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Friday, May 1, 2015

Kitchen utensils and pregnancy - who knew they went together?

As I write this article, I am less than a month away from having my second daughter, so when I was reading the news the other day, a blurb about an unusual pregnancy and court ruling really caught my eye.

Not everyone is fortunate enough to be in a committed relationship, get pregnant the “old fashioned way” and go about their lives without any baby momma/baby daddy drama.  Lots of single women have children, and most decide to go the fertility clinic and sperm donor route.  However, that takes a lot of money and time, which are two things not everyone can afford.  The path less chosen is apparently what seemed best to Virginia resident Joyce Bruce.

In 2010, Joyce and her then-friend Robert Boardwine agreed for him to provide her with “the necessary item” to become pregnant.  Joyce took said item and proceeded to use an actual turkey baster (not kidding, and I doubt anyone will come to her house for Thanksgiving dinner anymore) to inseminate herself.  This unconventional method was not without effort, as the two had to try multiple times before succeeding in 2010.  Joyce even went to a fertility doctor a couple of times in between and that failed as well.  As luck would have it, the turkey baster attempts finally worked.

Robert claims he thought he could see the baby whenever he wanted, and Joyce contended that he could visit, but not any more often than a friend, and he certainly wouldn’t be considered a parent.  Their friendship broke down, and Robert decided to let it play out in the courtroom.

Joyce’s argument was that Robert was nothing more than a sperm donor, who should have no rights to the child.  However, Robert was able to hang his hat on Virginia’s assisted conception statute, and successfully convinced the court that a plain old turkey baster is not “reproductive technology.”  He was then awarded joint legal custody and parenting time with the baby boy.  Joyce appealed to the Virginia Court of Appeals but lost there too.  It is unknown if she will appeal the matter further.

The lesson to be learned from this case:  make sure you check the law before taking unconventional methods of reproduction into your own hands.

No pizza for you!

Oh Indiana.  Home of the NCAA and host of the Final Four basketball tournament that my beloved Spartans are in, what have you done to yourself?  Having the effect of setting the state back several centuries, Indiana Governor Mike Pence recently signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  The Governor and supporters of the law stated that the intent of the law is to protect people from having to act against their religious beliefs, and provide a legal defense if they were sued.  However, the way it was written sparked a lot of debate over whether or not the law allowed Indiana businesses to refuse service to certain individuals if their lifestyle does not comport with the business owners’ religious beliefs.  Those in opposition of the law believe that it creates a loophole for legal discrimination against gays and lesbians.

On April 2, 2015 (hopefully not a late April Fool’s Day joke), Indiana’s governor signed an amendment to the law, which is meant to patch together a “fix” that prohibits discrimination against the LGBT community by businesses and other providers.  Many people believe that the only fix is to nix the entire law.  Notably, it exempts churches and other nonprofit religious organizations from being included in the term “providers,” and Indiana’s anti-discrimination law still doesn’t include the LGBT community.  The push for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act came as a counter to the marriage equality movement.

In the short period of time since the original law was signed, an Indiana pizza business has already come out and said that if a gay couple wanted pizzas at their wedding, they would not provide the food.  Memories Pizza, located in Walkerton, Indiana, is owned by a family who holds strong Christian beliefs, including not supporting gay marriage.  When the owners gave their support of the recent law by saying that they would not cater a gay wedding, the backlash was immediate.  Protests, boycotting of the business and unfortunately threats, have been fired back against the pizza parlor. 

Other businesses, such as the popular website Angie’s List, have decided against expanding business in Indianapolis, and declared the amendment to be “insufficient.”  Several states and cities prohibited spending on travel to Indiana in light of the original law.  Large sales of stock of Indiana based companies is a reality, and tourism is likely to take a substantial hit.

Even with the amendment, it is unlikely that Indiana will receive glowing reviews from the LGBT community any time soon.  The damage was strong and swift, and while it may be forgiven over time, it will not be forgotten.  Besides, it should be criminal to refuse pizza to anyone.

It takes wait...three to tango?

It is said that it takes two to tango – but now that England’s House of Lords has voted in favor of new legislation – it will take three in some cases when it comes to procreation. And no, this is not anything of the kinky sort – it’s strictly scientific, so remove your minds from the gutter.

Many of you may have seen the recent news articles on the “three person babies” legislation from jolly old England. When I started reading, I was transported to high school science class as soon as the word “mitochondrial” screamed at me from the website. So, here’s a refresher course for you. 

Everyone has mitochondrial DNA, which can only be passed down from the mother genetically. It lives in most of our cells, with the job of magically transforming the food we eat into energy.

If the mitochondria are not healthy, this can lead to devastating and fatal diseases and conditions, which can be passed down from generation to generation if those with the flawed DNA procreate. So, the question posed to scientists was how to remove the bad mitochondria and replace it with healthy ones, without completely removing the woman with the issue from the equation.

This is the point where it becomes all twilight zone-y – scientists have actually found a way to do it. Most are familiar with IVF (in vitro fertilization), where a sperm and egg are fertilized in a laboratory and then the embryo is transferred into the woman’s uterus. This procedure is frequently used in cases where couples suffer from infertility. The three person baby technique builds on that process and unites the DNA from the original couple with the healthy mitochondria of another woman. This results in the child having three DNA donations, but the donation from the healthy woman only comprises 0.1% of the child’s overall DNA. It doesn’t impact the child’s looks or intelligence so for all intents and purposes, the child is going to be a product of its mom and dad, minus one teensy-weensy piece.

Members of Parliament voted in favor of a law allowing this scientific technique, and the House of Lords just approved it as well, making England the first country to step into this uncharted territory. As one would imagine, there are a slew of ethical and scientific debates about this topic. Will people use it to create “designer babies,” choosing everything from height, eye color and hair? Is it too close to playing God? It’s easy to see the “slippery slope” argument that many churches and others are discussing.

On the other hand, this technique allows parents who have lost children from these diseases and have no real chance for a healthy, biological child, an opportunity to essentially erase
specific birth defects from the family blood line, and achieve their dream of having a healthy son or daughter.

With this law passing in England, I’m betting that it will have a huge ripple effect in the United States sooner rather than later. After all, isn’t England our “Mother Country?”

Lying to the court is not a great idea

When I first started practicing law, I assumed that the attorney/client confidentiality privilege would keep my clients honest with me.  After all, it’s not like I could tell anyone what they said.  However, I still found that they would lie, both about big issues and mundane things that came up during the course of my representation of them.

When I started working for the courts, the lying became more prevalent.  Everyone wants an edge in their divorce or custody battle, and fabricating stories is one way they try to get that edge.  You would think that most people lie about their income, and while this does happen, I find it happens less often.  Taxes, paycheck stubs and bank statements have a way of keeping people honest.

My personal favorite are the individuals who deny that they ever had knowledge of the case being filed (thus explaining their utter lack of participation in it and the child’s life).  They blame everything on the other parent’s sinister desire to banish them into “deadbeat dad” or “deadbeat mom” status.  As I listen to the words pour out of their mouths, I have in front of me the original signed order, with the signature of the (allegedly) unaware parent glaring at me.  I explain the interesting document before me.  Most of the time, he or she continues to deny it and offer excuse after excuse (someone else signed it, it’s the court system’s fault, the ex’s fault, my fault – despite the fact that I just met them).

Here’s the thing – once you lie to me, and it’s pretty blatant – I have a hard time believing anything else that you say.  The sad part is, the other parts of your story may be true, but what value do they have to them now? 

The reality of what happened in the past may be embarrassing, hurtful and damaging to your case.  But I can guarantee that being truthful about it and owning up to whatever responsibility you had in that situation, will help you in the eyes of the court.  You are doing yourself no favors by lying to someone who can greatly impact the direction of your life.  And trust me, it’s not like the court wants to control you – we desperately wish people could resolve matters on their own.

Friday, January 23, 2015

*Revenge Porn UPDATE*

It does not appear that the Michigan Legislature's Committee on Criminal Justice made any decisions on the SB 924 or 925 by legislative year end, so the proposed laws are effectively dead. 

Revenge Porn Laws

All of us have thought of taking revenge on an ex at some point (ok, maybe not you “saintly” types).  However, most of us have not thought of exacting that revenge by posting sexually explicit pictures of them online; pictures that were once taken when we were in love (or lust as the case may be) and meant for our eyes only.

The Michigan Senate passed two bills in 2014 that would criminalize these types of actions – Senate Bills 924 and 925.  Per the proposed law, a person cannot “post on the internet any sexually explicit photograph, drawing, or other visual image of another person with the intent to frighten, intimidate, or harass any person.”  And, if you do post one of these things, and the other person provides you with a written request to take it down, your refusal to do so would also be a crime.  On a side note, can you imagine drafting that “written request?”  “Dear John,  Please take down the picture of me on…All the best, Suzie.”

The criminal penalty for a first offense would be up to 93 days in jail and a $500.00 fine, or both, with the crime being classified as a misdemeanor.  If you’re dumb enough to commit the same crime twice, your second violation is also a misdemeanor but the jail time is increased to up to a year and the fine to $1,000.00, or both.

Michigan has used other laws to prosecute offenses such as this, by going after individuals based on a law prohibiting the unlawful posting of a message on the internet.  That was the case for one Michigan resident who will remain nameless.  He allegedly made the bright choice to place some nude pictures of his former girlfriend on the internet, naturally without her consent.  The law that he was prosecuted under carries a $5,000.00 fine and is a two-year felony, which is much more of a stiff penalty than what the proposed Senate bills carry.

Where you really don’t want to commit this crime is Illinois.  It recently passed a law for the same behavior, and those convicted can be hit with a $25,000.00 fine and spend a blissful one to three years in prison.  This law takes effect on June 1, 2015.

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that posting nude pictures of your ex is going to get you in trouble, and cause a great deal of harm to the individual whose image is shared.  Then again, no one ever said criminals with scorned hearts were smart.

Apology comes a little too late

Have you ever had that “friend” that apologized to you waaaaaay too late, after all of the conceivable damage from the offense had been done?  I think we can all answer yes to that question.  But imagine if that apology came 10 years later, after you had a criminal conviction marking your record, and had paid a lot of money for something that wasn’t your fault.

That is the story of Texas resident Candice Anderson, who pled to involuntarily manslaughter in 2006 for driving in the automobile accident that killed her finance Gene Erikson, and left Candice badly injured.  Candice was driving her trusty Saturn Ion when she lost control for seemingly no reason, crashing into a tree.  The car’s airbags did not deploy, with no explanation for 10 years after the crash.

Automaker recalls are common in the industry, some being much more serious than others, and the unfortunate thing is, people usually have to be injured or die before a recall is put into place.  In February 2014, General Motors (GM), the manufacturer of the now defunct Saturn brand, issued a recall for 2.6 million of its vehicles, citing a problem with the ignition switches wherein the engines can stall, and power steering, brakes and airbags can fail.  And guess what?  Candice’s Saturn was one of the cars that would have been in the recall.

GM finally acknowledged that Candice’s accident could have been caused by the recall problem, and issued a letter to that effect, leading to Candice’s conviction being expunged.  While I generally look at apologies as “better late than never,” I can share in Candice’s frustration that it took GM a decade to come forward.  The car company has stated that it cooperated fully and provided information, and just thought that it was best for the judicial process to take its course before it became involved.

Not surprisingly, both Candice and her deceased fiance’s family sued GM, but the case was settled after they became one of the many who joined the compensation program set up for the recall.

It’s a sad case all around – a woman was horribly injured, held accountable for something that wasn’t her fault, and lost her future husband.  The lives of their families were forever changed. What’s most depressing is that GM waited so long to help vindicate an innocent victim.  

Baby Daddy Drama

I was having a conversation with my mom the other day and she brought up an interesting question – if a woman slept with identical twins and became pregnant, could anyone tell who the real baby daddy was?  My first thought was, “Wow, that’s a really weird question coming from my mom,” and my second thought was “I wonder if there are any cases on the topic?”

Because Google® is the best search engine ever, I found a great result as soon as I plugged in the question.

With the facts reading straight out of a Maury Povich episode, two identical twin brothers from Missouri, Raymon and Richard Miller, both had sex with Holly Adams on the same day.  Allegedly, the timing of these encounters was pretty darn close too (did brother #2 enter through the front door while brother #1 left out of the back?).  It’s hard to believe things like this really happen, but I’m betting there was not a high moral standard with this group.

So, nine months later, Holly gives birth to a baby girl.  She writes Raymon down as the father but he contests it.  In a particularly salacious move, he drags his brother Richard into court as his defense.

Now, as you may know, identical twins have the same DNA.  One sperm fertilizes one egg that subsequently divides in two.  When the paternity test result was in, it showed that both brothers had a 99.9% chance of being the child’s father.

The tricky issue (well, legally; I’m sure family get togethers were a lot more awkward) was which brother would be held responsible for the little girl.  Who had to fork over the child support that was owed?  Judge Fred Copeland was certainly in a dilemma.  There was absolutely no way scientifically for him to conclude who the real baby daddy was.  So, he relied on Holly’s testimony and went with who she had originally named – Raymon.

Not surprisingly, Raymon was quite irritated and planned on appealing until he was vindicated.  Both brothers were quoted as saying the other just doesn’t want the financial burden or responsibility of a child.  Too bad the kid can’t just pick – my guess is she’d vote for anyone other than these two.

Courts to review the rights of transgendered individuals

Everyone has heard of workplace sexual discrimination, and the general thought that comes to mind is an employer doing something unfairly to an employee based on the employee’s gender of male or female.  Many people do not realize that the Federal Law, Title VII of Civil Rights Act of 1964, has also protected transgendered workers since 2012.

On September 25, 2014, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) slapped R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Home Inc., of Garden City, Michigan, with a discrimination lawsuit, claiming its transgendered employee Amiee Stephens was fired after she advised them that she was going to live as a female.

When Amiee let her boss and fellow funeral workers know of her planned transition, she alleges that she was told it was “unacceptable” and fired a mere two weeks later.

In a much more publicized case, Chelsea Manning (formerly known as Bradley Manning), is suing the Federal government and Defense Secretary Hagel for failure to have her gender dysphoria properly treated while serving her 35 year prison sentence.  You may remember the little WikiLeaks espionage scandal Manning was the head of a few years back.

Once Manning announced that she would be living as Chelsea and not Bradley, she asked the military to compose a treatment plan to continue her transition.  Supposedly the military agreed, but Manning said she never received the military’s plan or any treatment.  In addition to the hormone therapy, Manning is seeking to be able to follow the prison beauty standards for female prisoners (i.e. longer hair and use of makeup).

Transgendered individuals face a high rate of discrimination, suicide and self-harm.  In particular, some male-to-female transgendered individuals will castrate themselves. 

Many individuals believe any additional treatment beyond what is “medically necessary” for prisoners is a privilege, not a right.  The government pays for prisoners to receive medical treatment for all sorts of conditions – mental and physical – prisoners have access to counseling, cancer treatments, dialysis, surgery, prescription medications, etc.  So is what Manning is proposing medically necessary for her diagnosis of gender dysphoria?  And if it is, should the government pay for it while she’s serving a 35 year prison sentence for espionage?  These are certainly only some of the many questions that the public is waiting for the courts to answer.

Amiee Stephens’ case seems more cut and dry – if she can prove that she was fired for coming out as a transgendered individual, her former employer will be in a world of hurt.  Manning’s case will really help define the rights of transgendered individuals in prison – and health care coverage for these conditions in general.

Alternate career choices for attorneys

A lot of attorneys do not like being an attorney – some loathe it while others just feel general disappointment with their career choice.  It’s depressing to spend all of your money, time and effort on attending and graduating from law school, studying and passing the Bar Exam, to then be forced to work in a career that you are not happy with.

I read an article recently that said the average private law school student debt was approximately $125,000 – thankfully mine is not that high but it is still far more than I ever wanted to have.  While there are always exceptions, by and large for the past few years, law firms have been cutting staff, but law schools are still churning out students at a record pace, creating a surplus of lawyers without jobs.  That whole supply and demand thing isn’t working out too well for those in my profession.

While I was lucky enough to have gainful employment during the years I was in private practice, I wasn’t always happy with my career choice.  Since I focused my practice area on family law, I dealt with high conflict, high stress cases day in and day out.  Migraines were common and I kept a surplus of antacids on hand at all times.  I thought about broadening my area of practice, but it was nice knowing a lot about one thing and being able to tell some of the creepers that would call that I didn’t delve into representation of the criminal world.  Besides, family law had plenty of cross over into that realm and I wasn’t exactly itching for more exposure.

I expressed my displeasure over my career with a colleague of mine and he set me up to teach a course in Conflict Management at a local college.  The class was almost four hours long and I had no idea how I was going to fill up that time.  Then I remembered that I frequently talk non-stop and am psychotically outgoing, and I ended up having a blast.  I was easily able to apply my legal knowledge and negotiation skills to the class activities and course teachings.  Still, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to leave the law entirely.  And let’s be honest, it can be nice saying you’re a lawyer too.  There is an underlying layer of prestige that no one who suffers through law school wants to let go of.

In 2014, I was fortunate to land at Washtenaw County Friend of the Court as an Evaluator and Mediator, and I am really enjoying my new career.  It uses all of my legal knowledge, in the specialized field I practiced in, but has normal work hours and less stress (although you may not hear me say that every day).  I don’t have to represent difficult clients, and I am frequently able to help former couples reach agreements without nasty court battles.  This in turn benefits the children most, which is what it’s all about.

So if you are considering law school, or are in law school already, don’t limit your employment options to the 7 am to 9 pm big firm, high pressure gigs.  Yes, you can make enough money to pay your loans back in five years, but is it really worth it?  Most of the time the answer is no.  Your personal life can suffer tremendously and it can take a big toll on your physical health too.  Look around for a job that uses your knowledge but focuses on what you like best about the law.   Life is too short to be unhappy.