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Stevens v. Cato

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Southern District, First Division

October 18, 2017

CRYSTAL D. STEVENS, Respondent-Respondent,
v.
SALLY CATO and GALEN CATO, Petitioners-Appellants.

         APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF STODDARD COUNTY Honorable Stephen R. Mitchell

          DON E. BURRELL, J.

         Sally Cato ("Ms. Cato"), the aunt of minor child C.S. ("Child"), filed a petition in the Circuit Court of Stoddard County asking that a child order of protection order be entered against her sister, Child's mother, Crystal Stevens ("Respondent"). Ms. Cato, along with her husband, Galen Cato (collectively, "Appellants"), also filed a petition in the probate division seeking to be appointed as Child's guardians.[1] When an exparte child order of protection granting Ms. Cato temporary custody of Child was entered, Respondent filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus that demanded Child's return.

          These three, related cases were consolidated for a bench trial that took place in November, 2016. Prior to receiving testimony, the trial court briefly discussed with counsel what might be the applicable burden of proof. In doing so, the trial court cited an appellate opinion that held in a guardianship case that, absent clear and convincing evidence that a parent is unwilling, unfit, or unable to care for a child, the best interests of the child need not be determined. Appellants claimed that the lower standard of preponderance of the evidence was the applicable burden of proof[2]

         The trial court asked Appellants to present their cases first, and they complied without objection. Appellants called four witnesses, all of whom were cross-examined. At the close of Appellants' evidence, Respondent moved for judgments in her favor on the ground that Appellants had not satisfied their burden of proof. See Rule 73.01(b).[3]

         After first receiving sworn testimony and a recommendation from Child's guardian ad litem, the trial court granted that request by finding that Appellants had failed to prove their petitions for guardianship and a full order of child protection, and it vacated the exparte child order of protection that had granted Ms. Cato temporary custody of Child. In so ruling, the trial court explained that under either a preponderance of the evidence standard or a clear and convincing evidence standard, "there has been a lack of credible evidence to show that the natural mother [(Respondent)] is unable, unwilling or unfit to act as mother at the present time." In its written judgment granting Respondent's habeas corpus petition, the trial court stated that no legal cause had been shown for Child's restraint (resulting from the temporary custody awarded Ms. Cato in the now-vacated exparte child order of protection), and it ordered Ms. Cato to release Child into Respondent's custody.

         Appellants challenge all of the trial court's separate judgments in this consolidated appeal.[4] Because each of Appellants' four points violate the requirements of Rule 84.04, [5] and Appellants have failed to demonstrate reversible error, we affirm the judgments of the trial court.

         Analysis

         We begin by setting forth each of Appellants' deficient points in their entirety:

Point 1. The trial [c]ourt erred in ruling against [Appellants] because the trial court applied a clear and convincing evidentiary standard when the proper standard was a preponderance of the evidence and such was prejudicial to [Appellants].
Point 2. The trial court erred in sustaining [Respondent]'s motion for judgment in all three cases at the end of [Appellants'] case, because [Appellants'] evidence provided upon a preponderance of the evidence both a prima facie case and a submissible case that [Respondent] was unfit or unable to care for [Child] such that a guardianship was necessary and [that the] order of protection should have been permanent and that the writ of habeas corpus should have been denied.
Point 3. The trial court erred in sustaining [Respondent]'s motion for judgment in all three cases at the end of [Appellants'] case, because the decision was against the weight of the evidence in that giving all benefit of doubt to the trial court the evidence still showed that Respondent was unfit or unable to care for [Child] such that a guardianship was necessary and [that the] order of protection should have been permanent and that the writ of habeas corpus should have been denied.
Point 4. The judge erred in finding for [Respondent] in her petition for habeas corpus because it appears that the judge based his decision on the Guardianship standard of fitness rather than the habeas corpus standard of best interests of [Child] and that as such the case must be reversed and remanded in order that the correct standard maybe [sic] applied.

         Rule 84.04 requires that a point relied on: (1) identify the ruling or action of the trial court that is being challenged on appeal; (2) state the legal reason or reasons for the claim of reversible error; and (3) explain in summary fashion why, in the context of the case, the legal reason or reasons support the claim of reversible ...


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