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Manhattan Appeals Court Revives Kelly Gunn’s Custody Lawsuit Against Circe Hamilton

Posted on: July 2nd, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

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.

 

Another LGBT Case SCOTUS-Bound? Lambda Will Petition for Judicial Review of Ruling on Standing to Challenge Mississippi Statute

Posted on: October 4th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

 

Mississippi enacted H.B. 1523 in 2016. The measure enshrines in state statutes a special privilege to discriminate for people whose religious or moral convictions oppose same-sex marriage and sexual relations outside of opposite-sex marriages, and who reject the idea that a person could have a gender identity different from their “biological sex” as identified through external observation of genitals at birth. As part of that special privilege, such individuals are immunized from any “discriminatory” action by the state government, government employees charged with issuing marriage licenses can decline to issue them to same-sex couples (provided that there is somebody in the pertinent clerk’s office who is willing to process the license application), religious organizations enjoy broad exemptions from complying with anti-discrimination laws, health care providers may withhold services, and businesses that provide wedding-related goods and services can refuse to deal with same-sex couples.  The measure also includes a “bathroom bill” provision that protects entities that require transgender people to use bathrooms consistent with their birth certificate gender designation, and prohibits the state from taking adverse action against a state employee for expressing views consistent with those specially protected by the statute.  Although the state’s anti-discrimination laws do not prohibit sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination, at least two municipal ordinances containing such prohibitions would be preempted by the state law.  It is arguable, in light of pending litigation in other parts of the country, that some federal anti-discrimination laws (in particular, Title IX and Title VII) may be available in some of the situations covered by H.B. 1523.

Several lawsuits were quickly filed to challenge the constitutionality of this measure and keep it from going into effect on July 1, 2016. In one of the lawsuit, Barber v. Bryant, brought by Lambda Legal on behalf of a group of affected Mississippi residents with assistance of local counsel, U.S. District Judge Carlton W. Reeves granted a motion for a preliminary injunction to keep the measure from going into effect, finding that it was likely that the plaintiffs would prevail on their argument that the measure violates the 1st and 14th Amendments, specifically the Establishment and Equal Protection Clauses, and that allowing the measure to go into effect would inflict irreparable injury on the plaintiffs and those similarly situated.  See 193 F. Supp.3d 677 (S.D. Miss. 2016).  But upon the state’s appeal, a unanimous 5th Circuit panel ruled in June that plaintiffs lacked standing to bring suit before the measure actually went into effect.  The panel opined that the mere enactment of a measure alleged to violate the Establishment Clause did not tangibly harm any individual sufficiently to give them standing to challenge the enactment in federal court.  See 860 F.3d 345 (June 22, 2017).

Lambda Legal then filed a motion for rehearing en banc, which was denied by the court on September 29, with two judges dissenting in an opinion by Circuit Judge James L. Dennis.   See 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 19008.  Dennis explained at length why the panel decision was inconsistent with prior 5th Circuit standing decisions, as well as rulings from other circuits and the Supreme Court.  Numerous decisions by federal courts have rejected objections to standing when the lawsuit was challenging a statute alleged to violate the Establishment Clause through the enactment of a state policy improperly advancing or privileging particular religious beliefs at the expense of those who do not share those beliefs.  Indeed, Judge Dennis anticipated that the plaintiffs would seek Supreme Court review, specifically stating in his opinion that the panel’s ruling created a circuit split on the issue of standing to bring an Establishment Clause challenge against a state statute.  Showing a circuit split of authority on an important question of federal law is a key factor in obtaining Supreme Court review.

Lambda Legal promptly announced that it would petition the Supreme Court to review the 5th Circuit’s ruling. Since this was an appeal by the state from the district court’s grant of a preliminary injunction, the Supreme Court would presumably not be asked to address the underlying merits of the case, but to focus solely on whether the 5th Circuit erred in dismissing the case on grounds of standing.  Perhaps, if the Court found standing, it would also address the appropriateness of the district court’s issuance of the preliminary injunction, but more likely it would remand the case to the 5th Circuit for consideration of that issue.  Meanwhile, Lambda’s request that the 5th Circuit delay filing its mandate and not order the lifting of the preliminary injunction while Lambda seeks Supreme Court review was denied unceremoniously in a non-explanatory one-sentence order signed by Circuit Judge Jerry E. Smith on October 3, which meant that H.B. 1523 would finally go into effect on October 10 unless Lambda could get an emergency stay from the Supreme Court.

Counsel for plaintiffs listed in the June 22 Court of Appeals opinion include Robert Bruce McDuff, Sibyl C. Byrd, and Jacob Wayne Howard of McDuff & Byrd (Jackson, MS), Elizabeth Littrell of Lambda Legal’s Southern Regional Office in Atlanta, Beth Levine Orlansky of the Mississippi Center for Justice (Jackson, MS), and Susan Sommer from Lambda Legal’s headquarters office in New York. Amici in support of plaintiffs include the Southern Poverty Law Center, a variety of AIDS service organizations, a large group of liberal religious organizations, GLAD, NCLR, ACLU, a coalition of pro-LGBT business groups, among others.  In addition to Mississippi government attorneys providing primary defense for the statute, there were amicus briefs from conservative religious and “pro-family” (i.e., anti-LGBT family) groups and from outspokenly anti-LGBT officials from Texas, Louisiana, Nebraska, Arkansas, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah and Maine.  From the range and quantity of amicus parties listed, it should be clear to the Supreme Court that this litigation is of intense national interest.

Meanwhile, Judge Reeves, who had issued the preliminary injunction in Barber, quickly moved on a motion by Roberta Kaplan, counsel for plaintiffs in Campaign for Southern Equality v. Bryant, the original Mississippi marriage equality case, to take up the question whether HB 1523 violates the court’s ruling striking down the state’s constitutional and statutory bans on same-sex marriage by privileging state officials to refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples based on their religious of moral convictions. The Jackson Free Press reported on October 3 that Reeves scheduled a telephone conference with attorneys in the case for later in October. In agreeing to reopen the marriage case, Reeves had written that in HB 1523 “the State is permitting the differential treatment to be carried out by individual clerks.  A statewide policy has been ‘pushed down’ to an individual-level policy.  But the alleged constitutional infirmity is the same.  The question remains whether the Fourteenth Amendment requires marriage licenses to be granted (and out of-state marriage licenses to be recognized) to same-sex couples on identical terms as they are to opposite-sex couples.” The question now will be whether Reeves will grant a motion to amend the permanent injunction he issued in that case, which had been upheld by the 5th Circuit pursuant to Obergefell v. Hodges, to bar the state from failing to provide services to same-sex couples equal to those afforded different-sex couples by letting individual clerks refuse to provide the services.   At least one other U.S. District Judge is on record as to this: U.S. District Judge David Bunning, who threw Kim Davis, a county clerk who was refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in Rowan County, Kentucky, into prison for contempt of the federal court.  As the Supreme Court most recently made clear on June 26 in Pavan v. Smith, the Obergefell ruling requires states to afford same-sex couples equal treatment with regard to all aspects of marriage.