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N.Y. Family Court Judge Uses Equitable Estoppel to Find Co-Parent Standing in the Absence of Pre-Conception Agreement

Posted on: October 3rd, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

Filling a gap in New York family law left open by the New York Court of Appeals’ 2016 decision In the Matter of Brooke S.B., 28 N.Y.3d 1, 61 N.E.3d 48839 N.Y.S.3d 89, Nassau County Family Court Judge Thomas Rademaker held in J.C. v. N.P., a decision published by the New York Law Journal on September 27, 2017, that the doctrine of equitable estoppel could be used to establish the standing of a lesbian co-parent who could not show that she and her former partner, the birth mother, had a written pre-conception agreement concerning parentage of the two children that were born during their relationship. (At the time of writing, the opinion had not yet appeared in the Lexis or Westlaw databases or been assigned a N.Y. Slip Opinion number, and the version of the opinion published on the Law Journal website did not include a docket number, but bore the date of publication of September 27.) In Brooke S.B., a similar case in other respects, the Court of Appeals had relied on the plaintiff’s allegation of the existence of a pre-conception agreement in determining the standing of an unmarried co-parent to seek custody, and stated “we do not opine on the proper test, if any, to be applied in situations in which a couple has not entered into a pre-conception agreement.”

The Court of Appeals’ statement left an ambiguity for lower courts confronted by cases such as J.C. v. N.P.. Does “if any” mean that co-parents who lack evidence of a pre-conception agreement are categorically barred from establishing standing to seek custody and visitation after their relationship with the child’s birth mother ends, as would be the case under the older precedents overruled in Brooke?  Or, to the contrary, could it just mean that lower courts have room to consider other legal doctrines that would enable them to reach what should be the overriding question in such custody/visitation disputes: what is in the best interest of the children?

Judge Rademaker opted for the second approach. “It is doubtful that the Court of Appeals meant that no test should apply and it is beyond doubt that the Court of Appeals carefully tailored their holding to the fact specific case before them.  Simply put, the holding in Brooke applies to situations when a pre-conception agreement is proven to exist by clear and convincing evidence.”  Further, the “if any” comment struck Rademaker as showing that the Court of Appeals felt it was premature to take the next step of allowing a co-parent to establish standing based on events that occurred upon and after the birth of the child until an appropriate case arose that required determination of that question.  While finding that relying solely on a “best interest of the child” test would provide “far too amorphous a standard” to determine co-parent standing, wrote Rademaker, “Given precedent, the social and legal acknowledgement of same sex marital status, parentage, and the like, this Court looks to the doctrine of equitable estoppel for guidance in the instant matter.”  Rademaker explained that this doctrine has been frequently pressed into service by New York courts in determining that a man without a biological/genetic relationship to a child can be deemed a parent in certain circumstances, and he noted that those opinions emphasized that the overriding factor in such cases should be the best interest of the child.

“To prevail on the grounds of estoppel, the moving party bears the burden of proving, by clear and convincing evidence, that she has the right to the relief being sought,” the judge wrote, disclaiming any intent to create rigid guidelines or lists of factors that must be proven, while taking note of the factors that had been cited by the courts in cases determining men’s status as fathers.

In this case, the court found, J.C. and N.P. began their relationship around January 10, 2014, at which time N.P. was still married to, but separated from, another woman. Within days, N.P. became pregnant through donor insemination, and J.C. participated fully during the pregnancy, accompanying N.P. on doctor visits.  “Throughout their relationship,” Rademaker found, “including the pregnancies, the parties lived together in each other’s homes which they separately owned, dividing time between the two homes depending upon the season and work schedules.”  When their first child, C.C., was born on September 29, 2014, they brought him to J.C.’s house, where a nursery room had been prepared for the child.  Through the women’s subsequent relationship, including the birth to N.P. of a second child conceived through donor insemination who was born in May 2016, the women both functioned as parents, were regarded as a family by the children’s pediatrician, neighbors, and their other family members.  The two children are described by the court as “biological siblings,” presumably because the same man served as sperm donor for both children.

There was also documentary evidence, in the form of an email N.P. sent to her parents on October 16, 2015, as she and J.C. were going to the airport for N.P. to travel, in which she stated: “Since I have a child, don’t have a legal will and [JC] and I aren’t married yet, I figured I would put my wishes in writing just in case of an unfortunate event and I don’t return from Miami safely. Since [JC] is [CC]’s co-parent and other mommy, my wish is for her to have full custody and raise [CC] as her own in the instance I’m not on this earth to raise her myself.  Thank you!”  Although N.P. testified that this was sent to assuage J.C.’s concerns, the court found no reason to believe the statement was sincerely meant.

In a footnote, Judge Rademaker specifically rejected N.P.’s argument that J.C.’s standing claim was barred by the fact that N.P. was married to another woman at the time of C.C.’s conception. “It has been held that the presumption of legitimacy is a presumption of a biological relationship, not a legal relationship,” he wrote, “and therefore has no application to same-gender married couples,” citing Matter of Paczkowski v. Paczkowski, 128 App. Div. 3d 968 (2nd Dept. 2001).  “Moreover,” he wrote, “respondent’s judgment of divorce from her prior spouse clearly rebuts any presumption that C.C. is a child of that marriage, and respondent is bound by that determination under the doctrine of collateral estoppel.”  He also rejected N.P.’s argument that the failure of J.C. to adopt the children due to N.P.’s negative response to J.C.’s suggestions should carry more weight than the tangible evidence of N.P. treating J.C. as a parent and sharing parenting responsibilities with her.  “Simply stated,” wrote the judge, “respondent may have been apprehensive at times about the course of the relationship and perhaps even embarrassed by comments made by petitioner at particular family events but respondent’s daily words and actions with and toward petitioner, as well as CC and AJ [the second child], throughout the relationships were, in fact, quite different.”

The parties’ relationship ended early in 2017 and they separated, but J.C. continued “to see, care for, and tend to the children,” and they all went together on a ski weekend trip in February “together with the children sharing the same room together with the children after the relationship purportedly ended.”

Rademaker found that J.C. had “established by clear and convincing evidence that respondent created, fostered, furthered, and nurtured a parent-like relationship between the children and petitioner. Commencing just a few days after the older child’s conception, and continuing well after the demise of the parties’ relationship, respondent acted as if petitioner was a parent and acknowledged to petitioner, the children, and others that petition was essentially a parent, to wit, a “Mommy,” and both respondent and the children benefitted from this parent-like relationship on a daily basis for years.  Petitioner is adjudicated to be a parent of the subject children and therefore, has standing to seek visitation and custody.”

The next step will be for the court to determine whether it is in the best interest of the children for J.C. to be granted custody and visitation rights.

The Law Journal article reporting on the decision suggested that this was the “first” New York court decision to “offer an answer” to the question whether a co-parent could be adjudicated to be a parent in the absence of a pre-conception agreement. Neither the article nor the opinion identified counsel for the parties.  In a footnote, Judge Rademaker acknowledged the “invaluable assistance of Court Attorney Jeremy Jorgensen in the preparation of this decision.”

 

Arizona Appeals Court Adopts Gender-Neutral Construction of Paternity Statute in Same-Sex Couple Dispute

Posted on: October 14th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

The Court of Appeals of Arizona ruled on October 11 that as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015), holding that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry and that their marriages must receive equal treatment under the law to those of different-sex couples, the Arizona courts must construe the state’s paternity statute in a gender neutral way so that the same-sex spouse of a woman who gives birth enjoys the presumption of parental status. McLaughlin v. Jones, 2016 Ariz. App. LEXIS 256, 2016 WL 5929205 (Oct. 11, 2016).  Judge Philip Espinosa wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel.

Kimberly and Suzan were legally married in California in October 2008, shortly before voters approved Proposition 8, which enshrined a different-sex only marriage definition in the state constitution. Shortly thereafter, however, the California Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriages contracted before the passage of Prop 8 remained valid under California law.  “The couple agreed to have a child through artificial insemination,” wrote Judge Espinosa, “using an anonymous sperm donor selected from a sperm bank.”  Suzan’s efforts to conceive this way were unsuccessful, but Kimberly became pregnant in 2010. Before their child was born, the women moved to Arizona, a state that did not then recognize their marriage or allow second-parent adoptions.

The women made a joint parenting agreement and executed mirror-image wills, declaring “they were to be equal parents of the child Kimberly was carrying,” wrote the court. After their son was born in June 2011, Suzan was the stay-at-home mom while Kimberly resumed her work as a physician.  The women’s relationship deteriorated, however, and when their son was almost two years old, Kimberly moved out of their home, taking the child with her and cutting off his contact with Suzan.

In April 2013, Suzan filed a petition for dissolution of the marriage and a petition for a court order recognizing her parental status in various ways, most significantly decision-making and parenting time. The matter came before Superior Court Judge Lori Jones in Pima County, who decided to stay the proceedings while marriage equality litigation was pending.  In January 2016, six months after the Supreme Court decided Obergefell, Kimberly moved to set the case for trial and Judge Jones ordered briefing concerning “the issue whether the case was a dissolution proceeding with or without children in view of the presumption of paternity under an Arizona statute, Section 25-814(A).  In an April 7, 2016, ruling, Judge Jones found that it would violate Suzan’s 14th Amendment rights not to afford her the same presumption of parenthood that a husband would enjoy.  Thus, she ordered, the case should proceed as a “dissolution action with children.”

Kimberly then moved for a declaratory judgment about whether she would be permitted to introduce evidence to rebut the presumption. On May 2, Judge Jones ruled that Kimberly would not be permitted to attempt to rebut the presumption that Suzan was a parent of their son.  Jones found that there was nothing for Kimberly to rebut, adding that a “family presumption applies to same sex and opposite sex non-biological spouses married to a spouse who conceived a child during the marriage via artificial insemination.”  She relied on Section 25-501, a support statute which is applicable when a child is born as a result of donor insemination, finding that this “necessarily gives rise to parental rights in the non-biological spouse.”  Kimberly appealed this ruling.

On appeal, Kimberly argued that as the child’s biological mother, “she is, by definition, the only parent and therefore the only person who has parental rights, which are fundamental rights,” wrote Judge Espinosa, summarizing Kimberly’s argument. She contended that Judge Jones erroneously construed the paternity statute to encompass same-sex lesbian couples.  Suzan, in response, argued that because of Obergefell, parentage statutes “must be applied and interpreted in a gender-neutral manner so that same-sex couples’ fundamental marital rights are not restricted and they are afforded the same benefits of marriage as heterosexual couples and on the same terms,” wrote Espinosa.

The Arizona statute defining “legal parents” includes “biological” or “adoptive” parents, and “does not include a person whose paternity has not been established pursuant to Section 25-812 [acknowledgment of paternity] or Section 25-814 [presumptions of paternity].” The court found that Section 25-814(A)(1) applies to the McLaughlin case, assuming one applies a gender-neutral interpretation of the statutory language.  This provides that “a man is presumed to be the father of the child if 1. He and the mother of the child were married at any time in the ten months immediately preceding the birth.”

Judge Espinosa wrote, “Enacted well before the Supreme Court decided Obergefell, this statute was written with gender-specific language at a time when the marriage referred to in subsection (A)(1) could only be between a man and a woman.” While accepting Kimberly’s argument that Judge Jones should not have relied on the child support statute to determine Suzan’s status, the court rejected Kimberly’s argument that “it would be impossible and absurd to apply Section 25-841(A)(1) in a gender-neutral manner to give rise to presumption parenthood in Suzan.  Indeed, Obergefell mandates that we do so,” he continued, “and the plain language of the statute, as well as the purpose and policy behind it, are not in conflict with that application.”  Not to do that would deprive same-sex married couples of the same “terms and conditions of marriage” as are enjoyed by different-sex couples, which would be a clear violation of the Supreme Court’s mandate of equal treatment in Obergefell.

“The word ‘paternity’ therefore signifies more than biologically established paternity,” wrote Espinosa. “It encompasses the notion of parenthood, including parenthood voluntarily established without regard to biology.”  He pointed out that the long-established purpose of paternity statutes is “to provide financial support for the child of the natural parent.”  The marital presumption “is intended to assure that two parents will be required to provide support for a child born during the marriage” and serves the additional purpose “or preserving the family unit.”  For these propositions, the court relied on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling in Partanen v. Gallagher, decided just days earlier.  The court rejected Kimberly’s argument that there was any reason to treat men and women differently in this regard, after Obergefell.

As to Kimberly’s request to be able to rebut the presumption of parenthood, the court held that it “need not decide how the rebuttal provision in Section 25-814(C) applies in a same-sex marriage because we determine Kimberly is estopped from rebutting the presumption.  Equitable estoppel applies when a party engages in acts inconsistent with a position later adopted and the other party justifiably relies on those acts, resulting in an injury.”

In this case, it was uncontested that the women were lawfully married when Kimberly became pregnant as a result of a donor insemination process upon which both women agreed.  It is not disputed that their son was born during the marriage.  It is not disputed that Suzan was the stay-at-home mom and cared for their son until Kimberly “left the home with him.”  Furthermore, the women had made a written parenting agreement providing that they were to be equal parents of the child.  In that agreement, Kimberly agreed to “waive any constitutional, federal or state law that provide her with a greater right to custody and visitation than that enjoyed by Suzan.”  They even provided in the agreement that if their relationship broke down, Suzan would continue to enjoy parenting rights, and that if second-parent adoption became available in the jurisdiction where they lived, Suzan would adopt the child.  Since their partnership broke up before Obergefell was decided, however, Suzan never had an opportunity to adopt their son.

The court concluded that based on these uncontested facts, the doctrine of equitable estoppel applied, barring Kimberly from attempting to rebut the presumption that Suzan is a parent to their son.  “Suzan is the only parent other than Kimberly,” wrote Judge Espinosa, “and having two parents to love and support [their son] is in his best interest.  Under these circumstances, Kimberly is estopped from rebutting the presumption of parenthood pursuant to Section 25-814(C).”

Consequently, Kimberly’s appeal was denied, and the case will continue before Judge Jones as a dissolution with a child.  It will be up to Judge Jones in the first instance to determine whether it is in the best interest of the child to order Kimberly to allow Suzan to have a continuing relationship, including parenting time and decision-making authority.

Kimberly is represented by Keith Berkshire and Megan Lankford, Phoenix.  Suzan is represented by Campbell Law Group, Phoenix, and attorneys from the National Center for Lesbian Rights, San Francisco.  Appointed counsel for the child included law students and supervising faculty from various clinical programs, including the Family and Juvenile Law Certificate Program in Tucson, and Child and Family Law Clinic in Tucson, the Community Law Group, Tucson, and the Child and Family Law Clinic at the University of Arizona Rogers College of Law.

 

 

N.Y. Appellate Division Approves Comity for California Parentage Rights of Lesbian Co-Parent

Posted on: April 11th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

The New York Appellate Division, Second Department, an intermediate appellate court based in Brooklyn, issued a unanimous ruling on April 6 affirming a decision by Suffolk County Family Court Judge Deborah Poulos recognizing the parental status of a lesbian co-parent, now resident in Arizona, who is seeking visitation with two children who were conceived through donor insemination while she was legally partnered with their birth mother, first as a California domestic partner and then as a California spouse.  The birth mother and children live in Suffolk County.  The case is Matter of Kelly S. v. Farah M., 2016 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 2533, 2016 N.Y. Slip Op 02656.

The lead sentence above is complicated, but not more so than the decision by Justice Sheri S. Roman, which methodically works its way through several complex issues to arrive at a total affirmance of Judge Poulos’s decision from March 2015, which not only upheld the co-parent’s standing to seek visitation but also rejected the birth mother’s attempt to institute a paternity action against the sperm donor for both children. Justice Roman’s opinion refers to the parties as Kelly S. and Farah M., but an article about the decision published in Newsday on April 9 identifies them as Kelly Steagall and Farah Martin.

According to the decision, Kelly and Farah began their relationship around March 2000 and became registered domestic partners in California in January 2004. Shortly afterwards they asked a close friend, Andrew S., to donate sperm so they could have a child together.  Kelly became pregnant and bore their first child, whom Farah legally adopted.  That child is not a subject of this lawsuit.

Kelly and Farah decided to have another child, and Andrew again donated sperm. This time Farah became pregnant, giving birth in March 2007 to Z.S.  Kelly was listed as a parent on the birth certificate and the child’s legal surname is Steagall.

After the California Supreme Court ruled for marriage equality in 2008, Kelly and Farah decided to get married, which they did that August. A few months later the voters approved Proposition 8, ending new same-sex marriages in California until it was declared unconstitutional several years later.  In the meantime, however, the California Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that same-sex marriages performed prior to the passage of Prop 8 remained valid.  Kelly and Farah decided to have a third child and Andrew again donated sperm so that Farah could become pregnant.  Their third child, E.S., was born in April 2009.  Kelly was again listed on the birth certificate as a parent, and E.S. received Kelly’s surname.

In 2012 the family relocated to New York State, but Kelly and Farah soon split up and Kelly moved to Arizona in the summer of 2013. The children remained in New York with Farah.  As diplomatic relations between the women were poor, Kelly filed a visitation petition in the Suffolk County Family Court, seeking visitation with Z.S. and E.S.  She alleged that the women were legally married in California and Kelly was a legal parent of the two children, whom she had helped to raise until the parties split up.

Farah moved to dismiss the case, arguing that Kelly lacked standing under New York law to seek visitation, invoking the old New York precedent of Alison D. v. Virginia M., 77 N.Y.2d 651 (1991), under which same-sex co-parents were deemed to be “legal strangers” to their children. She also sought to drag Andrew into the case as the children’s biological father by filing a paternity petition.  Although Andrew had never sought to establish his paternity, he was a close friend of the women and had formed a loving relationship with the children and they with him.  Farah evidently hoped that if the court declared Andrew their legal father, that would cut off Kelly’s claim, because New York does not recognize that a child can have more than two legal parents at the same time.

Farah argued in opposition to Kelley’s standing that Z.S. was born before the women were married, and that Kelly should not be deemed their parent because the insemination did not follow the prescribed route under either California or New York donor insemination statutes, which specify the involvement of a doctor in performing the insemination and a written consent from the birth mother’s spouse in order to raise a presumption of parental status for the spouse. Both of these children were conceived through insemination at home without the aid of a physician.

LGBT family law has advanced so significantly in both California and New York since the turn of the century that Farah’s arguments clearly lacked merit. Same-sex marriage is legal in both states, and New York’s Marriage Equality Law, enacted in 2011, makes clear that same-sex and different-sex marriages are to be treated the same, a point driven home as a matter of constitutional rights by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell decision.

New York courts have several times used the doctrine of “comity” to rule that somebody who is a parent of a child under the law of another state will be recognized as their parent in New York, despite the precedent of the Alison D. case. Under California law, when a registered domestic partner gives birth to a child her partner is presumed to be a legal parent of the child and, of course, when a married woman gives birth to a child in California, her legal spouse is presumptively the child’s parent.  The family court found that both of these presumptions applied in this case, and the Appellate Division agreed.

The court rejected Farah’s argument that failure to comply with the statutory donor insemination procedures of the two states would bar Kelly from parental status, pointing out that court decisions in both California and New York establish that the donor insemination statutes are not the exclusive way to create parental rights. These laws provide that partners of birth mothers who comply with the statutory requirements will obtain parental status, but don’t explicitly provide that failure to comply will forfeit any claim to parental status. The general rule for recognition of parental status in New York for a child born in a sister state is comity unless there is a strong public policy reason for New York to refuse to recognize the status.  California law clearly provides that a child born to a woman who has a registered domestic partner is also the child of the partner, and similarly, of course, that a child born to a married woman is the child of her spouse, and New York courts have extended comity in such situations in the past.  In this case, since Kelly was listed on both birth certificates and the children were given her surname, it is clear that the parties intended that she be a parent of both children when they were born.

The Appellate Division also upheld Judge Poulos’s decision to dismiss Farah’s paternity petition. Poulos determined that Farah filed the “in an attempt to terminate Kelly S.’s parental rights.”  But this would be inconsistent with the ultimate factual findings in the case.  Wrote Justice Roman, “The record reflects that the parties made an informed, mutual decision to conceive the subject children via artificial insemination and to raise them together, first while in a registered domestic partnership in California, and, later, while legally married in that state.  Additionally, the children were given Kelly S.’s surname, Kelly S. was named as a parent on each birth certificate, and the parties raised the children from the time of their births, in March 2007 and April 2009, respectively, until the parties separated in or around the summer of 2013.  Under the circumstances presented, the court properly determined that Farah M. may not rebut the presumption of parentage in favor of Kelly S. arising under California law by filing paternity petitions against the sperm donor and correctly determined that Kelly S. has standing to seek visitation with the subject children at a best interests hearing.”

Kelly Steagall’s appellate attorney is Christopher J. Chimeri of Hauppague, N.Y. Farah Martin is represented by Sari M. Friedman of Garden City.  Regina M. Stanton was appointed by the court to represent the interest of the children.  Friedman told Newsday that she doubted her client would appeal, but she criticized the decision as “not good law.”  Steagall told Newsday, “As unfortunate as the situation is, I’m happy that some good came out of my rough situation and could help families in the future.”

The New York Court of Appeals will hear oral argument on June 2, 2016, in Matter of Brooke S.B. v. Elizabeth A. C.C., an appeal challenging the continued validity of Alison D. v. Virginia M. The Court of Appeals gave leave to appeal a ruling by the Buffalo-based Appellate Division, 4th Department, Matter of Barone v. Chapman-Cleland, 129 A.D. 3d 1578, 10 N.Y.S.3d 380 (June 19, 2015), which had matter-of-factly applied the Alison D. precedent to hold that a lesbian co-parent lacked standing to seek custody and visitation with her son.  The Court of Appeals reaffirmed the holding of Alison D. as recently as 2010, in Debra H. v. Janice R., 14 N.Y.3d 576, but since then Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo has appointed six new judges of the seven-member court, leaving only one appointee by former Republican Governor George Pataki on the bench, an almost complete turnover of membership since Alison D. was last affirmed, so it is highly possible that the court granted leave to appeal with a view to overruling the obsolete precedent.

Pregnant Lesbian Will Get Jury Trial Against Catholic School

Posted on: February 7th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

Senior U.S. District Judge Arthur Spiegel (Southern District of Ohio) ruled on January 30 that Christa Dias, who was fired as a computer technology coordinator from two schools of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati after she told her principal at one of the schools that she was pregnant, is entitled to a jury trial of her pregnancy discrimination complaint under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but not of her breach of contract claim.   Unbeknownst to the schools, Dias was in a relationship with a same-sex partner while employed there.

Judge Spiegel relates that when Dias became pregnant, she told the principal at one of the schools, who made inquiries of higher authorities and then told Dias that she would probably lose her job because she was pregnant and unmarried.  This would be a violation of the “morals” provision of her employment contract, which required her to comport herself in compliance with Roman Catholic teachings, which disapprove of premarital sex.  Dias responded that she did not become pregnant from sex, but rather from “artificial insemination.”  The R.C. Church doesn’t approve of that either, so she was dismissed from her jobs. 

She sued under Title VII, which forbids sex discrimination and provides that the ban on sex discrimination also includes discrimination because of pregnancy.  She also argued that the employer had terminated her contract without good cause.  In defense, the employer argued that it was entitled to the ministerial exemption as a religious institution, and that Dias could not bring suit under her contract because she had violated the morals clause, which provided them with a valid reason for her discharge. 

In an earlier ruling, on March 29, 2012, Judge Spiegel rejected the “ministerial exemption” defense, finding that it only extends to employees who are hired to fulfill religious functions.  There was no indication that somebody hired as a computer technology coordinator was performing such functions.  Indeed, Judge Spiegel found that Dias was not a minister, was not hired to teach religion, and as a non-Catholic was not even permitted to teach religion in a Catholic school.  Judge Spiegel also found in that earlier ruling that there seemed to be a lack of “meeting of the minds” about whether the “morals clause” of the contract would be violated by an unmarried female employee becoming pregnant through artificial insemination, so there was a “question of fact as to whether Plaintiff knew she was barred from such action.”

After Judge Spiegel issued the earlier ruling, discovery got under way and the further fact emerged that Dias was living in a homosexual relationship with another woman while employed by the Archdiocese, another violation of Catholic teaching, which she had kept secret from her employer.  The employer argued that new facts emerging in discovery also bolstered its contention that the ministerial exemption applies to this case.  Both parties moved for summary judgment.

The Archdiocese lost on the argument that the ministerial exemption would apply.  Judge Spiegel rejected the argument that new facts emerging during discovery would change his conclusion. The Archdiocese argued that all teachers were “role models” and thus “ministers” in this context, but Judge Spiegel was unshaken from his prior conclusion that because Dias was “not permitted to teach Catholic doctrine, she cannot be considered a ‘minister’ of the Catholic faith.”  He also rejected an argument that the Archdiocese was not a proper defendant because the schools hire and fire faculty autonomously, pointing out that the Archdiocese sets the overall employment policies for its schools and maintains centralized control of management and labor relations.

As to the pregnancy discrimination issue, it is clear on its face that the employer has a policy of not employing pregnant women who are unmarried, which looks like a facial violation of Title VII, although Spiegel was unwilling to accept Dias’s contention that terminating an employee for this reason is automatically a violation.  On the other hand, Dias did agree to an employment contract with a morals clause, and the Archdiocese argues that a clear violation of the morals clause gives it a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for discharge.  “The morals clause in this case lacks specificity such that only an evaluation of the decision-makers’ testimony can show whether their initial reason for terminating Plaintiff was simply enforcement of a policy against premarital sex,” Judge Spiegel wrote.  “This in the Court’s view is a factual determination for a jury: to answer why Defendant really terminated Plaintiff.” 

Spiegel then asserted that the defendant would be guilty of sex-discrimination if its policy against premarital sex was not evenhandedly administered.  The plaintiff contends that the morals clause is used to dismiss women who become pregnant but not men who have premarital sex.  So at trial, it would behoove the Archdiocese to come up with examples of single male employees who were dismissed for getting their girlfriends pregnant, or married male employees dismissed upon discovery that they were having extra-marital affairs. 

“This case offers the further twist of a second proffered reason for Plaintiff’s termination,” wrote Spiegel.  “After Plaintiff informed Defendants she was pregnant through the means of artificial insemination, they responded that such means of becoming pregnant was also justification for her termination.”  Although 6th Circuit caselaw suggests that the way a person becomes pregnant may be relevant in the context of evaluating an employer’s policy against premarital sex, Judge Spiegel said that the more immediate issue was, again, whether a policy against unmarried employees using artifical insemination was applied without regard to sex.  He found that “the Plaintiff has raised a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Defendant has enforced its policy as to men.”  The Archdiocese maintains that it is consistent on this, but another fact emerged in discovery: “a former male employee of a parish within the Archdiocese, who testified he engaged in artificial insemination without being fired.”  So there is a jury question about consistency of the policy.

Because the Archdiocese did not fire Dias due to her homosexual relationship, something of which they were unaware until it became known during discovery in this case, that is not an issue in the Title VII claim.  However, Judge Spiegel found that it was an issue in the breach of contract claim.   He pointed out that Dias had admitted in discovery “that she kept such fact secret from Defendants as she knew Defendants would view her relationship as a violation of the morals clause.  Under such circumstances, the Court finds Plaintiff, with ‘unclean hands,’ cannot invoke a cause of action based on a contract she knew she was breaching.”  Finding that the contract issue was distinct from the Title VII issue, Spiegel granted summary judgment against Dias on her breach of contract claim, but said that this “in no way absolves Defendants of any responsibility to conform to the requirements of law against pregnancy discrimination.”

Finding that summary judgment on the Title VII claim was inappropriate due to the remaining factual issues in dispute, Judge Spiegel said that the scheduled pretrial conference will be held on February 27 and the trial will begin on or about March 19.