Wednesday, June 20, 2007
No Refund Due Man Ordered to Support Child Not His—C.A.
By TINA BAY, Staff Writer
A man who made child support payments based on a paternity judgment later proven erroneous was not entitled to reimbursement, this district’s Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Affirming an order by Los Angeles Superior Court Referee Dennis Carroll, Div. Eight held that Taron Grant James could not get back the money he paid to the Los Angeles County Child Support Services Department pursuant to a factually mistaken paternity finding.
James was named as father on the birth certificate of a child born to Tami Burton in 1992. The two had had a brief relationship before James, a member of the U.S. Navy, was deployed to serve in the Gulf War.
At the time of the birth, James was on military duty in the Persian Gulf and unaware of the child’s birth. He first learned of the birth when Burton contacted the Navy seeking to obtain child support payments through his military benefits.
James denied he was the baby’s father, and the Navy informed Burton that she and James would be required to undergo genetic testing in order for child support payments to be issued. Additionally, the Navy said it would grant James leave to participate in the testing upon his return to the U.S.
Burton did not pursue the testing, however. Instead, she abandoning her claim with the Navy and applied for child support benefits through Los Angeles County, naming James as her son’s father.
In 1994, the district attorney filed a complaint to establish James’ parental relationship with the child and his obligation to pay child support. The complaint was served on James, but he failed to respond.
As a result, a default judgment was entered against him in 1996 declaring him to be the father and ordering him to pay $121 a month in child support through the county.
Marc E. Angelucci, a Glendale attorney representing James on appeal, the only complaint he ever received was one addressed to a “Teodoro Alfonso Martinez.” After taking the complaint to the county to inquire about it, he was told that there was a paternity action pending against him, Angelucci told the MetNews.
The county acknowledged its error in addressing the complaint to the wrong individual, but told James to wait until further notice when he said he wanted to challenge the paternity claim, the lawyer continued.
He heard nothing from the county after that point, and did not learn of the paternity judgment until his driver’s license was suspended eight months after the judgment’s entry, Angelucci said.
At that point, James attempted to have the judgment set aside, but a judge determined he had been properly served. The judge also denied his request for genetic testing.
James thereafter made the requisite child support payments but continued to deny paternity.
In 2001, he and the child participated in genetic testing that revealed James was not the father. Based on the test results, he moved to have the 1996 judgment set aside and to be reimbursed for the payments he had made through the county.
He entered into a stipulation with the county in 2002 that it was closing the case for any unassigned child support arrearages.
James last year renewed his motions to set aside the paternity judgment and obtain reimbursement.
Carroll granted the set-aside motion but denied his reimbursement request.
The Court of Appeal agreed with the judge that Family Code Sec. 7648.4 barred reimbursement.
Sec. 7648.4 expressly provides that, following the set-aside of a paternity judgment, “[t]he previously established father has no right of reimbursement for any amount of support paid prior ot the granting of the motion.”
Writing for Div. Eight, Justice Paul Boland said a plain reading of the statute precluded reimbursement.
Adding that such a reading was consistent with legislative intent, he explained:
“The section was intended to protect a declared father who, under existing law, lacked the procedural means to set aside or vacate an existing paternity decree after genetic testing determined he was not the biological father. While the statutory change was designed to enable a declared father to challenge a paternity decree, it was also intended to safeguard the child.”
While aware of the harm that paternity fraud inflicts on a declared father, Boland said, the Legislature balanced the competing interests of declared father and child and concluded a right of reimbursement should not be allowed.
Presiding Justice Candace Cooper and Justice Laurence D. Rubin concurred in the opinion.
Rubin wrote a separate concurrence to note that Sec. 7648.4 may not have been intended to bar reimbursement from a public agency.
“Notwithstanding the clarity of the legislative language, there is some indication that the drafters were concerned primarily, perhaps exclusively, with reimbursement from a parent,” he said.
The justice pointed to a legislative committee report stating that “[t]he potential for a previously established father to seek reimbursement from the mother could be financially devastating to the child.”
That warning, Rubin said, appears not to apply to reimbursement of funds paid to a public agency.
Additionally, he wrote, a public agency could repay a once-assumed father in James’ position without imposing any financial hardship on the child or mother.
“Permitting reimbursement under these situations would actually further the legislative mandate of the Child Enforcement Fairness Act of 2000 which, as noted, exhorts all enforcement agencies to ‘correct any injustice’—not merely to cease perpetuating injustice—to those mistakenly identified as support obligors,” the justice concluded.
Angelucci said his client is considering appealing the decision.
“The trial court in this case specifically said there was fraud, but the appellate court never mentioned that,” he remarked. “At least Justice Rubin’s concurring opinion recognized the fundamental injustice by suggesting a legislative change to allow reimbursement for people like [James].”
The lawyer added that military men are especially targeted for their military benefits, and that James’ fight against Burton’s claims have kept him in a “financial and psychological prison.”
“We finally succeeded in setting aside the judgment last year, but Taron is out more than $12,000, and this whole thing has affected his credit, his G.I. college bill, his relationships and just about every facet of his life,” he said.
Angelucci is president of the National Coalition of Free Men, a nonprofit organization that fights what it claims to be the unfair treatment of men in a variety of areas including family law, criminal sentencing, public health policy and the media.
Appellate counsel for the Child Support Services Department did not return a MetNews phone call.
The case is County of Los Angeles v. James, B187770.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company