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In re Adoption of B.N.A.

Court of Appeals of Utah

December 6, 2018

In the matter of the adoption of B.N.A., a person under eighteen years of age
T.L. and A.L., Appellees. C.E.L., Appellant,

          Third District Court, Tooele Department The Honorable Matthew Bates No. 172300016

          Karra J. Porter and Crystal Lynn Orgill, Attorneys for Appellant

          Ronald D. Wilkinson, Marianne P. Card, and Sara Pfrommer, Attorneys for Appellees

          Judge Ryan M. Harris authored this Opinion, in which Judges Jill M. Pohlman and Diana Hagen concurred.

          HARRIS, JUDGE

         ¶1 Utah adoption law provides that "[a]doption proceedings shall be commenced by filing a petition with the clerk of the district court . . . in the district where the prospective adoptive parent resides." Utah Code Ann. § 78B-6-105(1)(a) (LexisNexis Supp. 2018). In this case, we must determine what the consequences are, under this statute, if prospective adoptive parents file an adoption petition in the wrong district. The biological father (Father) of the child in question (Child) contends that the statute speaks to a court's subject-matter jurisdiction, and asserts that a petition filed in the wrong district must be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. The prospective adoptive parents (Petitioners), on the other hand, contend that the statute speaks simply to venue, and assert that when a petition is filed in the wrong district, the court has jurisdiction to continue to adjudicate the case, but must transfer the case upon request to the proper district. For the reasons set forth herein, we find Petitioners' position persuasive, and therefore affirm the district court's decision to deny Father's motion to dismiss.


         ¶2 In early 2014, Father engaged in a brief romantic relationship with a woman (Mother) who became pregnant and gave birth to Child in November 2014. After the relationship ended, Father asserts that he had no further communication or interaction with Mother, and therefore claims to have been unaware of Mother's pregnancy or of Child's existence until after Child was born, and unaware that he was Child's father until December 2017. It is undisputed that Father has never had any relationship with Child, who is now four years old.

         ¶3 In the meantime, in the spring of 2017 Mother decided to place Child for adoption, and began working with an adoption agency toward that end. The adoption agency selected Petitioners as a potential adoptive family, and Petitioners filed a petition for adoption in April 2017. Despite the fact that Petitioners reside in Utah County, part of Utah's Fourth Judicial District, they filed their petition in Tooele County, part of Utah's Third Judicial District.

         ¶4 Immediately after filing their petition, Petitioners asked the court to authorize a "commissioner" to take Mother's relinquishment, in accordance with Utah Code section 78B-6-124(1)(b). The court approved Petitioner's request, and signed an order appointing a representative of the adoption agency to take Mother's relinquishment. After the order was signed, Mother met with the representative and signed a document relinquishing her parental rights to Child. One of that document's provisions stated that Mother's relinquishment was irrevocable "as to [Petitioners]," but that Mother was "not . . . consenting to the adoption of [Child] by any other person or persons." In addition, the document provided that, "[i]f [Petitioners] are unable to complete the adoption of [Child] for any reason, and the adoption petition is dismissed or denied, it is in [Child's] best interest that he be returned to [Mother's] custody and control."[1] Soon after Mother signed the relinquishment, Petitioners filed a copy of it with the court, and a few days later the court signed an order awarding temporary custody of Child to Petitioners.

         ¶5 Just a few months later, before the adoption was finalized, Mother filed a motion to set aside her relinquishment, asserting that she did not sign the document freely and voluntarily. The district court, after a half-day evidentiary hearing, determined that Mother had acted voluntarily and was not under duress or undue influence, and denied Mother's motion. The court's decision to deny Mother's motion is not at issue in this appeal.

         ¶6 About a month later, in early January 2018, Father entered an appearance in the adoption case and filed a motion seeking leave to intervene, asking that the adoption proceedings be dismissed. A few weeks later, Father filed a second motion, raising for the first time his argument-advanced here in this appeal-that the district court did not have subject-matter jurisdiction over the case because Petitioners filed their petition in the wrong district.

         ¶7 After full briefing and oral argument, the district court denied Father's motion to dismiss, and determined that it did have subject-matter jurisdiction over the case. Father then asked for permission to appeal the district court's ...

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