blog, but while In re the Parentage of Kaleigh Lyn Ruff (Division 3, May 8, 2012), is a family law case, it is really a jurisdiction-related case. And you know I love writing about jurisdiction, so here goes…
Washington has adopted the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (“UCCJEA”), which governs state court jurisdiction in child custody disputes. The statute is “a pact among states limiting the circumstances under which one court may modify the [child custody] orders of another.”
Here, parents Jamie Lyn Ruff and Dennis Knickerbocker had a dispute about the custody of their daughter, who was born to the couple in 1999 when they both lived in Montana. Soon after the child’s birth, Ruff petitioned for a parenting plan in Montana. The Montana state court entered an order regarding custody and parenting in 2002. Ruff and her daughter moved to Washington in 2003. The child lived in Washington with Ruff from 2003 to 2006. From 2006 to 2007 she lived in Montana with her father, Knickerbocker. Since 2007 she has lived back in Washington with her mother.
A dispute between the parents arose in 2008 when Knickerbocker tried to take the child out of daycare without permission. Ruff moved for a TRO in Washington state court. Knickerbocker filed his own claim in Washington state court, seeking modification of the parents’ custody arrangement. The trial court exercised “emergency jurisdiction” under the UCCJEA and noted that Knickerbocker “consented” to jurisdiction because he himself had filed a separate petition in Washington. Also, during the pendency of the Washington action, both parties moved to dismiss the Montana case “because the parties both agree that Washington State now has jurisdiction for entry of the final parenting plan and child support orders in this action.”
The trial court then entered an order regarding custody. Knickerbocker, apparently not happy with the order, appealed. For the first time on appeal, he claimed the trial court lacked jurisdiction under the UCCJEA and that its orders were therefore void. The question on appeal, therefore, was whether the trial court had subject matter jurisdiction to issue its order.
The Court of Appeals held that the UCCJEA’s “jurisdictional” requirements were, in fact, actually jurisdictional. In reaching this conclusion, the Court noted that courts “strictly and narrowly read efforts by the legislature to limit” subject matter jurisdiction. Regardless, a number of factors militated in favor of finding that the UCCJEA’s requirements are jurisdictional.
First, the statute uses the term “jurisdiction” to refer to the requirements. Second, other courts in Washington have held the requirements to be jurisdictional. Third, the official omments to the UCCJEA make clear that the statute is intended to create a jurisdictional limit. The comments specifically note that the agreement of the parties to confer jurisdiction on a court in violation of the UCCJEA is invalid.
Accordingly, because the UCCJEA’s requirements are jurisdictional, Knickerbocker’s “consent” to jurisdiction is irrelevant. (Consent is relevant for personal jurisdiction, but not for subject matter jurisdiction.)
However, the UCCJEA does provide for limited “emergency” jurisdiction in certain circumstances. Here, however, the Court concluded that the statute’s standards for emergency jurisdiction were not met because there was no showing of actual or threatened “abuse.”
Moreover, even if the initial exercise of emergency jurisdiction were proper, the Court held that subsequent exercise of general jurisdiction for a permanent order was not proper. The UCCJEA provides that, after the invocation of emergency jurisdiction, a court must then follow proper procedures to invoke general jurisdiction. All parties agreed that the procedures were not followed in this case.
The Court concluded that these requirements regarding conversion from “emergency” to “permanent” jurisdiction were themselves also jurisdictional. Accordingly, even were the initial exercise of jurisdiction proper, the Court had no jurisdiction to enter a final order. Like Knickerbocker’s consent, the Montana court’s dismissal of the case and approval of Washington as the proper location were both irrelevant. Absent compliance with the UCCJEA’s requirements, the Monanta court could no more confer jurisdiction on the Washington courts than could Knickerbocker.
Judge Brown dissented. While not directly addressing the majority’s jurisdictional discussion, Judge Brown was clearly displeased with Knickerbocker’s conduct. The dissent took Knickerbocker to task for raising a “hyper technical UCCJEA jurisdictional challenge” only “after he became dissatisfied with the outcome of the Washington litigation.”