Justices' decision also reinterprets sufficient notice from mothers.
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The Utah Supreme Court ruled Friday that a Colorado father was improperly denied a say in his infant daughter's adoption and sent the case back to a lower court for a rehearing.
In a split decision that establishes a new ground rule for future cases, a majority of three justices held Robert Manzanares did not know and reasonably could not have known that a birth and adoption would take place in Utah, entitling him to intervene in the proceedings.
Although Manzanares stated in a paternity petition filed in Colorado months before the birth he feared his girlfriend might flee to Utah, those concerns were "yellow flags" and not the same thing as having knowledge of such a plan, wrote Justice Thomas Lee for the high court.
Manzanares reasonably relied on birth mother Carie Terry's assurance, stated in Colorado court filings, that she had no intention of going to Utah to give birth and place their baby for adoption, Friday's opinion noted. He was unaware the child had been born in Utah until several days after Terry consented to an adoption, the high court said.
The justices said they were "disavowing" a "potentially confusing" interpretation of what constitutes notice to an unwed father as set out in a 2009 ruling in the case of Wyoming father Cody O'Dea, when they deemed the birth mother's statement during a phone call that she was "in Utah" to be adequate.
There is a difference between a belief and actual knowledge, the high court said, and "it cannot be enough to simply establish that the father had 'notice' in the sense of suspicion sufficient to trigger a further inquiry."
While Utah's law does not permit an unwed father to use fraud by the birth mother as a defense for failure to protect his rights, the birth mother's actions and statements are material in determining what he knew about her plans and when he knew it and thus whether he was required to act before the birth mother gave consent.
The justices instructed the lower court to determine whether Manzanares met Colorado requirements for establishing parental rights to his daughter and whether he had shown a full commitment to his parental responsibilities.
Manzanares was nearly speechless after learning of the court's decision.
"It is still an uphill battle but as I've said from day one, I won't stop climbing that mountain until I have her in my life," he said. "I've missed so much of her life. It is incredible to know that I could be with her soon."
John Hedrick, Manzanares' Colorado attorney, called the ruling a "step in the right direction. Unfortunately, it is still going to be a tedious process for Rob to achieve his ultimate goal."
Hedrick also said the case should now move to Colorado, where Manzanares lives and where he timely filed to protect his parental rights.
Attorney Larry Jenkins, who represents the adoptive parents, did not respond Friday to a request for comment.
Manzanares and Terry, both Colorado residents, conceived a child in the summer of 2007. After their relationship ended, Manzanares made clear he opposed adoption and would, if necessary, raise the child on his own. Manzanares provided financial support throughout Terry's pregnancy.
On Jan. 11, 2008, Terry sent Manzanares an email stating she planned to travel to Utah in February to visit her sick father and that she would be willing to sit down and talk to him about "your reconsideration to consent for adoption" in April, although the baby was due in late March.
Five days later, Manzanares filed a paternity action in Colorado, seeking to join any adoption proceeding and telling the court he feared Terry might go to Utah to give birth. In a subsequent court document filed in February, Terry denied she planned to pursue an adoption in Utah and asked the court to terminate Manzanares' parental rights so an adoption could proceed in Colorado. She also asked the court to reschedule a hearing set for Feb. 20 because of her Utah trip. The Colorado court refused.
Terry arrived in Utah on Feb. 14, 2008. On Feb. 16, Terry's brother and sister-in-law signed a petition to adopt the baby, who was born six weeks prematurely the next day. An adoption petition was filed in Utah state court days later.
Meanwhile, Terry informed the Colorado court on Feb. 20 she was still in Utah visiting a sick relative. Terry did not disclose that she had given birth or that she had appeared that morning in a Utah court and consented to the adoption.
Terry returned to Colorado on Feb. 24. A day later, Manzanares learned she had given birth and began calling Colorado hospitals in an attempt to locate his daughter. He also called Terry's brother, who said only that an attorney would be calling him.
On March 3, after a three-day emergency hearing, a Colorado judge granted Manzanares' paternity petition and ordered that his name be listed on his daughter's birth certificate. Manzanares then filed a motion in Utah to dismiss the adoption petition.
A July hearing on that motion revealed Terry's "multiple efforts to keep Manzanares in the dark" about her plans and her failure to inform judges in each state about what was happening in the different court hearings. Despite that, the judge found Manzanares had not properly acted to protect his rights in Utah and his consent was not required, leaving the adoption intact. Manzanares appealed.
Friday's opinion says the lower court conflated "belief" with "knowledge."
"The evidence in the record sustains only one conclusion that Manzanares did not know and could not have known of a qualifying circumstance in light of Terry's deception before she executed her consent to adoption," the opinion said.
Chief Justice Christine Durham concurred in the majority opinion, adding that in her view although the majority and dissent arrived at different outcomes, both sought to "give full force to the legislature's intent."
But Justice Jill Parrish and Associate Chief Justice Matthew Durrant, who is poised to take the helm of the judiciary as chief justice, dissented. In an opinion authored by Parrish, they lambast the majority for "wholly undermining" legislative intent, providing a "tortured" analysis of the law that will disrupt future adoptions, and disregarding the findings of a lower court judge and previous Supreme Court opinions.
"Although the result reached by the majority is defensible on basic fairness grounds, it is entirely at odds with the provisions of the Utah Adoption Act and the policy decisions duly enacted by the Utah legislature," wrote Parrish.
"The majority allows Mr. Manzanares to upset Baby B.'s adoptive placement even though he was indisputably aware that Ms. Terry was considering a Utah adoption but failed to comply with the relatively simple procedures required to perfect his rights," the dissent argues.
The qualifying circumstances
Under Utah law, an unwed father's consent to adoption is required unless he knew, and took no legal action, prior to the birth that:
a birth mother resided in Utah permanently or temporarily
the birth mother intended to give birth in Utah
the child was born in Utah
the birth mother intended to consent to an adoption in Utah
The father must show he fully complied with requirements for establishing parental rights in the state where the child was conceived or where the mother last resided before she consented to or relinquished a child for adoption and that he has demonstrated a full commitment to his parental responsibilities. Read the Utah Supreme Court's full opinion: http://tinyurl.com/6ppjr86