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Kramer v. Catholic Charities of Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Inc.

Supreme Court of Indiana

June 3, 2015

JASON AND JUSTINA KRAMER, Appellants (Plaintiffs below),

Appeal from the St. Joseph Circuit Court, No. 71C01-1104-CT-53. The Honorable Michael G. Gotsch, Sr., Judge. On Petition to Transfer from the Indiana Court of Appeals, No. 71A03-1308-CT-301.

ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT: Charles P. Rice, South Bend, Indiana.

ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE: J. Thomas Vetne, Colin J. Reilly, Robert M. Edwards, Jr., South Bend, Indiana.

Massa, Justice. Rush, C.J., and Rucker, David, JJ., concur. Dickson, J., dissents with separate opinion.


Page 228

Massa, Justice.

E. is a baby girl lucky enough to be wanted by two sets of parents: her biological father, R.M., and her prospective adoptive parents, Jason and Justina Kramer. Unfortunately for the Kramers, our legal system gives priority to the rights of biological parents over adoptive parents, and the Kramers were forced to give up E. shortly after Christmas, having had custody for the first eight months of E.'s life.

Page 229

The Kramers then turned their understandable anguish upon Catholic Charities, the agency they had hired to facilitate the adoption, alleging Catholic Charities should have checked the putative father registry prior to placing E. with them, or alternatively, that Catholic Charities had a duty to disclose to the Kramers its failure to conduct a pre-placement check of the registry. Because the applicable Indiana statute does not impose the requirement of a pre-placement registry check, and because the Kramers failed to demonstrate that Catholic Charities had any duties in excess of its statutory obligations, we affirm the trial court's grant of summary judgment.

Facts and Procedural History

Catholic Charities is a not-for-profit organization, which serves as an intermediary between adoptive parents, children, and parents putting children up for adoption. The Kramers first contacted Catholic Charities in the summer of 2009, seeking to adopt a child. Before it would act as their agent, Catholic Charities required the Kramers to review the " Client Handbook," which spells out the rights and responsibilities of both parties with respect to the potential adoption, and to sign an acknowledgment of receipt. One of those rights was to " obtain[] information about the risks and benefits . . . of services they will receive." App. at 262. The Kramers also agreed in their contract with Catholic Charities to provide " honest and complete information" ; Catholic Charities in return agreed to " be honest and forthcoming in all phases of the adoption process." App. at 212. Catholic Charities also expressly reserved the right to revise its policies and practices at any time. The Kramers paid $1,300 to be included in the pool of adoptive parents, and they agreed to pay an $8,000 service fee in exchange for the successful completion of an adoption.

At one of their early meetings, Catholic Charities also verbally warned the Kramers there was a possibility that, even if a mother put her child up for adoption, a father could still claim custody. Indiana affords potential fathers an opportunity to claim parentage of a child beyond the mother's disclosure via the putative father registry, maintained by the Indiana Department of Health. Ind. Code § 31-19-5-2 (2008). The express statutory purpose of the putative father registry " is to determine the name and address of a father" of a child prior to adoption, " so that notice of the adoption may be provided to the putative father." Ind. Code § 31-19-5-3 (Supp. 2014). Putative fathers have up to 30 days after a child's birth to register, including any time prior to the child's birth. Ind. Code § 31-19-5-12 (2008). Once an adoption petition is filed, adoption agencies are required to request a check of the registry at least one day after the close of the father's 30-day deadline, but agencies are permitted to request a registry check at any time. Ind. Code § 31-19-5-15(b) (Supp. 2014).

At the time the Kramers contacted Catholic Charities, it had a written internal policy to check the putative father registry one day after the expiration of the registration deadline, consistent with the applicable statute. It also had an unwritten practice of checking the putative father registry twice more before the statutory deadline: once after intake of the birthmother as a client, and again right before placement of the child with the potential adoptive family. This additional practice was not " mandated" by Catholic Charities nor was it approved by its Board of Governors. App. at 455.

Catholic Charities did not disclose to the Kramers either the written policy or the informal practice; Catholic Charities simply warned the Kramers that a putative

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father could register at any time prior to the expiration of the 30-day post-birth deadline.

In March of 2010, M.S., while eight months pregnant, contacted Catholic Charities about giving up her unborn child for adoption. M.S. indicated there were two potential fathers, but she declined to give any names. Catholic Charities introduced M.S. to the Kramers, and M.S. told Catholic Charities that she would like the Kramers to adopt her child. M.S. gave birth to E. on May 1st and signed paperwork agreeing to the adoption on May 2nd. The Kramers took E. home with them on May 3rd.

On May 25th and again on June 1st, Catholic Charities requested that the Indiana Department of Health check whether anyone had registered as the putative father of E. The first search revealed no registered putative fathers, as sworn by the IDOH administrator of the putative father registry. The second search revealed R.M. had registered as the putative father of E. on April 27th.[1] Neither party nor IDOH can explain why R.M.'s registration was not discovered in the first search.

Despite learning of R.M.'s registration, the Kramers petitioned to adopt E., and R.M. contested the adoption. R.M. conclusively established paternity by DNA test, and he received full custody of E. in early January of 2011. By ...

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