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Michigan Supreme Court: Adoptions Take Priority Over Paternity Actions Unless There’s “Good Cause”

Posted on Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Adoption appeals frequently involve situations that require immediate action by the courts, which means emergency motions must be filed. Two recent adoption cases exemplify when such emergency motions are necessary: In re MGR and In re LMB.

The Michigan Court of Appeals issued the In re MGR and In re LMB decision in early 2018. Both cases focused on the interplay between the Paternity Act and the Adoption Code. The Court of Appeals decisions in both cases sounded the alarm for prospective adoptive parents. Why? Because the Court of Appeals basically said that putative fathers can stop an adoption proceeding in its tracks by simply obtaining an order of filiation from the trial court. 

The Speaker Law Firm represented the prospective adoptive parents in both In re MGR and In re LMB. We filed numerous emergency motions on behalf of our clients. The following is just a sampling of the motions that were filed.

  1. An emergency motion for peremptory reversal of the trial court’s sua sponte decision to stay the adoption case.
  2. An emergency motion for leave to supplement a motion for peremptory reversal when the trial court issued its opinion on a sua sponte stay while the appeal was pending.
  3. An emergency motion to enforce the Court of Appeals order that ordered the trial court to lift the stay and proceed with the adoption hearing.
  4. An emergency motion to enforce another Court of Appeals order requiring the trial court proceed with the adoption hearing.
  5. An emergency motion for reconsideration of a Court of Appeals order relating to the adoption hearing and ascertaining who was paying for paternity testing.
  6. An emergency motion for a stay after trial court denied the adoption.

Here is an overview of both cases.

Case Background

In re MGR involved concurrent adoption and paternity proceedings. The putative father had appeared by telephone at a March 2017 adoption hearing pursuant to MCL 710.39 (commonly known as a “Section 39 hearing”). The trial court ordered that it would not take further action in the adoption case until the paternity action was resolved.

The Court of Appeals granted a motion for immediate consideration and instructed the trial court to continue the adoption proceeding. Accordingly, the trial court held that although the putative father did not appear in person at the March 2017 adoption hearing, he properly appeared by telephone and expressed his intent to pursue custody if a paternity test showed him to be the child’s father. The trial court’s decision was appealed. It was argued the trial court should have terminated the putative father’s parental rights because he did not personally appear and contest custody during the adoption hearing.

The Court of Appeals, however, affirmed the trial court’s conclusion that the putative father properly appeared at the adoption hearing. The Court of Appeals also dismissed the claim that the adoption proceedings were improperly adjourned and held that an order of filiation can control the disposition of an adoption appeal, thereby refuting the argument that Adoption Code proceedings take precedence over Paternity Act proceedings.

Like In re MGR, the case of In re LMB also involved concurrent adoption and paternity proceedings. The putative father did not support the child or the mother and did not have a custodial relationship with the child. At the adoption hearing, the trial court declined to terminate the putative father’s rights. That decision was appealed. In the meantime, the putative father filed a paternity action after the adoption hearing had commenced. While the adoption appeal was pending, the trial judge in the paternity case entered an order of filiation under which the putative father was ruled to be the child’s legal father. The prospective adoptive parents filed a motion to stay the paternity case and prevent entry of the order of filiation. That motion was denied.

Eventually, the Michigan Supreme Court remanded In re LMB for reconsideration in light of the Court of Appeals order in Sarna v Healy. On remand, the Court of Appeals again dismissed the appeal as moot. According to the Court of Appeals, it was bound to follow its prior decision in In re MGR. “The pertinent facts of this case are the same as in In re MGR and, as a published decision, In re MGR is binding precedent,” the Court of Appeals said. “Accordingly, because respondent father is LMB’s legal father, it is impossible for this Court to grant petitioners’ requested relief and remand for a determination of whether respondent legal father’s rights should be terminated under a section only applicable to putative father.”

A more in-depth discussion of the Court of Appeals rulings in In re MGR and In re LMB can be found on the Speaker Law Blog.

The Speaker Law Firm appealed the Court of Appeals decisions in both In re MGR and In re LMB to the Michigan Supreme Court.

High Court Reversal

On June 6, 2019, the Michigan Supreme Court issued two separate orders, finding in favor of our clients in both In re MGR and In re LMB. In so ruling, the Supreme Court shed light on two significant legal issues.

  1. Whether an order of filiation can properly be entered by a trial court while an adoption proceeding concerning the same child is on appeal.
  2. Whether entry of an order of filiation moots the pending adoption appeal.

Regarding the first issue, the Supreme Court upheld In re MKK, 286 Mich App 546 (2009). However, the justices also reiterated that, under In re MKK, a paternity case may only be prioritized over an adoption proceeding for “good cause.” If there isn’t good cause, then not only must the adoption proceeding not be stayed in favor of the paternity case, but the paternity case must be stayed in favor of the adoption case. According to the Supreme Court, the stay must last through the entire adoption proceeding, including through the end of an appeal. Although the Supreme Court did not elaborate on exactly what “good cause” is, the justices explained that it was not present in either In re MGR or In re LMB.

Regarding the second issue, the Supreme Court said that if a trial court erroneously fails to stay a paternity case where there is not good cause to prioritize it above an adoption case, the resulting order of filiation must be vacated and the adoption proceeding must proceed until appeals are exhausted.

What do the Supreme Court’s orders in both In re MGR and In re LMB mean for adoptions? Here are the key takeaways.

  1. Trial courts should always stay paternity proceedings in favor of adoption proceedings unless good cause that rises to the standard of In re MKK can be articulated.
  2. An order of filiation is not the end of an adoption proceeding unless there is good cause to prioritize the paternity action over the adoption proceeding.
  3. Parties should seek a stay of the paternity action, appeal any denial of a stay if there was not good cause and object to adjournment of the adoption proceedings. A reversal on that issue requires the order of filiation to be vacated and allows the adoption case to proceed.
  4. When the issue of mootness arises in an adoption appeal, whether the appeal is moot hinges on whether there was good cause to prioritize the paternity action. If there was not good cause, then the order of filiation was entered in error and does not render an adoption appeal moot.

What Is “Good Cause”?

The most difficult question remaining after the Supreme Court’s orders in In re MGR and In re LMB is this: what exactly constitutes good cause?

Here at the Speaker Law Firm, we believe the courts have overcomplicated the prioritization of adoption cases by inserting the good cause framework of In re MKK, rather than simply prioritizing adoption cases. Adoption proceedings already provide safeguards for putative fathers who seek to become legal fathers. But despite this, good cause remains a fact-specific inquiry.

In re MGR and In re LMB are prime examples of Michigan trial courts and the Court of Appeals incorrectly applying the good cause standard. The Supreme Court’s June 2019 orders make it clear that merely filing a paternity action and contesting an adoption is insufficient to constitute good cause to stay the adoption proceeding in favor of the paternity action. Rather, the putative father must do something more to show interest and ability to raise the child. The much clearer standard set forth in MCL 710.39(2) (custodial relationship or substantial and regular support) already permits a putative father to avoid termination of his parental rights.

Accordingly, while the purpose of the “good cause” requirement remains uncertain, it continues to exist as a standard in Michigan adoption cases – a standard with which legal practitioners and the courts will continue to struggle.

 

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