New York Law School

Art Leonard Observations

Posts Tagged ‘custody and visitation’

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 Supreme Court Holds Parental Presumption Applies to Lesbian Married Couples

Posted on: September 19th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

 

Resolving a difference of views between two panels of the state’s intermediate Court of Appeals, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled on September 19 that state statutes providing that the husband of a woman who gives birth to a child after undergoing donor insemination with the husband’s consent is a legal parent of the child must extend equally to the wife of a woman who gives birth to a child after undergoing anonymous donor insemination with her wife’s consent. The ruling in McLaughlin v. McLaughlin, 2017 WL 4126939, is a logical application of the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 26, 2017, ruling in Pavan v. Smith, which dealt affirmatively with the related question whether a state must recognize the parental status of a same-sex spouse by listing her as a parent on the child’s birth certificate, and of course was ultimately governed by the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling, Obergefell v. Hodges.

The Supreme Court made clear in Pavan that the constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry, earlier recognized by the Court in Obergefell in 2015, is not just about the right to marry and have other states recognize the marriage, but also about the right to enjoy all the benefits and be subject to all the obligations of marriage on an equal basis with different-sex couples.  Applying this principal to an Arizona parentage statute that, by its terms, only applies to the parental rights of men, the Arizona court adopted a gender-neutral construction of the statute, rejecting the argument by one partially dissenting judge that correcting the statute’s constitutional flaw should be left to the legislature.

Kimberly and Suzan were married in California in 2008, during the five-month period between the California Supreme Court’s In re Marriage Cases decision and the adoption of Proposition 8, which enacted a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to different-sex couples.  The California Supreme Court subsequently ruled that the same-sex marriages contracted during that five-month period, such as the McLaughlin marriage, were fully valid under California law.  The women decided to have a child together.  Suzan went through donor insemination, but unsuccessfully.  Kimberly then went through the procedure and became pregnant.  They moved to Arizona during the pregnancy.

Before the birth of their child, they signed a joint parenting agreement in February 2011, in which they declared that Suzan would be a “co-parent” of the child, stating: “Kimberly McLaughlin intends for Suzan McLaughlin to be a second parent to her child, with the same rights, responsibilities, and obligations that a biological parent would have to her child” and that “should the relationship between us end, it is the parties’ intention that the parenting relationship between Suzan McLaughlin and the child shall continue with shared custody, regular visitation, and child support proportional to custody time and income.” State courts generally take the position that such parenting contracts, while evidence of the intent of the parties, is not binding on the court in a subsequent custody determination during a divorce, where the court’s legal role is to determine custody and visitation issues based on the court’s evaluation of the child’s best interests. The women also executed wills naming Suzanne as a part of the child, a boy who was born in June 2011.

Kimberly, a doctor, worked to support the family, and Suzan stayed at home to care for the baby. By the time the child was almost two years old in 2013, the women’s relationship had deteriorated and Kimberly moved out with the child, cutting off Suzan’s contact with her son.  Suzan then filed petitions in state court seeking dissolution of the marriage and legal decision-making and parenting time with the child.  She couldn’t file for a divorce, because Arizona did not recognize same-sex marriages at that time.  She included a constitutional challenge to the state’s anti-gay marriage laws in her lawsuit, and the state intervened to defend its laws.

While Suzan’s case was pending, a federal district court in Arizona declared the state’s same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional, a result upheld by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Court subsequently denied in November 2014 an attempt by other states in the circuit to get the 9th Circuit’s marriage equality rulings reversed.  Of course, on June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling in Obergefell made clear that Arizona would have to recognize Suzan and Kimberly’s California marriage under its divorce and custody laws.  The state dropped its intervention in the case, and Suzan’s lawsuit turned into a divorce case.  But the question remained about her status as a parent to the child, to whom she is not biologically related.

The trial judge in Pima County, Lori B. Jones, confronted a parentage statute stating that “a man is presumed to be the father of the child if he and the mother of the child were married at any time in the ten months immediately preceding the birth or the child is born within ten months after the marriage is terminated.” The parental status under the statute is legal, not biological, although a man could rebut the legal presumption by showing that another man was the biological father or that his wife had conceived through donor insemination without his consent. However, the Arizona laws made clear that if a husband consented to his wife’s donor insemination, he would be presumed to be the child’s legal father.  The problem was the gendered language of the statute.

Wrote Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Scott Bales in describing the trial court’s reasoning in ruling in favor of Suzan, “Based on Obergefell, the court reasoned that it would violate Suzan’s Fourteenth Amendment rights not to afford her the same presumption of paternity that applies to a similarly situated man in an opposite-sex marriage.”  Judge Jones also concluded that in this kind of case the birth mother should not be allowed to attempt to rebut the presumption where it was undisputed that her same-sex spouse had consented to the insemination process and would be obligated to contribute to the support of the child.

Kimberly sought relief from the court of appeals, which was denied. That court both agreed with Judge Jones’ reasoning on the Fourteenth Amendment issue and further reasoned that Kimberly should be “equitably estopped from rebutting Suzan’s presumption of parentage.”  Equitable estoppel is a legal doctrine that courts invoke to prevent a party from attempting to assert a legal right that would be contrary to their prior representations and actions.  In this case, since Kimberly consented to the insemination and contracted with Suzan to recognize her full parental rights toward the child, she could not now turned around and attempt to avoid those actions by showing that Suzan was not the child’s biological father, which Suzan clearly is not.

After the court of appeals issued it opinion in this case, a different division of the state’s court of appeals released a contrary ruling in Turner v. Steiner, 242 Ariz. 494 (2017). By a 2-1 vote, that court “concluded that a female same-sex spouse could not be presumed a legal parent [under the statute] because the presumption is based on biological differences between men and women and Obergefell does not require courts to interpret paternity statutes in a gender-neutral manner.”

The Arizona Supreme Court granted Kemberly’s petition to appeal the court of appeals ruling because application of the parentage statute to same-sex marriages “is a recurring issue of statewide importance.”

Chief Justice Bales’s opinion for the court made clear that one could easily resolve this dispute in favor of Suzan without even referring to the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Pavan, because the earlier Obergefell opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy addressed all the salient issues in very clear language.  The idea that Obergefell required only that states allow same-sex couples to marry and recognize as valid legally-contracted same-sex marriages from other states was contrary to the language and reasoning of the Supreme Court.  “In Obergefell,” wrote Bales, “the Court repeatedly framed both the issue and its holding in terms of whether states can deny same-sex couples the same ‘right’ to marriage afforded opposite-sex couples.”  For example, quoting from Kennedy’s opinion: “The Constitution does not permit the State to bar same-sex couples from marriage on the same terms as accorded to couples of the opposite sex,” and further, wrote Bales, “noting harms that result from denying same-sex couples the ‘same legal treatment as opposite-sex couples.’”  In particular, the Supreme Court had emphasized the importance to children of same-sex couples have equal recognition of their families.

“Such broad statements reflect that the plaintiffs in Obergefell sought more than just recognition of same-sex marriages,” wrote Bales, noting that the Michigan plaintiffs in one of the cases consolidated before the Court were a same-sex couple who sought to marry to secure the parental status of both of them to the children they were jointly raising, and, continued Bales, “the benefits attendant to marriage were expressly part of the Court’s rationale for concluding that the Constitution does not permit states to bar same-sex couples from marriage ‘on the same terms.’  It would be inconsistent with Obergefell,” he continued, “to conclude that same-sex couples can legally marry but states can then deny them the same benefits of marriage afforded opposite-sex couples.”  The subsequent decision in Pavan, the Arkansas birth certificate case, just drove home the point in the specific context of parental status and rights.

The Arizona Supreme Court concluded that the benefit of the parental presumption that is enjoyed by the spouse of a woman who gives birth is one of the “benefits of marriage” that must be equally afforded to same-sex couples. It rejected Kimberly’s argument, similar to that of the other panel of the Arizona Court of Appeals, that the statute dealt only with biological parentage.  This was never a particularly logical argument, since the overall statutory scheme in Arizona extended the parental presumption to situations where the man was not the child’s biological father, making it conclusive when he had consented to his wife’s insemination with donor sperm.

The court then faced the question whether the statute should just be struck down as unconstitutional, terminating any parental presumption, or extended through a gender-neutral interpretation to apply to same-sex couples. The court decided that extending the statute was more in line with the legislature’s overall purpose than would be striking it down.  The goal, after all, was to support families and solidify parent-child ties, which was best achieved by extending the parental presumption to lesbian couples.  Thus, the court vacated the decision of the court of appeals and affirmed the decision of Pima County Superior Court Judge Jones, upholding Suzan’s parental status and rights, with details to be worked out in the trial court, hopefully by agreement of the ex-spouses.

The court lost one member on this last point, as Justice Clint Bolick argued in partial dissent that the court was exceeding its role by improperly reinterpreting statutory language to cure the constitutional problem. “The marital presumption that the majority finds unconstitutional and rewrites is not, as the majority characterizes it, a ‘state-benefit statute,’” he insisted.  “Rather, it is part of an integrated, comprehensive statute that serves the highly important and wholly legitimate purpose of providing a mechanism to establish a father’s rights and obligations.”  Viewed on its own, he insisted, it was not unconstitutional.  “A paternity statute does not offend the Constitution because only men can be fathers,” he said, pointing to another opinion by Justice Kennedy in a case upholding different rules for determining a child’s U.S. citizenship based on the citizenship of the mother or the father in a marriage between citizens of different countries.  The majority had rejected Kimberly’s reliance on this decision, but Bolick contended that “it is not the paternity statute that is unconstitutional, but rather the absence of a mechanism to provide parenthood opportunities to single-sex couples on equal terms appropriate to their circumstances.”  He would leave it to the legislature to fix the problem.  Bolick would send the case to the trial court to be decided without any parental presumption, presumably (since he doesn’t spell it out)  leaving the trial court to determine whether it was in the best interest of the child for the woman who was formerly married to the child’s birth mother to have decision-making and visitation rights.

Suzan is represented by the National Center for Lesbian Rights, whose legal director, Shannon Minter, argued the case in the Arizona Supreme Court, assisted by staff attorneys Emily Haan and Catherina Sakimora, with local counsel Claudia D. Work of Campbell Law Group in Phoenix. Kimberly is represented by Keith Berkshire and Erica L. Gadberry of Berkshire Law Office in Phoenix.   Several amicus briefs were filed with the court, including briefs from the ACLU, a University of Arizona law school clinic, and a group of Arizona Family Law Practitioners.

Mass. SJC Rules Affirmatively on Same-Sex Partner Parentage Claim in Partanen v. Gallagher

Posted on: October 5th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) ruled on October 4 that the former same-sex partner of a woman who gave birth to two children through donor insemination during the women’s relationship can seek to establish full legal parentage of the children under the state’s statute concerning parentage of children born out of wedlock. Partanen v. Gallagher, SJC-12018, 2016 Mass. LEXIS 759, 2016 WL 5721061.

Although the state’s courts have in the past recognized various rights for co-parents in similar cases using a “de facto parent” concept, this unanimous ruling is the SJC’s first to take advantage of a law providing that “words of one gender may be construed to include the other gender and the neuter” to adapt a statute that was originally intended to allow unmarried men to establish their paternity of children born “out of wedlock” to their women companions, and to repurpose the statute as a vehicle to establish parental rights for unmarried same-sex partners.

Justice Barbara Lenk wrote for the unanimous seven-member court.

Karen Partanen and Julie Gallagher began their “committed relationship” as a couple in Massachusetts in 2001. The next year they moved to Florida, where they bought a house together in 2003.  In 2005 they decided to use donor insemination to have children.  The plan was for each of the women in turn to be inseminated.  Partanen’s attempt in 2005 was unsuccessful, but Gallagher’s subsequent attempt was successful and she gave birth to their daughter in 2007.  Gallagher was inseminated again in 2011, giving birth to a son.

These procedures were performed with the full cooperation and involvement of Partanen, who was present at the birth of the children. Partanen did not adopt the children, although in 2010 a Florida appeals court struck down the state’s statutory ban on gay people adopting children, but, according to her complaint in this lawsuit, she was fully involved as a parent, including personal contact, financial support, and decision-making.

After their son was born, the family moved back to Massachusetts. Although by then same-sex marriage was legal in Massachusetts, they did not marry. Shortly after the move, they ended their relationship and Partanen moved out.  She filed an action to establish “de facto” parentage in February 2014, requesting visitation and shared custody.  In September 2015, a Family Court judge ruled that she was a “de facto” parent, ordered visitation, and required her to pay child support to Gallagher.  An appeal of that ruling is pending.  Meanwhile, however, in October 2014 Partanen filed a separate action “to establish [full legal] parentage,” which Gallagher moved to dismiss, arguing that “full parentage” could only be achieved under the paternity statute by a biological parent.  Probate and Family Court Judge Jeffrey A. Abber granted Gallagher’s motion to dismiss the parentage case.

If one reads the relevant statute without taking into account the state’s general statutory directive on gender neutrality in interpretation, one could easily see the basis for Judge Abber’s ruling. The provision falls within the chapter of the state’s laws titled “Children Born Out of Wedlock,” Chapter 209C.  The statute extends to “children who are born to parents who are not married to each other.”  The various sections refer to “paternity” and authorize the courts to determine whether somebody is a child’s legal father. The statute recognizes a “presumption of paternity” in various situations.  The one most relevant here is that “a man is presumed to be the father of a child” that is born out of wedlock if “he, jointly with the mother, received the child into their home and openly held out the child as their child.”

Gallagher argued, and the trial judge agreed, that this statutory scheme was not intended to provide a vehicle for somebody to establish legal parental rights over a child to whom the party was not biologically related. The SJC disagreed, pointing out that the statute does not state anywhere that the person seeking to establish parental rights has to be biologically related to the child.  “While the provisions at issue speak in gendered terms,” wrote Justice Lenk, “they may be read in a gender-neutral manner, to apply where a child is ‘born to [two people],’” not just a man and a woman, and the child “is received into their joint home, and is held out by both as their own child.”  Consequently, she wrote, “The plain language of the provision, then, may be construed to apply to children born to same-sex couples, even though at least one member of the couple may well lack biological ties to the children.”

Furthermore, such an interpretation was in accord with the overall purpose of the statute, which, as “laid out in its first sentence, is to provide all ‘children born to parents who are not married to each other’ . . . the same rights and protection of the law as all other children.”

The court strengthened its interpretation with a telling analogy to the use of reproductive technology by different-sex couples. Clearly, a cohabiting but unmarried man and woman who resort to donor insemination to conceive a child because the man is infertile could make use of this statute to establish the man’s paternity without any express requirement in the statute that he prove a biological relationship to the child.  That is, in fact, one of the normal uses of the statute.  If the legislature intended to make sure that all children born to unmarried parents have the same rights, shouldn’t children born to unmarried same-sex couples have the same rights as well?

“Here, had [the children] been born to a married couple using artificial reproductive technology, they would have had two parents to provide them with financial and emotional support,” wrote Justice Lenk. “We decline to read into the statute a provision that leaves children born to unmarried couples, using the same technology, with only one parent.”

Furthermore, she pointed out that the court had in the past recognized an interpretation of another provision that also would “recognize parentage in the absence of a biological relationship,” a provision under which parentage may be established through a “written voluntary acknowledgment of parentage executed jointly by the putative father and the mother of the child.” The court held years ago that such an acknowledgment does not require that the putative father have any genetic relationship to the child.  Under this ruling, same-sex couples can avail themselves of the same provision.  This only works, of course, if both parents are willing to sign such a document.

Gallagher argued that because Partanen lacks a biological connection to the children, they were not “born to” her, and thus do not fall within the scope of the statute. She bolstered this argument by referring to a provision authorizing the family court to order genetic testing of the putative father on a “proper showing” by the moving party.  That provision was clearly intended to allow single mothers seeking child support from the biological fathers of their children to prove genetic paternity in order to subject the men to their parental support duty.  “Where, as here, the parentage claim is not based on a genetic relationship,” wrote Justice Lentz, “Gallagher, as a moving party, cannot show such testing would be relevant to the claim at issue, and therefore, no ‘proper showing’ is possible.”

Ultimately, the court concluded that the facts alleged by Partanen in her complaint should have been sufficient to withstand Gallagher’s motion to dismiss the claim, and if upon remand the trial court finds the factual allegations to be true, Partanen will enjoy the presumption of parentage authorized by the statute and can seek visitation and custody on the same basis as any other person who is presumed to be a parent. If the Family Court judge finds it to be in the best interest of the children, Partanen would be awarded the same custody and visitation rights that any legal parent could seek after parents have ended their relationship with each other.

Although Massachusetts courts had previously recognized the ability of same-sex partners to seek “de facto” parental status, which accorded some rights, the court emphasized that full legal parentage involves the same rights that a biological or legal adoptive parent would enjoy.

The court did not rule on alternative constitutional claims raised by Partanen, resting its decision entirely on construction of the Massachusetts statutes. The court’s opinion does not mention any attempt by Gallagher to argue that treating Partanen as a presumptive parent would violate Gallagher’s constitutional due process rights as a “natural parent,” so it is unlikely that she would be able to seek U.S. Supreme Court review of this decision.

Mary Bonauto, the Civil Rights Project Director at GLAD: Legal Advocates & Defenders, the Boston-based New England GLBT rights public interest law firm, represents Partanen with co-counsel Elizabeth A. Roberts, Teresa Harkins La Vita, Patience Crozier and Joyce Kauffman. Bonauto gave the oral argument in the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 that led to nationwide marriage equality in Obergefell v. Hodges, and she also argued to the Massachusetts SJC in 2003, resulting in the nation’s first affirmative marriage equality ruling by a state’s highest court.

Jennifer M. Lamanna represents Gallagher. The SJC received amicus briefs, all in support of Partanen’s appeal, from: C. Thomas Brown for Greater Boston Legal Services; Emily R. Shulman, Brook Hopkins, and Adam M. Cambier for the American Academy of Assisted Reproductive Technology Attorneys; Abigail Taylor, Gail Garinger, Brittany Williams and Andrea C. Kramer for the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office; and Shannon Minter, Marco J. Quina, and Emma S. Winer for a group of law professors specializing in family law issues.  The case seems to have flown below the radar of groups that usually file opposition amicus briefs in such cases.

New York Court of Appeals Overrules Alison D., Sets New Test for Co-Parent Standing

Posted on: August 30th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

The New York Court of Appeals has overruled a quarter-century-old precedent, establishing a new rule for determining when somebody who is neither a biological nor an adoptive parent can seeking custody of a child. The opinion for the court by Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam in Brooke S.B. v. Elizabeth A. C.C., 2016 N.Y. LEXIS 2668, 2016 Westlaw 4507780 (August 30, 2016), provides that “where a partner shows by clear and convincing evidence that the parties agreed to conceive a child and to raise the child together, the non-biological, non-adoptive partner has standing to seek visitation and custody under Domestic Relations Law Section 70.”

The court was ruling on two cases which originated with similar facts but then developed in different directions. According to the plaintiff’s petition in Brooke V. v. Elizabeth C.C., the women began their relationship in 2006, announced their “engagement” the following year, and then decided to have and raise a child together.  Elizabeth became pregnant through donor insemination and bore a son in June 2009.  Brooke and Elizabeth lived together with the child, sharing parental duties, until their relationship ended in 2010.  Elizabeth permitted Brooke to continue visiting with their son until the relationship between the women deteriorated, and Elizabeth terminated Brooke’s contact in 2013.  Brooke sued for joint custody and visitation rights, but the trial court and the Appellate Division agreed with Elizabeth’s argument that by virtue of the old Court of Appeals ruling, Alison D. v. Virginia M., 77 N.Y.2d 651 (1991), Brooke could not bring the lawsuit because she was neither the biological nor the adoptive parent of the child.  Brooke appealed to the Court of Appeals, asking it to overrule Alison D.

Although the term “parent” is not defined in the Domestic Relations Law provision that authorizes lawsuits for custody and visitation, it was defined by the Court of Appeals in Alison D. to be limited to biological or adoptive parents.  At that time, New York did not allow same-sex marriages or second-parent adoptions, so the ruling effectively precluded a same-sex co-parent from seeking joint custody or visitation after a break-up with the biological parent, in the absence of “extraordinary circumstances” recognized in some other cases decided by the Court of Appeals.  The court specifically ruled that the facts of Alison D. (similar to the Brooke B. case) did not constitute such “extraordinary circumstances.”

In the other case, Estrellita A. v. Jennifer D., the women began their relationship in 2003, registered as domestic partners in 2007, and then agreed to have a child together, with Jennifer becoming pregnant through donor insemination.  They agreed that they would obtain sperm from a Latino donor, matching Estrellita’s ethnicity.  Their daughter was born in November 2008. They lived together as a family for the next three years until the women’s relationship ended and Estrellita moved out in September 2012.  Estrellita continued to have contact with the child with Jennifer’s permission.  In October 2012, Jennifer started a proceeding in Family Court seeking child support payments from Estrellita.  Estrellita responded by petitioning for legal visitation rights.  The Family Court granted Jennifer’s petition for support, finding that “the uncontroverted facts established” that Estrellita was “a parent” of the child, and so could be held liable to pay child support.  However, responding to Estrellita’s petition for visitation, Jennifer argued that the Alison D. precedent should apply to block her claim.  The Family Court disagreed with Jennifer, finding that having alleged that Estrellita was a parent in order to win child support, she could not then turn around and deny that Estrellita was a parent in the visitation case.  The Family Court applied the doctrine of “judicial estoppel” to preclude Jennifer from making this inconsistent argument, and concluded after a hearing that ordering visitation was in the child’s best interest.  The Appellate Division affirmed this ruling, and Jennifer appealed.

Judge Abdus-Salaam’s decision refers repeatedly to the dissenting opinion written by the late Chief Judge Judith Kaye in the Alison D. case.  Judge Kaye emphasized that the court’s narrow conception of parental standing would adversely affect children being raised by unmarried couples, thus defeating the main policy goal of the Domestic Relations Law, which was to make decisions in the best interest of the child.  By adopting this narrow decision, the court cut short legal proceedings before the child’s best interest could even be considered.  Unfortunately, Judge Kaye passed away before learning that her dissent would be vindicated in this new ruling.  However, her dissent from the Court of Appeals’ refusal in Hernandez v. Robles to rule for same-sex marriage rights was vindicated in 2011 when the legislature passed the Marriage Equality Act, and she also lived to see her legal reasoning vindicated by the U.S. Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges, which referred to her Hernandez dissent.

Judge Abdus-Salaam pointed out that Judge Kaye’s arguments in 1991 were even stronger today, with the growth of diverse families and the large numbers of children living in households headed by unmarried adults. She referred to a concurring opinion in a case decided by the court five years ago, in which then Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman and Associate Judge Carmen Ciparick (both since retired from the court) had argued that the Alison D. ruling “had indeed caused the widespread harm to children predicted by Judge Kaye’s dissent,” and asserting that Alison D. was inconsistent with some subsequent rulings.  That concurring opinion called for a “flexible, multi-factored” approach to decide whether there was a parental relationship between a child and an adult outside the narrow definition of Alison D.  In that same case, Judge Robert Smith (also now retired) argued that an appropriate test for parental status would focus on whether “the child is conceived” through donor insemination “by one member of a same-sex couple living together, with the knowledge and consent of the other.”

Acknowledging a body of court precedent recognizing the strong constitutional rights of biological parents, the Court of Appeals decided in its August 30 decision to take a cautious approach. Although some of the parties to the case urged the court to adopt an expansive, one-size-fits-all test for determining the standing of persons who are not biological or adoptive parents, the court decided to focus on the facts of these two cases, in both of which the plaintiffs had alleged that they had an agreement with their same-sex partner about conceiving the child through donor insemination and then jointly raising the child as co-parents.  The court left to another day resolving how to deal with cases where a biological parent later acquires a partner who assumes a parental role towards a child, or where a child is conceived without such an advance agreement.

Another sign of the court’s caution was its decision that the plaintiff would have to show by “clear and convincing evidence” that such an agreement existed. The normal standard of proof in civil litigation is “preponderance of the evidence,” which means the plaintiff would have to show that it was “more likely than not” that such an agreement existed.  Demanding “clear and convincing evidence” was an acknowledgment of the strong constitutional rights that courts have accorded to biological parents in controlling the upbringing of their children, including determining who would have visitation rights.  The U.S. Supreme Court emphasized this several years ago, when it struck down a Washington State statute that allowed anybody, regardless of legal or biological relationships, to petition for visitation upon a showing that it was in the best interest of the child.  Judge Abdus-Salaam emphasized the necessity of showing an agreement, that the biological parent had consented in advance to having a child and raising the child jointly with her partner.

The court decided this case without the participation of Judge Eugene Fahey. Four other members of the court signed Judge Abdus-Salaam’s opinion.  All of these judges were appointed by Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat.  The other member of the court, Judge Eugene Pigott, who was appointed by Governor George Pataki, a Republican, and whose term expires this year, wrote a separate opinion, concurring in the result but disagreeing with the majority about overruling Alison D. v. Virginia M.

Judge Pigott pointed out that the Alison D. decision had been reaffirmed several times by the court, most recently just five years ago in a ruling that praised Alison D. as creating a “bright line test” that avoided unnecessary litigation and uncertainty about parental standing.  In that case, Debra H., the court decided on alternative grounds that a co-parent could seek visitation because the women had entered into a Vermont civil union before the child was born, thus giving equal parental rights under Vermont law to which New York could extend comity.

Judge Pigott argued that since we now have marriage equality and co-parent adoption in New York, and the Marriage Equality Law requires that same-sex marriages get equal legal treatment with different-sex marriages (including application of the presumption that a child born to a married woman is the legal child of her spouse), same-sex couples stand on equal footing with different sex couples and have no need for any modification of the definition of “parent” established by Alison D.   Nonetheless, he joined the court’s disposition of these two cases.  In %Estrellita v. Jennifer%, he agreed that it was appropriate to apply judicial estoppel and hold that Estrellita’s status as a parent had been established in the support proceeding and could not be denied by Jennifer in the visitation proceeding.  In the case of Brooke v. Elizabeth, he would apply the doctrine of “extraordinary circumstances” under which the trial court can exercise equitable powers to allow a non-parent who has an established relationship with a child to seek custody.  The “extraordinary circumstance” here would be one of timing and the changing legal landscape between 2006 and 2013, making it appropriate to allow Brooke to seek joint custody and visitation if she can prove her factual allegations about the women’s relationship.  Judge Pigott apparently sees this case as presenting a transitional problem that is resolved by changes in the law after these women had their children.

In the Brooke case, Susan Sommer of Lambda Legal represents Brooke with co-counsel from Blank Rome LLP and the LGBT Bar Association of Greater New York, Sherry Bjork represents Elizabeth, and Eric Wrubel serves as court-appointed counsel for the child.  In the Estrellita case, Andrew Estes represents Estrellita, Christopher J. Chimeri represents Jennifer, and John Belmonte is appointed counsel for the child.  The court received amicus briefs on behalf of the National Association of Social Workers, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the New York City and State Bar Associations, the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys, Sanctuary for Families, and Lawyers for Children.   By interesting coincidence, Lambda Legal had represented the plaintiff in Alison D. v. Virginia M. twenty-five years ago, with its then Legal Director, the late Paula Ettelbrick, arguing the case before the Court of Appeals.

Nevada Supreme Court Answers Questions of First Impression in Lesbian Custody Dispute Involving Donor Insemination and Co-Parenting Agreement

Posted on: October 8th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

The Nevada Supreme Court ruled unanimously on October 3 that a child can have two mothers and that a co-parenting agreement made by two women before their child was conceived through anonymous donor insemination with one woman providing the egg and the other being the gestational mother, can be enforceable as an agreement by parents who are presumed to have the best interest of their child at heart.   Reversing a trial court decision that treated one of the women as a mere surrogate mother with no legal rights, the court returned the case to the trial court for a new determination of parental rights.

Justice Nancy M. Saitta wrote the opinion in St. Mary v. Damon, settling several questions of first impression under Nevada law, and giving heavy weight to California decisions that interpret similarly-worded statutes.

Sha’Kayla St. Mary and Veronica Lynn Damon moved in together about a year after their relationship began, and decided to have a child together.  According to St. Mary, they decided to have Damon contribute the egg for in vitro fertilization with sperm through an anonymous donor, the resulting ovum to be implanted in St. Mary, in order that both of the women would have parental status, St. Mary as the birth mother and Damon as the genetic mother.   After the procedure was performed they both signed a co-parenting agreement, under which they agreed that if their relationship ended, they would “each work to ensure that the other maintained a close relationship with the child, sharing the duties of raising the child, and make a ‘good faith effort to jointly make all major decisions” affecting the child.

St. Mary gave birth to the child in June 2008, and was listed on the birth certificate as the child’s only parent, but the child was given a hyphenated last name to reflect both mothers.  About one year after the child’s birth, the women ended their relationship, St. Mary moved out of the home, and they disagreed about how to share their time with the child.  However, St. Mary cooperated with Damon by signing an affidavit declaring that Damon was the biological mother of the child, which Damon used to get a court order to have the child’s birth certificate amended to list her as a mother.  The court declared that Damon was “the biological and legal mother” of the child, and ordered that the birth certificate be amended to add Damon’s name as a mother.

Then St. Mary filed the lawsuit seeking to establish custody, visitation, and child support, but Damon responded that as the biological mother she was entitled to sole custody, attaching the 2009 court order.

The trial judge treated St. Mary as a mere surrogate.  Damon had filed a motion to limit the court’s evidentiary hearing to the issue of whether St. Mary would have visitation, arguing that Damon’s sole parental status had been established by the court’s order.  The trial judge agreed with Damon, excluding St. Mary’s custody claim from the hearing, and focused solely on the visitation issue.  At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court found that St. Mary should have “third party visitation,” finding that she “has no biological or legal rights whatsoever under Nevada law.”  Further, the trial judge found the co-parenting agreement unenforceable, concluding that it fell outside the scope of enforceable surrogacy agreements, which under Nevada law could be made only by a married couple with a surrogate.

St. Mary appealed from the denial of her parental rights, and the Nevada Supreme Court unanimously reversed, finding that the trial judge was mistaken about Nevada law.

Following the lead of the California courts, the Nevada Supreme Court held that a child can have two legal mothers, and that a co-parenting agreement such as the one made in this case could be enforceable.  Most significantly, the court found that under Nevada statutes St. Mary could be deemed a parent to the child because she was its birth mother under circumstances where, as she claimed, the women had agreed that both were intended to be parents of the child.  The trial judge had misconstrued the effect of Damon’s prior legal action to establish her parental rights, said the court.  Although the prior court order had established her status as a legal mother of the child, it had not ordered that St. Mary’s name be removed from the amended birth certificate.

That is, finding that the child had two legal mothers was not inconsistent with the prior decision.

The facts are contested however.  Damon claims that St. Mary was intended to be a surrogate and not an intended parent, and that the “co-parenting agreement” was actually an invalid surrogacy contract that the women had signed because the clinic that performed the procedure required a written agreement.  When the case goes back to the trial court, there will have to be an evidentiary hearing to determine whether St. Mary or Damon is more credible, but Justice Saitta’s narration of the facts implicitly suggests that St. Mary’s account of what happened makes more sense.

Nevada is now a domestic partnership state, but that development post-dates the relevant facts in this case, as the child was conceived in 2007 and born in 2008, and Damon’s initial action seeking a declaration of her status took place in 2009, which is also when St. Mary filed her complaint in this case.  Had the women been registered Nevada domestic partners at the relevant time, the law would have recognized both as parents of the child.  But many lesbian couples have children without undertaking to register as partners or marry, so the court’s ruling remains important, and continues a trend in applying the up-to-date version of the Uniform Parentage Act as construed in California and followed in New Mexico to encompass the legal situation faced by non-traditional families.

New York Lesbian Co-Parent Custody Claim Precluded under 12-Year-Old Decision

Posted on: October 8th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

The evil that courts do lives on…  On October 4, 2013, the New York Law Journal published Rockland County Family Court Referee Dean Richardson-Mendelson’s opinion in Matter of A.F. v. K.H., V-00918-13, rejecting all attempts by a lesbian co-parent to obtain judicial relief against her former partner’s action of excluding her from contact with the children they had been raising together.  The principal barrier to her case is the N.Y. Court of Appeal’s old decision, Alison D. v. Virginia M., 77 N.Y.2d 651 (1991), which held in similar circumstances that the co-parent was, despite her relationship parental relationship with a child since the child’s birth, a “legal stranger” who did not have standing under New York law to obtain a declaration of her parental rights, custody or visitation, and that the circumstances that the women had agreed to raise a child together did not amount to “special circumstances” required under New York law to enable a legally-unrelated third party to seek custody of a child.

In A.F. v. K.H., the parents had registered as domestic partners, but the court mentions this only in passing and does not specify the jurisdiction.  A.F. and K.H. were living together as a couple when they decided to have children, using anonymous donor insemination for K.H. to conceive two children.  They lived together raising the children until they separated in July 2011, but continued to live on different floors in the same house, facilitating continued contact between A.F. and the children, who lived with K.H.  In February 2012 K.H. moved out with the children to her mother’s house in New Jersey, but then relocated back to another town in New York State in August 2012.  A.F. continued to have visitation two days a week and alternate weekends, until a promotion at her job made weekday visitation impossible.

A.F. contributed to the support of the children financially.  In May 2012, K.H. had filed a petition in Rockland Family Court seeking formal child support from A.G.  In support of this claim, her petition was full of factual allegations seeking to persuade the court that A.F. was a parent of the children who should be held to this responsibility.  But in August, she withdrew the petition, and the Support Magistrate marked it as withdrawn.

Visitation by A.F. and financial support for the children continued until an “altercation during a visitation exchange” in April 2013, after which K.H. has not allowed further visitation, resulting in A.F. filing this petition.

Referee Richardson-Mendelson found that the Alison D. decision, never overruled or modified by the Court of Appeals and subsequently followed by all four departments of the Appellate Division, had to control this case in terms of A.F.’s legal claim under the Domestic Relations Law.  One who would be declared a “legal stranger” to the child in 1991 remains a legal stranger today, as far as that statute is concerned, because the legislature never heeded the court’s suggestion that it address the issue of non-traditional families.  Second-parent adoption is legal in New York, as is step-parent adoption, but these parties never took those steps and did not marry in 2011 when New York enacted marriage equality.

Any local domestic partnership registration would presumably not change this, since custody and visitation are matters of state law, which may explain why the court does not explicitly factor that into its analysis.

Failing on a legal claim under the custody statute, A.F. also advanced equitable arguments.  First, she contended that the court should use the doctrine of equitable estoppel to hold that K.H. could not legally deny A.F.’s parental status because she had, in fact, treated A.F. as a parent of the child for several years, fostering the relationship of A.F. with the children and allowing visitation to continue for almost two years after the women’s relationship had ended.  But the Court of Appeals had directly rejected such an argument in the Alison D. case, so the court found that A.F. was precluded from making it.

Finally, A.F. argued judicial estoppel, a doctrine that prevents a party from taking diametrically opposite positions in legal proceedings.  A.F. pointed out that K.H. had filed a support petition in which she alleged that A.F. was a parent of the children, but now was arguing that she was not a parent.  A.F. contended that K.H. should not be able to assert these opposite positions.  But the court rejected this argument as well, pointing out that K.H. had withdrawn her support position longer before A.F. filed the custody and visitation petition.  The court also pointed out that this doctrine normally applies when a party’s assertion of the first petition had resulted in a legal judgment in her favor, that judgment then providing the basis to block her from taking the opposite position in a later proceeding.  In this case, however, K.H. withdrew her petition before any finding on A.F.’s parental status had been made and before any support order had been issued.

Thus, it made no matter to the court that New York is now a marriage equality jurisdiction.  Marriage equality provides equal marital rights, but it does not change the legal position of unmarried partners toward each other or their children.  Unless the New York legislature changes the rules, the legal invisibility of unmarried same-sex couples raising children will continue.