Monday, January 29, 2007
Selection of Grandparent as Guardian ad Litem Upheld
Father Not Entitled to Control Selection Where Conflict Exists, Panel Says
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A San Diego Superior Court judge did not violate the constitutional rights of a father by appointing his late wife’s mother, rather than his parents, to protect the legal rights of his children after their mother was killed in a car crash.
A parent’s right to made decisions regarding his children’s welfare “is not absolute,” Justice Judith Haller wrote for Div. One.
“Of particular relevance here, it has long been recognized that a trial court has the responsibility to protect the rights of a minor who is a litigant in court...and in this role the court has the inherent authority to make decisions in the best interests of the child, even if the parent objects,” the court explained. “This judicial protection of minors encompasses a court‘s authority to select a guardian ad litem who is not the parent or general guardian,” even if this disrupts family harmony, Haller wrote.
The appellate panel denied a petition for writ of mandate sought by Bradley Williams, who had separated from Jennifer Williams about five months before she was killed when her car was struck head-on by a tow truck. The couple’s daughters, ages eight and four at the time, went to live with their father.
Approximately seven weeks later, Bradley Williams filed suit in San Diego, naming the tow truck driver and his employer among the defendants. He also applied for appointment of two attorneys, both family law specialists, as guardians ad litem, and the court agreed.
A short time later, Jennifer Williams’ mother, Kathleen Mayes, petitioned the court to name her as a replacement for the guardians ad litem, asserting that a conflict existed because the father and his daughters were co-claimants. Mayes added that she would serve without compensation—the guardians ad litem originally named were planning to charge $300 per hour for their services—and was not seeking damages in the action.
Judge Linda Quinn set the matter for mediation, but Bradley Williams dismissed the suit before it could take place. Williams and his attorneys did not inform Mayes or her attorney of the dismissal, and the mediation went forward, lasting several hours but not resulting in an agreement on the guardian ad litem issue.
Mayes’ attorney then applied to have the suit reinstated, which Williams opposed, in part because he had the “absolute right to decide which attorney will represent his minor children,” he asserted. The court denied the motion, agreeing with the father’s counsel that it lacked jurisdiction once the dismissal was filed.
Mayes immediately filed a new action on her behalf of her granddaughters, with Williams a nominal defendant in accordance with the wrongful death statute. The suit was then assigned to Judge Kevin Enright.
Approximately five hours later, the paternal grandparents filed their own action, in the East District of the Superior Court in El Cajon. On the same day, Williams petitioned to have his parents named as guardians ad litem in the new action.
Judge Eddie Sturgeon, sitting in El Cajon, granted the appointment. He was not informed of the proceedings in San Diego, nor was Enright, who granted Mayes’ application for appointment as guardian ad litem, informed of the proceedings in El Cajon.
Williams then asked Enright to vacate his appointment of Mayes. He claimed that Mayes was “emotionally unstable,” that she did not have a close relationship with the girls, that the familial relationship had been strained for a long time before Jennifer Williams died, and that his parents were much closer to the children and would do a better job as guardians ad litem.
Mayes responded that she was very close to her daughter, who had already purchased a new residence because she had no intent of reconciling with Williams, and that she wanted to be the guardian ad litem because Williams’ attorney had told her that Williams wanted half the proceeds of the lawsuit, whereas Mayes believed that the bulk of any recovery should go to the children.
Enright ruled, based on the “whole situation,” as he put it, that Mayes should be the sole guardian ad litem. He also ruled that the suit filed in El Cajon should be abated because the summons in the San Diego action was served first.
Rejecting Williams’ claim that Enright’s ruling violated his rights as a parent, Haller emphasized that this was not a case in which the parties were disputing whether a suit should be filed on the children’s behalf, and that Williams conceded the potential conflict between his children’s interests and his own.
While Williams is entitled to raise his children as he sees fit, generally speaking, cases hold that the court has a responsibility to protect their legal interests, the justice wrote. “To the extent Father is asking us to depart from this well-settled authority and create a new federal constitutional right for a parent to select a guardian ad litem even where the parent has a conflict of interest, we decline to do so,” Haller said.
The case is Williams v. Superior Court (Mayes), 07 S.O.S. 460.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company