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State ex rel. B.A.

Court of Appeals of Utah

November 9, 2017

State of Utah, in the interest of B.A., a person under eighteen years of age. M.T., Appellant,
v.
State of Utah, Appellee.

         Third District Juvenile Court, West Jordan Department The Honorable Renee M. Jimenez No. 1109173

          Harini Venkatesan, Attorney for Appellant

          Sean D. Reyes, John M. Peterson, and Emily I. Iwasaki, Attorneys for Appellee

          Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem.

          Judge Michele M. Christiansen authored this Opinion, in which Judges Jill M. Pohlman and Diana Hagen concurred.

          CHRISTIANSEN, JUDGE.

         ¶1 M.T. (Mother) appeals the juvenile court's order terminating her parental rights to B.A. (Child). She contends (1) that the juvenile court erroneously ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act (the ADA) was inapplicable, (2) that the evidence was insufficient to support a finding that she was an unfit parent, (3) that the evidence was insufficient to support a finding that termination of Mother's parental rights was in Child's best interests, and (4) that the evidence was insufficient to support a finding that the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) provided reasonable efforts to reunify Mother and Child. We conclude that Mother failed to establish her ADA status in a timely manner and that the evidence presented to the juvenile court was sufficient to support the juvenile court's findings; accordingly, we affirm.

         ¶2 We recognize that juvenile court judges have special training, experience, and interest in their field, as well as the opportunity to judge credibility firsthand; consequently, we review a juvenile court's decision to terminate parental rights deferentially and will not disturb the juvenile court's findings and conclusions unless the preponderance of the evidence clearly militates against the findings made or the court has otherwise abused its discretion. In re A.B., 2007 UT App 286, ¶ 10, 168 P.3d 820; In re R.A.J., 1999 UT App 329, ¶ 6, 991 P.2d 1118.

         I. Americans with Disabilities Act

         ¶3 Mother contends that "[t]he juvenile court erred in ruling that [the ADA] was inapplicable due to [Mother's] failure to request an accommodation previously."[1] Although Mother's phrasing suggests that the juvenile court ruled that the ADA was inapplicable, the record shows that the court actually ruled that Mother simply had not established her ADA status. We therefore understand Mother's contention as a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the juvenile court's finding that Mother had not established her ADA status. Such a challenge presents a mixed question of law and fact, see In re adoption of Baby B., 2012 UT 35, ¶¶ 40-47, 308 P.3d 382, because it involves both the factual question of what evidence had been presented to the court and the legal question of what quantum of evidence would satisfy the ADA disability standard. Accordingly, the court's ruling is a mixed finding that "merit[s] some deference on appeal." Id. ¶ 46.

         ¶4 Mother first mentioned the ADA at the termination trial. The juvenile court found that Mother had not established that she suffered from a medical condition of the type necessitating accommodations under the ADA and that Mother never requested any accommodation:

[Mother] has not been diagnosed with a medical condition that prohibits her from engaging [in] or attending a drug treatment program, domestic violence treatment program or from obtaining employment. During the entire time of the reunification services time period, [[2] [Mother] never claimed she was disabled or referenced the Americans with Disabilities Act. [Mother] never requested a change or an accommodation to the Child and Family Plan to address her medical issues.

         ¶5 On appeal, Mother claims that she "had repeatedly put DCFS on notice about her ongoing medical issues" but does not cite to any part of the record in support of this claim. Instead, she relies on her testimony at the termination hearing to the effect that, due to the lapse of her insurance, she had been forced to stop seeing a primary care physician and had been forced to cancel a scheduled surgical procedure. There is no record indication that, prior to the termination hearing, Mother notified DCFS that she had a disability, i.e., that she suffered from "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities." See 42 U.S.C. § 12102(1)(A) (2012).[3]

         ¶6 There is no doubt that the ADA applies to the government's provision of reunification services. See In re K.C., 2015 UT 92, ¶ 20, 362 P.3d 1248. And there is no bright-line bar to raising an ADA claim for the first time at the final termination proceeding or trial. See id. ¶ 24 (holding that Utah law does not preclude invocation of the ADA "at the eleventh hour of a termination proceeding"). But see id. ¶ 27 (noting that a child's interest in permanency and stability favors "[t]he expeditious resolution of a termination proceeding" and, as a result, "[a] parent who waits until the eleventh hour to request a modification under the ADA may thoroughly undermine [his or her] ability to establish that such modification is reasonable").

         ¶7 However, to succeed on the merits of an ADA claim in the context of reunification, the parent must establish that he or she is a "'qualified individual with a disability.'" Id. ¶ 22 (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 12131(2)). Here, Mother first mentioned the ADA on the second day of a two-day trial during her closing arguments. While she claimed that her "condition clearly [was] a disability as defined by the ADA, " she did not further identify from what condition she suffers.[4] Nor did she provide the ...


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