In re R.P., ___ N.C. App. ___ (March 16, 2021)

Held: 
Vacated and Remanded
  • Facts: Due to circumstances created by parents’ substance use, DSS filed a petition alleging Juvenile 1 (J1) was neglected and Juvenile 2 (J2) was neglected and abused. At the adjudication hearing, the parties stipulated to 13 statements of fact including that J1 was neglected and J2 was neglected and abused. The stipulations were introduced as evidence and no other evidence was offered at the hearing. The judge indicated he would make findings of fact consistent with those in the stipulation and would enter a neglect adjudication for J1 and neglect and abuse adjudications for J2.  Disposition followed where the evidence consisted of DSS and GAL court reports. The judge stated he would make findings consistent with the stipulations and the GAL and DSS reports, that DSS made reasonable efforts, and that the best interests of the children were to remain in DSS custody. The DSS attorney was asked to draft the order. The judge hearing the adjudication and disposition resigned before the orders were signed. The chief district court judge signed the orders and respondent parents appeal arguing the orders are void or alternatively the stipulations alone do not support the adjudications.
  • Rule 63 of the N.C. Rules of Civ. Pro. authorizes the chief district court judge to sign orders when a district court judge resigns. The first judge did not recite, render, or sign the order and he did not adjudicate the evidence and state the conclusions of law. “Rendering and entering judgment was more than a ministerial task,” such that the chief district court judge was “without authority to sign the adjudication and disposition orders” making them a nullity. Sl.Op. at ¶27.
    • Adjudication orders: Neither the record nor hearing transcript show that the judge presiding over the adjudicatory hearing rendered or made his final findings of fact and conclusions of law in the unfiled and unsigned orders but instead stated he would enter the adjudication “as is admitted to.” Sl.Op. at ¶23. As a result, any action of the chief district court judge to cause the orders to be entered was not solely a ministerial duty. See In re Whisnant, 71 N.C. App. 439 (1984).
    • At disposition, a judge must consider competent evidence that is necessary to determine the juvenile’s needs and most appropriate disposition. The signing of the order was not a ministerial act. The findings in the written order exceeded the four rendered findings by the first judge.
  • Stipulations of fact are permitted by G.S. 7B-807(a).  The parties stipulated to underlying facts of the adjudications, and those stipulated facts could properly have been included in the adjudication order. Stipulations to conclusions of law are generally invalid and are not binding on the trial or appellate courts. Here, the parties agreed to stipulations of fact, not a consent adjudication order under G.S. 7B-801(b1). The judge could not have relied solely on the stipulated conclusion of abuse and neglect for the juvenile’s adjudications. No other evidence was admitted.
Category:
Abuse, Neglect, Dependency
Stage:
Adjudicatory Hearing
Topic:
Evidence
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