2007 VT 88
2007 VT 88
SUPREME COURT DOCKET NO. 2006-129
Christina Cardiff and Office of Child Support } APPEALED FROM:
} DOCKET NO. 166-7-03 Cadm
Trial Judge: M. Kathleen Manley
In the above-entitled cause, the Clerk will enter:
¶ 1 The Office of Child Support (OCS) and mother* appeal a decision of the family court that no child support obligation may accrue against father while he receives public assistance benefits. 33 V.S.A. § 3902(e). We agree with the family court that, under the plain language of § 3902(e), “[w]hen a responsible parent is receiving welfare assistance . . . no amounts shall accrue or be collected under the support order while the welfare assistance is being received.” We therefore affirm.
¶ 2 The relevant facts are few. Mother and father have one child together, who lives with mother. After a contested hearing in January 2004, the family court magistrate temporarily set father’s monthly support obligation at $528.68 based on his job as a mechanic. The case was continued for further hearing in April 2004 to address, in part, father’s request for a reduction of his support obligation. By then, father was no longer employed as a mechanic, and he, his wife, and her child received Reach Up Financial Assistance (RUFA), formerly known as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). The magistrate denied his request for a reduction based on her finding that father had voluntarily quit his job, and thus, income should be imputed to him at his previous rate of earnings. See 15 V.S.A. § 653(5)(A)(iii) (including parent’s potential income as “gross income” for purposes of child support if parent is voluntarily unemployed, subject to conditions). Father did not appeal that order, but also did not pay his child support obligation, resulting in OCS’s initiation of an enforcement proceeding against him in January 2005.
¶ 3 In September 2005, the magistrate entered judgment in favor of mother in the amount of $6615.39, including child support arrears of $6262.43. Over father’s objection, the magistrate declined to exempt him from his child support obligation during the period his household received public assistance. Although noting that 33 V.S.A. § 3902(e) “automatically cease[s] payment of child support upon [the] obligor’s receipt” of statutory benefits, the magistrate concluded that this provision “squarely conflicts” with other, more recent child support statutes and case law, discussed below. The magistrate ultimately refused to exempt father from his obligation based solely on his receipt of public assistance because it would be “an absurd and irrational result,” and one contrary to the “stated policy of the Legislature that parents must support their children.” Father appealed the magistrate’s § 3902(e) analysis to the family court, which, in February 2006, reversed. OCS thereafter appealed the family court’s order to this Court.
The sole question on appeal, therefore, is whether child support may
accrue or be collected while the obligor parent receives public assistance,
including RUFA benefits, under § 3902(e). As a matter of statutory
interpretation, our review is de novo. Wright v. Bradley, 2006 VT
100, ¶ 6, ___
¶ 5 The full text of 33 V.S.A. § 3902(e) is as follows:
When a responsible parent is receiving welfare assistance under Title XVI of the Social Security Act or chapter 11 of this title, on the parent’s own behalf or on behalf of a dependent child, no amounts shall accrue or be collected under the support order while the welfare assistance is being received. The commissioner shall monitor receipt of welfare assistance by responsible parents to ensure collection action is not instituted while welfare assistance is being received and that collection action is instituted promptly when the responsible parent no longer receives assistance.
Responsible parent as used in this provision means “the natural or
adoptive parent or stepparent, to the extent the stepparent owes a duty of
support under section 296 of Title 15, of a dependent child.”
OCS argues, as the magistrate found, that § 3902(e) does not prevent the
accrual or enforcement of a child support obligation because it “clearly”
conflicts with other, more recently enacted statutes. Specifically, OCS
points to three such statutes: 15 V.S.A. § 650, which “declares as public
policy that parents have the responsibility to provide child support and that
child support orders should reflect the true costs of raising children and
approximate insofar as possible the standard of living the child would have
enjoyed had the family remained intact;” 15 V.S.A. § 656(b) which states
that even if available income is less than the lowest figure in the support
guideline, the court shall use its discretion and “shall require payment of a
nominal support amount;” and 15 V.S.A. § 653(5)(A)(iii), which requires
the court to impute potential income to a voluntarily unemployed parent as
discussed above. OCS urges that these statutes, and the case law construing
them, provide that “no one [is] to be exempt from the obligation to pay child
support.” Viskup v. Viskup, 150
We do not agree with OCS, or the magistrate,
that there is an irreconcilable conflict between the plain language of §
3902(e) and these provisions of Title 15. “When embarking on the process
of statutory construction, we have established a clearly articulated hierarchy
of available sources and turn first to the plain, ordinary meaning of the language.”
Chittenden Town Sch.
Dist. v. Dep’t of Educ., 169
Undeniably, the Legislature has set forth a
general policy in favor of parents’ “responsibility to provide child
support.” 15 V.S.A. § 650. We have
recognized as much in our cases construing Title 15. See,
e.g., Viskup, 150
The “liberal construction” we have employed with respect to child support
enforcement statutes, Viskup, 150 Vt. at 211,
552 A.2d at 402, cannot trump their plain language.
¶ 10 The crux of OCS’s argument, as well as the magistrate’s order, is one of equities. OCS repeatedly asserts that father is “deliberately unemployed” and that he has “chosen to accept public assistance.” OCS makes much of the fact that father is not disabled, and that it is “obvious that father does not want to pay support, as he has made no effort to do so, and no effort to seek employment consistent with his earning capacity.” The magistrate particularly emphasized that father’s wife started an auto-repair business, to which father “donat[es]” his time as the sole employee, leading the magistrate to question father’s eligibility for RUFA in the first place.
Even if we agreed with OCS’s
characterization and understood the magistrate’s skepticism, we must interpret
the statute as written. Section 3902(e) does not ask us to consider why
an individual receives public assistance. The fact that he receives
assistance alone ends the inquiry. See State v. O’Neill, 165
OCS further argues that 33 V.S.A. § 3902(e) may be limited to situations
in which both parents receive public assistance and support rights are
assigned by the support obligee. We agree with
father that this argument was not raised below, but, as a further matter of
statutory interpretation, we nevertheless exercise our discretion to address it
here in the interests of judicial economy. See, e.g., In
re Estate of Gillin, 172
¶ 13 Thus, we hold that the plain language of 33 V.S.A. § 3902(e) prohibits OCS from pursuing enforcement of child support obligations against father for periods in which he received RUFA. The family court was correct in remanding this case to the magistrate for recalculation of father’s child support arrears accordingly.
BY THE COURT:
Paul L. Reiber, Chief Justice
John A. Dooley, Associate Justice
Denise R. Johnson, Associate Justice
Marilyn S. Skoglund, Associate Justice
Theresa S. DiMauro, District Judge, Specially Assigned
* This case was initially brought by OCS on behalf of mother, who lives in Rhode Island, pursuant to the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA), 15B V.S.A. §§ 101-904. Mother did not submit a separate brief or oral argument in this appeal. We therefore consider the arguments of OCS and father alone.