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Posts Tagged ‘gestational surrogacy’

British Appeals Court Affirms Residential Child Custody for Gay Male Couple in Contest with Gestational Surrogate

Posted on: November 25th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

A unanimous three-judge panel of the England and Wales Court of Appeal issued a decision on November 17 affirming a ruling by Justice Lucy Theis of the High Court Family Division that a gay male couple should have residential custody of a child born as a result of an unenforceable gestational surrogacy agreement they had entered with a married woman who sought to keep the child. Between: H (A Child); Re H (Surrogacy Breakdown), [2017] EWCA Civ 1798 (Case No: B4/2-17/-0064/FAFMF (Nov. 17, 2017).  Although the appeal had been presented as “involving novel issues about the interface between the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 and the Child Act 1989,” wrote Lord Justice Andrew McFarlane for the Court of Appeal, “on examination these issues fell away and the argument ultimately boiled down to the question of whether the Judge erred on her evaluation of the evidence.”

A and B, the gay couple, entered into a surrogacy agreement with C and D, a “heterosexual married couple” who had five children. C, the wife, had been a gestational surrogate twice before.  The parties had met on-line in April 2015, and signed the surrogacy agreement in August of that year.  C and A traveled to a clinic in Cyprus, where A’s sperm was used to fertilize a donated egg, which was then implanted in C.  Thus, C would have no genetic relationship to the child.

The relationship between the parties deteriorated during the pregnancy, to the point where communication between them had ceased in March 2016. According to the opinion by Family Court Justice Theis, “At some point in late March 2016, C and D sought legal advice and decided that they were not going to hand over the child to A and B, as had been agreed between the parties as recorded in the agreement they signed in August 2015.  At this time, A and B were seeking to establish contact with C, but with no response.”  C gave birth to H in late April.  Due to difficulties with the birth and aftermath, she and the child remained in the hospital until May 6.

The day before the birth, C and D’s then-lawyer wrote to A and B, telling them that C and D were not prepared to follow the surrogacy agreement and would not be giving their consent to a parental order on behalf of A, the child’s biological father. Although correspondence between the attorneys occurred for ten days following H’s birth, A and C were not informed of the birth until May 10, by which time C and D had already registered the birth with the name they had chosen rather than that chosen by A and B.  A and B then filed suit, which resulted in arrangements being made for them to have contact with the child, which ultimately became a “shared care arrangement” up to the time of the hearing in Family Court.

Justice Theis appointed a Guardian for the child in the context of the hearings and hear testimony from all parties. Because C and D were not willing to cooperate with a parental order, they are considered the legal parents of H, as birth mother and her spouse at the time of the birth.  Surrogacy agreements are not enforceable under English law.  The intended father cannot obtain a parental order designating him as the legal parent in such a case without the cooperation of the birth mother and her spouse, if any.  The main question for the court was whether the child should reside with C and D, or with A and B, in light of the history of the child’s conception and the subsequent bonding through the shared care arrangement, and A’s claims as a biological parent.

C and D’s lawyer argued that “as a matter of law, C and D had a right ‘to change their minds and keep H.’,” wrote Lord Justice McFarlane. “It is undoubtedly correct that a surrogate mother has the right to change her mind,” he wrote, but noted that the lawyer “wisely withdrew from the submission that such a mother also had the right to have her own way about where the child should live.  She was also forced to concede that, while the six week ‘cooling off’ period protects a mother in relation to the important issue of consent to a parental order, it tells one nothing about what the best welfare arrangements for the child will be after birth.  That will depend on the circumstances, which will include, in addition to the factors in the [Child Act] 1989, sec. 1(3) checklist, the child’s gestational and legal parentage, his or her genetic relationships and the manner in which the intended surrogacy came about.”

The Guardian appointed for the child testified that A and B were better placed to meet “the more complex emotional needs of a child born in these circumstances” than were C and D. On this issue, it appeared that A and B were open to allowing H to have a relationship with C and D, but C and D were not disposed to encourage a relationship with A and B.  Both couples were seen as capable of meeting the child’s “ordinary physical, emotional and educational needs.”  The Guardian recommended that H should live with A and B and have visiting contact with C and D, ultimately recommending that such contact should take place six times a year until the child’s 2nd birthday, subject to being increased at that time depending how the relationship developed.

Judge Theis accepted this recommendation, finding that it was best for H to live with A and B, with the recommended visiting schedule for C and D. As described by Lord Justice McFarlane, “The Judge therefore concluded that it would be best for H to live with A and B because (1) H’s identity needs as a child of gay intended parents would be best met by living with a genetic parent, (2) A and B could meet H’s day-to-day needs in an attuned way, (3) A and B were best bale to promote the relationship with C and D, having remained positive about their significance despite the difficulties, and (4) C and D were unlikely to significantly change their views about A and B.”

The Court of Appeal rejected C and D’s argument that placing the child with A and B was “equivalent to the making of a parental order,” pointing out that such an order “leaves the surrogate with no rights, and no right to apply to court. It would not provide for ongoing contact.”  Justice McFarlane observed that Justice Theis had explicitly recognized the ongoing role of C and D as legal parents of H.  He also rejected the argument that the Family Court was “obliged to strive to provide H with two homes and four functioning parents,” since it was “obvious that it was not likely to be in H’s interests to have more than one secure home base, and one couple who could be clearly identified as parents.”  The court rejected any argument that the Family Court’s decision was “punitive to C and D” for having abrogated the surrogacy agreement and behaved poorly towards A and B, finding that the judge’s concern was “relating less to what had happened in the past and more to the respective couples’ ability to respond,” and that she had repeatedly “acknowledged the love that all four adults felt for the child, but she was clear that one of the couples was better placed than the other to negotiate the challenges of the future.”

The Court of Appeal concluded its opinion with observations on two matters. “Firstly, we note that surrogacy is a complex area, ethically and legally, and that there are no internationally agreed norms,” wrote Justice McFarlane, endorsing Justice Theis’s observation that it would be desirable for the government to enact “a properly supported and regulated framework to underpin arrangements of this kind.”  The lack of any legal status for surrogacy agreements is a continuing source of difficulties, since the legal template for dealing with custody disputes between divorcing parents does not easily fit the situation when surrogacy arrangements break down during pregnancy.  And, the court devoted a final paragraph about A and B having “most unwisely and unaccountably” resorted to social media to discuss their situation, as to which the court “made an order restraining A and B from generating further publicity about this matter.”  Preserving confidentiality in contested custody cases is generally deemed to be in the best interest of the child.

The end result, which brought some startled comment from the gay press in the U.K., is that the surrogate, who has no genetic relationship to the child, continues, together with her husband, as legal parents, while the child will live with A and B as, in effect, de facto parents. The surrogate and her husband will have continuing contact with the child through the visitation order and, still to be sorted out in full, there may be some restrictions on where and when A and B can travel with the child outside the country.  The court’s call for the government to establish an appropriate statutory legal framework to govern such situations is heartfelt.

11th Circuit Rejects Tax Deductibility of Surrogacy Expenses

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

A gay male couple that wants to have a child who is genetically related to one of the men needs to retain the services of at least one and possibly two women, depending whether they are going to use ordinary surrogacy or gestational surrogacy to have the child. Should those expenses be deductible if they exceed the threshold set by the Internal Revenue Code for deductible medical expenses?  On September 25, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, affirming a ruling by the Internal Revenue Service, answered in the negative. Morrissey v. United States, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 18479, 2017 WL 4229063.

Joseph F. Morrissey, the plaintiff, is a gay man who has been in a monogamous relationship with his same-sex partner since 2000. (They married after the events described in this case took place, when same-sex marriage became legal in Florida.)  Morrissey characterizes himself as “effectively infertile” (since he is gay) because “it is physiologically impossible for two men to conceive a child through sexual relations.”  The way out of this “effective infertility” is to use a surrogate, a woman who is willing to bear a child and give up her parental rights after the child is born.

In 2010, Morrissey and his partner decided to try to have children through in vitro fertilization (IVF) using a gestational surrogate, with Morrissey as the sperm donor. Morrissey’s sperm would be collected and then used to fertilize a donated egg in a petri dish; the resulting embryo would be implanted in a different woman than the egg donor.  The gestational surrogate would then bear the child, both women having agreed to the termination of their parental rights as genetic mother and birth mother.  Between 2010 and 2014 Morrissey went through several IVF procedures involving three egg donors, three surrogates, and two fertility specialists.  He spent more than $100,000 altogether.  (The opinion does not mention whether he actually ended up having kids.)  During tax year 2011, he spent nearly $57,000 that was not covered by insurance on these IVF-surrogacy procedures.  $1,500 of his expenditures that year went toward procedures performed directly on Morrissey – blood tests and sperm collection.  The remainder of his expenditures that year went to identifying and retaining the women who would be egg donors and surrogates, for compensation of their services, reimbursement of their travel and other expenses, and providing medical care to the women.

Morrissey did not claim a deduction for these medical expenses when he filed his 2011 tax return, paying the full $22,449 that he owed in taxes without medical deductions. After paying his taxes, he filed an amended 2011 tax return, claiming a medical expense deduction of $36,538, the amount by which his claimed expenses exceeded the threshold specified in the Code, and seeking a $9,539 refund.  At the time, the threshold was 7.5 of adjusted gross income.  (Today it is 10, having been increased effective with the 2013 tax year.)  The $1500 he spent for medical services to himself could not be deducted on its own, because it would not exceed the threshold.  Only by being able to claim the other expenses associated with the IVF-surrogacy procedures would he be able to have any medical deduction.

The IRS disallowed his deduction and denied the refund, taking the position that Sec. 213, which governs the “medical care” deductions, “states that Medical Care must be for Medical Services provided to the taxpayer, his spouse, or dependent.” As far as IRS was concerned, the expenses Morrissey incurred were not, with the exception of the $1500, for medical services provided to him.

Morrissey then sued in the federal district court, claiming first that Section 213 authorizes his claimed deduction, and second that the IRS’s disallowance of his claim violated his equal protection rights under the 5th Amendment. The district court granted summary judgment for the IRS.

Writing for the panel, in one of his first opinions since being appointed to the court by Donald Trump, Circuit Judge Kevin Newsom rejected Morrissey’s attempt to bring his claim within the language of Section 213. Morrissey argued that the IVF-related expenses were “medical care” because they constituted amounts that were paid “for the purpose of affecting any . . . function of the body.”  The problem, as Newsom pointed out, was that the “body” referred to by the statute is the taxpayer’s body, and the medical care was affecting the functions of the egg donor’s and the surrogate’s bodies.  Wrote Newsom, “Mr. Morrissey contends that all of the IVF-related expenses that he incurred – including the costs attributable to the identification, retention, compensation, and care of the women who served as the egg donor and the surrogate – were made for the purpose of affecting his body’s reproductive function.  In particular, Mr. Morrissey asserts that because he and his male partner are physiologically incapable of reproducing together, IVF was his only means of fathering his own biological children.  Accordingly, Mr. Morrissey claims, it was medically necessary to involve third parties – a female egg donor and a female surrogate – in order to enable his own body to fulfill its reproductive function.”

But Judge Newsom found that the section’s “plain language” foreclosed this argument, getting into a word by word analysis with the dictionary as his authority. As he interpreted the section, it would apply only if “the expenses at issue were paid for the purpose of materially affecting or altering some function of Mr. Morrissey’s body,” and clearly they were not.  Although they were intended to solve the reproductive problem, it was not by rendering care that would affect Morrissey’s body or how his body would function.  Newsom (or more likely his clerk) had fun writing a primer on the physiology of human reproduction, in order to reach the obvious conclusion that a man’s role in the reproductive function is to ejaculate sperm, and none of the “medical care” he was trying to claim had to do with any problem concerning that.

Turning to the equal protection claim, Newsom described Morrissey’s two equal protection arguments. “First, he asserts that we should employ strict scrutiny because the IRS’s disallowance of his claimed deduction under IRC Sec. 213 infringes his fundamental right to reproduce.  Second, he argues that some form of heightened scrutiny should apply because in disallowing the deduction the IRS discriminated against him on the basis of his sexual orientation.”

While conceding that the Supreme Court has described reproduction as a fundamental right in a broad sense, the court concluded that the issue here is “whether a man has a fundamental right to procreate via an IVF process that necessarily entails the participation of an unrelated third-party egg donor and a gestational surrogate.” As to that, the court concluded, “History and tradition provide no firm footing – let alone ‘deep rooting’ – for the right that underlies Mr. Morrissey’s claim. To the contrary, IVF, egg donation, and gestational surrogacy are decidedly modern phenomena.  Indeed, not all that long ago, IVF was still (literally) the stuff of science fiction.”  There follows a citation to and quotation from Aldous Huxley’s novel, Brave New World (1932).

Newsom then described the controversial history of alternative reproductive medicine, whose morality has been questioned by some major religions and whose legality has been put into play by a variety of state laws, ranging from regulation to criminalization of surrogacy agreements and laws against their enforcement. “Were we to confer ‘fundamental’ status on Mr. Morrissey’s asserted right to IVF-and-surrogacy-assisted reproduction,” wrote Newsom, “we would ‘to a great extent, place the matter outside the arena of public debate and legislative action.’ Particularly in view of the ethical issues implicated by IVF, egg donation, and gestational surrogacy,” he continued, “as well as the ongoing political dialogue about those issues – and mindful that ‘guideposts for responsible decision-making’ in the fundamental-rights area ‘are scarce and open-ended’ – we decline to take that step.”

The court rejected Morrissey’s invitation to opine as to whether sexual orientation is a “suspect classification” for equal protection purposes, because it found that the challenged statute – and its interpretation here – was neutral regarding sexual orientation. Newsom asserted that the statute “deals with heterosexual and homosexual taxpayers on equal terms.”  The court found that Morrissey could not show that the IRS treated him differently from a heterosexual taxpayer who sought to claim a medical deduction for the expenses of IVF-surrogacy procedures.  “The agency’s disallowance of Mr. Morrissey’s claimed deduction is consistent with longstanding IRS guidance and analogous Tax Court precedent,” he wrote, as “IRS has consistently refused deductions sought by heterosexual taxpayers for IVF-related expenses similar to Mr. Morrissey’s.  An IRS guidance published in 2002 advised that ‘medical expenses paid for a surrogate mother and her unborn child would not qualify for deduction under Sec. 213(a),’” and this was upheld in several Tax Court cases.  He pointed out that such deductions had even been disallowed where the surrogate was impregnated through sexual intercourse with the taxpayer!

The court refused to accept Morrissey’s analogy to the IRS’s allowance of deductions for fertility treatments, saying, “Even if Mr. Morrissey could show that he had been treated differently from similarly situated heterosexual taxpayers, he hasn’t shown that any difference was motivated by an intent to discriminate against him on the basis of his sexual orientation.” In essence, Morrissey’s equal protection claim was more of a disparate impact claim, not a disparate treatment claim, and the constitutional requirement of equal protection has been interpreted by the Supreme Court to apply only to intentional discrimination, not to the discriminatory effects of a tax regime that makes it more expensive for gay couples to have biological offspring than for those straight couples who do it the old-fashioned way.  Although Morrissey was able to come up with an internal IRS document in which an agent made a remark that might be construed as showing discriminatory intent, the court insisted that the official explanation provided by IRS for denying his claim carried no implication of any discriminatory purpose.  “Because there is no evidence that the IRS’s actual decision-makers engaged in any intentional discrimination,” wrote Newsom, “Mr. Morrissey’s equal protection claim fails.”

Morrissey is represented by Richard Donald Euliss of Carlton Fields Jorden Burt PA (Washington, DC) and David Paul Burke, Scott D. Feather, and Gary L. Sasso, of the same firm’s Tampa office.

 

N.Y. Appellate Division Upholds Vacating Adoption by Father’s New Boyfriend on Petition by Father’s Husband

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

On September 28, 2017, a unanimous five-judge panel of the N.Y. Appellate Division, First Department, held that New York County Family Court Judge Stewart H. Weinstein had properly granted a motion by Han Ming T., the husband of Marco D., to vacate a May 2016 order that had granted an adoption petition by Carlos A., Marco’s boyfriend, to adopt a child conceived through gestational surrogacy using Marco’s sperm at a time when Marco and Han Ming were subsequently deemed to be married.  Ming, who had initiated a divorce proceeding in Florida in which he sought joint custody of the child, then unaware that the adoption petition had been filed in New York, showed that he was entitled to notice of the adoption petition and respect for his parental rights.  Carlos and Marco had failed to inform the Family Court that the status of the child in question was implicated in an ongoing divorce proceeding, so that court had originally granted the adoption unaware that there was a legal impediment as the consent of Ming was lacking. In re Maria-Irene D., 2017 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 6713, 2017 WL 4287334, 2017 N.Y. Slip Op 06716.

Marco and Ming, who are both British citizens, entered a formal civil partnership in the U.K. in 2008, which they converted into a legal marriage in 2015. Under British law, their marriage was treated as retroactive to the date of their civil partnership.  Between those two dates they had relocated to the U.S., living in Florida.  In 2013 they undertook to have a child through gestational surrogacy, a process by which an egg is extracted from a donor, fertilized in a petri dish, and then implanted in a surrogate.  Both men contributed sperm for several in vitro fertilization attempts; the one that “took,” using Marco’s sperm, was implanted in the surrogate.  This process was carried out in Missouri, where the child, who was named after the mothers of both men, was born in September 2014.  A Missouri court then terminated any parental rights of the egg donor and the surrogate and designated Marco, the genetic father, as having “sole and exclusive custody” of the child.  “Marco, Ming, and the child returned to Florida, where they lived as a family until October 2015, when Ming returned to the UK to seek employment,” wrote the court.

But evidently the relationship of the men was complicated during that time, because, the court reports, “At some point in or after 2013, Marco entered a relationship with petitioner Carlos A., and they moved to New York with the child after Ming went to the U.K.” Carlos petitioned the New York County Family Court to adopt the child in January 2016.  The adoption papers “disclosed that Marco and Ming were married in 2008, but alleged that they had not lived together continuously since 2012 and that Carlos and Marco have been caring for the child since her birth.  A home study report stated that Marco and Ming legally separated in 2014 and had no children together.”  That Ming had participated in the surrogacy process and that Marco, Ming and the child lived together as a family thereafter were not disclosed to the Family Court in the adoption proceeding.   Neither did Carlos and Marco disclose to that court prior to the adoption order being granted that Ming had filed a divorce action in Florida in March 2016, seeking joint custody of the child.

The Family Court granted the adoption in May 2016. When Ming learned of this, he filed a motion in the Family Court to vacate the adoption “on the ground that relevant facts had not been disclosed to the court and that he was entitled to notice of the adoption and an opportunity to be heard since he had parental rights.”  Judge Weinstein granted Ming’s motion and vacated the adoption, finding that Carlos and Marco made “material misrepresentations” to the court and that Ming was entitled to notice of the proceeding.  Weinstein did leave open the possibility that depending how the divorce proceedings were resolved in Florida, Carlos might later renew his petition to adopt the child.  Carlos moved for re-argument, but the motion was denied, and Carlos and Marco appealed.

The Appellate Division found that the Family Court “providently exercised its discretion in vacating the adoption.” Since the Marco-Ming marriage was retroactive to 2008 under U.K. law, it would be recognized as such under New York law as a matter of comity.  Which meant that the child, born in 2014, was a child of the marriage, “giving rise to the presumption that the child is the legitimate child of both Marco and Ming.”  The court noted Ming’s allegation that they lived together as a family in Florida, and that “the couple took affirmative steps in the U.K. to establish Ming’s parental rights in accordance with U.K. law.”  The court doesn’t explain this further.  Perhaps it refers to their subsequent 2015 marriage, which had retroactive effect under U.K. law to 2008, thus establishing Ming’s parental status, regardless of the Missouri judgement awarding Marco sole and exclusive custody.  (One has to factor into the mix that in 2014 same-sex couples could not marry in Missouri and their U.K. legal status as civil partners when the child was born would have no recognition under Missouri law, so naturally a Missouri court at that time would not recognize Ming as having any legal relationship to the child.)

“The prevailing law at the time the adoption petition was granted does not compel a different result,” said the court. As far as this court was concerned, as a matter of New York law according comity to the retroactive effect of their U.K. marriage, “Marco and Ming were deemed legally married when they embarked on the surrogacy process to have a child together.  Accordingly, the child was born in wedlock, and Ming was entitled to notice of the adoption proceeding.  Under the Court of Appeals’ most recent decision concerning parental standing (Matter of Brooke S.B. v. Elizabeth A.C.C., 28 N.Y.3d 1, 39 N.Y.S.3d 89, 61 N.E.3d 488 [2016]), Ming’s claim to have standing as a parent is even stronger.”

The court also found the failure by Carlos and Marco to disclose the Florida divorce proceeding to the Family Court to be “another ground to vacate the adoption,” since an adoption petition requires the petitioner to disclose to the court whether the child is the subject of any other legal proceeding affecting his or her custody or status, and Ming had petitioned for joint custody of the child in the Florida proceeding. Carlos and Marco learned of that proceeding a few months after Carlos’s adoption petition was filed, while that petition was still pending before the Family Court, so they had a duty to bring it to the attention of that court.  Instead, they filed a supplemental affidavit claimed that there had been no change in the child’s circumstances “whatsoever” since the filing of the adoption petition.

Ming is represented by Nina E. Rumbold of Rumbold & Seidelman, LLP (Bronxville). Carlos and Marco are represented by Frederick J. Magovern of Magovern & Sclafani, Mineola.  There is no attorney appointed to represent the child’s interest, a point that Carlos and Marco raised in their appeal but as to which the Appellate Division declined to rule.  The court’s opinion does not report on the current status of Ming’s Florida divorce proceeding.  It is possible that Ming and Marco are still legally married, which perhaps explains why Carlos and Marco are not?

 

The Power of Full Faith & Credit and a Jury

Posted on: September 22nd, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

Putting together the power of the U.S. Constitution’s Full Faith and Credit Clause and a verdict by a jury who got to see the parties testify, a Texas gay co-parent has preserved his status as “sole managing conservator” of the child he and his former partner/spouse conceived with the help of a gestational surrogate.  Herein lies a somewhat complicated tale providing new evidence of the extraordinary developments in LGBT family law over the past few years.  The case is Berwick v. Wagner, 2014 Westlaw 4493470.

Jerry Berwick and Richard Wagner began their relationship with each other in 1994.  They were legally married in Canada in 2003, and registered as domestic partners in California in 2005, but lived together in Houston, Texas, beginning in 1997.  They wanted to have a child through gestational surrogacy, and made a gestational surrogacy agreement with a married California woman in 2005.  A donated egg was fertilized with Berwick’s sperm and the resulting embryo was implanted in the surrogate, who gave birth to a son, called C.B.W. by the Texas Court of Appeals in Houston in its September 11 decision affirming the jury verdict.  Following a procedure commonly used in California, the men filed a court action before the child was born, through which a California court entered an order titled “Judgment of Paternity,” declaring that Berwick and Wagner were each to be a “legal parent” of C.B.W., ordering the hospital to list the two men as the child’s parents on the birth certificate, and declaring, consistent with the surrogacy agreement, that neither the birth mother nor her husband were legal parents of C.B.W.  After the child was born, Berwick and Wagner brought him back to Houston where they lived together as a family for several years, until Berwick ended his relationship with Wagner.

Berwick “got religion,” decided he wasn’t really gay, and ended up marrying a woman whom he met on-line.  When Berwick ended the relationship, Wagner took action to preserve his relationship with his son, filing a Suit Affecting the Parent Child Relationship in the Texas trial court in Harris County, seeking an order that Wagner and Berwick be appointed “joint managing conservators” of C.B.W.  This would give them equal parental rights, consistent with the California court order.  Berwick responded by arguing that as the biological father he should be appointed sole managing conservator.  He contended that Wagner lacked standing to seek custody because he was not “biologically related” to the child.

In a separate legal proceeding provided by Texas law, Wagner registered the California “Judgment of Paternity” in the Harris County court, and the trial court “confirmed” the California order, thus recognizing Wagner for purposes of Texas law as a legal parent of C.B.W., thus giving him standing to seek appointment as a managing conservator of the child.  Berwick appealed, the court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s order, and the state supreme court refused to review the case.

Thus, the original suit filed by Wagner went to trial.  In Texas, these cases are tried before a jury, which is charged with deciding who should be appointed as conservators for the child.  The jury decided that Wagner should be the sole managing conservator, appointing Berwick to the lesser status of possessory conservator, meaning he would be entitled to child visitation and some participation in decision-making for the child.  However, Wagner, the non-biological father, emerges as the main custodian of the child with the greater share of decision-making authority.

Berwick appealed this decision, as well as the trial court’s rejection of Berwick’s request that C.B.W.’s name be changed to omit the W.

In affirming the ruling, the court of appeals gave great weight to the full faith and credit clause of the Constitution.  A California court with appropriate jurisdiction of the parties had issued a judgment naming both men as legal parents of the child.  After quoting the federal constitutional provision, Chief Justice Sherry Radack wrote for the court, “Texas courts have thus consistently recognized that the ‘full faith and credit clause requires that a valid judgment from one state be enforced in other states regardless of the laws or public policy of the other states.'”

“This full faith and credit has been repeatedly applied in Texas to other state’s adjudication of parentage,” Radack continued.  Referring to the California judgment that Wagner had registered with the Harris County court, Radack wrote, “This Court has already held that the judgment was properly registered in Texas, and that the California court had jurisdiction to enter the judgment.  The trial court correctly decided that this final, unappealed judgment adjudicating Wagner as C.B.W.’s parent — a judgment entered at the request of Berwick, Wagner, and C.B.W.’s surrogate mother and her husband — is entitled to full faith and credit.  And none of the arguments Berwick advances in support of his position that the trial court erred are supported under Texas law.”

Berwick was relying primarily on a public policy argument, grounded in the contention that a child in Texas can have only one legal father at a time and that surrogacy agreements under a Texas statute are unenforceable unless the intended parents are a married heterosexual couple.  However, wrote Radack, “Berwick cites no authority for deeming a foreign paternity judgment to be so repugnant to Texas policy to render it void and subject to collateral attack.  And Berwick’s arguments ignore the strong state public policies favoring stability and finality in matters of parentage evidenced by numerous statutes.”

The court also found that the question whether Berwick was the child’s biological father was essentially irrelevant to the outcome, rejecting his contention that as biological father he was solely entitled to custody of the child.  Since the Texas courts recognize Wagner as a parent of the child through operation of the California judgment, Berwick’s biological tie to the child is irrelevant to this lawsuit, because all legal parents are treated equally, whether they became parents through biology, adoption, or some other legal process.  In a custody dispute between legal parents, the court’s job is to decide what is in the best interest of the child, and Texas, unlike most other states, gives that task to a jury.  The court of appeals found that the trial record was full of evidence that would support the jury’s determination that Wagner would be the preferable managing conservator, since he was more likely to preserve the child’s relationship with his other father, while Berwick (and his wife) were hostile to Wagner playing any parental role in the child’s life.

“Specifically,” wrote Radack, “the jury had already heard about Berwick telling Wagner that he would never work with him to co-parent because Wagner needed to move on and ‘get his own family,’ ‘his own little boy.’  The jury had also heard recordings of Berwick on different occasions telling Wagner that C.B.W. is ‘not your child,’ ‘not your son,’ accusing Wagner of ‘destroying my child,’ and mocking Wagner for being ‘in denial,’ and pretending that C.B.W. is actually his son.”

Berwick also attacked the verdict by arguing that several potential jurors were excluded as victims of “religious discrimination.”  They were questioned about their views about the parties’ sexuality and marital status, and several potential jurors made statements suggesting that they could not, in the opinion of the trial court, give an unbiased consideration to the case.  “We conclude that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in finding these jurors to be disqualified,” wrote Radack.  “The trial court did not strike every panel member who indicated they might have religious objections to homosexuality; rather, the court struck only those jurors who unequivocally indicated that they held such strong convictions that they could not base their decisions on the law and evidence.”

The opinion included lengthy analysis of the trial record, from which the court concluded that “there is factually sufficient evidence to support the jury’s finding that appointing Wagner as sole managing conservator is in C.B.W.’s best interest,” and rejecting Berwick’s argument that the trial judge erred by denying Berwick’s request to change C.B.W.’s name to eliminate Wagner as his surname.  “Given that C.B.W.’s legal name was established by the California court at Berwick’s request and that Berwick does not argue here that a name change is in C.B.W.’s best interest,” wrote Radack, “we cannot conclude that the trial court erred.”

Wagner is represented by attorney Ellen A. Yarrell.  Berwick is represented by Austin R. Nimocks, a name that will be familiar to those who have been following the federal appellate arguments over marriage equality, since he is one of the attorneys who has been arguing against marriage equality in the courts, and is generally associated with religious opposition to same-sex marriage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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