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In re Adoption of Child Described in Petition D.D.H.

Supreme Court of Mississippi

January 11, 2018

THE MATTER OF THE ADOPTION OF THE CHILD DESCRIBED IN THE PETITION: D.D.H., PATRICK LATRELL GRAY AND FELICIA HANNAH DOTCH

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 09/26/2016

         ATTALA COUNTY CHANCERY COURT HON. JOSEPH KILGORE TRIAL JUDGE

          TRIAL COURT ATTORNEY: JOHN M. GILMORE

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANTS: JOHN M. GILMORE

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE: NO BRIEF FILED

          BEFORE WALLER, C.J., COLEMAN AND CHAMBERLIN, JJ.

          CHAMBERLIN, JUSTICE.

         ¶1. Patrick Latrell Gray and Felecia Hannah Dotch petitioned the Attala County Chancery Court to allow Gray to adopt D.D.H. without terminating Dotch's parental rights. After consideration, the chancellor denied the petition. Aggrieved, Gray and Dotch appeal, arguing that their due-process and equal-protection rights were infringed.

         ¶2. After review, we reverse. The chancellor erred, as a matter of law, in finding that Mississippi Code Sections 93-17-3(4) and 93-17-13(2) (Supp. 2017) bar the adoption. As D.D.H.'s adoption by Gray is not barred by statute, it is unnecessary for this Court to perform a constitutional analysis of Sections 93-17-3(4) and 93-17-13(2).

         STATEMENT OF FACTS

         ¶3. On August 21, 2003, Dotch gave birth to a daughter, D.D.H. Dotch and Gray have never been married, and only Dotch is listed on D.D.H.'s birth certificate. Near the time of D.D.H.'s conception, however, Dotch and Gray were in a romantic relationship, and both believed that Gray was D.D.H.'s father. Early in her life, D.D.H. lived with Gray and Gray's mother. When D.D.H. was old enough to attend school, she began to live with Dotch. During this time, Gray exercised visitation with D.D.H. and continued to provide financial support to her.

         ¶4. More than a decade after D.D.H's birth, Gray discovered that he was not her biological father. After this, Gray continued to visit and support D.D.H. The identity of D.D.H.'s biological father is not known. Currently, Gray and Dotch both are married to other people.

         ¶5. Upon discovering that Gray was not D.D.H.'s biological father, Gray and Dotch petitioned the Attala County Chancery Court to allow Gray to adopt D.D.H. In the petition, the parties requested that Gray be allowed to adopt D.D.H. and Dotch be allowed to retain "care, custody, and control" of D.D.H. Gray and Dotch claimed that the adoption was in D.D.H.'s best interest.

         ¶6. At a hearing on the petition, the chancellor denied the petition for adoption under Mississippi Code Sections 93-17-3(4) and 93-17-13(2). In denying the petition, the chancellor stated, "I think it may be [in] the child's best interest to be adopted. I think this statute ties my hands . . . ."[1] The order denying the petition (1) recognized that Gray had failed to join his wife, Shannon Gray, in the petition as required by Section 93-17-3(4), and (2) found that the petition's request that Dotch's parental rights not be terminated by the final decree was inconsistent with Section 93-17-13(2). The order also stated "that although the Court may agree that it would be in the best interest of the minor child sought to be adopted, this Court is bound by the legislative requirement as found in Mississippi 93-13-1, et seq., and therefore, the Petition for Adoption, should be, and it hereby is, DENIED."

         ¶7. After denying the petition, the chancellor allowed an offer of proof. Dotch testified that D.D.H. was "very strongly attached to [Gray] because he's the only father that's been in her life and been doing for her." She also stated that "when [D.D.H.] was younger, she spent more time with [Gray and Gray's mother] than she did with me. . . . She cares a lot for him." Dotch also stated that Gray had always held himself out as D.D.H.'s father. Dotch maintained that she wanted to retain her parental rights after Gray's adoption of D.D.H. Gray testified that he had a "[g]ood" relationship with D.D.H. and that he had supported her financially since birth. Gray maintained that D.D.H. regularly visited him on two weekends out of each month. He also testified that his wife and D.D.H. "get along good [sic]."

         ¶8. Gray and Dotch both appeal the denial of the petition. On appeal, they maintain that Sections 93-17-3(4) and 93-17-13(2) violate their due-process rights under the United States and Mississippi Constitutions and their equal-protection rights under the United States Constitution. Gray and Dotch also assert that the denial of the petition violates D.D.H.'s equal-protection rights under the United States Constitution. Gray and Dotch properly served a copy of their brief on the Attorney General under Mississippi Rule of Appellate Procedure 44(a). M.R.A.P. 44(a). The deadline for the Attorney General to respond to the brief has passed. See M.R.A.P. 44(b).

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         ¶9. Statutory interpretation is a matter of law which we review de novo. 5K Farms, Inc. v. Mississippi Dep't of Revenue, 94 So.3d 221, 225 (Miss. 2012) (citing Ameristar Casino Vicksburg, Inc. v. Duckworth, 990 So.2d 758, 759 (Miss. 2008)). Further, "[t]he constitutionality of a statute will not be determined unless absolutely necessary to determine the merits of the litigation in which the constitutional ...


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