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In Re Lee - The Texas Supreme Court Interprets the 2005 Amendment to Texas Family Code § 153.0071

This 2013 Texas Supreme Court case tackles the important family law issue of whether a trial court may refuse to enter judgment on a statutorily compliant mediated settlement agreement (MSA) based on a decision that the MSA is not in a minor child's best interest. This decision was highly controversial, as evidenced by the fact that four justices dissented. The parties in this case, Stephanie Lee and Benjamin Redus, are two parents who are the joint managing conservators of their minor daughter. A 2007 court order gave Stephanie the sole right to designate the child's primary residence. Benjamin petitioned the court to modify that order and the two entered into mediation to settle the dispute. The mediation resulted in a completed MSA, which is the subject of this suit.

At the time of mediation, Stephanie had remarried. Her new husband, Scott Lee, was registered as a sex offender. Certain provisions of the MSA dealt with this issue, specifying that Scott Lee was not allowed to be within five miles of the child, among other things. Texas Family Code § 153.0071(d) requires that a binding MSA must: 1) provide, in a prominently displayed statement that is in boldfaced type or capital letter or underlined, that the agreement is not subject to revocation; 2) is signed by each party to the agreement; and 3) is signed by the party's attorney, if any, who is present at the time the agreement is signed. The MSA signed by Benjamin and Stephanie complied with all of the statutory guidelines laid out in the section. Additionally, the MSA stated that the parents had carefully considered both the needs of the child and the child's best interest.

Later, during the hearing to present and prove up the MSA, the associate judge inquired about the provision regarding Scott Lee. Benjamin informed the judge about Scott's status as a sex offender and further testified that Scott had violated terms of his probation in the course of his interaction with Benjamin's minor child. Based on this testimony, the associate judge refused to enter judgment on the MSA. Stephanie, in response to the judge's refusal, filed a motion to enter judgment. Benjamin filed a written objection withdrawing his consent to the MSA. To support his objection, he argued the MSA was not in the best interest of the child. During the hearing on Stephanie's motion, the district court judge heard testimony from both parties. Both Stephanie and Benjamin testified that there was no family violence present in the case, however, Benjamin did again testify to Scott's questionable actions around his child. The district court concluded that entering judgment on the MSA was not in the best interest of the child and denied Stephanie's motion.

Stephanie then petitioned the court of appeals. The appellate court upheld the judgment of the district court. She then appealed to the Texas Supreme Court. The Supreme Court overturned the judgment of the appellate court and held that a trial court may not deny a motion to enter judgment on a properly executed MSA on such grounds.

The main issue before the Court was the statutory interpretation of Family Code § 153.0071(e) and (e-1). Subsection (e) states, "If a mediated settlement agreement meets the requirements of Subsection (d), a party is entitled to judgment on the mediated settlement agreement notwithstanding Rule 11, Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, or another rule of law." Subsection (e-1) provides a narrow exception to Subsection (e)-if a party to the agreement was a family violence victim, and that circumstance impaired the party's ability to make decisions, and the agreement is not in the child's best interest, a court may decline to enter judgment on the mediated settlement agreement. This language was added by a 2005 amendment to the Code.

Before this amendment was enacted, various Texas courts had declined to enter judgment on MSA's due simply to a decision that the agreement was not in the child's best interest. In this case, Benjamin attempted to use that line of reasoning. He calls as authority § 153.002 of the Family Code, which states, "The best interest of the child shall always be the primary consideration of the court in determining issues of conservatorship and possession of and access to the child." The Court responded by stating that by entering judgment on the MSA, it was upholding the Legislature's policy determination that courts should defer to the parties' determinations regarding the best interest of their children when those decisions are made in the context of a statutorily compliant MSA.

The justices who dissented were primarily concerned that the statute, as written, would require trial courts to ignore evidence that the parents' agreed arrangement would endanger a child by subjecting that child to neglect or abuse. The majority responds with the argument that trial courts have plenty of other statutorily endorsed methods by which to protect children from harm without gutting the clear and unambiguous language of § 153.0071. The Court mentions, for example, Family Code § 261.101's mandatory duty to report abuse or neglect.

Furthermore, the Court seems very concerned with avoiding litigation in family disputes. Mediation may be used to avoid high-conflict courtroom custody battles which may have an adverse effect on children involved. MSA's are a viable alternative to a court order as they're meant to be irrevocably binding. The idea underlying the Court's decision is that mediation has certain inherent qualities such that a party has plenty of time to weigh and consider their decisions. The parties likewise have a written document to look over and change before they sign it, and at the time of signing, they are believed to be making clear decisions that are in the best interest of their child. Benjamin even testified that he had thought, at the time of signing, that the MSA was in his daughter's best interest.

The Court decided that it was of tantamount importance to uphold the binding and irrevocable nature of MSA's. As the Court states, "Why would parties spend considerable time, effort, and money to mediate their dispute in accordance with the statutory requirements when the trial court could very well decide to hold a full trial on the merits anyway?"

Case Citation: In re Lee, 411 S.W.3d 445 (Tex. 2013).

10.0Tony Ray Bertolino

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