The Texas Supreme Court released its opinion in In re Lee today, upholding mediated settlement agreements in family law cases.  The opinion is authored by Justice Debra Lehrmann, formally a trial judge in Tarrant County. In this case, the Father filed for modification of a prior custody order seeking the right to establish the child’s primary residence. He also asked for the Mother’s periods of possession to be supervised.  The Father also complained that the Mother’s husband was a registered sex offender. The parties settled their dispute in mediation with Father receiving the primary residence right and Mother receiving certain periods of possession with the child conditioned upon the absence of the Mother’s husband. The mediation agreement contained the standard language that the parties agreed that the settlement was in the child’s best interest and that the agreement was not subject to revocation. The agreement was signed by Father and Mother and both of their attorneys. 

Father appeared in court to prove up the agreement.  The Judge inquired about the details behind the injunction against Mother’s husband.  Father answered the Judge’s question with his position; Mother did not attend the hearing and was not able to respond. The Judge refused to enter judgment based on the agreement.  Mother filed a motion to enter judgment, while Father filed to withdraw his consent to the agreement.  The Judge heard testimony and concluded that the agreement was NOT in the best interest of the child and refused to enter judgment.

Mother filed a petition for writ of mandamus in the Houston Court of Appeals, which upheld the ruling of the trial court.  Mother petitioned the Texas Supreme Court for relief.

The Texas Supreme Court holds that the statutory language which makes mediated settlement agreements in family law cases irrevocable and a trial court may not deny a motion to enter judgment on a properly executed mediated agreement. So a trial court will not have grounds to set aside a mediated agreement just because the trial court disagrees with the agreement reached. Justice Lehrmann points to the policy of the State of Texas to encourage parties to reach peaceable resolution of their disputes. The Texas Legislature has made clear that a mediated agreement is not subject to a best interest review by a trial judge in deciding whether or not to approve an entry of a judgment based on such agreement.

The Court held that the mediation rule – Texas Family Code section 153.0071 – trumps over any conflicting statute because the mediation statute uses the language “notwithstanding… another rule of law.” So, any rule of law that might conflict with the mediation statute – like the statute that says the best interest of a child controls – is subject to the mediation statute under the rules of statutory construction and legislative intent.

Interesting quotes from the opinion:

  • “The statute does not authorize the trial court to substitute its judgment for the mediated settlement agreement entered by the parties” – with family violence being the lone, very limited exception to that rule.
  • "Parents are in a position to know what is best for their children….”
  • "Successful mediation of child-custody disputes… furthers a child’s best interest by putting a halt to potentially lengthy and destructive custody litigation.”
  • “Parents who enter into MSAs are no different from the myriad of parents in intact families who are presumed to act in their children’s best interests every day.”
  •  “For these reasons, we hold that section 153.0071€ encourages parents to peaceably resolve their child-related disputes through mediation by foreclosing a broad best interest inquiry with respect to entry of judgment on properly executed MSAs, ensuring that the tiem and money spent on mediation will not have been wasted and that the benefits of successful mediation will be realized.”

 

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Photo of Michelle O'Neil Michelle O'Neil

Michelle May O’Neil has 27 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 27 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, 2011-2018, a peer-voted honor given to only about 5% of the lawyers in the state of Texas. In 2014-2018, 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. She was named one of the Best Lawyers in America for 2016 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.