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Hall v. Hall

Supreme Court of West Virginia

May 11, 2018

MICHAELIN BROOKE HALL, Plaintiff Below, Petitioner,
v.
LONA SUE HALL, ROBERT EUGENE HALL, LORETTA HALL (aka LORETTA JENKINS), and SAMANTHA HAZELWOOD, Defendants Below, Respondents.

          Submitted: April 3, 2018

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Mercer County Honorable Derek C. Swope, Judge Civil Action No. 16-C-71-DS

          William H. Sanders, III Princeton, West Virginia Attorney for the Petitioner

          Paul R. Cassell Wytheville, Virginia Attorney for the Respondents

         SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

         1. "'A statute should be so read and applied as to make it accord with the spirit, purposes and objects of the general system of law of which it is intended to form a part; it being presumed that the legislators who drafted and passed it were familiar with all existing law, applicable to the subject matter, whether constitutional, statutory or common, and intended the statute to harmonize completely with the same and aid in the effectuation of the general purpose and design thereof, if its terms are consistent therewith.' Syllabus Point 5, State v. Snyder, 64 W.Va. 659, 63 S.E. 385 (1908)." Syllabus point 5, Community Antenna Service, Inc. v. Charter Communications VI, LLC, 227 W.Va. 595, 712 S.E.2d 504 (2011).

         2. "A final order terminating a person's parental rights, as the result of either an involuntary termination or a voluntary relinquishment of parental rights, completely severs the parent-child relationship, and, as a consequence of such order of termination, the law no longer recognizes such person as a 'parent' with regard to the child(ren) involved in the particular termination proceeding." Syllabus point 4, In re Cesar L., 221 W.Va. 249, 654 S.E.2d 373 (2007).

         3. A child may not inherit under W.Va. Code § 42-1-3a(a) (1992) (Repl. Vol. 2014) from a biological parent who dies intestate after his or her parental rights to said child have been either voluntarily relinquished or involuntarily terminated.

         4. "This Court does not sit as a superlegislature, commissioned to pass upon the political, social, economic or scientific merits of statutes pertaining to proper subjects of legislation. It is the duty of the Legislature to consider facts, establish policy, and embody that policy in legislation. It is the duty of this Court to enforce legislation unless it runs afoul of the State or Federal Constitutions." Syllabus point 2, Huffman v. Goals Coal Co., 223 W.Va. 724, 679 S.E.2d 323 (2009).

          OPINION

          Davis, Justice.

         In this appeal, this Court is asked to determine whether the biological child of a deceased parent whose parental rights were terminated prior to his death is a descendant of the parent for purposes of the descent and distribution provisions of the West Virginia Code, W.Va. Code § 42-1-1 et seq., when the parent dies intestate. Based upon our review of the parties' arguments, the appendix record, and the pertinent authorities, and for the reasons explained below, we find that such a child does not meet the statutory definition of a descendant and, therefore, does not qualify to inherit under the statutory provisions pertaining to descent and distribution. Accordingly, we affirm the circuit court's decision in this case.

         I.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         The following facts are not disputed. Petitioner, Michaelin Brooke Hall ("Michaelin"), is the only child born of a marriage between Kathy Hall French and Michael Eugene Hall ("Michael Hall"). At some point during the marriage, the Department of Health and Human Services filed an abuse and neglect petition against Michael Hall alleging that he abused Michaelin. [1]Thereafter, he voluntarily relinquished his parental rights with respect to Michaelin in April 2008. The circuit court acknowledged Michael Hall's voluntary relinquishment of his parental rights and entered an order legally terminating the same. [2] As a further result of the proceedings, Kathy Hall French and Michael Hall divorced in July 2008. Michael Hall never remarried and apparently fathered no other children. He died intestate on April 3, 2011.

         On February 26, 2016, Kathy Hall French, as mother and next friend of Michaelin, filed the instant action in the Circuit Court of Mercer County claiming that Michaelin is the rightful heir to the estate of the decedent, Michael Hall. The defendants named in the complaint are Lona Sue Hall, Robert E. Hall, Loretta Hall (aka Loretta Jenkins), and Samantha Hazelwood (collectively"the Defendants").[3] Robert E. Hall, Loretta Hall, and Samantha Hazelwood each filed, pro se, a handwritten answer to the complaint. On January 5, 2017, Kathy Hall French filed a motion for summary judgment. Thereafter, on January 11, 2017, an amended complaint was filed removing Kathy French Hall as plaintiff and naming Michaelin, who had reached the age of majority, as plaintiff. The Defendants timely filed a joint response to the motion for summary judgment along with their own motion for summary judgment. The circuit court heard arguments on the motions and, by order entered on April 13, 2017, granted summary judgment to the Defendants. This appeal followed.

         II.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The case sub judice is before this Court on appeal from an order granting summary judgment. "A circuit court's entry of summary judgment is reviewed de novo." Syl. pt. 1, Painter v. Peavy, 192 W.Va. 189, 451 S.E.2d 755 (1994). With respect to our review of a summary judgment order, we have explained that, "[i]n reviewing a circuit court's order granting summary judgment this Court, like all reviewing courts, engages in the same type of analysis as the circuit court." Fayette Cty. Nat'l Bank v. Lilly, 199 W.Va. 349, 353 n.8, 484 S.E.2d 232, 236 n.8 (1997), overruled on other grounds by Sostaric v. Marshall, 234 W.Va. 449, 766 S.E.2d 396 (2014). Thus, we are mindful that "[a] motion for summary judgment should be granted only when it is clear that there is no genuine issue of fact to be tried and inquiry concerning the facts is not desirable to clarify the application of the law." Syl. pt. 3, Aetna Cas. & Sur. Co. v. Federal Ins. Co. of New York, 148 W.Va. 160, 133 S.E.2d 770 (1963). Because this case turns on the meaning of the relevant statutes, we finally note that "[interpreting a statute or an administrative rule or regulation presents a purely legal question subject to de novo review." Syl. pt. 1, Appalachian Power Co. v. State Tax Dep't, 195 W.Va. 573, 466 S.E.2d 424 (1995). Guided by these standards, we proceed to our consideration of the issue raised.

         III.

         DISCUSSION

         Michaelin assigns error to the circuit court's award of summary judgment to the Defendants, which was based upon its conclusion that a child may not inherit from a parent who died intestate after his parental rights to said child were legally terminated. Michaelin encourages this Court to rely on the West Virginia Child Welfare Act, found at W.Va. Code § 49-1-101 et seq., along with precedent of this Court that allows a parent's obligation to support a child to continue beyond the termination of parental rights, to reverse the circuit court's ruling on this novel issue.

         Respondents Lona Sue Hall and Robert E. Hall ("the Halls")[4] contend that the circuit court's order was correct insofar as the West Virginia descent and distribution statutes do not permit the child of a parent whose parental rights have been terminated to share in the parent's intestate estate. The Halls recognize that continuing financial support following termination pursuant to the Child Welfare Act is a right belonging to the child and is in the child's best interest. They point out, however, that the laws of intestate succession are designed to meet a different goal, i.e., to distribute real and personal property in accordance with what a decedent would have done in a will. See King v. Riffee, 172 W.Va. 586, 589, 309 S.E.2d 85, 87-88 (1983) ("Our laws concerning intestate succession are designed to effect the orderly distribution of property for decedents who lacked either the foresight or the diligence to make wills. The purpose of these statutes, then, is to provide a distribution of real and personal property that approximates what decedents would have done if they had made a will.").

         Before engaging in our discussion of the relevant statutory provisions, we pause to observe that "[t]he primary object in construing a statute is to ascertain and give effect to the intent of the Legislature." Syl. pt. 1, Smith v. State Workmen's Comp. Comm'r, 159 W.Va. 108, 219 S.E.2d 361 (1975). To this end, "[w]e look first to the statute's language. If the text, given its plain meaning, answers the interpretive question, the language must prevail and further inquiry is foreclosed." Appalachian Power Co., 195 W.Va. at 587, 466 S.E.2d at 438. However, "[a] statute that is ambiguous must be construed before it can be applied." Syl. pt. 1, Farley v. Buckalew, 186 W.Va. 693, 414 S.E.2d 454 (1992).

         Although the parties to this appeal each rely on a distinct statutory scheme to support their respective arguments as to how this matter should be resolved, it is necessary for this Court to consider both relevant statutory schemes in settling this appeal. This is because

"[a] statute should be so read and applied as to make it accord with the spirit, purposes and objects of the general system of law of which it is intended to form a part; it being presumed that the legislators who drafted and passed it were familiar with all existing law, applicable to the subject matter, whether constitutional, statutory or common, and intended the statute to harmonize completely with the same and aid in the effectuation of the general purpose and design thereof, if its terms are consistent therewith." Syllabus Point 5, State v. Snyder, 64 W.Va. 659, 63 S.E. 385 (1908).

Syl. pt. 5, Community Antenna Serv., Inc. v. Charter Commc'ns VI, LLC, 227 W.Va. 595, 712 S.E.2d 504 (2011). Accordingly, we first will consider the Child Welfare Act. We then will examine the relevant statutory provisions related to descent and distribution. Finally, we will endeavor to reconcile the two in a manner that accords with the intent of the Legislature.

         With respect to the termination of parental rights under the Child Welfare Act, this Court has recognized that

[a] final order terminating a person's parental rights, as the result of either an involuntary termination or a voluntary relinquishment of parental rights, completely severs the parent-child relationship, and, as a consequence of such order of termination, the law no longer recognizes such person as a "parent" with regard to the child(ren) involved in the particular termination proceeding.

Syl. pt. 4, In re Cesar L., 221 W.Va. 249, 654 S.E.2d 373 (2007). However, this Court has recognized that, while termination completely severs a parent's rights, certain of the child's rights persist. One such right that has been recognized by this Court is the right to continuing support. As Michaelin points out, this Court has ruled that a child's right to the financial support of his or her biological parents continues beyond the termination of parental rights:

Pursuant to the plain language of W.Va. Code § 49-6-5(a)(6) (1998) (Repl. Vol. 2001) [now W.Va. Code § 49-4-604(b)(6) (2015) (Repl. Vol. 2015)[5], a circuit court may enter a dispositional order in an abuse and neglect case that simultaneously terminates a parent's parental rights while also requiring said parent to continue paying child support for the child(ren) subject thereto.

Syl. pt. 7, In re Stephen Tyler R., 213 W.Va. 725');">213 W.Va. 725, 584 S.E.2d 581 (2003) (emphasis and footnote added).

         At the time of the In re Stephen Tyler R. decision, W.Va. Code § 49-6-5(a)(6) provided, in relevant part, that a circuit court shall "[u]pon a finding that there is no reasonable likelihood that the conditions of neglect or abuse can be substantially corrected in the near future and, when necessary for the welfare of the child, terminate the parental, custodial or guardianship rights and/or responsibilities of the abusing parent . . . ." (Emphasis added). Thereafter, in 2006, the Legislature amended W.Va. Code ยง 49-6-5(a)(6) by replacing "and/or" with simply "and." It is the 2006 version of the statute that ...


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