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Johnson v. Neshaminy Shore Picnic Park

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

August 20, 2019

JANELLE JOHNSON, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS ADMINISTRATRIX OF THE ESTATE OF NAHYER JOHNSON, A MINOR, DECEASED
v.
NESHAMINY SHORE PICNIC PARK APPEAL OF: CARL GRIGGS

          Appeal from the Order Entered, June 4, 2018, in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County, Civil Division at No(s): 170601945.

          BEFORE: PANELLA, P.J., KUNSELMAN, J., and MUSMANNO, J.

          OPINION

          KUNSELMAN, J.

         In this tragic wrongful death and survival action, the minor decedent's father, Carl Griggs, appeals from the trial court's decision that he forfeited his share of the proceeds from the action filed by the decedent's mother, Janelle Johnson, under Pennsylvania probate law. See 20 Pa.C.S.A. § 2106(b). After careful review, we affirm.

         The pertinent factual and procedural history is as follows:

         The decedent Nahyer Johnson (Child) was just four years old when he drowned at the Neshaminy Shore Picnic Park during a family get-together. At the time of his death, Child was living with Mother; Father had been incarcerated for the preceding ten months. Father had been largely absent from Child's life. The parents separated before Child's birth, and Father was not involved at all during the first year of Child's life. In the year preceding Child's death, Father only saw Child once, when Mother brought Child to visit Father in prison. In fact, Child thought his maternal grandfather was his dad.

         Following the tragedy, Mother was granted Letters of Administration and she subsequently commenced a wrongful death and survival action on behalf of Child's estate and herself individually. Prior to trial, the parties to that action negotiated a global settlement subject to approval of distributions pursuant to Pa.R.C.P. 2206.

         In June 2017, Mother filed a Petition for Forfeiture of Father's share of the wrongful death proceeds arising from Child's death. See 20 Pa.C.S.A. § 2106(b)(1). An evidentiary hearing was held on the petition on September 20, 2017. Mother and Father appeared, as did Keith Johnson (the maternal grandfather) and Shontae Sancho, the owner of the Child's daycare. All four testified about the relationship, or the lack thereof, between Father and Child. The court ultimately granted Mother's Petition for Forfeiture in June 2018.

         Father presents two issues in this timely-filed appeal:

1. Whether the trial court erred when it misinterpreted the relevant law regarding forfeiture pursuant to 20 Pa.C.S. § 2106(b), by conflating the support and desertion criteria, which requires an intent to permanently abandon, and by interpreting the forfeiture statute to exclude any consideration of noneconomic support.
2. Whether the trial court misapplied the relevant law regarding forfeiture pursuant to 20 Pa.C.S. § 2106(b) by 1) finding that willfulness need not be considered; 2) basing its decision on facts beyond the one year prior to death; 3) finding forfeiture when there was insufficient proof in the record to show that defendant had the capacity to perform the duty of support; 4) improperly applying Teaschenko[1] and Moyer[2].

         Father's Brief at 2 (footnotes added).

         As we discuss below, the crux of this matter is one of first impression. The current version of Section 2106(b) was amended on December 20, 2000 and made effective on February 18, 2001. Father's appeal concerns the dissonance between the current version of the forfeiture statute and our case law applying the prior version. Specifically, Father claims the court erred when it departed from prior case law, which found forfeiture only when the parent willingly and completely failed to perform the duty to support the child. Since Father's issues are interconnected, we address them contemporaneously.

         This Court recently reaffirmed our standard of review in these matters:

When reviewing a decree entered by the Orphans' Court, this Court must determine whether the record is free from legal error and the court's factual findings are supported by the evidence. Because the Orphans' Court sits as the fact-finder, it determines the credibility of the witnesses and, on review, we will not reverse its credibility determinations absent an abuse of that discretion. However, we are not constrained to give the same deference to any resulting legal conclusions. Where the rules of law on which the court relied are palpably wrong or clearly inapplicable, we will reverse the court's decree.

Estate of Powell, --- A.3d ---, 2019 PA Super 140, at *2-3 (Pa. Super. May 1, 2019) (citing In re Estate of Fuller, 87 A.3d 330, 333 (Pa. Super. 2014)) (further citations omitted).

         When we review a legal conclusion based on statutory interpretation, our standard of review is de novo and our scope of review is plenary. See In re Estate of Fuller, 87 A.3d at 333 (citation omitted).

         With those standards in mind, we start by addressing how the forfeiture statute has been amended. Under both the current and former iterations of the forfeiture statute, there are two ways a parent forfeits his or her interest in the child's estate: when the parent failed to support the child; or when the parent deserted the child. See 20 Pa.C.S.A. § 2106(b)(1).

         The current version of Section 2106(b) provides, in relevant part:

(b) Parent's share.-Any parent who, for one year or upwards previous to the death of the parent's minor or dependent child, has:
(1) failed to perform the duty to support the child or who, for one year, has deserted the minor or dependent child
shall have no right or interest under this chapter in the real or personal estate of the minor or dependent child. The determination under paragraph (1) shall be made by the court after considering the quality, nature and extent of the parent's contact with the child and the physical, emotional and financial support provided to the child.

20 Pa.C.S.A. § 2106(b).

         Prior to its amendment, Section 2106(b) provided:

Any parent who, for one year or upwards previous to the death of the parent's minor or dependent child, has willfully neglected or failed to perform any duty of support owed to the minor or dependent child or who, for one year, has willfully deserted the minor or dependent child shall have no right or interest ...

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