THE MATTER OF THE ADOPTION OF THE CHILD DESCRIBED IN THE PETITION: D.D.H., PATRICK LATRELL GRAY AND FELICIA HANNAH DOTCH
OF JUDGMENT: 09/26/2016
COUNTY CHANCERY COURT HON. JOSEPH KILGORE TRIAL JUDGE
COURT ATTORNEY: JOHN M. GILMORE
ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANTS: JOHN M. GILMORE
ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE: NO BRIEF FILED
WALLER, C.J., COLEMAN AND CHAMBERLIN, JJ.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 . . . ." 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,
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]."
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).
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 ...