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Ramirez v. Missouri Department of Social Services

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District, Second Division

July 26, 2016

ISRAEL IVAN RAMIREZ, Respondent,
v.
MISSOURI DEPARTMENT OF SOCIAL SERVICES, CHILDREN'S DIVISION, Appellant.

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cole County, Missouri The Honorable Jon E. Beetem, Judge.

          Before Karen King Mitchell, Presiding Judge, Cynthia L. Martin, Judge and Gary D. Witt, Judge.

          Cynthia L. Martin, Judge.

         The Missouri Department of Social Services, Children's Division ("Division") appeals from a trial court judgment which held that Israel Ivan Ramirez ("Ramirez") did not sexually abuse a student, and which declared that the Division's definition of "sexual maltreatment" in its Child Welfare Manual is an invalid rule, authorizing Ramirez to prosecute a claim for attorney's fees in accordance with section 536.050. We reverse that portion of the judgment from which the Division has taken this appeal.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         Prior to June 2014, Ramirez was employed as an art teacher in the Pettis County R-12 School District. The Division received a report on April 18, 2014, claiming that Ramirez sexually abused a student. On May 20, 2014, the Division's investigator found that Ramirez had sexually abused the student. On June 4, 2014, Ramirez filed a request for administrative review. On June 19, 2014, the Division completed its administrative review of the investigation and determined that Ramirez sexually abused a student. The June 19, 2014 letter advised Ramirez that his matter had been referred to the Child Abuse Neglect Review Board ("CANRB") for further review.

         Pursuant to section 536.100(2), [1] Ramirez waived independent review by CANRB, and instead filed a petition in the Circuit Court of Cole County for de novo judicial review of the Division's decision.[2] In his petition filed June 30, 2014, Ramirez alleged that he did not engage in sexual abuse, and that the Division used an unlawful legal standard for determining sexual abuse by relying on the definition of "sexual maltreatment"[3] in its Child Welfare Manual. Ramirez sought removal of his name from the Central Registry, [4] and an award of attorneys' fees.

         In a second amended petition filed August 4, 2015, [5] Ramirez essentially repeated in Count I the allegations from his original petition, though he added reference to Birdsong v. Children's Division, Missouri Department of Social Services, 461 S.W.3d 454, 458 n. 6, 462 n. 14 (Mo. App. W.D. 2015), where we observed that the definition of "sexual maltreatment" in the Child Welfare Manual is not found in any statute or promulgated rule or regulation, and where we counseled against future reliance on the definition, absent its adoption in a statute or duly promulgated regulation. Count I of the second amended petition specifically alleged that the Division unlawfully relied on the Child Welfare Manual definition of "sexual maltreatment" to conclude that he had engaged in sexual abuse.

         The second amended petition added Count II requesting a "declaratory judgment pursuant to section 536.050.1" that the definition of "sexual maltreatment" in the Division's Child Welfare Manual is an invalid rule, and seeking a commensurate award of attorney's fees.[6]

         The Division filed an answer to the second amended petition, and denied that it relied on the definition of "sexual maltreatment" from the Child Welfare Manual to find that Ramirez engaged in sexual abuse of a student. The Division's answer admitted, however, that the Child Welfare Manual, (including the definition of "sexual maltreatment"), had not been promulgated as a rule.

         Following trial to the court on August 24, 2015, the trial court entered its findings of fact, conclusions of law and judgment on December 4, 2015 ("Judgment"). The Judgment made the following factual findings pertinent to this appeal: (i) that Ramirez did not exercise care, custody, or control over the student, and had no direct supervisory responsibility for the student; (ii) there was no credible evidence that Ramirez intentionally began an inappropriate Snapchat[7] conversation with a student, or that Ramirez was initially aware that the Snapchat account he was communicating with was a student;[8] (iii) no credible evidence was presented of any adverse impact to the student as a result of the Snapchat conversation; (iv) that the Child Welfare Manual is an internal policy manual utilized by the Division; (v) that the Division based its finding that Ramirez sexually abused a student on the definition of "sexual maltreatment" in the Child Welfare Manual; (vi) that the definition of "sexual maltreatment" in the Child Welfare Manual is a statement of general applicability with prospective application; and (vii) that the Division did not promulgate its definition of "sexual maltreatment" as a rule.

         The Judgment drew the following legal conclusions pertinent to this appeal: (i) that based on the statutory definition of "abuse" set forth at section 210.110(1), [9] Ramirez did not engage in sexual abuse; and (ii) that the Division's actions against Ramirez were unlawfully based upon an unpromulgated rule.

         The Judgment thus ordered: (i) that Ramirez be removed from the Central Registry and that any other records relating to the incident be coded as unsubstantiated; (ii) that the Division's definition of "sexual maltreatment" in the Child Welfare Manual "is an invalid rule and may not be relied upon by [the Division] in making determinations of sexual abuse;" (iii) that Ramirez's claim for attorney's fees for prevailing on Count I of the second amended petition were denied because the Division's action was not a contested case; and (iv) that Ramirez's[10] claim for attorney's fees for prevailing on Count II could be prosecuted "in accordance with the procedures of section 536.050."[11]

         The Division filed this timely appeal.

         Analysis

         The issue on appeal is very narrow. The Division has not appealed any of the trial court's factual findings. Moreover, the Division has not appealed most of the trial court's legal conclusions. The Division leaves unchallenged the findings and conclusions: that Ramirez did not sexually abuse a student based on the statutory definition of "abuse" set forth at section 210.110(1);[12] that the definition of "sexual maltreatment" in the Child Welfare Manual is a statement of general applicability that should have been promulgated as a rule; that the Division unlawfully relied on an unpromulgated rule defining "sexual maltreatment" to find that Ramirez sexually abused a student; that judgment should be entered in favor of Ramirez on Count I of the second amended petition; and that Ramirez's name should be removed from the Central Registry.[13]

         The only challenge to the Judgment raised by the Division on appeal is whether the trial court had the authority to enter a declaratory judgment in Ramirez's favor on Count II of the second amended petition declaring the definition of "sexual maltreatment" in the Child Welfare Manual to be an invalid rule. The Division's first point on appeal argues that the trial court had no authority to enter a declaratory judgment pursuant to section 536.050 because that statute applies only to promulgated rules. The Division's second point on appeal argues that the trial court had no authority to enter a declaratory judgment pursuant to section 527.010 because Ramirez had an adequate remedy at law.

         To be clear, the Division's points on appeal do not challenge the findings the trial court necessarily relied on to enter its declaratory judgment. In other words, the Division does not contend that it was error to find that the Division relied on the definition of "sexual maltreatment" in the Child Welfare Manual when it determined that Ramirez sexually abused a student, or to find that said definition should have been promulgated as a rule. Though these uncontested findings were essential to the trial court's entry of a declaratory judgment on Count II of the second amended petition, the findings were also responsive to allegations made in Count I of the second amended petition, and thus also serve to support the unchallenged judgment entered in favor of Ramirez on Count I.

         The only issue before us is whether the trial court had the statutory authority to rely on the aforesaid uncontested findings to award Ramirez declaratory relief, and thus to award Ramirez attorney's fees. We analyze the Division's points on appeal accordingly.

         Standard ...


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