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Appeal Challenging Georgia’s Equitable Caregiver Statute was moot

In McAlister v. Clifton (Ga. 4/19/2022), the Georgia Supreme Court heard a case challenging the equitable caregiver statute, O.C.G.A. § 19-7-3.1. There, the trial court awarded Wendi Clifton, McAlister’s domestic partner, visitation rights to McAlister’s adopted daughter, Catherine. McAlister contended the equitable caregiver statute was unconstitutional facially and as applied to Clifton. McAlister also appealed the trial court’s denial of contract damages against Clifton.

The Court held the appeal was moot because Catherine turned 18 while the appeal was pending. The Court vacated the portions of the trial court order addressing constitutionality and those provisions relating to visitation, remanding the case to the trial court. However, because the record showed McAlister’s failure to prove damages, it affirmed the portion of the trial ourt opinion denying damages.

The original decision (12/14/2021) was withdrawn and substituted by the new decision on April 19, 2022, after the Court directed the parties to brief the issue of mootness. Ultimately though, since Catherine was a legal adult at the time of the appeal was considered and no longer in the custody or control of her parent, the Court found the appeal was moot.

McAlister argued the issue was not moot because Clifton was using the fact that she was previously awarded visitation as an equitable caregiver to gain an advantage in a guardianship matter involving Catherine. The Court found McAlister failed to show the trial court’s order would have any collateral consequence in the pending guardianship since an equitable caregiver has no preference under OCGA § 29-4-3(b).

Mootness is an issue of jurisdiction and thus must be determined before a court addresses the merits of a claim. … A case is moot when its resolution would amount to the determination of an abstract question not arising upon existing facts or rights. … When a civil case becomes moot pending appellate review due to happenstance – circumstances not attributable to the parties, like the mere passage of time – rather than by settlement of the dispute or voluntary cessation of the challenged conduct by the prevailing party below, the better practice is to vacate the judgment under review and remand with direction that the case be dismissed by the trial court.

Because the challenge to the statute’s constitutionality was moot, the Court expressed no opion on that issue, vacating those portions of the decision below.

Regarding McAlister’s contract claim, she alleged breach of a settlement agreement where Clifton agreed to pay a portion of Catherine’s schooling. “The elements for a breach of contract claim in Georgia are the (1) breach and the (2) resultant damages (3) to the party who has the right to complain about the contract being broken.” (Citations and punctuation omitted.) Norton v. Budget Rent A Car System, Inc., 307 Ga. App. 501, 502 (705 SE2d 305) (2010). Proof of damages is an essential element to a claim for breach of contract, and a failure to prove damages is fatal to a plaintiff’s claim. See Niloy & Rohan, LLC v. Sechler, 335 Ga. App. 507, 510 (1) (a) (782 SE2d 293) (2016).

At trial, McAlister failed to present any evidence that she paid schooling expenses beyond scholarships. Although McAlister testified she paid expenses, the trial court questioned her credibility due to her failure to comply with discovery. Since the record supported the trial court’s decision, that portion of the trial court opinion was affirmed.

Substituted Opinion issued on May 17, 2022

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