Crime and Justice

SCOV Law Blog: Court decides parentage issue in divorce involving polyamory

Editor’s note: This piece from the SCOV Law Blog is by Jacob Oblak.

Lanfear v. Ruggerio and Fennimore, 2020 VT 84

It’s 2020, and polyamory has arrived at the Supreme Court of Vermont (to be painstakingly clear, the issue has arrived at the SCOV). The combination of recently updated parentage laws and modern polyamorous relationships creates rather interesting, novel problems for trial courts. This is a case in point. (Side note: it’s worth reading Justice Carroll’s longer, more complete factual recounting, because she can really tell a story. If she ever writes a fiction book, I’ll be the first in line for a signed copy. Seriously, read the actual decision, and read between the lines. That’s all I have to say about that.)

So we start by mentioning in passing that in 2017, the Vermont Legislature adapted the laws regarding parentage to the 21st century by adding and clarifying new ways a person can become a parent. One such way is called de facto parentage, where someone who isn’t the biological parent of a child can be legally adjudicated a parent if they can prove seven, yes seven, statutory factors to a heightened legal standard called clear and convincing evidence. That standard isn’t as high as beyond reasonable doubt, but it does require the petitioner to show their conclusions are highly likely to be accurate. 

Our Plaintiff, Megan Lanfear, suffered from an abusive childhood. Defendant Lisa Diane Fennimore was her high school teacher for at least three years. Fennimore also provided Lanfear with emotional support to deal with her childhood trauma. Fennimore was married to Jamie Ruggerio (the other Defendant) and was pregnant at the time with their child. The year Lanfear turned 18, she got kicked out of her home, and the two Defendants graciously allowed her to stay with them. We’ll call Fennimore “Mother” and Ruggerio “Father” for clarity. However, clarity quickly exits stage left and doesn’t come back, even for a curtain call. 

Father and Lanfear almost immediately began having a romantic, sexual relationship. After a few months, Father and Lanfear told Mother about it and invited her into the relationship. Mother and Father, it turns out, were polyamorous. Mother accepted, and all three of them formed a throuple. They all agreed to keep it secret, because they didn’t want Mother’s high school teaching career to be jeopardized due to, well, how people would react. 

They all got matching tattoos and rings, slept in one bed, and lived together full time. Lanfear, instead of Father, attended Mother’s prenatal doctor visits. She was present at birth, and she cut Mother’s umbilical cord. Lanfear finished her last high school semester online, and she and Father would care for the baby while Mother went back to work teaching high school. Everybody agreed the baby would call Father “Father,” Mother “Mother,” and Lanfear by her first name. Also, Father and Lanfear appeared to be the primary relationship in this throuple as they went on more dates, many of which Mother was left out of to care for the child. This throuple relationship lasted for four years. 

Throughout those four years, Mother was grateful for Lanfear’s help in raising the baby, who was now in preschool. She said so on Facebook a couple times. Then things went off the rails. In the beginning of year five, Father found a document from a divorce lawyer in Mother’s things. Apparently Mother was thinking about a divorce. Also, Father found evidence on Mother’s phone that Mother cheated on him and Lanfear with someone not in their throuple. Clearly, Ambrose Bierce was wrong. Love may be a temporary insanity, but it is NOT curable by marriage. 

Father and Lanfear became angry at Mother, told her she can’t leave the family and must keep working to provide for the family, took Mother’s phone (the implement facilitating her cheating) and high heels (which they called her “whore shoes”), and tried to use FBI interrogation methods and sleep deprivation tactics on Mother that they had looked up on the internet. No, of course that’s not all.  

Father also physically attacked Mother in their home, hit her, pulled her hair. Mother got a relief from abuse order against Father that gave her temporary sole custody of the now-5-year-old child and forced Father to move out of the home. Father was criminally charged for the domestic assault. The throuple relationship was over. Lanfear went with Father to live in a hotel. 

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Mother changed the locks on the home to prevent Lanfear from coming into the home to feed her cats, to which Lanfear responded by emailing Mother’s attorney calling herself a “tenant” and demanding access. Remember that old adage: anything you say can and will be used against you in court? More on this later. 

Mother filed for divorce against Father, and Lanfear then went to the high school where Mother teaches and made a bunch of serious accusations that get Mother put on admin leave for weeks until she was eventually cleared of wrongdoing. In the divorce action against Father, Mother got sole parental rights and responsibilities, and the contact order gave Father some contact but specifically prohibited it when Lanfear is around. Lanfear grabbed the new de facto parentage statute and sued both Mother and Father to become the third parent for the child. 

The trial court, maybe for the first time, had to decide whether the seven factors under the statute were met on the above facts. The seven factors are a lot to prove: A) petitioner resided with child for significant time; B) engaged in caretaking of child; C) undertook full and permanent responsibilities of child; D) held out the child as their own; E) established bonded and dependent relationship with child that was parental in nature; F) the other parent(s) supported that bonded relationship; and G) continuing that parental relationship is in the best interest of the child. 

The trial judge got right down to business, deciding that the first two were met due to Lanfear’s four years of caring for the child. However, the judge found that Lanfear’s responsibilities were more like a nanny than like a parent, even using Lanfear’s own words against her, where she had called herself a “tenant” in her email to Mother’s divorce lawyer. Also, Lanfear hadn’t held herself out as a parent due to everyone’s agreement to keep the throuple relationship a secret. 

The judge agreed she had formed a “bonded” relationship with the child, but found that continuing that relationship would not be in the child’s best interest, since the relationship among the three was unequal and stressful to the child, who experienced difficulty sleeping, constipation, and bedwetting which all went away when Father and Lanfear moved out. Also, Lanfear had made those accusations to the school knowing it would get Mother in trouble. The court found that Lanfear’s controlling behavior would harm the child in the future if Lanfear was allowed to become a de facto parent. 

The trial court concluded that the stringent legal standard, clear and convincing evidence, was not met here for factors C, D, and G. And because not all of the factors were proven, Lanfear would not be adjudicated a parent of the child. Lanfear appeals to SCOV. 

The SCOV, after telling this story, employs the legal doctrine of appellate deference to the trial court. This is a fancy way of saying that the trial judge was the one to look the litigants in their eyes, hear the evidence firsthand, get a feeling for who is telling the truth or who is more credible, make value judgments about who is being sincere or who has good motivations, and try to figure out what was actually in the child’s best interest. The SCOV only reviews the record in a secondhand manner, in cold black-and-white pages of a printed case. It’s just not the same as hearing and seeing the people testifying. That’s why the SCOV has a general rule that unless the trial judge was obviously wrong about the facts, the SCOV is going to defer to the judge’s discretion and findings of fact. 

So while Lanfear argues at SCOV about the complicated nature of polyamorous relationships, about the inherent inequalities in labor, love and child rearing, and about the facts that might have favored her side of the argument, SCOV disagrees with her and affirms the trial court’s decision. SCOV fixes a minor error in the trial court’s interpretation of the new law, but ultimately finds that the trial court’s decisions were grounded in and supported by the facts, and that the trial court had not abused its discretion in making the findings and conclusions it did. 

The end result is that Mother and Father are the only parents of this child, and Lanfear is not. The new de facto parentage statute has finally made it to the SCOV. And with virtual certainty, I can predict this first appearance will not be its last. 

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