“Octa-Mom” wins one in court

“Octa-mom” Nadya Suleman became an object of derision when, after fertility-treatment-induced birth to octuplets, people learned she was a cash-strapped single mother who already had six children at home. But it’s her adversary that comes into ridicule in Friday’s decision in Suleman v. Superior Court , case no. G042509 (4th Dist. Jan. 8, 2010).

Paul Peterson filed a petition to appoint a guardian to handle financial affairs for the octuplets. (Peterson asserted that his non-profit organization wanted to ensure that financial compensation received from photos or video of the octuplets was preserved for their majority, which explains why no guardianship was sought for the remaining children.) Suleman moved to dismiss, and petitioned for a writ of mandate after the trial court denied her motion. As unsympathetic a person as Suleman may have been in the press, Peterson looks pretty bad, too:

This is an unprecedented, meritless effort by a stranger to a family to seek appointment of a guardian of the estates of the minor children. The petition‟s allegations are insufficient to infringe on a parent‟s civil rights or to rebut the presumption under California law that a parent is competent to manage the finances of his or her children. There is nothing in the petition that shows that the best interests of the children in the management of their finances are not being served by Suleman.

I always liked the joke “It’s on the internet, so it must be true!” Peterson learns that a court petition is not the time to try to take that whimsical expression seriously:

What information do we have before us? Petersen is not a relative under section 1510, subdivision (a). Petersen has never met and never had any contact with Suleman, her children, or any member of her family. All of the information presented in the petition for appointment of a guardian has come from television or the Internet. Petersen has provided no documentary evidence (much less admissible evidence) that raises a reasonable inference of wrongdoing. The information provided can be summed up as follows: Suleman and her children have appeared on television and the Internet, presumably in exchange for money. No evidence of financial mismanagement on the part of Suleman is offered. Petersen admits he does not know whether Suleman has taken the appropriate steps to ensure that 15 percent of each child‟s portion of any earnings has been placed into a [statutorily mandated] Coogan Trust Account.

(My emphasis, footnote omitted.) Not only does Suleman get the guardianship petition dismissed, she also succeeds in stopping an investigation ordered by the trial court into her family’s finances.

The average person following this on the news probably wrote off Suleman’s chances of prevailing. Lawyers not paying close attention may also have rolled their eyes, in light of the overwhelming odds against having a writ petition heard on the merits, let alone winning. However, Suleman presented a statutory interpretation issue of first impression of great importance — who has standing as “another person on behalf of the minor” under Probate Code section 1510, subdivision (a) to bring a guardianship petition — that not only caught the court’s eye, but actually resulted in a win.