Office of Child Support ex rel. Lewis v. Lewis (2003-354); 178 Vt. 204;
882 A.2d 1128
2004 VT 127
NOTICE: This opinion is subject to motions for reargument under V.R.A.P.
40 as well as formal revision before publication in the Vermont Reports.
Readers are requested to notify the Reporter of Decisions, Vermont Supreme
Court, 109 State Street, Montpelier, Vermont 05609-0801 of any errors in
order that corrections may be made before this opinion goes to press.
2004 VT 127
Office of Child Support Supreme Court
ex rel. Melissa Lewis
On Appeal from
v. Windsor Family Court
James L. Lewis, Jr.
September Term, 2004
Amy M. Davenport, J.
Christin L. Semprebon, Springfield, for Plaintiff-Appellee.
Kimberly B. Cheney of Cheney, Brock & Saudek, P.C., Montpelier, for
PRESENT: Dooley, Johnson, Skoglund and Reiber, JJ., and Allen, C.J.
(Ret.), Specially Assigned
¶ 1. JOHNSON, J. Father appeals from a Windsor Family Court
order in favor of the Vermont Office of Child Support requiring him to
reimburse the State of Iowa for public assistance paid to his estranged
wife on behalf of the parties' children. We reverse, holding that the
family court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the claim in the
absence of an Iowa court order establishing the debt and father's repayment
obligation in the first instance.
¶ 2. Father and mother were married in Vermont in 1990 but have
not lived together for many years. They have two minor children whom
father has not seen since 1994. Since separating years ago, mother has not
sought child support, and neither parent filed for legal separation or
divorce before the Vermont Office of Child Support (OCS) initiated the
proceedings at issue here.
¶ 3. OCS commenced this action in July 2002 by filing a petition
in the Windsor Family Court. OCS sought a judgment in favor of the State
of Iowa in the amount of $4,126.67 for past support Iowa provided to mother
and the children. As authority for its petition, OCS cited two provisions
of Vermont law. The first provision, chapter 39 of Title 33, allows the
family court to order a parent to reimburse Vermont's Department of
Prevention, Transition, and Health Access (PATH) for public assistance PATH
paid to support the parent's children. The second provision, § 293(a) of
Title 15, gives the family court jurisdiction over child support matters
when married parents live separately. OCS filed with the petition
additional documents that originated in Iowa and were sent to OCS by the
Iowa Child Support Recovery Unit (ICSRU). The documents were approved for
use in interstate support proceedings pursuant to the Uniform Interstate
Family Support Act (UIFSA) and they indicated that Iowa had not issued a
child support order or a judgment on the public assistance debt before
asking for OCS's help in obtaining an order from the Vermont court. ICSRU
sought an order from Vermont because, as a Vermont resident, father is
subject to the jurisdiction of Vermont courts.
¶ 4. The family court magistrate heard OCS's request in February
2003. Because mother's whereabouts were unknown, she was not present for
the hearing. Father appeared pro se. Counsel for OCS explained to the
magistrate that ICSRU contacted OCS in October 2001 for assistance in
recovering the benefits Iowa paid to mother for several months in 1999 and
2000. OCS acknowledged that father did not receive notice of the debt from
Iowa before OCS filed its petition in Vermont, and it suggested that the
court calculate the judgment according to Vermont's child support
¶ 5. The magistrate granted the petition. She reasoned that
father's duty of support arose when his children were born, and that
authority existed to require him to repay public assistance given to his
children during a time when he was not supporting them. The magistrate
created a debt based on Vermont's child support guidelines for an Iowa
obligation that was never reduced to an administrative or court judgment.
Father appealed the magistrate's decision to the family court. The family
court upheld the decision after analyzing OCS's petition under UIFSA's
provisions exclusively. The court explained that father has an inherent
duty to support his children, and reasoned that ICSRU could lawfully "seek
reimbursement of an 'arrearage' even without prior legal procedures" in
Iowa. The court did not consider whether the statutes OCS cited in support
of the petition gave it authority to adjudicate the Iowa debt in the first
instance, however. Following the court's entry of judgment, father
appealed to this Court.
¶ 6. On appeal, father argues that the family court denied him
due process by issuing the child support order without prior notice of
Iowa's claim or an opportunity to challenge it. We review father's claim
de novo because it raises a question of law. Lambert v. Beede, 2003 VT 75,
¶ 9, 175 Vt.610, 830 A.2d 133 (mem.). We agree with father that the
court's order is invalid, but rather than reach the constitutional
question, we reverse on statutory grounds. We hold that, absent prior
proceedings in Iowa establishing the public assistance debt and father's
repayment obligation according to Iowa law, the family court lacked
jurisdiction to issue a Vermont child support order directing father to
repay the debt.
¶ 7. The scope of the family court's jurisdiction is limited by
statute. LaPlume v. Lavallee, 2004 VT 78, ¶ 7, 15 Vt. L. Wk. 282, 858 A.2d 255 (mem.). We strictly construe the family court's grant of authority,
and we do not infer jurisdiction where it does not explicitly exist. Id.
at ¶ 8; e.g., Rogers v. Wells, 174 Vt. 492, 494, 808 A.2d 648, 650 (2002)
(mem.) (explaining that family court has no statutory jurisdiction over the
separation of unmarried parents outside parentage proceedings). In this
case, there are only three possible sources for the court's subject matter
jurisdiction over OCS's petition: (1) chapter 39 of Title 33; (2) § 293 of
Title 15; and (3) UIFSA, 15B V.S.A. §§ 101-901. 4 V.S.A. § 454(1), (3),
(9). When considering claims that arise under a statute, we apply the
plain meaning of the statute's words because we presume it reflects the
Legislature's intent. Colwell v. Allstate Ins. Co., 2003 VT 5, ¶ 7, 175
Vt. 61, 819 A.2d 727. In this case, we conclude that the court's
proceeding, and the order flowing from it, were not authorized under the
plain language of those statutes.
¶ 8. We begin with the court's jurisdiction under chapter 39 of
Title 33 because that was the primary authority on which OCS relied for its
filing. Chapter 39 of Title 33 governs the assignment of rights to child
support, and the state's right to reimbursement of benefits, when a parent
receives public assistance from PATH in Vermont. 33 V.S.A. §§ 3901-3904;
Desrochers v. Descrochers, 173 Vt. 312, 313, 795 A.2d 1171, 1172 (2002).
Section 3903(2) allows PATH to recoup benefits it provided to a parent
through a child support proceeding in family court. 33 V.S.A. § 3903(2).
The statute does not give the family court jurisdiction to order repayment
of public assistance benefits paid to an individual by another state; its
terms limit the right to recoupment to PATH.(FN1) In this case, the State
of Vermont did not pay out any of the benefits for which OCS sought
recovery, and OCS did not receive an assignment of rights from mother to
seek child support from father. Therefore, chapter 39 of Title 33 cannot
support the court's jurisdiction over OCS's claim because the claim falls
outside the plain language of the statute.
¶ 9. Similarly, § 293(a) of Title 15 does not apply here.
Section 293(a) provides in relevant part:
[w]hen parents of minor children[ ] . . . whether said
parents are married or unmarried, are living separately, on
the complaint of either parent . . . or, if it is a party in
interest, the department of prevention, assistance,
transition, and health access, the family court may make such
decree concerning . . . the support of the children, as in
cases where either parent deserts or without just cause fails
15 V.S.A. § 293(a) (emphasis added). Although father and mother live
separately as § 293(a) contemplates, neither OCS nor PATH is a party in
interest in this case because neither agency holds an assignment of support
rights from mother. See Cantin v. Young, 170 Vt. 563, 564, 742 A.2d 1246,
1247 (1999) (mem.) (holding that OCS is not a party in interest in a child
support proceeding where OCS has not received an assignment of rights to
support). The real party in interest is the State of Iowa because the
public assistance benefits at issue were provided in Iowa, and an Iowa
agency, ICSRU, received mother's assignment of rights to child support. By
its own terms, therefore, § 293(a) does not apply and does not confer
jurisdiction over OCS's petition.
¶ 10. Although OCS pleaded no other basis for its complaint, the
family court upheld the order by relying on UIFSA. It concluded that
"[u]nder the Iowa [public assistance program], and under UIFSA, the State
of Iowa may seek reimbursement of an 'arrearage' even without prior legal
procedures." We find no legal basis for that conclusion under either
Vermont or Iowa law.
¶ 11. UIFSA was designed to expedite the interstate enforcement
of child support orders through uniform procedures. Walton v. Wyoming ex
rel. Utah, 2002 WY 108, ¶ 7, 50 P.3d 693; Patricia W. Hatamyar, Interstate
Establishment, Enforcement, and Modification of Child Support Orders, 25
Okla. City U. L. Rev. 511, 515 (2000); John J. Sampson, Uniform Interstate
Family Support Act (1996), 32 Fam. L. Q. 390, 418 (1998). The law is
primarily a procedural mechanism, Butler v. Butler, 566 S.E.2d 707, 709
(N.C. Ct. App. 2002), that does not expand the UIFSA tribunal's
jurisdiction over child support orders. 15B V.S.A. § 103 cmt.; see id. §
305(b) cmt. ("[T]he Act explicitly states that a tribunal is not granted
any powers that it does not otherwise possess under state law."). As
Vermont's UIFSA tribunal pursuant to § 102 of the Act, the family court has
two roles. It acts either as an "initiating tribunal" or a "responding
tribunal." Id. §§ 304, 305. As a "responding tribunal," the role the
court played in this case, the family court may establish and enforce child
support orders pursuant to § 305(b) of the Act. Id. § 305(b). The statute
limits the court's authority to issue such orders "to the extent otherwise
authorized by law." Id. (emphasis added). In other words, UIFSA requires
the family court to have another statutory basis for entering a child
support order. We have already concluded that the family court has limited
authority to enter a judgment on a public assistance debt and that
authority does not extend to debts arising outside Vermont. The family
court was not, therefore, "otherwise authorized by law" to enter the order
at issue here.
¶ 12. The family court also erred by concluding that prior legal
proceedings were not required by Iowa law or UIFSA before it could act on
OCS's petition. A debt arises as a matter of law upon a parent's receipt
of public assistance in Iowa just as it does in Vermont. Compare Iowa Code
§ 252C.2(2) with 33 V.S.A. § 3903. The debt is not enforceable, however,
until it is reduced to a valid court order according to the procedures
established by the Iowa legislature. Iowa Code ch. 252C; see also Hundt
v. Iowa Dep't of Human Servs., 545 N.W.2d 306, 310 (Iowa 1996) (permitting
recoupment of public assistance debt within confines of Iowa's statutory
requirements only). The recoupment procedures Iowa established give the
obligor the "fundamental elements of due process." Iowa ex rel. Houk v.
Grewing, 586 N.W.2d 224, 227 (Iowa Ct. App. 1998). The obligor is entitled
to notice from ICSRU that a debt has been incurred and that the agency
intends to secure repayment through a child support order. Iowa Code §
252C.3(1); Iowa Admin. Code § 441-99.41(3). The obligor also has the right
to request a judicial hearing to challenge the debt. Iowa Code §
252C.3(4)(e); id. § 252C.4(1); Iowa Admin. Code § 441-99.41(7). Finally,
before an ICSRU determination on the debt is enforceable, an Iowa court
must ratify the agency's decision. Iowa Code § 252C.4(4); Iowa Admin. Code
§ 441-99.41(9), (10). We note that the court's ratification is not a
meaningless rubber stamp because the court retains its inherent authority
to review an ICSRU determination for substantive and procedural
irregularities. Iowa ex rel. Allee v. Gocha, 555 N.W.2d 683, 686 (Iowa
1996). In this case, ICSRU failed to provide father with any of the
"fundamental elements of due process" mandated by Iowa law before coming to
Vermont. Father was not given notice of the debt or an opportunity to
challenge it in an Iowa court, nor did an Iowa court ratify ICSRU's debt
before the agency sought judgment on it in Vermont. ICSRU's failure to
obtain an Iowa order on the debt in the first instance is fatal to its
ability to recoup the debt in Vermont, and the family court erred by
¶ 13. Iowa law also required ICSRU to obtain a valid Iowa order
on the public assistance debt before it had authority to commence UIFSA
proceedings in Vermont. The family court did not consider the extent of
ICSRU's authority under Iowa law to pursue a Vermont order by treating the
petition as a so-called "direct filing" under § 301(c) of UIFSA. Section
301(c) of UIFSA provides:
An individual petitioner or a support enforcement agency may
commence a proceeding authorized under this title by filing a
petition in an initiating tribunal for forwarding to a
responding tribunal or by filing a petition or a comparable
pleading directly in a tribunal of another state which has or
can obtain personal jurisdiction over the respondent.
15B V.S.A. § 301(c) (emphasis added). We must assume for this analysis
that the family court considered ICSRU as the petitioning "support
enforcement agency" under § 301(c) even though the OCS was the actual
petitioner. Although the plain language of this section suggests that
ICSRU could file its claim in family court without the assistance of OCS, §
252K.102 of the Iowa Code requires ICSRU to obtain a court-ratified child
support order before commencing UIFSA proceedings. See Iowa Code §
252K.102 (permitting ICSRU to initiate UIFSA proceedings as an "initiating
tribunal" but only when "the unit establishes, or modifies an order, upon
ratification by the court"); Iowa Admin. Code § 441-99.41(5), (9).
Moreover, the direct filing option § 301(c) provides does nothing more than
give the family court personal jurisdiction over the out-of-state
petitioner by consent. 15B V.S.A. § 103, cmt.; Comment, Jurisdictional
Issues Under the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act, 16 J. Am. Acad.
Matrimonial L. 243, 254 (1999). The section does not create jurisdiction
where it does not otherwise exist, and § 305(b) of UIFSA still requires the
court's support order to be "otherwise authorized by law." 15B V.S.A. §
305(b). As we have already held, Vermont law does not "otherwise
authorize" the family court to render a judgment on an out-of-state public
assistance debt unless the debt is already embodied in a valid court order.
¶ 14. It appears that ICSRU attempted to circumvent the
requirements of Iowa law by asking OCS to file the petition on its behalf.
The family court should have rejected that attempt because the plain
language of § 301(c) does not permit OCS to file the petition at issue
here. As Vermont's child support enforcement agency pursuant to UIFSA, 15B
V.S.A. § 104, OCS may initiate a § 301(c) proceeding in one of two ways
only: (1) by filing "in an initiating tribunal for forwarding to a
responding tribunal," or (2) by filing "directly in a tribunal of another
state which has or can obtain personal jurisdiction over the respondent."
The petition OCS filed in this case meets neither criterion. The family
court was acting as a "responding tribunal" in this case, not as an
"initiating tribunal," as the court itself acknowledged, and OCS filed its
petition in Vermont rather than in "a tribunal of another state." OCS's
petition was not permitted by § 301(c) for those reasons. No matter how one
views the petition here, the family court did not have jurisdiction to
enter a child support order reflecting the Iowa debt absent an existing
Iowa court order establishing the debt and father's obligation to repay it.
¶ 15. We do not perceive this case as one exposing a statutory
loophole that defeats UIFSA's essential purpose and the Legislature's
intent. Although UIFSA is a uniform law that purports to facilitate
long-distance enforcement of child support, each state has enacted its own
procedures for the establishment of child support orders. If the order is
established according to law in one state, the order can be enforced
through this interstate mechanism. If, on the other hand, the order is not
established according to law, UIFSA enforcement procedures cannot overcome
the defect and expand a court's jurisdiction. Had ICSRU first obtained an
Iowa court order ratifying the public assistance debt as Iowa law requires,
the Vermont family court would have had jurisdiction to enforce the order
against father. See 15B V.S.A. §§ 601-614 (setting forth registration
procedures for out-of-state child support order for enforcement in
Vermont). Because that did not happen before Iowa sought Vermont's
assistance in this case, the family court lacked statutory authority to
enter the order it did here.
¶ 16. Because we reverse the family court's order on grounds that
OCS did not properly invoke the family court's jurisdiction, we do not
reach the parties' other arguments in favor of their respective positions.
Reversed and the judgment vacated.
FOR THE COURT:
FN1. An intermediate appellate court in Virginia reached a different
conclusion in Commonwealth v. Chamberlin, 525 S.E.2d 19, 23 (Va. Ct. App.
2000), a case factually similar to the one before us. In that case, the
Virginia court construed provisions of Virginia law that have no bearing on
our interpretation of the Vermont statutes at issue in this case. 525 S.E.2d at 22-23. Its reasoning is unpersuasive.