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Plummer v. Plummer

Supreme Court of Georgia

January 22, 2019

PLUMMER
v.
PLUMMER.

          Boggs, Justice.

         This appeal involves the interpretation of a provision of the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA), codified in Georgia as OCGA § 19-9-40 et seq. The case stems from the trial court's dismissal of a child custody modification action, filed by Christopher Thomas Plummer (Father), on the ground that the trial court did not have jurisdiction to consider the matter, because neither Father, nor Elia Marie Plummer (Mother), nor the child was living in Georgia at the time of the court's dismissal. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's ruling, and we granted Father's petition for certiorari posing the following question: "Did the trial court properly dismiss the custody modification action for lack of jurisdiction pursuant to OCGA § 19-9-62 (a) (2)?" We conclude that the trial court erred in dismissing the action on this ground, and we therefore reverse.

         1. The record reveals that on December 12, 2013, the Camden County Superior Court granted the final judgment and decree of divorce that awarded Father and Mother joint legal custody of their minor child with Mother, who had moved to Florida with the child while the divorce action was pending, having primary physical custody. A parenting plan was filed, outlining specific visitation for the child and Father. Thereafter, Father filed a motion for contempt in Camden County, and the superior court granted the motion on April 30, 2015.[1]

         On May 21, 2015, Father, who continued to live in Georgia, filed an action to modify custody, which was served on Mother in June 2015. On July 1, 2016, the U.S. Navy relocated Father to Norfolk, Virginia. The court issued a temporary order on Father's complaint for modification on July 8, 2016. However, on August 19, 2016, Mother filed a motion to dismiss the modification action for lack of jurisdiction, alleging that OCGA § 19-9-62 (a) (2) required dismissal of the action because the relocation of all parties from the state of Georgia divested the trial court of subject matter jurisdiction.

         The trial court held a hearing on Mother's motion to dismiss. Following that hearing, the court, in dismissing the action, determined that it had "lost subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to OCGA § 19-9-62 (a) (2)": "[Father] lives in Virginia, [Mother] lives in Florida with the child, and since neither the child nor the parents now reside in Georgia, this Court has lost its exclusive, continuing jurisdiction over the child custody determination."[2]

         Father appealed the order, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. Plummer v. Plummer, 342 Ga.App. 605 (804 S.E.2d 179) (2017). We granted Father's petition for certiorari to consider whether the trial court properly concluded that it was without jurisdiction to rule on the custody modification action. The parties agree that the trial court had jurisdiction over the action at the time it was filed. But the question on review is whether the court later lost its jurisdiction to consider the petition to modify custody after neither the parents nor the child remained in the state.

         2. As explained by the Court of Appeals, in 2001, Georgia adopted the UCCJEA to replace its predecessor, the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act ("UCCJA").[3] The provision at issue here is OCGA § 19-9-62, which is materially identical to UCCJEA § 202. OCGA § 19-9-62 provides in relevant part:

(a) Except as otherwise provided in Code Section 19-9-64, a court of this state which has made a child custody determination consistent with Code Section 19-9-61 or 19-9-63 has exclusive, continuing jurisdiction over the determination until . . . (2) A court of this state or a court of another state determines that neither the child nor the child's parents or any person acting as a parent presently resides in this state.

         Father argues that this section must be interpreted to harmonize with other states' interpretations and the official comment to the UCCJEA. OCGA § 19-9-101 provides: "[i]n applying and construing this uniform Act, consideration must be given to the need to promote uniformity of the law with respect to its subject matter among states that enact it." Every other state that has addressed this issue has concluded that the jurisdictional question is determined as of the time a child custody modification action is filed. See, e.g., State ex rel. Z.Z. v. State, 310 P.3d 772, 777 (I) (Utah App. 2013) (considering official comment to UCCJEA § 202 that jurisdiction attaches at commencement of proceeding to conclude that jurisdiction attached at time of filing of DCFS motion for expedited placement and custody); Wahlke v. Pierce, 392 S.W.3d 426, 429 (Ky. App. 2013) (considering official comment to UCCJEA § 202 that jurisdiction attaches at commencement of proceeding to conclude that "a family court's jurisdiction to modify custody is determined at the time the motion to modify is filed"); Beam v. Beam, 266 P.3d 466, 469 (III) (Haw. App. 2011) (considering official comment to UCCJEA § 202 that jurisdiction attaches at commencement of proceeding to conclude that family court retained exclusive, continuing jurisdiction after parties moved away from state because modification proceeding was still pending). And the official comment to UCCJEA § 202, from which OCGA § 19-9-62 was drawn, provides with regard to the language of subparagraph (a) (2):

Jurisdiction attaches at the commencement of a proceeding. If State A had jurisdiction under this section at the time a modification proceeding was commenced there, it would not be lost by all parties moving out of the State prior to the conclusion of proceeding. State B would not have jurisdiction to hear a modification unless State A decided that State B was more appropriate under Section 207.[4]

         Father asserts that, in accordance with this comment and the decisions on this issue, subject matter jurisdiction attached when he filed the modification action on May 21, 2015, and that the trial court therefore had jurisdiction to rule on his petition. Mother argues that the Court of Appeals was not required to follow the non-binding official comment to the UCCJEA or decisions from other jurisdictions and that, under the rules of statutory interpretation, in applying the plain and ordinary meaning of the statute, Georgia lost its exclusive, continuing jurisdiction when she, the Father, and the child no longer lived in Georgia.

In interpreting statutes,
we must presume that the General Assembly meant what it said and said what it meant. To that end, we must afford the statutory text its "plain and ordinary meaning," we must view the statutory text in the context in which it appears, and we must read the statutory text in its most natural and reasonable way, as an ordinary speaker of the English language would.

(Citations and punctuation omitted.) Deal v. Coleman, 294 Ga. 170, 172-173 (1) (751 S.E.2d 337) (2013). We are mindful that in interpreting the meaning of OCGA § 19-9-62 (a) (2), "we do not look at the text in isolation. Rather, to determine its meaning, we also consider its context." (Citations and punctuation omitted.) Undisclosed LLC v. State, 302 Ga. 418, 420 (2) (a) (807 S.E.2d 393) (2017). "For context, we may look to the other provisions of the same statute, the structure and history of the whole statute, and the other law - constitutional, statutory, and common law alike - that forms the legal background of the statutory ...


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