Update: The merit decision in this case was handed down January 25, 2012. Read the analysis of the decision here.
On Nov. 2, the Supreme Court of Ohio will hear oral argument in the case of In the Matter of Adoption of M.B., a case involving statutory construction on Ohio adoption laws, and one that has led to a split among several Ohio courts of appeals.
The facts in the case are undisputed.
M.B. is a minor child in Summit County whose parents divorced years ago. Her mother remarried T.R. who soon thereafter filed an adoption petition to legally adopt M.B. However, M.B.’s biological father, S.B. contested the petition and sought to deny the adoption.
Ohio’s adoption laws are primarily governed by O.R.C. 3107.06 and O.R.C. 3107.07. O.R.C. 3107.06 requires that both parents consent before any adoption decree is authorized, but O.R.C. 3107.07 provides an exception to consent when the parent, without justifiable cause, has failed to provide for the “maintenance and support” of the child for at least one year preceding the adoption period.
Both S.B., the biological father and T.R., the stepfather, agree that the “adoption period” in this case was from September 12, 2007 – September 12, 2008. During that time, S.B. made no child support payments to M.B.’s mother. S.B. was in fact $18,000 behind on his child support payments.
But during that one-year adoption period, S.B. did make two financial contributions to M.B. – he gave her a $125 gift card to a clothing store for Christmas, and $60 in cash for her birthday. SB conceded he had sent both to the child as gifts. But he argued that he did provide maintenance and support under O.R.C. 3107.07, and therefore M.B. could not be adopted by T.R. without his consent.
The magistrate disagreed. She held that those items did not constitute support and that there was no justifiable reason for S.B.’s failure to pay child support. She therefore ruled that his consent was not necessary and that the adoption could proceed without it. The probate court upheld the magistrate’s decision, finding that S.B.’s contributions – the gift card and the cash – did not constitute “support” because they were sent directly to the child and were not for necessities.
The Ninth District Court of Appeals, while acknowledging a split among the appellate courts, reversed, in a split decision. Recognizing that the termination of parental rights is an extreme measure, the Ninth District had previously held that a parent’s failure to provide maintenance and support must rise to the level of abandonment and loss of interest in the child before an adoption can proceed without that parent’s consent. The majority found that SB’s contributions did constitute “maintenance and support” because they evidenced an intent not to abandon his child. Since those terms aren’t defined under the statute the appeals court gave them their ordinary meaning. The court held that maintenance means financial support given from one person to another, while support means sustenance or maintenance. Concluding that S.B.’s gifts could be used for necessities, the court found that S.B. had complied with the statute and that the adoption could not go forward without his consent. The majority was also influenced by the fact that the mother had never taken any steps through the courts to compel S.B. to meet his child support obligations. For these reasons, the court concluded that T.R. could not adopt M.B. from S.B. without his consent. The dissenting judge found the gift certificate at Christmas and the small birthday cash were nothing more than tokens of affection one would expect from friends or relatives who have no legal support obligation.
The Ohio Supreme Court accepted this case on conflict certification among a number of districts, and ordered briefing on the following issues:
(1) When a biological parent fails to provide any court ordered child support for one year, small monetary gifts paid directly to the child do not constitute the provision of maintenance and support of the minor as required by law or judicial decree for purposes of R.C. 3107.07(A).
(2) When reviewing a Probate Court’s decision regarding whether or not a biological parent’s financial contribution constitutes maintenance and support of the minor as required by law or judicial decree for purposes of R.C. 3107.07(A), the standard of review is whether the decision is contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence.
The conflicts involve two areas of law: (1) what the definition of “maintenance and support” means and (2) whether the standard of review is de novo or against the manifest weight of the evidence
What is the definition of “maintenance and support” under O.R.C. 3107.07?
Ohio courts are split on what constitutes maintenance and support under the statute. The Tenth, Sixth, and Eleventh Districts have found small gifts like the one in the case at bar not to be maintenance and support, particularly when sent directly to the child, rather than to the mother. TR asks the court to follow this interpretation.
On the other hand, the Third District held that a father who took care of the physical needs of his child when they were together was providing enough maintenance and support to require consent before adoption. This broad reading of the language is the same approach the Ninth District adopted, seemingly swayed by constitutional due process concerns, which place a high burden on depriving parents of their liberty interest in rearing their own children. S.B. makes this argument repeatedly in his merit brief.
Should the court examine these issues de novo or should the trial court’s decision stand unless it was against the material weight of the evidence?
S.B. and T.R. both seem to concede that when a court is engaged in statutory construction, it should decide that issue de novo. S.B. uses that logic to argue that the Ninth District was correct – that this was a simple issue of statutory construction to determine maintenance and support under 3107.07.
T.R. argues, however, that the Ninth District erred by deciding this case de novo. He claims that the Ninth District never really defined maintenance and support – instead the court merely conducted an investigation into the goods that S.B. gave to M.B., which was not statutory construction, but was instead a factual inquiry into what the purpose of those contributions were. Since the court’s opinion depended on the purpose of S.B.’s gifts, it was a factual question, and the trial court’s decision should stand unless it was against the manifest weight of the evidence, which it was not in this case.
Student Contributor: Sarah Topy