State agencies often have broad authority, but persons adversely affected by agency decisions may seek go to the courts, who then are free to decide the issue in accord with their own judgment of the law.
In Ex parte Alabama Medicaid Agency, No. 2200374, released on April 30, 2021, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals considered the Alabama Medicaid Agency’s arguments that a person adversely affected by their decision to deny benefits should not be permitted to come to court for relief. The Agency asked the appellate court to order the circuit court to dismiss the case after the circuit court refused. The Appeals court denied the Agency’s request and, in doing so, noted some very interesting points of law that could have far-reaching consequences for parties to adoptions in probate court.
J.C.T. was diagnosed with autism at 3 years old.1 When J.C.T. was 22 years old, he applied for enrollment in the ID waiver program, administered for the Alabama Medicaid Agency (Agency) by the Alabama Department of Mental Health (Department).2 The ID waiver program provides health, social, and related support to individuals with intellectual disabilities.3
The Department concluded that J.C.T. did not qualify because he had once tested above the maximum IQ over a decade earlier, and because the Department did not consider autism to be an intellectual disability.4 After an administrative-law judge held that the Department properly denied J.C.T.’s application, J.C.T.’s counsel and his Medicaid representative appealed to the circuit court.5 The Agency moved to dismiss, arguing that the circuit court lacked jurisdiction because J.C.T. did not have capacity to file a lawsuit.6
J.C.T. argued in response that the circuit court is “more than capable of making its own decision based on the available facts, evidence, and controlling law.” He cited the Alabama Supreme Court case Ex parte Atchley, which states that the Court “presume[s] that trial court judges know and follow the law.”8, 9
The circuit court denied the Agency’s motions to dismiss and to strike.11 Afterwards, the Agency filed a petition for a writ of mandamus, requesting that the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals direct the circuit court to dismiss the case.12
The Court of Civil Appeals denied the Agency’s request and sent the case back to the trial court.13
The appeals court rejected the notion that the trial court did not have power to decide whether J.C.T. had capacity to sue. It said: “The Agency’s assertion that J.C.T. lacks the capacity to sue, however, did not deprive the circuit court of subject-matter jurisdiction over J.C.T.’s petition for judicial review.” The appeals court also rejected a hyper-technical reading of the procedural requirements. And it found that J.C.T. was entitled to review by the trial court under administrative review procedures.
Moreover, in a concurring opinion in the Medicaid Agency case, two judges noted the egregious nature of the Agency’s additional argument that J.C.T. should lose his request for benefits on the merits because he filed suit in his own name—and thus impliedly asserted that he had capacity to sue. These judges seemed shocked at the Agency’s attempts to shut down J.C.T.’s rights in a “catch-22” that would deprive him of judicial review of its decisions by an impartial judge.
Boiling down the issue: Why is all this abstract legal reasoning important for adoption cases? Recently, some juvenile courts have second-guessed a probate court’s custody order or final decree of adoption because the juvenile court has a case before it relating to the adoptee. However, under these principles of the Atchley and Wylie cases described in Medicaid Agency, probate courts are entitled to the assumption that they know and follow the law. The principle that courts know and follow the law includes probate courts. Probate courts are “presumed to know and follow the law even if they do not expressly note every statute or other authority that informs their understanding.”10 Thus, probate decisions should not be second-guessed, even where the juvenile court has some involvement with the child.
Similarly, the appeals court’s ruling that, upon asserted defects in procedure or with a party’s supposed standing to sue, the trial court does not immediately lose jurisdiction over the case is important. Applying this reasoningin probate courts, a party petitioning for an adoption with whom DHR disagrees on some procedural point, would not lose the right to appear and argue before the probate court. Indeed, the probate court would not lose jurisdiction over the merits of the adoption petition, even in favor of the juvenile court.
The concurrence, too, has important implications for adoption cases in probate court where the state agency, DHR, is involved. These Civil Appeals Judges may be unlikely to side with an agency’s deliberate efforts to foreclose an adoption petitioner’s rights through procedural maneuvering.
The bottom line, legally:
Probate courts have exclusive, original jurisdiction over adoption.14 Only the probate court gets to choose whether to transfer an adoption proceeding to another court unless a required consent is missing.15 A probate court’s jurisdiction does not conflict with a juvenile court’s jurisdiction.16 Further, juvenile courts cannot interfere with a probate court’s custody order.17 Finally, a final decree of adoption cannot be attacked after one year from the entry of the decree and after all appeals.18 Based on these legal principles derived from Alabama statutes and case law, juvenile courts have no authority to question custody orders and adoption decrees from probate courts, and probate courts do not have to explain their authority or reasoning to the juvenile court.
Gretchen Nicole Hedke is going into her third year at The University of Alabama School of Law in Tuscaloosa, AL. Raised by a working mother and stay-at-home father, Gretchen strives to combat legal obstacles that fathers face in protecting their children and the law’s valuation of fathers solely according to their financial contributions to the family. Instead, Gretchen is keenly aware of how necessary and impactful a faithful, dedicated, nurturing father is to the stability of family life.
- Ex parte Alabama Medicaid Agency, No. 2200374, 2021 WL 1706287, at *1 (Ala. Civ. App. Apr. 30, 2021).
- at *3.
- at *4.
- 936 So. 2d 513, 516 (Ala. 2006).
- Ex parte Alabama Medicaid Agency, 2021 WL 1706287, at *4.
- Wylie v. Est. of Cockrell, 261 So. 3d 308, 320 (Ala. 2017).
- Ex parte Alabama Medicaid Agency, 2021 WL 1706287, at *4.
- at *5.
- at *12.
- Ex parte A.M.P., 997 So. 2d 1008, 1016 (Ala. 2008); Ala. Code § 26–10A–3 (2021).
- Code § 12–12–35 (2021); Ala. Code § 26–10A–21 (2021); Ala. Code § 26–10A–24(e) (2021); Ala. Code § 26–10A–3 (2021).
- C.S. v. J.N.F., 941 So.2d 973, 978 (Ala. Civ. App. 2005).
- C.M. v. W.L.K., 208 So. 3d 39, 44, 45 (Ala. Civ. App. 2016).
- Code § 26-10A-25(d) (2021).