Courts Rule Against Child Support Services Department

In a recent paternity case, justice prevailed over procedure. In 1996, the County filed a complaint to establish the paternity and child support of two minors who had been receiving public assistance. The County attempted substituted service of the complaint by leaving a copy of the complaint addressed to “Jane Doe” at the appellant‣s address. Appellant failed to respond to the complaint and the County entered judgment by default, establishing appellant‣s paternity of the two minors and ordering him to pay monthly child support.



Five years after the entry of the default judgment, the appellant filed a motion to set aside the judgment, claiming that he never received a copy of the initial complaint or a copy of the default judgment. In support of his motion, he noted that recent blood tests had conclusively proven that he was not the minors‣ father. The appellant never had a relationship with the minors and always denied paternity.


The County opposed the motion, correctly pointing out that the time to set aside a default judgment had expired pursuant to the governing statute, which sets forth a six-month time period within which a motion to set aside default must be brought.



In a surprising twist, the court granted the motion to vacate a default judgment. Normally, the policy of finality of judgments and the governing statute provide a procedural shield from such a challenge to the default judgment. However, the court recognized that a profound mistake had been made when the appellant was deemed the father of minors who were not his, and therefore liable for support of the children. In this recognition, the court valued the importance of correcting such a profound mistake over strict application of the law.



In its opinion, the court cited the following portion of the Child Support Enforcement Fairness Act of 2000: “It is the moral, legal and ethical obligation of all enforcement agencies to take prompt action to recognize those cases where a person is mistakenly identified as a support obligor in order to minimize the harm and correct any injustice to that person.”

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