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Posts Tagged ‘same-sex co-parent standing’

Disappointed Gay Dad Asks Supreme Court to Overturn Key New York Precedent

Posted on: June 19th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

In Brooke S.B. v. Elizabeth A.C.C., 61 N.E.3d 488 (2016), the New York Court of Appeals overruled a 25-year-old precedent and held that when there is clear and convincing evidence that a same-sex couple agreed to have a child and raise the child together, where only one of them will be the child’s biological parent, and both of the parties performed parental duties and bonded with the children, the other parent would have the same rights as the biological parent in a later custody dispute. Now a gay biological dad who lost custody of twins to his former same-sex partner by application of the Brooke S.B. precedent asked the U.S. Supreme Court on May 10 to rule that his 14th Amendment Due Process rights have been violated.  Frank G. v. Joseph P. & Renee P.F., No. 18-1431 (Filed May 10, 2019); Renee P.F. v. Frank G., 79 N.Y.S.3d 45 (App. Div., 2nd Dep’t, May 30, 2018), leave to appeal denied, 32 N.Y.3d 910 (N.Y.C.A., Dec. 11, 2018).

Frank G. and Joseph P. lived together in a same-sex relationship in New York and made a joint decision to have a child.  Joseph P.’s sister, Renee, had previously volunteered to be a surrogate for her gay brother, both donating her eggs and bearing the resulting child or children.  Renee became pregnant through assisted reproductive technology using Frank’s sperm.  The three entered into a written agreement under which Renee would surrender parental rights but would be involved with the resulting child or children as their aunt.

After the twins were born, both men participated in parenting duties.  Joseph sought to adopt the twins under New York’s second-parent adoption rules, and he remembered completing paperwork that Frank was supposed to complete and submit, but that never happened.  The men were not sexually exclusive and eventually arguments about Frank’s sexual activities led to Joseph moving out.  He continued to have regular contact with the children until Frank suddenly cut off contact after another argument.  Frank subsequently moved with the children to Florida in December 2014.  Frank did not notify Joseph or Renee of that move. When they found out, Joseph filed a guardianship petition.  (Under New York precedents at the time, he did not have standing to file a custody petition.)

As lower court rulings were questioning the old New York precedent, Joseph withdrew his guardianship petition and both he and Renee filed custody petitions.  Renee had standing to seek custody as the biological mother who had remained in contact with the children.

Frank moved to dismiss the custody lawsuit, but the trial judge, Orange County Family Court Judge Lori Currier Woods, rejected the motion, holding that both Joseph and Renee had standing to seek custody and ordering temporary visitation rights for Joseph and Renee while the case was proceeding.  Frank appealed to the Appellate Division, 2nd Department.  While his appeal was pending, the Court of Appeals decided Brooke S.B..  Applying that case, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s standing decision and returned the case Judge Woods.

After a lengthy trial, which is summarized in detail in the trial court’s opinion, the trial court awarded custody to Joseph, with visitation rights for Frank.  Frank appealed again.  The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s order.  Frank unsuccessfully sought review by the New York Court of Appeals.

Frank is represented on the Supreme Court petition by Gene C. Schaerr of the Washington, D.C. firm of Schaerr/Jaffe LLP.  Schaerr, a Federalist Society stalwart and a Mormon from Utah, where he graduated from Brigham Young University’s Law School, was prominently involved in the marriage equality battle, representing the state of Utah in defending its ban on same-sex in federal court, and he submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges on behalf of conservative legal scholars who argued that allowing same-sex marriage would be harmful to the institution of marriage, presenting social statistics from Europe purporting to show that the adoption of same-sex marriage in some countries caused rates of heterosexual marriage to fall.  Social scientists have contended that the downward trend in marriage rates in Europe was well under way long before the countries in question extended legal recognition to same-sex relationships, and causation was not shown.   In other words, Schaerr is an anti-LGBT cause lawyer, and the slanting of facts recited in the Petition for Frank as compared to the detailed fact findings summarized in the trial court’s unpublished opinion, which is appended to the cert Petition, is striking.

Family law is primarily a matter of state law, but the U.S. Supreme Court occasionally gets involved in family law disputes that raise constitutional issues.  Since early in the 20th century, the Supreme Court has ruled that a legal parent of a child has constitutional rights, derived from the Due Process Clause, relating to custody and childrearing.  The Petition argues that the rule adopted by the New York Court of Appeals and the appellate courts of some other states, recognizing parental status for purposes of custody disputes between unmarried same-sex partners, improperly abridges the Due Process rights of the biological parents.

Some state courts have issued decisions similar to Brooke S.B., while others have refused to recognize standing for unmarried same-sex partners to seek custody.  There is definitely a split of authority on the issue, but it is not necessarily the kind of split that would induce the Supreme Court to take a case.  The Supreme Court is most concerned with variant interpretations of federal statutes or of the U.S. Constitution, but the state court cases addressing the issue of same-sex partner standing have generally not discussed constitutional issues and have reached their conclusions as an interpretation of their state custody statutes.  Although it is true that same-sex partner parental rights vary as between different states, this does not necessary create the kind of patchwork as to federal rights upon which the Court would focus.

Furthermore, the Court has not invariably ruled in favor of biological parents on the rare occasion when it has agreed to consider legal issues arising from custody disputes.  For example, in one notable case, it upheld a California law creating an irrebuttable presumption that a man who was married to a birth mother is the father of the resulting child, even when it was obvious, and nobody disputed, that another man was responsible for impregnating the woman.  In that case, even though the woman and her husband were living on opposite coasts when she became pregnant in a relationship with the plaintiff, the court upheld denying that man standing to seek custody of the child.

Most of the Supreme Court rulings on disputed custody issues have placed substantial weight on the rights of the biological parent, including a presumption that the biological parent will make decisions in the best interest of the child. In this Petition, Frank claims that the New York courts violate the 14th Amendment by not applying such a presumption for the biological father in the context of a same-sex couple custody dispute.

The Supreme Court’s deadline for filing a brief in response to a petition for certiorari in this case was June 14, but the Court’s docket does not show the filing of a brief or appearance of counsel on behalf of Joseph or Renee as of June 19.  However, four conservative organizations have filed motions with the Court to accept amicus briefs in support of Frank’s petition.  Frank’s attorneys have consented to the filing of these briefs, of course, but Joseph has not consented, so it is up to the Court whether they can be filed.

If the Supreme Court decides to take this case, the Brooke S.B. precedent, which LGBT rights litigators struggled for many years to obtain, may fall.

Oklahoma Supreme Court Uses “In Loco Parentis” Doctrine to Find Co-Parent Standing for Lesbian Mom

Posted on: November 18th, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

The Oklahoma Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that a woman who spent ten years raising a child with her former same-sex partner can use the equitable doctrine of “in loco parentis” to achieve standing to sue for custody or visitation of the child.  Ramey v. Sutton, 2015 OK 79. The November 17 opinion, written by Justice Joseph M. Watt, drew on the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 26, 2015, marriage equality decision, Obergefell v. Hodges, and its 10th Circuit analogue, Bishop v. Smith, which was denied review by the Supreme Court in October 2014.

Kimberly Sutton proposed marriage to Charlene Ramey in 2004, according to Justice Watt’s opinion.  The women exchanged rings and considered themselves to be life partners, even though at that time same-sex couples could marry nowhere in the United States except Massachusetts and Oklahoma did not recognize such marriages.  They decided to have a child together and to raise the child jointly, with Sutton conceiving the child through donor insemination.  A male friend of the couple agreed to donate sperm, with the understanding that he would have no parental responsibilities or rights.  The baby boy was born on March 22, 2005.

“Ramey attended all ultrasound appointments, shared in related pregnancy costs, and was present and participated in the delivery of their newborn,” wrote Justice Watt.  “Sutton prepared a baby book for their child identifying both Sutton and Ramey as parents.  Sutton gave a card to Ramey congratulating her on becoming a ‘mother’ to their son and that she would be a wonderful mom.”  Ramey supported the family during Sutton’s pregnancy and the child’s early months. Sutton returned to work in the winter of 2005.  Due to Sutton’s work and sleep schedule, Ramey ended up being the primary caregiver to their son, who always referred to Ramey as “mom” but, according to the opinion, “did not being to refer to Sutton as ‘mom’ until the age of five or six.  Even today,” continued Watt, “their child will sometimes refer to Sutton, the biological mom, as Kimberly and not as ‘mom.'”  Ramey was an active parent, serving as a home room mother at their son’s school, volunteering for school activities, and “built family traditions incorporating their child’s love of the outdoors.”  The women held themselves out as a family to friends and relatives, took vacations as a family, and Ramey claimed their son as a “dependent” on her tax return.  Even after the women ended their relationship, they continued living together as roommates for many months while continuing to raise the child together.

However, after Ramey moved out, Sutton opposed her attempt to maintain parental ties through a legal proceeding seeking custody and visitation rights.  Sutton argued that since they had no written parenting agreement and Ramey had no legal relationship to the child, she lacked standing to seek a court order.  The district court agreed with Sutton, dismissing the case for lack of a written parenting agreement, and Ramey appealed.

The court framed the questions presented on the appeal as follows: “(1) Whether the district court erred finding that a non-biological parent lacked standing because the same sex couple had not married and had no written parenting agreement; (2) Whether a biological mother has the right as a parent to legally erase an almost ten year parental relationship that she voluntarily created and fostered with her same sex partner.”  The court answered the first question “yes” and the second question “no.”  The court characterized this case as “a matter of first impression before this court,” noting that in 2014, in the case of Eldredge v. Taylor, 339 P.3d 888, it had upheld the right of a non-biological mother to enforce the terms of a written co-parenting agreement with her former same-sex partner.  The district court’s dismissal of Ramey’s case was thus based on a narrow reading of the Eldredge case to require such a written agreement in order to confer standing on a same-sex co-parent.

Justifying a broader reading of Eldredge, the court relied on the Obergefell and Bishop cases.  “Today we broaden Eldredge, acknowledging the rights of a non-biological parent in a same sex relationship who has acted in loco parentis where the couple, prior to Bishop or Obergefell, (1) were unable to marry legally; (2) engaged in intentional family planning to have a child and to co-parent; and (3) the biological parent acquiesced and encouraged the same sex partner’s parental role following the birth of the child.”

Thus, the ruling is really a transitional one, effectively applying the constitutional rulings of Bishop and Obergefell retroactively to benefit couples who had children at a time when they were being denied the constitutional right to marry or to have out-of-state same-sex marriages recognized in Oklahoma.  The ruling presumably would not apply to same-sex couples who do not take advantage of the right to marry and have their marriage recognized in Oklahoma, which became effective shortly after the Supreme Court denied review in Bishop on October 6, 2014, before having children together.  Presumably, same-sex couples who do not marry before having a child may still benefit from the Eldredge decision by executing a written co-parenting agreement.  For those who had children prior to October 6, 2014, or perhaps prior to the Obergefell ruling on June 26, 2015 (the court is not explicit about this), Oklahoma courts will be required to set aside the lack of marital status or of a written parenting agreement, and will instead apply the 3-part test set out in this new ruling.

A finding of co-parent standing will not be automatic, of course, as the application of “in loco parentis” requires the court to find that the parties had planned to have a child together and then held themselves out as a family while raising the child together for some period of time before ending their relationship.  The doctrine rests on a finding that the biological parent had intended her partner to be a co-parent to the child and voluntarily nurtured that parent-child relationship.

The court pointed out that this new case only applies to the issue of standing.  Once a trial court determines that a same-sex co-parent has standing to seek custody or visitation, it will then turn to the issue of what is in the best interest of the child, just as it would in a custody and visitation dispute involving divorcing  different-sex couples.  To drive home this point, three judges joined a separate opinion, concurring in the result, stating: “In child custody cases the Court must determine standing first based on an agreement of the parties. Then and only then is best interest considered to determine custody and visitation.”  This refers to the second part of Justice Watt’s 3-part test: intentional family planning to have a child and to co-parent.

The court’s decision is not without precedent in other jurisdictions, where courts have used various equitable doctrines including in “loco parentis” and “equitable estoppel” to establish standing for a same-sex co-parent to seek continued contact with the child he or she was helping to raise.  But some states, including New York, have refused to embrace this equitable route.  The New York courts still adhere to the now-anachronistic 1991 New York Court of Appeals ruling, Alison D. v. Virginia M., which treated co-parents as “legal strangers” to the child who have no right to seek custody or visitation, although a few lower courts confronted with the realities of family diversity have sought ways to get around that precedent.  Thus we now have the anomalous situation that the Oklahoma Supreme Court is more progressive on gay family law than the New York Court of Appeals!

Brady R. Henderson of the ACLU of Oklahoma Foundation and Oklahoma City attorney Rhonda G. Telford Naidu represented Ramey on this appeal.  Sutton was represented by Oklahoma City attorney Kacey L. Huckabee.