Trial court judgments in bench trials must contain findings of fact and conclusions of law. Orders disposing of motions, on the other hand, normally only need findings and conclusions if a party requests that the trial court make them. There are some situations, however, where a trial court should not make findings of fact in an order, even if a party requests them. This is because of the trial court’s particular role in those specific proceedings and the possibility for meaningful appellate review of the trial court’s orders without the inclusion of findings and conclusions. This post explores this exception-to-an-exception regarding findings and conclusions for certain dispositive motions.Continue Reading
The Cease Reunification Efforts Shuffle in A/N/D Actions: It’s All about the Timing
NOTE: Since this post was published, S.L. 2018-86 was enacted effective for all initial disposition orders that are effective on or after June 25, 2018. G.S. 7B-901(c) has been amended to add the word “determines” and supersedes the holding of In re G.T., ___ N.C. App. ___, 791 S.E.2d 274 (2016), aff’d per curiam, 370 N.C. 387 (2017). 2018 legislative summaries impacting child welfare are discussed here.
Abuse, neglect, or dependency court proceedings have several different stages, one of which is the dispositional stage. The dispositional stage, which occurs only after a child has been adjudicated abused, neglected, or dependent, has several different types of hearings: initial, review, and permanency planning. During the various dispositional hearings, a court may address reunification efforts, which involve the diligent use of preventive or reunification services by a DSS when a child’s remaining in or returning to the home of a parent is consistent with achieving a safe permanent home for the child within a reasonable period of time. See G.S. 7B-101(18). How a trial court may address reunification efforts, including whether to relieve DSS from making those efforts, differs depending on the type of dispositional hearing. That is what the reunification efforts shuffle is all about. Continue Reading
“To Effectuate a Decision Already Made”: The Role of a Substitute Judge Under Rule 63
Imagine this scenario: Judge A had a busy civil calendar before leaving for vacation. Although all the hearings are complete, the judge did not make rulings on some issues. As to a couple of other matters, the judge announced her intended rulings in court but did not enter orders, some of which will require written findings of fact. Sadly the Judge fell very ill during vacation, will not be able to resume her duties on the bench, and will soon retire due to disability. Will another judge be able to complete the work Judge A started?Continue Reading
Attorney Fees in Child Custody Actions
As I mentioned in an earlier post, parties to civil actions are responsible for paying their own attorneys’ fees unless a statute specifically permits fee shifting. In child custody actions, G.S. 50-13.6 allows a court to shift some or all of one party’s fees to the other party under certain circumstances. The statute provides that:
In an action or proceeding for the custody or support, or both, of a minor child, including a motion in the cause for the modification or revocation of an existing order for custody or support, or both, the court may in its discretion order payment of reasonable attorney’s fees to an interested party acting in good faith who has insufficient means to defray the expense of the suit.
If the grounds for entitlement are met, awarding the fee is still in the court’s discretion, as is the amount awarded. Our courts have made clear, however, that fee orders will be remanded if they do not include specific findings of fact as to both entitlement and reasonableness. I discuss the required findings below.
Policy. The purpose of the fee-shifting provision in 50-13.6 is not to act as sanction against the party ordered to pay the other’s fees. Instead, it is to help level the playing field for a party at a financial disadvantage in litigating custody of a child. As our Supreme Court has said, the statute helps make it possible for a party “to employ adequate counsel to enable [him or her], as litigant, to meet [the other party] in the suit.” Taylor v. Taylor, 343 N.C. 50 (1996). For this reason, fee eligibility does not depend on the outcome of the case. Fees are available even to a party who does not prevail, as long as he or she participated in good faith. Hausle v. Hausle, 226 N.C. App. 241 (2013). Continue Reading
Do I Need to Include Findings of Fact in this Order?
When must a civil order include specific findings of fact and conclusions of law? Some types of orders must always include at least some findings; some orders need only include them if a party asks for them; and for other orders, findings of fact are inappropriate whether requested or not. Rule 52 of the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure gives us the core rules, but exceptions and clarifications abound. And, of course, some types of orders are governed by separate, more specific statutes. Here are the fundamentals: Continue Reading
N.C. Court of Appeals: Disposition Orders Do Not Require Written Findings on the G.S. 7B-2501(c) Factors
In multiple cases, the Court of Appeals has found reversible error when a trial court has entered a disposition in a delinquency case without including written findings on the factors set out in G.S. 7B-2501(c). The number and frequency of reversals on this ground has even caused the State to concede error on appeal. See, e.g., In re V.M., 211 N.C. App. 389, 391 (2011). Yesterday, the court surprisingly changed course in a published decision, In re D.E.P., __ N.C. App. __ (Feb. 7, 2017), which held that the Juvenile Code does not require the trial court to “make findings of fact that expressly track each of the statutory factors listed in [G.S.] 7B-2501(c).” The decision raises some obvious questions. Can one panel of the Court of Appeals overrule another on the same issue? And, how will future cases be impacted? Continue Reading