A five-judge panel of the New York State Appellate Division, First Department, based in Manhattan, has revived a lawsuit by Kelly Gunn, who is seeking joint custody of a child adopted by her former partner, Circe Hamilton. New York Supreme Court Justice Frank Nervo had dismissed the lawsuit on April 13, 2017, finding that despite her close relationship with the child, Gunn was not a “parent” under New York’s Domestic Relations Law, so lacked “standing” to sue for custody or visitation. But the appellate court unanimously ruled on June 26, 2018, in an opinion by Justice Judith J. Gische, that Gunn should have another chance to call upon the equitable powers of the court to recognize her relationship with the child. In re K.G. v. C.H., 2018 WL 3118937, 2018 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 4617, N.Y. Slip Op 04683.
This is just the latest of a series of opinions dating back more than a quarter century, grappling with the question of when the courts should recognize parental standing where an unmarried same-sex couple was raising a child together, broke up, and the birth or adoptive parent resisted their former partner’s attempt to continue in a parental role with the child.
In 1991, the highest New York court’s answer to the question was “never,” in the case of Alison D. v. Virginia M. The Court of Appeals said then that only a person related to the child by blood or adoption could have standing to seek custody or court-ordered visitation, giving a narrow interpretation to the word “parent” as used in the statute, which did not itself define the term. Then-Chief Judge Judith Kaye wrote a dissent that was widely quoted by courts in other states as they adopted legal theories to allow these “second parents” to sue for custody or visitation rights. Judge Kaye argued that the court’s decision failed to take account of the reality of non-traditional families, including those headed by LGBT couples, and would ultimately be harmful to the best interests the children, which courts would be precluded from considering if “second parents” did not have standing to bring the cases.
But the New York appellate courts stood firmly opposed to allowing such lawsuits until August 2016, when the Court of Appeals modified its position in the case of Brooke S.B. v. Elizabeth A. C. C. In that case, the court focused on a written agreement that two women made to jointly undertake the creation of a new child through donor insemination for them to raise together, and found that where the couple had gone through with their agreement, had the child, and raised it together for some time before splitting up, it was appropriate to allow the second parent to seek custody or visitation so that a court could determine whether it was in the child’s best interest to continue the second parent’s relationship with the child.
The court’s opinion in Brooke S.B., written by the late Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam, was narrow and cautious, announcing a ruling based on the facts of that case, and leaving to later development other possible theories for second parents to use. In one case decided shortly after, the court accepted a “judicial estoppel” theory, where the birth mother had sued her former partner for child support, alleging that she had a parental obligation. When the former partner than sued to assert parental rights, the Court of Appeals said that the birth mother could not deny her former partner’s parental status, which would be inconsistent with her position in the earlier case, even though the parties had not made a formal agreement like the one in Brooke S.B..
Kelly Gunn and Circe Hamilton, who had been together since 2004, agreed in 2007 that they would undertake an international adoption and raise a child together as a family. The plan was that Hamilton would adopt a child overseas, bring the child home to New York, and that Gunn would then complete a “second parent” adoption, a procedure which has been possible in New York for many years. However, these plans had not come to fruition when the women’s romantic relationship ended in December 2009.
In 2010, Gunn and Hamilton signed a separation agreement negotiated with the assistance of lawyers, formally ending their cohabitation and romantic relationship, and dividing up their assets (including real property). Despite this breakup, Hamilton continued to deal with adoption agencies and eventually did adopt a child overseas with Gunn’s encouragement in the summer of 2011. Gunn was in Europe on business at the time and met Hamilton and the child in London, from where they flew back to New York. Although the women’s romantic relationship had ended, they had remained friends, and there is an extensive record of communications between them, which the trial court considered in reaching a determination that the 2007 agreement had not survived the breakup of the relationship.
Despite the breakup, Gunn was eager to be involved in the child’s life, and Hamilton accommodated her by allowing frequent contact, resulting in Gunn forming an attachment to the child. In August 2016, around the time that the Court of Appeals had overruled the Alison D. decision in the Brooke S.B. case, Hamilton, a British native, announced that she was planning to move back to England with the child and Gunn quickly sprang into action, filing this lawsuit and seeking a temporary order requiring Hamilton to remain in New York with the child while the case was litigated. Gunn claimed that under the Brooke S.B. case, she had “standing” to seek joint custody and visitation rights because of the 2007 agreement the women had made.
Justice Nervo did not dismiss the case outright, and there was a temporary order, but after a lengthy trial he determined that the 2007 agreement had not survived the women’s breakup, and that by the time Hamilton adopted the child, she was acting on her own. The judge concluded that Gunn was a friend who had formed an attachment with the child, but not a “parent” within the meaning of the Domestic Relations Law, so she did not have standing to seek any parental rights.
The decision proved controversial from the moment it was announced. Despite the narrowness of the Court of Appeals ruling in Brooke S.B., that court had acknowledged the possibility that in a future case it might be appropriate to recognize parental standing in the absence of an express agreement, using a legal doctrine called “equitable estoppel,” which has been recognized by courts in several other states in lesbian parent custody disputes. Gunn argued that this was such an appropriate case. However, Justice Nervo, having concluded that Gunn did not have standing under his interpretation of the Brooke S.B. decision, had ended the trial without letting Gunn present additional evidence that could be relevant to an equitable estoppel claim.
Writing for the Appellate Division, Judge Gisch found that this may be the kind of case where equitable estoppel is appropriate. Certainly, the Court of Appeals’ Brooke S.B. decision did not foreclose the possibility. While agreeing with Justice Nervo that the facts supported a conclusion that the 2007 agreement had terminated together with the parties’ romantic relationship well over a year before Hamilton adopted the child, and thus the case did not come squarely within the holding of Brooke S.B., nonetheless the court held that both parties should have the opportunity to present evidence about whether this would be an appropriate case to apply equitable estoppel.
Equitable estoppel might be a basis for Gunn to have standing to sue, but an ultimate decision on the merits would require the court to determine what would be in the best interests of the child. As to that, the court said, the child’s voice was an indispensable component, and was so far conspicuous by its absence from this case. It is usual to appoint a person – frequently a lawyer – as “guardian ad litem” to represent the interest of the child in a custody and visitation dispute when the child is deemed too young and immature to speak for him or herself. In this case, the child was born in 2011, and so by the time a hearing will be held will be seven years old – perhaps old enough to speak for himself, but that is something for Justice Nervo to determine.
The trial court will have to decide whether this is a case where Gunn had assumed a sufficiently parental role toward the child, with the consent or at least the acquiescence of Hamilton, to give her “standing” to be considered a parent for purposes of a custody and visitation contest, and then whether, under all the circumstances, it would be in the best interest of the child for Gunn to continue playing a parental role in the child’s life with the court ordering Hamilton to allow this relationship to continue.
Gunn had asked to have the case assigned to a different judge, but the Appellate Division declined to do so, without explanation.
Gunn is represented by Robbie Kaplan and her law firm, Kaplan & Company, as well as lawyers from Morrison Cohen LLP and Chemtob Moss & Forman LLP. Hamilton is represented by lawyers from Cohen Rabin Stine Schumann LLP. The LGBT Law Association Foundation of Greater New York submitted an amicus brief to the court, with pro bono assistance from Latham & Watkins LLP, not taking sides between the parties but discussing the possible routes open to the court in applying the Brooke S.B. case to this new situation.