Relying on a quarter-century old N.Y. Court of Appeals precedent under which a same-sex co-parent is considered a “legal stranger” to the child she was raising with her former partner, the Appellate Division, 4th Department has affirmed a decision by Chautauqua County Family Court Judge Judith S. Claire to dismiss a petition for custody and visitation filed by Brooke S. Barone. The ruling in Barone v. Chapman, 2015 N.Y. App. Div. LEIS 5226, 2015 WL 3797129, was issued on June 19, 2015.
Brooke Barone and Elizabeth Chapman were same-sex partners and Barone had been co-parent of Chapman’s son. They did not marry and Barone never adopted the child. After they ceased to be partners Barone filed this petition seeking to have the Family Court determine custody and visitation issues. The court appointed R. Thomas Rankin, an attorney in Jamestown, to represent the interest of the child. Barone represented herself in the proceeding.
Chapman filed a motion to dismiss the petition, arguing that Barone did not have standing to seek custody or visitation because she had no legal relationship to the child. Rankin opposed the motion on behalf of the child, arguing that the child’s best interests should be “paramount” over the legal formalities, and that “the standing accorded to parents should extend to those who have a recognized and operative parent-child relationship, regardless of their sexual orientation.” He further argued that the court should use the doctrine of equitable estoppel, arguing that a legal parent who has fostered and encouraged her unmarried partner to form a relationship with her child should be forbidden by the court to deny the reality of that relationship by raising an objection to standing. Judge Claire, finding herself bound by New York precedents, dismissed the petition.
The Appellate Division was equally dismissive of Rankin’s argument. “Those contentions are without merit,” it wrote, quoting from an Appellate Division ruling that “the Court of Appeals has recently reiterated that a nonbiological, nonadoptive parent does not have standing to seek visitation when a biological parent who is fit opposes it, and that equitable estoppel does not apply in such situations even where the nonparent has enjoyed a close relationship with the child and exercised some matter of control over the child with the parent’s consent.” The court noted earlier cases involving same-sex couples, in which the Court of Appeals had stated that “parentage under New York law derives from biology or adoption” and the Court of Appeals’ 1991 ruling, Alison D. v. Virginia M., had created a “bright-line test” under which a person who was neither the biological or adoptive parent of a child is considered a legal stranger without standing to seeking custody or visitation. A few courts have departed from that more recently in the context of married same-sex couples, finding that when a married woman bears a child, her spouse should be presumed to be the child’s legal parent, but the Court of Appeals hasn’t yet ruled on such a case.
Concluded the Appellate Division panel, “We reiterate that, as the Court of Appeals unequivocally stated, ‘any change in the meaning of “parent” under our law should come by way of legislative enactment rather than judicial revamping of precedent.’ Finally, we note that petitioner ‘failed to sufficiently allege any extraordinary circumstances to establish her standing to seek custody’ as a nonbiological, nonadoptive parent.” The Court of Appeals has recognized that such special circumstances might justify bending the rules, but in the Alison D. case and subsequent cases relying upon it, the court have found that same-sex couples raising a child together do not automatically qualify under the “extraordinary circumstances” rule.
After Alison D. was decided, the Court of Appeals in a late case construed the Adoption Law to allow same-sex partners to adopt child they were co-parenting without terminating the parental rights of the child’s legal parent, providing a clear path for same-sex partners to avoid this result. However, in the absence of such an adoption, the courts have adhered to the “legal stranger” rule, and the legislature has yet to modify the statutes on parental standing to take account of non-traditional families in New York.