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Arizona Appeals Court Adopts Gender-Neutral Construction of Paternity Statute in Same-Sex Couple Dispute

Posted on: October 14th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

The Court of Appeals of Arizona ruled on October 11 that as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015), holding that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry and that their marriages must receive equal treatment under the law to those of different-sex couples, the Arizona courts must construe the state’s paternity statute in a gender neutral way so that the same-sex spouse of a woman who gives birth enjoys the presumption of parental status. McLaughlin v. Jones, 2016 Ariz. App. LEXIS 256, 2016 WL 5929205 (Oct. 11, 2016).  Judge Philip Espinosa wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel.

Kimberly and Suzan were legally married in California in October 2008, shortly before voters approved Proposition 8, which enshrined a different-sex only marriage definition in the state constitution. Shortly thereafter, however, the California Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriages contracted before the passage of Prop 8 remained valid under California law.  “The couple agreed to have a child through artificial insemination,” wrote Judge Espinosa, “using an anonymous sperm donor selected from a sperm bank.”  Suzan’s efforts to conceive this way were unsuccessful, but Kimberly became pregnant in 2010. Before their child was born, the women moved to Arizona, a state that did not then recognize their marriage or allow second-parent adoptions.

The women made a joint parenting agreement and executed mirror-image wills, declaring “they were to be equal parents of the child Kimberly was carrying,” wrote the court. After their son was born in June 2011, Suzan was the stay-at-home mom while Kimberly resumed her work as a physician.  The women’s relationship deteriorated, however, and when their son was almost two years old, Kimberly moved out of their home, taking the child with her and cutting off his contact with Suzan.

In April 2013, Suzan filed a petition for dissolution of the marriage and a petition for a court order recognizing her parental status in various ways, most significantly decision-making and parenting time. The matter came before Superior Court Judge Lori Jones in Pima County, who decided to stay the proceedings while marriage equality litigation was pending.  In January 2016, six months after the Supreme Court decided Obergefell, Kimberly moved to set the case for trial and Judge Jones ordered briefing concerning “the issue whether the case was a dissolution proceeding with or without children in view of the presumption of paternity under an Arizona statute, Section 25-814(A).  In an April 7, 2016, ruling, Judge Jones found that it would violate Suzan’s 14th Amendment rights not to afford her the same presumption of parenthood that a husband would enjoy.  Thus, she ordered, the case should proceed as a “dissolution action with children.”

Kimberly then moved for a declaratory judgment about whether she would be permitted to introduce evidence to rebut the presumption. On May 2, Judge Jones ruled that Kimberly would not be permitted to attempt to rebut the presumption that Suzan was a parent of their son.  Jones found that there was nothing for Kimberly to rebut, adding that a “family presumption applies to same sex and opposite sex non-biological spouses married to a spouse who conceived a child during the marriage via artificial insemination.”  She relied on Section 25-501, a support statute which is applicable when a child is born as a result of donor insemination, finding that this “necessarily gives rise to parental rights in the non-biological spouse.”  Kimberly appealed this ruling.

On appeal, Kimberly argued that as the child’s biological mother, “she is, by definition, the only parent and therefore the only person who has parental rights, which are fundamental rights,” wrote Judge Espinosa, summarizing Kimberly’s argument. She contended that Judge Jones erroneously construed the paternity statute to encompass same-sex lesbian couples.  Suzan, in response, argued that because of Obergefell, parentage statutes “must be applied and interpreted in a gender-neutral manner so that same-sex couples’ fundamental marital rights are not restricted and they are afforded the same benefits of marriage as heterosexual couples and on the same terms,” wrote Espinosa.

The Arizona statute defining “legal parents” includes “biological” or “adoptive” parents, and “does not include a person whose paternity has not been established pursuant to Section 25-812 [acknowledgment of paternity] or Section 25-814 [presumptions of paternity].” The court found that Section 25-814(A)(1) applies to the McLaughlin case, assuming one applies a gender-neutral interpretation of the statutory language.  This provides that “a man is presumed to be the father of the child if 1. He and the mother of the child were married at any time in the ten months immediately preceding the birth.”

Judge Espinosa wrote, “Enacted well before the Supreme Court decided Obergefell, this statute was written with gender-specific language at a time when the marriage referred to in subsection (A)(1) could only be between a man and a woman.” While accepting Kimberly’s argument that Judge Jones should not have relied on the child support statute to determine Suzan’s status, the court rejected Kimberly’s argument that “it would be impossible and absurd to apply Section 25-841(A)(1) in a gender-neutral manner to give rise to presumption parenthood in Suzan.  Indeed, Obergefell mandates that we do so,” he continued, “and the plain language of the statute, as well as the purpose and policy behind it, are not in conflict with that application.”  Not to do that would deprive same-sex married couples of the same “terms and conditions of marriage” as are enjoyed by different-sex couples, which would be a clear violation of the Supreme Court’s mandate of equal treatment in Obergefell.

“The word ‘paternity’ therefore signifies more than biologically established paternity,” wrote Espinosa. “It encompasses the notion of parenthood, including parenthood voluntarily established without regard to biology.”  He pointed out that the long-established purpose of paternity statutes is “to provide financial support for the child of the natural parent.”  The marital presumption “is intended to assure that two parents will be required to provide support for a child born during the marriage” and serves the additional purpose “or preserving the family unit.”  For these propositions, the court relied on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling in Partanen v. Gallagher, decided just days earlier.  The court rejected Kimberly’s argument that there was any reason to treat men and women differently in this regard, after Obergefell.

As to Kimberly’s request to be able to rebut the presumption of parenthood, the court held that it “need not decide how the rebuttal provision in Section 25-814(C) applies in a same-sex marriage because we determine Kimberly is estopped from rebutting the presumption.  Equitable estoppel applies when a party engages in acts inconsistent with a position later adopted and the other party justifiably relies on those acts, resulting in an injury.”

In this case, it was uncontested that the women were lawfully married when Kimberly became pregnant as a result of a donor insemination process upon which both women agreed.  It is not disputed that their son was born during the marriage.  It is not disputed that Suzan was the stay-at-home mom and cared for their son until Kimberly “left the home with him.”  Furthermore, the women had made a written parenting agreement providing that they were to be equal parents of the child.  In that agreement, Kimberly agreed to “waive any constitutional, federal or state law that provide her with a greater right to custody and visitation than that enjoyed by Suzan.”  They even provided in the agreement that if their relationship broke down, Suzan would continue to enjoy parenting rights, and that if second-parent adoption became available in the jurisdiction where they lived, Suzan would adopt the child.  Since their partnership broke up before Obergefell was decided, however, Suzan never had an opportunity to adopt their son.

The court concluded that based on these uncontested facts, the doctrine of equitable estoppel applied, barring Kimberly from attempting to rebut the presumption that Suzan is a parent to their son.  “Suzan is the only parent other than Kimberly,” wrote Judge Espinosa, “and having two parents to love and support [their son] is in his best interest.  Under these circumstances, Kimberly is estopped from rebutting the presumption of parenthood pursuant to Section 25-814(C).”

Consequently, Kimberly’s appeal was denied, and the case will continue before Judge Jones as a dissolution with a child.  It will be up to Judge Jones in the first instance to determine whether it is in the best interest of the child to order Kimberly to allow Suzan to have a continuing relationship, including parenting time and decision-making authority.

Kimberly is represented by Keith Berkshire and Megan Lankford, Phoenix.  Suzan is represented by Campbell Law Group, Phoenix, and attorneys from the National Center for Lesbian Rights, San Francisco.  Appointed counsel for the child included law students and supervising faculty from various clinical programs, including the Family and Juvenile Law Certificate Program in Tucson, and Child and Family Law Clinic in Tucson, the Community Law Group, Tucson, and the Child and Family Law Clinic at the University of Arizona Rogers College of Law.