Office of Child Support ex rel. Lewis v. Lewis

Annotate this Case
Office of Child Support ex rel. Lewis v. Lewis  (2003-354); 178 Vt. 204;
882 A.2d 1128

2004 VT 127

[Filed 23-Dec-2004]

  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

                                No. 2003-354

  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
       to support.

  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
  concluding otherwise. 

       ¶  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.


  Associate Justice


  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.