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In re William M.W.

California Court of Appeals, First District, First Division

December 17, 2019

In re WILLIAM M.W. et al., Persons Coming Under the Juvenile Court Law. ALAMEDA COUNTY SOCIAL SERVICES AGENCY, Plaintiff and Respondent,
v.
WILLIAM W. et al., Defendants and Appellants.

          Alameda County Superior Court Nos. JD 029265-01, JD 029266-01 Trial Judge: Hon. Charles Smiley

          Valerie N. Lankford, by appointment of the Court of Appeal, for Defendants and Appellants.

          Boies Schiller Flexner, Maxwell V. Pritt, for California Juvenile Court Advocates as amicus curiae on behalf of Defendants and Appellants.

          Donna R. Ziegler, County Counsel, Samantha N. Stonework, Deputy County Counsel, for Plaintiff and Respondent.

          Sanchez, J.

         We are tasked with determining whether a juvenile court is mandated or permitted to order a county child welfare agency to provide discovery to the parents of dependent minors at no cost in dependency proceedings. Both William W. (father) and Kathryn M. (mother) appeal from the juvenile court's refusal to order the Alameda County Social Services Agency (Agency) to deliver requested discovery electronically and at no cost in advance of a contested review hearing involving their two young sons, William M.W. (born in 2014) and William Z.W. (born in 2017). We conclude that no court rule, statute, or constitutional principle requires the discovery order sought by parents in this case. However, should a circumstance arise where an indigent parent's meaningful access to the judicial process is impaired by discovery requirements, the juvenile court has the authority to fix the time, place, and manner of discovery upon such terms and conditions as will serve the ends of justice and the purposes of the juvenile court law. Because the juvenile court below incorrectly determined it had no such authority, we remand the matter so that the court may exercise its discretion in the first instance to decide whether any further discovery order is necessary under the specific facts of this case.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In January 2018, the Agency filed a petition alleging that William M.W. and William Z.W. came within the jurisdiction of the juvenile court under subdivisions (b) and (g) of section 300 of the Welfare and Institutions Code[1] due to certain conduct by parents. The petition detailed several domestic violence incidents during which the minors witnessed physical and verbal abuse. There were also substance abuse and mental health concerns raised. In April 2018, the Agency filed an amended petition detaining the minors from both parents. After further amendments to the petition, the court found the allegations true, declared the minors to be juvenile court dependents, formally removed them from parents' care, and ordered reunification services.

         In September 2018, parents were notified that the Judicial Council-who selects and pays for attorneys to represent parents in juvenile dependency cases (see Gov. Code, §§ 77003, subd. (a)(4), 77200)-had chosen a new organization to provide legal representation to parents of dependent minors in Alameda County. Specifically, the Judicial Council had entered into a Dependency Representation, Administration, Funding and Training Agreement with East Bay Family Defenders (EBFD). As a result, EBFD attorneys were appointed as substitute counsel for both mother and father, effective September 1, 2018.

         In advance of the December 2018 six-month review hearing, the Agency filed a status review report recommending that reunification services continue for both parents. However, in a January 2019 report, the Agency reconsidered, and recommended termination of reunification and referral for selection of a permanent plan. The matter was set for a contested hearing in February 2019.

         In advance of the contested hearing, EBFD filed a joint motion to compel discovery, seeking a juvenile court order that copies of relevant discovery be provided by the Agency to both parents at no cost to them. Father and mother sent letters to the Agency memorializing this request and asking that the discovery be either faxed, provided on a USB flash drive, or produced as printed copies. The Agency, however, refused to comply with parents' request.

         The Agency argued that the motion lacked merit because it had fulfilled its discovery obligations by making discovery available to parents for inspection in accordance with its usual protocol. Specifically, attorneys for both parents had been notified that the redacted discovery materials would be ready for their review on February 1, 2019. Once counsel reviewed the discovery and identified the documents they would like duplicated, the Agency was willing to provide copies at a rate of $.10 per page. Parents' counsel was also allowed to take pictures of desired documents or to otherwise copy them using their own supplies without charge by the Agency. The Agency argued that any order by the juvenile court requiring it to expend funds to provide the discovery free of charge to parents was impermissible because no statute authorizes such an order and it would violate separation of powers principles and constitute a gift of public funds.

         At the hearing on the parents' discovery matter, parents' counsel asserted that free discovery was required in this case under constitutional principles of due process and equal protection. The Agency maintained that its obligation to disclose did not extend to copying and production of discoverable materials. After argument, the juvenile court denied the discovery motion. It stated that it was denying parents' request because it believed it would otherwise “be acting in excess of its authority given the current state of the statutory law.” The court further noted that the Agency had already made the discovery available, but parents' counsel had declined to go to the Agency's office and inspect it. In the court's view, the Agency's obligation under the law was “to make those records available, period, and then counsel can decide on their own if they want to copy the whole file or just one page.” Parents' counsel “should get an opportunity to review the discovery and then make whatever copies they need because they know their clients' cases best.”

         Both mother and father timely appealed from the denial of their motion to compel.[2] In addition, in August 2019, we granted the application of California Juvenile Court Advocates (CJCA) to file an amicus curiae brief in support of parents' position. The Agency filed a responsive brief in October 2019, and the matter is now before us for decision.

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Requirements of California Rule of Court 5.546

         “Dependency proceedings in the juvenile court are special proceedings with their own set of rules, governed, in general, by the Welfare and Institutions Code.” (In re Chantal S. (1996) 13 Cal.4th 196, 200.) Prehearing discovery is primarily regulated in the juvenile court by rule 5.546.[3] The rule states it is to be “liberally construed in favor of informal disclosures, subject to the right of a party to show privilege or other good cause not to disclose specific material or information.” (Rule 5.546(a).) It requires child welfare agencies to disclose police reports and all favorable evidence to the child, parent or guardian, or their counsel. (Rules 5.546(b), 5.546(c).) Eight other specified categories of information must be disclosed by the child welfare agency upon “timely request.” (Rule 5.546(d).) “Discovery must be completed in a timely manner to avoid the delay or continuance of a scheduled hearing.” (Rule 5.546(i); see rule 5.546(g).)[4]

         To ensure compliance with its discovery mandates, rule 5.546 contains several provisions authorizing the juvenile court to regulate the discovery process as needed. For instance, “[i]f a party refuses to disclose information or permit inspection of materials, the requesting party or counsel may move the court for an order requiring timely disclosure of the information or materials.” (Rule 5.546(f).) The juvenile court may excise or place limits on the disclosure of privileged or nondiscoverable materials. (Rule 5.546 (g), (h).) The court may issue a discovery order specifying “the time, place, and manner of making the discovery and inspection and may prescribe terms and conditions.” (Rule 5.546(i).) Finally, “[i]f at any time during the course of the proceedings the court learns that a person has failed to comply with [the] rule or with an order issued under [the] rule, the court may order the person to permit the discovery or inspection of materials not previously disclosed, grant a continuance, prohibit a party from introducing in evidence the material not disclosed, dismiss the proceedings, or enter any other order the court deems just under the circumstances.” (Rule 5.546(j).)

         Appellants broadly assert that the Agency's “open file” discovery procedure is burdensome and unreasonable and therefore at odds with its affirmative duty to disclose discovery under rule 5.546, without specifying how the Agency's procedure actually violates any of the requirements set forth in the rule. CJCA's amicus brief takes the position that the term “disclosure” in rule 5.546 should be construed to mean the production and delivery of discoverable material at no cost. The Agency, on the other hand, insists that it can meet its ...


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