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Sumrall v. Brown

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

September 19, 2017


          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 02/25/2016





          GRIFFIS, P.J.

         ¶1. The Jones County Chancery Court terminated the parental rights of the natural mother and adjudicated custody of the minor child between the natural father and the maternal grandparents. The natural father was awarded custody. The maternal grandparents appeal.


         ¶2. At a young age, Tiffany Kay Brown was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and a learning disability. She was placed into the special-education program in elementary school. Tiffany was alleged to have behavioral problems and to be easily influenced by others. When she was fifteen years old her behavior became too rebellious for her mother and stepfather, Linda Kaye and Jerry Ruben Sumrall. In 2006, Tiffany was sent to live with a relative. She moved from her parents' home in Sandersville to Carthage, where she resided with her paternal aunt and her aunt's live-in boyfriend, Timothy Jerrels. The living arrangement only lasted a short time. Tiffany returned to her home in Sandersville after she alleged that Timothy had displayed sexually inappropriate behavior toward her.

         ¶3. Tiffany remained in Sandersville until 2008, when she returned to Carthage to live with her biological father. At the age of seventeen, she dropped out of high school. While living in her father's home, Tiffany began a sexual relationship with Timothy. The relationship was kept secret. Notably, Timothy is twenty-one years older than Tiffany. Tiffany and Timothy maintained an on-and-off relationship for three years. In 2011, Tiffany became pregnant. While she was in the early stages of her pregnancy, Tiffany moved back to Sandersville to live with her parents.

         ¶4. She remained in the Sumralls' home until after she gave birth to Trey Brown[1] in August 2012. Throughout the pregnancy and after Trey's birth, Tiffany refused to divulge the identity of the child's father. No father was listed on Trey's birth certificate. When Trey was just a few months old, Tiffany left him with the Sumralls and moved back to Carthage with her aunt and Timothy. Eventually, Tiffany and Timothy moved into a home of their own in Carthage. The Sumralls became the sole caretakers of Trey, and he remained exclusively in their home for the first year of his life.


         ¶5. In 2013, the Sumralls filed a petition to adopt Trey. Tiffany formally appeared for the hearing and joined in the action. She signed a waiver of process and consented to the adoption. A summons was issued for the unknown biological father of Trey. Process by publication ran in a Jones County newspaper. The adoption hearing was set for August 14, 2013.

         ¶6. On the day of the adoption hearing, Tiffany and Timothy appeared in court together. Timothy declared himself the father of Trey and contested the adoption. DNA test results confirmed that Timothy was Trey's natural father. The chancellor entered an order joining Timothy to the adoption action, and he appointed a guardian ad litem (GAL). Timothy was also granted supervised visitation with the child. Timothy then filed a petition for custody of Trey on March 17, 2015, and the Sumralls filed a counterclaim for custody on April 21, 2015.

         ¶7. This case was initially pled as a petition for adoption. However, it was ultimately litigated as a custody action between the Sumralls and Timothy. During the trial, several witnesses and the GAL testified. In his final judgment, the chancellor ruled that Timothy and the Sumralls would share joint legal and physical custody of Trey, until the child reached school age. Timothy and the Sumralls each received weekly visitation. Once Trey reached compulsory school age, the joint-custody arrangement would cease. Timothy would then assume full physical and legal custody of Trey, and the Sumralls would be awarded visitation every first and third weekend of each month. The Sumralls appeal the chancellor's judgment.[2]


         ¶8. "The standard of review in child[-]custody cases is limited." Floyd v. Floyd, 949 So.2d 26, 28 (¶5) (Miss. 2007). "In child-custody cases, this [C]ourt will only reverse the chancellor's judgment in two circumstances - (1) [his] factual findings are manifestly wrong or clearly erroneous, or (2) [he] applied an improper legal standard." Wilson v. Davis, 111 So.3d 1280, 1282 (¶7) (Miss. Ct. App. 2013) (citation omitted) (reversed in part on other grounds). "We will examine the case de novo, however, when it is clear that the chancery court's decision resulted from a misunderstanding of the controlling law or was based on a substantially erroneous view of the law." R.L. v. G.F., 973 So.2d 322, 324 (¶5) (Miss. Ct. App. 2008).


         I. Whether the chancellor erred by omitting a summary of the GAL's recommendation and the reasons to reject the recommendation.

         ¶9. The Sumralls first argue that the chancellor abused his discretion by omitting a summary of the GAL's recommendation and his reasons for rejecting the recommendation. They assert that because this case initially began as a termination-of-parental-rights and adoption case, and because they raised allegations of abuse or neglect against the natural father, the appointment of a GAL was mandatory. As such, the Sumralls argue that the chancellor was required to include the summary and give reasons to reject the GAL's recommendation, because the ruling was allegedly contrary to the recommendation. They assert that the chancellor's deviation from the GAL's recommendation that they receive custody of Trey was error.

         ¶10. Timothy contends that the GAL's initial recommendation, in favor of the Sumralls, was later eliminated at trial. He asserts that the chancellor heard testimony from the GAL and cross-examined her regarding her recommendation. Timothy further contends that the Sumralls' argument is not factually based on the record. He argues that the GAL's recommendation changed when she and the chancellor agreed that the parties could share custody of Trey.

         ¶11. Timothy contends that the Sumralls' argument is without merit because the GAL's recommendation and the chancellor's ruling were ultimately the same. Therefore, he argues there was no requirement that the chancellor explain his reasons for rejecting the recommendation. He further contends that any allegations of abuse or neglect by the Sumralls were unfounded and without merit. He asserts that there was no testimony of improper behavior. Further, he claims that the GAL did not address any allegations related to abuse or neglect when she made her recommendations. The Sumralls argue that the agreement between the chancellor and the GAL did not relieve the chancellor from his duty to provide the summary and reasons for rejecting the recommendation.

         ¶12. This Court has previously held that "Mississippi law mandates a [GAL] be appointed to protect the interest of children in termination-of-parental-rights cases." Farthing v. McGee, 158 So.3d 1223, 1224 (¶1) (Miss. Ct. App. 2015) (citing Miss. Code Ann. § 93-15- 107) (Rev. 2013)). "[W]hen deciding if termination is proper, chancellors, in their findings of fact, must include at least a summary of the GAL's recommendations." Id. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). "Though chancellors are not ...

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