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Garland v. Ruhl

Supreme Court of Missouri, En Banc

February 3, 2015

MEAGAN GARLAND, Appellant,
v.
JEFFREY RUHL, Respondent, STATE OF MISSOURI, DEPARTMENT OF SOCIAL SERVICES, FAMILY SUPPORT DIVISION, Respondent

Page 443

APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF ST. CHARLES COUNTY. The Honorable John P. Banas, Judge.

Garland was represented by Thomas J. Henderson of Anderson Henderson LLC in St. Louis.

The state was represented by Solicitor General James R. Layton and Deborah J. Weider-Hatfield of the attorney general's office in Jefferson City.

Paul C. Wilson, Judge. Russell, C.J., Breckenridge, Fischer, Stith, and Draper, JJ., concur; Teitelman, J., dissents in separate opinion filed.

OPINION

Paul C. Wilson, Judge.

Page 444

The Family Support Division (" FSD" ) entered an administrative child support order in an action between Meagan Garland (" Mother" ) and Jeffrey Ruhl (" Father" ). Mother sought judicial review of that order and, before that matter was decided, she and Father settled on terms more favorable for Mother than the FSD order. After the trial court entered judgment on the basis of the settlement terms, it dismissed Mother's petition for judicial review as moot. Mother then filed an application to have FSD pay her attorney fees under section 536.087.[1] The trial court dismissed her application, and this Court affirms.

Background

Before evaluating Mother's claim for attorney fees under section 536.087, it is necessary to review Missouri's statutory scheme for child support enforcement and the role FSD plays in that process. The obligation to provide for one's children comes not from statute but from common law. State v. Reed, 181 S.W.3d 567, 570 (Mo. banc 2006) (" support of one's children involves the discharge of one of the most basic responsibilities that a person assumes as a member of society" ). For this reason, " [e]very parent has a legal obligation to provide for his or her children regardless of the existence of a child support order." Id. Each parent has a right to have the other parent's support obligation determined in a civil action and to have that obligation entered as a judgment against the parent owing support.

In some cases, parental support is not provided (or not adequate) and the state provides " public assistance" (as defined by section 454.460(12)) to help support the child. Any parent who is absent from the home at the time the state provides this must repay the state the amount of that assistance. § 454.465.1. This is called that parent's " state debt." Id. If a parent with a state debt already has been ordered to pay support for the child, the state is entitled to receive those support payments until the state debt is paid. § 454.465.1(1).[2] If there is no existing support order, FSD may issue a " notice and finding of financial responsibility" (" NFFR" ) pursuant to section 454.470. As its name suggests, the NFFR serves only as notice of a proposed order to establish (among other things) the amount of future support the parent must pay as well as the amount of the state debt already accrued and the payment to be made toward that debt. § 454.470.1. If either parent raises a timely objection that requires evidence to resolve, " a hearing shall be held in the manner provided by section 454.475. If no timely written response and request for hearing is received by the appropriate division office, the director may enter an order in accordance with the [NFFR.]" § 454.470.4.

This process of allowing the state to recover assistance payments from absent parents was enacted in response to, and in

Page 445

compliance with, federal legislation tying the existence of such procedures to continued funding for various federal programs. See 42 U.S.C. § § 651-669b (2012). See also Blessing v. Freestone, 520 U.S. 329, 345, 117 S.Ct. 1353, 137 L.Ed.2d 569 (1997) (" Title IV-D generally requires each participating State to establish a separate child support enforcement unit 'which meets such staffing and organizational requirements as the Secretary may by regulation prescribe.'" ) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 654(3)). One of the federal requirements for state child support enforcement schemes is that the state must not only provide enforcement services for children receiving state assistance, but it must also provide the same level of services to " any other child, if an individual applies for such services with respect to the child." 42 U.S.C. § 654(4)(A)(ii) (emphasis added).

Missouri complies with this requirement through section 454.425, which provides that FSD " shall render child support services authorized pursuant to this chapter to persons who are not recipients of public assistance as well as to such recipients." Accordingly, FSD is authorized " [t]o provide services relating to ... the establishment, modification and enforcement of child support obligations" when the absent parent owes a state debt. § 454.400.2(14). But FSD also is authorized -- indeed, required -- to provide these same services to any custodian requesting such services even though there is no state debt and no part of the support payments will go to the state. § 454.425.

Father never owed a state debt for the child in this case because neither Mother nor the child ever applied for or received " public assistance." As a result, not only did FSD not initiate this agency proceeding on its own accord pursuant to section 454.470, it could not have done so. FSD had no authority to do anything until Mother applied for child support enforcement services pursuant to section 454.425. Then, FSD acted as the statutes required it to act. After collecting the relevant financial information from both parents, FSD issued a NFFR stating the proposed rights and obligations of the parties. The NFFR properly identified Mother as the " Petitioner" and Father as the " Respondent." Not only was FSD not a party, but it was the adjudicator.

Under the proposed terms in the NFFR, Father would be obligated to enroll the child in his employer's health insurance plan and pay Mother $558 per month for the child's support. Father disagreed with the amount of the proposed support obligation and, pursuant to section 454.470, requested a hearing. Before that hearing, Father offered to pay Mother $500 per month in support. Mother refused that offer, however, and the administrative hearing was held before the FSD hearing officer. Based on the evidence submitted at this hearing, FSD entered an order requiring Father to enroll the child in his employer's health insurance plan and pay Mother $357 per month in child support. Mother disagreed with the calculation of Father's monthly support obligation and filed a petition for judicial review of the FSD support order.

Before Mother's petition for judicial review could be heard, Mother and Father reached an agreement. They stipulated that Father's support obligation would be $500 per month, that Mother would be obligated to enroll the child in health insurance through her employer, and that both parties would pay their own court costs and attorney fees. Mother and Father also agreed to have the trial court enter a support ...


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