Debra H. v. Janice R.

Summary

Debra H. and Janice R. agreed to raise a family together in a two-parent household and conceived their son using in vitro fertilization. Janice promised that Debra would formally adopt their child, and they met with an adoption lawyer prior to their son’s birth. In 2003, before he was born, they entered into a civil union in Vermont, which at that time was the most legally significant relationship available to same-sex couples under U.S. law. Debra was by Janice’s side throughout labor and delivery and cut their son’s umbilical cord; her last name was included in their son’s name on his birth certificate. In the years that followed Debra gave him the nurture and care of a mother. When it came time for the second-parent adoption, Janice, who is an attorney, advised Debra “as a lawyer” that they didn’t need to get the courts involved and Debra would always be the boy’s parent. When the couple’s relationship ended in 2006, Debra continued actively to parent her son, who moved with Janice into an apartment only a block away.

In May of 2008, Janice abruptly refused Debra any further contact with the boy. Debra immediately filed for emergency joint custody and restoration of parental access. The trial court ordered interim regular ongoing visitation and allowed Debra’s petition to proceed to a hearing.  When Janice appealed, Lambda Legal entered the case in early 2009 on Debra’s behalf. The case was argued in the Appellate Division, First Department that March, and the next month the trial court decision was reversed. The New York Court of Appeals then accepted the case for appeal.  Many prominent legal and child welfare experts have filed friend-of-the-court briefs on Debra’s side, including the New York State Bar Association, the New York City Bar Association, the National Association of Social Workers, and 45 family law professors on the faculty of every law school in New York State. The child’s court-appointed attorney also asked the court to give Debra the opportunity to protect their relationship.

History

  • October 2008 NY trial court rules in favor of petitioner Debra H.
  • March 2009 Defendant Janice R. appeals in the Appellate Division, First Department.
  • June 2009 First Department rules in favor of the defendant; trial court decision is reversed.
  • September 2009 Lambda Legal’s motion for leave to appeal is granted by the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court.
  • February 2010 Lambda Legal argues the case before the New York Court of Appeals.
  • May 2010 Victory! New York Court of Appeals rules, with all seven judges concurring, that a Vermont civil union establishes the parental rights of a non-biological mother.

Case Information

Status: Closed

Plaintiffs

Debra H.

Attorneys

Lambda Legal
Susan Sommer

Cooperating Attorneys
Bonnie Rabin and Orrit Hershkovitz of Cohen, Hennessey, Bienstock & Rabin, P.C.; Debra’s son is represented by Anthony Parisi, III and counsel Jennifer Colyer of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP in New York City.