V.B. v. A.S.A. (In re K.T.B.)

Decision Date21 July 2020
Docket NumberNo. 20150821,20150821
Parties In the MATTER OF the ADOPTION OF K.T.B., a person under eighteen years of age V.B., Appellant, v. A.S.A. and J.K.A., Appellees.
CourtUtah Supreme Court
Introduction

¶1 This is an adoption case. In 2010, V.B. (Mother) gave birth to K.T.B. Sometime later, K.T.B. went to live with A.S.A. and J.K.A. (collectively, the Adoptive Parents) and has lived with them ever since. In early June 2015, the Adoptive Parents filed an adoption petition in the district court and served notice of the proceeding on Mother. The notice informed Mother that she had thirty days to file a motion to intervene in the case or she would forfeit her parental rights in K.T.B. and would be barred from participating further in the adoption proceeding.

¶2 Mother attempted to intervene, but due to a procedural deficiency in the document she filed with the district court, the court struck her filing and excluded her from the adoption proceeding. Mother then filed a rule 60(b) motion seeking relief from the court's order to strike. Around this time, J.N.—Mother's common-law husband—filed his own motion to intervene, asserting, based on his judicially recognized common-law marriage to Mother, that he is K.T.B.'s presumptive father. The district court denied both motions.

¶3 On appeal, Mother challenges the constitutionality of Utah's Adoption Act.1 Specifically, she argues that the Adoption Act's structure, which permits a district court to terminate parental rights if the parent does not "fully and strictly comply" with the statutory requirements, is unconstitutional as applied to her.2 We agree with Mother on substantive due process grounds, so we reverse the district court's order striking Mother's filing.

¶4 Additionally, J.N. argues that the district court erred in denying his motion to intervene because the Adoption Act entitles him to certain rights as K.T.B.'s presumptive father. But because J.N. had not obtained judicial recognition of his common-law marriage at the time the Adoptive Parents filed their adoption petition, the Adoptive Parents had no obligation to serve him with notice. Instead, he was presumed to be on notice that an adoption could occur and was obligated to file a motion to intervene within thirty days of the Adoptive Parents' petition. Because he failed to do so, his motion to intervene was untimely and the district court did not err in denying it.

Background

¶5 Mother gave birth to K.T.B. in September 2010. His biological father is unknown. In 2013, K.T.B. went to live with the Adoptive Parents. The Adoptive Parents became his legal guardians in June 2014 and one year later they petitioned the district court to terminate Mother's parental rights and allow them to adopt K.T.B. Shortly thereafter, the Adoptive Parents served Mother with a notice of the adoption proceedings in accordance with Utah Code section 78B-6-110.3

¶6 The notice informed Mother that she had thirty days to intervene or contest the adoption. It explained that her response must be in the form of "a motion to intervene[,] which shall set forth the specific relief sought[ ] and shall be accompanied by a memorandum specifying the factual and legal grounds upon which the motion is based." It further stated that her failure to respond would "result in [her] waiver of any right to further notice of the proceeding," would cause her to "forfeit any rights in relation to [K.T.B.]," and would "bar[ ] [her] from thereafter bringing or maintaining any action to assert any interest in [K.T.B.]."

¶7 Within thirty days of receiving the notice of the adoption proceeding, Mother filed an "Answer to Verified Petition for Termination of Parental Rights and for Adoption of Minor Child." Her answer reads like a typical answer in a civil case—it addresses each allegation in the adoption petition separately, denying almost all of them. This included a denial of all of the Adoptive Parents' allegations regarding her parental unfitness and lack of an emotional connection to K.T.B. Importantly, Mother did not include an accompanying memorandum "specifying the factual and legal grounds upon which the motion [was] based," and at no place in the answer did she make legal or factual assertions beyond conclusory admissions or denials of the allegations contained in the adoption petition.

¶8 Additionally, in the answer's prayer for relief, Mother requested "[t]hat petitioners take nothing by way of their Petition," her reasonable attorney fees, and any other relief the court deemed just and appropriate to award.

¶9 After thirty days, the Adoptive Parents asked the district court to strike Mother's answer because she did not comply with the requirements of section 110 of the Adoption Act. Citing section 110's strict compliance requirement, the district court granted the Adoptive Parents' request by striking Mother's answer. The court explained that the "Answer was not accompanied by a memorandum supporting intervention." And it "also did not ‘set forth specific relief sought’ " because the only relief sought was that "Petitioners take nothing by way of their Petition." According to the court, this did not qualify as a request to intervene in the adoption, nor did it meet the statutory requirement that the relief be "specific."

¶10 Once the court struck the answer, it concluded that Mother had failed to intervene within the time allotted by section 110. Due to this failure, the court ruled that Mother had "waived any right to further notice in connection with the adoption," had "forfeited all rights in relation to the adoptee," and was "barred [t]hereafter from bringing or maintaining any action to assert any interest in the adoptee." It also found that because she failed to intervene, her consent to the adoption could be implied under section 120.1.4

¶11 One month after Mother's exclusion from the adoption proceeding, the court entered findings of fact and conclusions of law, determining that Mother had forfeited her right to consent under sections 110 and 1125 and, alternatively, that she had implied her consent under section 120.1 by failing to file a timely motion to intervene. Because the court barred her from participating in the adoption proceeding, she could not present evidence to rebut any of the Adoptive Parents' claims.

¶12 Mother challenged the district court's order by filing a motion for relief from the order under rule 60(b) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure, but the court denied this motion. The court again relied upon Mother's failure to comply with section 110 as its basis for excluding her from the adoption proceeding.

¶13 Around the same time that Mother filed her rule 60(b) motion, J.N.—Mother's common-law husband—filed a motion to intervene in the adoption. In the motion, J.N. argued that the recent judicial recognition of his common-law marriage to Mother established his role as K.T.B.'s presumptive father. The court denied this motion as well. Both Mother and J.N. timely filed notices of appeal.

¶14 On appeal, Mother argues that the district court's application of Utah Code sections 78B-6-110, -112, and -120.1 violated her due process rights, both procedural and substantive, by depriving her of her fundamental right to parent K.T.B.6 And J.N. argues that the court abused its discretion when it denied his motion to intervene because the Adoption Act entitles him to notice of, and to intervene in, the adoption as K.T.B.'s presumptive father. After oral argument we temporarily remanded this case to the district court for a determination of the enforceability of a post-adoption settlement agreement entered into by the parties. The district court determined that the agreement was based on an illusory promise and was therefore unenforceable. On return from remand we must now resolve the case on the merits. We have jurisdiction pursuant to Utah Code section 78A-4-103(2)(h).

Standards of Review

¶15 Mother argues that the district court violated her right to due process because it applied certain provisions in Utah Code sections 78B-6-110, -112, and -120.1 to terminate her parental rights over her objection and without a finding of unfitness. "Constitutional issues, including questions regarding due process, are questions of law, and we review the lower court's conclusions for correctness."7

¶16 Additionally, J.N. argues that the court should have allowed him to intervene in the adoption proceedings after his common-law marriage to Mother was legally recognized. "A determination under rule 24(a)(1)" of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure, "which permits intervention ‘when a statute confers an unconditional right to intervene,’ implicates two questions."8 The first is "whether a particular statute affords a particular class of persons an unconditional intervention right."9 This presents "a pure question of law because it involves abstract statutory construction. A district court would not be entitled to any deference to the extent it misinterpreted an intervention statute in the abstract."10 And the second question is "whether a particular individual actually fits within the class of persons entitled to intervene under a statute."11 This "presents a classic mixed question because it ‘involv[es] application of a legal standard to a set of facts unique to a particular case.’ "12

Analysis

¶17 Mother argues that the "statutory scheme" of Utah's Adoption Act13 is "constitutionally infirm" because it authorized the district court to violate her constitutional rights.14 Specifically, she argues that three sections of the Adoption Actsections 110, 112, and 120.1 "operated together [to authorize the district court] to terminate a mother's rights, over her objections, and without a finding of unfitness or best interest of the minor child." No one disputes that provisions within the Adoption Act authorized the district court to terminate Mother's parental rights. To determine whether this...

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3 cases
  • Pleasant Grove City v. Terry
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Utah
    • October 29, 2020
    ...authority in the appellate process is well within our wheelhouse. See supra ¶ 50; see also In re K.T.B. , 2020 UT 51, ¶ 115 n.200, 472 P.3d 843 (Petersen, J., concurring in the result); id. ¶ 123 n.201 (Lee, A.C.J., dissenting) (recognizing that "[t]his court may well have the authority to ......
  • Kingston v. Kingston
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    • Supreme Court of Utah
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    ...158,165 (1944).) [3] Davis v. Davis, 749 P.2d 647,648 (Utah 1988) (citations omitted). [4] In re Adoption of K.T.B., 2020 UT 51, ¶ 15, 472 P.3d 843 ("Constitutional issues, including questions regarding due process, are questions of law, and we review the lower court's conclusions for corre......
  • In re B.F.S.
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    • Court of Appeals of Utah
    • November 5, 2020
    ...manner, [and] in preventing the disruption of adoptive placements." Id. § 78B-6-102(5)(a) ; In re adoption of K.T.B. , 2020 UT 51, ¶ 42, 472 P.3d 843 (quoting same); see also In re adoption of J.S. , 2014 UT 51, ¶ 41, 358 P.3d 1009 (state's strong interest in immediate and secure adoptions ......

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