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Maria Lynn Pruitt Simmons v. Harrison County Department of Human Services

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

October 3, 2017

MARIA LYNN PRUITT SIMMONS APPELLANT
v.
HARRISON COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES APPELLEE

         COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED: HARRISON COUNTY CHANCERY COURT, FIRST JUDICIAL DISTRICT HON. JENNIFER T. SCHLOEGEL DATE OF JUDGMENT

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT: CAROLYN ANN GEARY

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE: TONYA MICHELLE BLAIR

          BEFORE GRIFFIS, P.J., WILSON AND WESTBROOKS, JJ.

          GRIFFIS, P.J.

         ¶1. Maria Lynn Pruitt Simmons appeals the chancellor's denial of her motion for relief from the judgment terminating her parental rights. We find no error and affirm.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         ¶2. The Harrison County Department of Human Services (DHS) conducted an investigation after it received reports of alleged drug abuse and child neglect by Simmons. In August 2011, DHS took custody of Simmons's five children after they were found living in unsanitary and deplorable conditions. The children were placed into temporary foster care. This was Justin Smith's[1] third time entering DHS custody. Justin is the third oldest of Simmons's children. He is the subject of this appeal.

         ¶3. On December 16, 2011, Justin was adjudicated a neglected child by the youth court. He was placed in a psychiatric treatment facility while the other children remained in foster homes. DHS developed and implemented a plan to reunite Simmons with her children. After Simmons failed to comply with the plan, DHS ceased its reunification efforts and sought to terminate Simmons's parental rights.

         ¶4. On April 3, 2012, DHS presented both Simmons and Joseph Anthony Smith, Justin's alleged father, with a "Surrender of Parental Rights and Consent to Adoption to the Mississippi Department of Human Services." Unbeknownst to DHS, the document incorrectly listed Justin's date of birth as February 2, 2005 - the correct date was February 1, 2005. Despite the error, both Simmons and Smith signed copies of the document, surrendering their parental rights to Justin. Notably, Smith is not listed on the child's birth certificate, and the record indicates that he is not Justin's biological father.

         ¶5. On September 4, 2012, a petition was filed to terminate the parental rights of any unknown father of the minor child so that adoption proceedings could begin. The matter was set for a hearing on November 14, 2012. Prior to the hearing, DHS discovered the error made to Justin's date of birth. DHS corrected the error and sought to have both Simmons and Smith execute new surrender and release forms. The attempt was unsuccessful. DHS was unable to locate Smith, and Simmons refused to sign the revised document.[2] Justin remained in DHS custody.

         ¶6. Justin was released from inpatient psychiatric treatment and placed with a foster family in October 2014. DHS then filed a petition to terminate the parental rights of Simmons, Smith, and the unknown biological father of Justin. A hearing was set for February 12, 2015. The chancery court issued summonses to Simmons, Smith, and the unknown biological father. Simmons was served with process on October 20, 2014. Neither Simmons, Smith, nor any other person appeared for the hearing as a parent of Justin. As a result of the hearing, the chancellor terminated the parental rights of Simmons, Smith, and any unknown biological father of Justin.

         ¶7. On July 9, 2015, Simmons, through legal counsel, filed a "Motion for Relief of Judgment Pursuant to Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(1)(2) & (6)." Simmons contested the judgment terminating her parental rights. She argued that she was denied due process because she had not been personally served with process. She claimed that she never received a copy of the petition to terminate parental rights, and therefore, she was unaware of the hearing date. Simmons requested that the judgment be set aside and that she be given an opportunity to defend herself in a hearing. In November 2015, while the motion was pending, Justin's adoption was finalized.

         ¶8. The chancellor held a hearing on the motion on February 25, 2016, and denied the motion. The chancellor ruled that Simmons was not entitled to service of process or notice of the hearing because she voluntarily consented to waiver of process when she signed the document of surrender and release on April 3, 2012. The chancellor further found that the scrivener's[3] error on the document was a non-fatal defect. In her order, the chancellor noted that Justin's date of birth had been off by one day. She concluded that the document was correct in all other aspects - the child, the city, the state, the year of birth, and the mother's name were correctly identified. The chancellor ...


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