In the case of Lyle v. Lyle, Division Three of the Washington State Court of Appeals dealt with the case of a Commissioner’s order that was revised by a Superior Court Judge. Specifically, the court reaffirmed that Superior court judges are authorized to review court commissioner decisions through a motion for revision. Although new evidence may not be considered, a judge acting on a motion for revision otherwise has plenary authority over the matter and may issue any findings or decisions that could have been entered by the commissioner.The broad authority conferred on superior court judges warranted the actions taken by the judge in this case. After Christy Lyle filed a motion to revise a commissioner’s decision dismissing her petition to modify child support, the superior court judge was not restricted to either affirming or reversing the commissioner’s order. Instead, on finding dismissal unwarranted, the judge was empowered to enter a child support award as had been requested by Ms. Lyle in her petition. The decision of the superior court judge is therefore affirmed. The specific facts of Lyle v. Lyle are as follows:
Lyle v. Lyle – Petition to Modify Child Support Order
In 2014, Respondent Christy Lyle filed a petition to modify a child support order. Respondent Lyle asserted various grounds for modification under RCW 26.09.170. The petition was supported by declarations, as well as financial and other documentation. Ms. Lyle’s former husband, Keith Lyle, opposed the modification of the child support order. Mr. Lyle contended that Respondent Lyle had not established a change of circumstances that would warrant revisiting the 2009 order. Mr. Lyle also submitted declarations and documentation supporting his position.
A superior court commissioner heard argument on Respondent Lyle’s petition after reviewing the parties’ filings. No testimony was taken by the court. The commissioner dismissed the petition for the reasons argued by Mr. Lyle, finding that Ms. Lyle had not shown a substantial change in circumstances or severe economic hardship as required for modification under RCW 26.09.170.
Ms. Lyle filed a motion for revision of the commissioner’s decision. A superior court judge heard oral argument on the motion and considered the materials that had been previously filed by the parties in support of their positions in the case, as well as a transcript of the commissioner’s hearing. The judge ultimately granted Ms. Lyle’s motion for revision and petition for modification, finding that she had established the following circumstances under RCW 26.09.170(5), (6), and (7): (1) a substantial change in circumstances based on the children entering into a new age category and their significantly increased expenses, (2) severe economic hardship, and (3) change in income. The judge also adopted Ms. Lyle’s proposed child support worksheet. Mr. Lyle chose to appeal the matter to the Court of Appeals.
Mr. Lyle chose not challenge the superior court judge’s decision to revise the court commissioner. Rather, Mr. Lyle’s complaint goes to the scope of the judge’s order on revision. According to Mr. Lyle, once the superior court judge decided to revise the commissioner’s ruling on whether there were grounds for modification, the matter should have been remanded to the commissioner for an assessment of applicable child support. The Court of Appeals disagreed with Mr. Lyle’s restricted view of the superior court judge’s power of revision.
When a superior court judge receives a case through a motion for revision for reviewing a commissioner’s ruling, the judge takes “jurisdiction of the entire case as heard before the commissioner.” State ex rel. Biddinger v. Griffiths, 137 Wash. 448, 451, 242 P. 969 (1926). Although the superior court judge cannot accept new evidence based upon RCW 2.24.050, a motion for revision is in all other respects equal to any other matter on the court’s docket. The judge reviews the law and evidence and his free to make his or her own decision, de novo. State v. Ramer, 151 Wn.2d 106, 113, 116-17, 86 P.3d 132 (2004) (de novo standard applied even when commissioner heard live testimony). Again, should the judge disagree with the commissioner’s disposition, the judge may issue his or her own independent factual findings and legal conclusions. Id. at 113; Iturribarria Perez v. Bazaldua Garcia, 148 Wn. App. 131, 138, 198 P.3d 539 (2009).
The superior court judge had authority to not only reverse the commissioner’s decision but also to provide an appropriate remedy. The judge could have remanded the case to the commissioner had the factual record been incomplete, but doing so was not required. Because the record was complete, the superior court judge had jurisdiction to decide Ms. Lyle’s child support modification petition fully. By exercising complete authority over the case, the judge appropriately placed Respondent Lyle on equal footing with litigants whose cases are handled by superior court judges only. Remand to the commissioner for entry of child support orders would have been inefficient and unnecessary.
Mr. Lyle argues to the court that the superior court judge’s determination deprived him of an opportunity to argue for a deviation from the standard child support schedule. We are unpersuaded by this argument. The ultimate issue before both the commissioner and the judge was Ms. Lyle’s request for child support payments based on her proposed child support worksheet. Mr. Lyle was provided ample opportunity to resist Respondent Lyle’s request in its entirety. Yet Mr. Lyle never specifically requested a deviation of the child support amount; rather, Mr. Lyle focused on the foundational issue of whether Respondent Lyle had presented a sufficient basis for modification. The fact that Mr. Lyle’s litigation strategy ultimately proved unsuccessful does not require that he receive a new hearing. The procedure employed by the superior court judge was appropriate, and the Superior Court Judge’s decision on revision is affirmed.
In summary, a Motion for Revision is an important tool to use in a case where you believe a Superior Court Commissioner’s decision was legally incorrect. However, you must understand that there are very tight timelines that must be followed in order to give yourself an opportunity to have the decision reviewed. Once you get to that point, the Superior Court judge is free to make his or her independent decision; but from a practical point, in my experience as a family law lawyer, unless it is clearly wrong, a lot of times the judges will not disturb the decision of the commissioner. If you want to discuss this more, please Contactcontact us for a consultation.