"We conclude that the district court's interpretation of the [adoption act's] strict compliance standard poses an unacceptable risk of erroneous deprivation of unwed fathers' rights," the court said. It also said that protecting the state's compelling interest in timely adoption decisions did not require that a paternity petition be considered filed only at the time it was entered into the registry.
"Rather, we hold that Mr. Shaud's notice must be considered filed when Vital Records received it, because, at that point, Mr. Shaud had done all that he could to strictly comply with the act," the court said.
The opinion was written by Justice Christine Durham, who was joined by Justices Ronald Nehring and Jill Parrish. Chief Justice Matthew Durrant and Justice Thomas Lee dissented.
The court heard oral arguments in the case in September 2011. It issued the decision Friday, but it was not posted on the court's website until Tuesday after The Salt Lake Tribune inquired about the ruling.
"I honestly never thought this day would come!" Shaud said Tuesday. "All I can do is smile. ... [It has] restored my faith in the judicial system out there, and I look forward to getting our case going in the lower court."
Daniel Drage, his attorney, praised the justices for thoroughly considering the constitutional implications and due-process pitfalls of Utah's current adoption law. Drage said he and his client were looking forward to getting back in court for a hearing to "establish that he has perfected his rights as a father, that notice was timely received by the Bureau of Vital Records and that he will have an opportunity to be a father to his daughter."
While the decision assures Shaud, 26, a shot at making the argument that he acted in time to protect his parental rights, it does not guarantee he'll get to parent his child a matter that will likely involve numerous additional court hearings in which his fitness as a parent will be weighed against those of the child's adoptive parents and what is in the child's best interests.
How it began • Shaud learned in 2009 that 19-year-old Shasta Tew, with whom he had a casual relationship, was pregnant. When Tew said she didn't want to raise the baby, Shaud, who was then 22, said he would take responsibility and care for the child. After Tew began pursuing an adoption, Shaud refused to sign off and moved quickly to protect his parental rights for the coming baby, due in February 2010.
He signed with the Putative Father Registry in Florida, where both live, so he would be notified of any adoption proceedings. Five months later, Tew sent Shaud a note saying she planned to visit Arizona and Utah for the holidays. He feared her real intent was to go to one of those states to place her baby for adoption.
Shaud easily filed with Arizona's registry but had trouble finding information about what he needed to do in Utah to protect his rights. At the time, Utah's Department of Health did not provide a link to putative-father forms online; it added a link in January 2012.
Shaud hired Drage, who filed the required paternity petition in court Jan. 12, 2010, and the same day faxed a copy to the Office of Vital Records and Statistics. At the time, the state followed a four-day work schedule so it was closed that Friday, as well as the following Monday, which was a federal holiday. The office did not file Shaud's paternity notice until Jan. 20, 2010.
By then, Tew had already given birth Shaud's daughter was born prematurely Jan. 15, 2010. On the same day Shaud's paternity paperwork was officially filed, Tew relinquished her parental rights and the infant was placed with adoptive parents through A Act of Love Adoptions in Orem.
Shaud tried to fight the placement in a lower court, but a trial judge said he had acted too late to protect his parental rights under Utah's adoption law. Shaud appealed.
The high court's ruling is the second decision in a father's favor this year. In January, it ruled a Colorado father was improperly denied a say in his daughter's adoption and also sent the case back to a lower court for a rehearing.
In that decision, the court said Robert Manzanares did not know and reasonably could not have known that a birth and adoption would take place in Utah and that he needed to protect his rights here. Manzanares had filed a paternity petition in Colorado and had been assured by his daughter's mother that she had no intention of placing the child for adoption, something the woman also told a Colorado judge. Manzanares learned about a week after his daughter's birth Feb. 17, 2008, that she had been born in Utah and placed for adoption.
After the Utah Supreme Court ruling, a Utah judge dismissed Manzanares' case so that it could proceed in Colorado. His parental rights were affirmed and, under the guidance of a child psychologist, he has slowly been introduced to and allowed to build a relationship with his daughter. She was told in October that Manzanares is her daddy.
A matter of timing • In Shaud's case, the Vital Records office told A Act of Love that no paternity filing had been made; 45 minutes later, it officially logged Shaud's paperwork.
But a notice "cannot be considered filed only upon its entry into Vital Records' registry," the high court said. "This definition of 'filed' creates unfair uncertainty as to the proper filing date and infringes upon Mr. Shaud's opportunity interest in protecting his relationship with his daughter."
The majority referred several times to the court's decision in the 2007 case, in which it held that the state's adoption law had to "avoid due process implications that arise when a father's compliance is not within his power."
It also said that Shaud's attorney did not need to specifically use the "magic words" of "due process" in the lower court to raise that constitutional argument. The court pointed out the attorney had made numerous other references about the rights at stake. The fact that a copy of his court filing was not included with the notice did not matter because Vital Records accepted his filing and it was not the basis of the lower court's ruling, the majority also said.
Those two points were the basis of the dissent. Justice Lee said the majority was "jumping the gun" and reading "far too much into the arguments Shaud presented in the district court." He found that Shaud had not preserved a constitutional challenge but merely "questioned the fairness of the statutory scheme on policy grounds."
"When Shaud complained that he had done everything within his control, he was not asserting the due process point that the court today embraces in his opinion," Lee wrote in the dissent. "He was merely seeking, in other words, to protect his rights under the statute in light of his vague concerns about fairness and broad epithets about the state's carelessness."
Allegations of domestic violence in Florida
Ramsey Shaud faces an additional legal battle in his home state of Florida, where he was charged this summer with false imprisonment and battery after an argument with a girlfriend.
According to a warrant, the woman chucked a shoe at Shaud after he questioned her fidelity. He then responded by grabbing her and pushing her against a wall. The police report says Shaud also punched her cheek. She broke free, ran into a bedroom and tried to climb out a window but Shaud stopped her.
A struggle continued and the woman alleges Shaud punched her in the head several more times before she was able to escape again to a bathroom, the report states. She then managed to talk Shuad into allowing her to leave and later filed a police report about the altercation.
Shaud was arrested Sept. 25, booked into jail and then released on bond. Shaud was later charged with contempt of court for violating his bond conditions after exchanging text messages with the woman. He has pleaded not guilty. A court hearing is set for next month.
Shaud declined to speak at length about the incident because the case is still pending, but he denied hitting the woman.
"I do maintain my innocence," he said. "I am not guilty of the charges I'm accused of. I didn't do that."