A Tennessee court has refused to reimburse child support paid by a man who was induced to pay it by the child’s mother’s fraud and by the State of Tennessee. Here’s the ruling of the Court of Appeals.
Christopher Childers and Alexandria Price apparently had a sexual relationship in 2007. She gave birth to a child on an unstated date. She sought child support from Childers, telling the state’s Attorney General’s Office that he was the child’s father. She neglected to tell either Childers, the AG’s Office or the court that there was at least one other man who might be the father.
So the Attorney General’s Office sent a notice to Childers that there would be a hearing to determine paternity and establish child support if he turned out to be the father. But there was a problem; it sent the notice to his parents’ house and Childers wasn’t there. He was in the U.S. Armed Services, stationed in Iraq. Moreover, according to a later court’s explicit finding, the Attorney General’s Office knew he was serving in the military.
Needless to say, Childers didn’t receive the notice and didn’t show up in court. As we see so often, a default judgment was entered against him finding him to be the father of the child and ordering him to pay accrued child support as well as monthly amounts in the future. The state began garnishing his military wages to pay the support. That means it obviously knew he was serving in the Armed Forces.
When Childers got back from Baghdad in January of 2009, he went to court to contest the default judgment. DNA testing was performed that proved he was not the father of Price’s child. But he’d already paid almost $3,000 to support the child, so he asked the court to reimburse the amounts he’d paid. The Juvenile Court agreed and entered an order for the state to reimburse Childers and stating that it could in turn seek reimbursement from Price.
But the Court of Appeals struck down that order saying the Juvenile Court had no power to order reimbursement.
The Court stated that while the juvenile courts have broad statutory authority to establish a child’s paternity under Tenn.Code Ann. § 37-1-103(a)(2) and to issue orders setting, modifying, or even terminating child support under Tenn.Code Ann. §§ 36-5-401, -701, -2101, 37-1-104(d), the Court did not find any statute giving the juvenile courts authority, expressly or by implication, to order the State to reimburse a person who has paid child support based on the mistaken belief that he was the child’s biological father.In short, child support is a one-way street. A man, having once paid support can never get it back even though (a) the order to do so was brought about by the fraud of the mother and (b) the order to do so was brought about by the fraud of the Attorney General’s Office and (c) since he was serving overseas in the military he was unable to assert his non-paternity in court and (d) he was unable to stop the garnishment of his wages for the same reason.
In short, Alexandria Price knew that there was at least one other man who might be the father of her child, but she didn’t give that information to anyone. The Attorney General’s Office knew Childers was serving overseas, but didn’t tell the court that or that it had sent notice of the suit against him to an address at which he didn’t live. The court’s order that Childers was the child’s father and for him to pay support for it was therefore brought about by multiple fraudulent actions by parties to the suit. The only party who played it straight was Childers and he’s the only party to suffer any ill consequences.
But that’s not all. Since the state AG’s Office knew Childers was serving in the military, it had an obligation to tell the court that fact. That’s because the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, a federal law, prohibits any court from proceeding civilly against a person as long as that person is in the Armed Forces. Indeed, every civil petition I’ve ever seen involving an individual defendant has a mandatory allegation that the person isn’t serving in the military.
But, in addition to its other misrepresentations to the court, the Attorney General’s Office refused to state whether or not the defendant Childers was serving in the military or not. As stated, it knew he was in the military, but proceeded against him anyway. Had it obeyed federal law, it could not have gotten a judgment against Childers, so it disobeyed the law, and the court let the violation pass.
And what were the legal consequences to the Attorney General’s Office for violating a federal law that is designed specifically to avoid exactly what happened in the case of Price vs. Childers? None. The Juvenile Court thought that the violation rendered the judgment void, but the Court of Appeals disagreed saying simply that the judgment was “voidable.”
Stated another way, Childers, like all other men, was supposedly protected by a variety of laws and constitutional provisions such as due process of law. But, according to the ruling of the Court of Appeals, all of those “protections” fall in the face of the multiple frauds committed by Alexandria Price and the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office.
And before anyone shouts “yes, but the child needs support,” let’s not forget that that child does have a father. Somewhere there’s a man who actually did father Alexandria Price’s child. So far that father has paid not a dime to support the child he helped bring into the world. All Alexandria Price had to do was tell the truth – “the father may be Christopher Childers or it may be …” – and the child would have gotten support from the correct man. Into the bargain, Christopher Childers wouldn’t have been defrauded of almost $3,000 and the State of Tennessee wouldn’t have spent countless thousands of dollars in attorney fees and legal costs.
And of course, the child and its real father might well have a healthy relationship right now.
But no; all of that is too reasonable, too sane. Such an approach to the questions of paternity and child support must stand aside so that states can abet fraud and lying to courts. It’s all perfectly OK as long as someone ends up holding the bag, and we know who that is. If we don’t, Christopher Childers can certainly tell us.