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.”