Thursday, September 1, 2005

Case Law Development: Paternity Actions - statutes of limitations, equitable tolling, intentional infliction of emotional distress

R.A.C. v. P.J.S., 2005 N.J. Super. LEXIS 258  (N.J. App. Ct. August 31, 2005)

A year after being told by his ex-wife that their youngest son, then thirty years of age, had been fathered by another man, Plaintiff sued the biological father for paternity.  He also sought damages for  emotional distress and unjust enrichment. Following DNA testing, an order establishing parentage was entered; a summary judgment awarded plaintiff $ 109,696.82 representing the funds expended by plaintiff to support and educate D.C.  On appeal the New Jersey Superior Court Appellate Division clarified a number of issues that arise in the context of these cases:

  • The doctrine of equitable tolling could apply to the statute of limitations in a paternity action such as this but the discovery rule is inappropriate.
  • Recovery in a paternity action is limited to reimbursement for only that support which would be part of a child support order, and not for support that plaintiff may have provided out of a sense of moral obligation.   
  • Pre-judgment interest is not generally available in paternity actions, as there is rarely a fixed date and amount defendant could have paid prior to the judgment.
  • New Jersey will not recognize an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim arising out of adultery, which is essentially the damages claimed in this action as plaintiff had not alleged any damage to his relationship with his son. 

Text of the opinon on the web at http://www.judiciary.state.nj.us/opinions/a6130-02.pdf

On the statute of limitations issue, the court provides a scholarly analysis of the purposes of statutes of limitations, differentiating a procedural or remedial statute, which governs common law causes of action, and substantive or jurisdictional statute of limitations, which govern statutory actions that did not exist at common law.  Finding that the statute of limitations in paternity actions would fall under the latter category, the court held that whether tolling doctrines should apply turned on an analysis of legislative intent.  The court rejected application of the discovery rule to paternity actions but saw no reason not to allow application of equitable tolling:

"Plaintiff's action allows an acknowledgement of responsibilities and a reconciliation of obligations. It is not calculated to disrupt fragile familial relationships or to leave a young child bereft of required paternal guidance. In these circumstances, resort to the statutory limitations period acts as a shield rather than the sword for a party whose conduct deserves no such protection. Therefore, we affirm the orders entered denying defendant's motion to dismiss the complaint as time-barred."

On the dismissal of the common law claims, the court distinguished a prior case allowing an IIED claim, as that case had arisen before the New Jersey legislature had abolished its heart balm causes of action.  The court concluded that recognizing a cause of action for emotional distress in these actions would violate public policy:

"Our Heart Balm Act ... abolished causes of action for alienation of affections, criminal conversation, seduction, and breach of contract to marry.... Although plaintiff argues that he is not seeking to recover for interference with his marital relationship, but for the emotional pain he endured upon learning that the true paternity of his child was hidden from him, the underlying conduct is the same. His claim as asserted is, in essence, a claim that another man slept with his wife behind his back. Although he alleges that adultery is not the basis for his cause of action, that does not seem to be the case at all. To the extent that plaintiff's claim is one for destruction of the parent-child relationship, such a claim would embroil the court in a microscopic examination of how that relationship has been affected by defendant's conduct and would make the child the focal point of any litigation. "

BGF

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/family_law/2005/09/rac_v_pjs_2005_.html

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