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In re Marriage of Ruff

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 2

March 28, 2017

In re the Matter of the Marriage of: GRETCHEN RUFF, FKA WORTHLEY, Petitioner, and WILLIAM WORTHLEY, Respondent.

          Johanson, J.

         We are asked to determine whether the "Child Relocation Act" (CRA)[1]applies to joint parenting plans when parents share equal residential time and have equal decisionmaking authority.[2] Joint parenting plans that provide for equal residential time and equal decisionmaking create an important and serious commitment by parents to work closely together to raise their children. A proposed relocation that would modify a joint parenting plan's equal residential time to something less than equal residential time is in effect a change in residential placement. Such a change in residential placement requires an adequate cause finding under the modification statute.[3] We therefore conclude that the CRA does not apply to a proposed relocation that would modify the joint parenting plan's joint and equal residential time to something other than joint and equal residential time. Accordingly, we dismiss the relocation action.

         FACTS

         In September 2009, William Worthley and Gretchen Ruff (formerly Gretchen Worthley) divorced. Their parenting plan allowed for their minor children to "reside equally or substantially equally with both parents" on an alternating weekly schedule (a "joint parenting plan"). Clerk's Papers (CP) at 4. The parties are designated joint legal and physical custodians of their minor children and have equal decision-making authority.

         In June 2014, Worthley filed a notice of intended relocation seeking to relocate their remaining minor child to Missouri. Two different superior court judges made rulings on this case. In September, in response to Ruffs dismissal motion, the first superior court judge temporarily restrained Worthley from relocating the minor child. The first superior court judge concluded that because Worthley and Ruff had a joint parenting plan, Worthley must file a modification petition and meet the adequate cause burden before pursuing his relocation request.

         Worthley then petitioned for modification, arguing adequate cause based on the child's integration into his home and Ruffs detrimental home environment. Ruff opposed the petition and argued that adequate cause did not exist to support a parenting plan modification.[4] The second superior court judge concluded that Worthley failed to show adequate cause and denied Worthley's modification petition. Turning to the relocation action, the second superior court judge further concluded that "[t]he [CRA] presumes that one parent is the primary residential parent. The court will set an evidentiary hearing to determine which parent is the primary residential parent. Thereafter, the court will decide whether the child should be allowed to relocate under the [CRA]."[5] CP at 245.

         We granted Ruffs discretionary review petition on the sole issue of "whether the [CRA] applies to parenting plans that provide for children to reside equally with both parents." Ruling Granting Review, In re Marriage of Worthley, No. 48462-5-II, at 6 (Wash.Ct.App. Apr. 4, 2016).

         ANALYSIS

         I. The CRA Is Inapplicable to a Modification of the Joint Parenting Plan

         Ruff makes several arguments that the CRA does not apply to joint parenting plans.[6] We hold that the CRA does not apply when the child's residential time is designated equal or substantially equal in the parenting plan and when the proposed relocation would result in a modification of this designation.[7]

         A. Principles of Law

         This case involves an issue of statutory interpretation. We review questions of statutory construction de novo. In re Parentage of C.A.M.A., 154 Wn.2d 52, 57, 109 P.3d 405 (2005). Our fundamental objective when interpreting a statute is "to discern and implement the intent of the legislature." State v. J.P., 149 Wn.2d 444, 450, 69 P.3d 318 (2003). "Statutory interpretation begins with the statute's plain meaning." Lake v. Woodcreek Homeowners Ass 'n, 169 Wn.2d 516, 526, 243 P.3d 1283 (2010). We discern plain meaning from the '"ordinary meaning of the language at issue, the context of the statute in which that provision is found, related provisions, and the statutory scheme as a whole.'" Lake, 169 Wn.2d at 526 (quoting State v. Engel, 166 Wn.2d 572, 578, 210 P.3d 1007 (2009)). "If a statute is clear on its face, its meaning is to be derived from the plain language of the statute alone." State v. Watson, 146 Wn.2d 947, 954, 51 P.3d 1 (2002). And in the absence of a statutory definition, we "will give the term its plain and ordinary meaning ascertained from a standard dictionary." Watson, 146 Wn.2d at 954.

         If the statute is unambiguous after a review of the plain meaning, our inquiry is at an end. Lake, 169 Wn.2d at 526. When the words in a statute are clear and unequivocal, we are '"required to assume the Legislature meant exactly what it said and apply the statute as written.'" In re Custody of Smith, 137 Wn.2d 1, 8, 969 P.2d 21 (1998) (quoting Duke v. Boyd, 133 Wn.2d 80, 87, 942 P.2d 351 (1997)), aff'd sub nom. Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57, 120 S.Ct. 2054, 147 L.Ed.2d 49 (2000).

         "Whenever possible, statutes are to be construed so 'no clause, sentence or word shall be superfluous, void, or insignificant.'" HomeStreet, Inc. v. Dep't of Revenue, 166 Wn.2d 444, 452, 210 P.3d 297 (2009) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Kasper v. City of Edmonds, 69 Wn.2d 799, 804, 420 P.2d 346 (1966)). We cannot read into a statute that which we may believe '"the legislature has omitted, be it an intentional or inadvertent omission.'" Smith, 137 Wn.2d at 12 (quoting Auto. Drivers & Demonstrators Union Local 882 v. Dep't of Ret. Sys., 92 Wn.2d 415, 421, 598 P.2d 379 (1979)). Courts cannot amend statutes by judicial construction or rewrite statutes to avoid difficulty in construing and applying them. C.A.M.A., 154 Wn.2d at 69.

         "If the statute is 'susceptible to two or more reasonable interpretations, ' it is ambiguous." Five Corners Family Farmers v. State, 173 Wn.2d 296, 305, 268 P.3d 892 (2011) (quoting Burton v. Lehman, 153 Wn.2d 416, 423, 103 P.3d 1230 (2005)). But the "fact that two or more interpretations are conceivable does not render a statute ambiguous." Five Corners Family Farmers, 173 Wn.2d at 305. If a statute is ambiguous, we may look to relevant case law, the legislative history of the statute, and the circumstances surrounding its enactment to determine legislative intent. Anthis v. Copland, 173 Wn.2d 752, 756, 270 P.3d 574 (2012).

         B. CRA's Plain Meaning

         Ruff argues that the CRA's plain language and its statutory scheme illustrate that the CRA does not apply to joint parenting plans. We agree. 1. Plain Language

         Ruff argues that the CRA's definition, notice, and reason for relocation provisions show that the CRA does not apply to evaluate proposed relocations in the context of joint parenting plans where the child's residential time is spent equally with both parents. Ruff further argues that applying the CRA to a proposed relocation where there is a joint parenting plan would require the court to improperly read language into the statute that is not there. We agree.

         Relocation is defined as "a change in principal residence." RCW 26.09.410(2) (emphasis added). And "a person with whom the child resides a majority of the time'" must provide notification of the proposed relocation (change in principal residence). RCW 26.09.430 (emphasis added). Finally, there is "a rebuttable presumption that the intended relocation of the child will be permitted." RCW 26.09.520.

         Under the plain language of the CRA's relocation definition and its notice provision, a relocation is a change in principal residence, and the person with whom the child resides the majority of time shall give notice of any intended change in principal residence. The CRA does not define "principal residence" or "majority." See RCW 26.09.410. In the absence of statutory definitions, we give these terms their "plain and ordinary meaning ascertained from a standard dictionary." Watson, 146 Wn.2d at 954. The ordinary meaning of "principal" is "most important" or "influential, " and the ordinary meaning of "majority" is "a number greater than half of a total."

         Webster's Third New International Dictionary 1802, 1363 (2002).

         These definitions necessarily exclude joint parenting plans because there is no "most important or influential" or "principal" residence and there is no person with whom the child resides "greater than half or the "majority of the time." RCW 26.09.410, .430, .520. To conclude otherwise would be to impermissibly render this language superfluous, void, or insignificant. And we avoid such results. HomeStreet, Inc., 166 Wn.2d at 452.

         Worthley argues that the definition statute could be read to mean that a child "has no principle [sic] place of residence or the child has two" and that the notice statute could be read to mean that "neither or both parents have a majority of parenting time." Br. of Resp't at 8. Worthley's interpretation of these provisions requires reading into the CRA substantial language that the legislature has omitted. This we cannot do.

         The definition of "relocate" would have to be read as "a change in principal or equal residence." The notice statute would need to be read as "a person with whom the child resides a majority or an equal time."[8] And as for the presumption it would need to be read to say, "There is a rebuttable presumption that the intended relocation of the child will be permitted, unless the child resides equally with the parents." We cannot read into a statute that which '"the legislature has omitted, be it an intentional or inadvertent omission.'" Smith, 137 Wn.2d at 12 (quoting Auto Drivers & Demonstrators Union Local 882, 92 Wn.2d at 421). A plain reading of the CRA's language supports the conclusion that the CRA does not apply to ...


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