J.M.W. v. T.I.Z. (In re Baby E.Z.)

Decision Date19 September 2011
Docket NumberNo. 20090625.,20090625.
Citation687 Utah Adv. Rep. 17,2011 UT 38,266 P.3d 702
PartiesIn the Matter of the ADOPTION OF BABY E.Z., a minor.J.M.W., III, Appellant, v. T.I.Z. and C.M.Z., Appellees.
CourtUtah Supreme Court


Joshua K. Peterman, Salt Lake City, for appellant.

Larry S. Jenkins, Lance D. Rich, Salt Lake City, for appellees.

Justice PARRISH, opinion of the Court:


¶ 1 This is an appeal from a district court order denying a father's motion to intervene in, object to, or dismiss an adoption proceeding involving his biological daughter. The case involves the adoption of Baby E.Z., born on February 10, 2009 in the State of Virginia. The Appellant, John Wyatt III, argues that the federal Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act (the PKPA), 28 U.S.C. § 1738A (2006), deprived the district court of jurisdiction over the adoption proceeding and requires enforcement of a Virginia court order awarding him custody of Baby E.Z. Alternatively, Mr. Wyatt argues that the district court erred when it denied his Motion to Intervene, Objection to Adoption, and Motion to Dismiss the adoption proceeding. We hold that the PKPA applies to adoption proceedings, but that Mr. Wyatt waived any claim under the PKPA by failing to raise the statute below. We also hold that Mr. Wyatt failed to timely assert his parental rights under Utah law and, therefore, the district court correctly denied his motion.


¶ 2 As the result of a relationship with Mr. Wyatt, Emily Colleen Fahland (the Birth Mother) became pregnant with Baby E.Z. in 2008. The Birth Mother and Mr. Wyatt, both residents of Virginia, were never married and Baby E.Z. was born on February 10, 2009 in Woodbridge, Virginia. Prior to the birth of Baby E.Z., the Birth Mother decided to relinquish the child for adoption and retained Act of Love/Alternative Options to assist her with the adoption process.

¶ 3 On February 12, 2009, the Birth Mother relinquished her parental rights in Baby E.Z. and consented to the adoption. This allowed the adoption agency to place Baby E.Z. with Appellees, the prospective adoptive parents (the Prospective Parents).

¶ 4 On February 17, 2009, the Prospective Parents received approval from the administrator of the Interstate Compact on Child Placement to travel to Utah with Baby E.Z. The next day, Mr. Wyatt initiated custody and visitation proceedings in a Virginia Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court (the Virginia court).

¶ 5 On February 23, 2009, while the Virginia custody and visitation action was proceeding, the Prospective Parents filed a Petition for Adoption in Utah district court. On April 8, 2009, Mr. Wyatt registered as the putative father of Baby E.Z. with the Virginia Putative Father Registry. On April 28, 2009, Mr. Wyatt filed a motion in the Utah court contesting the adoption and requesting permission to intervene. Mr. Wyatt neither raised the PKPA in the Utah district court nor challenged the Utah court's jurisdiction to hear the adoption proceeding. On June 11, 2009, the Utah court denied Mr. Wyatt's motion, holding that he had waived his rights to the child, that he could not intervene, and that his consent to the adoption was not required. It is this district court order that is the subject of this appeal.

¶ 6 Subsequently, on December 11, 2009, the Virginia court issued an order granting Mr. Wyatt custody of Baby E.Z. (the Virginia Order).1 Relying on the PKPA, the Virginia court determined that it had exclusive jurisdiction to determine custody of Baby E.Z.


¶ 7 The Utah legislature has enacted strict requirements for unmarried birth fathers who seek to prevent adoption of their children. See, e.g., Utah Code Ann. § 78B–6–121(3) (Supp.2010) ([C]onsent of an unmarried biological father is not required unless, prior to the time the mother executes her consent for adoption or relinquishes the child for adoption, the unmarried biological father [commences a paternity action in a Utah district court].”). This court has recently upheld these requirements. See J.S. v. P.K. (In re Adoption of I.K.), 2009 UT 70, ¶ 8, 220 P.3d 464 (“Under Utah law, an unmarried biological father must establish his parental rights by strictly complying with certain statutory requirements.”); H.U.F. v. W.P.W, 2009 UT 10, ¶¶ 28–38, 203 P.3d 943 (affirming district court's ruling that a putative father waived his rights to contest adoption because he failed to comply with Utah's requirements). This case is unique, however, because we are being called upon for the first time to address a Utah adoption proceeding in connection with the federal PKPA, 28 U.S.C. § 1738A (2006).

¶ 8 To provide proper context, we briefly describe the PKPA and its state law precursor, the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act (UCCJA). The UCCJA was promulgated in 1968 by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws in response to “child snatching.” See UCCJA prefatory note. Child snatching occurs when a noncustodial parent who has not prevailed in a custody proceeding in one state abducts his or her children and transports them across state lines to seek a more favorable result in another forum. See id. Child snatching was widespread in part because, unlike other judicial orders, custody determinations are not subject to the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the United States Constitution. See id. Constitutional full faith and credit attaches only to “final” judgments, and custody determinations are typically modifiable, nonfinal orders. See id. Thus, absent legislation providing otherwise, the possibility of modification of custody decrees provided incentive for a parent unwilling to accept an adverse judgment in one state to seek a more favorable custody determination in another. See id.

¶ 9 The UCCJA was a piece of model legislation that sought to remedy this problem by extending full faith and credit to state custody decrees. See id. The statute largely had this effect, but only in those states in which it was adopted. States that had not adopted the UCCJA became havens for child snatchers seeking favorable custody determinations. See, e.g., Roger M. Baron, Federal Preemption in the Resolution of Child Custody Jurisdiction Disputes, 45 Ark. L.Rev. 885, 889–90 (1993). Seeking to fill this void, Congress passed the PKPA. See id. at 890. The PKPA had as a primary goal the extension of full faith and credit to all state custody determinations. But the statute had broader goals as well. Congress recognized that interstate controversies over child custody should be minimized so as to better foster stable home environments and secure family relationships for children. See PKPA of 1980, Pub.L. No. 96–611, § 7(c)(1), (3)-(5), 94 Stat. 3569, 3569. To this end, the PKPA provided clear jurisdictional rules intended to identify the jurisdiction in the best position to decide the merits of a child custody case. Mr. Wyatt argues that the PKPA applies here.


¶ 10 “Whether a trial court has subject matter jurisdiction presents a question of law, which this Court reviews under a correction of error standard....” Xiao Yang Li v. Univ. of Utah, 2006 UT 57, ¶ 7, 144 P.3d 1142 (internal quotation marks omitted). Similarly, a district court's decision to grant a motion to dismiss presents a question of law that we review for correctness.” Citizens for Responsible Transp. v. Draper City, 2008 UT 43, ¶ 8, 190 P.3d 1245. We also review standing and intervention issues under a correctness standard.” J.S. v. P.K. (In re Adoption of I.K.), 2009 UT 70, ¶ 7, 220 P.3d 464.


¶ 11 Mr. Wyatt raises two primary arguments. First, he argues that the PKPA, which he raises for the first time on appeal, deprives Utah courts of subject matter jurisdiction over the adoption proceeding involving Baby E.Z. and requires enforcement of the Virginia Order awarding him custody. Mr. Wyatt alternatively argues that the Utah court erred in denying his motion to intervene in, object to, or dismiss the adoption proceeding.

¶ 12 The Prospective Parents argue that the PKPA does not apply to adoption proceedings and that, in any event, Mr. Wyatt waived his jurisdictional argument under the PKPA by failing to raise it in the district court. They further argue that the district court properly denied Mr. Wyatt's challenge to the adoption proceeding because Mr. Wyatt failed to timely establish parental rights in Baby E.Z.

¶ 13 We hold that the PKPA applies to adoption proceedings, but that it does not divest the district court of subject matter jurisdiction. Therefore, Mr. Wyatt's failure to raise the PKPA in the district court precludes its consideration on appeal. We further hold that the district court properly applied Utah law in concluding that Mr. Wyatt forfeited his right to contest the adoption by failing to comply with the requirements of Utah law. We therefore affirm.


¶ 14 The prospective parents argue that the PKPA does not apply to adoption proceedings and that it therefore cannot deprive Utah courts of jurisdiction over their adoption petition. In relevant part, the PKPA states:

A court of a State shall not exercise jurisdiction in any proceeding for a custody or visitation determination commenced during the pendency of a proceeding in a court of another State where such court of that other State is exercising jurisdiction consistently with the provisions of this section to make a custody or visitation determination.

28 U.S.C. § 1738A(g) (2006) (emphasis added).

¶ 15 Whether the PKPA applies to adoptions is an issue of statutory construction. “Under our established rules of statutory construction, we look first to the plain meaning of the pertinent language in interpreting [the statute]....” Fla. Asset Fin. Corp. v. Utah Labor Comm'n, 2006 UT 58, ¶ 9, ...

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