Chatterjee v. King

Decision Date01 June 2012
Docket NumberNo. 32,789.,32,789.
Citation2012 -NMSC- 019,280 P.3d 283
PartiesBani CHATTERJEE, Petitioner–Petitioner, v. Taya KING, Respondent–Respondent.
CourtNew Mexico Supreme Court


Caren I. Friedman, Santa Fe, NM, N. Lynn Perls, Albuquerque, NM, National Center for Lesbian Rights, Shannon P. Minter, Catherine P. Sakimura, San Francisco, CA, for Petitioner.

Kerri Allensworth, Albuquerque, NM, Atkinson & Kelsey, P.A., Patrick L. McDaniel, Albuquerque, NM. for Respondent.

Southwest Women's Law Center, Dorene A. Kuffer, Kyle M. Stock, Albuquerque, NM, for Amici National Association of Social Workers, New Mexico Chapter of National Association of Social Workers, and Southwest Women's Law Center.

Rothstein, Donatelli, Hughes, Dahlstrom, Schoenburg & Bienvenu, LLP, Sarah E. Bennett, Santa Fe, NM, New Mexico Legal Group, P.C., David G. Crum, Emma L. Whitley, Jessica C. Roth, Martha J. Kaser, Little, Gilman–Tepper & Batley, P.A., Sandra Morgan Little, Jan B. Gilman–Tepper, Roberta S. Batley, Tiffany O. Leigh, Walther Family Law, David L. Walther, Gretchen M. Walther, Kathryn E. Terry, Jennifer R. Rodgers, Albuquerque, NM, for Amici Hollinger, Joslin, & Other Family Law Professors.


CHÁVEZ, Justice.

{1} Bani Chatterjee (Chatterjee) and Taya King (King) are two women who were in a committed, long-term domestic relationship when they agreed to bring a child into their relationship. Chatterjee pleaded in the district court that during the course of their relationship, and with Chatterjee's active participation, King adopted a child (Child) from Russia. Chatterjee supported King and Child financially, lived in the family home, and co-parented Child for a number of years before their commitment to each other foundered and they dissolved their relationship. Chatterjee never adopted Child. After they ended their relationship, King moved to Colorado and sought to prevent Chatterjee from having any contact with Child.

{2} Chatterjee filed a petition in the district court to establish parentage and determine custody and timesharing (Petition). Chatterjee alleged that she was a presumed natural parent under the former codification of the New Mexico Uniform Parentage Act,1NMSA 1978, Section 40–11–3 (1986), Section 40–11–5 (1997), and Section 40–11–21 (1986). She further claimed to be the equitable or de facto parent of Child, and as such, was entitled to relief.2 In response to Chatterjee's Petition, King filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 1–012(B) NMRA. In the motion to dismiss, King neither admitted nor denied any of the facts that Chatterjee claimed in her Petition. King instead argued that Chatterjee was a third party who was seeking custody and visitation of Child and that NMSA 1978, Section 40–4–9.1(K) (1999) of the Dissolution of Marriage Act, NMSA 1978, §§ 40–4–1 to –20 (1973, as amended through 2011), prohibits a third party from receiving custody rights absent a showing of unfitness of the natural or adoptive parent. The district court dismissed the Petition for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.

{3} Chatterjee then appealed to the Court of Appeals, which affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded to the district court. Chatterjee v. King, 2011–NMCA–012, ¶ 40, 149 N.M. 625, 253 P.3d 915,cert. granted,2011–NMCERT–001, 150 N.M. 560, 263 P.3d 902. The Court of Appeals held that Chatterjee did not have standing to seek joint custody absent a showing of King's unfitness because she is neither the biological nor the adoptive mother of Child. Id. ¶ 29. The Court further held that presumptions establishing a father and child relationship cannot be applied to women, and a mother and child relationship can only be established through biology or adoption. Id. ¶¶ 27–29. Judge Vigil, who dissented in the Court of Appeals opinion, believed that Chatterjee had standing to pursue joint custody under the extraordinary circumstances doctrine. Id. ¶ 49 (Vigil, J., dissenting). The Court of Appeals reversed the district court's dismissal concerning the opportunity for Chatterjee to seek standing for visitation and remanded to the district court, instructing the district court to determine whether visitation with Chatterjee would be in Child's best interests. Id. ¶¶ 39–40. On remand, the district court appointed a guardian ad litem for Child and accepted the guardian ad litem's recommendation that contact and visitation with Chatterjee would be in Child's best interests.

{4} The question in this case is whether Chatterjee has pleaded sufficient facts in her Petition to give her standing to pursue joint custody of Child under the Dissolution of Marriage Act. Whether Chatterjee has standing to pursue joint custody depends on whether Chatterjee has pleaded facts sufficient to establish that she is an interested party under Section 40–11–21 of the New Mexico Uniform Parentage Act (UPA). Her pleading sets forth facts, which, if true, establish that she has a personal, financial, and custodial relationship with Child and has openly held Child out as her daughter, although she is neither Child's biological nor adoptive mother.

{5} We hold that a natural mother is an interested party who has standing to pursue joint custody of a child. We conclude, based on the facts and circumstances of this case, that the facts pleaded by Chatterjee are sufficient to confer standing on her as a natural mother because (1) the plain language of the UPA instructs courts to apply Section 40–11–5(A)(4), which specifies criteria for establishing a presumption that a man is a natural parent, to women because it is practicable for a woman to hold a child out as her own by, among other things, providing full-time emotional and financial support for the child; (2) commentary by the drafters of the UPA supports application of the provisions related to determining paternity to the determination of maternity; 3 (3) the approach in this opinion is consistent with how courts in other jurisdictions have interpreted their UPAs, which contain language similar to the New Mexico UPA; and (4) New Mexico's public policy is to encourage the support of children, financial and otherwise, by providers willing and able to care for the child.


{6} Chatterjee argues that she has standing to establish parentage as an interested party under Section 40–11–21 of the UPA because she has held Child out as her child pursuant to Section 40–11–5(A)(4). Section 40–11–21 provides that [a]ny interested party may bring an action to determine the existence or nonexistence of a mother and child relationship. Insofar as practicable, the provisions of the Uniform Parentage Act [40–11–1 NMSA 1978] applicable to the father and child relationship apply.”

{7} While there is no case law in New Mexico holding that a person alleging a natural parent relationship under the UPA is per se an interested party, our courts have recognized that the Legislature “clearly intended” that the UPA have broad application. In In re Estate of DeLara, 2002–NMCA–004, ¶ 13, 131 N.M. 430, 38 P.3d 198, the Court of Appeals concluded that the use of the term “any interested party in Sections 40–11–7 and 40–11–21, coupled with the extraordinary twenty-one year statute of limitations, Section 40–11–23, indicates the Legislature's intent to apply the UPA broadly. The Court recognized that this reading was in line with New Mexico's strong public policy favoring child support, which is important to both the child and the state. DeLara, 2002–NMCA–004, ¶ 13, 131 N.M. 430, 38 P.3d 198.

{8} Moreover, the Court of Appeals has treated the “interested party standard under the UPA as a fact-sensitive inquiry, considering the particular facts of each case. See, e.g., Sisneroz v. Polanco, 1999–NMCA–039, ¶¶ 18, 20, 22, 126 N.M. 779, 975 P.2d 392 (holding that, under the facts of the case, a mother had standing to bring a suit for retroactive child support under the UPA); State ex rel. Salazar v. Roybal, 1998–NMCA–093, ¶¶ 3–4, 125 N.M. 471, 963 P.2d 548 (holding that a twenty-year-old adult was an interested party and, until the age of twenty-one, eligible to seek support and a determination of paternity); Tedford v. Gregory, 1998–NMCA–067, ¶ 13, 125 N.M. 206, 959 P.2d 540 (same).

{9} We agree that a case-by-case analysis is the best way to determine whether an action is appropriate under the UPA. Chatterjee claims that she openly held out Child as her natural child from the moment that she and King brought Child to New Mexico from Russia and therefore that she should be able to establish a parent and child relationship under Section 40–11–5(A)(4), which creates a presumption of paternity. Section 40–11–5(A)(4), which we refer to as the “hold out provision,” provides that [a] man is presumed to be the natural father of a child if ... he openly holds out the child as his natural child and has established a personal, financial or custodial relationship with the child.” Any person who is able to establish presumed natural parenthood under Section 40–11–5(A)(4) would qualify as an interested party. Therefore, we must now determine whether Chatterjee, as a woman, can establish a presumed natural parent and child relationship under Section 40–11–5(A)(4).


{10} Chatterjee argues that the Court of Appeals erred in holding that none of the UPA provisions relating to the father and child relationship may be applied to women. She claims that this holding directly contradicts the plain language of Section 40–11–21. King responds that the UPA provisions establishing paternity should not be applied to women because the UPA expressly provides the ways in which maternity can be established. We agree with Chatterjee. We find support for Chatterjee's argument not only in the plain language of the statute itself,...

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