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Medrano v. Zapata

Court of Appeals of Texas, Third District, Austin

December 31, 2013

Cassandra Donetta Medrano, Appellant
v.
Lydia Serna Zapata, Appellee

FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF TRAVIS COUNTY, 126TH JUDICIAL DISTRICT NO. D-1-AG-98-004762, HONORABLE ORLINDA NARANJO, JUDGE PRESIDING

Before Chief Justice Jones, Justices Pemberton and Field

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Bob Pemberton, Justice

This is an appeal from a final order naming a teenage boy's mother and paternal grandmother as his joint managing conservators and giving the grandmother the exclusive right to determine his primary residence. We must address two questions, both of which implicate Texas courts' subject-matter jurisdiction to resolve the underlying dispute: (1) whether this appeal was rendered moot when the teen was emancipated earlier this year; and (2) whether the grandmother had standing to seek managing conservatorship. We conclude that this appeal remains live and justiciable because it implicates not only rights and duties of the parties that terminated upon the teen's emancipation, but also monetary relief awarded in the order. As for standing, the constraints imposed by our standard of review compel us to affirm the district's court's order.

BACKGROUND

Appellant, Cassandra Donetta Manor Medrano, was formerly married to Paul Medrano, and Paul Medrano is the son of the appellee, Lydia Serna Zapata. There were two children of Cassandra and Paul's marriage, J.M. and C.M., fraternal twins who were born in 1995.[1] The divorce decree that ended the marriage, signed in 1999, named Cassandra as sole managing conservator with the exclusive right to establish the twins' primary residence. Paul was named possessory conservator, with the right to visitation during one weekend per month, beginning Friday evening and concluding Sunday afternoon, and at such other times as he and Cassandra might agree.

The provisions of the divorce decree governing conservatorship and possession remained unchanged as J.M. and C.M. grew from young children into teenagers. During these years, it is undisputed that Paul rarely exercised his visitation rights and had no significant fatherly role beyond paying court-ordered child support. In contrast, Cassandra, by all accounts, was a highly engaged parent who, despite facing the challenges of single motherhood, placed the twins on a high trajectory of academic achievement; extensive involvement in church, youth sports, and other enriching activities (with Cassandra faithfully attending their games, concerts, etc.); and bright prospects for college and beyond. Meanwhile, she worked full-time to support the family (including, in addition to providing a house in which they could live, setting aside college funds for both boys), [2] progressed toward an associate's degree at Austin Community College, and even ran several marathons.

Still further challenges for Cassandra came in May 2009, as J.M. and C.M. were finishing middle school, when she gave birth again-remarkably, to a second set of twin boys-the product of a relationship that ultimately did not lead to marriage. Further compounding the stresses and demands of parenting an infant, let alone twin infants, the new babies arrived prematurely and remained hospitalized for a month or more following their birth.[3] Nevertheless, at least in the eyes of outside observers who would later testify in her behalf, Cassandra seemed to be making it all work somehow, and phrases like "the best mom I've ever seen" were used to describe her.

But beneath the family's positive exterior visage, Cassandra's relationship with one of the older twins, J.M., was growing increasingly frayed and volatile. As early as J.M.'s tenth or eleventh year, according to Cassandra, he had started becoming increasingly distant and isolated from the rest of his family, a development she perceived to stem from the absence of a father figure in his life. By June 2009, not long after the new twins had arrived, Cassandra (who had been seeing a therapist or counselor herself) had seen fit to arrange a session of family counseling to address J.M.'s behavior. The rift widened further after J.M. and C.M. entered Austin's Eastside Memorial High School that fall. A recurrent source of conflict was J.M.'s involvement in the school's robotics program, which required an extensive time commitment after school and even on Saturdays. Although initially supportive of J.M.'s participation, Cassandra came to perceive that the teen was defying her in staying at school later than she had planned or anticipated, which disrupted and complicated the afternoon's transportation and child-care logistics she had arranged, and that he was also misleading her by claiming that he was at school participating in robotics when in fact he was hanging out with friends or-in further disobedience of his mother-a girlfriend, an extent of relationship that Cassandra had forbidden at J.M.'s age of fourteen. Adding further concern and aggravation were repeated instances when J.M. had made his way homeward in the evening via a Cap Metro bus, a means of transportation that Cassandra had strictly prohibited.

Such facts are consistent with the sorts of struggles for identity and independence that are familiar to parents of teenagers, not to mention indicative of the love of a parent who admirably cares about her children's performance at school and what occupies their time after dismissal (unfortunately a rarity, it often seems, in the youth-related cases that come before this Court). However, there was additional evidence, albeit hotly disputed, that the conflict between J.M. and Cassandra had acquired a character and intensity that was more troubling. In February 2010, J.M. made an outcry at school claiming that Cassandra had punched him in the face, giving him a nosebleed. He would further allege that his mother had been similarly inflicting punches, slapping, hair-pulling, scratching, and other physical violence on him for several years, and that she had become more prone to do so, and to do so suddenly and explosively ("zero to a hundred, " as he would put it), following the birth of the younger twins. Cassandra denies that this alleged violence ever occurred, and claims that she had ceased even to spank the older twins by this age, opting instead to enforce discipline by the withholding of favored activities. Subsequently, however, in April of that year, Cassandra acknowledges that she and J.M. had a physical altercation in which she bit into his arms or wrists, leaving wounds visible several days later, although she insists that she acted in self-defense.

For assistance with the task-juggling that her many roles had required of her, especially after the new twins were born, Cassandra had to some extent enlisted the help of extended family who lived around Austin, and this had included not only her own mother but also Lydia and Lydia's current husband (and step-father to Paul), Arthur Zapata, to whom Lydia had been married since the early 1990s. Despite the history between Cassandra and Paul, Lydia had pitched in to help with the care and transportation of J.M. and C.M. (who were, after all, her grandsons) and the occasional purchase of shoes and the like for them, in the manner that grandparents often do. Similarly, at least since her grandsons' middle-school years, Lydia and Arthur had with some regularity kept them overnight during the monthly visitation period to which the divorce decree had entitled Paul, [4] as well as on various other occasions, such as when Cassandra went on an out-of-town trip. As the conflict between Cassandra and J.M. had escalated, the teenager had sought refuge, as he saw it, with Lydia, and Lydia had likewise begun interceding into the disputes (or, as Cassandra saw it, meddling and undermining) on his behalf.[5] In the aftermath of the April incident, J.M. called Lydia, crying, claiming that Cassandra had threatened to have him sent to a juvenile detention facility or a mental institution, and seeking her help. Lydia and Arthur persuaded Cassandra to allow the teen to stay in their home, affording the combatants a "cooling-off" period.

J.M. would remain in Lydia and Arthur's home until Sunday, May 9, 2010-Mother's Day. At Cassandra's insistence, J.M. spent the day with her and her other children. At the conclusion of what he and Lydia purportedly had anticipated would be only a day-long outing, Cassandra made J.M. return to her home. Professing fear of physical abuse if he returned, J.M. called Lydia and also the police. The police ultimately left him in Cassandra's possession, inasmuch as she had legal custody.

A few days afterward, May 12, 2010, Lydia filed a suit to modify Cassandra's divorce decree, seeking, among other relief, to be appointed J.M.'s joint managing conservator with Cassandra and be given the exclusive right to determine J.M.'s primary residence. She would later amend her petition to seek sole managing conservatorship. On the same day Lydia filed her original petition, the district court granted a temporary restraining order that prohibited Cassandra from, among other things, removing J.M. from Lydia's custody or possession. Thereafter, the parties' respective rights regarding J.M. were governed by a succession of temporary orders, the details of which we need not belabor here except to note that they entitled Lydia to maintain possession and/or temporary joint or sole managing conservatorship of J.M. through time of trial.

The case eventually proceeded to trial on the merits before a jury in October 2011. By now, J.M. was sixteen years of age and had started his junior year in high school. After hearing evidence, the jury (1) found that the circumstances of J.M. or of Cassandra had "materially and substantially changed" since the date of Cassandra and Paul's divorce decree; (2) failed to find that appointing Lydia as J.M.'s sole managing conservator would be in the teen's best interest; (3) but found that appointing Lydia and Cassandra as J.M.'s joint managing conservators would be in his best interest.[6] The ...


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