Tuesday, January 27, 2009

J.C.W. ex rel. Webb v. Wyciskalla[1]

Opinion handed down Jan. 27, 2009
Link to Mo. Sup. Ct. Opinion

The Supreme Court of Missouri held that the statutory provision requiring a parent to post a bond prior to filing a petition to modify a child custody order is not jurisdictional in nature.[1] This holding abrogates a prior case, Miller v. Miller,[2] which determined that the statutory condition is a matter of personal jurisdiction.

I. Facts and Holding[3]

Jason Wyciskalla is the natural father of J.C.W. and T.D.W. In May 2003, the mother of the children, Kelly Webb, filed a paternity action against Wyciskalla. The court awarded sole physical and legal custody of J.C.W. and T.D.W. to Webb, as well as monthly child support payments of $1,092 and retroactive child support payments totaling $10,928.75. Beginning in July 2005, Webb sent Wyciskalla the first of four notices of her intent to relocate to California. Wyciskalla responded to each one with a motion to prevent relocation. In his last motion to prevent relocation, Wyciskalla also filed a request to reduce his child support order due to his inability to pay the support, along with a request for sole legal and joint physical custody because of his belief that Webb was attempting to isolate him from his children.

The trial court heard Wyciskalla’s motions, vested joint legal and physical custody in both parents, denied Webb’s relocation requests, and reduced Wyciskalla’s monthly support order to $0 (due to past overpayment).[4] Webb appealed the order, claiming that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to hear the request for modification due to Wyciskalla’s failure to pay a statutorily required bond, equal to the amount of support past due, before he filed such request for modification.[5]

The Supreme Court of Missouri discussed at length the concepts of subject matter jurisdiction and personal jurisdiction before holding that the statute mandating that “a person filing a petition for modification of a child custody decree owes past due child support . . . in an amount in excess of ten thousand dollars, such person shall post a bond . . . before the filing of the petition,”[6] is not jurisdictional in nature.[7] The Court, however, held that, as a matter of due process, the trial court was required to hold a hearing as to the amount of arrearages to determine if the amount exceeded the $10,000 threshold.[8] Wyciskalla also argued on appeal that the statutory bond requirement was unconstitutional. The Court noted that this constitutional issue was not ripe for judicial review but that the trial court may need to address the issue on remand if it determines that Wyciskalla owes more than $10,000 in arrearages.[9]

II. Legal Background

Mo. Rev. Stat. § 452.455, governs the procedure for the filing of a petition for modification of child custody decrees. The provision at issue in this case conditions the filing of such petition upon the payment of a bond for child support arrearages.[10] A prior decision made by the Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District in Miller v. Miller held that this provision is a condition precedent. “In other words, before the trial court can take up and consider a qualifying petition or motion for modification, the bond required by Section 452.455.4 must be filed. . . . Hence, . . . it would lack personal jurisdiction over the non-movant to proceed on the motion.”[11]

The Supreme Court of Missouri, however, rejected the idea that the statute pertains to personal jurisdiction, thus abrogating Miller v. Miller’s description of the condition in the statute. The Court refused to characterize the statute as being related to jurisdiction of any sort, either to subject matter jurisdiction or to the concept of “jurisdictional competence.”[12] Instead, the Court described the condition in the statute as being the type that “merely set[s] statutory limits on remedies or elements of claims for relief that courts may grant,”[13] but the condition remains subject to constitutional limitations.[14] Regarding the idea of “jurisdictional competence,” the Court further elaborated that the concept does not and should not exist, as there is no constitutional support for it, and parties should not rely upon the concept while making a lack of jurisdiction argument.[15]

III. Commentary

The decision of J.C.W. ex rel. Webb v. Wyciskalla aids in clarifying statutes that place a condition on being heard in a Missouri court, although the decision avoids the constitutional issue of whether the statutes violate due process. The holding delineates the legal foundations of personal and subject matter jurisdiction in detail, as well as discredits the concept of “jurisdictional competence,” facilitating jurisdictional arguments. In the context of child support and custody decree modifications, the Court’s holding mandates that a court provide a hearing on calculating child custody arrearages when determining the amount of a bond, or whether one is necessary at all, rather than relying solely on the determination of the division of child support. The Court rationalized the need for a hearing because the statute states that the amount of child support owed may be “reasonable legal fees of the custodial parent,”[16] an amount, which the division of child support, has no authority to calculate.[17] Thus, the amount of arrearages, or the reasonable amount of legal fees of the custodial parent, is a fact subject to judicial review.

- Meghan E. Lewis

[1] No. SC 89404 (Mo. 2009) (en banc). The West reporter citation is J.C.W. ex rel. Webb v. Wyciskalla, 275 S.W.3d 249 (Mo. 2009) (en banc).  The statute provision in question applies in cases of a parent being more than $10,000 in arrears in child support payments. Mo. Rev. Stat. § 452.455(4) (2000).
[2] 210 S.W.3d 439, 444 (Mo. Ct. App. 2007).
[3] Id. at *3-*4.
[4] The court ordered that neither party was to pay child support to the other, and cancelled Wyciskalla’s child support debt entirely.
[5] Id. at *4. See also Substitute Opening Brief of Appellant, at *29-*40, J.C.W. ex rel. Webb v. Wyciskalla, No. SC 89404 (Mo. 2008); Mo. Rev. Stat. § 452.455(4) (2000).
[6] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 452.455(4) (2000).
[7] Wyciskalla, 2009 WL 186140, at *1.
[8] Id. at *5.
[9] Id. at *6.
[10] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 452.455(4).
[11] Miller v. Miller, 210 S.W.3d 439, 444 (Mo. Ct. App. 2007).
[12] Wyciskalla, 2009 WL 186140, at *1.
[13] Id. at *3.
[14] See, e.g., Mo. Const. art. I, § 14.
[15] Wyciskalla, 2009 WL 186140, at *2.
[16] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 452.455(4).
[17] Wyciskalla, 2009 WL 186140, at *5.