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No jurisdictional defect in parental rights case

Virginia Lawyers Weekly//February 17, 2020

No jurisdictional defect in parental rights case

Virginia Lawyers Weekly//February 17, 2020

The circuit court erred when it determined that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction over a county social services department’s petitions for permanency planning and parental rights termination of appellee’s two children.


After an investigation, the Culpepper County Department of Social Services filed emergency removal petitions for appellees’ two children because she was unable to care for them. The DSS initially proceeded with plans to return the children to their home but after a reassessment, the DSS proceeded with adoption plans and filed petitions for permanency planning and to terminate appellee’s parental rights.

“In J.C.’s cases, the petition for permanency planning, foster care plan, and foster care plan transmittal form were each stamped ‘received’ on July 2, 2018, and the clerk’s office prepared corresponding summonses the next day. A petition for termination of parental rights was subsequently filed on July 24, 2018.

“In D.C.’s cases, the foster care plan and foster care plan transmittal form were each stamped ‘received’ on July 2, 2018. The petition for permanency planning, however, was not stamped. Nonetheless, corresponding summonses for the permanency planning hearing were prepared by the clerk’s office on July 2, 2018.

“As in J.C.’s case, the petition for termination of parental rights in D.C.’s case was filed on July 24, 2018.

“The four petitions came before the JDR court and were granted on December 18, 2018. Mother appealed to the circuit court. On March 12, 2019, at the outset of the de novo hearing on appeal, the circuit court, acting sua sponte, raised concerns over its jurisdiction. Mother then moved to dismiss all four petitions for lack of jurisdiction.

“Mother contended that none of the relevant documents were ‘filed’ because the clerk’s office had only stamped the documents ‘received’ and not ‘filed.’ Mother also noted that the petition for permanency planning associated with J.C. had no stamp –  ‘received’ or otherwise – from the clerk’s office. These deficiencies, mother argued, deprived the circuit court of jurisdiction over the cases.”

McClanahan, the Culpepper County’s JDR court clerk, testified “that the clerk’s office considers documents to be filed when they are received. She also identified the ‘received’ stamps on the documents as being the stamp issued to her by the Supreme Court of Virginia.

“Regarding the unstamped petition for permanency planning, McClanahan had no direct knowledge of its filing date. However, she testified that her office does not accept any petition for permanency planning unless it is accompanied by the other necessary documents, to include foster care plans and a foster care plan transmittal form. Therefore, she claimed that a ‘received stamp’ and date on any of those documents indicated that accompanying documents were also filed that day. …

“[T]he circuit court determined that it lacked jurisdiction over the cases. It held that a document being ‘received’ is not the same as ‘filed’ under Rule 1:4(h). Because none of the petitions in either case were stamped ‘filed’ by the JDR court, the circuit court determined that none of the petitions were properly ‘filed’ for purposes of Rule 1:4(h). Therefore, the circuit court ruled that it had no jurisdiction and ordered the appeals dismissed.”


“‘It is well-settled that when exercising its appellate jurisdiction in a de novo appeal, the circuit court’s subject matter jurisdiction is derivative of the court not of record from which that appeal is taken. … Therefore, when exercising its de novo appellate jurisdiction, the circuit court has no more subject matter jurisdiction than the … district court had in that court’s original proceeding.’ …

“Accordingly, the scope of the JDR court’s subject matter jurisdiction is dispositive of the circuit court’s subject matter jurisdiction. … [T]he circuit court erred when it determined that it lacked subject matter (or potential) jurisdiction.”

The circuit court ruled that that the receiving of a petition is not the same as the filing of a petition, which occurs when the petition becomes part of the record. “The circuit court further held that the petitions failed to meet the requirements of Rule 1:4(h), thereby implicitly determining that Rule 1:4(h) is jurisdictional. The circuit court erred on both accounts.

“The record is clear that each of the four petitions in these matters was filed. ‘When not filed electronically, a pleading is filed when it is physically delivered to the clerk of court.’ … Each of the four petitions appears in the record transmitted to the circuit court by the JDR court. Necessarily then, each of the petitions was delivered to the clerk of the JDR court and each of them was therefore ‘filed.’ That the clerk’s office stamped documents ‘received’ as opposed to ‘filed’ is of no import in determining whether the documents were filed. …

“Rule 1:4(h) … provides that ‘[t]he clerk shall note and attest the filing date on every pleading.’… Setting aside the fact that a document is ‘filed’ when the clerk ‘receives’ it, compliance with Rule 1:4(h) is not jurisdictional.

“It has long been the law that a litigant who complied with the requirements prescribed by the rules of court ‘should not be denied a review simply because of an error made by a ministerial officer of the court.’ … Thus, whether the clerk’s office’s attestation satisfies Rule 1:4(h) has no bearing on whether the court can assume active jurisdiction over the matter. The controlling factor is whether the document was timely filed.”

Reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

Culpepper County Dep’t of Social Services v. Caison, Record No. 0867-19-4, Jan. 28, 2020. CAV (Huff) from Culpepper Cir. Ct. (Whitlock). Bobbi Jo Alexis for the county, Christian A, Brashear, guardian ad litem for the children, James S. Reid for appellee. VLW 020-7-016, 10 pp. Unpublished.

VLW 020-7-016

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