January 4, 2012
Interstate Family Support

by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer

Modern America is a very mobile society. It’s commonplace for people to have family members spread from coast to coast. And because of that, it’s not at all uncommon for divorced parents to live in different states from their children. When that happens, the question sometimes arises over which courts have jurisdiction over such things as child support payments. That was the issue at the heart of a case that we – the Ohio Supreme Court – recently reviewed.

The case involved a woman named Ruby K. Pula. Ruby is a resident of Hawaii. She’s also the custodian and maternal grandmother of a child we’ll call K.P., who was born out of wedlock. K.P. lives with Ruby, but the child’s birth mother – Adrienne Haunani Pula-Branch – lives in Cleveland.

As is sometimes the case, Adrienne was not keeping up on child support payments. Because Ruby lives in Hawaii and Adrienne lives in Cleveland, Ruby had to seek the support payments under the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act, which is referred to as the UIFSA.

On November 8, 2008, the Cuyahoga Support Enforcement Agency (“CSEA”) filed a petition – on Ruby’s behalf – in the domestic relations court for child support and medical coverage against Adrienne.

The trial court eventually issued a child-support order, but the CSEA filed an appeal challenging the trial court’s calculation of support obligations. In January of 2010, the court of appeals, in reviewing the CSEA challenge of the trial court’s calculation of support obligations, raised another issue – namely, whether the domestic relations court should have jurisdiction over the UIFSA case in the first place.

The court of appeals ultimately concluded that the domestic relations court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over the petition. The court of appeals concluded that the Cuyahoga County Domestic Relations Court’s jurisdiction was limited to matters involving “a divorce, dissolution of marriage, legal separation, or annulment.” Because the petition was initiated by the child’s grandmother, the case did not involve anything having to do with marriage or divorce.  Therefore, the court of appeals reasoned that the domestic relations court had no jurisdiction to address a Uniform Interstate Family Support Act order.

The court noted that the case would be properly brought in juvenile court. In reaching that conclusion, the court of appeals cited a section of Ohio law which states that the juvenile court has original jurisdiction under the UIFSA. The court of appeals thus ordered the domestic relations court to vacate its order for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.  After that, Ruby’s case for child support came before us for a final review.

The central issue of this case was whether the domestic relations court is “authorized” to hear and decide a support order under the UIFSA. The court of appeals determined that it wasn’t so authorized, and that the domestic relations court is limited to only divorce, dissolution, legal separation, or annulment of a marriage. We disagreed with that conclusion.

The Ohio General Assembly defines the jurisdiction of the courts of common pleas and their respective divisions. The law that specifically relates to the judges of Cuyahoga County Domestic Relations Court sets forth that the judges of that court “shall…exercise the same powers and jurisdiction…as other judges of the court of common pleas of Cuyahoga County and shall be elected and designated as judges of the court of common pleas, division of domestic relations.”

It is this section of the law that also states that domestic relations judges “shall have all the powers related to all divorce, dissolution of marriage, legal separation, and annulment cases, except in cases that are assigned to some other judge of the court of common pleas for some special reason.”

So this law grants all the power in marriage-related cases to the domestic relations division. In doing so, it limits the ability of other common pleas judges to preside over those cases. But notice: there is no limiting language that prevents domestic relations judges from having jurisdiction over other cases – they retain “the same powers and jurisdiction…as other judges of the court of common pleas.” Thus, this law is not a limiting provision, but rather a specific grant of authority.

When the court of appeals reviewed this case, it determined that Ruby’s petition should have been filed in juvenile court. The law that deals with the original jurisdiction of juvenile courts does, indeed, state that juvenile courts have original jurisdiction under the UIFSA. But that jurisdiction is not exclusive. UIFSA cases are not listed among the matters over which juvenile courts have exclusive jurisdiction.

In past cases, our court has held that the distinction between exclusive original jurisdiction and nonexclusive original jurisdiction is crucial.

The Uniform Interstate Family Support Act is what’s known as “remedial legislation,” meaning that it is intended to remedy a situation (as opposed to legislation that imposes a penalty or punishment for wrongdoing). Ohio law states that when courts are reviewing cases involving remedial legislation, it must be “liberally construed in order to promote its object and assist the parties in obtaining justice.”

With that standard in mind, the facilitation of interstate support orders would not be promoted by foreclosing the Cuyahoga County Domestic Relations Court from considering UIFSA cases that do not arise from a marriage.

The domestic relations court is a trial court of record in Ohio, one attuned to crafting support orders. And, as mentioned earlier, the jurisdiction of the domestic relations court is not limited by law to cases involving marriage, divorce separation, or annulment. Actually, those judges “exercise the same powers and jurisdiction…as other judges of the court of common pleas of Cuyahoga County.”

Therefore, we concluded that the Cuyahoga County Domestic Relations Court does have jurisdiction over an action for support brought under the UIFSA, even if the action does not arise from a divorce or some other marriage related issue.

We thus reversed the judgment of the court of appeals – by a seven-to-zero vote – and sent the case back to the court of appeals for further determination consistent with our opinion.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The case referred to is Pula v. Pula-Branch, 129 Ohio St.3d 196, 2011-Ohio-2986. Case No. 2010-0985. Decided June 22, 2011. Majority opinion written by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer.