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In re Marriage of Antini

Supreme Court of Oklahoma

April 9, 2019

In Re the Marriage of: Matthew L. Antini, Appellee,
v.
Angela M. Antini, Appellant. v.

         ON CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF CIVIL APPEALS, DIVISION I

         CERTIORARI PREVIOUSLY GRANTED; COURT OF CIVIL APPEALS OPINION VACATED; TRIAL COURT ORDER REVERSED AND REMANDED WITH INSTRUCTIONS.

          Kade A. McClure, Richard J. Goralewicz, Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma, Inc., Oklahoma City, for Appellant.

          Joe K. White, Duncan, OK, for Appellee.

          COLBERT, J.

         ¶0 In this writ of habeas corpus action brought under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act ("UCCJEA"), Okla. Stat. tit. 43, §§ 551-101 through 402 (2011), prevailing party appeals trial court's order denying prevailing party's motion for attorney fees and costs. The court held that attorney fees can only be awarded to a party who has retained and paid for legal counsel and declined to address prevailing party's request for transcription costs. The Court of Civil Appeals affirmed the trial court's holding regarding attorney fees but reversed the holding regarding transcription costs. We find that the intent of the Legislature in enacting the UCCJEA was not to except entities rendering legal services at no cost to the clients. Accordingly, Appellant is entitled to reasonable and necessary expenses including attorney fees borne by her counsel, Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma.

         ¶1 At issue is whether Okla. Stat. tit. 43, § 551-312 of the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act ("UCCJEA") requires a court to award prevailing party attorney fees to entities rendering legal services to clients at no cost. We answer in the affirmative.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         ¶2 Appellant, Angela M. Antini, and Appellee, Matthew L. Antini, are the biological parents of two minor children. In November 2013, the parties were granted a Judgment of Divorce in the State of New York. In it, the court awarded Appellant physical custody over the children with the parties sharing joint legal custody. Appellee was granted visitation rights and ordered to pay child support.

         ¶3 In 2013, prior to the entry of the Judgment of Divorce, Appellant moved with the children from New York to Maine. In April 2014, Appellee picked the children up in Maine for visitation but transported them to Oklahoma and, despite Appellant's requests and her subsequent trip to Oklahoma to recover the children, Appellee refused to return them. On May 19, 2014, after it became apparent that Appellee was not going to return the children, Appellant registered the New York divorce decree as a foreign judgment in a Maine court and filed a motion for contempt against Appellee on May 21, 2014. The court ordered Appellee to appear with the children. However, Appellee did not do so and the Maine court found Appellee in contempt on September 24, 2014. Appellee ignored an offer to purge his contempt by returning both children by September 26, 2014, and Appellee never returned the children to Maine. Because of this failure to return the children, the Maine court issued a bench warrant for Appellee.

         ¶4 On December 16, 2014, Appellee filed a petition in the District Court of Stephens County, State of Oklahoma, to register the New York divorce decree in Oklahoma and asked the court to assume custody jurisdiction. Appellee's petition did not reference the registration of the New York Decree in Maine nor the contempt proceedings in Maine. In response, Appellant filed a special appearance in the trial court objecting to the registration of the New York final judgment of divorce and also filed a petition and application for a writ of habeas corpus requesting custody of the minor children. On March 17, 2015, the court found that "pursuant to the Oklahoma Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act, 43 O.S. §§ 551-201 et. seq. the [S]tate of Oklahoma has no jurisdiction in this matter and that this action should be dismissed." Maine retained child custody jurisdiction and ordered the return of the children to Appellant. The Oklahoma court also denied and dismissed the petition to register the New York decree in Oklahoma.

         ¶5 On April 21, 2015, Appellant filed a pro se motion to modify custody in the Maine court, requesting sole custody of the children and granting Appellee supervised visitation. Appellee responded with an answer and counterclaim on May 7, 2015, but then failed to appear before the Maine court. The Maine court then granted Appellant's motion and ruled it had exclusive and continuing jurisdiction over the children. No appeal of the Maine court's decision was entered and the decision is now final under Maine law.

         ¶6 On April 29, 2015, Appellee filed in the Oklahoma court a Motion to Reconsider the March 17, 2015, decision, denying and dismissing Appellee's motion to register the New York judgment in Oklahoma and granting custody of the minor children to Appellant. That motion was heard on April 14, 2016, and the court issued its decision denying the motion and dismissing the petition.

         ¶7 Subsequently, Appellant filed a Motion for Costs and Attorney's Fees pursuant to Okla. Stat. tit. 43, § 551-312, a fee-shifting statute within the UCCJEA. That section mandates that a court award to the prevailing party

necessary and reasonable expenses incurred by or on behalf of the party, including costs, communication expenses, attorney's fees, investigative fees, expenses for witnesses, travel expenses, and child care during the course of the proceedings, unless the party from whom fees or expenses are sought establishes that the award would be clearly inappropriate.

         In the motion, counsel sought payment of prevailing party attorney fees and reimbursement of costs for transcripts. The court denied her motion, finding, as a matter of law, that attorney fees can only be awarded under the UCCJEA to a party who has retained counsel and personally paid for their services. That is, Appellant's counsel was not entitled to a reasonable attorney fee merely because Appellant was represented by Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma, Inc. The court further denied Appellant's request for transcription costs reasoning that the issue of costs for transcription of a default modification of divorce decree hearing in Maine should be decided in Maine.

         ¶8 Appellant appealed. On appeal, the Court of Civil Appeals affirmed the district court as to the claim for attorney's fees but reversed and remanded on the issue of transcription costs. In so doing, the court held that "[w]ithout... guidance, either from the Legislature or the Oklahoma Supreme Court, Okla. Stat. tit. 43, § 551-312 (2011) does not statutorily mandate attorney fee awards to prevailing parties when the prevailing party receives free legal services." But, the court further held that because the transcription of the hearing in Maine was vital to the Oklahoma trial court's ...


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