Jessica G. v. Hector M.

Decision Date01 September 1994
Docket NumberNo. 3,3
Citation653 A.2d 922,337 Md. 388
PartiesJESSICA G. v. HECTOR M. ,
CourtMaryland Court of Appeals

E. Pamela McArthur (Parker & Pallett, on brief), White Marsh, for appellant.

David K. Hayes (Boyd, Benson & Hendrickson, on brief), Baltimore, for appellee.

Argued before MURPHY, C.J., and ELDRIDGE, RODOWSKY, CHASANOW, KARWACKI, BELL and RAKER, JJ.

MURPHY, Chief Judge.

We granted certiorari to consider whether an unsuccessful paternity action brought by a mother which was dismissed with prejudice bars a subsequent paternity action brought by the mother's child.

I

The res judicata defense to the instant complaint was raised by the defendant's motion to dismiss that was granted by the Circuit Court for Harford County. That motion, and its supporting memorandum, incorporated by reference the records in two prior proceedings in the same court. One of those proceedings, in turn, contained the judgment of a New York court. The Circuit Court for Harford County considered these matters that were outside of the instant complaint, thereby converting the defendant's motion into one for summary judgment. See Maryland Rule 2-322(c). From the allegations of the instant complaint, the prior judgments, and affidavits complying with Maryland Rule 2-501 contained in the prior proceedings, we glean the following facts most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment.

Joyce G. had an intimate relationship with Hector M. in March of 1985. On December 31, 1985, Joyce gave birth to Jessica. In May of 1986, Joyce instituted a paternity action against Hector in the Circuit Court for Harford County. Joyce, Jessica, and Hector submitted to blood tests and the results, which were completed on December 24, 1986, indicated a 99.97% probability that Hector was Jessica's father.

Notwithstanding the blood test results, Hector refused to admit paternity and continued to vigorously defend the case. For two years, he conducted extensive discovery, which included interrogatories, depositions, and requests for production of documents. At that point in the proceedings, Joyce asked to stop the paternity suit. A consent order of dismissal "with prejudice" was prepared and eventually signed by Hector, Hector's counsel, Judge Maurice W. Baldwin, and an Assistant State's Attorney, who was "representing" Joyce. 1 When Joyce's attorney presented the consent order to Joyce for her signature she refused to sign because of the term "with prejudice." The State's Attorney nevertheless docketed the consent order on March 1, 1988, without Joyce's signature. 2

Over the next three years, Joyce returned to the Office of the State's Attorney on many occasions and asked to continue the paternity action against Hector. She was turned away each time and was finally informed by a staff member of the Harford County State's Attorney's office that she was forever precluded from bringing a paternity action or support proceeding against Hector because of the previous dismissal.

The State's Attorney, however, eventually agreed to bring an action under the Maryland Uniform Reciprocal Enforcement of Support Act, Maryland Code (1984, 1991 Repl.Vol.) Family Law Article (FL) §§ 10-301 through 10-340. In March of 1992, Joyce filed the action against Hector in the Family Court of Nassau County, New York. On June 16, 1992, the New York court dismissed the suit with prejudice, based on the 1988 Harford County dismissal with prejudice.

On July 31, 1992, Joyce filed in the Circuit Court for Harford County a motion to vacate the 1988 judgment. The court (Baldwin, J.) denied the motion to vacate on September 9, 1992. It explained that Maryland's revisory rule only permits an enrolled judgment to be vacated if fraud, mistake, or irregularity occurred; it concluded that neither fraud, mistake, nor irregularity existed in the 1988 case and thus the judgment could not be vacated or revised. Joyce noted an appeal of that dismissal on September 23, 1992, but failed to file a brief in the Court of Special Appeals. Consequently, the intermediate appellate court dismissed the appeal on March 30, 1993.

In the interim, on December 2, 1992, Joyce's minor daughter, Jessica, filed a paternity complaint against Hector in the Circuit Court for Harford County. 3 Hector moved to dismiss, as described above. The court (Whitfill, J.) conducted a hearing regarding Hector's motion to dismiss on June 21, 1993 and concluded that res judicata barred Jessica from pursuing paternity or support from Hector. In particular, the court found that Joyce was representing Jessica's interests in the 1988 paternity action and thus Jessica's action fell squarely within the doctrine of res judicata. As a result, the court held that the dismissal with prejudice of Joyce's suit precluded Jessica's suit. Jessica appealed and we granted certiorari prior to consideration of the appeal by the intermediate appellate court to address this important issue.

II

Before us, Hector reasserts his contention that Jessica is barred under the doctrine of res judicata. He maintains that the first action, although brought by Joyce, was brought on behalf of Jessica and represented Jessica's interests. Consequently, he argues that Jessica should be deemed to be in privity with Joyce. Claiming that the parties are in privity, the paternity issue is identical, and there is a prior judgment on the merits, Hector avers that this is a textbook case of res judicata. Under that doctrine, he contends that Jessica's suit was properly dismissed by the circuit court.

Jessica argues that she has a fundamental right to determine paternity and that that right cannot be abrogated by any action of her mother. Specifically, Jessica claims that a child has a fundamental right to a father and that the circuit court deprived her of that right without ever hearing the case on the merits. Therefore, she avers that "when the Circuit Court never considered the merits of the paternity claim and dismissed [her] cause solely on the previous, separate proceeding of [her] mother, a fundamental right was taken without due process."

According to Jessica, an illegitimate child's right to support from her putative father cannot be contracted away by the child's mother, and any release executed by the mother is invalid because it is against public policy. She asserts that, because there is no legitimate question that Hector is Jessica's father, the consent order amounts to a waiver of Jessica's right to support and, consequently, cannot operate to preclude this action.

Jessica also contends that res judicata does not bar a paternity action brought by a child where a paternity suit brought by the child's mother has previously been dismissed with prejudice. She claims that courts in other jurisdictions have concluded that a child is not barred by a previous unsuccessful paternity action brought by the child's mother. 4

Jessica also argues that res judicata should not be applied in this case because there were procedural and equitable defects in the original action brought by her mother. She observes that the Assistant State's Attorney in the original action docketed the consent order of dismissal even though her mother, Joyce, specifically asked the State's Attorney not to dismiss the case with prejudice and refused to sign the order. She contends that the action taken by the State's Attorney, Joyce's counsel, went beyond the scope of the attorney's authority and, as a result, the consent order was improperly filed. Jessica claims that an attorney has no implied authority to compromise a client's claim. In this regard, she emphasizes that the State's Attorney in the original case acted against Joyce's express direction by dismissing the case with prejudice. Therefore, Jessica asks us not to consider the consent order for the purposes of res judicata because the order was erroneously filed.

III.

Although the issue before us today has never been specifically addressed in the State of Maryland, other jurisdictions have confronted the issue of whether there may be a second paternity action brought by a child after the mother's unsuccessful action. These cases are often decided on res judicata principles. For example, the Court of Appeals of Arizona has said:

"[P]aternity statutes, in several ways, evince an intention to benefit the public, mother and child, regardless of who is formally named a party. The state's main goal in a paternity suit is to divest itself of responsibility for supporting the child through various welfare programs. The mother's aim is assuredly economic as well. An order of filiation bears a concomitant obligation for the father to share in childrearing expenses. The child, however, has not only economic motives, but other independent interests, such as establishing lineage for inheritance purposes. Although the state may have interests different from the mother or child in seeking the father, their mutual objective is singular. Additionally, if the defendant is found to be the father, he incurs identical obligations ..., regardless of in whose name the suit was brought. * * *

From the above we conclude that the child's interests are inextricably bound to the litigation of a paternity action, whether brought in the name of the state, the mother or the guardian. We are led to this conclusion by a recognition that the substance of the action, rather than its technical form, must prevail in determining whose rights are being adjudicated. The fact that the state's name [or the mother's name] appears on the case, rather than the child's, does not change the fact that the issue to be litigated and the effect on the child's rights to support will be equal. This conclusion is further supported by our opinion that the paternity statutes do not contemplate multiple and successive actions by all who are authorized to bring suit.... 'When the interest of the same person is more than once placed in litigation,...

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