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In re A.L.M.-F.

Supreme Court of Texas

May 3, 2019

In the Interest of A.L.M.-F., A.M., J.A.-F., N.A.-F., and E.A.-F., Children

          Argued January 10, 2019

          On Petition for Review from the Court of Appeals for the Tenth District of Texas

          OPINION

          Eva M. Guzman Justice.

         To alleviate pressure on an overburdened court system, the Legislature allows judges in civil proceedings to refer cases to associate judges for disposition of a variety of case-related matters, including trials on the merits.[1] Referral is not binding on the parties, so if either party timely objects, the referring court "shall hear the trial on the merits or preside at a jury trial."[2] Barring an objection, however, the associate judge may determine the merits in either a bench or a jury trial, [3] subject to the parties' post-trial right to request a "de novo hearing" before the referring court within thirty days.[4] In this case, which involves termination of parental rights, the issue is whether a party who waived the right to a jury trial before the associate judge is entitled to demand a jury trial in a de novo hearing under section 201.015 of the Texas Family Code. The trial court denied the jury demand, and the court of appeals affirmed, finding no abuse of discretion.[5] We hold that the statute permits, but does not require, the referring court to grant a jury-trial demand made for the first time at the de novo hearing stage. We therefore affirm the court of appeals' judgment.

         I. Background

         The Department of Family and Protective Services filed a petition to terminate Mother's parental rights to her five children based on child endangerment and noncompliance with a court order establishing the terms for reunification.[6] Without objection by either party, the trial court referred the case to an associate judge for adjudication on the merits, and the parties waived the right to a jury trial.

         Following a two-day bench trial at which both sides called witnesses, the associate judge found sufficient evidence of grounds to terminate Mother's parental rights and that termination is in the children's best interests.[7] The day after receiving the associate judge's report, Mother demanded a jury trial, and immediately following that, she timely requested a de novo hearing before the referring court on the issue of evidence sufficiency.[8]

         At a non-evidentiary hearing on Mother's jury-trial request, both the Department and the attorney ad litem for the children objected to the jury demand. The Department argued that (1) Mother had no right to a jury trial for the de novo hearing and (2) granting a jury demand at that juncture would prejudice both the Department and the children. Among other concerns, the Department cited the difficulty and expense of recalling all the witnesses to testify before a jury, including three expert witnesses and the interpreters required for several other witnesses. The attorney ad litem asserted that any delay occasioned by a jury trial would result in turmoil and uncertainty for the children. In response, Mother maintained that (1) section 201.015 of the Family Code grants the right to a jury trial in a de novo hearing so long as it is the first jury trial in the case, (2) it was theoretically possible for the referring court to hold a jury trial within the thirty-day window section 201.015 allows for conducting a de novo hearing, [9] and (3) the expense of litigating the case to a jury after a previous bench trial is irrelevant to whether a jury trial is required when timely requested.

         The referring court denied the jury request and set a de novo hearing date in compliance with the statutory deadline. At the hearing, the transcripts and exhibits from the associate-judge proceedings were admitted into evidence, but no witnesses were called to testify. After taking the matter under advisement, the court terminated Mother's parental rights and appointed the Department permanent managing conservator.

         Mother appealed, asserting (1) the trial court abused its discretion in denying her jury demand and (2) the evidence was factually insufficient to support the best-interest finding. Rejecting both complaints, the court of appeals affirmed.[10]

         On petition for review to this Court, Mother challenges only the denial of her jury demand.[11]As to that matter, the court of appeals assumed, without deciding, that Mother had a right to demand a jury trial at the de novo hearing and that her request was made within a reasonable time before trial.[12] Even so, the court held that the trial court was not required to honor the request given the expense the Department would incur to relitigate the case to a jury and the harm that could befall the children if permanency were delayed.[13] Mother argues that the Family Code protects her constitutional rights by guaranteeing that parties can demand at least one jury trial at any stage of the trial-court proceedings. Asserting a first-time jury trial is available in a de novo hearing as a matter of right, she complains that the lower courts failed to afford her a presumption that a timely jury demand must be granted.

         II. Discussion

         Only five states in the country permit or require a jury trial in cases involving termination of parental rights.[14] Recognizing the importance of the interests at stake in termination proceedings, [15] Texas is one of them. Under our permissive statute, parties may demand a jury trial or elect to have a judge decide a termination case on the merits.[16] As with other civil proceedings, the trial court may refer termination cases to an associate judge for myriad purposes, including adjudication on the merits in either a bench or jury trial.[17]

         Trial on the merits before an associate judge is not compulsory under our civil referral statutes and may be avoided if a party objects:

Unless a party files a written objection to the associate judge hearing a trial on the merits, the judge may refer the trial to the associate judge. A trial on the merits is any final adjudication from which an appeal may be taken to a court of appeals.[18]

         A party desiring a jury trial before the referring court need only object to the associate-judge referral and timely demand a jury trial:

A party must file an objection to an associate judge hearing a trial on the merits or presiding at a jury trial not later than the 10th day after the date the party receives notice that the associate judge will hear the trial. If an objection is filed, the referring court shall hear the trial on the merits or preside at a jury trial.[19]

         Here, by failing to object to the referral, Mother declined the opportunity to have a jury trial before the referring court in the first instance. She then elected to waive her statutory right to a jury trial in the associate-judge proceedings. Despite these choices, Mother claims section 201.015 of the Family Code guarantees a third opportunity to demand a jury trial in a "de novo hearing" before the referring court.

         A. De Novo Hearings

         Section 201.015 applies to associate-judge referrals in child-protection, Title IV-D, and juvenile justice cases[20] and has near equivalents applicable to associate-judge referrals in other civil cases and probate proceedings.[21] Under section 201.015, when a case is referred to an associate judge for any authorized purpose-including disposition on the merits-"[a] party may request a de novo hearing before the referring court by filing with the clerk of the referring court a written request not later than the third working day after the date the party receives notice of [the substance of the associate judge's ruling or order]."[22] De novo hearings are limited to the specific issues stated in the de novo hearing request, [23] and the referring court must conduct the de novo hearing within thirty days of the request.[24]

         The parties may present witnesses at the de novo hearing, and the referring court "may also consider the record from the hearing before the associate judge, including the charge to and verdict returned by a jury."[25] Notably, "[a] party may not demand a second jury in a de novo hearing before the referring court if the associate judge's proposed order or judgment resulted from a jury trial."[26]

         Neither section 201.015 nor any other provision of the Family Code expressly confers a right to a jury trial in a de novo hearing. Unlike the statutes authorizing referral to an associate judge, which explicitly refer to jury trials, the de novo hearing statutes are uniformly silent on the matter.[27]In claiming a right to a jury trial under section 201.015, Mother homes in on two of its aspects-(1) the prohibition on a "second" jury trial in a de novo hearing and (2) the word "de novo," which modifies the term "hearing." Relying on these terms, Mother contends section 201.015 contemplates an entirely new and independent proceeding in which she may try her case anew to a jury so long as she previously tried her case to the bench. The Department urges that section 201.015 permits, but does not require, a referring court to grant a first-time request for a jury trial in a de novo proceeding.

         As in all cases requiring us to construe a statute, we resolve this dispute by analyzing the statute's language to determine the Legislature's intent.[28] We construe the statute "as a cohesive, contextual whole, accepting that [the] lawmaker-authors chose their words carefully, both in what they included and in what they excluded."[29] Because we presume the Legislature intended for all the words in a statute to have meaning, we must harmonize statutory language when possible so that no terms are rendered useless.[30]

         By negative implication, section 201.015's prohibition on "second" jury trials gives rise to two alternative inferences: (1) a first jury trial is available as a matter of right in a de novo hearing or (2) the trial court is not prohibited from granting a first request for a jury trial in a de novo hearing and thus may allow one, in its discretion. Construing Chapter 201 as a whole, we conclude that the latter is a reasonable construction of the statute, but the former is not.

         1. A "De Novo Hearing" is Not a "Trial De Novo"

         A "trial de novo" is a new and independent action in the reviewing court with "all the attributes of an original action" as if no trial of any kind has occurred in the court below.[31] But under Chapter 201, a hearing is not equivalent to a trial, and review under section 201.015 is not entirely independent of the proceedings before the associate judge. Accordingly, the term "de novo hearing," as used in Chapter 201, cannot reasonably be equated to a "trial de novo." Rather, the term "de novo hearing" appears to bear a special meaning that is relatively unique to the associate-judge referral statutes and governed by the procedures specified in the authorizing statutes.[32]

         In several provisions, Chapter 201 distinguishes between hearings and trials in relation to one another and with respect to jury and non-jury trials.[33] On the front end, Chapter 201 explicitly allows for a "trial" before either the associate judge or, on timely objection, the referring court.[34]Associate and referring judges may "hear" a non-jury trial on the merits or "preside" over a jury trial.[35] Associate judges may also "conduct a hearing," as textually distinguished from "trials" that an associate judge can refer back to the referring court "in the interest of justice."[36]

         On the back end, the de novo hearing procedures in section 201.015 apply to all associate-judge rulings without making similar distinctions, describing the procedure only as a hearing, not a trial. When construing a statute, we "presume the Legislature selected statutory words, phrases, and expressions deliberately and purposefully and was just as careful in selecting the words, phrases, and expressions that were included or omitted."[37] In that vein, the juxtaposition of word choice in the associate-judge referral statutes is compelling with regard to legislative intent.[38]

         The procedures applicable to a section 201.015 "de novo hearing" are also inconsistent with the established understanding of a trial de novo. As described by the referral statutes, a de novo hearing is not entirely independent of the proceedings before the associate judge. The defining characteristic of a trial de novo is that it is a complete retrial on all issues on which the judgment was founded.[39] Consequently, in such proceedings, the judgment of the first tribunal is ordinarily vacated. Not merely suspended, but nullified.[40]

         For example, in authorizing a "trial de novo" review of administrative-agency decisions, the Legislature has specified that

the reviewing court shall try each issue of fact and law in the manner that applies to other civil suits in this state as though there had not been an intervening agency action or decision but may not admit in evidence the fact of prior state agency action or the nature of that action except to the limited extent necessary to show compliance with statutory provisions that vest jurisdiction in the court.[41]

         Notably, the statute is specific in stating that "[o]n demand, a party to a trial de novo review may have a jury determination of each issue of fact on which a jury determination could be obtained in other civil suits in this state."[42]

         Statutes enacted by the Legislature and rules adopted by this Court generally use the term "trial de novo" to trigger these consequences.[43] Those who lose a truancy case, for example, may appeal to a juvenile court.[44] An appeal of the "case must be tried de novo," and "[o]n appeal, the judgment of the truancy court is vacated."[45] Likewise, cases first heard in justice courts may be appealed to a statutory county court for a full "trial de novo."[46] The applicable rules are express in stating that trial de novo is "a new trial in which the entire case is presented as if there had been no previous trial."[47]

         A trial de novo is not what the Legislature enacted as the mechanism for reviewing an associate judge's merits adjudications.[48] Not in word and not in attribute. Rather, the Legislature created a process that is mandatory when invoked but expedited in time frame and limited in scope. The associate judge's judgment is not vacated, but pending review, is "in full force and effect and is enforceable as an order or judgment of the referring court . . . ."[49]

         Nor is a de novo hearing a complete retrial on all issues-parties must specify the specific issues presented to the referring court.[50] Issues not specified need not be reviewed.[51] Witnesses may only be presented on the specified issues, but the referring court may also consider the record from the associate judge sua sponte.[52] Participation in, or waiver of, a de novo hearing is without prejudice to "the right of a party to file a motion for new trial, motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, or other post-trial motion."[53] In short, a de novo hearing is not an entirely new and independent action, but instead, is an extension of the original trial on the merits.

         This construction of the statute accords not only with its language but also with the overall design of the associate-judge system, which serves to streamline and expedite review of cases, not multiply proceedings and increase costs.

         2. Timelines Are Incompatible ...


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