DENVER — A Colorado judge has ordered a hearing to determine the parental rights of a man whose daughter was born in Utah and placed for adoption more than eight years ago without his knowledge or consent.
Denver Juvenile Court Judge D. Brent Woods, in an order signed late last week, set a Jan. 13 hearing during which Rob Manzanares' lengthy battle to assert his rights to raise his child is expected to come to a conclusion.
Quoting an earlier Colorado Court of Appeals decision, Woods noted Manzanares' "epic" struggle to establish his parental rights.
"But for the petitioner's tenacity, his efforts would have failed. That struggle should end now," Woods' order states.
Manzanares' attorney, Michael L. Cheroutes Jr., said the upcoming hearing will determine the parental rights of Manzanares and those of the child's biological mother.
The judge left open the possibility that the biological mother could designate that her parenting time is exercised or shared with the Utah couple — her brother and sister-in-law — who have had custody of the child for most of the past eight years other than court-ordered visits with Manzanares and his family, who live out of state.
Attorneys for the Utah couple and the biological mother declined to comment.
Cheroutes said the issue may be resolved akin to an out-of-state custody arrangement in a divorce, but he and Manzanares are still working though what they consider the best options.
"We sort of find ourselves in a situation where anything you decide is going to have problems," he said.
The latest proceeding turned on an issue of "equitable estoppel," a defensive doctrine that prevents one party from taking unfair advantage of another.
Cheroutes, in an interview with Denver television station CBS4, said Judge Woods' order "essentially says if you are going to take possession of a child in a wrong way, through deception, through a wrongful act, you can’t be rewarded for that."
Manzanares has literally fought for his daughter for years, demonstrating "a level of commitment that's truly unusual and noticeable," the attorney said.
Cheroutes said he has represented clients in far less complicated cases who "simply walk away. They can't do it any more in the face of attorney fees, the litigation and some of the false allegations, and everything takes forever."
"Especially in the context of a child, that fighting is the very harm you’re trying to prevent," he said.
In this case, the child was conceived in Colorado but born prematurely in Utah in February 2008. The biological mother made clear her desire to place the child for adoption, the judge's findings of fact state.
"Petitioner (Manzanares) objected. Petitioner stated he would not consent to an adoption and wanted to raise the child. Petitioner consistently informed respondent that he wanted to raise the child and would do so alone if she did not want to co-parent with him," the findings state.
Five months before the child's birth, respondent "hatched the plan to give the baby up for adoption to her brother and sister-in-law as early as October or November of 2007," the juvenile judge wrote, quoting an earlier Utah Supreme Court ruling.
Neither the biological mom nor her brother and sister-in-law told Manzanares about their specific plans for adoption, court documents state.
About a month before the baby's birth, the biological mother told Manzanares she was going to visit her sick father in Utah.
An email she sent Manzanares during the pregnancy suggests she would be returning to Colorado to address issues at work prior to the child's birth.
"The court finds this email to be deliberately and intentionally deceitful. The court finds this email was intended to mislead (Manzanares) into thinking that no final decision would be made about the adoption until April, when in fact respondent planned to give the child up for adoption to the interveners in Utah as soon as possible," according to the court's findings of fact.
Court documents also state that the biological mother and her brother had "explored the possibility of inducing labor early. At the most recent evidentiary hearing in Denver, it was learned those discussions may have begun as early as December or January in 2007 and 2008."
The Utah trial court found that the birth mother's sister-in-law's name was on the birth certificate, but Manzanares was not listed as the father.
Three days after the baby's birth, the biological mother appeared before a judge in Utah to consent to the adoption.
That same day, the biological mother informed the Denver Juvenile Court by telephone that she would not be appearing at a hearing on Manzanares' paternity petition and effort to seek an injunction on an adoption.
"She did not inform anyone in Colorado that she had given birth and was about to appear for an adoption consent hearing in Utah. The court finds this call was intentionally deceptive," Judge Woods' order states.
The issue has been fought in state trial and appellate courts in Utah and Colorado, and in a civil lawsuit filed in federal court in Utah.
Manzanares now lives in New Mexico and is raising a son he had with his wife, and her children from a previous relationship in what Cheroutes calls a "modern blended family."
Cheroutes said Manzanares "was thrilled" that he had prevailed on the equitable estoppel issue, which may result in him being awarded primary custody.
"The frustration before was the trial court had not even considered that equitable estoppel argument. It's one thing when the court disagrees with you and says, 'I heard your argument and don't agree with it,'" said Cheroutes, explaining the issue was raised two years ago before a trial court.
That decision was appealed to the Colorado Court of Appeals, which remanded the case to the juvenile court for a hearing on the equitable estoppel issue.
"It was nice to have that argument considered, and we're absolutely thrilled the court sided with us on that," Cheroutes said.