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Layton v. Layton

Supreme Court of Delaware

May 10, 2019

HANNA LAYTON, [1] Respondent Below, Appellant,
v.
JACKSON LAYTON, Respondent Below, Appellee, and TERRANCE HOWARD, Petitioner Below, Appellee.

          Submitted: April 26, 2019

          Court Below-Family Court of the State of Delaware File No. CN18-04258 Petition No. 18-20461

          Before VAUGHN, SEITZ, and TRAYNOR, Justices.

          ORDER

          Collins J. Seitz, Jr. Justice

         Upon consideration of the parties' briefs and the record on appeal, it appears to the Court that:

         (1) The appellant, Hanna Layton ("Mother"), and the appellee Jackson Layton ("Father") have two daughters (the "Children"), who are now fifteen and twelve years old. Mother filed these appeals from (i) a Family Court order (the "Dismissal Order") dismissing a petition for guardianship of the Children filed by the Children's maternal grandfather ("Grandfather") and (ii) a Family Court order denying Mother's motion seeking recusal of the Family Court judge. Father argues that the Family Court's decisions should be affirmed; Grandfather has not appeared in the appeals. For the reasons discussed below, we affirm.

         (2) The parties to this disheartening case have been involved in protracted litigation concerning the custody and guardianship of the Children since the parents' estrangement in 2011. The Court summarized the background of this case in an earlier appeal in 2018;[3] we therefore recite only the facts that are necessary to understand the resolution of these appeals. The Family Court awarded guardianship of the Children to the Children's maternal grandmother ("Grandmother") in August 2016. At the time, the Children and Father had been engaging in reunification therapy with Dr. Samuel Romirowsky. In 2017 and 2018, the Family Court found Mother and Grandmother in contempt of earlier court orders because they had substantially interfered with the reunification efforts in various ways.[4] The Family Court further found that "Grandmother had failed in her statutory responsibilities as guardian of the Children to provide for their emotional well-being and to comply with all Court orders because she failed to support the Children's reunification efforts and she allowed Mother daily access to the Children and participated with Mother in the continued poisoning of the Children against Father."[5] This Court affirmed the Family Court's rulings on appeal.[6]

         (3) On July 17, 2018, based on Grandmother's continued obstruction of Father's reunification with the Children and the Court's finding that the Children would not be dependent, neglected, or abused in Father's care, the Family Court entered an order rescinding Grandmother's guardianship of the Children and awarding custody of the Children to Father (the "Rescission Order"). Mother filed a notice of appeal from the Rescission Order but never filed an opening brief; that appeal was therefore dismissed on April 9, 2019.[7] The Family Court initially had ordered that the rescission of guardianship would occur on July 20, 2018. In light of subsequent developments, however, on July 18, 2018, the court ordered that the rescission would occur immediately (the "Removal Order"), and the Children were transferred to Father's care on July 18, 2018.[8] That same day, Grandfather filed a petition for guardianship of the Children.

         (4) Father moved to dismiss Grandfather's petition for guardianship. On October 18, 2018, the Family Court granted the motion to dismiss (the "Dismissal Order"). The court held that the petition was barred by the doctrines of collateral estoppel and res judicata because, among other things, the facts regarding the Children's dependency were determined in the Rescission Order; Grandfather made the same arguments in his petition for guardianship that had been litigated in connection with the Rescission Order; and Grandfather was in privity with Grandmother because he had been a witness on Grandmother's behalf since April 2017, he had been actively engaged with Grandmother in disrupting the reunification therapy, and granting his petition for guardianship would be the equivalent of allowing Grandmother to refile a petition for guardianship. Mother brought this appeal from the Dismissal Order. Grandfather did not appeal.

         (5) Father argues that because Grandfather did not appeal from the Dismissal Order, Mother lacks standing to prosecute the appeal. We agree. This Court has held that where the petitioner has not appealed from the Family Court's order denying a petition for guardianship, the parents lack standing to prosecute an appeal from the Family Court's order.[9] For this reason, Mother's appeal from the dismissal of Grandfather's petition for guardianship is dismissed.

         (6) On October 16, 2018, while Father's motion to dismiss Grandfather's petition for guardianship was pending, Mother filed a motion seeking recusal of the Family Court judge.[10] The Family Court denied the motion on October 18, 2018. On November 8, 2018, the day after Mother filed the appeal from the Dismissal Order, Mother filed a notice of appeal from the order denying recusal.

         (7) Father argues that Mother's appeal from the order denying recusal should be dismissed as duplicative. We agree that, when an appeal from a final ruling is pending, an appeal of a subsidiary or interlocutory ruling in the case generally should be addressed in the same appeal. But in the circumstances of this case, in which Mother lacks standing to appeal the final ruling but Father has not argued that she lacks standing to appeal the order denying recusal, we have resolved the duplication issue by consolidating the appeals and addressing the merits of Mother's appeal from the order denying recusal.[11]

         (8) When deciding whether recusal is appropriate, a trial judge must undertake the two-step analysis set forth in Los v. Los.[12] The analysis includes both a subjective and an objective test. First, the judge must determine whether she is subjectively satisfied that she can hear the case free of bias or prejudice concerning the party seeking recusal.[13] Second, if the judge subjectively believes that she has no bias, the judge must determine whether there is the appearance of bias sufficient to cause objective doubt as to the judge's impartiality.[14] On appeal, this Court reviews the judge's analysis of the subjective test for abuse of discretion and reviews the merits of the objective test de novo.[15]

         (9) In the order denying the motion for recusal, the Family Court judge cited Los and concluded that she was satisfied that she could proceed with the case free of bias or prejudice and that there was no appearance of bias sufficient to cause doubt as to the judge's impartiality. We find no abuse of ...


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