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In re R.R.

Court of Appeals of Texas, Second District, Fort Worth

February 16, 2017



          PANEL: MEIER and KERR, JJ.; and KERRY FITZGERALD (Senior Justice, Retired, Sitting by Assignment).



         Spanning over three decades and involving four states, the facts of this case present complex child-support-enforcement issues. Appellant and Cross-Appellee Ann Rodriguez McKinnell (Mother) and Appellee and Cross-Appellant James J. Audet, II (Father) both appeal from the trial court's "Final Judgment on Arrears" ordering Father to pay to Mother $64, 918.38 in child-support arrearages and interest and $15, 605.25 in attorney's fees. We affirm in part and reverse and remand in part.


         Mother and Father met in October 1981 when they were freshmen at Regis College in Denver, Colorado, and soon afterward Mother became pregnant. In May 1982, Mother, individually and on her unborn child's behalf, sued Father in Colorado, seeking a declaration of his paternity, pregnancy expenses, and child support. Father was served in Colorado later that month.

         In June 1982, Mother moved to Alaska to live with her parents; Father moved to Florida. Their daughter, R.R., was born in Alaska that August.

         In February 1983, Mother applied for and received public assistance from the State of Alaska. As a condition of accepting public assistance, Mother assigned her child-support rights to Alaska's Child Support Enforcement Division. When applying for assistance, she notified Alaska of the pending Colorado action, and Alaska required Mother to complete some forms, including an application to establish paternity, in which she indicated that Father lived in Florida.

         Back in Colorado, in June 1983, the court signed a default judgment finding that Father was R.R.'s father and ordering him to pay $3, 449.62 to Mother for her pregnancy and confinement costs and her attorney's fees. The trial court also ordered Father to pay $450 a month in child support beginning June 1, 1983.

          The next year, in July, the State of Alaska sought to enforce the Colorado order by registering it in Florida under the Uniform Reciprocal Enforcement of Support Act (URESA). After a hearing in October 1984, a Florida court entered an order finding that the accumulated child-support arrearage under the Colorado order was $7, 650[2] and modifying the child-support amount to $246 a month starting November 1, 1984. Although Father attended the 1984 hearing, it wasn't until June 2013 that Mother learned that a Florida court had lowered Father's child-support obligation.

         Father paid $48.55 to the Alaska Child Support Enforcement Division in mid-January 1985. In March, that office sent a letter to Father acknowledging his January payment, reminding him that his next $246 payment was due on April 1, 1985, and seeking support arrears of $8, 831.45, plus $339.95 in penalties and interest. The State of Alaska continued to attempt to collect child support from Father in Florida.

         Father married in August 1985, moved to Texas shortly thereafter, and currently resides here. In May 1987, Mother and R.R. moved from Alaska to Colorado and have lived there ever since.

         During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the State of Alaska sent letters to Father and his wife in Texas notifying them that Father owed past-due child support and that the debt was going to be referred to the Internal Revenue

          Service for collection. During the same time period, Father contacted Alaska by letter and by phone for information related to the amount of arrearages. In December 1988, Alaska wrote to Father to tell him that after conducting an administrative review, "[a]rrears ha[d] been reduced to $6, 263.45[, ] which represent[ed] only the past public assistance debt due the State of Alaska" and that because Mother was "no longer in the State of Alaska" it could not "pursue her arrears or ongoing support on her behalf."

         Beginning in 1989, the State of Alaska tried unsuccessfully under URESA to collect the public-assistance debt. The IRS did, however, seize Father's and his wife's tax refunds for several years, which Alaska then applied to Father's debt.

         In January 1996, Father settled his remaining $5, 429.75 debt to Alaska for $2, 500. In February 1996, Alaska sent a letter to Father stating, "WE HAVE CLOSED YOUR CASE AS PAID IN FULL. WE HAVE BALANCED YOUR CASE AT ZERO." Years later, in June 2002, the State of Alaska confirmed to a mortgage company through which Father had applied for a loan that "[t]he above referenced case was closed February 12, 1996, the obligation was paid in full."

         Father had no contact with Mother after she left Colorado in 1982 or with R.R. after she was born. Mother did not know where Father was for most of R.R.'s life, and the last address she had for him was in Florida. R.R. turned eighteen in August 2000. In 2012, she found Father in Texas through an internet search and told her mother.

         Mother then registered the 30-year-old Colorado order in Texas in May 2013 and filed a "Notice of Application for Income Withholding For Support (Judicial Writ of Withholding), " alleging that Father owed $1, 515, 525.21 in child-support arrearages and interest. Of that amount, only $71, 341.03 represented arrearages; the rest was interest. In July 2013, Mother registered the 1984 Florida order in Texas. The trial court stayed the registration and enforcement of both orders.

         The case was tried to the bench in April 2014. R.R. was then 31 years old and a few weeks away from graduating from medical school. Shortly before trial, Mother had amended her notice of application for income withholding to change her calculations, alleging that as of March 14, 2014, Father owed $1, 072, 775.40 in child-support arrearages and interest based on an alleged total arrearage of $49, 744.81. At trial, Mother stipulated that the Florida order had modified Father's monthly child-support obligation under the Colorado order, but she contended that all other aspects of the Colorado order-a statutory interest rate of 12% compounded monthly and age of emancipation at 19 rather than 18-remained intact. She alleged that as of March 31, 2014, arrearages and interest had grown to $1, 085, 985.27.

         Father asserted that either laches or limitations barred Mother's claims or, alternatively, that his total arrearages, with interest, were only $69, 688.51. Father derived that figure-a difference of over $1 million from Mother's calculation-based on the arguments that (1) he owed nothing before February

          1996, the date when Alaska notified him that it had closed his case as paid in full; (2) he owed back child support from February 1996 only through R.R.'s 18th (not 19th) birthday under Florida law; and (3) Florida's 10% simple interest rate should be used instead of Colorado's rate of 12% compounded monthly.

         The trial court's final judgment found that the Colorado order was not subject to registration in Texas and confirmed registration of the Florida order. The trial court also found that R.R. was emancipated on August 31, 2000, her 18th birthday. The trial court rendered judgment against Father for child-support arrearages and accrued interest in the amount of $64, 918.38 as of March 31, 2014. Agreeing with Father's position, the trial court stated that "this amount was determined by applying the interest rate of 10% simple interest to the $246.00 monthly child support [as Ordered from the Florida Order] beginning February 1, 1996 through March 1, 2014." [Brackets in original.] In addition, the trial court ordered that Mother be granted a judicial writ of withholding from Father's earnings, requiring his present and future employers to withhold $450 per month from his earnings. Finally, the trial court rendered judgment against Father for $15, 605.25 in attorney's fees and for $573.38 in costs.

         The trial court filed findings of fact and conclusions of law. Mother has appealed, and Father has cross-appealed. See Tex. R. App. P. 26.1(a), (d).

         Standard of Review

         Issues regarding the payment of child support, including confirmation of child-support arrearages as well as awards of attorney's fees, are reviewed under an abuse-of-discretion standard. Worford v. Stamper, 801 S.W.2d 108, 109 (Tex. 1990). A trial court abuses its discretion if it acts without reference to any guiding rules or principles, that is, if the act is arbitrary or unreasonable. Low v. Henry, 221 S.W.3d 609, 614 (Tex. 2007); Cire v. Cummings, 134 S.W.3d 835, 838-39 (Tex. 2004). In family-law cases, however, the abuse-of-discretion standard overlaps with the traditional sufficiency standard of review; thus, legal and factual insufficiency are not independent reversible grounds of error but are relevant factors in assessing whether the trial court abused its discretion. Neyland v. Raymond, 324 S.W.3d 646, 649 (Tex. App.-Fort Worth 2010, no pet.).

         Accordingly, in determining whether an abuse of discretion has occurred because the evidence is legally or factually insufficient to support the trial court's decision, we engage in a two-pronged inquiry: (1) did the trial court have enough information upon which to exercise its discretion; and (2) did the trial court err in applying its discretion? Id. The applicable sufficiency review comes into play with regard to the first question. Id. at 649-50. Concerning the second question, we determine, based on the elicited evidence, whether the trial court made a reasonable decision. Id. at 650.

         A trial court's findings of fact have the same force and dignity as a jury's answers to jury questions and are reviewable for legal and factual sufficiency of the evidence to support them by the same standards. Catalina v. Blasdel, 881 S.W.2d 295, 297 (Tex. 1994); Anderson v. City of Seven Points, 806 S.W.2d 791, 794 (Tex. 1991); see also MBM Fin. Corp. v. Woodlands Operating Co., 292 S.W.3d 660, 663 n.3 (Tex. 2009). When the appellate record contains a reporter's record, findings of fact on disputed issues are not conclusive and may be challenged for evidentiary sufficiency. Sixth RMA Partners, L.P. v. Sibley, 111 S.W.3d 46, 52 (Tex. 2003); Allison v. Conglomerate Gas II, L.P., No. 02-13-00205-CV, 2015 WL 5106448, at *6 (Tex. App.-Fort Worth Aug. 31, 2015, no pet.) (mem. op.). We defer to unchallenged findings of fact that are supported by some evidence. Tenaska Energy, Inc. v. Ponderosa Pine Energy, LLC, 437 S.W.3d 518, 523 (Tex. 2014).

         We may sustain a legal-sufficiency challenge only when (1) the record discloses a complete absence of evidence of a vital fact, (2) the court is barred by rules of law or of evidence from giving weight to the only evidence offered to prove a vital fact, (3) the evidence offered to prove a vital fact is no more than a mere scintilla, or (4) the evidence establishes conclusively the opposite of a vital fact. Ford Motor Co. v. Castillo, 444 S.W.3d 616, 620 (Tex. 2014); Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Co. v. Martinez, 977 S.W.2d 328, 334 (Tex. 1998), cert. denied, 526 U.S. 1040 (1999). In determining whether there is legally sufficient evidence to support a particular finding, we must consider evidence favorable to the finding if a reasonable factfinder could, and disregard evidence contrary to the finding unless a reasonable factfinder could not. Cent. Ready Mix Concrete Co. v. Islas, 228 S.W.3d 649, 651 (Tex. 2007); City of Keller v. Wilson, 168 S.W.3d 802, 807, 827 (Tex. 2005). When reviewing an assertion that the evidence is factually insufficient to support a finding, we set aside the finding only if, after considering and weighing all the pertinent record evidence, we determine that the credible evidence supporting the finding is so weak, or so contrary to the overwhelming weight of all the evidence, that the finding should be set aside and a new trial ordered. Pool v. Ford Motor Co., 715 S.W.2d 629, 635 (Tex. 1986) (op. on reh'g); Cain v. Bain, 709 S.W.2d 175, 176 (Tex. 1986); Garza v. Alviar, 395 S.W.2d 821, 823 (Tex. 1965).

         We review the trial court's legal conclusions de novo. BMC Software Belg., N.V. v. Marchand, 83 S.W.3d 789, 794 (Tex. 2002). We may review conclusions of law to determine their correctness based on the facts, but we will not reverse because of an erroneous conclusion if the trial court nonetheless rendered the proper judgment. City of Austin v. Whittington, 384 S.W.3d 766, 779 n.10 (Tex. 2012) (citing BMC Software, 83 S.W.3d at 794); H.E.B., L.L.C. v. Ardinger, 369 S.W.3d 496, 513 (Tex. App.-Fort Worth 2012, no pet.). That is, because a trial court's legal conclusions do not bind us, we will not reverse a trial court's judgment based on an incorrect conclusion of law when the controlling findings of fact support the judgment on some correct legal theory. Wise Elec. Coop., Inc. v. Am. Hat Co., 476 S.W.3d 671, 679 (Tex. App.-Fort Worth 2015, no pet.).

         Uniform Interstate Family Support Act and Full Faith and Credit for Child Support Orders Act

         The Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA) relates to the interstate enforcement of child support and contains procedural rules for establishing, modifying, and enforcing child-support obligations. Office of Attorney Gen. of Tex. v. Long, 401 S.W.3d 911, 912-13 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2013, no pet.); see Tex. Fam. Code Ann. §§ 159.001-.901 (West 2014 & Supp. 2016).[3]Under UIFSA, a support order or income-withholding order issued in another state may be registered in this state for enforcement. Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 159.601. Such an order is registered when it is filed in the registering tribunal of this state. Id. § 159.603(a). Once registered, such a support order is enforceable in the same manner and subject to the same procedures as an order issued by a Texas tribunal. Id. § 159.603(b).

         Each state is required to adopt UIFSA. 42 U.S.C.A. § 666(f) (West Supp. 2016). In addition, the Full Faith and Credit for Child Support Orders Act ("FFCCSOA") requires states to give full faith and credit to and to enforce child- support orders from other states. 28 U.S.C.A. § 1738B (West 2006 & Supp. 2016).

         The Controlling Order

         Mother argues in her second issue that the trial court abused its discretion by refusing to register the Colorado order as a "controlling order" under family code section 159.207 in addition to the Florida order because both orders control for different time ...

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