Court of Appeals of Texas, Third District, Austin
M. J. M., Appellant
Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, Appellee
THE 274TH DISTRICT COURT OF COMAL COUNTY NO. C2017-2202C, THE
HONORABLE RANDAL C. GRAY, JUDGE PRESIDING
Chief Justice Rose and Justices Triana and Smith
appeals from an order terminating his parental rights to
three children, arguing that the district court erred while
conducting de novo review of the matter. See Tex.
Fam. Code §§ 201.015(a). We will affirm.
relevant to this appeal, M.J.M. has three children with
Rachel,  who voluntarily relinquished her parental
rights to those children earlier in these proceedings,
see id. § 161.001(b)(1)(K), and is not party to
this appeal. According to M.J.M., the State first removed the
children from their home when Rachel was involved in an
altercation over a drug deal. Rachel concedes that when she
cared for the children she would regularly engage in
substance abuse and that M.J.M. would knowingly leave the
children alone with her when she was too impaired to care for
workers eventually returned the children to Rachel and
allowed M.J.M. visitation on the condition that he obtain
gainful employment, pay child support, and complete certain
services recommended as a result of his psychological
screening. The case workers subsequently reported that M.J.M.
had participated in outpatient rehabilitation treatment but
had failed to obtain employment, pay child support, or
complete other recommended services.
State ultimately petitioned for termination of M.J.M.'s
and Rachel's parental rights in Comal County district
court, which referred the matter to an associate judge.
See id. § 201.001 (allowing referral to
associate judge if county commissioners have authorized
employment of associate judges). The associate judge heard
the matter on April 12, 2019. Counsel for M.J.M. asked for a
continuance to allow M.J.M. additional time to comply with
certain rehabilitation recommendations, explaining that
M.J.M. had been incarcerated for child support arrearage for
six months, allegedly making it difficult for him to comply.
After reviewing the evidence and hearing closing statements
from counsel, the associate judge denied the requested
continuance and ruled from the bench, explaining to
I'm going to deny your client's request for an
extension. I do find that the [State] has met its burden by
clear and convincing evidence . . . as to the father under
161.001(1)(D), (E), and (O); and that it's in the best
interest of all three children that both parents'
parental rights be terminated.
See Tex. Fam. Code § 161.001(b)(1)(D)
(knowingly placing or knowingly allowing child to remain in
conditions that endanger physical or emotional well-being),
(E) (engaging in conduct or knowingly placing child with
persons who engage in conduct that endangers physical or
emotional well-being), (O) (failing to comply with provisions
of a court order delineating actions necessary for parent to
obtain return of child).
associate judge then addressed counsel for each parent,
relieving the attorneys of their respective court-appointed
duties "except in the event of an appeal or a de novo
[hearing], of which you both are aware of your time
requirements"-a reference to the review authorized by
Section 201.015 of the Family Code. That Section provides,
"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 report . . . ."
See id. § 201.015(a). Counsel for M.J.M
confirmed, "I do anticipate that we're going to be
having a de novo [sic] of this hearing."
moved for de novo rehearing on April 22-six working days
after the bench ruling and one day before the district court
issued the written termination order reflecting that ruling.
When the State objected to the motion as untimely, M.J.M.
requested a modified order to: (1) correct a spelling error,
(2) clarify one of the statutory bases for the termination,
and (3) set aside the order to pay child support. The
associate judge heard argument on M.J.M.'s motion to
modify on May 10 and May 14 and then issued a modified order
reflecting the requested revisions. The associate judge also
denied M.J.M.'s oral request to "withdraw [the]
ruling on termination predicate grounds that termination was
in the best interest of the children, and PMC [permanent
managing conservatorship] to the
again moved for a de novo review by the referring court,
still seeking to challenge the sufficiency of the evidence
supporting the termination predicates and raising various
other arguments regarding the associate judge's decisions
while presiding over the case. At the hearing on that motion,
the State moved to limit the scope of de novo review,
arguing that the first motion was untimely with respect to
the termination itself and that the second was only timely
with respect to the modifications to the termination order.
M.J.M. objected, arguing that the rules require at least
three days' notice and that the State's motion-filed
the day of the hearing-did not comply with that requirement.
Although the referring court initially declined to entertain
the State's motion, it nevertheless adopted the
State's position, explaining:
I will go ahead and rule in favor of the State regarding the
issue of whether or not we are doing a de novo of the case in
chief [i.e., the termination itself]. The answer is we are
not. We're doing a de novo of the hearing that started on
the 10th and ended on the 14th of May. . . . And I'm not
going to address issues that would have been ...