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CHFS v. D.W.

Case No. 2022-SC-0521-DGE

Jefferson Family Court

Opinion by Justice Conley

Date Rendered: December 14, 2023

Issue: Whether electronically filed notice of appeal in termination of parental rights matter is timely when it was filed in the incorrect matter.

On July 20, 2021, the Family Court issued a written final order terminating the parental rights of Parents and it was entered by the clerk the next day. Court for Parent filed Notice of Appeal at 11:47 pm on the thirtieth day but was unable to file it in the TPR case (20-AD-500234) because had been sealed by the clerk after entry of the final order. Counsel filed in the related DNA case instead (18-J-501741-003). After inquiry, the Court of Appeals kept the case on its active docket believing that Counsel timely filed the Notice of Appeal and the clerk caused the problem by sealing the TPR case erroneously. The Supreme Court accepted discretionary review.

At issue are a statute and an administrative order:

The files and records of the Circuit Court, excluding the name or other identifying information of a prospective adoptive parent, during proceedings for involuntary termination of parental rights shall not be open to inspection by persons other than parties to such proceedings, their attorneys, and representatives of the cabinet except under order of the court expressly permitting inspection. Upon the entry of the final order in the case, the clerk shall place all papers and records in the case in a suitable envelope which shall be sealed and shall not be open for inspection by any person other than representatives of the cabinet without a written order of the court or as authorized by the provisions of KRS Chapter 199.

KRS 625.108(2)

Access to confidential cases in CourtNet 2.0 is available to persons entitled by statute, except that non-government parties may be required to eFile into a confidential case in order to access the entire record. Sealed cases are not eligible for eFiling and are not viewable in CourtNet 2.0.

Administrative Order 2018-11 § 15(4)4.

The Supreme Court holds that a plain reading of KRS 625.108(2) and Administrative Order 2018-11 § 15(4) make it clear that a notice of appeal cannot be electronically filed in a TPR case. As the Court of Appeals was without jurisdiction to hear the case; their ruling is reversed and the order the Family Court is reinstated.

Justice Keller dissents in part arguing that the Supreme Court’s administrative orders are “difficult to find, comb through, and interpret” and prior to this case the Court offered no instruction as to how they interact with current statutes. Justice Keller would allow D.W.’s appeal to proceed.

Justice Thompson joined by Justice Lambert dissents arguing that the notice of appeal was sufficient, and a filing error should not affect timeliness or the validity of the appeal. The clerk should have only sealed the case when the final order reached finality which “refers to the final order, opinion or judgment which finally concludes the case after the time has expired for further review.” Moreover, termination of parental rights cases necessitates extreme caution given the seriousness of the outcome. Justice Thompson also addresses the underlying merits of the case.

Digested by Elizabeth M. Howell