An interesting development in Juvenile Courts across the state of Alabama has been the implementation of preliminary hearings called service dockets. These hearings are held with the attorneys of all the cases on the Judge’s docket for the day, and the purpose is to make sure every party in each case has been served notice or that reasonable efforts are being made to provide service to parties. Juvenile Courts are putting this effort into making sure parties are served before moving forward and setting hearings in cases likely because of the events of D.S.W. v. R.D., No. 2200379 (Ala. Civ. App. Feb 26, 2021). This case highlights the necessity of taking careful attention to making sure each party in a case is served.
In November of 2020 D.S.W., the father, appealed to the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals from the Cullman Juvenile Court on its decision to dismiss his “renewed motion to intervene and renewed motion to set aside temporary custody order” without a hearing. The appellate court remanded the matter with instructions to the lower/Juvenile court to consider the father’s motion and hold whatever proceedings are necessary to provide specific factual and legal findings to support a determination.
On January 26, 2018, R.D., the maternal great-grandfather of the child, and S.W., R.D.’s girlfriend, filed a petition in the Juvenile Court which alleged that the child was dependent and in need of care. The petition listed the mother and cited her drug abuse, negligence, and that she had been living with them for the past year and a half; however, there was an “N/A” marked where the petition listed the fathers name. The juvenile court determined that child was in need of care and awarded custody to R.D. and S.W., saying that custody had been awarded “by agreement of the parties.” The court held a final hearing on April 19, 2018, and entered a final judgement on May 8, 2018, awarding legal and physical custody to R.D. and S.W. and supervised visitation to the mother.
In October 2020, the father filed a “motion to intervene and to set aside the custody award.” The Juvenile court denied the motion, stating that no father was listed on the original petition and that no information was given to the court that would prove him to be the father. Consequently, the father renewed his motion, including a DNA test proving his paternity. Additionally, the father alleged that, at the time of the 2018 dependency proceeding, R.D. knew his address and telephone number but intentionally defrauded the court by failing to provide him with notice.
The Juvenile court granted the father’s motion to intervene and ordered his motion for custody to be heard on the next available docket. On November 3, 2020, R.D. filed a motion to dismiss on the grounds that the dependency judgment awarding custody to S.W. and himself was final, and they filed a petition for adoption in the Cullman County Probate Court. Further, R.D. argued that the Cullman County Probate Court now had jurisdiction over the matter. R.D. additionally cited that the father knew where the child had been living for the past few years and had not contacted him over that time. The Juvenile Court dismissed the father’s renewed motion, and the father appealed.
The Appellate Court found that the father’s motion was essentially a motion for modification under what was Rule 13(A)(5), Ala. R. Juv. P. at the time, which, as the court noted, was amended on February 1, 2021, and renumbered as Rule 13(A)(6). This rule provides that if the Juvenile Court errs in failing to provide service to a party, then that party can move the court for a modification of an order or judgment. The Appellate Court found that the father’s assertions that he was not notified about the dependency proceeding and that R.D.’s petition did not identify a father constitute good cause for the father to request the Juvenile Court to modify its judgment. However, because the Juvenile Court’s judgment did not provide any reason for dismissing the father’s motion, the Appellate Court could not determine if the Juvenile Court exceeded its discretion to dismiss the motion and remanded the case to the Juvenile Court to consider the father’s motion and hold an evidentiary hearing, if necessary.
It is imperative that one makes sure to serve all known parties, especially when a party’s address and contact information is known. Failure to serve a party can result in a long, drawn-out case with otherwise unnecessary litigation. The incidence of service dockets is a helpful provision by Juvenile Courts to make sure all parties are served, and should help prevent unnecessary hardship in cases.
Brennan DePace was born and raised as a pastor’s child and has carried with him the strong Biblical values passed on from his father. DePace is the youngest of five children who received a rigorous and thorough home-schooled education. He is now a Junior at Auburn University at Montgomery studying History, with the hopes of attending law school and becoming an attorney. DePace serves as Legal Assistant to the Hon. Samuel J. McLure of The Adoption Law Firm.