Published on:

Standing and Jurisdiction in Nonparent Custody

Gilleland v. Adams, 2023-NCCOA-9 (unpublished) 

Facts: Defendant gave birth to a child in 2017. Plaintiff claimed he was the father and filed for custody. Defendant filed her answer and also a motion to dismiss, citing to Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) of the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure and arguing that Plaintiff could not bring a custody case because he was not the father. The parties consented to get a court-ordered paternity test. Plaintiff was revealed to be not the child’s biological father. Plaintiff then amended his complaint and alleged that Defendant had acted inconsistent with her right to be a parent and that it was in the child’s best interests to have custody with Plaintiff. The trial court conducted a hearing on the motion to dismiss. The trial court heard from witnesses and received exhibits. Defendant’s motion to dismiss was granted. Plaintiff appealed. 

Issue: Did the trial court err in granting a motion to dismiss for lack of standing after a full evidentiary hearing rather than from the allegations in the pleadings? 

Holding: No. 

Reasoning: North Carolina allows nonparents to bring forth a lawsuit for custody of a child. However, to do so requires a threshold determination on standing. Without standing, the trial court is without subject matter jurisdiction to adjudicate the merits of the underlying claim. Defendant’s argument was that Plaintiff lacked the parent/child relationship that would confer standing to file for custody. The trial court then held hearings that spanned five days and received numerous exhibits and testimonies from witnesses that went beyond what was initially pled. This was somewhat atypical. What normally happens is a threshold determination based on the allegations contained in the complaint and responsive pleadings, and whether those facts were enough to withstand dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6). There normally is no further investigation. However, the standing issue should be resolved under Rule 12(b)(1), where looking beyond the initial pleadings is common, and evidentiary hearings are acceptable.  

Note: The Court also went on to review whether the dismissal under Rule 12(b)(1) was in error under a de novo standard. There, a non-biological parent seeking custody must show that they have a parent-child relationship with the minor child as well as the biological parent forgoing their constitutional right to be a parent. Since Plaintiff failed to challenge any findings of fact, upon review, the Court held no error.