IN RE: Stephanie LEE, Relator.
Argued Feb. 28, 2012. -- September 27, 2013
Marcela Halmagean, M. Halmagean PLLC, Scott Rothenberg, Law Offices of Scott, Houston, TX, for Stephanie Lee.John A. Ramirez, Office of The Attorney General, Houston, TX, Rande K. Herrell, Office of the Attorney, Austin, TX, for State of Texas.Georganna L. Simpson, Georganna L. Simpson, P.C., Steven Randall Morris, Attorney at Law, Dallas, TX, Richard R. Orsinger, McCurley Orsinger, McCurley Nelson & Downing LLP, San Antonio, TX, Thomas L. Ausley, Ausley Algert Robertson & Flores LLP, Austin, TX, for State Bar of Texas Family Law Council.Bill Davis, Jonathan F. Mitchell, Office of the Attorney General, Austin, TX, for Office of the Solicitor General of Texas.
“If a mediated settlement agreement meets [certain requirements], a party is entitled to judgment on the mediated settlement agreement notwithstanding ․ another rule of law.” Tex. Fam.Code § 153.0071(e) (emphasis added). We are called upon today to determine whether a trial court abuses its discretion in refusing to enter judgment on a statutorily compliant mediated settlement agreement (MSA) based on an inquiry into whether the MSA was in a child's best interest. We hold that this language means what it says: a trial court may not deny a motion to enter judgment on a properly executed MSA on such grounds. Accordingly, we conditionally grant the writ of mandamus.
Relator Stephanie Lee and Real Party in Interest Benjamin Redus are the parents and joint managing conservators of their minor daughter. Stephanie has the exclusive right to designate the child's primary residence under a 2007 order adjudicating parentage. Benjamin petitioned the court of continuing jurisdiction to modify that order, alleging that the circumstances had materially and substantially changed because Stephanie had relinquished primary care and possession of the child to him for at least six months. See Tex. Fam.Code § 156.101. Benjamin sought the exclusive right to determine the child's primary residence and requested modification of the terms and conditions of Stephanie's access to and possession of the child, alleging that Stephanie's “poor parenting decisions” had placed the child in danger. He also sought an order requiring that Stephanie's periods of access be supervised on the basis that she “has a history or pattern of child neglect directed against” the child. Additionally, Benjamin sought an order enjoining Stephanie from allowing the child within twenty miles of Stephanie's husband, Scott Lee, a registered sex offender, and requiring Stephanie to provide Benjamin with information on her whereabouts during her periods of access so that Benjamin could verify her compliance with the twenty-mile restriction.
Before proceeding to trial, the parties attended mediation at which they were both represented by counsel. The mediation ended successfully with the parties executing a mediated settlement agreement modifying the 2007 order. The MSA gives Benjamin the exclusive right to establish the child's primary residence, and it gives Stephanie periodic access to and possession of the child. Among the terms and conditions of Stephanie's access and possession, the MSA contains the following restriction concerning Scott:
At all times[,] Scott Lee is enjoined from being within 5 miles of [the child]. During [Stephanie]'s periods of possession with [the child,] Scott Lee shall notify [Benjamin] through Stephanie Lee by e-mail or other mail where he will be staying ․ [a]nd the make and model of the vehicle he will be driving. This shall be done at least 5 days prior to any visits. [Benjamin] shall have the right to have an agent or himself monitor Mr. Lee's location by either calling or driving by the location at reasonable times.
The introductory paragraph of the MSA explains that “[t]he parties wish to avoid potentially protracted and costly litigation, and agree and stipulate that they have carefully considered the needs of the child[ ] ․ and the best interest of the child.” The MSA also contains the following language in boldfaced, capitalized, and underlined letters:
THE PARTIES ALSO AGREE THAT THIS MEDIATION AGREEMENT IS BINDING ON BOTH OF THEM AND IS NOT SUBJECT TO REVOCATION BY EITHER OF THEM.
The MSA was signed by both Stephanie and Benjamin, as well as their attorneys.
Benjamin appeared before an associate judge to present and prove up the MSA. During Benjamin's testimony in support of the MSA, the associate judge inquired about the injunction regarding Scott. Benjamin informed the judge that Scott was a registered sex offender, and he testified that Scott “violated conditions of his probation with [Benjamin's] daughter in th[e] house” and that he “sle [pt] naked in bed with [Benjamin's] daughter between [Scott and Stephanie].” Stephanie did not attend the hearing and therefore was not able to respond to these allegations.1 Based on this testimony, the associate judge refused to enter judgment on the MSA.
Stephanie filed a motion to enter judgment on the MSA, and Benjamin filed a written objection withdrawing his consent to the MSA, arguing that it was not in the best interest of the child. At the hearing on Stephanie's motion, the district judge heard brief testimony on the MSA from Benjamin and Stephanie, including testimony regarding whether the MSA was in the child's best interest. Stephanie testified that she believed the MSA was in the child's best interest, and Benjamin also admitted on cross-examination that, at the time of execution, he thought the MSA was in the child's best interest. Both Stephanie and Benjamin testified that Benjamin was not a victim of family violence.
The judge also heard testimony on Scott's status as a registered sex offender. Stephanie testified that, in 2009, Scott was served with a violation of his deferred adjudication because of his contact with the child.2 Stephanie admitted that, although Scott was placed on additional probation conditions in 2011, she allowed Scott to have contact with the child and to reside in the same house with her and the child in violation of those conditions. Stephanie specifically denied that she ever allowed Scott to take care of the child without her supervision. Notably, although Benjamin testified that he knew about Scott's status as a registered sex offender, he did not repeat the allegation that Scott had slept naked with the child.
The district court concluded that entry of the MSA was not in the best interest of the child and denied Stephanie's motion to enter judgment. The court advised the parties that they were free to reach a new agreement on their own, but the court declined to send the parties back to mediation and instead set the case for trial.
Stephanie petitioned the court of appeals for a writ of mandamus ordering the trial court to enter judgment on the MSA. Stephanie argued that the trial court lacked discretion to refuse judgment based on the best interest determination. No. 14–11–00714–CV, 2011 WL 4036610, at *1. The court of appeals held “that the trial court [did] not commit[ ] a clear abuse of discretion in refusing to enter judgment on a mediated settlement agreement that is not in the child's best interest.” Id. at *2. Stephanie then timely petitioned this Court for a writ of mandamus.
II. The Need For Mediation in High–Conflict Custody Disputes
Encouragement of mediation as an alternative form of dispute resolution is critically important to the emotional and psychological well-being of children involved in high-conflict custody disputes. Indeed, the Texas Legislature has recognized that it is “the policy of this state to encourage the peaceable resolution of disputes, with special consideration given to disputes involving the parent-child relationship, including the mediation of issues involving conservatorship, possession, and support of children, and the early settlement of pending litigation through voluntary settlement procedures.” Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem.Code § 154.002 (emphasis added). This policy is well-supported by, inter alia, literature discussing the enormous emotional and financial costs of high-conflict custody litigation, including its harmful effect on children.3 Children involved in these disputes—tellingly, referred to as “custody battles”—can face perpetual emotional turmoil, alienation from one or both parents, and increased risk of developing psychological problems.4 All the while, most of these families have two adequate parents who merely act out of fear of losing their child. For the children themselves, the conflict associated with the litigation itself is often much greater than the conflict that led to a divorce or custody dispute.5 The Legislature has thus recognized that, because children suffer needlessly from traditional litigation, the amicable resolution of child-related disputes should be promoted forcefully. With the Legislature's stated policy in mind, we turn to the statute in question.
III. Statutory Interpretation
The sole issue before us today is whether a trial court presented with a request for entry of judgment on a validly executed MSA may deny a motion to enter judgment based on a best interest inquiry.6 While Texas trial courts have numerous tools at their disposal to safeguard children's welfare, the Legislature has clearly directed that, subject to a very narrow exception involving family violence, denial of a motion to enter judgment on an MSA based on a best interest determination, where that MSA meets the statutory requirements of section 153.0071(d) of the Texas Family Code, is not one of those tools. Accordingly, the trial court in this case abused its discretion by denying entry of judgment on the MSA and setting the matter for trial.7
A. Standard of Review
“We review questions of statutory construction de novo.” Molinet v. Kimbrell, 356 S.W.3d 407, 411 (Tex.2011). Our fundamental objective in interpreting a statute is “to determine and give effect to the Legislature's intent.” Am. Zurich Ins. Co. v. Samudio, 370 S.W.3d 363, 368 (Tex.2012); accord Molinet, 356 S.W.3d at 411. In turn, “[t]he plain language of a statute is the surest guide to the Legislature's intent.” Prairie View A & M Univ. v. Chatha, 381 S.W.3d 500, 507 (Tex.2012). “We take the Legislature at its word, and the truest measure of what it intended is what it enacted.” In re Office of Attorney Gen., ––– S.W.3d ––––, –––– (Tex.2013). “[U]nambiguous text equals determinative text,” and “ ‘[a]t this point, the judge's inquiry is at an end.’ “ Id. (quoting Alex Sheshunoff Mgmt. Servs., L.P. v. Johnson, 209 S.W.3d 644, 652 (Tex.2006)).
It is inappropriate to resort to rules of construction or extratextual information to construe a statute when its language is clear and unambiguous. Id. “This text-based approach requires us to study the language of the specific section at issue, as well as the statute as a whole.” Id. When construing the statute as a whole, we are mindful that “[i]f a general provision conflicts with a special or local provision, the provisions shall be construed, if possible, so that effect is given to both.” Tex. Gov't Code § 311.026(a). However, in the event that any such conflict is irreconcilable, the more specific provision will generally prevail. Id. § 311.026(b); see also In re Allcat Claims Serv., L.P., 356 S.W.3d 455, 470–71 (Tex.2011). Further, in the event of an irreconcilable conflict between two statutes, generally “the statute latest in date of enactment prevails.” Tex. Gov't Code § 311.025(a).
B. Section 153.0071
Consistent with the legislative policy discussed above regarding the encouragement of the peaceable resolution of disputes involving the parent-child relationship, the Legislature enacted section 153.0071 of the Family Code, which provides in pertinent part as follows:
(a) On written agreement of the parties, the court may refer a suit affecting the parent-child relationship to arbitration. The agreement must state whether the arbitration is binding or non-binding.
(b) If the parties agree to binding arbitration, the court shall render an order reflecting the arbitrator's award unless the court determines at a non-jury hearing that the award is not in the best interest of the child. The burden of proof at a hearing under this subsection is on the party seeking to avoid rendition of an order based on the arbitrator's award.
(c) On the written agreement of the parties or on the court's own motion, the court may refer a suit affecting the parent-child relationship to mediation.
(d) A mediated settlement agreement is binding on the parties if the agreement:
(1) provides, in a prominently displayed statement that is in boldfaced type or capital letters or underlined, that the agreement is not subject to revocation;
(2) is signed by each party to the agreement; and
(3) is signed by the party's attorney, if any, who is present at the time the agreement is signed.
(e) If a mediated settlement agreement meets the requirements of Subsection (d), a party is entitled to judgment on the mediated settlement agreement notwithstanding Rule 11, Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, or another rule of law.
(e–1) Notwithstanding Subsections (d) and (e), a court may decline to enter a judgment on a mediated settlement agreement if the court finds that:
(1) a party to the agreement was a victim of family violence, and that circumstance impaired the party's ability to make decisions; and
(2) the agreement is not in the child's best interest.
Tex. Fam.Code § 153.0071(a)–(e–1). Subsection (d) provides that an MSA is binding on the parties if it is signed by each party and by the parties' attorneys who are present at the mediation and states prominently and in emphasized type that it is not subject to revocation. Id. § 153.0071(d). Subsection (e) goes even further, providing that a party to an MSA is “entitled to judgment” on the MSA if it meets subsection (d)'s requirements. Id. § 153.0071(e). Finally, subsection (e–1), added in 2005, provides a narrow exception to subsection (e)'s mandate, allowing a court to decline to enter judgment on even a statutorily compliant MSA if a party to the agreement was a victim of family violence, the violence impaired the party's ability to make decisions, and the agreement is not in the best interest of the child. Act of June 18, 2005, 79th Leg., R.S., ch. 916, § 7, 2005 Tex. Gen. Laws 3148, 3150.
C. The Parties' Arguments
Stephanie argues that the trial court abused its discretion by refusing to enter judgment on the MSA and setting the case for trial. She contends that, under section 153.0071, she was “entitled to judgment on the [MSA]” because it complied with the statutory requirements. See Tex. Fam.Code § 153.0071(d)-(e). She further argues that a court may refuse to enter judgment on a properly executed MSA only when the family violence exception is met and the court finds that the MSA is not in the child's best interest. See id. § 153.0071(e–1). Because there was no family violence at issue in this case, she argues, this narrow exception does not apply.
In response, Benjamin first argues that the MSA does not meet the statutory requirements for a binding agreement because it was not signed by the Office of the Attorney General. Additionally, he argues that entry of judgment on an MSA that is not in the best interest of the child violates public policy and is unenforceable. His argument is based on the Family Code's mandate that “[t]he best interest of the child shall always be the primary consideration of the court in determining issues of conservatorship and possession .” Id. § 153.002. He argues that trial courts therefore have the discretion to void all or part of an MSA that is not in the child's best interest.
In response to our request that the Office of the Solicitor General provide the position of the State of Texas, the State submitted a brief in favor of the trial court's and court of appeals' disposition, arguing that the “overarching purpose of Texas Family Code chapter 153 is to ensure trial courts' ability to act in the best interests of minor children—even when their parents do not.” The State urges that we must not look at section 153.0071 in isolation; rather, we must construe it within the broader context of the Legislature's concern for the best interest of children as expressed in the Family Code. See id. §§ 153.001, .002. The State argues that, in light of this overarching state policy, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by refusing to enter judgment on the MSA.
Finally, the State Bar of Texas Family Law Council (the Council) submitted an amicus curiae brief in support of Stephanie's petition. The Council argues that a strict interpretation of section 153.0071 fulfills the state policy favoring amicable resolution of disputes and suggests that holding as the courts below did could lead to a loss in confidence in mediation and an increase in litigation over the best interest of the child. The Council argues that rules of statutory construction make clear that the Legislature intended to remove the best interest determination in the context of an MSA, instead deferring to parents to determine the best interest of the child, except where family violence is involved. See id. § 153.0071(e–1). The Council urges that to hold otherwise would “gut the legislative intent favoring alternative dispute resolution of family law matters by mediation,” increasing both the cost of the proceedings and the stress on families forced to resolve “their disputes in the adversarial venue of the courts, rather than the cooperative environment of mediation.” The Council contends that “[t]his result is certainly not in a child's best interest.”
D. Analysis of Section 153.0071
Section 153.0071(e) unambiguously states that a party is “entitled to judgment” on an MSA that meets the statutory requirements “notwithstanding Rule 11, Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, or another rule of law.” Id. § 153.0071(e). Subsection (e–1) provides a narrow exception, allowing a trial court to decline to enter judgment on an MSA when three requirements are all met: (1) a party to the agreement was a victim of family violence, and (2) the court finds the family violence impaired the party's ability to make decisions, and (3) the agreement is not in the child's best interest. Id. § 153.0071(e–1). By its plain language, section 153.0071 authorizes a court to refuse to enter judgment on a statutorily compliant MSA on best interest grounds only when the court also finds the family violence elements are met. Stated another way, “[t]he statute does not authorize the trial court to substitute its judgment for the mediated settlement agreement entered by the parties unless the requirements of subsection 153.0071(e–1) are met.” Barina v. Barina, No. 03–08–00341–CV, 2008 WL 4951224, at *4 (Tex.App.-Austin Nov.21, 2008, no pet.) (mem.op.). Subsection (e–1), enacted after subsection (e), makes it absolutely clear that the Legislature limited the consideration of best interest in the context of entry of judgment on an MSA to cases involving family violence. Allowing a court to decline to enter judgment on a valid MSA on best interest grounds without family violence findings would impermissibly render the family violence language in subsection (e–1) superfluous. See In re Caballero, 272 S.W.3d 595, 599 (Tex.2008) (reaffirming rule that courts must give effect to all words in a statute without treating any statutory language as mere surplusage).
Section 153.0071(b), governing arbitration of child-related disputes, is also instructive. In stark contrast with subsection (e), subsection (b) explicitly gives trial courts authority to decline an arbitrator's award when it is not in the best interest of the child. Compare Tex. Fam.Code § 153.0071(b), with id. § 153.0071(e). This distinction between arbitration and mediation makes sense because the two processes are very different. Mediation encourages parents to work together to settle their child-related disputes, and shields the child from many of the adverse effects of traditional litigation. On the other hand, arbitration simply moves the fight from the courtroom to the arbitration room. If the Legislature had intended to authorize courts to inquire into the child's best interest when determining whether to render judgment on validly executed MSAs, as it did in section 153.0071(b) with respect to judgments on arbitration awards, it certainly knew how to do so.
Benjamin argues that, despite section 153.0071's plain language, “[n]othing precludes the court from considering the best interests of the child, including a request for entry on a mediated settlement agreement.” Benjamin and the State are correct that the Family Code provides that “[t]he best interest of the child shall always be the primary consideration of the court in determining the issues of conservatorship and possession of and access to the child.” Id. § 153.002. However, section 153.0071(e) reflects the Legislature's determination that it is appropriate for parents to determine what is best for their children within the context of the parents' collaborative effort to reach and properly execute an MSA. This makes sense not only because parents are in a position to know what is best for their children, but also because successful mediation of child-custody disputes, conducted within statutory parameters, furthers a child's best interest by putting a halt to potentially lengthy and destructive custody litigation. However, as discussed further below, a trial judge with cause to believe that a child's welfare is at risk due to suspected abuse or neglect is required to report such abuse or neglect to an appropriate agency, as is any other individual with this type of knowledge. Id. §§ 261.101–.103. In this sense, parents who enter into MSAs are no different from the myriad of parents in intact families who are presumed to act in their children's best interests every day. See Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57, 65, 120 S.Ct. 2054, 147 L.Ed.2d 49 (2000) (observing that “the interest of parents in the care, custody, and control of their children[ ]is perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognized by this Court”).
To the extent the two statutes do conflict, applicable rules of construction require us to hold that section 153.0071 prevails. First, section 153.0071(e) mandates entry of judgment “notwithstanding Rule 11, Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, or another rule of law.” Tex. Fam.Code § 153.0071(e). The use of the word “notwithstanding” indicates that the Legislature intended section 153.0071 to be controlling. Molinet, 356 S.W.3d at 413–14 (holding that a “notwithstanding any other law” provision evidenced clear legislative intent to resolve any interpretation conflicts in favor of the statute containing the provision); see also Tex. Lottery Comm'n v. First State Bank of DeQueen, 325 S.W.3d 628, 639 (Tex.2010) (holding that a statute “manifest[ing] clear legislative intent that conflicting statutes are ineffective” controlled over such conflicting statutes).8
Further, the specific statutory language of section 153.0071(e) trumps section 153.002's more general mandate. Tex. Gov't Code § 311.026(b); see also Jackson v. State Office of Admin. Hearings, 351 S.W.3d 290, 297 (Tex.2011) (reiterating the rule that specific statutory provisions prevail over general mandates). Finally, the MSA provision was added long after the general “best interest” provision and therefore prevails as “the statute latest in date of enactment.” Tex. Gov't Code § 311.025(a); Jackson, 351 S.W.3d at 297. Thus, it is clear that the MSA statute was enacted with the intent that, when parents have agreed that a particular arrangement is in their child's best interest and have reduced that agreement to a writing complying with section 153.0071, courts must defer to them and their agreement.
For these reasons, we hold that section 153.0071(e) encourages parents to peaceably resolve their child-related disputes through mediation by foreclosing a broad best interest inquiry with respect to entry of judgment on properly executed MSAs,9 ensuring that the time and money spent on mediation will not have been wasted and that the benefits of successful mediation will be realized. Allowing courts to conduct such an inquiry in contravention of the unambiguous statutory mandate in section 153.0071 has severe consequences that will inevitably harm children. The decisions below ignore clearly expressed legislative intent, undermining the Legislature's goal of protecting children by eroding parents' incentive to work collaboratively for their children's welfare. This frustrates the policies underlying alternative dispute resolution in the custody context, which are firmly grounded in the protection of children.10
IV. A Trial Court's Duty to Take Protective Action
The dissent is concerned that the statute, as written, would require trial courts to ignore evidence that the parents' agreed arrangement would endanger a child by subjecting the child to neglect or abuse. This case, however, does not present that issue. The trial court in this case refused to enter judgment on the parents' MSA because the court believed the agreed arrangement was not in the child's best interest, not because the court believed the arrangement would subject the child to neglect or abuse or would otherwise endanger the child. Thus, we need not, and should not, decide in this case the contours of a trial court's duties and discretion when faced with an MSA that would endanger a child, as that issue is not before us and any such opinion would be advisory.
Nevertheless, because endangerment appears to lie at the heart of the dissent's concern, we are compelled to note that section 153.0071 does not require a trial court to blindly leave a child whose welfare is at risk in harm's way. To the contrary, courts can never stand idly by while children are placed in situations that threaten their health and safety. However, this does not mean courts can refuse to abide by section 153.0071(e) by denying a motion to enter judgment on a properly executed MSA on best interest grounds.11 Trial courts have other statutorily endorsed methods by which to protect children from harm without eviscerating section 153.0071(e)'s mandatory language or reading language into the statute under the guise of “interpreting” it.
The Family Code provides trial courts with numerous mechanisms for protecting a child's physical and emotional welfare, both during and after the pendency of a suit affecting the parent-child relationship (SAPCR). For example, a trial court may find it necessary to involve a government agency like the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS), the agency charged with the duty to investigate and protect endangered children, before rendering final judgment. Specifically, a court “having cause to believe that a child's physical or mental health or welfare has been adversely affected by abuse or neglect ․ shall immediately ” notify DFPS or another appropriate agency. Tex. Fam.Code § 261.101 (emphasis added); see also id. § 261.103. Under these and related statutes, when a person has cause to believe that a child is being or may be harmed by abuse or neglect, a DFPS investigation will be triggered, regardless of whether a SAPCR is pending. Id. § 261.101; id. § 261.301(a) (“The investigation shall be conducted without regard to any pending suit affecting the parent-child relationship.”); see also id. § 153.0071(g) (stating that the applicability of the provisions for confidentiality of alternative dispute resolution procedures “does not affect the duty of a person to report abuse or neglect under Section 261.101”).12 In these and similar types of situations, a trial court may enter temporary orders, temporary restraining orders, and temporary injunctions to protect a child's safety and welfare, all upon proper motion, before rendering the final order.13 The trial court may also appoint a representative for the child, such as an amicus attorney or an attorney ad litem. See id. § 107.021. Even after issuing a final order, a trial court may act to protect the safety and welfare of a child by issuing protective orders, by issuing temporary orders during an appeal, by ruling on motions to modify, or through habeas corpus proceedings, again upon proper motion.14
While instigating any of the protective measures described above or elsewhere in the Family Code does not allow a trial court to conduct a broad best interest inquiry in ruling on a motion to enter judgment on an MSA under section 153.0071, it may warrant the trial court's exercise of discretion to continue the MSA hearing for a reasonable time. This allows the trial court, upon proper motion, to render any temporary orders that might be necessary and to determine whether further protective action should be taken. In the event the trial court involves DFPS, a continuance will provide the court with the benefit of the resulting investigation.
Finally, we note that the Legislature's choice to defer to the parties' best interest determination in the specific context of mediation recognizes that there are safeguards inherent in that particular form of dispute resolution compared to various other methods of amicably settling disputes.15 Under Texas law, “[m]ediation is a forum in which an impartial person, the mediator, facilitates communication between parties to promote reconciliation, settlement, or understanding among them.” Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem.Code § 154.023(a). To qualify for appointment by the court as an impartial third party when a case is referred to an alternative dispute resolution procedure like mediation, a person must meet certain requirements for training in alternative dispute resolution techniques. Id. § 154.052(a). To qualify for appointment “in a dispute relating to the parent-child relationship,” the person must complete additional training “in the fields of family dynamics, child development, and family law.” Id. § 154.052(b). Significantly, all participants in the proceeding, “including the impartial third party,” are subject to the mandatory DFPS reporting requirements discussed above. Id. § 154.053(d). Thus, the process itself is geared toward protecting children.16
In sum, we hold today that a trial court may not deny a motion to enter judgment on a properly executed MSA under section 153.0071 based on a broad best interest inquiry. But we certainly do not hold that a child's welfare may be ignored. Rather, we recognize that section 261.101's mandatory duty to report abuse or neglect, the numerous other statutes authorizing protective action by the trial court, and the safeguards inherent in the mediation process fulfill the need to ensure that children are protected. And they do so without subjecting MSAs to an impermissible level of scrutiny that threatens to undermine the benefits of mediation. The trial court's authority to continue an MSA hearing and to take protective action under the various statutes discussed above is triggered not by a determination that an MSA is not in a child's best interest, but by evidence that a child's welfare is in jeopardy. Thus, the mediation process and its benefits are preserved, and, most importantly, children are protected.
V. The MSA in This Case
The MSA in this case contains a broad range of provisions governing conservatorship of the child, responsibility for health insurance and medical expenses for the child, child support, possession of and access to the child, and allocation of other parental rights and duties. Included among these is the protective provision enjoining Scott from being within five miles of the child at all times, requiring Stephanie to provide Benjamin with information on Scott's whereabouts during her visits with the child, and allowing Benjamin to monitor compliance with the provision.17 Compliance with the MSA, then, means the child will have no contact with Scott.
As is relevant to section 153.0071, the MSA is signed by the parties and their lawyers,18 and it displays in boldfaced, capitalized, and underlined letters that it is irrevocable; thus, it meets the statutory requirements described in that statute to make the agreement binding on Stephanie and Benjamin. See Tex. Fam.Code § 153.0071(d). Additionally, the parties admit that Benjamin was not a victim of family violence, and thus the exception in subsection (e–1) does not apply. The trial court nevertheless denied the motion to enter judgment on the MSA and set the matter for trial based on the court's conclusion that the MSA was not in the child's best interest.19 Because section 153.0071 did not permit the court to do so, the court's actions were an abuse of discretion.
VI. Additional Response to the Dissent
The dissent claims that the Court's holding compels trial courts to disregard the fundamental public policies of protecting children from harm and acting in their best interests. ––– S.W.3d at ––––. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, we are respecting the Legislature's well-supported policy determination, reflected in the plain language of the MSA statute, that courts should defer to the parties' determinations regarding the best interest of their children when those decisions are made in the context of a statutorily compliant MSA. As discussed above, the harmful effects of litigation in family disputes are well-documented, leading the Legislature to vigorously promote the avoidance of such litigation. This is particularly so when the parties reach agreement pursuant to the mediation process, which is itself designed to ensure that children are protected. The dissent engages in a tortured reading of the MSA statute, flouts well-settled principles of statutory interpretation, and ignores the ramifications of discouraging mediation. And it does so unnecessarily, as our children's welfare can, and indeed must, be protected at the same time that the mediation process and its benefits are preserved.
We agree with the dissent that “[s]urely the Legislature did not commit a useless act in enacting each of more than one hundred statutory provisions to assist courts in determining how and when to consider a child's best interest.” ––– S.W.3d at ––––. direction to courts to make best interest determinations in so many other provisions reinforces our interpretation of section 153.0071, rather than the dissent's, and highlights the particular policy considerations, discussed at length above, underlying enforcement of statutorily compliant MSAs. The dissent erroneously concludes that those provisions support grafting similar language onto section 153.0071, even though the Legislature chose not to include it. For example, the dissent reads subsection (e–1), the family violence exception, “to allow a trial court to consider the terms of a modification when the presumption that MSA parties act in the best interest of the child has been negated.” Id. at ––––.20 But the exception is not nearly as broad as the dissent suggests. Instead, the Legislature carefully identified the specific circumstance in which a trial court may override the parties' best interest determinations and decline to enter judgment on an MSA: when a party to the MSA is a victim of family violence, and the family violence impaired the party's ability to make decisions.21 Tex. Fam.Code § 153.0071(e–1). The dissent's insistence that “nothing in the statute expressly limits a trial court's authority to decline to enter judgment on a properly executed, binding MSA to the family violence context addressed in section 153.0071(e–1)” raises the question: why include the exception at all? See ––– S.W.3d at ––––.
The dissent dismisses our concern that allowing statutorily compliant MSAs to be set aside on best interest grounds will interfere with the state policy favoring peaceable resolution of family disputes and will discourage parties from engaging in mediation. Id. at ––––. We disagree, as (apparently) did the Legislature in failing to include a best interest determination as a prerequisite for or barrier to entry of judgment on an MSA. Why would parties spend considerable time, effort, and money to mediate their dispute in accordance with the statutory requirements when the trial court could very well decide to hold a full trial on the merits anyway? The dissent's claim that this will happen only in rare cases simply is not supportable.
To that end, a trial court's determination that an MSA is not in a child's best interest is not dependent upon, or equivalent to, a finding that the child has been harmed by abuse or neglect or is in danger of such harm. Rather, “best interest” is a term of art encompassing a much broader, facts-and-circumstances based evaluation that is accorded significant discretion. See Holley v. Adams, 544 S.W.2d 367, 371–72 (Tex.1976) (identifying nine factors that may be considered in determining best interest).22 Under the dissent's interpretation, the trial court would thus have significant leeway, in contravention of the statute's intent, to decide when entry of judgment on a statutorily compliant MSA is or is not appropriate. The possibility that this would lead to an increase in child-related litigation is very real, as parents would be encouraged to contest on best interest grounds the very agreements that they freely entered into through mediation.23 Even more concerning, parents would be discouraged from using the mediation process to begin with, out of concern that their agreements could be ignored and their efforts wasted.
Ultimately, the dissent's suggestion that enforcing section 153.0071 as written leads to an absurd result falls flat. If it were indeed the case that our interpretation would leave trial courts with no ability to protect a child from an MSA that put a child's welfare at risk, we would agree with that suggestion. But as discussed at length above, that simply is not the case, as trial courts have numerous tools at their disposal to protect children that operate in conjunction with, rather than in opposition to, the mandate in section 153.0071.24
Because the MSA in this case meets the Family Code's requirements for a binding agreement, and because neither party was a victim of family violence, we hold that the trial court abused its discretion by denying the motion to enter judgment on the MSA. Accordingly, we conditionally grant mandamus relief. We order the trial court to withdraw its orders denying entry of judgment on the MSA and setting the matter for trial. We are confident that the court will comply, and the writ will issue only if it does not.
In this mandamus proceeding, the Court must construe section 153.0071 of the Texas Family Code to determine whether the trial court abused its discretion by refusing to enter judgment on a properly executed mediated settlement agreement (MSA) and instead setting the matter for trial. Despite discord on other issues, the opinions make several matters apparent. First, the Court holds that section 153.0071 of the Family Code prohibits a trial court from conducting a broad best-interest inquiry at a hearing for the purpose of entering judgment on a properly executed MSA.1 Second, a different majority of the Court would hold that a trial court does not abuse its discretion by refusing to enter judgment on an MSA that could endanger the safety and welfare of a child—an issue on which the remaining four justices express no opinion.2 Third, no Justice disputes that trial courts possess a number of mechanisms to protect children from endangerment, such as issuing temporary orders and contacting the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. Finally, a majority of the Court agrees that if there is evidence of endangerment, an additional mechanism the trial court possesses to protect the child is to refuse to enter judgment on the MSA.
I write separately because although I agree with Court that section 153.0071 precludes a broad best-interest inquiry, I also believe that it does not preclude an endangerment inquiry. The Court fails to address the endangerment inquiry, but I believe the issue is critical because the facts of this case potentially implicate the inquiry—discussion of which provides much-needed guidance to trial courts. I agree with the Court that mandamus is appropriate because there is legally insufficient evidence of endangerment to support the trial court's decisions to set aside the MSA and place the matter on its trial docket. The trial court sustained a hearsay objection to the only statement at the hearing that could have demonstrated the mother might not comply with the MSA (a statement from the father that the mother informed him after signing the MSA that she did not have to inform him of her and her husband's whereabouts). Thus, this record is sparse and does not establish the threshold I believe must be met before a trial court may disregard legislative policy concerning the deference to which MSAs are entitled. Accordingly, I believe the trial court abused its discretion and therefore join the Court's decision to conditionally grant mandamus relief as well as all but Parts IV and VI of the Court's opinion. If on remand the trial court considers evidence and finds that entry of judgment on the MSA could endanger the child, I am certain the trial court will take appropriate action.
The parties in this case entered into a settlement agreement after a lengthy mediation in which they were both represented by counsel. The MSA was memorialized in accordance with section 153.0071(d) of the Family Code, which requires trial courts to enter judgment on a properly executed MSA notwithstanding any other rule of law (unless the MSA was procured due to family violence). Tex. Fam.Code §§ 153.0071(d)–(e–1). But, as often happens in family law cases, the agreement began to unravel after the parties left the mediation. In fact, this particular agreement began to fall apart during the “prove-up” in front of an associate judge.3
The matter was subsequently presented to the district court judge, who conducted a de novo hearing and expressly indicated she did not have the record from the hearing before the associate judge.4 The trial court heard limited evidence and argument from the child's mother, Stephanie Lee, and father, Benjamin Redus. Although Redus had alleged before the associate judge that Stephanie allowed her husband—a convicted sex offender—to sleep naked with Redus's daughter in the bed, tellingly, he did not repeat this allegation to the trial court. And importantly, this record does not establish that the trial court considered Redus's prior testimony.
In refusing to enter judgment on the MSA, the trial court held, without further explanation, that the MSA was “not in the best interest of the child [ ].” In addition to entering an order refusing to enter judgment on the MSA, the trial court set the entire matter for trial.
The question in this mandamus proceeding is whether the trial court's orders denying the MSA and setting the matter for trial constitute an abuse of discretion. Mandamus relief will lie if the relator establishes a clear abuse of discretion for which there is no adequate appellate remedy. In re AutoNation, Inc., 228 S.W.3d 663, 667 (Tex.2007) (orig.proceeding). A trial court clearly abuses its discretion if it reaches a decision so arbitrary and unreasonable as to constitute a clear and prejudicial error of law. Walker v. Packer, 827 S.W.2d 833, 839 (Tex.1992) (orig.proceeding). Regarding factual issues, a trial court abuses its discretion if it reasonably could only have reached one decision. Id. at 840; see GTE Commc'ns Sys. Corp. v. Tanner, 856 S.W.2d 725, 729 (Tex.1993) (orig.proceeding) (granting mandamus relief when no evidence supported trial court determination). But a trial court has no discretion in determining what the law is or in applying the law to the facts, even when an area of the law is unsettled. Walker, 827 S.W.2d at 840; Huie v. DeShazo, 922 S.W.2d 920, 927–28 (Tex.1996) (orig.proceeding).
Here, Stephanie argues that the court's refusing to enter judgment on the MSA and setting the matter for trial were abuses of discretion because section 153.0071 of the Family Code forecloses a broad best-interest inquiry. Redus contends that the trial court's actions were proper because the Family Code always allows a trial court to examine the best interests of the child.
Our courts of appeals have wrestled with precisely what inquiry, if any, section 153.0071 allows.5 I agree with the Court that section 153.0071 in fact forecloses a broad best-interest inquiry. In doing so, the statute furthers the time-honored “presumption that fit parents act in the best interests of their children”6 and comports with the public policy and purpose of mediation by letting the parties settle their affairs “as they see fit”—keeping those matters out of the courtroom.7
But I disagree that this principle alone resolves this proceeding. I agree with the dissent to the extent it believes that a contextual reading of the Family Code allows a narrow inquiry into whether entering judgment on an MSA could endanger the safety and welfare of a child.8 See Tex. Dep't of Transp. v. City of Sunset Valley, 146 S.W.3d 637, 642 (Tex.2004) (“We must read the statute as a whole and not just isolated portions.”). The dissent convincingly argues that requiring the trial court to enter a judgment that could endanger the child would be an absurd result. ––– S.W.3d ––––, –––– (Green, J., dissenting). It is, in my view, not only absurd but also plainly nonsensical and against public policy to read section 153.0071 to require a trial court to enter judgment on an MSA when presented with evidence that doing so could endanger the child.9 See Combs v. Health Care Servs. Corp., 401 S.W.3d 623, 630 (Tex.2013); Molinet v. Kimbrell, 356 S.W.3d 407, 411 (Tex.2011). In holding that the statute forecloses the broad best-interest inquiry, the Court does not expressly state whether the Family Code allows a narrow endangerment inquiry.10 But allowing the inquiry places the statute in accord with the Family Code's many mechanisms to protect the safety and welfare of children11 and preserves the right of the State, as parens patriae, to intervene when parents' decisions could endanger the safety and welfare of their children.12
Here, however, even assuming the trial court's inquiry was a narrow inquiry into whether entering judgment on the MSA could endanger the child, the dissent and I diverge as to whether there was legally sufficient evidence of endangerment.
Applying the above framework, it was an abuse of discretion for the trial court to refuse the MSA and set the matter for trial because no legally sufficient evidence of endangerment was admitted at the de novo hearing. Initially, it is important to note the MSA contains an injunction requiring Scott Lee, a registered sex offender, to not be within five miles of the daughter when Stephanie has possession of her and to inform Redus through Stephanie of Scott's whereabouts during Stephanie's possession. As the Court properly observes, “[c]ompliance with the MSA, then, means the child will have no contact with Scott.” ––– S.W.3d ––––, ––––. Thus, entering judgment on the MSA could only endanger the daughter if Stephanie violated the MSA by allowing Scott to violate the injunction.
There was no legally sufficient evidence admitted at the hearing before the trial court that Stephanie would violate the MSA by allowing Scott to violate the injunction. Redus testified at the hearing that approximately one week after signing the MSA, Stephanie informed him that “I don't have to tell you everywhere we go.” But the trial court sustained opposing counsel's hearsay objection to the statement. Redus did not challenge that ruling on appeal, and neither side asked Stephanie if she intended to comply with the MSA. Because on its face the MSA does not endanger the child, and the trial court heard no legally sufficient evidence that entering judgment on the MSA could endanger the child because Stephanie would violate the MSA, mandamus relief is warranted for this particular situation. See Walker, 827 S.W.2d at 840.13
The dissent mischaracterizes the record in an attempt to buttress its conclusion that the trial court did not abuse its discretion. Specifically, the dissent concludes that “[n]ot only did this mother admit on the record that she allowed her daughter to have unsupervised visitation with a registered sex offender, but her testimony informed the trial court that she had helped her husband to violate the terms of an existing court order by allowing such contact.” ––– S.W.3d at –––– (Green, J., dissenting). The law and the record, however, belie this bold assertion. As to the law, courts must presume parties will comply with their orders, just as we presume that fit parents act in the best interest of their children (including when entering into MSAs).14 Section 153.0071 enforces these presumptions unless there is rebutting evidence that entering judgment on the MSA could endanger the safety and welfare of the child. As to the record, Stephanie never testified whether she would comply with the MSA. The dissent relies upon testimony by Stephanie that it believes indicates she knew Scott had violated his probation. ––– S.W.3d at –––– & n. 2 (Green, J., dissenting). But this is not evidence that Stephanie would violate the potential court order at issue. Importantly, unlike the probation order—which would not subject Stephanie to punishment for violations—a judgment on this MSA would bind Stephanie to comply and subject her to contempt of court, including potential incarceration, for a violation. And notably, even this testimony itself is not as unequivocal as the dissent suggests. When specifically asked about Scott's probation violation, Stephanie stated that it “was that he was—I had unsupervised visitation contact with my daughter,” an ambiguous statement at best. Later, upon direct inquiry as to whether she allowed unsupervised visits to occur, Stephanie responded “[n]o, she has not.” Though the hearing involved no further inquiry as to this issue, the dissent interprets this testimony to mean unsupervised contact did occur between Stephanie's husband and her daughter—which is still irrelevant to the MSA. ––– S.W.3d at –––– & n. 2 (Green, J., dissenting).
Finally, it is not uncommon for family courts to find themselves at a crossroads between divining the legislature's intent on a particular statute and making expedient decisions regarding the safety and welfare of the children entrusted to their judgment. Often, they must interpret statutory language without the benefit of guidance from the court of last resort. This difficulty is greatly heightened by the significant effect family law decisions have on the daily lives of parties. I have no doubt that the experienced trial judge in this case—now having the benefit of this Court's interpretation—will protect the safety and welfare of the child within the parameters established by the Family Code and consistent with legislative policy choices embodied in section 153.0071.
In sum, I believe section 153.0071 of the Family Code precludes a broad best-interest inquiry. A trial court may, however, when presented with evidence that entering judgment on an MSA could endanger the safety and welfare of a child, refuse to enter judgment on the MSA. But because the record before us today reveals no legally sufficient evidence that entering judgment on the MSA could endanger the safety and welfare of the child, I join all but Parts IV and VI of the Court's opinion, as well as its decision that conditional mandamus relief is warranted. See Walker, 827 S.W.2d at 840.
Justice LEHRMANN announced the Court's decision and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II, III, V, and VII, in which Justice JOHNSON, Justice WILLETT, Justice GUZMAN, and Justice BOYD joined, and delivered an opinion with respect to Parts IV and VI, in which Justice JOHNSON, Justice WILLETT, and Justice BOYD joined.
Justice GUZMAN filed a concurring opinion.Justice GREEN filed a dissenting opinion, in which Chief Justice JEFFERSON, Justice HECHT, and Justice DEVINE joined.