Below is a summary of the Texas Supreme Court’s opinion on In re Stephanie Lee, with links to the case.
Sherri Evans, Chair
Family Law Section, State Bar of Texas
In re Stephanie Lee
from Harris County and the 14th District Court of Appeals, Houston
For relator: Scott Rothenberg, Houston
For real party in interest: Clinton F. Lawson, San Antonio
MANDAMUS RELIEF GRANTED, opinion by Justice Lehrmann:
The principal issue is whether a mediated settlement must be enforced that provides, in the absence of family violence, a divorced mother periodic possession of her 7-year-old daughter when the mother is married to a registered sex offender. The trial court, considering the father’s testimony that the child slept between her mother and her new husband when he was naked, found the settlement not in the child’s best interest and refused to enforce it. Lee, the mother, argues that the only statutory exception to enforcing a mediated settlement is when family violence can be shown. The court of appeals denied her mandamus relief.
The Supreme Court HOLDS the Family Code’s provision for mediated settlements by its plain language forecloses a trial court’s broad best-interest inquiry with respect to judgment on such properly executed settlements. Allowing courts to conduct such an inquiry in contravention of the unambiguous statutory mandate in Family Code section 153.0071 has consequences that will inevitably harm children. The trial court’s and the appeals court’s decisions ignore clearly expressed legislative intent, undermining the Legislature’s goal of protecting children by eroding parents’ incentive to work collaboratively for their children’s welfare. This frustrates the policies underlying alternative dispute resolution in the custody context, which are firmly grounded in the protection of children. Subsection (e-1), providing a best-interest evaluation in cases involving family violence and that was enacted after subsection (e), which mandates courts must accept mediated settlements, establishes clearly that the Legislature limited the consideration of best interest in cases involving family violence. Allowing a court to decline to enter judgment on a valid mediated settlement on best-interest grounds without family violence findings would impermissibly render the family violence language in subsection (e-1) superfluous.
Justice Guzman CONCURRING:
Family Code section 153.0071 precludes a broad best-interest inquiry, but does not preclude an endangerment inquiry. The Court fails to address the endangerment inquiry, but the issue is critical because the facts of this case potentially implicate the inquiry—discussion of which provides much-needed guidance to trial courts. Mandamus is appropriate because legally insufficient evidence exists of endangerment to support the trial court’s decisions to set aside the mediated settlement and place the matter on its trial docket. The trial court sustained a hearsay objection to the only statement at the hearing that could have demonstrated the mother might not comply with the settlement (a statement from the father that the mother informed him after signing the settlement that she did not have to inform him of her and her husband’s whereabouts). The record is sparse and does not establish the threshold that must be met before a trial court may disregard legislative policy concerning the deference to which mediated settlements are entitled.
Justice Green DISSENTING,
joined by Chief Justice Jefferson and Justices Hecht and Devine:
Although the Court tries to distinguish between this case—in which the trial court stated on the record that the mediated settlement was not in the best interest of the child—and a case in which modification pursuant to such an agreement could endanger a child, that is a distinction without a difference. Whether the trial court calls its grounds “best interest” or “endangerment,” the bottom line is the same—the trial court, having heard testimony of the parties, refused to adopt the parents’ agreed modification that the court believed would subject the child to exposure to a registered sex offender. The Legislature has made the policy of this state clear: The best interest of the child shall always be the primary consideration of the court in determining the issues of conservatorship and possession of and access to the child.