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Supreme Court Grants Certiorari in Oregon Wedding Cake Case, but Remands for “Further Consideration” in Light of Masterpiece Cakeshop

Posted on: June 17th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

The U.S. Supreme Court granted a petition for a writ of certiorari in Klein v. Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, No. 18-547, on June 17, but at the same time vacated the Oregon Court of Appeals decision in the case, 289 Or. App. 507 (Dec. 28, 2017), and remanded the case to that court for “further consideration” in light of the Court’s decision last year in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, 138 S. Ct. 1719 (2018).  The Court did not issue any explanation for its ruling, beyond the direction of “further consideration” specifying Masterpiece Cakeshop as the ground for such consideration.

Both cases involved the question whether a baker who refuses to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple has a federal constitutional defense to a discrimination charge in the state administrative and judicial fora.  In both Oregon and Colorado, state law forbids discrimination because of sexual orientation in places of public accommodation, and businesses selling wedding cakes are definitely public accommodations under both laws.  Without ruling directly on the question presented in Masterpiece, the Supreme Court last year vacated the Colorado Court of Appeals and Colorado Commission rulings based on the Court’s conclusion that the Commission forum was “hostile to religion” as evidenced by statements by two of the Commissioners and “inconsistent” action on a religious discrimination charge by a provocateur who sought unsuccessfully to order anti-gay cakes from other bakers.

It takes at least four votes on the Supreme Court to grant a writ of certiorari, but it takes at least five votes to vacate and remand a lower court ruling.  According to its usual practice, the Court did not specify how many justices voted for the cert grant or the “vacate and remand” order.

The issue on remand for the Oregon Court of Appeals appears to be whether some statements made by Brad Avakian, Commissioner of the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industry (BOLI), evinced the kind of hostility to religion that the Supreme Court identified as problematic in the Masterpiece case.

When Melissa Klein, proprietor of Sweetcakes by Melissa, rejected a wedding cake order from Rachel and Lauren Bowman-Cryer on religious grounds, the women filed complaints with the Oregon Department of Justice and the Bureau of Labor and Industries. The media found the case newsworthy, resulting in interviews with Melissa Klein and her husband in which they sought to justify their action on religious grounds.  Commissioner Avakian reacted to the ensuing controversy by posting a statement to his Facebook page and speaking with The Oregonian, a wide-read newspaper in the state.

Avakian’s Facebook post included a link to a television station’s news story about the refusal of service and a statement: “Everyone has a right to their religious beliefs, but that doesn’t mean they can disobey laws that are already in place.  Having one set of rules for everybody ensures that people are treated fairly as they go about their daily lives.”  The Oregonian subsequently quoted Avakian as saying that “everyone is entitled to their own beliefs, but that doesn’t mean that folks have the right to discriminate.”

Under BOLI’s procedures, an administrative law judge (ALJ) holds a hearing and issues a “proposed final order,” to which the parties can file “exceptions” as an appeal to the Commissioner.  Before the hearing in this case, the Kleins moved to disqualify Commissioner Avakian from taking any role in the case, arguing that his public statements had prejudged the case so he was not neutral.  The ALJ denied the motion to disqualify and went on to find that the Kleins had violated the statute by denying services to the couple “on account of” their sexual orientation, as prohibited by the statute.  The ALJ rejected the Kleins argument that they had not discriminated because of the women’s sexual orientation, or that their actions were protected by the First Amendment free speech and free exercise of religion provisions.  But the ALJ also rejected BOLI’s argument that statements made by Mr. Klein during interviews were communicating a future intent to discriminate, which would itself violate a specific prohibition in the statute. Rather, the ALJ ruled, they were an account of the reasons for their denial of services in this case.  The ALJ ordered damages to the couple totaling $135,000, mainly for emotional suffering and having to put up with the media attention.

The Kleins and BOLI both filed exceptions to the ALJ’s proposed order. Commissioner Avakian affirmed the ALJ’s ruling on discrimination, but disagreed with the ruling on statement of future intent to discriminate.  Avakian concluded that the record supported the opposite finding, that the interviews and a sign taped to the bakery’s window communicated intent to discriminate on the same basis in the future, but he approved the ALJ’s proposed damage award without adding anything for this additional violation.  The Kleins then petitioned for judicial review.

The Oregon Court of Appeals affirmed the ALJ’s decision on discrimination, but rejected Commissioner Avakian’s reversal of the ALJ’s ruling on communicating an intention to discriminate in the future.  The court also rejected the Kleins’ argument on appeal that Avakian should have been disqualified from ruling on the case because of his Facebook and Oregonian interview statements. As to another flashpoint in the case, the court deemed the amount of damages awarded appropriate, noting that the amount was in line with damages awarded in other similar cases.  The Kleins sought review in the Oregon Supreme Court, but were turned down without comment.

The Kleins’ petition for certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court mentions the issue of Avakian’s statements and the ALJ and Oregon court’s rejections of disqualification, but it does not focus on that issue in its statement of questions presented, even though the petition was filed months after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop made that a potentially viable alternative route to getting the agency’s decision overturned.  Counsel for the Kleins, instead, were focused on getting the Supreme Court to reconsider its 1990 ruling, Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, in which the Court abandoned its long-established free exercise clause jurisprudence, substituting a rule that people have to comply with neutral state laws of general application – such as most anti-discrimination laws – even though complying might burden their free exercise of religion.   Their second “question presented” asked the Court to overrule Smith, and their third “question presented” asked the Court to “reaffirm” a “hybrid rights doctrine” suggested in dicta in Smith, where there would be more stringent judicial review in cases where other constitutional rights in addition to free exercise of religion were implicated.

The Supreme Court’s decision to vacate the Oregon Court of Appeals decision for “further consideration” by the state court suggests that there are not enough votes on the Court to reconsider Smith as of now, but we can’t know how many votes short the proponents on the Court of reconsidering Smith might be.  Smith has long been a controversial precedent.  The decision’s cutback on protection for religious objectors led Congress to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and many states to pass their own versions of that law.  But Smith has become a bulwark for vindicating the rights of same-sex couples to obtain wedding-related goods and services, as most courts confronted with the issue have concluded that such businesses do not have the right to deny them to same-sex couples.

The Kleins are represented by First Liberty Institute of Plano, Texas, Boyden Gray & Associates of Washington, D.C., and Oregon local counsel Herbert G. Grey.  Ten amicus briefs, all urging the Court to grant the petition for certiorari, were filed by conservative and religious litigation and policy groups, many extolling the case as a vehicle for overturning Employment Division v. Smith.  Lambda Legal represented Rachel and Laurel Bowman-Cryer with an amicus brief at the Oregon Court of Appeals.

District of Columbia Court of Appeals Rules on Same-Sex Common Law Marriage Claim

Posted on: May 6th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

“Brian Gill and Rodney Van Nostrand were in a romantic relationship and cohabited for several years beginning in 2004,” begins Judge Phyllis Thompson’s opinion for the District of Columbia Court of Appeals in Gill v. Van Nostrand, 2019 WL 1827998, 2019 D.C. App. LEXIS 159 (April 25, 2019).  “After their romantic relationship waned, and a few months after Mr. Van Nostrand had a ceremonial wedding in Brazil to another man he had met while on a lengthy work assignment in that country, Mr. Gill filed a complaint for legal separation from Mr. Van Nostrand, alleging that the two men are parties in a common law marriage that began in 2004.”  Van Nostrand’s denial that the men were common-law married led to a trial in D.C. Superior Court, resulting in a decision by Judge Robert Okun rejecting Gill’s claim.  Gill’s appeal of that ruling is the subject of the Court of Appeals’ April 25 ruling.  The District of Columbia Court of Appeals is the equivalent of a state supreme court for the District of Columbia.  Its rulings can be appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Judge Thompson’s opinion goes to considerable length to explain why the court affirmed Judge Okun’s ruling, and to set out in some detail how District of Columbia trial courts should evaluate claims that same-sex couples had formed common law marriages prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015).  Although the District of Columbia legislated to allow same-sex marriage several years prior to Obergefell, the issue of whether same-sex couples could form such marriages in the District, one of a handful of U.S. jurisdictions that still recognize same-sex marriages, depends on retroactive application of Obergefell’s holding that same-sex couples enjoy a fundamental right to marry as an aspect of liberty guaranteed by the Due Process Clause.  In the case of D.C., of course, the relevant Due Process Clause would be that in the 5th Amendment of the Bill of Rights, whereas the Due Process Clause upon which the Court relied in Obergefell was that in the 14th Amendment, binding on the states.

The D.C. Court of Appeals agreed with Judge Okun that the fundamental right identified by the Supreme Court in Obergefell did apply to the marital aspirations of same-sex couples at the time in question (2004).  The issue is how to decide whether a particular couple was in a common law marriage, when the District’s relevant case law was stated, in large part, in ways pertaining to different-sex couples whose right to marry at the time was legally recognized, as such a right was not then recognized for same-sex couples.  At an early stage in this case, Judge Okun refused Van Nostrand’s motion to dismiss the case, stating “that a party in a same-sex relationship must be given the opportunity to prove a common law marriage, even at a time when same-sex marriage was not legal.”  This led to the trial, in which Van Nostrand testified that he never considered himself to be married to Mr. Gill, and Mr. Gill testified about an exchange of rings, a pledge of monogamy, and his belief that they considered themselves effectively married, if not legally so.

Under District of Columbia precedents, “the elements of common law marriage in this jurisdiction are cohabitation as husband and wife, following an express mutual agreement, which must be in word of the present tense.”  Quoting Coleman v. United States, 948 A.2d 534 (D.C. Ct. App. 2008).  What that means is the people can’t just “drift” into a common law marriage in D.C.  There must be a mutual express agreement, and it can’t just be an agreement that sometime in the future the couple will get married; it must be a present statement of agreeing to live as a married couple, albeit without the formalities of a marriage license and ceremony by a governmentally authorized officiant.  Normally a preponderance of the evidence standard would apply, but depending on the circumstances the court might apply a “clear and convincing evidence” standard, which the court found applicable in this case, where Gill is trying to prove a common law marriage with a man who is legally married to another man.  (The court noted that the clear and convincing evidence standard has been used by D.C. courts in the past when somebody is trying to prove that they have a common law marriage with somebody who is legally married to somebody else.)

“We shall assume arguendo that serious constitutional issues would arise if the trial court’s analysis of common-law marriage operated to the peculiar disadvantage of Mr. Gill and Mr. Van Nostrand as a same-sex-couple, i.e., required them to meet expectations that they as a same-sex couple could meet only with more difficulty than opposite-sex couples would encounter,” wrote Judge Thompson.   “Such an approach is arguably warranted in order to accord same-sex couples who have chosen to share their lives in a union comparable to traditional marriage ‘the same respect and dignity accorded a union traditionally designated as marriage,” quoting Strauss v. Horton, 46 Cal. 4th 364 (Cal. 2009), a decision in which the California Supreme Court ruled that marriages of same-sex couples who were married in California prior to the passage of Proposition 8 would have exactly the same status as all legally-contracted marriages in that state.

The trial court focused on six factors in its analysis in concluding that Gill and Nostrand did not have a common law marriage.

First was the failure of either man, but particularly Mr. Gill, to remember the date on which Gill claimed they exchanged rings that they agreed to wear for the duration of their relationship.  Gill testified that he “decided to surprise Mr. Van Nostrand by purchasing two rings and presenting them to Mr. Van Nostrand along with M& M candies inscribed with “Will you marry me?”  Gill testified that he got down on one knew and proposed to Mr. Van Nostrand, who said yes and allowed Gill to slip one of the rings on his finger.  Van Nostrand denied various particulars of this testimony, and there was no testimonial agreement about the date on which this purportedly occurred. The court found Gill’s testimony, which goes to the crucial question of whether there was an express agreement to be married, as “exceptionally vague,” although, by contrast, Gill remembered precisely both their first date and the first time they had sex with each other.  “The court reasoned that ‘the date on which parties agree to be married surely would be at least as memorable [as], if not more memorable . . . than the date on which’ the parties first had sexual relations ‘or first had a “real date” at a restaurant,’” wrote Thompson.  Gill criticized the judge’s “overreliance” on this factor, but the appeals court did not consider this “unfairly prejudicial” or improperly expecting the parties “to meet expectations of traditional marriage that they, as a same-sex couple, could meet only with difficulty.”  Since the date in question is the date when Gill claims to have proposed marriage, proffered a ring, and received an affirmative response from Von Nostrand, the court found failure to remember the date was not an “unreasonable factor to consider,” taking into account that it was not the only or dispositive factor, merely one of several.

Secondly, the trial court found that neither of the men “told their friends or family about the alleged marriage (or perhaps more correctly, the alleged ‘entry into a commitment comparable to marriage’) and the couple did not commemorate it with a ceremony or celebrate it by going on a honeymoon.”  The court did find that at that time both parties’ families had “harsh anti-gay views” which could explain why there was no contemporaneous communication to them about this topic, and the court acknowledged that “same-sex couples, prior to the legalization of same-sex marriage, might have been less likely to have a public ceremony or honeymoon,” but, pointed out Thompson, the question was “how these parties and their friends in the gay community marked or signified important events in their romantic lives,” and evidence was lacking as to that.  Traditionally, “holding out” as married to one’s relevant community is an important signifier of common law marriage, and there was nothing stopping a same-sex couple from taking a honeymoon trip to celebrate their new relationship.  Gill attempted to show that a European trip the men took in 2005 was their “honeymoon,” but Van Nostrand testified to the contrary.

Furthermore, there was evidence that Van Nostrand was partial to “celebrating events in a flamboyant manner,” as shown by his marriage to Weller da Silva, the Brazilian man whom he legally married in April 2014.  Related Thompson, “Mr. Van Nostrand delivered the proposal while the pair were in a hot-air balloon over the Serengeti, created an album commemorating the proposal, told family members and friends, med Mr. da Silva’s family, and, after the two were married, went on a honeymoon trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.”  (Sounds fab!!)  The trial court credited Van Nostrand’s testimony that “he would not have entered into a marriage with [Gill] without commemorating such an event with … pomp and circumstance” and the evidence showed that Van Nostrand had the financial ability to sustain such activities, as shown by the “shared history of foreign travel” of the two men during their relationship.

The third factor was that the parties “never inscribed their rings,” a step that Van Nostrand credibly testified they would have done had they considered themselves married.  The court also noted that when marriage became available in Massachusetts, Van Nostrand asked Gill whether he wanted to go there to get married and Gill said no.  He also testified that he asked Gill about having their rings inscribed, but Gill declined, and also declined to enter into a registered domestic partnership, which became available in D.C.  Furthermore, D.C. enacted marriage equality in 2010, but the men did not take the step of formalizing their relationship as a marriage then.  Gill criticized the trial court’s reliance on this factor, but the court found that Van Nostrand credibly testified that these were “the steps he would have taken to symbolize and validate that the parties’ relationship had advanced to a mutual commitment comparable to marriage.”  Here, the court referred to a ruling last year by the Colorado Court of Appeals, Hogsett v. Neale, 2018 WL 6564880, which placed some weight on the failure of a lesbian couple to go out of state to get married as a factor in determining that they did not have a common law marriage under Colorado law.

The fourth factor was that “the parties maintained largely separate finances.”  The house in which they lived together from 2005 was only in Van Nostrand’s name, they had no joint bank accounts or credit card accounts, and even though they discussed creating wills, powers of attorney, and so forth, only Van Nostrand made and executed such documents.  The trial court observed that “although [Gill] was supposed to draft documents giving [Van Nostrand] these same benefits and responsibilities, he failed to do so.”  By contrast, shortly after Van Nostrand married da Silva, they established joint bank accounts and executed wills, powers of attorney and the like.  (A docket search shows that sometime after his marriage to da Silva, Van Nostrand sought to evict Gill from the D.C. home, resulting in litigation in which Gill sought, without success, injunctive relief against the eviction, before a different D.C. trial judge. There is no published opinion, and Judge Okun’s decision in this case is apparently not published, either.)

The fifth factor was Gill’s failure to object or to claim he was in a common law marriage with Van Nostrand when he was informed that Van Nostrand planned to marry da Silva in Brazil.  Gill’s response to this news was not to state that they needed to get divorced first in order for that marriage to take place.  He raised the issue “only after realizing that this would affect” his beneficiary status in terms of Van Nostrand’s employee benefits.  As the court pointedly notes, he seemed to have sprung into action when he was removed from coverage under Van Nostrand’s employment-related health insurance.  He went to an attorney and apparently first learned about the possibility of claiming a common law marriage at that point.  “Mr. Gill asserts that he reacted as he did because he was not aware that the parties’ relationship gave him legally enforceable rights vis-à-vis Mr. Van Nostrand,” observed the court.  The court of appeals found this to be “understandable” as the parties are not lawyers, and the trial court did not deem this as a determinative factor in the analysis.  However, wrote Thompson, “we think the trial court exercised reasonable skepticism in light of Mr. Gill’s financial incentive to claim that the parties had a common-law marriage.  Courts have long ‘regarded common-law marriage as a fruitful source of fraud and perjury,’” quoting In re Estate of Danza, 188 App. Div. 2d 530, 591 N.Y.S. 2d 197 (1992).

Finally, the sixth factor concerns the growing body of court decisions about retroactive common law marriage claims, and particularly a case in which a Pennsylvania trial court did find a common law marriage, In re Estate of Carter, 159 A.3d 970 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2017).  Carter presented ideal facts to find a same-sex common law marriage.  There was a marriage proposal and a diamond ring that Mr. Hunter gave Mr. Carter on Christmas Day 1996, a day easy to remember and prove. Mr. Carter then gave Hunter an engraved diamond ring on February 18, 1997, with the date inscribed, and the men faithfully observed that date as their anniversary for 16 years until Carter’s death.  They had joint banking and investment accounts, owned their home together with a joint mortgage, had mutual wills and powers of attorney, and referred to each other as spouses.  While Judge Okun disclaimed requiring that all these factors be satisfied in order to find a common law marriage for a same-sex couple formed prior to the legalization of same-sex marriages, he reasoned that Gill’s “failure to prove any of these factors substantially undercuts his effort to prove the existence of a common law marriage.”  In this case, Judge Okun found that the men had at best “an agreement to get married at some point in the future.” Wrote Thompson, “We cannot say that the trial court’s reliance on Carter as persuasive authority and its resultant analysis were legally or factually erroneous.”

In conclusion, wrote Thompson, “For all the foregoing reasons, we are satisfied that the evidence did not compel the trial court to conclude that the parties had an express mutual agreement to be permanent partners with the same degree of commitment as the spouses in a ceremonial marriage.  The evidence permitted the court to conclude, as it did, that the parties never expressly agreed to be married, in the present tense.”  And that decides the case consistent with D.C. case law.

Gill is represented by Aaron Marr Page and Christopher J. Gowen.  Jack Maginnis represents Van Nostrand.  As noted, this ruling could be appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.  Federal question jurisdiction is not required for an appeal from the D.C. local courts on questions of D.C. common law, but if it were, this case arguably presents an underlying constitutional question concerning the jurisdiction’s obligation to recognize the fundamental rights of same-sex couples to enter into common law marriages, and the question whether the trial court’s analysis did not adequately respect that right could still be argued on appeal.  However, Judge Thompson took great lengths to reiterate the D.C. Court of Appeals’ view that the court had to take account of contemporary circumstances pre-Obergefell in avoiding unfairly prejudicing the question by imposing unreasonable expectations on how same-sex couples intended to form a common law marriage would have acted in 2004, and that the trial court had done that adequately in this case.

Impatient Christians File Suit Against EEOC’s Interpretation of Title VII and Seek Exemption from Recognizing Same-Sex Marriages

Posted on: April 3rd, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

The U.S. Pastor Council (on behalf of itself and others similarly situated), and Braidwood Management, Inc., a business claiming to have religious objections concerning the employment of LGBTQ people (on behalf of itself and others similarly situated), have jointly filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas (Fort Worth Division), seeking a declaratory judgment that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s interpretation of Title VII to protect LGBTQ people from employment discrimination violates the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the First Amendment, and they seek to enjoin the federal government from enforcing these policies against any employer who objects to homosexual or transgender behavior on religious grounds.  U.S. Pastor Council & Braidwood Management Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Case No. 4:18-cv-00824-O (U.S. Dist. Ct., N.D. Texas, filed March 29, 2019).  They seek class certification and nation-wide injunctive relief.  Other named defendants include EEOC Chair Victoria A. Lipnic and Commissioner Charlotte A. Burrows, Attorney General William P. Barr, and the United States of America.  (Lipnic and Burrows are the only currently serving EEOC commissioners, as Trump’s nominees to fill three vacancies were not confirmed in the last session of the Senate, and the Commission as a body lacks a quorum to act at present.)

The headline’s reference to “impatient Christians” points to the Supreme Court’s unexplained delay in deciding whether to grant writs of certiorari in three pending cases that pose the question whether Title VII can be interpreted, as it has been by the EEOC and some circuit courts of appeals, to prohibit employment discrimination because of an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity.  If the Supreme Court finally takes these cases and decides them during its October 2019 Term, this lawsuit could be at least partially mooted.  But the complaint ranges more broadly, tempting the court (and ultimately the Supreme Court) to reconsider two of its constitutional precedents that are not beloved by the Court’s current conservative majority: Employment Division v. Smith and Obergefell v. Hodges.

The docket number of the case indicates that it has been assigned to District Judge Reed O’Connor, which means that it is highly predictable that the plaintiffs will get much of the relief they are seeking from the district court.  In earlier lawsuits, Judge O’Connor issued nationwide injunctions against the federal government’s enforcement of Obamacare and Title IX in gender identity cases, disagreeing that the term “discrimination because of sex” could be construed to extend to gender identity.  See Franciscan Alliance v. Burwell, 227 F.Supp.3d 660 (N.D. Tex. Dec. 31, 2016) (Obamacare); Texas v. United States, 201 F. Supp. 3d 810 (N.D. Tex. 2016) (Title IX).  Since the current political appointees leading the Justice Department probably agree with the plaintiff’s position on all or most of the claims raised in this complaint, one reasonably suspects that any serious defense can only be mounted by Intervenors, and the government would only appeal pro-plaintiff rulings by Judge O’Connor in order to get a rubber stamp approval from the 5th Circuit on the way to the Supreme Court. Trump has worked hard to cement a conservative majority on the 5th Circuit, having quickly filled five of the vacancies preserved for him by the Senate’s refusal to confirm Obama nominees to the circuit courts.  A new vacancy waits to be filled, and more elderly Republican appointees on the circuit (two active Reagan appointees who have been there more than thirty years) are likely to retire soon enough.

The complaint’s first count argues that the government has no compelling reason to enforce a prohibition against discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity against employers with religious objections, and thus that the EEOC as a federal agency should be found to be precluded from doing so under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  The second count argues that because Title VII exempts religious employers from its ban on religious discrimination, it is thereby not a law of “general applicability,” so Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), is “inapplicable” to the question whether imposing a non-discrimination obligation on employers who are subject to the statute (those with 15 or more employees) violates their constitutional Free Exercise rights under the 1st Amendment.  The complaint observes that the ministerial exemption to Title VII that the Supreme Court has found for religious institutions does not extend to businesses, and further does not extend to the non-ministerial employees of religious organizations, thus imposing a burden on both kinds of employers who are subject to Title VII’s ban on sex discrimination.  Furthermore, they argue that if the court disagrees with their characterization of Title VII and finds that Employment Division v. Smith would apply in their Free Exercise claim, that decision should be overruled (which, of course, the district court can’t do, but this lawsuit is obviously not intended to stop at the district court).  Justice Neil Gorsuch implied in his concurring opinion in Masterpiece Cakeshop last June that the Supreme Court should reconsider this precedent.

In terms of the practical impact of the EEOC’s position, the complaint says in its third count that Braidwood Management’s benefits administrator has amended its employee benefits plans to recognize same-sex marriages, complying with guidance on the EEOC’s website, and Braidwood wants to instruct the administrator to return to a traditional marriage definition, consistent with the employer’s religious beliefs.  Thus, part of the declaratory judgment plaintiffs seek would proclaim that employers with religious beliefs against same-sex marriage should be allowed to refuse to recognize them for employee benefits purposes.  In several counts, the complaint tempts the court to declare as illegitimate the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision, and to excuse religious organizations and businesses from having to recognize same-sex marriages, except possibly in states where same-sex marriage became available through state legislation, unlike Texas, where it exists by compulsion of the federal courts (and certainly against the wishes of the state government).

In terms of standing issues, Braidwood points out that the EEOC has actively enforced its interpretation of Title VII by bringing enforcement actions and filing amicus briefs in support of LGBTQ plaintiffs against employers with religious objections, most prominently in the Harris Funeral Home case, in which the EEOC sued a business that had discharged a transgender employee because of the employer’s religious objections.  The funeral home prevailed in the district court on a RFRA defense, the trial judge finding that in the absence of RFRA the funeral home would have been found in violation of Title VII.  However, the 6th Circuit reversed in part, rejecting the district court’s RFRA analysis and finding a Title VII violation.  The funeral home’s petition for certiorari was filed in the Supreme Court last July, but that Court had made no announcement regarding a grant or denial at the time this complaint was filed on March 29 – impatient Christians, again.

The fourth count claims that the EEOC’s requirement that employers post a notice to employees announcing their protection under Title VII is unconstitutionally compelled speech.  “Employees who read this sign and see that Braidwood is categorically forbidden to engage in ‘sex’ discrimination will assume (incorrectly) that Braidwood is legally required to recognize same-sex marriage, extend spousal employment benefits to same-sex couples, and allow its employees into restrooms reserved for the opposite biological sex,” says the complaint, indicating that Braidwood’s proprietor “is not willing to have Braidwood propagate this message without sufficient clarification.”

The sixth count summons the Administrative Procedure Act to attack the EEOC’s issuance of guidance on its website concerning its interpretation of Title VII, claiming that this constitutes a “rule” that is subject to judicial review under that statute.  The complaint asks the court to “hold unlawful and set aside” the EEOC’s regulatory guidance, invoking Section 706 of the APA.  Braidwood Management also claims to speak in this count as representative of all businesses in the U.S. that “object to the constitutional reasoning in Obergefell, excluding employers in states where same-sex marriage was legalized through legislation.”

The complaint lists as plaintiffs’ counsel Charles W. Fillmore and H. Dustin Fillmore of Fort Worth (local counsel in the district court) and Jonathan F. Mitchell of Austin.  The heavy gun here is Mitchell, a former Scalia clerk and Texas Solicitor General who has been nominated by President Trump to be Chairman of the Administrative Conference of the United States (ACUS).  It seems ironic that Trump’s nominee is suing the federal government: the Justice Department and its head (in his official capacity) and the EEOC and its commissioners (in their official capacity), but despite naming the United States as a defendant, plaintiffs are not suing the president by name (in his official capacity, of course).

Kentucky Appellate Court Rejects Lesbian Co-Parent Custody/Visitation Claim, Reversing Family Court

Posted on: December 8th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

Adopting a narrow construction of the Kentucky Supreme Court’s historic same-sex co-parent ruling, Mullins v. Picklesimer, 317 S.W.3d 569 (Ky. 2010), a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals of Kentucky, ruling on November 30, reversed a decision by Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Deana D. McDonald, and ruled that Teri Whitehouse, the former union partner of Tammie Delaney, is not entitled to joint custody and parenting time with a child born to Delaney during the women’s relationship.  From comments in concurring opinions, it seems clear that this Kentucky Court of Appeals panel deems the U.S. Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision, Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015), to require a bright-line test, under which it will be extremely difficult for unmarried partners to claim parental rights.  The opinion confirms the fears of some critics of the marriage equality movement who predicted that achieving same-sex marriage could undermine the interests of LGBT parents who chose not to marry.

The case is Delaney v. Whitehouse, 2018 WL 6266774, 2018 Ky. App. Unpub. LEXIS 844 (Ky. Ct. App., Nov. 30, 2018).  The court designated the opinion as “not to be published,” which means it is not supposed to be cited and argued as precedent for any other case, although Kentucky court rules say that an “unpublished” decision may be cited for consideration by a court if there is no published opinion that would adequately address the issue before the court.  The whole idea of “unpublished” decisions is archaic, of course, when such opinions are released and published in full text in on-line legal services such as Westlaw, Lexis, and Bloomberg Law, and readily available to practicing lawyers and the courts.

The opinion for the panel by Judge Robert G. Johnson (whose term expired after he wrote the opinion but before it was released by the court) accepts Judge McDonald’s factual findings, but disputes their legal significance.  McDonald found that the parties were in a romantic relationship and participated jointly in the decision to have a child, including the insemination process.  “The parties treated each other as equal partners and clearly intended to create a parent-like relationship” between Whitehead and the child, found Judge McDonald, who also found that “they held themselves out as the parents of this child since before conception.  They engaged in the process of selecting a [sperm] donor together, they attended appointments prior to insemination together, [Whitehouse] was present for the birth, and she has been known to the child as Momma.  The parties participated in a union ceremony, after the birth of the child, and they held themselves out as a family unit with friends and family.”

Judge McDonald referred to Mullins v. Picklesimer, finding that some factual distinctions between the cases were not significant enough to compel a different result, and concluded that Whitehead met her burden of establishing under Mullins that Delaney had waived her “superior right to custody” as the biological mother, and thus had conferred standing on Whitehouse to seek joint custody and parenting time after the parties’ relationship terminated.

The Appellate Court disagreed.  Johnson found that in Mullins, a case decided by the closely divided state supreme court voting 4-3, the court stated that “legal waiver ‘is a voluntary and intentional surrender or relinquishment of a known right, or an election to forego an advantage which the party at his option might have demanded or insisted upon.’”  Also, he noted, the Kentucky Supreme Court “emphasized that although there need not be a written or formal waiver, ‘statements and supporting circumstances must be equivalent to an express waiver to meet the burden of proof.’”

“While it is indisputable that some of the factors set out in Mullins are present in this case,” wrote Johnson, “we are persuaded that those factors fall short of the clear and convincing proof required to establish waiver.  It seems clear that both parties agreed to artificial insemination for the purpose of having a child, that both parties shared parenting responsibilities to some extent, and that for a relatively short period of time they held themselves out as a family unit.  However, ‘no specific set of factors must be present in order to find there has been a waiver.’”  The court in Mullins found “a myriad of factors” supporting waiver, including that the women in that case gave their child a hyphenated last name, which was placed on the birth certificate, that they made a formal written agreement bestowing custody rights on the co-parent, and that even after the parties separated, they continued to share custody for a period of five months.  “In contrast,” wrote Johnson, “Delaney and Whitehouse made no efforts to formalize the custody status of the child at any point and the child bore only Delaney’s name.  Although the parties did participate in a union ceremony after the child was born, that was not a legally cognizable marriage ceremony.  Neither did the parties attempt to formalize their relationship after the decision of the United State Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges.”  (One of the concurring judges noted that Obergefell was decided about a month after the parties had their union ceremony.)

“It is also telling,” Johnson wrote, “that the family court found that the parties intended to create a ‘parent-like’ relationship between Whitehouse and the child, not that Delaney specifically intended to confer parental rights on Whitehouse.  Finally, upon the deterioration of her relationship with Whitehouse, Delaney did not allow Whitehouse to continue to participate in parenting responsibilities with the child,” pointing out that the Mullins court had specifically pointed to the continued five months of shared parenting in that case as tending to show that the co-parent was more than merely a friend or caretaker.

“Because we reverse the trial court’s finding that Whitehouse had standing to seek custody and parenting time with Delaney,” wrote Johnson, “we need not address the family court’s best-interests analysis.”  This, of course, demonstrates clearly the inhumanity of the court’s decision.  The trial court, in a ruling as to which the Appellate Court finds no reason to question that court’s factual findings, deems totally irrelevant the trial court’s conclusion that it is in the best interest of this child to order joint custody and parenting time.  This is to be totally ignored, and a situation that is not in the best interest of the child is to be perpetuated, mainly because, as Johnson intimated and as the concurring judges made clear, these women did not formally marry when the opportunity created by Obergefell presented itself.

Concurring Judge Glenn Acree urged that the Kentucky Supreme Court reconsider Mullins in light of Obergefell, arguing that because same-sex couples can marry, there is no longer any need for Kentucky law to recognize parental rights in unmarried co-parents.  “Obergefell changed everything for same-sex relationships,” wrote Acree.  “Necessarily, it changed how we assess whether a parent has partially waived her constitutional right to raise her child, partial waiver being the theory invented in Mullin.  This case is an illustration.”  He noted that Obergefell was decided within thirty days of the parties’ non-legal union ceremony, so “they had the right and opportunity to legally marry.  They chose not to do so.  Considering the Supreme Court’s emphasis in Obergefell on the importance of the marital relationship, legal significance must be given to a decision not to marry.  Electing not to marry when the opportunity is available should be deemed to fully contradict all allegations by anyone seeking rights to another person’s child based on the Mullins partial waiver theory.  Otherwise, marriage means far less than Obergefell indicates.”

Judge Acree goes on to quote Justice Anthony Kennedy’s flowery description of marriage, stating that this “sentiment permeates the opinion and uplifts the institution of marriage as few opinions have.  In my view, it is not an insincere capitulation to social pressure.  The opinion signals new the judiciary’s recognition of the majesty of marriage.”  Acree advocates a bright line test based on Obergefell, leaving out in the cold all unmarried same-sex partners, regardless of the quality or depth of their relationship with the child.  He argued that failure to adopt such a bright line test “will invite other individuals, and even groups, whether they cohabit with a biological or adoptive parent or not, to claim the partial waiver Mullins invented.”  And, as his parting shot, he wrote, “Although ‘it takes a village’ is a catchy cant, the nucleus of a family is not made up of loose threads of casual affection.  It is a tightly woven fabric of unifying love amongst two parents and their children.

Concurring, Judge Gene Smallwood, Jr., joined with Acree in encouraging the Kentucky Supreme Court to “revisit” the Mullins decision and overrule it, asserting that the dissenting opinion in Mullins had “proven true” and, quoting from a dissenting opinion in another case, wrote, “Mullins was decided as it was because of, and as a way of avoiding the pre-Obergefell prohibitions” on same-sex marriage.  “The conceived basis for the court’s opinion in Mullins no longer exists,” he insisted, urging that the state’s high court “reaffirm all prior precedence on this issue and return the legal standing of parenthood to the safe mooring of the law as guaranteed by the Supreme Court of the United States in Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57 (2000).”  Troxel held unconstitutional a state law that allowed third parties, such as grandparents, to seek visitation rights with children over the protest of their biological parents, affirming strong constitutional protection for the right of legal parents to exclude other adults from contact with their children.  Many state courts have distinguished Troxel from cases involving same-sex parent presenting facts similar to those in this case of Delaney v. Whitehead.

Teri Whitehouse is represented by Hugh W. Barrow of Louisville.  Tammie Delaney is represented by Louis P. Winner and Kristin M. Birkhold, also of Louisville.  One would anticipate an appeal to the Kentucky Supreme Court, and the case cries out for LGBT rights movement participation, since an overruling of Mullins could endanger the parental rights of numerous unmarried co-parents in Kentucky.

 

Supreme Court May Decide Another Gay Wedding Cake Case

Posted on: October 26th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

Melissa and Aaron Klein, proprietors of the now-defunct “Sweetcakes by Melissa” custom-cake business in Gresham, Oregon, filed a petition for certiorari on October 19, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the $135,000 penalty imposed by Oregon authorities for their refusal to make a wedding cake for Rachel Cryer and Laurel Bowman in January 2013. Klein v. Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, No. ____ , seeking review of Klein v. Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, 410 P.3d 1051, 289 Or. App. 507 (2017), rev. denied by Oregon Supreme Court, June 21, 2018.  The Kleins claim in their Petition that the Oregon ruling violates their constitutional rights of free exercise of religion and freedom of speech.

The Kleins also claim that they did not discriminate against the lesbian couple because of their sexual orientation, contrary to the finding of the Commission that was affirmed by the state appeals court. And, perhaps most consequentially, they asked the Supreme Court to consider whether to overrule Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, which holds that the Free Exercise Clause does not exempt people with religious objections from complying with state laws of general application that do not specifically target religious practices.

The Kleins ask the Court to revisit a controversy it confronted last year in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, 138 S. Ct. 1719 (2018).  Both Oregon and Colorado forbid businesses in the state from discriminating against customers because of their sexual orientation.  In Masterpiece, baker Jack Phillips refused, initially on religious grounds, to make a wedding cake for a gay male couple, and Colorado officials found that he had violated the law, rejecting his First Amendment defense.  In his appeal of the Colorado Court of Appeals’ ruling affirming the Commission, Phillips asserted protection under both the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment, claiming that the government may not compel a “cake artist” to express a message contrary to his religious beliefs, both as a matter of freedom not to speak and protection for religious freedom.

The Court did not rule directly on these questions in disposing of Phillips’ appeal, instead deciding that comments by some of the Colorado Civil Rights Commissioners, and the Commission’s rejection of some other discrimination claims filed by a provocateur who charged bakers with discriminating against him by refusing to make explicitly anti-gay cakes, showed that the state had not afforded an appropriately “neutral forum” to Phillips for consideration of his defense. On that basis, the Court reversed the state court and commission rulings and dismissed the case against Phillips.  However, in his opinion for the Court, Justice Anthony Kennedy reaffirmed that people and businesses do not enjoy a general free exercise right to refuse to comply with state laws of general application that do not specifically target religion.  Kennedy’s opinion avoided dealing with Phillips’ argument that as a “cake artist” he also had a valid free speech claim.  Two justices dissented, while others concurred in the result.

Justice Kennedy cited Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, Inc., 390 U.S. 400 (1968), to support the Free Exercise point.  In that case, a restaurant owner cited his religious beliefs to refuse to comply with Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbids businesses affecting commerce from refusing to serve customers because of their race.  The Supreme Court affirmed the 4th Circuit, which had reversed the district court’s refusal to enjoin the restaurant’s discriminatory policy.  Kennedy could have just as well cited Employment Division v. Smith, which the Colorado Commission’s Administrative Law Judge had cited in his Masterpiece ruling, but Piggie Park may have seemed more apposite, as it involved enforcement of a general anti-discrimination law over religious objections. Smith, by contrast, involved a Native American man who had consumed peyote in a religious ritual and subsequently flunked his employer’s drug test, suffering discharge and denial of unemployment benefits.  The Supreme Court rejected Smith’s religious freedom challenge to his disqualification for benefits, finding that the incidental burden this posed on his free exercise of religion did not excuse him from complying with his employer’s lawful policy against employee drug use or require that an exception be made to the state’s unemployment insurance law, which denies benefits to employees discharged “for cause.” In a concurring opinion in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Justice Neil Gorsuch (joined by Justice Clarence Thomas) described the Smith ruling as “controversial,” implying that it deserved reconsideration.

The Kleins have followed up on Gorsuch’s signal by asking the Court to reconsider Smith or, alternatively, to “reaffirm” some comments Justice Antonin Scalia made in his opinion for the 5-4 Court majority in Smith, suggesting that when somebody raises a free exercise of religion claim in a case that also implicates “other fundamental rights,” such as freedom of speech, the Court should apply “strict scrutiny” to the challenged state action in order to vindicate the other fundamental right.  The Klein’s Petition points out that lower federal courts are divided about whether to follow Scalia’s suggestion for handling so-called “hybrid rights” cases – a suggestion the Oregon Court of Appeals expressly rejected in the Kleins’ case — and urges the Court to resolve a split of lower court authority by taking this case.

The Klein’s Petition also argues that they did not discriminate against Cryer and Bowman because of their sexual orientation; they would refuse to make a cake for a same-sex wedding regardless of the sexual orientation of the customer who sought this service. They related that just a few years earlier, they had produced a wedding cake ordered by this very lesbian couple, to celebrate the marriage of Rachel’s mother to a man, and that it was because Rachel and Laurel “liked the Kleins’ work so much that they wanted to commission a custom cake from Sweetcakes for their own wedding.”  The Petition also notes that the women quickly found another baker to make their wedding cake, and that a celebrity chef even gave them a second custom-designed cake for free.

On the other hand, it was reported that when the Kleins posted about the discrimination claim on their Facebook.com page, showing the image of the actual discrimination charge with contact information for the lesbian couple, the women received nasty messages, including death threats, which contributed to the Oregon Bureau’s decision to assess substantial damages for emotional distress.

The Kleins devote a large part of their Petition to arguing that they are “cake artists” whose creations are expressive works, entitling them to the same vigorous constitutional free speech protection normally provided to artists in less digestible media. As such, they claim the Oregon court erred in failing to apply strict scrutiny to the Bureau’s decision against them, as the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the First Amendment protects an individual’s refusal to speak a message with which they disagree, the prime example being the Court’s unanimous decision in Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston, 515 U.S. 557 (1995), in which, overruling a 4-3 decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, the Court held that parade organizers had a right to exclude a group whose message they did not desire to include in their parade, which the Court deemed to be a “quintessential expressive association.”  Whether the Court is willing to deem baking a wedding cake the free speech equivalent of staging a parade with thousands of people on a state holiday is an interesting question.

If the Court grants the Petition, the most consequential issue could be the Kleins’ challenge to Employment Division v. Smith, in which the Court cast aside decades of First Amendment precedent to hold that general laws that place a heavy burden on somebody’s free exercise of religion must generally be obeyed nonetheless.  Under prior rulings, the government had the heavy burden of meeting the “compelling government interest” test in order to justify applying a general law that incidentally but substantially burdened somebody’s free exercise of religion.

Justice Gorsuch was correct in calling Smith a “controversial” decision. Congress was so incensed by Justice Scalia’s opinion (which drew dissents from liberal members of the Court) that a bipartisan coalition soon passed the first version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), introduced by Chuck Schumer (House) and Ted Kennedy (Senate) and eagerly signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1993.  RFRA provided that any law imposing a substantial burden on somebody’s free exercise of religion could be challenged using the strict scrutiny standard.  The Supreme Court subsequently ruled that Congress did not have authority to overrule the Court’s constitutional ruling, but the Court later upheld a revised version of RFRA that applied only to federal laws that burden religious free exercise, holding that Congress could create a legislative exception to federal laws when they incidentally impose a substantial burden on religious exercise.  Federal RFRA provided the example for more than twenty states to pass their own versions, similarly restricting the application of their state and local laws.  State court decisions in several other states have interpreted their state constitutional religious freedom provisions to the same effect, rejecting the Supreme Court’s narrower interpretation of Free Exercise in Smith.

If the Supreme Court were to overrule Smith and restore the previous precedents, RFRA and its state counterparts would be rendered superfluous, as the First Amendment would once more restrict states from enforcing general laws that substantially burden a person or business’s free exercise of religion in the absence of a compelling state interest.  The impact on LGBT rights could be enormous, prompting new claims that application of anti-discrimination laws to people and businesses with religious objections to LGBT people violates the businesses’ constitutional rights – one of the claims the Kleins are pursuing in this case.

Oregon state officials have thirty days to file a response to the Petition, and Petitioners can file a Reply to the Response, which means that the Supreme Court’s file in the case will not be completed for consideration by the Court until at least early December and maybe longer if the Oregon Attorney General’s Office requests an extension of time to respond. But if the petition is granted in December, that would leave plenty of time for the Court to hear arguments and render a decision during its current term, which runs through the end of June.

Federal Magistrate Rejects Retroactive Marital Privilege Claim for Connecticut Couple in Antitrust Case

Posted on: June 6th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

In Antech Diagnostics, Inc. v. Veterinary Oncology and Hematology Center, LLC, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 82947, 2018 WL 2254543 (D. Conn., May 17, 2018), U.S. Magistrate Judge Sarah A. L. Merriam had to deal with a claim by defendants that certain correspondence between two men (one of them a named defendant) that was sought in discovery by the plaintiffs was protected by marital privilege.  Judge Merriam’s opinion does not set out the underlying facts of the lawsuit, focusing solely on two contested discovery issues, one of which is the marital privilege issue.  However, from references in the opinion discussing the question of applicable law, it appears that this case is in federal court under federal question jurisdiction invoking the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, with a host of supplementary state law claims that also might qualify for diversity jurisdiction.  As a preliminary matter, Judge Merriam determined that the source of law governing the privilege question would be Connecticut common law.

The plaintiffs sought to compel production of 26 communications between Dr. Gerald Post, a defendant, and David Duchemin. Dr. Post and Mr. Duchemin were legally married in Connecticut on December 20, 2013, five years after the Connecticut Supreme Court issued its marriage equality ruling in Kerrigan v. Commissioner of Public Health, 957 A.2d 407 (Conn. 2008), and about six months after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, under which, inter alia, same-sex marriages performed in Connecticut could not be recognized by the federal government.  However, Post and Duchemin’s relationship dated back to 1995, and they claimed that they considered themselves effectively to have been married back to then.  The communications in question, for which they sought to invoke marital privilege, dated from 2009-2013. They argued to the court that it should consider the men to have been married, for purposes of this privilege claim, retroactively to 1995, asking the court to “extend the privilege on public policy grounds to communications made prior to the issuance of a valid marriage license.”

First, Judge Merriam rejected their claim that their relationship could be deemed a common law marriage, inasmuch as the Connecticut Supreme Court stated in McAnerney v. McAnerney, 334 A.2d 437 (1973), “Although other jurisdictions may recognize common-law marriage or accord legal consequences to informal marriage relationships, Connecticut definitely does not.”  Furthermore, the judge noted that plaintiffs had introduced evidence to contradict the claim that the men had considered themselves to be married prior to their legal marriage in 2013, including deposition testimony in which Dr. Post testified, in response to the question of what year he and Duchemin had married, “2013,” identifying their anniversary date as December 20.  “There was no confusion, and no attempt to explain, the anniversary date in light of Dr. Post’s purported consideration that he and Mr. Duchemin had been married since 1995.”  The judge also referred to an email offered in evidence, dated January 2014, in which Duchemin responded to a friend’s congratulations on the wedding by stating, “It’s so weird calling another man my husband but it is nice.”  If they had considered themselves to be spouses since 1995, perhaps this would presumably not have felt “weird” in 2014, but we do not think that necessarily follows.  Two men might have considered themselves to be virtually married but have not adopted the convention of calling themselves husbands until they had legally tied the knot….

“Regardless,” wrote Merriam, “under Connecticut law, it is well-established that for a legally valid marriage to exist, there must be a marriage contract ‘with certain formalities.’ Accordingly, because the marital communications privilege attaches only to those communications made during a legally valid marriage, and leaving aside for the moment the date on which same-sex marriage became legal, the privilege here would only attach to those communications made after December 20, 2013.”

However, defendants argued that the court should, as some other courts have done in varied contexts, take account of the fact that in 1995 Connecticut was unconstitutionally denying these men the right to marry, that they swear that they would have married then had the option been available, and thus it was equitable to treat them as married for that period of time when same-sex marriage was denied to them. A decent argument, especially in light of Mueller v. Tepler, 95 A.3d 1011 (Conn. 2014).  “There,” wrote Merriam, “the Connecticut Supreme Court recognized a loss of consortium claim by unmarried partners in a same-sex relationship, where at the time the claim arose the partners would have been married, but for the existence of a state law barring same-sex marriage.”  The Connecticut court premised its ruling on public policy concerns, stating that “marriage cannot logically serve as a proxy for the existence of the commitment that gives rise to the existence of consortium in the first instance when marriage is not an option.”  Thus, there is Connecticut precedent for retroactive recognition of a marital relationship in certain circumstances.

But Judge Merriam found that the argument did not work in this case due to issues of timing. “Mueller is plainly distinguishable from the current facts,” she wrote.  “There, the individual in a same-sex relationship sought to assert a loss of consortium claim for a tort that occurred in 2001, some seven years before same-sex couples had a right to marry in the State of Connecticut.  At the time the claim arose in Mueller, legal marriage between a same-sex couple was not an option.  Here, by contrast, the [defendants] claim privilege for communications between Dr. Post and Mr. Duchemin from 2009 to 2013.  During that time period, Dr. Post and Dr. Duchemin were able to marry in the State of Connecticut.  There was no obstacle to legal marriage in this state at that time, as there was at the time the claim in Mueller arose.  Accordingly, the holding and rationale of Meuller are not persuasive, nor entirely applicable, to the facts presently before the Court.”

While disclaiming any ruling on whether the men could claim privilege in any communications between them before marriage equality was established in Connecticut in 2008 by the Kerrigan opinion, Merriam pointed out that “the only communications implicated in the current dispute date from 2009 to 2013.  Additionally, the Court is not adjudicating the general rights of same-sex couples.  Rather, it is constrained to consider the specific facts of the current dispute before it – which simply does not implicate the ‘bewildering and unjust anomaly’ suggested by the [defendants].”

Judge Merriam mentioned that Dr. Post claimed that he and Duchemin had not married as soon as it was possible in Connecticut “out of solidarity with those to whom this recognition was still denied.” While she said that this “is certainly a noble position,” it carried “real legal consequences.  Although the [defendants] present an emotionally compelling argument with respect to extending the marital communications privilege to a date before Dr. Post and Mr. Duchemin’s legal marriage, the Court must apply the law as it stands. . . .  Here, Dr. Post and Mr. Duchemin were not legally married until December 20, 2013.  They had the legal right, in Connecticut, to marry as early as 2008.  Therefore, communications between Dr. Post and Mr. Duchemin between 2009 and December 20, 2013, are not protected by the marital communications privilege.”  In a footnote, she added, “The Court notes the discrepancy between the statement that Dr. Post and Mr. Duchemin delayed obtaining a marriage license ‘out of solidarity with those to whom this recognition was still denied,’ and the date on which marriage became legal through the United States.  Dr. Post and Mr. Duchemin married on December 20, 2103. The Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell on June 26, 2015, about a year and a half after Dr. Post and Mr. Duchemin obtained a marriage license.”

Although not stated by Judge Merriam, it seems likely that the decisive timing factor for Post and Duchemin was probably the June 2013 U.S. v. Windsor decision, after which it became clear in the ensuing months that same-sex couples who had refrained from marrying under state law because they had diminished practical incentive to do so in light of lack of federal recognition, should now get married in order to obtain whatever advantages they might derive from federal recognition of their marriage.  By December 2013, the Obama Administration had issued enough guidelines, advisories, and other pronouncements in response to Windsor’s impact on federal rights that those holding back may have decided the time was right to proceed without awaiting the next step of a marriage equality ruling under the 14th Amendment binding on all the states.

Judge Merriam ordered the defendants to produce the challenged 26 communications, with a June 11 deadline to do so.

Dr. Post’s legal representative on this issue is Edward D. Altabet (lead attorney), Gerard Fox Law P.C., New York, with Richard J. Buturla and Ryan Driscoll (local counsel) from Berchem, Moses & Devlin P.C., Milford, CT.

Can Three Parents Make a Family in New York?

Posted on: April 17th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

 

                In an opinion issued on April 10, New York Family Court Judge Carol Goldstein confronted the question whether there can be a third parent – an adult with legal rights to seek custody and visitation of a child who already has two legal, biological parents – in the context of a married gay male couple and the woman who agreed to have a child with them and share parenting.  She concluded that the “non-biological father” in this triad has “standing” under New York’s Domestic Relations Law to seek custody and visitation of the child, but not necessarily to be designated as a “legal parent.”  The case is Matter of David S. and Raymond T. v. Samantha G., 2018 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 1249, 2018 N.Y. Slip Op 28110 (N.Y. County Family Court, April 10, 2018).

 

                As usual in contested child custody cases, the judge assigned pseudonyms to the parties and the child in order to protect their privacy, naming the men David S. and Raymond T., the woman Samantha G., and their child Matthew Z. S.-G..  Throughout the opinion, however, she refers to the adults as Mr. S., Mr. T., and Ms. G.

 

                The adults were all friends.  “Over brunch in May 2016, the three friends discussed how each wished to be a parent and devised a plan whereby a child would be conceived and raised by the three parties in a tri-parent arrangement,” wrote Judge Goldstein.  “While the parties agreed that the mother would continue to live in New York City and the men would continue to reside together in Jersey City, the parties agreed that they would considered themselves to be a ‘family.’”  They carried out this plan, but never reached agreement on a signed written document.

 

                Over a period of eight days, Mr. S. and Mr. T. “alternated the daily delivery of sperm to Ms. G for artificial insemination.  On or about Labor Day weekend, 2016, Ms. G. announced that she was pregnant.  The three parties publicized the impending birth on social media with a picture of all three parties dress in T-shirts.  Misters S. and T.’s shirt each said, ‘This guy is going to be a daddy’ and Ms. G’s shirt said, ‘This girl is going to be a mama.’”

 

                They all participated fully in preparing for the arrival of the child, attending a natural childbirth course, creating a joint savings account for the child (to which Mr. T. had, as of the time of the court’s hearing in this case, contributed 50% of the funds), agreeing on a pediatrician and making medical decisions jointly, and planned that the child would be delivered with the assistance of a midwife at the men’s New Jersey home.  This occurred on May 6, 2017. 

 

It was not until after the child was born that a “private genetic marker test” determined that Mr. S.’s sperm initiated the pregnancy.  He signed a New Jersey acknowledgment of paternity on May 11.  They named the child using names of significance from all three families.  After Matthew was born, the entire family spent a week at the men’s home, after which Ms. G returned with Matthew to her home in New York County (Manhattan).  Matthew, still an infant, lives mainly with his mother, although the men have had regular parenting time and last summer the parties vacationed together in the Catskills.

 

Because infant Matthew was nursing on demand, overnight visits with the men had not been scheduled, but were supposed to start during April.  “When speaking to Matthew,” wrote the judge, “all parties refer to Ms. G. as ‘Momma,’ Mr. S. as ‘Daddy’ and Mr. T. as ‘Papai,’ which is Portuguese for father.”  All three parents were present at the hospital when Matthew had hernia surgery at two months.

 

Mr. T. and Ms. G. have a contract with a literary agent to write a book about their joint parenting venture.  In recognition of Mr. T’s profession of meteorology, the provisional title is ‘Forecasting a Family.’”

 

However, wrote Judge Goldstein, “Issues arose between the two men and Ms. G with respect to the parenting of Matthew as well as to the extent of parental access by Misters S. and T.  The relationship among the parties became strained.”  Misters S. and T. filed a joint petition in the Family Court in New York County on November 12, seeking “legal custody and shared parenting time” with Matthew by court order.  On December 6, Ms. G filed a “cross-petition” seeking sole legal custody of Matthew, with the men being accorded “reasonable visitation.”  None of the parties was seeking an “order of paternity or parentage” in their initial filings with the court. 

 

The court asked the parties to submit memoranda of law about the parenting issues, and how the N.Y. Court of Appeals’ Brooke S.B. decision from 2016 might apply.  In Brooke S.B., the court overturned a 25-year precedent and ruled that a non-biological parent could have standing to seek custody and visitation under certain circumstances.  That case involved a custody and visitation dispute of a lesbian couple over a child born to one of them through donor insemination.

 

The main issue of dispute between these parties, which came out in their briefs, is about Mr. T.’s legal status toward the child.  Under New York law, the husband of a woman who gives birth is presumed to be the child’s father, but the legal status of a man who is married to another man whose sperm is used to conceive a child with a woman to whom he is not married presents new, unresolved legal issues.  Ms. G  agrees that Mr. T. should have standing to seek visitation, but she argued “strenuously” that “the right to seek custody and visitation as a ‘parent’ under the Domestic Relations Law does not automatically bestow parentage on the non-biological party” and asked that the court not declare Mr. T. to be a third legal parent.  On the other hand, the men argued that not only should Mr. T. have standing to seek custody and visitation as a ‘parent,’ but that the court should also declare him to be a third legal parent of Matthew.

 

Judge Goldstein found that under the circumstances of this case, with an emphasis on the understanding and agreement of the parties when they devised their plan to have and raise a child together, it was clear that Mr. T. has standing to seek custody and visitation in line with the Brooke S.B. decision.  “In making this decision,” she wrote, “this court is specifically taking into consideration that the relationship between Mr. T. and Matthew came into being with the consent and blessing of the two biological parents and that both biological parents agree that Mr. T. should have standing to seek custody and visitation.” 

 

She identified as the “fundamental principle” of the Court of Appeals precedent that the state’s domestic relations law “must be read to effectuate the welfare and best interests of children, particularly those who are being raised in a non-traditional family structure.  The parent-child relationships fostered by children like Matthew, who are being raised in a tri-parent arrangement, should be entitled to no less protection than children raised by two parties.” 

The judge noted the likelihood that this kind of situation will recur, pointing out the differences between the use of anonymous sperm donors where no parental role is contemplated for the sperm donor, and the situation where a known donor is involved “where the parties agree that the provider of the egg or sperm will be a parent.”

 

She also noted recent New York decisions that had denied standing or parental status to sperm donors, where all these circumstances were not present, particularly where lesbian couples obtained sperm from a known donor but there was no understanding or agreement that the donor would be considered a parent of the child.  These situations are less difficult to analyze from a legal perspective if the parties negotiate and sign carefully worded written agreements memorializing their understanding of their rights and responsibilities, although such documents are not binding on a court, whose main task under the domestic relations statutes is to make such decisions in the best interest of the child.

 

The court found that the usual “presumption of legitimacy” used to determine parental standing in donor insemination cases was not relevant in considering the status of Mr. T., even though Mister S. and Mr. T. are married to each other.  “This is because the presumption that Matthew is the legitimate child of the married couple, Misters S. and T., would indisputably be rebutted by evidence that all three parties agreed that Matthew would be raised in a tri-parent arrangement and that Ms. G., the biological mother, would be a parent to Matthew.”  In other words, this is not a gestational surrogacy case, where the woman’s only role was to produce the child and agree to forego parental rights.

 

However, noting that the men’s original filing with the court did not seek an order of “parentage” on behalf of Mr. T, the judge declined to issue such an order.  “Moreover,” she wrote, “there is no need for the issue of parentage to be addressed since pursuant to Brooke S.B., Mr. T. may seek custody and visitation as a ‘parent’ under DRL section 70(a) without a determination that he is a legal parent.  If, in the future, a proper application for a declaration of parentage is made and there is a need for a determination of parentage, for instance, to rule on a request for child support, the court may address this issue.  This court, however, notes that there is not currently any New York statute which grants legal parentage to three parties, nor is there any New York case law precedent for such a determination.”

 

So a child can have three parents, or at least three adults with standing to seek custody and visitation, while at the same time having only two “legal parents,” in New York.  Unfortunately, New York’s Domestic Relations Law has not been revised by the legislature to take account of the sorts of “non-traditional” family structures that have emerged over the past half century as assisted reproductive technology has become relatively easy for people to use without the assistance of medical specialists and a diversity of family structures have arisen through social evolution.

 

This case will now proceed to consideration by the judge about what kind of custody and visitation arrangement would be in Matthew’s best interest, to embody in a formal order that would protect Mr. T’s rights as a non-biological parent.  While having determined that Mr. T has standing to seek custody and visitation, the judge’s opinion expresses no view as to the viability of tri-partite custody, without actually ruling it out as a possibility. 

 

Misters S. and T. are represented by Patricia A. Fersch.  Ms. G is represented by Alyssa Eisner, or Sager Gellerman Eisner LLC.

 

Mississippi Supreme Court, Rejecting Parental Status for an Anonymous Sperm Donor, Says Birth Mother Can’t Challenge Same-Sex Partner’s Parentage

Posted on: April 12th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

Ruling on a custody contest between a birth mother and her former same-sex spouse on April 5, the Mississippi Supreme Court avoided mentioning the parental presumption that most states automatically apply for the spouse of a woman who gives birth to a child, relying instead on a doctrine called “equitable estoppel” to prevent the birth mother from contesting her former spouse’s parental status.

Although none of the five written opinions signed by different combinations of judges on the nine member court represent the views of a majority, adding them up produces a holding that the existence of an anonymous sperm donor is irrelevant to the determination of parental rights for the birth mother’s same-sex spouse.  The court reversed a ruling by Judge John S. Grant, III, of the Rankin County Chancery Court, that the failure to obtain a waiver of parental rights from an anonymous sperm donor prevents identifying the birth mother’s spouse as a legal parent of the child.

The various complications in this case arose because the relevant facts played out before marriage equality came to Mississippi as a result of the June 2015 Obergefell decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, and because the retrograde Mississippi legislature has neglected to adopt any statutes concerning who would be considered a parent when a woman or a couple use sperm from an anonymous donor obtained through a sperm bank to conceive a child, leaving the courts to sort this out without any legislative guidance.

The story begins in 1999 when Christina Strickland and Kimberly Jayroe began their relationship.  After several years together, they decided to adopt a child.  The adoption of E.J. was finalized in 2007.  Because Mississippi did not allow joint adoptions by unmarried couples, only Kimberly was the legal adoptive parent of E.J..  In 2009, Christina and Kimberly went to Massachusetts to marry, and Kimberly took Christina’s last name.  The Stricklands then returned to their home in Mississippi, where their marriage was not legally recognized.

In 2010, the Stricklands decided to have a child using “assisted reproductive technology” – A.R.T.  They obtained anonymously donated sperm from a Maryland sperm bank.  Kimberly, whom they jointly decided would be the gestational mother, signed the sperm bank’s form providing that she would “never seek to identify the donor” and that the donor would not be advised of Kimberly’s identity.  In Maryland, Kimberly was then recognized as a married woman and Christina was identified as her spouse in the clinic paperwork.  Both women signed the form acknowledging that they were participating in this process as a married couple and would both be parents of the resulting child.

According to the plurality opinion by Justice David Ishee, “Christina testified that she was involved in and supportive through every step of the conception and pregnancy.”  She also testified that their plan was to go to Massachusetts for the delivery of the baby, so that their marriage would be recognized and both recorded as parents on the birth certificate.  But for medical reasons that did not occur.  Six week before her due date, Kimberly gave birth to the child, Z.S., in an emergency cesarean section surgical procedure in a Mississippi hospital.  Since Mississippi did not recognize the marriage, the birth certificate shows Kimberly as the only parent.

Over the next two years, the women functioned as a family unit, raising both E.J. and Z.S. as co-parents.  Christina stayed home for the first year of Z.S.’s life, while Kimberly worked full time.  Christina testified that both children call her “mom.”  The women separated in January 2013.  Christina continued to visit both children and paid child support, medical and daycare expenses for Z.S.

Now things took a strange twist: On August 13, 2015, while still married to Christina (and at a time, due to the Obergefell decision, when Mississippi would be legally obligated to recognize the marriage is the issue came up in any legal context), Kimberly married a second spouse, whose name and gender are not identified in any of the judge’s opinions, although from the caption of the case it sounds like her new spouse’s surname is Day, since Kimberly is identified in the title of the case as Kimberly Jayroe Strickland Day.

This prompted Christina to file a divorce petition in Harrison County Chancery Court on August 31. On November 16, Kimberly filed a motion for a declaratory judgment that her second marriage was valid and her first marriage “dissolved” in Rankin County Circuit Court.  Christina answered that motion and counterclaimed for divorce and legal and physical custody of both children, who were then living with Kimberly.  She also sought to be named as Z.S.’s legal parent.  The two cases were consolidated in the Rankin County court.  On May 17, 2016, Judge Grant issued an order declaring that Christina and Kimberly’s 2009 Massachusetts marriage was valid and recognized in Mississippi, and therefore that Kimberly’s second marriage was void.

This led the women to negotiate a “consent and stipulation,” in which they agreed that Z.S. was born during their marriage, that they would jointly pay all school expenses for Z.S., and that Kimberly would retain physical and legal custody of E.J., the adoptive child.  They agreed to let the chancery court decide custody, visitation, and child support issues for Z.S., child support and visitation issues for E.J., and the issue of Christina’s parental status toward Z.S.

Judge Grant’s final judgment of divorce, entered on October 16, 2016, ordered Christina to pay child support for both children, and held that Z.S. was born during a valid marriage.  But, he ruled, Z.S. was “a child born during the marriage, but not of the marriage,” so both parties were not considered to be Z.S.’s parents.  The court considered the anonymous sperm donor to be “an absent father” whose legal parentage “precluded a determination that Christina was Z.S.’s legal parent.”  However, Judge Grant held that she was entitled to visitation with Z.S. under a doctrine called “in loco parentis,” which recognizes that somebody who has acted as a parent and bonded with a child as such could be entitled to visitation even though she has no legal relation to the child.

Christina appealed three days later.  At the heart of her argument was that because Z.S. was born while Christina was married to Kimberly, Christina should be deemed the child’s legal parent, and that the anonymous sperm donor, who had no relationship to the child, could not possibly be considered its legal parent.

The Mississippi Supreme Court was in agreement with Christina’s argument that the sperm donor is really out of the picture and should not be considered a parent.  Justice Ishee’s opinion, for himself and Justices Kitchens, King and Beam, declared that Judge Grant’s finding that the sperm donor was the child’s “natural father” was erroneous as a matter of law.  “At the outset,” he wrote, “we are cognizant of the fact that we never before have determined what parental rights, if any, anonymous sperm donors possess in the children conceived through the use of their sperm.  As such, this is an issue of first impression.”

That is a startling statement for a state Supreme Court to make in 2018, when donor insemination has been around for half a century and most states have adopted legislation on the subject.  But, wrote Justice Ishee, there is only one provision of Mississippi law relating to donor insemination, a statute providing that a father cannot seek to disestablish paternity when a child was conceived by “artificial insemination” during the marriage to the child’s mother.  That’s it.  However, wrote Ishee, “Reading this provision, in light of the context before us, the logical conclusion – while not explicit – is that the Legislature never intended for an anonymous sperm donor to have parental rights in a child conceived from his sperm – irrespective of the sex of the married couple that utilized his sperm to have that child.”

“How,” asked Ishee, “on the one hand, can the law contemplate that a donor is a legal parent who must have his rights terminated, while at the same time prohibiting the non-biological father of a child conceived through AI from disestablishing paternity?  These two policies cannot co-exist.”

Ishee rejected Kimberly’s argument that “all of the non-biological parents of children conceived through AI should be required to terminate the sperm donor’s parental rights and then establish parentage through the adoptive process.”  Ishee’s plurality (4 justices) rejected this process as “intrusive, time-consuming, and expensive,” including a ridiculous waste of time for a judge to have to determine that an anonymous sperm donor, who never intended to be the parent of the child, had “abandoned” the child, thus making the child available for adoption by its mother’s spouse.

When a father is “absent” at the time a child is born, the usual process is to try to locate the missing father and inform him of his obligations, but in the case of an anonymous donor, neither the mother nor the court has the necessary information.  In a case like this one, publishing such a notice in a newspaper – the standard way for courts to give notice to missing parties – makes no sense.

On appeal, Christina raised alternative arguments in support of her claims to be Z.S.’s parent.  First, she asked the court to determine a question not addressed by Mississippi statutes: “Whether children born to married parents who give birth to a child via A.R.T. with sperm from an anonymous donor are entitled to the marital presumption that both spouses are their legal parents.”  Alternatively, she asked “Whether the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges requires Mississippi to apply laws relating to the marital presumption of parentage in a gender-neutral manner so as to apply equally to married same-sex couples.”  As another alternative, she asked whether the doctrine of “equitable estoppel” could be used to preclude a birth mother from trying to “disestablish her spouse’s parentage of the couple’s marital child based solely on the absence of a genetic relationship, when the child was born as a result of anonymous donor insemination, to which both spouses consented.” Christina argued that Judge Grant’s order violated constitutionally protected liberty and equality interests by failing to recognize Christina’s parental relationship with Z.S.

Justice Ishee’s opinion ignored all of these arguments except “equitable estoppel,” a doctrine which he explained that Mississippi courts have defined “as the principle by which a party is precluded from denying any material fact, induced by his words or conduct upon which a person relied, whereby the person changed his position in such a way that injury would be suffered if such denial or contrary assertion was allowed.”  Ishee concluded that the doctrine fits this case, and rejected Kimberly’s argument that the decision to have a child through donor insemination was solely hers and the fact that she was married to Christina at the time was irrelevant.  Ishee found that “the evidence in the record belies this assertion,” and cited chapter and verse, right down to the birth announcements the women sent out, which identified the women as “two chicks” who had “hatched” the child.

Since Kimberly represented to Christina all along that Christina would be a parent of Z.S., the doctrine of equitable estoppel blocks her from arguing to the contrary in the context of this divorce proceeding. Judge Grant’s award of “in loco parentis” status to Christina was insufficient, in Ishee’s view, to protect her legitimate interests.  For example, suppose Kimberly married somebody else and petitioned for her new spouse to adopt Z.S.  Christina’s “in loco parentis” status would not entitle her to prevent such an adoption. But if the court recognizes her as a parent, she could.

Thus, without ever mentioning the parental presumption, the plurality opinion, purporting to be speaking for the court as a whole because of the concurring opinions, reversed the chancery court’s ruling that Christina acted “in loco parentis” but “was not an equal parent with parental rights to Z.S.” They sent the case back to Rankin County Chancery Court to determine custody using the multifactorial test that is generally used in a custody contest between legal parents to determine what would be in the best interest of the child, with a “guardian ad litem” appointed to represent Z.S. in the proceedings.

Chief Justice William Waller, Jr., joined “in part” by Justices Randolph, Coleman, Maxwell and Chamberlin, “concurred in part and in the result.” “The narrow issue before the Court,” wrote Waller, “is whether two people legally married who jointly engage in a process of assisted reproduction technology resulting in the natural birth by the gestational mother are both considered parents for purposes of divorce and determination of parental rights of the minor child.  I conclude that they are and that the decision of the chancellor should be reversed and remanded.”  After briefly referring to equitable estoppel, he wrote, “While this Court can use common-law principles to render a decision here, the Legislature should speak directly to the recognition of the legal status of children born during a marriage as a result of assisted reproductive technology.”

Justice Josiah Coleman, concurring in part and dissenting in part, pointed out that the doctrine of “equitable estoppel” had not been argued to Judge Grant, so it should not be a basis for the court’s decision. Thus, he was only joining Judge Waller’s opinion to the extent that Waller agreed that the chancellor erred by according any parental status to the sperm donor.  He would remand the case to the trial court, having reversed that part of the holding, “to allow the parties to present whatever evidence and arguments they wished that accord with the Court’s holding.”  His opinion was joined “in part” by Justices Randolph and Maxwell.

Justice James Maxwell, also concurring in part and dissenting in part, insisted that “what parental rights a sperm donor may or may not have is a policy issue for the Legislature, not the Court,” and since there was no statute on point, “we should be extremely hesitant to draw conclusions about the disestablishment-of-paternity statute, when that statute is wholly inapplicable here. Indeed,” he argued, “it is dangerous for the plurality to weigh in so heavily with what it views to be the best policy, since we all agree the chancellor erroneously inserted this issue into the case.”  His opinion was joined “in part” by Justices Randolph and Coleman.

Finally, Justice Michael Randolph dissented, joined in part by Justices Coleman, Maxwell, and Chamberlin. Randolph said the court should never have addressed equitable estoppel, because that argument was presented for the first time on appeal.  Next, although he agreed that the chancellor erred in declaring an anonymous sperm donor to be the child’s “natural father,” he thought that the “plurality’s blanket assertion that in any case, no anonymous sperm donor will be accorded the burdens and benefits of natural fathers” went too far. He though there was a constitutional issue here, where no attempt had been made to identify and contact the sperm donor.  He also pointed out that the “disestablishment” statute cited by Justice Ishee and then used to support the plurality’s ruling “never was quoted or argued by either party at the trial level,” so also should not have been relied upon in any way by the Supreme Court.  He also found no basis in the record for setting aside the chancellor’s determination that it was “not in the best interest of either child for Christina to have custody.” He pointed out that the chancellor had neglected to address all of the factors specified by Mississippi courts on the record, so the correct approach would be to remand the case to the chancellor “to examine the record and the chancellor’s notes and issue a final decree consistent with this dissent.

This appears to be a victory for Christina, to the extent that enough members of the court agreed with the equitable estoppel approach to make that part of the holding of the court, tossing the case back to the trial court to decide anew whether it is in the best interest of Z.S. for Christina to have joint or primary custody of him as a parent. (Christina is not seeking custody of E.J., just visitation rights.)  But the fractured ruling falls short of the appropriate analysis that would be more beneficial for married LGBT couples in Mississippi: a straightforward acknowledgement that when a married lesbian couple has a child through donor insemination, both of the women will be presumed to be the legal parents of that child, without any need to make a factual showing required for the application of equitable estoppel should any dispute later arise about custody or visitation.  One wonders whether fear of political retribution may have motivate all nine justices to avoid mentioning the parental presumption or invoking Obergefell in support of its application in their various opinions.

Christina is represented by Mississippi attorney Dianne Herman Ellis and Lambda Legal staff attorney Elizabeth Lynn Littrell. Kimberly is represented by Prentiss M. Grant.

Iowa Appeals Court Affirms Ruling Against Lesbian’s Brother Attempting to Invalidate Bequest to Her Surviving Partner

Posted on: February 26th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

 

David Lance Wilson struck out in his attempt to get the Iowa courts to hold that a provision in his late sister’s will leaving her entire estate to her long-time partner, Susan Woodall Fisher, was automatically revoked when the women allegedly split up nine years before the sister’s death. Affirming a summary judgment ruling by Crawford County District Judge Patrick H. Tott, the Iowa Court of Appeals ruled on February 7 in Estate of Wilson; Wilson v. Fisher, 2018 WL 739248, 2018 Iowa App. LEXIS 155, that Iowa’s Probate Code, Sec. 633.271(1), would only revoke such a bequest if a marriage was dissolved in a court action, but there is no court record of any such proceeding.

 

Although the court’s ruling was an unexceptionable interpretation of the statute on its face, the factual setting of the case is a bit odd, to say the least. In order to attempt to invoke the revocation statute, David Wilson had to allege in his petition for declaratory judgment that the women had been legally married, a contention that is demonstrably untrue, but which was accepted as an “undisputed fact” for purposes of this case in the responsive pleading filed by the co-executors of the estate, Fisher and John C. Werden, and thus by the court as well, in its opinion by Judge Christopher L. McDonald.

 

According to Judge McDonald’s summary of the factual allegations, Leslie Wilson and Susan Fisher, same-sex partners, were married in Colorado “sometime before November 6, 1991,” on which date Leslie “executed her last will and testament. Under the will, Susan was to receive Leslie’s entire estate.  Leslie’s brother, David, was listed as the successor beneficiary.”  After Leslie passed away in March 2014, Susan filed an application in the Crawford County District Court for probate of a “foreign probated will.”  District Judge Tott admitted the will into probate, and appointed Fisher and John C. Werden as “personal representatives” of the Iowa estate.  “Susan subsequently filed an election to take under the will as Leslie’s surviving spouse.  In June 2015, the personal representatives executed and recorded a court officer deed conveying an undivided one-half interest in real property owned by Leslie at the time of her death to Susan.”

 

David showed up six months later, filing his petition in the District Court alleging that Susan and Leslie had “dissolved” their marriage and that they “never cohabitated again and never remarried.” According to David, this dissolution, which involved terminating their relationship and dividing their assets, occurred in 2005.  He was relying on Code Section 633.271(1), titled “Effect of divorce or dissolution,” which states, “If after making a will the testator is divorced or the testator’s marriage is dissolved, all provisions in the will in favor of the testator’s spouse … are revoked by the divorce or dissolution of marriage, unless the will provides otherwise.”  Of course, this provision only applies if there was a marriage to begin with.

 

In a footnote, the court acknowledged that “same-sex marriages were not recognized in Colorado until October 2014. However, the parties stipulated in their pleadings that ‘Susan … and Leslie … were married in the state of Colorado’ prior to that time.  We need not address the issue of whether the parties were legally married in Colorado because it is immaterial to our resolution of the case.  If they were not legally married under Colorado law, then Iowa Code section 633.271(1)(2016) does not apply, and we would affirm.  Under the analysis used in this opinion, which assumes without deciding they were legally married, we also affirm.”

 

David sought to persuade the court that because the provision in question states “divorce or dissolution of marriage,” the words “divorce” and “dissolution” must refer to two different things. A “divorce” is obviously a legal proceeding terminating a marriage.  David argued that “dissolution” must, therefore, refer to an informal voluntary termination of a marriage by the parties without involving the courts.  But the court of appeals panel unanimously rejected this argument.

 

Judge McDonald referred to Chapter 598 of the Iowa code which “expressly defines a ‘dissolution of marriage’ as ‘a termination of the marriage relationship,’” and more specifically to Section 598.1(2), in which, he asserted, “The legislature has expressly directed that the term ‘dissolution of a marriage’ ‘shall be synonymous with the term ‘divorce.’” Thus, the court concluded, “the terms ‘divorced’ and ‘dissolved’ as used in Section 633.271(1) carry the same meaning – the statute uses the terms in the context of marital relations, and the legislature has expressly defined those terms in the context of marital relations to be synonymous.  In Iowa, a divorce or dissolution of a marriage may only be decreed by a court upon evidence ‘that there has been a breakdown of the marriage relationship to the extent that the legitimate objects of matrimony have been destroyed and there remains no reasonably likelihood that the marriage can be preserved.’”

 

As to the contention that parties can voluntarily “dissolve” a marriage without involving the courts, McDonald quoted a 1966 Iowa Supreme Court ruling, stating “We know of no such thing as a common law divorce.” McDonald found similar authority under Colorado law.

 

“It is undisputed that no decree has ever been entered dissolving Susan and Leslie’s marriage. The facts which David argues are in dispute are legally immaterial to the issue of whether Susan and Leslie’s marriage was dissolved.”  Thus, the court affirmed Judge Tott’s ruling granting summary judgment in favor of the Estate and co-executors, denying David’s request for a declaratory judgment that the bequest to Susan was automatically revoked.

 

The court also denied David’s request to delay ruling on the co-executors’ motion for summary judgment until he could obtain discovery. Such discovery would be irrelevant to disposition of this motion, because David’s attempt to use the statute to get the bequest to Susan “revoked” must be rejected regardless of which version of the “facts” one accepts, so long as there is no record of any court decree “dissolving” the Fisher-Wilson “marriage.”  And, of course, even if David is correct in asserting that the women split up and divided their assets in 2005, Leslie’s failure to revoke her will would leave the bequest in place in the absence of a valid marriage and a legal divorce.

 

Aaron W. Ahrendsen of Eich, Werden & Steger, P.C., Carroll, Iowa, represents the co-executors. Bradley J. Nelson of Norelius Nelson Law Firm, Denison, Iowa, represents David.

Foreign and International Courts Issue a Burst of LGBT Rights Rulings

Posted on: January 11th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

 

Over the course of just four days, January 8 through 11, 2018, major courts on three continents have issued rulings that will affect the rights of tens of millions of LGBT people. On January 8, the Supreme Court of India ordered reconsideration of the 2014 decision that had restored the country’s law against gay sex, in an Order that quoted extensively from prior rulings critical of the 2014 decision.  On January 9, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights advised Costa Rica – and thus also sixteen other countries in Central and South America that are bound by the American Convention of Human Rights and do not yet have marriage equality – that same-sex couples are entitled to marry and that transgender people are entitled to get legal name changes without having to undergo sex reassignment surgery.  And on January 11, one of the Advocates General of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), responding to a request for a preliminary ruling from the Constitutional Court of Romania, advised the ECJ that same-sex spouses of the citizens of member nations must be treated the same as different-sex spouses under the European Union Directive governing movement between states.

 

India has the second largest population of any country, over 1.3 billion people by the latest estimate. The European Union member countries have more than 500 million residents, and the combined countries within the Inter-American Union have close to a billion people, although some large countries, including Canada and the United States, are not subject to the Inter-American court’s ruling.  But, of course, both Canada and the United States have marriage equality and don’t criminalize consensual gay sex among adults.   This means that within the space of four days courts have potentially expanded LGBTQ rights to an extraordinary proportion of the world’s population, which is currently estimated at about 7.6 billion people, and marriage equality may soon become the norm throughout the Western Hemisphere, with only a few holdouts among states that do not recognize the jurisdiction of the Inter-American court.

 

The India ruling is yet another step in a complicated and long-running story. In 1860, under British Administration, the Indian Penal Code was adopted including what is now Section 377, providing, “Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.”  This colonial enactment was carried over into national law when India became independent and self-governing after World War II.  It has been interpreted to outlaw all same-sex oral and anal intercourse. Although infrequently enforced, it has had the same stigmatizing effect as anti-sodomy laws in western societies before the slow process of decriminalization got under way during the second half of the 20th century.

 

Many LGBTQ people in India rejoiced and went heavily public in celebratory demonstrations in 2009 when the Delhi High Court, responding to a lawsuit filed by the NAZ Foundation, an HIV/AIDS advocacy non-governmental agency, ruled that Section 377 was unconstitutional as applied to private consensual adult same-sex intercourse. NAZ Foundation v. Government of NCT of Delhi, 111 DRJ 1 (2009). As the government did not initiate an appeal, many saw the lengthy, scholarly ruling as final and definitive.

 

However, Indian jurisprudence allows for anybody who is offended by a court ruling to ask the nation’s Supreme Court to review it, and a group of religious and social conservatives, led by Suresh Kumar Koushal, a Hindu astrologist, brought their case to the Supreme Court, where a two-judge bench reversed the High Court ruling in 2014, holding that the Constitution of India did not impede the government from maintaining the existing law, and rejecting the High Court’s citation of decisions from other countries (such as the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2003 Lawrence v. Texas ruling) to support its decision. Koushal v. NAZ Foundation, 1 SCC 1 (2014).  The Supreme Court panel minimized the significance of the issue, claiming that because there were very few homosexuals as a proportion of the population, it was not a matter of great importance.  It also opined that the question of what sexual conduct to outlaw was for the legislature, not the courts, to decide.

 

Obtaining further review from a larger panel of the Court (which has 26 judges overall) is a time-consuming process, requiring filing “corrective petitions” and persuading a panel of the Court that the issue should be taken up anew. This process has been ongoing at the instance of NAZ Foundation and its supporters, but a new group of plaintiffs emerged in 2016 and initiated a petition directly with the Supreme Court, arguing that recent rulings in other cases by the Court, most notably a later 2014 ruling on the rights of transgender people, National Legal Service Authority v. Union of India 5 SCC 438 (2014), had cast significant doubt on the reasoning of the Koushal decision.  This argument was bolstered last year when a nine-member panel of the Court, ruling on a challenge to a new national genetic identification system, Puttaswamy v. Union of India, 10 SCC 1 (2017), specifically discussed and disparaged the Koushal decision’s treatment of constitutional privacy and the rights of LGBTQ people.

 

The Court’s January 8 Order in Johar v. Union of India Ministry of Law and Justice, Writ Petition No. 76/2016, by a three-judge panel including Chief Justice Dipak Misra, provided an extensive summary of the arguments against the constitutionality of Section 377, quoting extensively from the 2014 transgender and 2017 privacy rulings, particularly those passages critical of the Koushal decision, and granted the petitioners’ request that a larger panel of the Court be convened to reconsider that decision. Interestingly, only the Petitioners were present at the Court’s hearing on January 8, with the argument being presented by Senior Advocate Arvind Datar.  Nobody appeared from the government to oppose the request for reconsideration.  The Order emerged immediately after the hearing.

 

While the Order does not specifically state that all of the Petitioners’ arguments are correct, after concluding its summary of the arguments and what the Petitioners are seeking, the Court stated, “Taking all the aspects in a cumulative manner, we are of the view, the decision in Suresh Kumar Koushal’s case requires re-consideration. As the question relates to constitutional issues, we think it appropriate to refer the matter to a larger Bench.”

 

A different Bench of the Court is presently considering the curative petition that was filed by the NAZ Foundation, so there was some speculation in the Indian press that the two cases could be combined before that larger panel. “In the meantime,” wrote the Court, “a copy of the petition be served on the Central Agency so that the Union of India can be represented in the instant matter.  Let the matter be placed before Honorable the Chief Justice of India, on the administrative side, for consideration of the appropriate larger Bench.”

 

Indian jurisprudence is famous for its slow motion, but there was some optimistic speculation that an opinion from a larger Bench of the Court may emerge later this year. In light of the serious criticisms of the Koushal decision by other Benches of the Court, commentators were optimistic that the Delhi High Court’s original ruling striking down criminalization of consensual gay sex will ultimately prevail, and gay sex will become legal in the world’s second largest country.

 

The Inter-American Court’s ruling on January 9 came in response to a petition submitted two years ago by Luis Guillermo Solis, the President of Costa Rica, who had run for office on a pledge to expand LGBTQ rights in his Central American country. Opinion Consultiva, OC-24/17 (2017). In the face of legislative intransigence, Solis inquired whether Costa Rica was obligated under the American Convention on Human Rights to let same-sex couples marry.  He also inquired about transgender rights.  The Court, which actually sits in Costa Rica’s capital city, came back with a strong affirmation for LGBTQ rights.  The opinion is initially available only in Spanish. According to translations published in English-language media sources, the court said that governments subject to the Convention “must recognize and guarantee all the rights that are derived from a family bond between people of the same sex,” and that establishing a separate institution for same-sex couples, such as civil unions, was not adequate from the point of view of legal equality.  The governments must “guarantee access to all existing forms of domestic legal systems, including the right to marriage, in order to ensure the protection of all rights of families formed by same-sex couples without discrimination.”

 

However, recognizing the kind of legislative intransigence encountered in Costa Rica and many other Central and South American countries, where the Roman Catholic Church has a heavy influence on social policy, the court recommended that government pass “temporary decrees” while new legislation is considered.

 

The Inter-American Court, in common with the European Court of Human Rights, is not empowered directly to order a government to do anything. Compliance requires acquiescence, and sometimes the court has resorted to demanding that governments explain why they have not complied with its rulings.  For example, it took Costa Rica several years to come into compliance with a ruling by the Inter-American Court against bans on the use of in vitro fertilization.

 

President Solis reacted to the decision by calling for full compliance by the countries of the Inter-American Union. The Tico Times reported on January 10 that he told reporters, “Costa Rica and the other countries that have accepted the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court must fully comply with the court’s opinion, respecting each country’s processing time, jurisdictional and administrative spaces.  Solis pointed out that Costa Rica’s compliance would require a “gradual process,” requiring consultation between the various branches of government and the political parties.

 

The Court also addressed a question of transgender rights, recognizing as a human right that transgender people should be able to register themselves using the name and sex with which they identify, thus lining up with those countries that have in recent years moved towards recognizing self-declared gender identity without interposing a requirement that the individual document surgical gender confirmation procedures.

 

Commented Solis, “The court’s opinion ratifies our commitment to guaranteeing people access to the rights they acquire through their personal relations, without any sort of discrimination.” In a formal press release, the government stated: “Love is a human condition that should be respected, without discrimination of any kind.  The State confirms its commitment to comply.”

 

The countries that are legally bound by rulings of the court include Argentina, Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Surinam and Uruguay. Some of those countries still penalize gay sex, while others already have marriage equality: Colombia, Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina.  Litigation over marriage equality is pending in the Supreme Court of Panama.  In Mexico, same-sex couples can marry in several states and the capital district, and all of the states are required to recognize those marriages, while a Supreme Court ruling mandates that lower courts issue orders, called “amparos,” requiring local officials to allow particular same-sex couples (or groups of couples) who obtain the orders to marry.  The Inter-American Court’s ruling may hasten the spread of marriage equality to the remaining Mexican states.

 

Meanwhile, back in the European Union, Advocate General Melchior Wathelet’s preliminary ruling in the case of Relu Adrian Coman, a Romanian citizen who married Robert Clabourn Hamilton, an American citizen, in Brussels, Belgium, while Coman was living there and working for a European Union agency, may portend a significant advance for marriage equality in Europe. Coman v. Inspectorate General for Immigration, Case C-673/16 (January 11, 2018).  Coman sought to bring his spouse back home to Romania, but the Romanian government was unwilling to issue the kind of spousal visa that is routinely granted when Romanians contract different-sex marriages elsewhere in Europe.  Coman brought his case to the Constitutional Court of Romania, which referred the issue to the European Court of Justice for a determination of what obligation the country might have as a member of the Union.

 

Such matters are first presented to the office of the Advocate General (of which there are several), for an opinion advising the Court.  If the Court decides to follow the Advocate General’s recommendation, its ruling becomes law throughout the European Union.

 

In some respects, Wathelet’s opinion is narrow and technical, because it doesn’t address a broad question of rights, but rather the narrower question of interpreting the Directive that guarantees freedom of movement within the European Union, with an eye to breaking down nationality barriers that would inhibit the movement of labor across national lines.   Directive 2004/38 describes the “free movement of persons” as “one of the fundamental freedoms of the internal market.”  The Directive supports such freedom by requiring member states to grant freedom of movement to family members of their citizens, and of course a “spouse” is a family member, but the term “spouse” is not generally defined.  When the Directive was adopted in 2004, only two countries in Europe allowed same-sex marriage, but many others had registered partnerships for same-sex couples, so the Directive provides for free movement rights for such partners, but only “if the legislation of the host Member State treats registered partnerships as equivalent to marriage.”

 

In the case of Romania, not only is marriage defined as the union of a man and a woman, but the country’s marriage law specifies that same-sex couples may not marry, and the county provides no registered partnership status for same-sex couples. Thus, the question under EU law is whether the protection for family life and for spousal relationships would extend to same-sex spouses, overriding national law on the question of who is entitled to a residence visa (as opposed to the short-term entry visa of up to three months for tourists and business visitors).  The key to this, it proved, was the established practice both in this Court and the European Court of Human Rights to adjust the definitions of terms in reaction to social developments.

 

Wathelet quoted an earlier decision stating that “EU law must be interpreted ‘in the light of present day circumstances,’ that is to say, taking the ‘modern reality’ of the Union into account.” This is to avoid the law become static and placing a drag on economic and social development.  Wathelet noted that in a 2001 ruling, reflecting “present day circumstances” at that time, the Court had considered marriage to be “a union between persons of the opposite sex.”  But this does not reflect the “modern reality.”

 

“In fact,” he wrote, “while at the end of the year 2004 only two Member States allowed marriage between persons of the same sex, 11 more Member States have since amended their legislation to that effect and same-sex marriage will be possible in Austria, too, by 1 January 2019 at the latest. That legal recognition of same-sex marriage does no more than reflect a general development in society with regard to the question.  Statistical investigations confirm it; the authorization of marriage between persons of the same sex in a referendum in Ireland also serves as an illustration.  While different perspectives on the matter still remain, including within the Union, the development nonetheless forms part of a general movement.  In fact, this kind of marriage is now recognized in all continents.  It is not something associated with a specific culture or history; on the contrary, it corresponds to a universal recognition of the diversity of families.”

 

Wathelet also referred to decisions by the European Court of Human Rights, including those protecting the right of a national of a signatory state to the European Convention on Human Rights to bring a same-sex partner into the country. He also noted that European law now includes a ban on sexual orientation discrimination by Member States, and strong protection both under the European Union’s Charter and under the Human Rights Convention for “family life.”

 

He also contended that adopting a gender-neutral concept of spouse was consistent with the objective of the Directive, “to facilitate that primary and individual right to move and reside freely within the territory of the Member States which is directly conferred on citizens of the Union.” Freedom of movement would be impeded if lawfully married individuals could not bring the legal spouses with whom they have established a family relationship with them to return to live in their home country.

 

Thus, he recommended that the Court answer the questions posed by the Romanian Constitutional Court as follows: that “the term ‘spouse’ applies to a national of a third State of the same sex as the citizen of the European Union to whom he or she is married” for purposes of complying with Directive 2004/38 on freedom of movement.  As applied directly to Mr. Coman’s case, it means that his marriage to an American citizen while Coman was living in Belgium, a European Union country that allows same-sex marriages, gives his spouse a derivative right under the Directive to obtain, automatically, the same kind of spousal visa to enter and live in Romania that would be provided to a different-sex spouse.  Since Hamilton is not a citizen of any European Union Member State, his right is not direct and must be derived from the right of his husband to have Romania respect his marriage and family life, at least to the extent of allowing him to live together with his husband in his home country.

 

Reflecting the social divisions within the Union, several Eastern European nations – Latvia, Hungary, Poland and Romania – opposed this conclusion, while it was supported by submissions from the Netherlands and the European Commission.