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Lamkin v. Lamkin

Supreme Court of Maine

June 12, 2018


          Argued: February 15, 2018

          Kenneth I. Marass, Esq. (orally), Springvale, for appellant Deborah E. Lamkin

          Peter E. Rodway, Esq. (orally), Rodway & Horodyski, PA, Portland, for appellee Corrie L. Lamkin


          HJELM, J.

         [¶1] Deborah E. Lamkin appeals from a judgment entered by the District Court (Portland, J. French, J.) concluding that she did not have standing to pursue a claim for visitation rights with her grandchild pursuant to the Grandparents Visitation Act (GVA), 19-A M.R.S. §§ 1801-1805 (2017), and, on that basis, dismissing her petition. On appeal, Deborah contends that the court erred in its standing determination. Because Deborah failed to demonstrate standing to proceed either pursuant to the GVA or as a putative de facto parent-a claim that is suggested in some of Deborah's filings and that she presses on appeal-we affirm the judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         [¶2] The following facts are drawn from the procedural record and the court's findings, which are supported by the record. See Philbrook v. Thehault, 2008 ME 152, ¶ 2, 957 A.2d 74.

         [¶3] Deborah E. Lamkin is the mother of Corrie L. Lamkin and the grandmother of the child at issue here. Corrie gave birth to the child in 2008. For the two years following the child's birth, Corrie and her child lived with Deborah and Deborah's husband until Corrie and the child moved into their own home. After Corrie and the child moved, Deborah had contact with the child "several days per week, " including "almost every weekend." After the child entered daycare, Deborah cared for him two days per week. Once the child started school, on Wednesdays, Deborah met him when he got off the bus, and he stayed for dinner at her house. That pattern continued until December of 2016, when Corrie became involved in a relationship with her current boyfriend, who causes Deborah concern because he is a registered sex offender.

         [¶4] On June 2, 2017, Deborah filed a petition, accompanied by an affidavit, see 19-A M.R.S. § 1803(2)(A), to "establish grandparent's rights" pursuant to the GVA, seeking "specific rights of visitation, contact, etc., and/or ... primary physical residence" of the child.[1] In addition to reciting many of the facts noted above, which were later addressed in the judgment, Deborah stated in her affidavit that in February of 2017, Corrie left the child with her for five days while Corrie visited Florida, and later that month, both Corrie and the child stayed at Deborah's residence for three weeks after Deborah's husband died. Deborah also alleged that since March of 2017, Corrie has prevented her from having contact with the child. She concluded her affidavit as follows:

I feel that [the boyfriend] is not a good influence on my daughter, and may present a safety hazard for [the child]. I feel it is in [the child's] best interest to have specific rights of contact and visitation with me, at specific times and dates, and/or for [the child's] primary physical residence to be with me.

         [¶5] In response, Corrie filed a motion to dismiss for lack of standing. As allowed by statute, see 19-A M.R.S. § 1803 (2) (B), Corrie also filed an affidavit in which she stated, among other things, that since the child was three months old, he has been consistently enrolled in daycare or after school care and that Deborah has never provided or offered to provide full-time care for the child; that the boyfriend's conviction was based on electronic sexual communications with a teenage girl; that Corrie has attended some of her boyfriend's therapy sessions so she could learn of anything needed for the child's safety; that the boyfriend's probation officer has approved of the boyfriend's contact with the child; that, at Corrie's request, the probation officer notified the Department of Health and Human Services of Corrie's relationship with the boyfriend "to make sure we had proper approval from every possible angle and that we were above board, " and that the Department chose not to investigate or become involved in the matter; that, at an activity the child regularly attends, Deborah has had contact with him against Corrie's wishes; and that Deborah is attempting to control Corrie's parenting of the child, which Deborah has done throughout the child's life.

         [¶6] Two days after Corrie filed her motion to dismiss Deborah's petition, the court granted the motion. The court's order set out the factual findings described above.[2] The court then analyzed the information in the parties' affidavits in terms of the legal standards governing de facto parenthood cases, see 19-A M.R.S. § 1891(2), (3) (2017), and found that Deborah had not provided "consistent caretaking" of the child; that Corrie had not "understood, acknowledged or accepted that or behaved as though [Deborah] is a parent of the child"; and that Deborah had not "accepted full and permanent responsibilities as a parent of [the child], " id. § 1891(3)(B)-(D). On that basis, the court concluded that Deborah had not established standing because she failed to make a "prima facie showing of de facto parentage as required... under the Grandparents Visitation Act" to proceed on her petition. (Italics omitted.)

         [¶7] Deborah filed a "Motion to Reconsider/or for Hearing" in which she asserted that her relationship with the child rises to the level of a de facto parent and is "substantially greater than that of a normal and involved grandparent."[3] Deborah also filed another affidavit, in which she requested that the court hold an evidentiary hearing where she would present the testimony of third-party witnesses "who would verify [her] role as a de facto parent to [the child]."[4] In the affidavit, Deborah stated, among other things, that she had encouraged Corrie to enroll the child in daycare so that Corrie would be financially responsible for the child and the child would have interaction with others of his age; that Corrie "broke off communication" between Deborah and the child, but Deborah continued to see the child at activities where Corrie was also present and therefore knew that Deborah was present; that Corrie provided Deborah's contact information to third parties to be used in an emergency; and that Corrie has consulted Deborah on parenting issues.

         [¶8] The court denied Deborah's motion, concluding that, even with the additional submissions, see supra n.3, she had not demonstrated standing and that a hearing was unnecessary because the body of facts set forth in her various affidavits "fail to establish the elements of de facto parenthood required under Maine law." Deborah timely appealed to us. See 14 M.R.S. § 1901(1) (2017); 19-A M.R.S. § 104 (2017); M.R. App. P. 2(b)(3) (Tower 2016).[5]


         [¶9] Deborah argues on appeal that the court erred by dismissing her petition based on its determination that she failed to establish standing. Deborah's petition stated that it was predicated on the GVA, but, as we have noted above, see supra ¶¶ 4, 7, her submissions to the court also introduced concepts that are specific to the law of de facto parenthood.[6] The court made its standing determination pursuant to the de facto parentage framework prescribed in the Maine Parentage Act (MPA), see 19-A M.R.S. § 1891(3). We conclude that, as a matter of law, when the substance of Deborah's petition is viewed solely as one to establish rights pursuant to the GVA itself, the evidence in the record is insufficient to demonstrate that Deborah has standing. Further, to the extent that Deborah's claim is viewed as one to establish de facto parenthood, she has not demonstrated standing not only because-as the court concluded-the information in the record did not satisfy all of the statutory standing elements, but also because her failure to demonstrate standing pursuant to the GVA necessarily means that she cannot meet the greater standing requirements governing de facto parenthood cases.

         [¶10] We examine the legal aspects of a court's standing determination de novo and review for clear error the factual findings underlying that determination. See 19-A M.R.S. §§ 1803(2), 1891(2); Philbrook, 2008 ME 152, ¶ 21, 957 A.2d 74 (citing Bissias v. Koulovatos, 2000 ME 189, ¶ 6, 761 A.2d 47 (stating that the issue of standing presents a mixed question of law and fact, where the "underlying historical facts" on which a court "based its finding of standing are reviewed for clear error" and legal questions are reviewed de novo)); see also Desmond v. Desmond, 2011 ME 57, ¶ 5, 17 A.3d 1234 (stating that where "there was no request for findings following the court's entry of its judgment, we infer any findings necessary to support the result... as long as those findings are supported by the record" (citing M.R. Civ. P. 52)).

         A. Standing Principles in GVA and De Facto Parenthood Cases

         [¶11] In its judgment, the court equated the standing requirements in a GVA proceeding with those applicable to a de facto parenthood case. As we explain below, however, there can be a material difference between the two. Accordingly, before addressing how those standards apply to Deborah's petition, we consider the relationship between the statutory principles of standing in GVA and de facto parenthood proceedings.

         [¶12] A third party's action to establish rights regarding someone else's child interferes with the parent's fundamental right to raise that child and decide with whom, and under what circumstances, the child may have contact. See Rideout v. Riendeau, 2000 ME 198, ¶ 30, 761 A.2d 291; see also Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57, 65 (2000) (stating that "the interest of parents in the care, custody, and control of their children-is perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests"); Curtis v. Medeiros, 2016 ME 180, ¶ 13, 152 A.3d 605; Eaton v. Paradis, 2014 ME 61, ¶ 8, 91 A.3d 590. Consequently, whether a grandparent seeks to establish rights of contact with a grandchild pursuant to the GVA, or a third party-who could be a grandparent, see, e.g., Philbrook, 2008 ME 152, ¶ 7, 957 A.2d 74-seeks an adjudication of de facto parenthood, that petitioner must prove that he or she has standing to proceed to a plenary hearing on the requested relief. This common requirement is well-established both in our decisional authority[7] and in statute, [8] and constitutes a safeguard designed to prevent unjustified interference with the fundamental rights inherent in a parent-child relationship, while also allowing an adjudication of any legitimate interests of third parties that would affect that relationship. See Eaton, 2014 ME 61, ¶ 8, 91 A.3d 590 (discussing the purpose of the standing requirement in de facto parenthood cases); Rideout, 2000 ME 198, ¶¶ 30-32, 761 A.2d 291 (discussing the purpose of the standing requirement in GVA cases). We review in turn the elements of standing necessary to proceed to a plenary hearing in de facto parenthood and GVA cases.

         [¶13] To establish standing to proceed in a de facto parenthood case, the petitioner must prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, see Davis v. McGuire, 2018 ME 72, ¶¶ 19, 26, - A.3d -, the same elements that the petitioner ultimately would be required to prove by clear and convincing evidence at a plenary hearing for a determination of de facto parenthood status, see 19-A M.R.S. § 1891(2)(C), (3). Those elements comprise the following:

A. The person has resided with the child for a significant period of time;
B. The person has engaged in consistent caretaking of the child;
C. A bonded and dependent relationship has been established between the child and the person, the relationship was fostered or supported by another parent of the child and the person and the other parent have understood, acknowledged or accepted that or behaved as though the person is a parent of the child;
D. The person has accepted full and permanent responsibilities as a parent of the child without expectation of financial compensation; and
E. The continuing relationship between the person and the child is in the best interest of the child.

Id. § 1891(3). These are the features that, when viewed collectively, the Legislature has determined to constitute the essence of a de facto parent-child relationship-namely, that the putative de facto parent "has fully and completely undertaken a permanent, unequivocal, committed and responsible parental role in the child's life."[9] Id.

         [¶14] In contrast to the standing requirement in a de facto parenthood case, a grandparent who brings a claim pursuant to the GVA must demonstrate standing by showing either a "sufficient existing relationship" with the grandchild, or a "sufficient effort to establish" a sufficient existing relationship with the grandchild. 19-A M.R.S. § 1803(1)(B), (C).[10] The first of these two formulations, set out in section 1803(1)(B), is at issue here. We have held that the "substantial relationship" criterion set out in section 1803(1)(B) can be applied constitutionally only when "the most urgent reasons" are present as the compelling state interest that is constitutionally required to justify governmental interference with the "natural right of a parent to the care and control of a child." Rideout, 2000 ME 198, ¶ 24, 761 A.2d 291 (quotation marks omitted); see also Robichaud v. Pariseau, 2003 ME 54, ¶ 8, 820 A.2d 1212.

         [¶15] In a GVA case, the "urgent reason" that must be present to establish standing includes a situation where "a grandparent who has functioned as a parent to the child seeks continued contact with that child"-in other words, "[w]hen a grandparent has been the primary caregiver and custodian for a child over a significant period of time." Rideout,2000 ME 198, ¶¶ 25, 27, 76lA.2d29l (quotation marks omitted); see also Conlogue v. Conlogue,2006 ME 12, ¶ 10, 890 A.2d 691; Robichaud,2003 ME 54, ¶ 10, 820 A.2d 1212 (stating that "Rideout's 'urgent reasons' standard presupposes extraordinary contact between a grandparent and grandchildren to satisfy the constitutional requirement of a compelling state interest to interfere with parents' right to care for and control their children"). Conversely, where a grandparent's contact with the grandchild is not extraordinary ...

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