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Wilson v. Arkansas Department of Human Services

Supreme Court of Arkansas

December 13, 2018

DENA WILSON APPELLANT
v.
ARKANSAS DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES APPELLEE

          APPEAL FROM THE PULASKI COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT [NO. 60JV-16-279] HONORABLE WILEY A. BRANTON, JR., JUDGE

          Churchwell Law Offices, by: Joseph Churchwell, for appellant.

          Jerald A. Sharum, Office of Chief Counsel, for appellee.

         

          COURTNEY HUDSON GOODSON, ASSOCIATE JUSTICE

         Appellant Dena Wilson appeals the Pulaski County Circuit Court's order dismissing her counterclaim for declaratory and injunctive relief against appellee Arkansas Department of Human Services (DHS). For reversal, Wilson argues that the circuit court lacked jurisdiction to consider the counterclaim because DHS was entitled to sovereign immunity. We affirm.

         On February 29, 2016, DHS petitioned the circuit court for an ex parte order of investigation alleging that it had received a report that Wilson had physically abused her minor child, I.W. DHS asserted that it had a duty under the Child Maltreatment Act to interview and examine Wilson and I.W.; however, DHS stated that despite several attempts to investigate the matter, Wilson and her attorney had refused to allow DHS to enter the home or have contact with I.W.

         The circuit court granted the petition the same day and entered an order requiring Wilson to permit examination of I.W. and inspection of her home. The DHS family service worker, Mary Hawkins, and a Maumelle police officer presented the order to Wilson on March 12 and 14, 2016, but Wilson refused to cooperate. DHS did not enter the home, examine I.W., or seek further enforcement of the order.

         On June 25, 2016, Wilson filed a "Counterclaim and Third-Party Complaint for Declaratory Judgment and Injunctive Relief" along with a brief in support. In addition to DHS, she named the State of Arkansas as a third-party defendant. Wilson alleged that several provisions in the Child Maltreatment Act permitted unreasonable searches and seizures in violation of the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. She further alleged that these statutes violated her due-process rights as well as separation-of-powers principles. She requested declaratory and injunctive relief, both for her and on behalf of other similarly situated individuals, and also that the order of investigation be vacated.

         DHS moved to dismiss the counterclaim pursuant to Ark. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) and to vacate the order of investigation. DHS argued that the counterclaim was procedurally improper and that Wilson could have challenged the order by applying for a stay pending a hearing, as is authorized under the Child Maltreatment Act. Further, DHS asserted that it had no intention of enforcing the order of investigation and asked the circuit court to vacate it, contending that this action would render the counterclaim moot. Wilson filed a response to the motion arguing that her counterclaim was proper and that her request for declaratory relief was not moot even if the order of investigation was vacated.

         On October 28, 2016, the State filed a motion to dismiss the third-party complaint against it based on sovereign immunity. The State did not assert sovereign immunity on behalf of DHS. Wilson responded and denied the State's allegations, and a hearing was held on the motion on February 8, 2017. On March 9, 2017, the circuit court entered an order granting the State's motion and dismissing the third-party complaint without prejudice.

         DHS filed an amended response to Wilson's counterclaim on May 9, 2017, and renewed its request that the order of investigation be vacated and that the counterclaim be dismissed. DHS also addressed the merits of Wilson's constitutional arguments and prayed that the circuit court deny her claims for declaratory and injunctive relief.

         After a hearing on June 23, 2017, at which the circuit court heard only arguments of counsel, the court entered an order on July 21, 2017, denying Wilson's constitutional claims and granting DHS's motion to dismiss her counterclaim and vacate the order of investigation. Wilson filed a timely notice of appeal from the circuit court's order.

         On appeal, Wilson does not challenge the circuit court's denial of her claims for declaratory and injunctive relief. Instead, she argues that the circuit court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to hear her counterclaim because DHS was entitled to sovereign immunity under article 5, section 20 of the Arkansas Constitution. She contends that the circuit court's order addressing the merits of her claims was void, that the order should be reversed, and that her case should be dismissed without prejudice due to lack of jurisdiction.

         In its response brief, DHS asserts several bases on which this court may affirm the circuit court's order. DHS argues that (1) Wilson failed to preserve any sovereign-immunity argument; (2) Wilson had already obtained the relief she sought below, dismissal of the order of investigation, and the relief she seeks on appeal, dismissal of her counterclaim, so a decision by this court would have no practical legal effect on any ...


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