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In re Adoption of C.T.P.

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District, Third Division

December 16, 2014

IN THE MATTER OF THE ADOPTION OF: C.T.P.; K.L., Appellant,
v.
A.M. AND R.M., JR., Respondents

Page 706

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cole County, Missouri. The Honorable Jon E. Beetem, Judge.

Gregory J. Minana and Omri E. Praiss, Clayton, MO, for appellant.

Jonathan Sternberg and William H. Reynolds, Kansas City, MO, for respondents.

Before Division Three: Karen King Mitchell, Presiding Judge, Cynthia L. Martin, Judge and Gary D. Witt, Judge. All concur.

OPINION

Cynthia L. Martin, Judge

Page 707

This case requires us to address whether section 452.375.5(5)[1] permits a person asserting third-party custody rights to intervene as a matter of right in an adoption proceeding. K.L. appeals from the trial court's order and judgment which, based on standing, (i) dismissed K.L.'s petition seeking a determination of third-party child custody rights, and (ii) denied K.L.'s motion to intervene as a matter of right in a separate adoption proceeding.

The trial court's order and judgment is not final for purposes of appeal insofar as it dismissed K.L.'s petition seeking a determination of third-party child custody rights because that petition was consolidated with the adoption proceeding, and the order and judgment did not resolve all claims as to all parties in the consolidated action.

The trial court's order and judgment is final for purposes of appeal insofar as it denied K.L.'s motion to intervene as a matter of right in the adoption proceeding. Because a child custody determination is not in issue in an adoption proceeding, K.L. has not established an interest in the subject matter of the adoption proceeding that permits her to intervene as a matter of right.

K.L.'s appeal of the order and judgment dismissing her third-party child custody petition is dismissed for want of a final judgment. The trial court's denial of the motion to intervene as a matter of right is affirmed. This matter is remanded to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion.

Factual and Procedural History[2]

A.M. and K.L. began a committed relationship in 2002. In 2007, A.M. underwent artificial insemination using an anonymous donor's sperm. A female child (" Child" ) was born in February 2008. The Child suffers from severe medical problems as a result of complications during her birth and requires specialized care. K.L. contends that she quit her job to stay home with the Child and that she served as the Child's primary caregiver for four years. According to K.L., the couple separated in

Page 708

the spring of 2011, around the time a medical malpractice lawsuit involving the Child was settled and a multi-million dollar trust was established for the benefit of the Child. K.L. contends that A.M. began refusing to allow K.L. to have contact with the Child in the fall of 2011 and that A.M. cut off all contact between K.L. and the Child in July 2012.

A.M. married R.M. in August 2012.[3] On September 21, 2012, A.M. and R.M. filed a petition seeking stepparent adoption and to change the surname of the Child (" Adoption Petition" ). The Adoption Petition alleged that A.M. is the biological mother of the Child and that the identity of the Child's biological father is unknown. The Adoption Petition further alleged that the Child had resided with and has been in the care, custody, and control of A.M. and R.M. since December 2011. The Adoption Petition acknowledged that K.L. believes she has some type of claim to custody of the Child, parenting time with the Child, or both, though A.M. and R.M. dispute the claim. A.M. and R.M. forwarded a stamp-filed copy of the Adoption Petition to K.L.'s attorney.

K.L. took two actions in response to the Adoption Petition. First, K.L. filed an original proceeding seeking an award of joint legal and physical custody over the Child to K.L. and A.M. (" Child Custody Petition" ). The Child Custody Petition acknowledged that A.M. is the biological mother of the Child and that K.L. has no biological relationship to the Child. The Child Custody Petition alleged, however, that K.L. " has acknowledged by her actions and statements to third-parties that she is [the] adoptive mother of the [Child]," and that " [b]oth [K.L. and A.M.] have acknowledged by their actions and statements to third-parties that they intend to raise the minor child as co-equal parents." The Child Custody Petition alleged that K.L. is entitled to third-party custody of the Child pursuant to section 452.375.5(5).[4] The Child Custody Petition

Page 709

does not allege that A.M. is unfit or an inappropriate parent, but appears instead to rely on a generalized assertion regarding the welfare and best interests of the Child given K.L.'s historical relationship with the Child.[5]

Second, K.L. filed a motion to intervene as a matter of right in the adoption proceeding pursuant to section 452.375.5(5) (" Motion to Intervene" ). The Motion to Intervene alleged that K.L. and A.M. had jointly agreed to conceive a child via artificial insemination and had agreed that K.L. would adopt the child born as a result of the process. The Motion to Intervene alleged that an adoption was put on hold solely because of the medical emergencies surrounding the Child's birth, and K.L. alleged that she quit her job to attend to the Child's specialized care requirements. The Motion to Intervene further alleged that K.L. and A.M. raised the Child as co-parents until their relationship ended. K.L alleged that her interest in securing third-party custody rights with the Child supported intervention as a matter of right in the adoption proceeding. K.L. alleged that if R.M. is permitted to adopt the Child, she will be " legally barred from petitioning for custody in the future." As required by Rule 52.12(a), K.L. alleged that she had filed the Child Custody Petition seeking joint custody of the Child, suggesting that pleading would be her " claim" if intervention was granted. Neither the Motion to Intervene nor the Child Custody Petition allege that K.L. has a superior right to adopt the Child.

A.M. filed a motion to dismiss the Child Custody Petition (" Motion to Dismiss" ) for lack of standing. The Motion to Dismiss argued that 452.375.5(5) applies only to permit the determination of third-party custody issues when custody of a minor child born of a marriage is properly before the court for determination in connection with a dissolution proceeding. The Motion to Dismiss thus contended that the trial court had no statutory authority to determine third-party custody of the Child pursuant to section 452.375.5(5) because A.M. and K.L. were never married and the Child was not born of a marriage. Thus, the Motion to Dismiss asserted that K.L. had no standing to bring an original proceeding to determine third-party custody of the Child under section 452.375 and that the Child Custody Petition failed to state a claim.[6]

A.M. and R.M. also opposed K.L.'s Motion to Intervene in the adoption proceeding, making similar allegations to those raised in the Motion to Dismiss. A.M. and R.M. also noted that despite K.L.'s references to herself as the " adoptive" mother of the Child, K.L. has never been declared legally to be the adoptive mother of the Child. They also argued that an interest

Page 710

in determining custody rights will not support intervention as a matter of right in an adoption proceeding because it is not a legal interest that will be directly impaired by an adoption.

K.L. filed a motion to consolidate the adoption proceeding and the child custody proceeding pursuant to Rule 66.01 " into a single proceeding on the merits of the legal and equitable rights of the three putative parents of the [Child]." The motion was unopposed by A.M. and R.M. and by the Guardian Ad Litem who had been appointed for the Child. The trial court entered an order consolidating the actions and set deadlines to complete briefing on the pending Motion to Dismiss and Motion to Intervene.

On February 13, 2014, the trial court issued its order and judgment (" Judgment" ). The Judgment both granted the Motion to Dismiss K.L.'s Child Custody Petition and denied K.L.'s Motion to Intervene in the adoption proceeding for lack of standing.

K.L. appeals.

Finality of the Judgment for Purposes of Appeal

Before we examine the merits of K.L.'s points on appeal, we " must determine whether jurisdiction is proper, regardless of whether any of the parties raised the issue." [7] Crest Constr. II, Inc. v. Hart, 439 S.W.3d 246, 249 (Mo. App. W.D. 2014) (internal quotation marks omitted). " Generally an appellate court only has jurisdiction over final judgments disposing of all issues and parties, which leave nothing for future determination." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). An exception to the final judgment rule is found in Rule 74.01(b), which provides that " [w]hen more than one claim for relief is presented in an action . . . or when multiple parties are involved, the court may enter a judgment as to one or more but fewer than all of the claims or parties only upon an express determination that there is no just reason for delay." If the judgment does not either resolve all issues as to all parties or expressly designate that " there is no just reason for delay," the judgment is not final for purposes of appeal and must be dismissed. Crest Constr. II, 439 S.W.3d at 249. Application of these settled principles to this case is influenced by the trial court's order of consolidation.

K.L. filed an unopposed motion to consolidate the Adoption Petition and the Child Custody Petition " into a single proceeding on the merits of the legal and equitable rights of the three putative parents of the [Child]." The motion to consolidate asserted that consolidation was proper pursuant to Rule 66.01 because " [t]here are common parties in both cases,[8] the questions of law and fact deal with rights to custody and/or visitation with the same minor child,[9] and the matters are both before the Family Court Division." [10] The

Page 711

trial court ordered consolidation without further elaboration.

" [W]hen a trial court employs the term 'consolidation,' its effect on the separate identity of the actions is not immediately clear." Woods v. Cory, 149 ...


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