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Can Three Parents Make a Family in New York?

Posted on: April 17th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

 

                In an opinion issued on April 10, New York Family Court Judge Carol Goldstein confronted the question whether there can be a third parent – an adult with legal rights to seek custody and visitation of a child who already has two legal, biological parents – in the context of a married gay male couple and the woman who agreed to have a child with them and share parenting.  She concluded that the “non-biological father” in this triad has “standing” under New York’s Domestic Relations Law to seek custody and visitation of the child, but not necessarily to be designated as a “legal parent.”  The case is Matter of David S. and Raymond T. v. Samantha G., 2018 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 1249, 2018 N.Y. Slip Op 28110 (N.Y. County Family Court, April 10, 2018).

 

                As usual in contested child custody cases, the judge assigned pseudonyms to the parties and the child in order to protect their privacy, naming the men David S. and Raymond T., the woman Samantha G., and their child Matthew Z. S.-G..  Throughout the opinion, however, she refers to the adults as Mr. S., Mr. T., and Ms. G.

 

                The adults were all friends.  “Over brunch in May 2016, the three friends discussed how each wished to be a parent and devised a plan whereby a child would be conceived and raised by the three parties in a tri-parent arrangement,” wrote Judge Goldstein.  “While the parties agreed that the mother would continue to live in New York City and the men would continue to reside together in Jersey City, the parties agreed that they would considered themselves to be a ‘family.’”  They carried out this plan, but never reached agreement on a signed written document.

 

                Over a period of eight days, Mr. S. and Mr. T. “alternated the daily delivery of sperm to Ms. G for artificial insemination.  On or about Labor Day weekend, 2016, Ms. G. announced that she was pregnant.  The three parties publicized the impending birth on social media with a picture of all three parties dress in T-shirts.  Misters S. and T.’s shirt each said, ‘This guy is going to be a daddy’ and Ms. G’s shirt said, ‘This girl is going to be a mama.’”

 

                They all participated fully in preparing for the arrival of the child, attending a natural childbirth course, creating a joint savings account for the child (to which Mr. T. had, as of the time of the court’s hearing in this case, contributed 50% of the funds), agreeing on a pediatrician and making medical decisions jointly, and planned that the child would be delivered with the assistance of a midwife at the men’s New Jersey home.  This occurred on May 6, 2017. 

 

It was not until after the child was born that a “private genetic marker test” determined that Mr. S.’s sperm initiated the pregnancy.  He signed a New Jersey acknowledgment of paternity on May 11.  They named the child using names of significance from all three families.  After Matthew was born, the entire family spent a week at the men’s home, after which Ms. G returned with Matthew to her home in New York County (Manhattan).  Matthew, still an infant, lives mainly with his mother, although the men have had regular parenting time and last summer the parties vacationed together in the Catskills.

 

Because infant Matthew was nursing on demand, overnight visits with the men had not been scheduled, but were supposed to start during April.  “When speaking to Matthew,” wrote the judge, “all parties refer to Ms. G. as ‘Momma,’ Mr. S. as ‘Daddy’ and Mr. T. as ‘Papai,’ which is Portuguese for father.”  All three parents were present at the hospital when Matthew had hernia surgery at two months.

 

Mr. T. and Ms. G. have a contract with a literary agent to write a book about their joint parenting venture.  In recognition of Mr. T’s profession of meteorology, the provisional title is ‘Forecasting a Family.’”

 

However, wrote Judge Goldstein, “Issues arose between the two men and Ms. G with respect to the parenting of Matthew as well as to the extent of parental access by Misters S. and T.  The relationship among the parties became strained.”  Misters S. and T. filed a joint petition in the Family Court in New York County on November 12, seeking “legal custody and shared parenting time” with Matthew by court order.  On December 6, Ms. G filed a “cross-petition” seeking sole legal custody of Matthew, with the men being accorded “reasonable visitation.”  None of the parties was seeking an “order of paternity or parentage” in their initial filings with the court. 

 

The court asked the parties to submit memoranda of law about the parenting issues, and how the N.Y. Court of Appeals’ Brooke S.B. decision from 2016 might apply.  In Brooke S.B., the court overturned a 25-year precedent and ruled that a non-biological parent could have standing to seek custody and visitation under certain circumstances.  That case involved a custody and visitation dispute of a lesbian couple over a child born to one of them through donor insemination.

 

The main issue of dispute between these parties, which came out in their briefs, is about Mr. T.’s legal status toward the child.  Under New York law, the husband of a woman who gives birth is presumed to be the child’s father, but the legal status of a man who is married to another man whose sperm is used to conceive a child with a woman to whom he is not married presents new, unresolved legal issues.  Ms. G  agrees that Mr. T. should have standing to seek visitation, but she argued “strenuously” that “the right to seek custody and visitation as a ‘parent’ under the Domestic Relations Law does not automatically bestow parentage on the non-biological party” and asked that the court not declare Mr. T. to be a third legal parent.  On the other hand, the men argued that not only should Mr. T. have standing to seek custody and visitation as a ‘parent,’ but that the court should also declare him to be a third legal parent of Matthew.

 

Judge Goldstein found that under the circumstances of this case, with an emphasis on the understanding and agreement of the parties when they devised their plan to have and raise a child together, it was clear that Mr. T. has standing to seek custody and visitation in line with the Brooke S.B. decision.  “In making this decision,” she wrote, “this court is specifically taking into consideration that the relationship between Mr. T. and Matthew came into being with the consent and blessing of the two biological parents and that both biological parents agree that Mr. T. should have standing to seek custody and visitation.” 

 

She identified as the “fundamental principle” of the Court of Appeals precedent that the state’s domestic relations law “must be read to effectuate the welfare and best interests of children, particularly those who are being raised in a non-traditional family structure.  The parent-child relationships fostered by children like Matthew, who are being raised in a tri-parent arrangement, should be entitled to no less protection than children raised by two parties.” 

The judge noted the likelihood that this kind of situation will recur, pointing out the differences between the use of anonymous sperm donors where no parental role is contemplated for the sperm donor, and the situation where a known donor is involved “where the parties agree that the provider of the egg or sperm will be a parent.”

 

She also noted recent New York decisions that had denied standing or parental status to sperm donors, where all these circumstances were not present, particularly where lesbian couples obtained sperm from a known donor but there was no understanding or agreement that the donor would be considered a parent of the child.  These situations are less difficult to analyze from a legal perspective if the parties negotiate and sign carefully worded written agreements memorializing their understanding of their rights and responsibilities, although such documents are not binding on a court, whose main task under the domestic relations statutes is to make such decisions in the best interest of the child.

 

The court found that the usual “presumption of legitimacy” used to determine parental standing in donor insemination cases was not relevant in considering the status of Mr. T., even though Mister S. and Mr. T. are married to each other.  “This is because the presumption that Matthew is the legitimate child of the married couple, Misters S. and T., would indisputably be rebutted by evidence that all three parties agreed that Matthew would be raised in a tri-parent arrangement and that Ms. G., the biological mother, would be a parent to Matthew.”  In other words, this is not a gestational surrogacy case, where the woman’s only role was to produce the child and agree to forego parental rights.

 

However, noting that the men’s original filing with the court did not seek an order of “parentage” on behalf of Mr. T, the judge declined to issue such an order.  “Moreover,” she wrote, “there is no need for the issue of parentage to be addressed since pursuant to Brooke S.B., Mr. T. may seek custody and visitation as a ‘parent’ under DRL section 70(a) without a determination that he is a legal parent.  If, in the future, a proper application for a declaration of parentage is made and there is a need for a determination of parentage, for instance, to rule on a request for child support, the court may address this issue.  This court, however, notes that there is not currently any New York statute which grants legal parentage to three parties, nor is there any New York case law precedent for such a determination.”

 

So a child can have three parents, or at least three adults with standing to seek custody and visitation, while at the same time having only two “legal parents,” in New York.  Unfortunately, New York’s Domestic Relations Law has not been revised by the legislature to take account of the sorts of “non-traditional” family structures that have emerged over the past half century as assisted reproductive technology has become relatively easy for people to use without the assistance of medical specialists and a diversity of family structures have arisen through social evolution.

 

This case will now proceed to consideration by the judge about what kind of custody and visitation arrangement would be in Matthew’s best interest, to embody in a formal order that would protect Mr. T’s rights as a non-biological parent.  While having determined that Mr. T has standing to seek custody and visitation, the judge’s opinion expresses no view as to the viability of tri-partite custody, without actually ruling it out as a possibility. 

 

Misters S. and T. are represented by Patricia A. Fersch.  Ms. G is represented by Alyssa Eisner, or Sager Gellerman Eisner LLC.

 

Mississippi Supreme Court, Rejecting Parental Status for an Anonymous Sperm Donor, Says Birth Mother Can’t Challenge Same-Sex Partner’s Parentage

Posted on: April 12th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

Ruling on a custody contest between a birth mother and her former same-sex spouse on April 5, the Mississippi Supreme Court avoided mentioning the parental presumption that most states automatically apply for the spouse of a woman who gives birth to a child, relying instead on a doctrine called “equitable estoppel” to prevent the birth mother from contesting her former spouse’s parental status.

Although none of the five written opinions signed by different combinations of judges on the nine member court represent the views of a majority, adding them up produces a holding that the existence of an anonymous sperm donor is irrelevant to the determination of parental rights for the birth mother’s same-sex spouse.  The court reversed a ruling by Judge John S. Grant, III, of the Rankin County Chancery Court, that the failure to obtain a waiver of parental rights from an anonymous sperm donor prevents identifying the birth mother’s spouse as a legal parent of the child.

The various complications in this case arose because the relevant facts played out before marriage equality came to Mississippi as a result of the June 2015 Obergefell decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, and because the retrograde Mississippi legislature has neglected to adopt any statutes concerning who would be considered a parent when a woman or a couple use sperm from an anonymous donor obtained through a sperm bank to conceive a child, leaving the courts to sort this out without any legislative guidance.

The story begins in 1999 when Christina Strickland and Kimberly Jayroe began their relationship.  After several years together, they decided to adopt a child.  The adoption of E.J. was finalized in 2007.  Because Mississippi did not allow joint adoptions by unmarried couples, only Kimberly was the legal adoptive parent of E.J..  In 2009, Christina and Kimberly went to Massachusetts to marry, and Kimberly took Christina’s last name.  The Stricklands then returned to their home in Mississippi, where their marriage was not legally recognized.

In 2010, the Stricklands decided to have a child using “assisted reproductive technology” – A.R.T.  They obtained anonymously donated sperm from a Maryland sperm bank.  Kimberly, whom they jointly decided would be the gestational mother, signed the sperm bank’s form providing that she would “never seek to identify the donor” and that the donor would not be advised of Kimberly’s identity.  In Maryland, Kimberly was then recognized as a married woman and Christina was identified as her spouse in the clinic paperwork.  Both women signed the form acknowledging that they were participating in this process as a married couple and would both be parents of the resulting child.

According to the plurality opinion by Justice David Ishee, “Christina testified that she was involved in and supportive through every step of the conception and pregnancy.”  She also testified that their plan was to go to Massachusetts for the delivery of the baby, so that their marriage would be recognized and both recorded as parents on the birth certificate.  But for medical reasons that did not occur.  Six week before her due date, Kimberly gave birth to the child, Z.S., in an emergency cesarean section surgical procedure in a Mississippi hospital.  Since Mississippi did not recognize the marriage, the birth certificate shows Kimberly as the only parent.

Over the next two years, the women functioned as a family unit, raising both E.J. and Z.S. as co-parents.  Christina stayed home for the first year of Z.S.’s life, while Kimberly worked full time.  Christina testified that both children call her “mom.”  The women separated in January 2013.  Christina continued to visit both children and paid child support, medical and daycare expenses for Z.S.

Now things took a strange twist: On August 13, 2015, while still married to Christina (and at a time, due to the Obergefell decision, when Mississippi would be legally obligated to recognize the marriage is the issue came up in any legal context), Kimberly married a second spouse, whose name and gender are not identified in any of the judge’s opinions, although from the caption of the case it sounds like her new spouse’s surname is Day, since Kimberly is identified in the title of the case as Kimberly Jayroe Strickland Day.

This prompted Christina to file a divorce petition in Harrison County Chancery Court on August 31. On November 16, Kimberly filed a motion for a declaratory judgment that her second marriage was valid and her first marriage “dissolved” in Rankin County Circuit Court.  Christina answered that motion and counterclaimed for divorce and legal and physical custody of both children, who were then living with Kimberly.  She also sought to be named as Z.S.’s legal parent.  The two cases were consolidated in the Rankin County court.  On May 17, 2016, Judge Grant issued an order declaring that Christina and Kimberly’s 2009 Massachusetts marriage was valid and recognized in Mississippi, and therefore that Kimberly’s second marriage was void.

This led the women to negotiate a “consent and stipulation,” in which they agreed that Z.S. was born during their marriage, that they would jointly pay all school expenses for Z.S., and that Kimberly would retain physical and legal custody of E.J., the adoptive child.  They agreed to let the chancery court decide custody, visitation, and child support issues for Z.S., child support and visitation issues for E.J., and the issue of Christina’s parental status toward Z.S.

Judge Grant’s final judgment of divorce, entered on October 16, 2016, ordered Christina to pay child support for both children, and held that Z.S. was born during a valid marriage.  But, he ruled, Z.S. was “a child born during the marriage, but not of the marriage,” so both parties were not considered to be Z.S.’s parents.  The court considered the anonymous sperm donor to be “an absent father” whose legal parentage “precluded a determination that Christina was Z.S.’s legal parent.”  However, Judge Grant held that she was entitled to visitation with Z.S. under a doctrine called “in loco parentis,” which recognizes that somebody who has acted as a parent and bonded with a child as such could be entitled to visitation even though she has no legal relation to the child.

Christina appealed three days later.  At the heart of her argument was that because Z.S. was born while Christina was married to Kimberly, Christina should be deemed the child’s legal parent, and that the anonymous sperm donor, who had no relationship to the child, could not possibly be considered its legal parent.

The Mississippi Supreme Court was in agreement with Christina’s argument that the sperm donor is really out of the picture and should not be considered a parent.  Justice Ishee’s opinion, for himself and Justices Kitchens, King and Beam, declared that Judge Grant’s finding that the sperm donor was the child’s “natural father” was erroneous as a matter of law.  “At the outset,” he wrote, “we are cognizant of the fact that we never before have determined what parental rights, if any, anonymous sperm donors possess in the children conceived through the use of their sperm.  As such, this is an issue of first impression.”

That is a startling statement for a state Supreme Court to make in 2018, when donor insemination has been around for half a century and most states have adopted legislation on the subject.  But, wrote Justice Ishee, there is only one provision of Mississippi law relating to donor insemination, a statute providing that a father cannot seek to disestablish paternity when a child was conceived by “artificial insemination” during the marriage to the child’s mother.  That’s it.  However, wrote Ishee, “Reading this provision, in light of the context before us, the logical conclusion – while not explicit – is that the Legislature never intended for an anonymous sperm donor to have parental rights in a child conceived from his sperm – irrespective of the sex of the married couple that utilized his sperm to have that child.”

“How,” asked Ishee, “on the one hand, can the law contemplate that a donor is a legal parent who must have his rights terminated, while at the same time prohibiting the non-biological father of a child conceived through AI from disestablishing paternity?  These two policies cannot co-exist.”

Ishee rejected Kimberly’s argument that “all of the non-biological parents of children conceived through AI should be required to terminate the sperm donor’s parental rights and then establish parentage through the adoptive process.”  Ishee’s plurality (4 justices) rejected this process as “intrusive, time-consuming, and expensive,” including a ridiculous waste of time for a judge to have to determine that an anonymous sperm donor, who never intended to be the parent of the child, had “abandoned” the child, thus making the child available for adoption by its mother’s spouse.

When a father is “absent” at the time a child is born, the usual process is to try to locate the missing father and inform him of his obligations, but in the case of an anonymous donor, neither the mother nor the court has the necessary information.  In a case like this one, publishing such a notice in a newspaper – the standard way for courts to give notice to missing parties – makes no sense.

On appeal, Christina raised alternative arguments in support of her claims to be Z.S.’s parent.  First, she asked the court to determine a question not addressed by Mississippi statutes: “Whether children born to married parents who give birth to a child via A.R.T. with sperm from an anonymous donor are entitled to the marital presumption that both spouses are their legal parents.”  Alternatively, she asked “Whether the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges requires Mississippi to apply laws relating to the marital presumption of parentage in a gender-neutral manner so as to apply equally to married same-sex couples.”  As another alternative, she asked whether the doctrine of “equitable estoppel” could be used to preclude a birth mother from trying to “disestablish her spouse’s parentage of the couple’s marital child based solely on the absence of a genetic relationship, when the child was born as a result of anonymous donor insemination, to which both spouses consented.” Christina argued that Judge Grant’s order violated constitutionally protected liberty and equality interests by failing to recognize Christina’s parental relationship with Z.S.

Justice Ishee’s opinion ignored all of these arguments except “equitable estoppel,” a doctrine which he explained that Mississippi courts have defined “as the principle by which a party is precluded from denying any material fact, induced by his words or conduct upon which a person relied, whereby the person changed his position in such a way that injury would be suffered if such denial or contrary assertion was allowed.”  Ishee concluded that the doctrine fits this case, and rejected Kimberly’s argument that the decision to have a child through donor insemination was solely hers and the fact that she was married to Christina at the time was irrelevant.  Ishee found that “the evidence in the record belies this assertion,” and cited chapter and verse, right down to the birth announcements the women sent out, which identified the women as “two chicks” who had “hatched” the child.

Since Kimberly represented to Christina all along that Christina would be a parent of Z.S., the doctrine of equitable estoppel blocks her from arguing to the contrary in the context of this divorce proceeding. Judge Grant’s award of “in loco parentis” status to Christina was insufficient, in Ishee’s view, to protect her legitimate interests.  For example, suppose Kimberly married somebody else and petitioned for her new spouse to adopt Z.S.  Christina’s “in loco parentis” status would not entitle her to prevent such an adoption. But if the court recognizes her as a parent, she could.

Thus, without ever mentioning the parental presumption, the plurality opinion, purporting to be speaking for the court as a whole because of the concurring opinions, reversed the chancery court’s ruling that Christina acted “in loco parentis” but “was not an equal parent with parental rights to Z.S.” They sent the case back to Rankin County Chancery Court to determine custody using the multifactorial test that is generally used in a custody contest between legal parents to determine what would be in the best interest of the child, with a “guardian ad litem” appointed to represent Z.S. in the proceedings.

Chief Justice William Waller, Jr., joined “in part” by Justices Randolph, Coleman, Maxwell and Chamberlin, “concurred in part and in the result.” “The narrow issue before the Court,” wrote Waller, “is whether two people legally married who jointly engage in a process of assisted reproduction technology resulting in the natural birth by the gestational mother are both considered parents for purposes of divorce and determination of parental rights of the minor child.  I conclude that they are and that the decision of the chancellor should be reversed and remanded.”  After briefly referring to equitable estoppel, he wrote, “While this Court can use common-law principles to render a decision here, the Legislature should speak directly to the recognition of the legal status of children born during a marriage as a result of assisted reproductive technology.”

Justice Josiah Coleman, concurring in part and dissenting in part, pointed out that the doctrine of “equitable estoppel” had not been argued to Judge Grant, so it should not be a basis for the court’s decision. Thus, he was only joining Judge Waller’s opinion to the extent that Waller agreed that the chancellor erred by according any parental status to the sperm donor.  He would remand the case to the trial court, having reversed that part of the holding, “to allow the parties to present whatever evidence and arguments they wished that accord with the Court’s holding.”  His opinion was joined “in part” by Justices Randolph and Maxwell.

Justice James Maxwell, also concurring in part and dissenting in part, insisted that “what parental rights a sperm donor may or may not have is a policy issue for the Legislature, not the Court,” and since there was no statute on point, “we should be extremely hesitant to draw conclusions about the disestablishment-of-paternity statute, when that statute is wholly inapplicable here. Indeed,” he argued, “it is dangerous for the plurality to weigh in so heavily with what it views to be the best policy, since we all agree the chancellor erroneously inserted this issue into the case.”  His opinion was joined “in part” by Justices Randolph and Coleman.

Finally, Justice Michael Randolph dissented, joined in part by Justices Coleman, Maxwell, and Chamberlin. Randolph said the court should never have addressed equitable estoppel, because that argument was presented for the first time on appeal.  Next, although he agreed that the chancellor erred in declaring an anonymous sperm donor to be the child’s “natural father,” he thought that the “plurality’s blanket assertion that in any case, no anonymous sperm donor will be accorded the burdens and benefits of natural fathers” went too far. He though there was a constitutional issue here, where no attempt had been made to identify and contact the sperm donor.  He also pointed out that the “disestablishment” statute cited by Justice Ishee and then used to support the plurality’s ruling “never was quoted or argued by either party at the trial level,” so also should not have been relied upon in any way by the Supreme Court.  He also found no basis in the record for setting aside the chancellor’s determination that it was “not in the best interest of either child for Christina to have custody.” He pointed out that the chancellor had neglected to address all of the factors specified by Mississippi courts on the record, so the correct approach would be to remand the case to the chancellor “to examine the record and the chancellor’s notes and issue a final decree consistent with this dissent.

This appears to be a victory for Christina, to the extent that enough members of the court agreed with the equitable estoppel approach to make that part of the holding of the court, tossing the case back to the trial court to decide anew whether it is in the best interest of Z.S. for Christina to have joint or primary custody of him as a parent. (Christina is not seeking custody of E.J., just visitation rights.)  But the fractured ruling falls short of the appropriate analysis that would be more beneficial for married LGBT couples in Mississippi: a straightforward acknowledgement that when a married lesbian couple has a child through donor insemination, both of the women will be presumed to be the legal parents of that child, without any need to make a factual showing required for the application of equitable estoppel should any dispute later arise about custody or visitation.  One wonders whether fear of political retribution may have motivate all nine justices to avoid mentioning the parental presumption or invoking Obergefell in support of its application in their various opinions.

Christina is represented by Mississippi attorney Dianne Herman Ellis and Lambda Legal staff attorney Elizabeth Lynn Littrell. Kimberly is represented by Prentiss M. Grant.

Second N.Y. Appellate Division Court Reaffirms Parental Rights of Married Lesbians

Posted on: February 21st, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

Following a precedent set on January 25 by the Albany-based N.Y. 3rd Department Appellate Division, the Brooklyn-based N.Y. 2nd Department Appellate Division issued a unanimous decision on February 21 ordering the dismissal of a sperm donor’s attempt to establish parentage and get legal visitation with a child born to a married lesbian couple.

As in the earlier case, Christopher YY v. Jessica ZZ & Nichole ZZ, 2018 WL 541768, 2018 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 489 (3rd Dept.), the sperm donor in this case, Joseph O. v. Danielle B. & Joynell B., 2018 WL 988920 (2nd Dept.), was not seeking custody but wanted legal acknowledgment of his biological parentage of the child and the legal right to visitation with the child.  Following the earlier ruling, and overruling Orange County Family Court Judge Victoria B. Campbell, the 2nd Department panel found that the principal of “equitable estoppel” barred Joseph O.’s lawsuit, even though the parties did not comply with a provision of the Domestic Relations Law, Section 73, which that would have created an “irrebuttable presumption” that the married couple, Danielle V. and Joynell B., are the only legal parents of the child.

The Domestic Relations Law provision was adopted years ago in response to the growing practice of donor insemination, for the purpose of assuring that when a married different-sex couple has a child using donated sperm, there will be no question that the mother’s husband is the parent of the child, who will be considered the legitimate offspring of their marriage. It provides that when the procedure is done by “a person duly authorized to practice medicine,” there is an “irrebuttable presumption of legitimacy” of the child, barring the sperm donor from any attempt to establish legal parentage or seek custody or visitation.

Unfortunately, the legislature has not revised the statute to reflect the existence of same-sex marriages, and many lesbian couples using donor insemination to conceive children don’t involve doctors in the procedure, which can be easily accomplished by the couple at home without professional assistance. In this case, Danielle and Joynell married in Connecticut in 2009 and used the Internet to find Joseph O., a sperm donor who was willing to agree in writing that he would have no parental rights or responsibilities.  They had a three-party written agreement to that effect.

The child was born in April 2012. According to the mothers, they had only sporadic contact with Joseph, who saw the child a few times each year since her birth, including some birthdays, but who was not treated as a father and not recognized as such by the child.  The two women were identified as the child’s parents on her birth certificate.

Claiming that his main purpose was to assure that he would have a continued right to visit with the child, Joseph filed suit in Orange County Family Court in September 2015, naming Danielle, the birth mother, as respondent. This lawsuit was dismissed on the ground that Joynelle should have been named as a “necessary” party, since she is also a legal parent of the child.  Joseph filed a new lawsuit in June 2016, naming both mothers as respondents, and seeking two things: legal visitation rights, and a declaration that he is the father of the child.  Joseph claimed that he had an established relationship with the child and that it would be in the child’s best interest for him to have visitation rights.

Danielle and Joynell moved to dismiss the case, claiming that there is a presumption of legitimacy of the child, both under New York common (non-statutory) law and under the Domestic Relations Law provision governing donor insemination. They also raise the argument of “equitable estoppel,” claiming that Joseph had no meaningful relationship with the child and, in any event, had waited too long to assert parental rights – more than three years since the child’s birth.

Family Court Judge Campbell appointed an attorney to represent the child’s interest, Kelley M. Enderley of Poughkeepsie, who sided with the mothers, affirming that “the child recognized only the respondents as her parents.” In an affidavit they filed in support of their motion to dismiss Joseph’s case, the mothers emphasized the limited contact they and their daughter had with Joseph, that he had seen the child only “sporadically,” and that the child did not recognize him as “anything other than an acquaintance of the family.”

Nonetheless, Judge Campbell denied their motion to dismiss, finding based on Joseph’s allegations of biological parenthood that the burden was on the mothers to show it was not in the child’s best interest to have a paternity test ordered to confirm that Joseph is her biological father or to have an “order of filiation” establishing his legal parental status. According to Judge Campbell, by allowing Joseph to have contact with the child over the time since her birth, the mothers had lost entitlement to the “presumption of legitimacy” of the child, and the question of equitable estoppel required a trial.

The Appellate Division found these rulings to be erroneous. Although the parties had not complied with the donor insemination statute, the court followed the earlier 3rd Department ruling holding that the statute was “not intended to be the exclusive means to establish the parentage of a child born through artificial insemination of a donor.”  More importantly, the court reaffirmed the emerging consensus among New York courts that married lesbian couples who have children through donor insemination are entitled to enjoy the presumption – codified elsewhere in the state’s Domestic Relations Law and in the Family Court Act – that the child is the legitimate child of the birth mother and her wife.

Although that presumption is not irrebuttable, an attempt by the sperm donor to rebut it may be blocked under the doctrine of equitable estoppel to “preserve that status of legitimacy for the child” under the circumstances presented in this case, in order to “protect a child’s established relationship with another who has assumed the parental role” – that is, Joynell, the wife of the child’s birth mother.

Here, all the facts came together to support dismissing Joseph’s case. He agreed when he donated his sperm that he would not seek any parental rights, he was not named on the birth certificate, and although he was certainly aware of the child’s birth, he did nothing to assert his legal claim for more than three years.  “During that time,” wrote the court, “the child has lived with and been cared for exclusively by the respondents, each of whom has developed a loving parental relationship with her.”

By contrast, although Joseph has had occasional contact, he can’t claim to have developed a parental relationship with the child, and he “acknowledges that he does not actually seek a parental role,” he is just interested in making sure that he has a legal right to continue seeing the child, in case her mothers decide to deny him access.

“Under the particular circumstances presented here,” wrote the court, “it would be unjust and inequitable to disrupt the child’s close parental relationship with each of the respondents and permit the petitioner to take a parental role when he has knowingly acquiesced in the development of a close relationship between the child and another parent figure.”

Thus, the Family Court should have granted the mothers’ motion to dismiss both of Joseph’s requests – for an order of filiation and for visitation rights – since “it has long been the rule in this State that, absent extraordinary circumstances, only parents have the right to seek custody or visitation of a minor child,” and Joseph is not a legal parent. This last quotation is from the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, in its important ruling, Brooke B. v. Elizabeth A.C.C., 28 N.Y.3d 1 (2016), recognizing the parental rights of same-sex couples.

The Appellate Division Justices on the panel that decided this case are Reinaldo E. Rivera, L. Priscilla Hall, Betsy Barros, and Valerie Brathwaite Nelson.

The mothers are represented by The Kurland Group (Yetta G. Kurland and Erica T. Kagan) and the LGBT Bar Association of Greater New York through its Legal Director, Brett Figlewski.  The American Academy of Assisted Reproductive Technology Attorneys filed an amicus brief written by attorneys from Seyfarth Shaw LLP and Rumbold & Seidelman LLP.  Joseph O. is represented by Paul N. Weber of Cornwall, New York.

 

N.Y. Appellate Division Rules against Sperm Donor Seeking Paternity Determination and Custody

Posted on: January 25th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

 

In a case showing the pressing need for revision and updating of New York’s Domestic Relations Law to reflect modern-day family realities and effectively take account of the existence of the N.Y. Marriage Equality Act, the Appellate Division, 3rd Department, ruled on January 25 that a sperm donor to a lesbian married couple was “equitably estopped” from seeking a paternity determination regarding the child conceived using his sperm, and countermanded a ruling by Chemung County Family Court Judge Mary Tarantelli that genetic testing be done to confirm the plaintiff’s biological fatherhood.  Christopher YY v. Jessica ZZ and Nichole ZZ, 2018 WL 541768.  There was no dispute between the parties that the child in question was conceived using his sperm.

Jessica and Nichole, the respondents in this case, were married before Jessica gave birth to their child in August 2014. Justice Robert C. Mulvey described the circumstances of the child’s conception: “It is undisputed that the child was conceived, on the second attempt, through an informal artificial insemination process performed in respondents’ home using sperm donated by petitioner.  The parties, who had known one another for a short time through family, had discussed respondents’ desire to have a child together, and petitioner volunteered to donate his sperm for this purpose.  The parties agree that petitioner, with his partner present, knowingly provided his sperm to assist respondents in having a child, and that the wife performed the insemination.  Prior to the insemination, the parties had entered into a written agreement drafted by petitioner that was signed by respondents and petitioner in the presence of his partner.  Pursuant to that written agreement, which was entered into without formalities or the benefit of legal advice, petitioner volunteered to donate his sperm so that respondents could have a child together, expressly waived any claims to paternity with regard to any child conceived from his donated sperm and further waived any right to custody or visitation, and respondents, in turn, waived any claim for child support from petitioner.”  The court noted that Christopher, the petitioner, denied the existence of such a written agreement, but the court found that the testimony by respondents and petitioner’s partner provided a basis for the Family Court’s determination that it did exist.

After the child was born, the parties “disagreed on petitioner’s access to the child, and his partner subsequently admitted in sworn testimony that she had destroyed the only copy of that agreement,” but the court decided that the agreement was only being considered for the purpose of determining the parties’ “understanding, intent and expectations at the time that petitioner donated his sperm and the wife impregnated the mother,” and not as a legally enforceable contract, so its destruction was not critical in this case. The court stated that the respondents lived together with the child as a family, and the petitioner did not see the child until she was one or two months old.

Family Court Judge Tarantelli rejected the mother’s motion to dismiss the proceeding, and, over opposition, granted the petitioner’s request for genetic testing, but agreed to stay the testing order while the mother appealed the ruling. The Appellate Division allowed a direct appeal of the Family Court’s order.

Justice Mulvey reviewed the basic family law principles under which the spouse of a woman who bears a child is presumed to be the child’s legal parent, the child being characterized as a “product of the marriage.” The statutes provide that this presumption can be rebutted through a proceeding establishing that another man than the mother’s husband is the biological father of the child, so that the child is not, literally speaking, a “product of the marriage.”   But, he pointed out, the tests in our antiquated statutes don’t really account for the modern phenomenon of same-sex couples having children through donor insemination, as the donor insemination statute focuses on the legal parental status of a husband who gives written permission for his wife to receive a sperm donation from another man.

“Application of existing case law involving different-gender spouses,” Mulvey wrote, “addressing whether the presumption has been rebutted, to a child born to a same-gender married couple is inherently problematic, as it is not currently scientifically possible for same-gender couples to produce a child that is biologically ‘the product of the marriage.’ . . . If the presumption of legitimacy turns primarily upon biology, as some earlier cases indicate, rather than legal status, it may be automatically rebutted in cases involving same-gender married parents.  This result would seem to conflict with this state’s ‘strong policy in favor of legitimacy,’ which has been described as ‘one of the strongest and most persuasive known to the law.’  Summarily extinguishing the presumption of legitimacy for children born to same-gender married parents would seem to violate the dictates of the Marriage Equality Act,” noting that law’s requirement that married same-sex couples have the same “legal status, effect, right, benefit, privilege, protection or responsibility relating to marriage” as different-sex couples have.  “As the common-law and statutory presumptions of legitimacy predate the Marriage Equality Act,” Mulvey commented, “they will need to be reconsidered.”

While pointing out that “a workable rubric has not yet been developed to afford children the same protection regardless of the gender composition of their parents’ marriage, and the Legislature has not addressed this dilemma, we believe that it must be true that a child born to a same-gender married couple is presumed to be their child and, further, that the presumption of parentage is not defeated solely with proof of the biological fact that, at present, a child cannot be the product of same-gender parents.” The court decided, biology aside, that the petition in this case has not “established, by clear and convincing evidence, that the child is not entitled to the legal status as ‘the product of the marriage,” and thus the presumption is not rebutted and, even if it was because there was no disagreement that petitioner was the only sperm donor, “we find, for reasons to be explained, that the doctrine of equitable estoppel applies to the circumstances here and that it is not in the child’s best interests to grant petitioner’s request for a paternity test.”

The court rejected any argument that because the respondents had proceeded informally and not complied with statutory provisions governing donor insemination in New York, they were precluded from achieving legal recognition for their family. Actually, in past cases the New York courts have not formalistically insisted that parental presumptions don’t apply if the parties failed to follow the donor insemination law to the letter.  As to the application of equitable estoppel to block Christopher’s paternity action, the court cited earlier cases holding that the doctrine “is a defense in a paternity proceeding which, among other applications, precludes a man from asserting his paternity when he acquiesced in the establishment of a strong parent-child bond between the child and another [person].”  This is done to “protect the status interests of a child in an already recognized and operative parent-child relationship.”  In other words, the court is not going to let Christopher interfere in the established relationship that Nichole has with the child her wife bore.

Relating this back to the facts of the case, Mulvey found that the conduct of the parties support blocking Christopher from the paternity action. “He was not involved in the child’s prenatal care or present at her birth, “wrote Mulvey,” did not know her birth date, never attended doctor appointments and did not see her for at least one or two months after her birth.  He was employed, but never paid child support, and provided no financial support…  By his own admission, he donated sperm as a ‘humanitarian’ gesture, to give respondents ‘the gift of life’ and expected only ‘contact’ with the child as a ‘godparent’ by providing her mothers with ‘a break’ or ‘help.’  He never signed an acknowledgement of paternity or asked to do so, and no aspect of his testimony or conduct supports the conclusion that he donated sperm with the expectation that he would have a parental role of any kind in the child’s life, and he never had or attempted to assert such a role.”  On the other hand, the testimony fully supported Nichole’s role as a mother to the child.  The court also pointed out that Christopher didn’t file his petition until the child was seven months old, and was “in an already recognized and operative parent-child relationship” with her birth mother, Jessica, and with her other mother, Nichole.

The court concluded that authorizing genetic testing and allowing the case to proceed was not in the child’s best interest, in light of the existing relationship of the child and her parents.

The court related that a new attorney had been appointed to represent the child in this appeal. She had favored the genetic testing, mainly because of events that have occurred since the Family Court hearing. It seems that the child has been in foster care, and there are neglect petitions pending against the mothers, although the lawyers appearing at the hearing in the Appellate Division did not know the details.  “However,” wrote Mulvey, “we find that the subsequent events, on which we take no position, do not alter our conclusion that respondents established at the [Family Court] hearing that petitioner should be equitably estopped from asserting paternity under the circumstances known to the Family Court at the time of the hearing,” and allowing new matters to be raised at this point “should not be permitted.  Doing so would continue to invite challenges to the then-established family unit into which the child was born, creating instability and uncertainty.”

Jessica is represented by Ouida F. Binnie-Francis of Elmira, N.Y., and Nicholde is represented by Lisa A. Natoli of Norwich. The child is represented by Michelle E. Stone of Vestal.  Christopher is represented by Pamela B. Bleiwas of Ithaca.

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.”

 

Manhattan Court Finds Former Same-Sex Partner of Adoptive Mother Lacks Standing to Contest Custody of the Child

Posted on: April 24th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

Manhattan State Supreme Court Justice Frank P. Nervo ruled on April 11 that the former same-sex partner of a woman who adopted a child from Africa after the women’s relationship had ended could not maintain a lawsuit seeking custody and visitation with the child based on the relationship that she developed with the child after the adoption took place.  K. v. C., 2017 WL 1356080, 2017 NY Misc LEXIS 1624 (N.Y. Sup. Ct., N.Y. Co.).  In one of the first applications of the New York Court of Appeals’ historic August 2016 ruling in Brooke S.B. v. Elizabeth A.C.C., 28 N.Y.3d 1, Justice Nervo found that plaintiff Kelly Gunn had failed to show by “clear and convincing evidence” that she and her former partner, Circe Hamilton, had agreed to adopt and raise the child together, which would have brought the case within the conceptual sphere, if not the precise holding, of the Court of Appeals’ recent precedent. Gunn has announced that she will appeal the ruling to the Appellate Division, First Department, in Manhattan, and seek an extension of the twenty-day stay that Justice Nervo put on his ruling.

Justice Nervo’s application of the recent precedent was complicated by the limitations of that prior ruling.  In that case, which was a consolidation of two separate cases, both cases involved donor insemination situations where the former partners had planned for and carried out the birth of a child within the context of their relationship, with an explicit mutual agreement that they would both be parents of the child, followed by years of living together with the child before the women separated.  This new case posed different facts.

In its Brooke S.B. ruling, written by the late Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam, the Court of Appeals had cautiously abandoned its prior bright line test, under which a biologically-unrelated same-sex co-parent was treated as a legal stranger without standing to seek custody or visitation, making an exception for situations where a parental relationship was created by mutual consent within the context of donor insemination.  “Because we necessarily decide these cases based on the facts presented to us,” wrote Judge Abdus-Salaam in that case, “it would be premature for us to consider adopting a test for situations in which a couple did not enter into a pre-conception agreement.  Accordingly, we do not now decide whether, in a case where a biological or adoptive parent consented to the creation of a parent-like relationship between his or her partner and child after conception, the partner can establish standing to seek visitation and custody.”

Judge Nervo’s opinion referred to the parties by first initials, but press reporting after his opinion was released included their names.

Gunn and Hamilton “were in a relationship from 2007 to 2009, entering into a cohabitation agreement on May 18, 2007,” wrote the judge.  “It is undisputed that during their relationship, they entered into a plan to adopt and raise a child together.  It is also undisputed that the parties’ relationship deteriorated over time and they entered into a separation agreement on May 28, 2010.”

About ten months later, Hamilton learned that a child was available for adoption in Ethiopia and began to take the steps to complete the adoption.  Gunn claims that despite their separation, she facilitated the adoption through a substantial monetary payment as part of their separation agreement, which made it possible for Hamilton to “establish a home sufficient to pass inspection by the adoption agency.”  She also arranged a business trip to be able to travel with Hamilton and the child, Abush, on the London-to-New York part of Hamilton’s trip home with the child after obtaining custody of him in Ethiopia.  Gunn also presented evidence of her continuing involvement with the child after the return to New York, although Gunn conceded that “her involvement with the child was limited because [Hamilton] would disapprove.”

On the other hand, Hamilton argued that the couples’ plan to adopt a child and raise the child together “dissolved contemporaneously with the dissolution of the parties’ relationship.”  She argued that Gunn’s involvement after Hamilton adopted the child was “only a supportive role as a close friend” of Hamilton and the child.  She contended that Gunn was “merely a godmother,” not a parent.  She also argued that she did not “encourage, facilitate or condone a parental relationship” between Gunn and the boy, who is now seven years old.

Thus, this case did not precisely map the factual contours approved by the Court of Appeals in the Brooke S.B. case.  In attempting to adapt that ruling and apply it to these facts, Judge Nervo interpreted the earlier case to extend to an adoption situation, but only if the plaintiff could show, by clear and convincing evidence, that the parties had planned to adopt the child and raise it together and carried out their plan within the context of their continuing relationship.  While these parties had such a plan prior to their separation, he found, in order to meet this test, the plan had to have continued through the adoption process and the raising of the child, which he held did not occur in this case.

The timing of Gunn’s lawsuit is interesting.  Although Hamilton adopted Abush in 2011, Gunn did not file her lawsuit until September 1, 2016, two days after the Court of Appeals decided Brooke S.B.  Prior to that decision, of course, her suit would have been blocked by the precedent that the Court of Appeals overruled, Alison D. v. Virginia M., 77 N.Y.2d 651 (1991).  In an April 20 article about the case, the New York Times reported that Gunn went to court “to prevent her former partner . . . from moving to her native London” with the child.  Gunn sought immediate relief when filing her complaint, which first went to Justice Matthew F. Cooper, who issued an interim order restraining Hamilton from relocating Abush to London while the case was pending.  The matter was then assigned to Justice Nervo, who scheduled a hearing to begin just a week later, on September 8.  The hearing continued sporadically until February 16, 2017. Hamilton had responded to the complaint on September 6 with a motion to dismiss the case.  Gunn finished presenting her witnesses on November 23.  After evaluating Gunn’s evidence, Judge Nervo denied Hamilton’s motion to dismiss, finding that Gunn’s evidence, as yet uncontradicted, had established what lawyers call a prima facie case, a basis for concluding that she had a potential claim to parental standing.

However, after hearing Hamilton’s evidence, which ended on February 16, Justice Nervo concluded the factual and legal issues against Gunn, granted Hamilton’s motion to dismiss, denied Gunn’s motion and vacated the interim orders that had been issued by Justice Cooper. He also dissolved interim orders that had enabled Gunn to continue seeing the child while the case was ongoing.  However, recognizing that Gunn would likely appeal and could have grounds to argue that the Court of Appeals’ precedent should be given a broader reading, Nervo stayed his order for twenty days.  A prompt appeal and petition to the Appellate Division to preserve the interim relief might preserve the status quo while an appeal is considered.

Justice Nervo’s opinion includes a lengthy summary of the testimony presented by both parties, which led the judge to conclude that Gunn had fallen short of showing by clear and convincing evidence that she had a parental relationship with the child based on a mutual agreement with Hamilton.  “Upon the presentation of the evidence of both parties over 36 days of testimony, constituting a hearing transcript of 4,738 pages, 215 exhibits on behalf of petitioner and 126 exhibits on behalf of respondent, the court finds the petitioner has on numerous occasions stated that she did not want to be a parent and gave no indication to either respondent or third parties that she either wanted this role or acted as a parent,” wrote Nervo.  “Therefore, she has failed to establish by clear and convincing evidence that she has standing as a parent under Domestic Relations Law Section 70, as established In the Matter of Brooke S.B. v. Elizabeth A.C.C.”

The court never addressed the best interest of the child, usually a key finding in a custody dispute, because in order to put that issue into play, a plaintiff has first to establish her status as a parent or, under New York cases, show extraordinary circumstances in order to invoke the court’s authority to require a biological or adoptive parent to engage in a contest about the best interest of her child.  Part of Gunn’s argument on appeal will likely be that Brooke S.B. has implicitly overruled the extraordinary circumstances requirement in cases involving same-sex partners who had jointly planned to raise a child together, even if the case does not involve donor insemination or a continuous relationship of the women prior to the adoption.

Reading through Judge Nervo’s summary of the evidence, which is unlikely to be upset on appeal, as appellate courts generally refrain from second-guessing the factual findings of trial judges in custody and visitation cases unless there is an appearance of substantial bias against a party or failure to account for significant evidence in the hearing record, it sounds like he concluded that although Gunn had formed a relationship with Abush and there were some indications that it was deeper than a mere acquaintanceship or babysitter kind of relationship, on the other hand there was significant evidence that Gunn had expressed reservations during her relationship with Hamilton about the adoption plans and had never directly communicated to Hamilton after the adoption that she desired to take on the responsibility of being a co-parent of the child.  Since the Court of Appeals emphasized in its decision that standing would arise from a mutual agreement between the child’s biological or adoptive parent and her same-sex partner, and there was no sign of such an agreement at or after the time of this adoption, the case could not be made to fit precisely into the Court of Appeals precedent.

On the other hand, it may be open to the Appellate Division to take a different view, especially since the Court of Appeals disclaimed making a ruling on factual situations different from those in the cases it was deciding.  Clearly, the Court of Appeals rejected the bright line test of the old Alison D. v. Virginia M. case.  Whether it will countenance a broader exception to the standing rules than it carved out in Brooke S.B. is uncertain.

Gunn’s attorney, Nancy Chemtob, told the New York Times, “I believe that this decision doesn’t follow Brooke.”  The Times reported that “Bonnie Rabin, one of Ms. Hamilton’s lawyers, said the ruling should allay concerns that a trusted caretaker could suddenly claim parental rights under the state’s expanded definition of parentage.  ‘That would be scary to parents,’ she said.”

 

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.

 

 

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.

Federal Judge Orders Indiana to List Two Moms on Birth Certificates

Posted on: July 1st, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

U.S. District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt ruled on June 30 that Indiana was failing to comply with the Supreme Court’s mandate for marriage equality in Obergefell v. Hodges, decided last June 26, when the state refused to list the same-sex spouses of birth mothers on their children’s birth certificates.  Ruling on cases brought by several same-sex couples who were married before their children were born, Judge Pratt found that the mandate to afford equal marriage rights to same-sex couples included a requirement that the “parental presumption” applied to husbands of women who give birth should also be applied to their wives.  Henderson v. Adams, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 84916 (S.D. Ind.).

Judge Pratt explained that the usual procedure in Indiana for issuing birth certificates starts when hospital staff “work with the birth mother to complete the State of Indiana’s ‘Certificate of Live Birth Worksheet,’” which was created by the state as part of its Birth Registration System.  “Staff at the hospital upload the information provided on the Indiana Birth Worksheet to a State database.  The county health department then receives notification that birth information has been added to the database.  A notification letter to the birth mother is generated on a form provided by the State, which indicates that information has been received by the county health department and requests that the mother notify the county health department if there is an error with respect to the child’s identifying information.”  If the mother wants a birth certificate, she has to request one, which will then be generated out of the database.

One of the questions on the Worksheet is whether the birth mother is married.  If she answers “no,” she is asked whether a paternity affidavit has been completed for the child, in which case the person identified as the father will go into the database and be listed on the birth certificate.  If there has been no affidavit, then the space is left blank, even if the mother knows the identity of the child’s biological father, and the birth certificate will list only the mother.  If the answer is “yes,” the husband’s name will go into the database, and ultimately will be listed on the birth certificate.  Even if the child of a married couple is conceived with donated sperm, there is a presumption that the husband is the father, unless the mother takes steps during this initial information-gathering process to make clear that her husband is not the biological father.

Even though all of the plaintiff couples in this case are married, the state refused to accept same-sex spouses into the database or to list them on the birth certificate.  The state’s position was that the database and the birth certificates generated from it are supposed to create a true record of the biological parentage of the child, and that because a same-sex spouse of a birth mother is not biologically related to the child, listing her in the database and on the birth certificate would create a false record.  The state took the position that a same-sex spouse could only be listed in the database and the birth certificate if she adopted the child with the permission of the birth mother, a process involving expenses and delay, during which time the child would have only one legal parent.

Judge Pratt accepted the plaintiffs’ argument that “Indiana’s refusal to grant the status of parenthood to female spouses of artificially-inseminated birth mothers while granting the status of parenthood to male spouses of artificially-inseminated birth mother violates the Equal Protection Clause,” because it was sex discrimination, pure and simple.

Furthermore, sex discrimination requires heightened scrutiny, putting the burden on the state to justify its policy and show that it advances an important state interest.  Because the state presumes, without proof, that the husbands of birth mothers are the parents of their children, the policy does not, in fact, advance the state’s asserted interest of creating a “true” record of the child’s biological parents.  The state argued that it was the duty of the married birth mother to advise hospital staff while completing the Worksheet if her child was conceived through donor sperm so that her husband’s name would be excluded from the database, but this was clearly a spurious argument, since the Worksheet does not prompt hospital staff members to ask this question.

“The State Defendant’s argument that the birth mother should acknowledge that she is not married to the father of her child when she has been artificially inseminated or else she is committing fraud when she has been artificially inseminated is not consistent with the Indiana Birth Worksheet, Indiana law, or common sense,” wrote Judge Pratt.  “The Indiana Birth Worksheet asks, ‘are you married to the father of your child,’ yet it does not define ‘father.’  This term can mean different things to different women.  Common sense says that an artificially-inseminated woman married to a man who has joined in the decision for this method of conception, and who intends to treat the child as his own, would indicate that she is married to the father of her child.  Why would she indicate otherwise?”

Judge Pratt pointed out that the Worksheet, devised by the state, made no attempt to elicit the information that the State deemed to be so important, and, furthermore, “there is no warning of fraud or criminal liability.”  She pointed out that some other states had enacted specific statutory language to deal with the use of donor insemination by married couples and the issuance of appropriate birth certificates, but Indiana has failed to do so.  She pointed out, however, that in one such state, Wisconsin, litigation is pending because that state has also been refusing to list same-sex spouses on birth certificates.

Ultimately, she pointed out, the Worksheet process as set up by the state did not achieve its articulated purpose of creating a “true” record of biological parents, and was administered in a way that clearly discriminated against same-sex couples.  Rejecting the state’s argument that employing a parental presumption was not required under Obergefell’s mandate of equal marriage benefits, she pointed out, “the state created a benefit for married women based on their marriage to a man, which allows them to name their husband on their child’s birth certificate even when the husband is not the biological father.  Because of Baskin [the 7th Circuit’s marriage equality ruling] and Obergefell, this benefit –which is directly tied to marriage – must now be afforded to women married to women.”

In addition to finding an equal protection violation, Judge Pratt found a Due Process violation because in Obergefell the Supreme Court referred to both clauses of the 14th Amendment as a source of the freedom to marry.  Since the Supreme Court identified that freedom as a fundamental right, strict scrutiny would apply, and the state’s rationale for its position of this case was obviously insufficient to meet the “compelling interest” test, and Judge Pratt so found.  The judge concluded: “Given Indiana’s long-articulated interest in doing what is in the best interest of the child and given that the Indiana Legislature has stated the purpose of Title 31 is to protect, promote, and preserve Indiana families, there is no conceivable important governmental interest that would justify the different treatment for female spouses of artificially-inseminated birth mothers from the male spouses of artificially-inseminated birth mothers.  As other district courts have noted, the holding of Obergefell will inevitably require ‘sweeping change’ by extending to same-sex married couples all benefits afforded to opposite-sex married couples.  Those benefits must logically and reasonably include the recognition sought by Plaintiffs in this action.”

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.