SALT LAKE CITY — The biological father of a child who was placed for adoption in Utah without his knowledge or consent has prevailed in the latest court battle in his seven-year fight for custody of his daughter.
The Colorado Court of Appeals ruled earlier this month that a Colorado juvenile court misapplied the law when it did not consider Rob Manzanares' "equitable estoppel" argument, which is a defensive doctrine preventing one party from taking unfair advantage of another.
"Given the trial court's express recognition that the circumstances under which the child came into interveners' physical care were at best deceitful, if not fraudulent, it should have considered father's equitable estoppel argument before it allocated any parental responsibilities to interveners," the appellate court's order states.
After affirming the lower court decision in part, vacating it in part, the appellate court returned the case to the juvenile court, directing it to consider a 2000 Supreme Court decision the court's majority wrote "reaffirmed fundamental right of parents to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of their children."
In Troxel v. Granville, the majority described parental rights as “perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognized by this Court.”
While Manzanares' fight lives on, the child will continue to live primarily in Utah with the couple who has had custody of her since birth, and Manzanares will continue to have visitation rights in Utah and New Mexico, where he now lives. This summer, Manzanares had three or four weeks of "uninterrupted parent time" with his daughter, according to his attorney Wes Hutchins.
Hutchins said the appellate court's order was significant because it found that the juvenile court "didn't honor" the Troxel presumption.
"The Troxel court said biological parents are entitled to a presumption, unless they’re found unfit or incompetent, they’re entitled to a constitutional liberty interest protective presumption that their decisions are in the best interest of their child," he said.
Manzanares works at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he has attained one of the nation's highest security clearances to work with defense contractors, Hutchins said.
"It's not like he's a deadbeat dad or doesn't have a job. He's an upstanding guy," Hutchins said.
Attorney Mike Hulen of Littleton, Colorado, who represents the Utah couple who has had custody of the girl since her birth in February 2008, said he was surprised how quickly the appeals court arrived at its decision and also by its order to remand.
The court ruled about 10 days after oral arguments in early August.
"Of course, we respect the decision and we are now discussing, the appellate lawyer, clients and I, the next step to take," Hulen said.
The next hearing is the latest step in a protracted legal fight that began before the girl was born.
Manzanares petitioned a trial court in Colorado in January 2008 for a paternity determination and to enjoin any adoption proceeding. Manzanares, then a Colorado resident, alleged "serious and founded concerns that the child's mother will flee to Utah, where she has family, to proceed with an adoption," court documents state. He also sought an order allocating parental responsibilities to him.
In the biological mother's response, she acknowledged that Manzanares was the child's biological father but noted the two were never married. She asked the trial court to allow adoption proceedings and deny parental responsibilities to the father based on the child's best interests, court documents state.
Before the paternity hearing and unknown to Manzanares or the trial court, the biological mother gave birth in Utah six weeks prematurely. The next day, without notifying Manzanares or the court, the woman in a Utah court relinquished her parental rights to her brother and sister-in-law to allow them to start adoption proceedings. A district court in Utah granted temporary custody of the infant to the couple.
The Utah Supreme Court ultimately found that Manzanares had been improperly barred from intervening in the adoption proceeding, which was never completed. It sent the case back to a lower court, which agreed to transfer the case to Colorado.
In March 2014, a Colorado juvenile court judge ruled that the then-6-year-old girl would continue to live primarily in Utah with the couple who has had custody since birth. However, the judge also ruled that Manzanares would have an "important fatherly role" with visitation in Utah and New Mexico.
Under the judge's order, Manzanares and the couple share joint decision-making on all major aspects of the girl's life such as her education, health care, extracurricular and recreational activities, etc., to ensure "more frequent or continuing contact" between the parties.
While the juvenile court judge wrote he was "mindful of the deceitful, fraudulent and outrageous conduct" that launched the dispute, he opted not to give it "much weight" and instead focused on the commitment made by the parties to work together with the child's best interests in mind.
The appellate court agreed with Manzanares' contention that the juvenile court erred "in failing to consider that the fraudulent circumstances under which interveners came to have custody of the child estopped them from being awarded parental rights. We agree this portion of the order must be vacated and conclude that a remand is required."
The trial court has been ordered to make specific findings "whether the interveners were complicit in what the court described as 'findings of deception' that were part of 'the unique factual history of the case.' "