Paternity Action Filed by a Child Subject to Doctrines of Res Judicata and Privity in Arizona
Once an issue is litigated between two parties, neither can seek to litigate it again. This rule is called res judicata. It applies both to the parties to the original case and those in privity with them.
Is a child in privity with his mother? That is, will a child’s paternity case be barred because of a paternity action brought years before by his mother?
The Arizona Supreme Court considered this issue in the case of Hall v. Lalli, 977 P.2d 776 (1999).
Facts and Background
Mr. and Mrs. Lalli married in 1971. In 1978, Mr. Lalli sued for divorce. Mrs. Lalli did not appear and Mr. Lalli obtained a default divorce. He told the court that the couple had three children and that Mrs. Lalli was not pregnant. The court gave Mr. Lalli custody of the three children.
In fact, Mrs. Lalli was pregnant at the time of the divorce and she gave birth to a son four months later. Mrs. Lalli raised her son and was assisted by aid from the Arizona Aid to Families with Dependent Children program.
The State of Arizona brought a paternity action against Mr. Lalli in 1979. The agency sought reimbursement for the benefits paid to Mrs. Lalli for the child. When Mrs. Lalli provided a letter stating that Mr. Lalli was not the child’s natural father, the state dismissed the complaint with prejudice.
In 1995, the child was still a minor. Mrs. Lalli filed an action on his behalf claiming that Mr. Lalli was his natural father. Mr. Lalli asked the court to dismiss the suit. He argued that the claim was barred by the doctrine of res judicata; which precludes a lawsuit from being filed after the issue was resolved in a prior lawsuit.
Mr. Lalli claimed that the 1979 Arizona paternity action had been brought by the same “parties or their privies” bringing this action. He cited the case of Bill v. Gossett, 647 P.2d 649 (1982). That case held that a minor child’s paternity action is barred by a mother’s earlier paternity action.
The trial court agreed and dismissed the cases. The child appealed the trial court’s dismissal of the case. The Court of Appeals reversed, and the Arizona Supreme Court granted review.
The Legal Doctrine of Res Judicata
The doctrine of res judicata protects people from the burden of litigating issues that have already been litigated and determined. It precludes a claim when a court entered a previous judgment on the same issue between the same parties. The same parties or their “privies” cannot go back to court on an issue determined in the former action.
Is Res Judicata Applicable in this Case?
The Arizona Supreme Court looked at the facts of the case to determine if res judicata applied in this case. It found that the 1979 litigation concerned the same issues raised here.
The Court found that the 1979 case satisfied all factors required for res judicata to apply, except one. The child was not a named party to the first action. If he was in privity with either the state or his mother, res judicata would still bar his present claim. If he was not in privity with one or the other, res judicata does not apply.
A court considering privity looks at the relationship between the party to the prior suit and the party to the present suit. They must have substantially the same interests so that one would have protected the other’s interests in the earlier litigation. The Bill v. Gossett case was the first time an Arizona court discussed privity between a parent and his or her child. The Arizona Supreme Court reviewed that case closely.
The Court agreed that the facts in Bill v. Gossett were similar to the facts here. In that case, the state and the child’s mother sued the putative father to establish paternity. However, in the Bill v Gossett case the parties agreed that the mother would take a polygraph test. If the examiners determined her answers were untruthful, the state would dismiss the case. If her answers were determined to be truthful, the father would concede paternity.
However, the examiners only asked the mother one question in the polygraph test. That was whether she had sex with other men during the possible conception dates. The examiners found her negative response to be untruthful. Per the stipulation, the case was dismissed. When the child subsequently brought her own paternity action, the trial judge dismissed the child’s case based on res judicata.
The determinative question in both cases was whether mother and child were “in privity” during the previous paternity claim. The Bill v. Gossett court relied on a Minnesota decision ruling that paternity proceedings are intended to determine the identity of the biological father of a child. That, the Minnesota court said, was the objective of the mother, the child and the public. Therefore, mother and the child were in privity.
However, in the present case, the Arizona Court of Appeals reached the opposite conclusion. It noted that a child has significant interests at stake that are different from the mother’s interests.
The Arizona Supreme Court agreed with the Court of Appeals here. It noted that privity is not a result of parties having similar objectives, but of the commonality of their interests. A child’s interest in knowing his father includes financial support, but also claims to inheritance, medical support and other matters. An accurate determination of paternity can bring the child psychological and emotional benefits like familial bonds and cultural heritage.
The state’s interests are largely economic. The state wants to identify the biological father so that he, not the welfare system, pays to financially support the child. Here, the state initiated the 1979 action against Mr. Lalli to establish his support obligation. The child brought his action to establish his familial status. This means that there is not a commonality of interests between him and the state. Thus, they cannot be said to be in privity.
The mother’s interests in the paternity action include obtaining child support. However, she may have other emotional and psychological interests. She also has a relationship with the child’s father and may be subject to pressures from his family. These pressures may affect her decision about whether to proceed with a paternity suit.
The putative father may even offer the mother money to settle the claim without an adjudication on the merits of the case. Therefore, a mother’s and a child’s interests in a paternity determination not only differ, but may potentially conflict. The Arizona Supreme Court concluded that a mother and child lack a commonality of interests. Therefore, they are not in privity.
Preventing Multiple Suits over Paternity
The purpose of the doctrine of res judicata is to promote finality and consistency. Mr. Lalli argues that this is lost if the Court does not apply res judicata to bar the child paternity suit here. The Court noted that the development of accurate and rapid blood testing reduced the chance of multiple cases.
A blood test shows quickly and accurately whether the alleged father is the biological father. The availability of this type of testing puts a quick end to paternity cases. Thus, even if a man’s paternity is litigated again for the benefit of the child, testing will resolve it quickly.
The Arizona Supreme Court disapproved of the Bill v. Gossett analysis. It rejected the view that a child is in privity with either the state or its mother in the context of a paternity action. It ruled that the child may bring his own action to establish paternity.
The Arizona Supreme Court affirmed the ruling of the Court of Appeals in this case. It reversed the trial court’s judgment dismissing the child’s claim as barred by the doctrine of res judicata. It remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with its’ opinion.