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State ex rel. Department of Economic Security v. Torres

Court of Appeals of Arizona, First Division

October 30, 2018

JOSE TORRES, Respondent/Appellant.

          Appeal from the Superior Court in Maricopa County No. FC2001-001384 FC The Honorable Ronee F. Korbin Steiner, Judge The Honorable Brian S. Rees, Judge Pro Tempore

          Arizona Attorney General's Office, Phoenix By Carol A. Salvati Counsel for Petitioner/Appellee

          Law Office of Stacy Scheff, Tucson By Stacy Scheff Counsel for Respondent/Appellant

          Presiding Judge Diane M. Johnsen delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Judge Maria Elena Cruz and Judge Randall M. Howe joined.


          JOHNSEN, JUDGE:

         ¶1 Jose Torres, an inmate in the state prison system, owed more than $20, 000 in child support arrears. After his mother wired a gift of $120 into his inmate trust account, the Arizona Department of Economic Security ("ADES") issued a withholding order seizing most of it and sent the money to the child-support clearinghouse. Torres argues non-wage monies in an inmate's account may not be seized for child support and contends the withholding order violated his due-process rights. For the following reasons, we affirm the superior court's judgment denying Torres's appeal of the administrative action.


         ¶2 In 2001, the superior court ordered Torres to pay $173 a month in child support for his son and $2, 941 in arrearages that had accumulated since the child was born the year before. In 2011, the court learned Torres was incarcerated and terminated his monthly child support obligation pursuant to Arizona Revised Statutes ("A.R.S.") section 25-503(E) (2018).[1]The court's order, however, noted, "Arrears are still owed."

         ¶3 In November 2016, Torres's mother wired $120 into his inmate trust account. By that time, and even though Torres's monthly payments had been terminated, he owed child-support arrearages of $20, 645. Days later, acting under Title IV-D of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 651-669, ADES issued a Limited Income Withholding Order that directed the Arizona Department of Corrections ("ADC") to withhold an unspecified amount from Torres's account for application against his arrearages. ADC withheld $90.07 from Torres's account, and he requested administrative review. Torres argued the order was improper because he was incarcerated and did not have custody of his son. ADES issued a final determination denying his challenge.

         ¶4 Torres appealed the ADES determination to the superior court. ADES moved to dismiss Torres's appeal, arguing its order was proper under A.R.S. § 25-505(A) (2018). Torres responded that A.R.S. § 31-254 (2018) controls the withholding of an inmate's funds for child support and does not allow seizure of funds a prisoner receives as a gift. The superior court granted the motion to dismiss and Torres timely appealed. We have jurisdiction under Article 6, Section 9, of the Arizona Constitution, and A.R.S. §§ 12-120.21(A)(1) (2018), -913 (2018) and -2101(A)(1) (2018). See Svendsen v. Ariz. Dep't of Transp., Motor Vehicle Div., 234 Ariz. 528, 533, ¶ 13 (App. 2014).


         A. Section 31-254 Does Not Bar Use of a Withholding Order to Take an Inmate's Non-Wage Monies for Child Support.

         ¶5 The interpretation of a statute is a matter of law that we review de novo. See State ex rel. Dep't of Econ. Sec. v. Hayden, 210 Ariz. 522, 523, ¶ 7 (2005). In construing a statute, we give effect to each word and construe related statutes together. Id. We give a statute's words their "usual and commonly understood meaning unless the legislature clearly intended a different meaning." See Bilke v. State, 206 Ariz. 462, 464-65, ¶ 11 (2003). If a statute's language is clear, we apply it without using other methods of statutory interpretation. See id. at 464, ¶ 11.

         ¶6 The statute on which Torres relies, A.R.S. § 31-254, establishes a pay schedule for work performed by inmates and mandates specified deductions from an inmate's pay, including "[t]hirty percent of the prisoner's wages for court ordered dependent care." A.R.S. § 31-254(D)(4). As Torres points out, there is no provision in § 31-254 for the withholding of non-wage monies from an inmate's account for child support. Torres argues that because § 31-254 mandates that child support be taken from an inmate's wages but does not specify any other deductions for child support, no other funds in an inmate's account can be taken for child support.

         ¶7 Under A.R.S. § 25-504 (2018), a party owed child support is entitled to an assignment of the obligor's "income" and may obtain an order withholding a specified amount from the obligor's monthly wages. A.R.S. § 25-504(A), (B). The legislature broadly has defined "income" for this purpose as "any form of payment owed." A.R.S. § 25-500(6) (2018). As stated, when the obligor is an inmate who earns income - wages - while ...

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