August 7, 2019
In re Skylar F. – 191 Conn. App. 200 – July 2019
Denial of Motion to Open Judgment of Neglect
Failure to Assert Good Defense or Mistake
Father appealed the trial court’s judgment denying his motion to open the neglect judgment that was rendered after he was defaulted for his failure to attend a case status conference.
Skylar was born in September 2018, and DCF assumed temporary custody of her. An OTC trial was heard by the court in October; father received permission to be excused from attending the second day of trial. At the close of that day, the court sustained the order of temporary custody.
A case status conference was then scheduled for early December. Father did not attend, although his attorney was present. At that time, DCF asked the court to render a default judgment against father, as to the adjudication of neglect. His attorney objected, saying that he could be at work and he was unable to reach him by phone. The attorney did not indicate at this time that father did not have knowledge of the status conference. The court then adjudicated the child neglected, and committed her to DCF.
In late December, father filed a motion asking the court to articulate the factual basis for its order sustaining the OTC. The court issued the articulation on the same day. It found relevant that the parents, at the time of the child’s birth, had another child who had been committed to DCF and had a pending termination of parental rights matter, and that neither parent had addressed the issues that had caused that sibling to be committed. The court had found that DCF had met its burden to prove that under the doctrine of predictive neglect, it was likely that the child would have been in immediate physical danger from her surroundings and immediate removal would be necessary.
In January 2019, father filed a motion to open the judgment committing Skylar to DCF custody. After hearing, the court denied his motion, explaining that (1) father had failed to comply with the requirements of Practice Book Sec. 35a-18 for filing a motion to open in juvenile matters, as his motion wasn’t verified by oath; (2) after considering the transcript of the October proceedings, the court concluded that father’s attorney was responsible for providing him with notice of the December case status conference; and (3) the court had specified its reasons for sustaining the OTC in its articulation, and respondent’s motion hadn’t demonstrated how those things had changed.
Father then appealed the denial of his motion to open the judgment, claiming that he was entitled to have it opened as a matter of law, given the record did not support a finding that he received actual notice of the case status conference, in violation of due process. Father contended that although the appeals court would ordinarily be constrained to review the lower court’s decision only as to whether it abused its discretion, it should instead exercise de novo review pursuant to the test put forth in Mathews v. Eldridge, because, father argued, the lower court proceedings showed that he was denied due process in a matter customarily left to that court’s discretion. Father cited to the court’s decision in In Re Shaquanna M., wherein the court said that the difference in the “abuse of discretion” standard and the Mathews balancing test was related to the lack of discretion in providing procedural safeguards to satisfy due process, when dealing with the severance of a parent’s rights.
The court responded that while father claimed he did not receive actual adequate notice of the case status conference, the issue on appeal was the trial court’s denial of his motion to open. In asserting that the trial court was required to grant his motion to open, father was conflating the alleged due process violation with the court’s denial of his motion to open. Father’s motion to open had specifically given him an opportunity to be heard as to why he failed to appear at the case status conference, and whether he had a good defense. Because of this, his right to due process was not denied, and the court therefore reviewed the merits of his appeal under the abuse of discretion standard.
The court noted that to open a default judgment, the moving party must demonstrate both that they had a good defense at the time the judgment was rendered, and that they were prevented from making that defense because of mistake, accident, or other reasonable cause. In this case, father met neither of those two prongs. The court had previously referenced DCF’s concerns regarding father’s substance use and domestic violence. Father had addressed neither of those in his motion to open, and therefore did not have a good defense. Furthermore, father did not show that his failure to appear was the result of mistake, as he simply asserted that he did not receive notice of the status conference. The record showed that his attorney had been present when the conference was scheduled, and had, in fact, asked for it to be scheduled at a specific time for father’s convenience. At the conference itself, the attorney did not assert that father lacked notice of the court date, saying instead that he could be at work and wasn’t answering his phone. In addition to failing to meet both prongs, father also failed to abide by the requirement that his motion be verified by oath. Because of this, this court found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying the motion to open, and the judgment was affirmed.