Harrison v. Leach, Ky. S. Ct., Waiver of Standing, Right of Non-Parent to Seek Custody Not Addressed

Harrison v. Leach, 2010-SC-000018-DGE

Published:  Vacating and Remanding

County:     Estill

      Because the issue of standing, which can be waived, is distinct from the issue of subject-matter jurisdiction, the Supreme Court held that an appellate court cannot, sua sponte, resolve an appeal based on a lack of standing before the trial court when no party had raised the issue of standing in the proceedings below.

     The Appellee, Christopher Leach, and his wife, Emily, had three children.  As a result of allegations of dependency, neglect or abuse, a family court awarded temporary physical custody to the Appellants, the maternal grandparents of the children.  When the grandparents petitioned a circuit court for full custody, the issue was referred to a domestic relations commissioner.  (The trial court where the custody action arose does not have a family court.)

    The parties stipulated that the grandparents did not qualify as de facto custodians.  Even though KRS 403.420 had been repealed, the DRC stated that “the right of a non-parent to initiate a custody action in Kentucky is set forth in KRS 403.420(4)(b).”  The DRC concluded that Emily abused the children and Christopher failed adequately to protect them, but found the evidence insufficient to establish that Christopher was an unfit parent.  The DRC recommended that Christopher be granted sole permanent custody of all three children.

     The Harrisons filed exceptions to the DRC report and the trial court ultimately rejected the DRC’s conclusions and awarded permanent sole custody of the children to the Harrisons.  Christopher appealed to the Court of Appeals.  Acting on its own motion, the Court of Appeals concluded that repeal of KRS 403.420 meant the Harrisons lacked standing to seek custody and the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to determine the Harrisons’ custody action.  The Court of Appeals vacated the trial court’s order and remanded the case to the trial court with directions to dismiss the custody proceedings.

     The Supreme Court granted the Harrisons’ motion for discretionary review to determine whether an appellate court may act upon its own motion to decide an appeal based upon a purported lack of standing of one of the litigants.  SC concluded that standing is distinct from subject matter jurisdiction and a party may waive a right to contest standing.  Thus, an appellate court may not, on its own motion, raise the issue of standing of one of the parties to the appeal and adjudicate the appeal on grounds of standing when no party has questioned another party’s standing.

      “Standing” is defined as “a party’s right to make a legal claim or seek judicial enforcement of a duty or right.”  Although the Harrisons clearly had an interest in the custody of the children, in the CA’s view, the repeal of KRS 403.420 left the Harrisons without a statutory mechanism to seek custody.  The CA believed that lack of standing caused the TC to lack subject matter jurisdiction.

      In its analysis, the SC explained that standing and lack of subject matter jurisdiction are not synonymous.  Subject matter jurisdiction involves a court’s ability to hear a type of case and standing involves a party’s ability to bring a specific case.

     The SC further concluded that Christopher had waived any issues related to standing; it was error for the CA to inject standing into the case.  SC held that any question regarding a lack of standing is waived if not timely pled.  Even if there is a genuine issue about whether a party lacks standing, the appellate court should not do what the parties have not done themselves.

     The CA decision was reversed and the matter was remanded to that court for a determination on the merits of Christopher’s appeal.

    Digested by Sandra G. Ragland, Diana L. Skaggs + Associates