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Justices adopt COA adoption holding, invite attorney fee motions

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The Indiana Supreme Court has granted transfer on a St. Joseph County adoption case and fully adopted a holding by the state’s intermediate appellate court. In doing so, the state justices invited the prevailing biological mother to request attorney fees because of what it found to be possible frivolous or bad faith efforts.

Justices issued a unanimous order today in The Adoption of N.W., M.W. v. A.W., No. 71S04-1102-AD-87, which adopts the Court of Appeals decision from Sept. 16, 2010, that reversed a ruling by St. Joseph Probate Judge Peter Nemeth.

This case revolves around N.W., who was born in late 2001 to mother M.W. and father R.W. and lived with them until the parents’ separation in 2005. The parents agreed in a divorce settlement that they would share joint legal custody of N.W., and the father would retain physical custody.

The father married A.W. in early 2009. Stepmother A.W. filed an adoption petition after visitation ceased between mother and child and the biological parents disagreed about visitation, parenting time, and child support.

The trial judge in December 2009 granted the stepmother’s adoption petition and found the mother’s consent wasn’t required because she’d failed to support the child. Judge Nemeth later denied a motion to correct error or grant relief.

The Court of Appeals last year reversed, holding that mother’s adoption consent was required and that “there is not a single shred of evidence indicating that this adoption could even remotely be considered to be in N.W.’s best interest.”

Since then, that ruling and holding has been cited in other appeals before the state’s appellate courts.

Deciding that the appellate panel correctly ruled on the issues, the Supreme Court granted transfer and adopted that opinion under Indiana Appellate Rule 58(A)(1). Reviewing the lower ruling and materials, the justices also determined more was required under Indiana Code 34-52-1-1.

That state statute permits a court in any civil action to award attorney fees to the prevailing party if the court finds that either party: (1) brought the action or defense on a claim or defense that is frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless; (2) continued to litigate the action or defense after the party’s claim or defense clearly became frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless; or (3) litigated the action in bad faith.

“The record before us suggests one or more of these grounds may exist for an award of attorney fees,” the order says.

Supreme Court Public Information Officer Kathryn Dolan said that less than once a year the justices might grant transfer and fully adopt a Court of Appeals decision, but it’s even rarer for them to suggest the court might entertain a motion on attorney fees like this.

As the prevailing party, the mother has 60 days to file a request for attorney fees incurred at trial and on appeal under I.C. 34-52-1-1 if she chooses to do so.

Attorneys on the case are listed as South Bend lawyer Mark James for the stepmother A.W., and Michigan City lawyers Craig Braje and Elizabeth Flynn for the mother M.W.

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