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Utah Supreme Court reverses decision about father’s rights in adoption case

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SALT LAKE CITY — The Supreme Court of Utah ruled Tuesday that a district court judge should not have dismissed a biological father’s challenge to the Utah Adoption Act.

Christopher Carlton, of Pennsylvania, filed the suit in his quest to find his daughter, now 3 years old, after the baby’s mother told Carlton the child was a boy and had died shortly after birth, according to court documents.

The mother, Shalonda Brown, later revealed she had put the baby up for adoption, and Carlton tracked the case to the Adoption Center of Choice in Orem.

In early 2011, Carlton began challenging the constitutionality of the Utah Adoption Act, which prevents him from contesting the adoption because he hadn’t acceptably established parental rights.

Judge Steve Hansen of Provo’s 4th District Court ruled in favor of the Adoption Center of Choice in November 2011, dismissing all of Carlton’s claims.

The case was remanded to Hansen on Tuesday in a 24-page decision by the Utah Supreme Court, announcing “the question of whether Mr. Carlton actually so failed (to establish parental rights) depends upon the outcome of the constitutional challenges.”

The state Supreme Court noted the complaint Carlton raised in oral arguments — that the act requires out-of-state fathers comply with Utah’s deadlines for declaring parental rights even when their own state has no such deadline — is “of particular potential merit.”

Tuesday’s decision called the lower court’s reasoning circular and erroneous because it dismissed Carlton’s claims based on the very law he argued was unconstitutional. The decision also ruled that Carlton should have been allowed to file an amended petition naming the baby’s adoptive parents in the case, adding that until they have been named in the case, a court can’t decide whether to grant Carlton custody.

Hansen was also incorrect in dismissing Carlton’s claim that the adoption center intentionally inflicted emotional distress, according to the ruling.

However, the court upheld the 4th District Court’s decision to dismiss Carlton’s claims against the adoption center and Brown claiming fraud, tortious interference with parental rights, pattern of unlawful activity, civil conspiracy and negligent infliction of emotional distress.