Texas Family Code requirement of filing a Statement of Points in a government termination case within 15-days of the signing of the final order is unconstitutional as applied when it bars parents from raising an ineffective assistance of counsel claim. In Re J.O.A., ___ S.W.3d ___, 2009 WL 1165303, 52 Tex. Sup. Ct. J. 714 (Tex. 2009) (5/1/09)

Facts: Mother, with one child already, gave birth to twins in 2005. At that time, mother and children tested positive for cocaine. Court appointed TDFPS as SMC of all three children. TDFPS created a service plan that parents did not adequately follow. In 2/07, case proceeded to bench trial. Trial court terminated both parents’ rights to the twins and appointed mother’s mother as SMC of older child. On 2/21/27, mother’s counsel filed notice of appeal and motion to withdraw. On 2/22/07 father’s counsel did same. Neither filed a statement of points as required by TFC § 263.405. Trial court appointed replacement counsel after the fifteen day deadline set out in TFC § 263.405(b). Parents appealed, claiming ineffective assistance of counsel and insufficiency of the evidence. Appellate court reversed and remanded on the termination of father’s parental rights, declaring TFC § 263.405 unconstitutional for blocking consideration of parent’s ineffective assistance claims. TDFPS appealed appellate court’s ruling.

Held: Modified and remanded to trial court.

Texas Supreme Court Opinion: TEXAS FAMILY CODE § 107.013(a)(1) grants a right to counsel in parental termination cases. The right to counsel is the right to effective counsel. Trial counsel’s failure to preserve error is examined under the procedural due process standard. Matthews v. Eldridge, 424 US 319, 335 (1976). The court weighs 1) private interests; 2) governmental interests and; 3) the risk of erroneous deprivation of parental rights. The court then balances the result against a presumption of constitutionality. Pursuant to In re M.S., 115 S.W.3d 534, this analysis heavily favors allowing review in parental termination cases. Due process consideration prohibit waiver of a complaint due to error by counsel. Since father’s counsel’s failure to file a statement of points fell below an objective standard of reasonableness, and since TEXAS FAMILY CODE § 263.405(i) requires waiver as a result of counsel’s error, TEXAS FAMILY CODE § 263.405(i) is unconstitutional.

Concurrence (Willett, J.): Trial courts should take steps to prevent intentional ineffective assistance of counsel. Possible steps include 1) issuing unambiguous instructions after trial setting out steps to preserve appeal; 2) reminding trial counsel that they still have duties after trial and; 3) punishing attorneys who commit ineffective assistance of counsel.

Dallas family lawyer are aware that the constitutionality of the statement of points requirement in government termination cases has been questioned thoroughly over the past couple of years. The courts of appeals have conflicting determinations on the issue. The Texas Supreme Court has multiple cases pending on the issue as well. JOA does nothing to resolve the issue with any permanency. JOA declares the statement of points statute unconstitutional as applied in this case. Here father’s trial attorney failed to timely file the statement of points and since father actually had a meritorious appellate issue on insufficiency of the evidence to support termination of his rights, the trial attorney was found to be ineffective for the failure, thus causing reversal of the termination. An ineffective assistance of counsel claim has two prongs, not only that the attorney failed in some duty owed, but also that the underlying claim would have been meritorious but for the attorney’s failure.

Texas Lawyer reporter John Council interviews Michelle May O’Neil regarding the Texas Supreme Court’s recent opinion in J.O.A. case.

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Photo of Michelle O'Neil Michelle O'Neil

Michelle May O’Neil has 30+ years’ experience representing small business owners, professionals, and individuals in litigation related to family law matters such as divorce, child custody, and complex property division. Described by one lawyer as “a lethal combination of sweet-and-salty”, Ms. O’Neil exudes…

Michelle May O’Neil has 30+ years’ experience representing small business owners, professionals, and individuals in litigation related to family law matters such as divorce, child custody, and complex property division. Described by one lawyer as “a lethal combination of sweet-and-salty”, Ms. O’Neil exudes genuine compassion for her client’s difficulties, yet she can be relentless when in pursuit of a client’s goals. One judge said of Ms. O’Neil, “She cannot be out-gunned, out-briefed, or out-lawyered!”

Family Law Specialist

Ms. O’Neil became a board-certified family law specialist by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization in 1997 and has maintained her certification since that time. While representing clients in litigation before the trial court is an important part of her practice, Ms. O’Neil also handles appellate matters in the trial court, courts of appeals and Texas Supreme Court. Lawyers frequently consult with Ms. O’Neil on their litigation cases about specialized legal issues requiring particularized attention both at the trial court and appellate levels. This gives her a unique perspective and depth of perception that benefits both her litigation and appellate clients.

Top Lawyers in Texas and America

Ms. O’Neil has been named to the list of Texas SuperLawyers for many years, a peer-voted honor given to only about 5% of the lawyers in the state of Texas. Ms. O’Neil received the special honor of being named by Texas SuperLawyers as one of the Top 50 Women Lawyers in Texas, Top 100 Lawyers in Texas, and Top 100 Lawyers in DFW for multiple years. She was named one of the Best Lawyers in America and received an “A-V” peer review rating by Martindale-Hubbell Legal Directories for the highest quality legal ability and ethical standards.

Author and Speaker

A noted author, Ms. O’Neil released her second book Basics of Texas Divorce Law in November 2010, with a second edition released in 2013, and a third edition expected in 2015.  Her first book, All About Texas Law and Kids, was published in September 2009 by Texas Lawyer Press. In 2012, Ms. O’Neil co-authored the booklets What You Need To Know About Common Law Marriage In Texas and Social Study Evaluations.  The State Bar of Texas and other providers of continuing education for attorneys frequently enlist Ms. O’Neil to provide instruction to attorneys on topics of her expertise in the family law arena.