Res Judicata, Laches and Statute of Limitations as Defenses to Family Support
When a person goes to court to resolve a legal issue, he or she cannot go to court again to resolve the same issue. The doctrine of res judicata precludes litigating issues already resolved between the parties in prior court case.
Sometimes two sets of laws allow similar actions. For example, a spouse can sue for financial support under the Uniform Reciprocal Enforcement of Support Act. He or she can also sue directly for separate maintenance. Will a prior reciprocal enforcement action bar the spouse from bringing an action for separate maintenance?
The Arizona Court of Appeals considered this issue in Weller v. Weller, 480 P.2d 379 (1971).
Facts and Background
Mr. and Mrs. Weller married in New York in 1942. Over time, the couple separated. She stayed in New York and he moved to Arizona.
In 1967, Mrs. Weller filed a complaint under the New York Uniform Reciprocal Enforcement of Support Act. She charged that her husband, who lived in Arizona, failed to support her financially. A hearing was held in in Arizona and Mrs. Weller was not present. At the hearing, Mr. Weller produced a 1947 divorce certificate from Mexico. He said that he already obtained a divorce from Mrs. Weller in Mexico. The court dismissed Mrs. Weller’s petition. It ruled that she had waited too long to contest the divorce.
More than 20 years later, Mrs. Weller again sued Mr. Weller for separate maintenance, past support and child support arrears. Mr. Weller claimed they were no longer married, referencing the Mexican divorce certificate. He also claimed that her claims were barred by laches and the statute of limitations.
Mr. Weller filed a motion for summary judgment, which the court granted. Mrs. Weller appealed.
Uniform Reciprocal Enforcement of Support Act
Mr. Weller argues that the decision in the reciprocal support proceeding is res judicata as to the current case. That is, he claims Mrs. Weller cannot again litigate the questions decided in the prior reciprical proceeding. One of the issues resolved in that prior case, he claims, is the validity of the Mexican divorce.
Mrs. Weller argues that the court in the reciprocal support proceedings did not have authority to inquire into the validity of the Mexican divorce decree. She argues that the duty of support was the only real issue in the proceeding. Therefore, she claims, the court’s ruling on the divorce does not bar her present action.
The Court of Appeals said that the earlier court had authority to inquire into matters related to support. That must be the case if the court is to enforce the Uniform Reciprocal Enforcement of Support Act. The Act enables a dependent in one state to initiate support proceedings against a person residing in another state.
The Court of Appeals noted that the remedies provided by law—reciprocal support and separate maintenance–are not exclusive. They supplement each other. For that reason, Mrs. Weller was not obliged to elect one remedy or the other. The only question is whether the reciprocal support order is binding upon the parties in this separate maintenance action.
Reciprocal Support Order Not Binding
The purpose of the doctrine of res judicata is to prevent a party of having to go to court twice regarding the same issue. Basically, it provides that an issue litigated once should not be litigated again. However, it only applies to bar someone who had an opportunity to litigate the same matter in the prior case. The doctrine must not be extended to deprive persons of their day in court or to defeat the ends of justice.
When a court acts under the Uniform Reciprocal Enforcement of Support Act, it has limited powers. It is not acting as a court of general jurisdiction, but is circumscribed by the provisions of the Act. It only has jurisdiction to enforce support matters.
Sometimes a court of limited jurisdiction must determine a matter incidental to the exercise of its jurisdiction. If it incidentally determines an issue it has no jurisdiction to directly determine, the judgment is not conclusive in a later action in a court of general jurisdiction.
Under these principals, the Court of Appeals held that the determination of marital status in the support proceedings was incidental. It was, therefore, not a bar to the separate maintenance action.
Laches Cannot Be Proven by Lapse of Time Alone
The Court of Appeals next turned to the question of laches. Laches is a legal term meaning an unreasonable delay in doing something. Laches may bar Mrs. Weller’s attack on the validity of the divorce decree. However, the lower court must weigh the circumstances to determine whether the doctrine of laches applies. The Court of Appeals said that lapse of time alone does not prove laches.
Here, the only fact supporting laches was the lapse of time from the divorce decree to the filing of the present case. This factor alone is not sufficient. Therefore, the lower court erred in granting summary judgment on the basis of laches.
Summary Judgment Not Appropriate
The judge granted summary judgment as to Mrs. Weller’s claim for support reimbursement. It based this on the statute of limitations. The Court of Appeals also found this improper.
First, it noted, no evidence was before the trial court other than the pleadings filed by the parties. And while the pleadings showed that the complaint might be barred by the statute of limitations, it did not prove that Mrs. Weller’s claims were barred. Mrs. Weller has the right to plead the statute of limitations had been tolled, which means the statute of limitations clock had been stopped for some reason.
In addition, Mr. Weller had to raise the affirmative defense of the statute of limitations in his initial pleadings in order to claim it. He did not do so. He only filed a general allegation that the statute of limitations barred Mrs. Weller’s claims. This is not sufficient to raise a state of limitations issue.
The Court of Appeals reversed the grant of summary judgment. It remanded the case to the trial court.