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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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  1. The practitioners and judges who hail E-filing as the Saviour of the West need to contain their respective excitements. E-filing is federal court requires the practitioner to cram his motion practice into pigeonholes created by IT people. Compound motions or those seeking alternative relief are effectively barred, unless the practitioner wants to receive a tart note from some functionary admonishing about the "problem". E-filing is just another method by which courts and judges transfer their burden to practitioners, who are the really the only powerless components of the system. Of COURSE it is easier for the court to require all of its imput to conform to certain formats, but this imposition does NOT improve the quality of the practice of law and does NOT improve the ability of the practitioner to advocate for his client or to fashion pleadings that exactly conform to his client's best interests. And we should be very wary of the disingenuous pablum about the costs. The courts will find a way to stick it to the practitioner. Lake County is a VERY good example of this rapaciousness. Any one who does not believe this is invited to review the various special fees that system imposes upon practitioners- as practitioners- and upon each case ON TOP of the court costs normal in every case manually filed. Jurisprudence according to Aldous Huxley.

  2. Any attorneys who practice in federal court should be able to say the same as I can ... efiling is great. I have been doing it in fed court since it started way back. Pacer has its drawbacks, but the ability to hit an e-docket and pull up anything and everything onscreen is a huge plus for a litigator, eps the sole practitioner, who lacks a filing clerk and the paralegal support of large firms. Were I an Indiana attorney I would welcome this great step forward.

  3. Can we get full disclosure on lobbyist's payments to legislatures such as Mr Buck? AS long as there are idiots that are disrespectful of neighbors and intent on shooting fireworks every night, some kind of regulations are needed.

  4. I am the mother of the child in this case. My silence on the matter was due to the fact that I filed, both in Illinois and Indiana, child support cases. I even filed supporting documentation with the Indiana family law court. Not sure whether this information was provided to the court of appeals or not. Wish the case was done before moving to Indiana, because no matter what, there is NO WAY the state of Illinois would have allowed an appeal on a child support case!

  5. "No one is safe when the Legislature is in session."

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