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Posts Tagged ‘Matter of Brooke S.B.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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