Fraudulent Acknowledgment of Paternity
Alvarado: Fraud on the Court/Paternity Declaration Issues
Arizona law allows the father of a child to establish paternity in a variety of ways. One way is by signing an acknowledgment of paternity. Once that is filed with the court, Arizona law gives interested parties only 6 months to challenge it, absent fraud on the court. Is it a fraud on the court where someone, not the child’s father files a fraudulent acknowledgment of paternity stating he is the child’s father in order to avoid an adoption hearing? This was the question raised in the special jurisdiction case of Alvarado v. Honorable Peter A. Thompson/Murrietta et al., No. 1 CA-SA 16-0051, (Ariz. Ct. App. filed 5/31/2016).
Facts of the Case
In 2011, Vanessa Trujillo told Nicholas Murrietta that she was pregnant with his child and intended to give it up for adoption. When Nicholas asked about getting paternity testing to make sure it was his, Vanessa cut off all contact. She later told him the child had been adopted. However, this was not the case. Vanessa had agreed to give the child to another couple – Ernest and Yvette Alvarado–to raise as their own. Normally, when a child is to be adopted, the court conducts an investigation into whether the adoption placement is in the child’s best interests. In order to avoid this–which would involve notice to the child’s father–the Alvarados paid to have Vanessa say that Ernest was the father, and both Vanessa and Ernest signed the acknowledgment of paternity the day the child was born.
Ernest was able to obtain a birth certificate listing himself as the child’s father, which gave him the right to raise the child without an adoption procedure. Three years later, in 2014, Yvette filed for divorce. Ernest denied that they had a child together. Yvette explained what had happened to the court, and asked Vanessa to get Nicholas to take a paternity test to confirm the story. Only then did Nicholas learn that the child had not been adopted. When the test confirmed he was the child’s father, Nicholas asked the court to set aside Ernesto’s fraudulent acknowledgment of paternity. Ernest argued that six-month period to contest the acknowledgment had passed and that the false acknowledgment was not a fraud on the court that would extend the time period.
The court ruled that “obtaining a judgment of paternity by falsifying information under oath to the Court establishes fraud upon the Court,” which is not subject to the six-month time limit set forth in Rule 85(C)(2). Ernest moved to have the decision set aside, claiming that he just found out that Yvette had paid Vanessa not to appear at the hearing. The court denied that motion. The appellate court accepted special action jurisdiction to resolve the issues.
Challenging an Acknowledgement of Paternity
The Court reviewed the ways an acknowledgment of paternity can be challenged under Arizona law. Anyone signing it can rescind it within 60 days, and any party can challenge it for fraud, duress or material mistake of fact. Absent fraud on the court, the challenge must be filed within six months of the day the judgment was entered confirming paternity. The question before the Court, then, was whether Ernest’s preparing and signing a false acknowledgment of paternity constituted fraud on the court.
Fraud on the Court
The Court described and defined “fraud on the court” by quoting from an earlier case: Fraud on the court is a variety of extrinsic fraud. The doctrine may allow relief when, by fraud, a party has prevented a real contest before the court of the subject matter of the suit, or, put differently, has committed some intentional act or conduct . . . [that] has prevented the unsuccessful party from having a fair submission of the controversy. The court has the power to set aside a judgment [w]hen a party obtains a judgment by concealing material facts and suppressing the truth with the intent to mislead the court.
Ernest argues that the false acknowledgment was not fraud on the court since it did not prevent Nicholas from appearing and contesting the acknowledgment. Nicholas could have done so at any time during the six month period. The Court disagreed. It noted that Ernest’s purpose in creating the fraudulent acknowledgment was to prevent the family court from holding an adoption hearing where Nicholas would have been given notice of the potential adoption. This kind of conduct, the Court ruled, could certainly be considered fraud on the court. The Court then addressed Ernest’s motion to set aside the judgment because Yvette paid or threatened Vanessa not to appear. The Court ruled that since Ernest did not object to proceeding with the hearing in Vanessa’s absence, he waived any claims about the fact that she did not appear.