Circuit Court for Queen Anne's County Case # 17-A-11-642
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Harrell, J.
In re Adoption of Sean M, No. 54, September Term 2012
FAMILY LAW - INDEPENDENT ADOPTION - CONSENT OF NATURAL PARENT - TERMINATION OF RIGHTS - UNTIMELY OBJECTION - DUE PROCESS PUTATIVE FATHER WHO, AFTER RECEIVING PROPER NOTICE, FAILED TO FILE TIMELY A NOTICE OF OBJECTION TO THE INDEPENDENT ADOPTION OF HIS SON BY STEPFATHER WAS CONSIDERED TO HAVE CONSENTED IRREVOCABLY TO THE ADOPTION BY OPERATION OF LAW. THE PERTINENT STATUTORY SCHEME FOR NOTICE AND OPPORTUNITY TO OBJECT IS FUNDAMENTALLY FAIR AND DOES NOT DEPRIVE THE PUTATIVE FATHER OF ANY DUE PROCESS RIGHT TO PARTICIPATE IN RAISING HIS SON.
Bell, C.J., Harrell, Battaglia, Greene, Adkins, Barbera, McDonald, JJ.
We are asked in this matter whether the failure of a putative father to file timely a notice of objection to a proposed independent adoption operates as an irrevocable deemed consent to the termination of his assumed parental rights. This case involves the adoption of a minor child, Sean M. ("Sean"), by his stepfather, Respondent Jeffrey Craig K. Petitioner, William H., the putative father of Sean, filed an objection to the stepparent adoption one day after the expiration of the thirty-day deadline provided by the show cause order issued by the Circuit Court for Queen Anne's County, pursuant to Maryland Rule 9- 107(b). Petitioner asks us to reverse the trial court's and the Court of Special Appeals's judgments that his failure to file the objection within the statutory time period constituted an irrevocable consent to the adoption. For the reasons stated below, we affirm the judgments of those courts.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Moira M. ("Mother") and William H. engaged in a romantic relationship from April to November of 2008. They were not married. Sean was born to Moira M. in Annapolis, Maryland, on 16 June 2009. Moira M. became engaged to Jeffrey Craig K. ("Stepfather") in November of 2009. Since that time, she and Sean lived with Stepfather in Queen Anne's County. Mother and Stepfather married on 16 October 2011.
On 14 July 2009, Mother filed a Complaint against William H. in the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County, asserting that William H. is the natural father of Sean*fn1 and seeking sole legal and physical custody. In his Answer, filed on 14 September 2009,*fn2 William H. denied that he was the natural father of Sean and stated that he had no objection to Mother having custody.*fn3 On 14 January 2010, the suit was dismissed by agreement of the parties.
On 30 March 2011, Stepfather filed a Petition for Stepparent Adoption of a Minor and Change of Name ("Petition") in the Circuit Court for Queen Anne's County, stating his intention to continue to reside with Sean's mother, and "[t]hat the natural father of the minor child has not been identified; no persons alleging to be the natural father of the minor child have come forward; and no natural father is listed on the minor child's birth certificate." The Petition stated also that, even if William H. was the natural father of Sean, he has "abandoned his parental rights" as to Sean because William H.: (1) denied that he was the natural father of the minor child during the earlier custody proceeding in the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County; (2) has not "exercised any parental rights since the minor child's birth;" and, (3) has not attempted to support and maintain Sean since his birth.
On 15 April 2011, the Circuit Court issued a show cause order and form notice of objection to William H., who was served properly by personal service on 29 April 2011. The show cause order stated, in pertinent part (emphasis in original):
RELATIONSHIP TO POTENTIAL ADOPTEE: [Puported] FATHER
You are hereby notified that:
1. A Petition has been filed for the adoption of Sean . . . , who was born on June 19, 2009 in Queen Anne's County, Maryland.*fn4
2. If you wish to object to the adoption(s), you must file a notice of objection with the Clerk of the Court at Circuit Court for Queen Anne's County . . . within thirty (30) days after this Order is served on you. For your convenience, a form notice of objection is attached to this Order.
WHETHER THE PETITION REQUESTS ADOPTION OR GUARDIANSHIP, IF YOU DO NOT MAKE SURE THAT THE COURT RECEIVES YOUR NOTICE OF OBJECTION ON OR BEFORE THE DEADLINE STATED ABOVE, YOU HAVE AGREED TO A TERMINATION OF YOUR PARENTAL RIGHTS.
The form notice of objection, provided to William H. along with the show cause order, stated, in relevant part (emphasis in original and emphasis added):
Instructions to the person served with the show cause order: IF YOU WISH TO OBJECT, YOU MUST MAKE SURE THAT THE COURT RECEIVES YOUR NOTICE OF OBJECTION ON OR BEFORE THE DEADLINE STATED IN THE SHOW CAUSE ORDER. You may use this form to do so. You need only sign this form, print or type your name, address, and telephone number underneath your signature, and mail or deliver it to the court at the address shown in paragraph 2 of the show cause order. IF THE COURT HAS NOT RECEIVED YOUR NOTICE OF OBJECTION ON OR BEFORE THE DEADLINE STATED, YOU HAVE AGREED TO A TERMINATION OF YOUR PARENTAL RIGHTS.
The required deadline for William H. to file with the Circuit Court for Queen Anne's County any objection to Stepfather's petition for adoption of Sean was 31 May 2011.*fn5 The Circuit Court received William H.'s written objection on Wednesday, 1 June 2011, one day after the expiration of the thirty-day deadline. On 13 June 2011, Stepfather filed a Motion to Strike Late Notice of Objection, requesting that the adoption proceed as an uncontested matter. A hearing was held before Judge J. Frederick Price on 8 August 2011. Judge Price granted Stepfather's motion, noting that William H. did not allege any disability or any other circumstance to excuse the requirement, pursuant to Maryland Rule 9-107(b)(1),*fn6 of filing a notice of objection to an adoption within thirty days after the show cause order is served.
William H. filed a Motion to Alter and Amend Judgment on 18 August 2011,*fn7 and, a week later, an Emergency Motion to Stay Adoption Proceeding. The court denied both motions. William H. appealed the denial of the orders to the Court of Special Appeals. On 27 April 2012, a panel of the court affirmed the Circuit Court's grant of Stepfather's Motion to Strike William H.'s untimely objection. The court held that the time period established in Md. Rule 9-107(b)(1) applied equally to guardianships as well as adoptions, and that it rendered the late filing of a notice of objection to an adoption as an irrevocable consent to termination of the pertinent parent's rights, In re: Adoption of Sean M., 204 Md. App. 724, 742, 42 A.3d 722, 732 (2012). The intermediate appellate court held also that this statutory scheme did not offend any due process right of William H. Id. at 749, 42 A.3d at 737. William H. filed a petition for Writ of Certiorari with us on 18 June 2012. We granted the petition, In re: Adoption of Sean M., 427 Md. 606, 50 A.3d 605 (2012), to consider two questions:
1. Whether a natural parent's failure to file a timely objection to a proposed independent adoption, as directed in a show cause order, constitutes an irrevocable consent to the adoption?
2. Whether the statutory scheme resulting in an irrevocable deemed consent to an independent adoption offends the ...