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Arizona Supreme Court Holds Parental Presumption Applies to Lesbian Married Couples

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supreme Court Rules that Same-Sex Spouses are Entitled to Be Listed on Birth Certificates

Posted on: June 26th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

When a child is born to a woman married to another woman, both women should be listed as parents on the child’s birth certificate. So ruled the Supreme Court, voting 6-3 and reversing a decision by the Arkansas Supreme Court on the last day of its October 2016 Term, which was coincidentally the second anniversary of the Court’s historic marriage equality ruling, Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015), which provides the basis for this new ruling in Pavan v. Smith, No. 16-992 (June 26, 2017), reversing 505 S.W.3d 169 (2016).

The petitioners in this case were two married same-sex couples, Leigh and Jana Jacobs and Terrah and Marisa Pavan. Both couples resided in Arkansas when their children were born in 2015, having previously married out of state.  Both couples filed paperwork with the state seeking birth certificates listing both mothers as parents.  The state turned them down, issuing birth certificates listing just the birth mothers and leaving the space for fathers blank.

The state’s Health Department argued that this was compelled by a state statute that provides that when a married woman gives birth, her husband will be listed on the birth certificate. (This is frequently referred to as the parental presumption.) This is so even if the woman conceives through donor insemination and her husband is not the biological father of the child, or even if some other man got the wife pregnant.  Incredibly, the Health Department sought to justify its refusal to name both parents on birth certificates by saying that the purpose of the birth certificate is to record biological lineage, which is pretty strange if husbands get listed regardless of their biological relation to the child.  Furthermore, Arkansas, like other states, issues amended birth certificates if children are adopted, listing their new legal parents, again regardless of the fact that one or both of the adoptive parents are not biologically related to the child.

The women sued the Commissioner of the health department and the trial court agreed with them that this result was unconstitutional under Obergefell, because the statute “categorically prohibits every same-sex married couple from enjoying the same spousal benefits which are available to every opposite-sex married couple.” In Obergefell, the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have the same right to marry as opposite-sex couples, which means they are entitled to be treated the same by the state for all reasons of law.

The Arkansas Supreme Court was divided in this case. A majority sided with the Health Department, buying the incredible argument that birth certificates are supposed to be a record of biological lineage.  Wrote the Arkansas court, “The statute centers on the relationship of the biological mother and the biological father to the child, not on the marital relationship of husband and wife,” and so it was consistent with Obergefell.  Not so, argued the dissenters, writing that under Obergefell “a same-sex married couple is entitled to a birth certificate on the same basis as an opposite-sex married couple.”

The majority U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the dissenters, finding this case so clear that it simultaneously granted the petition for review and issued a decision, without waiting for briefing on the merits or oral argument. The decision was issued “Per Curiam” (Latin for “by the Court”) without identifying an individual justice as its author.

The Court concluded that the Arkansas Supreme Court’s decision “denied married same-sex couples access to the ‘constellation of benefits that the State has linked to marriage,’” in violation of the Obergefell ruling. Under Arkansas’s statute, “same-sex parents in Arkansas lack the same right as opposite-sex parents to be listed on a child’s birth certificate, a document often used for important transactions like making medical decisions for a child or enrolling a child in school.  Obergefell proscribes such disparate treatment.”

The Court pointed out that in the Obergefell decision it had included “birth and death certificates” in its list of “rights, benefits, and responsibilities” of marriage to which same-sex couples are entitled on the same basis as different-sex couples.   “That was no accident,” said the Court, as “several of the plaintiffs in Obergefell challenged a State’s refusal to recognize their same-sex spouses on their children’s birth certificates.  In considering those challenges, we held the relevant state laws unconstitutional to the extent they treated same-sex couples differently from opposite-sex couples.”  The Court said this applied with “equal force” to the Arkansas statute.

Rejecting Arkansas’s argument that birth certificates were all about biological relationships, the Court insisted, to the contrary, that “Arkansas law makes birth certificates about more than just genetics,” citing as a prime example the provision involving donor insemination. “Arkansas has thus chosen to make its birth certificates more than a mere marker of biological relationships: The State uses those certificates to give married parents a form of legal recognition that is not available to unmarried parents.  Having made that choice,” the Court continued, “Arkansas may not, consistent with Obergefell, deny married same-sex couples that recognition.”  The case was sent back to the Arkansas courts for “further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.”

The Per Curiam Court included all of the justices who had voted in the majority in Obergefell plus Chief Justice John Roberts, who was the principal dissenter in the marriage case. Roberts’ vote in this case is notable, given the vehemence of his dissent in Obergefell, but apparently, accepting that Obergefell is now a precedent and that there are not five votes on the Court to overturn it, Roberts was willing to agree that the Arkansas Supreme Court’s ruling was inconsistent with it.

Not so the three dissenters, Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and the recently installed Neil Gorsuch, who wrote a dissent on their behalf. When Gorsuch was nominated, it was predicted that he would be as bad for LGBT rights as his predecessor, Justice Antonin Scalia, if not worse. His dissent here vindicated that view.

First, he scolded the Court for deciding the case summarily, arguing that the law in question is not “settled and stable.” He did not deem it clear that Obergefell would invalidate state laws restricting who could be listed on a birth certificate, when justified by a policy of recording biological ties.

He took a narrow view of Obergefell, as some lower courts have done in birth certificate litigation around the country, arguing that “nothing in Obergefell spoke (let alone clearly) to the question whether [the Arkansas statute], or a state supreme court decision upholding it, must go. The statute in question establishes a set of rules designed to ensure that the biological parents of a child are listed on the child’s birth certificate.”  This is, of course, incorrect, as the Per Curiam opinion demonstrated.  The state’s rules, requiring that the husband of a woman who conceives through donor insemination be listed as the child’s father, clearly do not “ensure” that the biological parents of a child are listed on the certificate.  Indeed, as the Court noted in passing in its Per Curiam opinion, the “rules” in Arkansas even provide that if the birth mother, her husband, and the actual biological father of the child all agree in sworn statements, the actual father can be listed instead of the husband, but otherwise the husband would be listed.  Clearly, listing people on birth certificates in Arkansas under current statutes is not all about biological relationships.

Gorsuch also noted that since this litigation has been under way Arkansas officials have come around to agree that the birth mother’s spouse should be listed on the birth certificate. Since the state has now agreed (without amending its statute) that it should list same-sex spouses on birth certificates, Gorsuch professes to see no reason for this ruling.  “Indeed,” he wrote, “it is not even clear what the Court expects to happen on remand that hasn’t happened already.  The Court does not offer any remedial suggestion, and none leaps to mind.  Perhaps the state supreme court could memorialize the state’s concession.”  Indeed, exactly so, the proper action on remand is a judicial declaration that same-sex spouses are entitled to be listed on birth certificates, and a permanent injunction requiring that result. This is not superfluous, since the state legislature has not amended the statute.

The Court’s decision will affect pending litigation elsewhere. In Arizona, the state’s intermediate court of appeals ruled on June 22 in Turner v. Steiner, 2017 WL 2687680, that a lesbian co-parent was not entitled to be listed on a birth certificate, conflicting with a ruling by another panel of the court of appeals, McLaughlin v. Jones, 382 P.3d 118 (2016), which was recently granted review by the Arizona Supreme Court.  The Turner decision cited the Arkansas Supreme Court’s ruling in this case, as well as a Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling from 2015, In re P.L.L.-R., 876 N.W.2d 147.   Plaintiffs in the Wisconsin case should be able to file a new suit based on Pavan, if necessary, but perhaps Pavan v. Smith will encourage state officials to drop their obstructions and accord equal treatment to same-sex married couples.

The plaintiffs in this case were represented by the National Center for Lesbian Rights, with local counsel Cheryl Maples of Heber Springs, Arkansas. Attorneys from the Washington and Boston offices of Ropes & Gray, LLP, worked on the case in collaboration with NCLR, and R&G’s Douglas Hallward-Driemeier, who shared the oral argument in the marriage equality cases two years ago, was Counsel of Record who might have argued the case had the Court scheduled a hearing.

NY Family Court Judge Takes Co-Parent Rights a Step Further in Filiation Case

Posted on: June 16th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

Rockland County Family Court Judge Rachel E. Tanguay, ruling on a question of first impression under New York Law, decided that when a lesbian couple had children together and raised them together as a family for several years before splitting up, the co-parent was entitled to an Order of Filiation recognizing her parental status for all purposes. Judge Tanguay’s ruling in A.F. v. K.H., 2017 N.Y. Slip Op. 27196, 2017 WL 2541877 (Fam. Ct., Rockland Co., May 25, 2017), takes New York law one step further than the Court of Appeals’ landmark 2016 decision in Brooke S.B. v. Elizabeth A.C.C., 28 N.Y.3d 1, which had overruled a 25-year-old precedent to hold that a co-parent can seek custody and visitation in such a situation.

A.F. and K.H. became registered domestic partners on August 25, 2005, according to the findings of a Family Court Attorney Referee at an earlier stage of this case, and they decided to have children, with K.H. becoming pregnant through donor insemination with sperm from an anonymous donor. The women had two children whom they raised together until separating in July 2011, ironically right around the time that the New York Marriage Equality Law went into effect.  There was no dispute that they considered each other to be “parents” of both children.  In fact, when the children were born they were given A.F.’s surname. But after the break-up, K.H. resisted A.F.’s assertion of parental rights and even took the step of getting the court to change the children’s surname to hers.  A.F. sued to preserve her contact with the children.

At that time, the binding precedent in New York courts was Alison D. v. Virginia M., 77 N.Y.2d 651, a Court of Appeals ruling from 1991, which had been recently reaffirmed by the court in 2010, under which a person in the position of A.F. was deemed to be a “legal stranger” to the children who did not have standing under the Domestic Relations Law to seek custody or visitation. As a result, A.F.’s lawsuit was unsuccessful, with the Appellate Division affirming the trial court’s dismissal of her case in 2014.  From that point forward, A.F. had no contact with the children until her new lawsuit got underway.

After the Court of Appeals decided Brooke S.B., overruling Alison D. and providing that under certain circumstances a lesbian co-parent would have standing to seek custody and/or visitation with children she had been raising with her former partner, A.F. decided to try again. In her new custody case, she also sought a formal Order of Filiation from the court that would confer on her full parental rights for all legal purposes, not just custody and visitation.  This ultimately was the sticking point in the case, because after it was clear that the Family Court was going to apply Brooke S.B. to allow A.F. to revive her custody and visitation claims, K.H. agreed to a negotiated settlement about custody and visitation.

That left the Order of Filiation as the only issue for Judge Tanguay to decide. K.H., and the attorney appointed by the court to represent the children’s interest, continued to strongly oppose such an order.  Under an Order of Filiation, A.F. would have equal rights to participate in all significant parenting decisions, extending to such matters as education, medical care, inheritance and other circumstances where parental status may be significant, and she could also object to any adoption of the children by a new partner or spouse of K.H.

In Brooke S.B., the court carefully acknowledged “limited circumstances in which such a person has standing as a ‘parent’ under Section 70” of the Domestic Relations Law. “Specifically,” wrote Tanguay, “the Court rejected ‘a test that will apply in determining standing as a parent for all non-biological, non-adoptive, non-marital ‘parents’ who are raising children.”  Instead, in a cautious way, the court narrowed its decision to the precise facts of the case before it, and wrote, “We stress that this decision addresses only the ability of a person to establish standing as a parent to petition for custody or visitation.”  Seizing upon this language, K.H. argued that the Court of Appeals had not ruled that a person in A.F.’s position was entitled to be recognized as a parent for all purposes.

“At first blush,” wrote Tanguay, “it would appear that the Court of Appeals in Brooke was attempting to limit its holding to conferring standing to a party only.” But, she pointed out, the court reached this point by “broadening the definition of ‘parent’ to include a non-biological, non-legal ‘parent’ under certain circumstances.”  And the court got there by tracing the evolution of case law and statutes, including, of course the 2011 Marriage Equality Act.  Indeed, the Brooke S.B. decision came more than a year after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry, in an opinion that stressed the importance to children being raised by same-sex couples of having two legally recognized parents.

In Brooke, itself, Judge Eugene Pigott, concurring with the court, wrote, “Today, a child born to a married person by means of artificial insemination with the consent of the other spouse is deemed to be the child of both spouses, regardless of the couple’s sexual orientation.” So the issue in this case was whether to bring that one step further to cover same-sex couples who had their children and split up before marriage equality was available in New York.  Although A.F. and K.H. were registered domestic partners, that status under local law did not import any legal parental rights, which are a matter of state law.  Ultimately, Judge Tanguay concluded, the lack of a modern statutory scheme that would explicitly handle this situation is “manifestly unfair not only to the non-biological parent, but to the children who deserve to have a two-parent family when same was intended at their conception.”  The best interests of the children should be the overriding factor.

“The majority in Brooke concluded its opinion by stating, ‘We will no longer engage in the deft legal maneuvering necessary to read fairness into an overly-restrictive definition of parent that sets too high a bar for reaching a child’s best interest and does not take into account equitable principles,’” wrote Tanguay, who continued: “This court will not allow legal maneuvering that permits A.F. to be a ‘parent’ for purposes of custody, visitation and child support, but without more.  It is simply inequitable, and not consistent with prevailing common law as set for herein.”

She granted A.F.’s petition and decreed that the court “issue an Order of Filiation for each child listing A.F. as their legal parent forthwith.”

A.F. is represented by Sherri Donovan of New York City. K.H. is represented by Adrienne J. Orbach of White Plains.  Shiza Khan of New City, N.Y., served as appointed Attorney for the Children.  K.H. was given 30 days to take an appeal from this decision, which was issued on May 25.  An appeal would not delay A.F.’s contact with the children, since the parties had stipulated an agreed-upon arrangement, so the only issue on appeal would be whether A.F. will be accorded all parental rights through the Orders of Filiation.

Nebraska Supreme Court Ends State’s Anti-LGBT Adoption/Foster Policies

Posted on: April 12th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

The seven-member Nebraska Supreme Court has unanimously affirmed a decision by Lancaster County District Judge John A. Colborn that a formal published policy adopted by the state in 1995 banning adoptions or foster placements into any household with a “homosexual” in residence was unconstitutional, as was an informal policy adopted more recently by chief executive officers of the state’s Department of Health and Human Services under which “exceptions” could be made in particular cases by personal order of the department’s director.

Ruling on a case brought by the ACLU on behalf of some same-sex couples who sought to foster or adopt children but were either discouraged by Department staff members or deterred by the formal policy posted on the Department’s website, Stewart v. Heineman, 296 Neb. 262, the Supreme Court focused mainly on technical issues, as the state apparently conceded that there was no good reason to single out gay and lesbian adults for discriminatory treatment and sought to persuade the court that the case was “moot” and should be dismissed, preferably without awarding costs and fees to the plaintiffs. The trial judge awarded costs and fees totaling more than $175,000, an amount that will increase if fees are later awarded to the plaintiffs for successfully defending their victory in the state supreme court.

The lengthy opinion by Justice John F. Wright is devoted almost entirely to refuting ridiculous arguments mounted by the state to try to convince the court that it lacked jurisdiction to decide the case, rather than to repeating in any detail the evidence presented to the district court about the parenting abilities of lesbians and gay men and the wholesome, well-adjusted children they have raised when given the opportunity to do so.

The complaint the ACLU filed centered on Memo 1-95, an administrative memorandum written by the director of the Department of Social Services (which later became the Department of Health and Human Services) in 1995. The memo stated: “It is my decision that effective immediately, it is the policy of the Department of Social Services that children will not be placed in the homes of persons who identify themselves as homosexuals.  This policy also applies to the area of foster home licensure in that, effective immediately, no foster home license shall be issued to persons who identify themselves as homosexuals.”  The memo adopted a similar policy regarding “unmarried heterosexual couples.”  The memo “directed staff not to specifically ask about an individual’s sexual orientation or marital status beyond those inquiries already included in the licensing application and home study,” wrote Justice Wright.  “The stated reason for the policy was this State’s intent to place children in the most ‘family-like setting’ when out-of-home care is necessary,” Wright continued.  The memo contemplated that a formal regulation incorporating its policy decisions would be adopted, but this did not happen.

In fact, there is no formal statutory or regulatory ban on gay people being foster or adoptive parents in Nebraska, as such. Thus, the entire focus of the lawsuit and the court opinions was on the “policy” expressed in Memo 1-95 and subsequent “practices” adopted by the director of the department.

The Memo was posted on the Department’s website as a formal policy statement, and was not removed from the website until after this lawsuit began and motions for summary judgment had been filed with Judge Colborn. The Memo was used in training new staff members, and was referred to specifically by staff members when they discouraged one of the couples from formally applying to get a foster child, which is a prerequisite in Nebraska to legal adoption.

Part of the state’s defense in this case was that although Memo 1-95 continued to appear on the website, it was no longer the actual policy of the Department, as recent chief executive officers had determined that lesbian and gay applicants otherwise qualified to serve as foster or adoptive parents should be allowed to do so. However, this informal policy was not well publicized throughout the department, formal instructions were not issued at the line staff level, and no mechanism for appealing denials based on an applicant’s sexual orientation was created.

Under this “practice,” which was referred to throughout the opinion as the Pristow Procedure, after Thomas Pristow, director of the Division beginning in March 2012, if gay applicants were approved at the line staff level, the approval had to go through four layers of sign-offs, including by Pristow himself. No other potentially controversial placements, such as those with unmarried heterosexual parents or with former prison inmates, had to go through so many layers of approval, and only placements with “homosexuals” had to be personally approved by the director.

An earlier form of this policy “exception” was first adopted by Todd Reckling when he was director in June 2010, expressed in a letter to two gay men, Todd Vesely and Joel Busch, who had begun the process of qualifying to be foster and adoptive parents in 2008, completing the training program. Reckling wrote them that the division’s policy was to bar licensing unrelated adults living together, referring to Memo 1-95, but that the division’s policy “allows for an exception” under which one member of an unmarried couple might be licensed, but Reckling’s letter “gave no indication that such an exception would be made in their case” because, as Reckling explained, “second parent adoptions” were not permitted in Nebraska involving unmarried couples, and Todd and Joel could not marry because of Nebraska’s anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment.   Neither would their marriage be recognized if contracted out of state.

One of the state’s incredible arguments was that the plaintiffs did not have standing to bring the lawsuit because none of the couples had formally applied and been turned down. This was a nonsensical argument, since it was clear that any gay couple applying had to be rejected under the formal policy posted on the website and taught to staff members.  In reviewing the deposition testimony of the various directors of the division and other staff members, as well as their internal written communications, the court uncovered the entire history of developments within the department as this issue unfolded.  When pressed about why Memo 1-95 remained for so long on the website despite insistence by some of the witnesses that it was no longer the “practice” of the division, witnesses intimated that they wanted to prevent the possibility that a formal withdrawal of the memo would provoke the state legislature to pass an explicit ban on “homosexuals” serving as foster or adoptive parents, as had happened in some other states when the issue aroused public attention.

The defense witnesses struggled to define the difference between a “policy” and a “practice,” and to argue that because the complaint filed in this case only explicitly attacked 1-95 as a “policy,” the court should not consider whether the “practice” actually followed was constitutional. Of course, since the “practice” was never formally published, it turns out that the plaintiffs did not learn of it until after filing their complaint and conducting discovery.  The court turned aside formalistic objections to extending the lawsuit to consider the “practice,” and agreed with Judge Colborn that the “practice” as variously described in depositions and internal division communications was itself discriminatory.

The defense witnesses could advance no good reason why approval of gay people to be foster or adoptive parents should require five layers of approval culminating in personal approval by the CEO, a degree of internal scrutiny that was not demanded of any other class of applicants.

The court also rejected the defendants’ argument that the case was not “ripe” for decision because nobody had been turned down under the “practice”, now that the Memo has been removed from the website. Interestingly, however, the opinion does not mention any evidence that any gay foster or adoptive parents have actually been approved.  The defendants argued that none of the plaintiffs have yet incurred the injury of formally being denied, so it was premature for the court to rule on the merits.  But the court noted plentiful U.S. Supreme Court precedents adopting the view that a denial of equal treatment was itself an injury, even if it was in the form of an official policy that had deterred individuals from applying and thus had not resulted in any formal denials.

Approving the district court’s decision to issue an injunction against the “policy” and the “practice,” Justice Wright quoted from U.S. Supreme Court opinions, that the Court had “repeatedly emphasized” that “discrimination itself, by perpetuating ‘archaic and stereotypic notions’ or by stigmatizing members of the disfavored group as ‘innately inferior’ and therefore as less worthy participants in the political community, can cause serious noneconomic injuries to those persons who are personally denied equal treatment solely because of their membership in a disfavored group.”

As to the “ripeness” issue in the context of a “reverse-discrimination” attack on a governmental affirmative action contracting policy, the Supreme Court has said “that the plaintiffs seeking to prevent future deprivation of the equal opportunity to compete need only demonstrate they will ‘sometime in the relatively near future’ bid on a contracted governed by such race-based financial incentives.”

The court also rejected the state’s contention that the case was “moot” because Memo 1-95 had been removed from the website. The court noted that the Memo had not been formally withdrawn, since it was not included on a website list of withdrawn memoranda, presumably so as not to call the legislature’s attention to its withdrawal.

“If a discriminatory policy is openly declared,” wrote Wright, “then it is unnecessary for a plaintiff to demonstrate it is followed in order to obtain injunctive or declaratory relief. We thus find immaterial any dispute in the record as to whether the Pristow Procedure was a policy versus a practice, whether it ‘replaced’ Memo 1-95, or the level of confusion within DHHS and its contractors concerning DHHS’ policy and practice when this action was filed.  A secret change in policy or procedure cannot moot an action based on a published policy statement that has been cited by the agency as excluding the plaintiffs from eligibility.”

Furthermore, the court said that a party cannot “moot” a case “simply by ending its unlawful conduct once sued,” because if such “voluntary cessation” rendered the case “moot”, causing its dismissal, “a defendant could engage in unlawful conduct, stop when sued to have the case declared moot, then pick up where he left off, repeating this cycle until he achieves all his unlawful ends.”

In the final section of his opinion, Justice Wright’s discussion intimated what this appeal is really all about. The state is not actually contesting Judge Colborn’s conclusion that the policy or practice is unconstitutional.  Rather, hoping to get the case dismissed as moot, the state wants to be in a position to argue that it should not have to pay court costs and attorney’s fees to the plaintiffs!  They argued that the trial court abused its discretion in awarding costs and fees, and should have declared the case moot and dismissed it when the state removed 1-95 from its website.  The court wasn’t falling for this sophistry, however.

The April 7 opinion is a total rejection of all the arguments the state raised on appeal, and a total endorsement of Judge Colborn’s summary judgment order of August 5, 2015, which ordered the defendants to “refrain from adopting or applying policies, procedures, or review processes that treat gay and lesbian individuals and couples differently from similarly situated heterosexual individuals and couples when evaluating foster care or adoption applications under the ‘best interests of the child’ standard set forth in DHHS’ regulations.” The district court issued an order on December 15, 2015, awarding $28,849.25 in costs and $145,111.30 in attorney fees.

Lead attorneys for the plaintiffs are Amy Miller of the ACLU of Nebraska, Leslie Cooper of the national ACLU’s LGBT Rights Project, and cooperating attorneys Garrard R. Beeney and W. Rudolph Kleysteuber of Sullivan & Cromwell LLP. Amicus briefs in support of plaintiffs were filed by Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest and the Child Welfare League of America.

NY Family Court Uses Judicial Estoppel In Lesbian Co-Parent Custody Case

Posted on: May 15th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

Suffolk County, N.Y., Family Court Judge Theresa Whelan used the doctrine of judicial estoppel to find that a lesbian mother who had previously acknowledged her former partner’s parental status when seeking a support order from the court, was precluded from denying the partner’s parental status in opposition to a custody/visitation petition.  Judge Whelan’s April 2, 2013, ruling was published in the New York Law Journal on May 10.

The parties, identified as Estrellita A. and Jennifer D., registered as domestic partners in 2007.  They decided to have a child and chose a sperm donor through North Shore University Hospital.  Jennifer became pregnant through donor insemination and their child was born on November 23, 2008.  Because of the donor conception, no father was identified on the birth certificate, and Jennifer was identified as the sole parent. Although the women had discussed having Estrellita adopt their daughter, no adoption petition was filed.  In September 2012, the women stopped living toether, and on October 24, 2012, Jennifer filed a petition with the Family Court seeking child support payments from Estrellita. 

Jennifer’s petition stated that she and Estrellita had a child in common, and asked the court to rule upon whether Estrellita should be delcared a parent for purposes of establishing a child support order.  After a hearing, the court found that Estrellita was a parent to the child and charged her with a duty to pay child support.  Judge Whelan issued that order on January 16, 2013.  Meanwhile, Estrellita filed her own petition on January 10, seeking custody of the child.  In her petition, Estrellita contended that it would be in the child’s best interest that she have custody as “she is better suited to foster a relationship between the child and her biological mother,” according to Judge Whelan’s summary of the petition.  After  Judge Whelan’s support order was issued, Estrellita amended her petition to refer to the finding that she is a parent of the child.  On January 30, Jennifer filed a motion to dismiss the Custod/Visitation Petition, arguing that as a matter of New York child custody law, Estrellita is a “legal stranger” under Alison D. v. Virginia M., 77 N.Y.2d 651 (1991), and thus lacks standing to seek custody.

In the Alison D. case, the New York Court of Appeals construed the domestic relations law to limit the right to seek custody or visitation to a person who is either a biological or adoptive parent of a child.  This, the court asserted, would meet the intent of the legislature that adopted the statute.  Reflecting this case law, Judge Whelan wrote, “In the realm of same-sex parents, the Court of Appeals has consistently ruled that absent an adoption, the non-biological partner is not a parent under Domestic Relations Law Sec. 70,” the provision authoring custody/visitation petitions. 

Jennifer argued that under this case law, Estrellita as precluded from seeking custody or visitation.  “If the facts present here were the same as in the cases cited by respondent,” wrote the judge, “the Court would agree.  Of course, the Family Court is mandated to apply the rulings of the Court of Appeals.  However, respondent omits critical facts from her argument and it is these facts that defeat her argument.  Respondent, in her own child support petition alleges that she and the petitioner herein have ‘a child in common’.  Further she requested and received an estoppel hearing.  At that hearing respondent testified, among other things, that petitioner not only performed as a parernt, she was in fact a parent.  The court relying on this testimony issued an order adjudicating petititoner to be a parent and referred the matter to the support magistrate for the entry of an appropriate child support order.  Now, in a complete reversal, and in an effort to preclude petitioner from having her day in court, respondent now claims that petitioner has no standing to bring a custody/visitation proceeding because petitioner is not a parent.  Colloquially, this is known as ‘having your cake and easting it too.’  Judicially, it is referred to as ‘inconsistent positions’ which this court will not countenance.”

Judge Whelan pointed out that a court can resort to the doctrine of judicial estoppel to prevent a party from taking such an inconsistent position.  “Having petitioned this court to recognize the petitioner herein as a parent, having testified that petitioner is in fact a parent and having prevailed in that matter, the respondent is judicially estopped in this custody/visitation proceeding from asserting that petitioner is not a parent.”  Judge Whelan observed that this basis of decision was distinct from “equitable estoppel,” which the Court of Appeals had ruled out in the Alison D. case as a basis for finding custody standing, since the ruling was based on Jennifer’s own prior conduct in court proceedings basically asserting the fact of Estrellita’s parenthood, under oath, in order to get the support order.

Taking note of case law supporting the “important liberty interest of the biological parent to exercise control over who associates with their child,” Judge Whelan concluded: “This biological parent deliberately sought to involve her former partner in her child’s life at least until her financial majority.”

Interestingly, Judge Whelan did not mention the parties’ domestic partnership in support of her decision.  Perhaps this is because domestic partnership in New York is a creature of local law (county or municipal) and so cannot create rights under state law.  Had Estrellita and Jennifer been legally married when their child was born, the result would be different.   Indeed, the Court of Appeals has even recognized an out-of-state civil union as being relevant to an individual’s standing to petition for custody of a child born after the civil union was contracted.  And, under the New York Marriage Equality Law enacted in 2011, of course, a child born to a married woman will be presumptively the legal child of her same-sex spouse.

This, of course, is not a ruling on the merits of the Custody/Visitation petition, but merely a ruling that Estrellita may proceed to a hearing on the merits in her attempt to prove that it would serve the best interest of the child to award custody to her.  Estrellita is represented by the firm of Gervase & Mintz, Garden City.  Jennifer is represented by Margaret Schaefler, Central Islip.  Attorney appointed to represent the interest of the child is Jennifer Marin, Legal Aid Society of Suffolk, Central Islip.    Ms. Marin had argued to the court an alternative theory for allowing Estrellita to petition: the “extraordinary circumstances” doctrine under which a court will a “legal stranger” to seek custody.  However, this constellation of facts has become too common — and is too much like the facts in Alison D. — to be a convincing instance of “extraordinary circumstances,” at least in the view of Judge Whelan.