Paul Pfeifer: Failure to name child costs father his case

October 7, 2012

When Rachel Arnold gave birth to a child in November 2009, she made what had to be a difficult decision — she executed a document permanently surrendering her rights to the child.

Arnold, who was unmarried, placed the child for adoption through a private adoption service. Just months later, a couple from out of state (we’ll call them John and Jane Doe, to protect their privacy) adopted the child. The adoption was finalized on May 26, 2010.

At the time of the adoption, no one claiming to be the father had registered with the Ohio Putative Father Registry, a database that allows men who believe they may have fathered a child to register so they can be notified if the child is placed for adoption.

But then, on Oct. 6, 2010, a man named Todd S. Roccaro came forward claiming to be the father. Roccaro filed a complaint to establish paternity in the Clark County Court of Common Pleas, Domestic Relations Division, Juvenile Section.

In his complaint, Roccaro named only Rachel Arnold as a defendant, and he requested a judgment declaring him to be the child’s biological father, designating him as the child’s sole and residential custodial parent, and ordering child support and other relief to which he may be entitled.

Roccaro did not name the child as a party to the case and did not show good cause for not doing so. That became an important point later.

Arnold filed a motion to dismiss Roccaro’s complaint, but the judge — Thomas J. Capper — denied the motion. Capper concluded that the Juvenile Court had jurisdiction to determine Roccaro’s paternity claim solely for the limited purpose of allowing him to exercise his statutory rights to provide information regarding his social and medical history for placement in the child’s adoption records.

In November 2011, Capper ordered Roccaro and Arnold — as well as the child — to submit to genetic testing. Two months later, the child’s adoptive parents filed for a writ to prohibit Capper from proceeding in the parentage action and to direct him to enter a finding that all orders that had been entered in the case were void.

After Capper submitted an answer to the Does’ complaint, our court — the Supreme Court of Ohio — granted an alternative writ staying the pending Juvenile Court proceedings, including the order for genetic testing, and ordered everyone involved to submit evidence and briefs.

The key question was this: Did the Juvenile Court have subject-matter jurisdiction in this case? Further, did the Juvenile Court have “in personam” jurisdiction, or in other words, did it have the jurisdiction to seek judgment against the personal rights of John and Jane Doe and their adopted child?

The statute at the center of this case is the “parentage action” law. Cases filed in court under that law seek to establish the existence of a father-and-child relationship. It was this action that the Does sought to prohibit.

In general, to be entitled to their requested writ of prohibition that would stop the action from going forward, the Does would have to establish three things: that Capper was exercising judicial power; that the exercise of that power was unauthorized by law; and that they lacked an adequate remedy in the ordinary course of the law.

The first of those requirements was easily met — Capper was exercising judicial power by proceeding in the parentage action instituted by Roccaro, who claimed to be the child’s biological father.

As to the remaining requirements — if a lower court patently and unambiguously lacks jurisdiction to proceed in a cause, that court will be prohibited from any future unauthorized exercise of jurisdiction and it must correct the results of previous unauthorized actions. And when a court patently and unambiguously lacks jurisdiction, the availability of other remedies, such as an appeal, is immaterial.

To that point, the Does claimed that Capper patently and unambiguously lacked both personal and subject-matter jurisdiction to proceed in the parentage action.

We agreed.

To begin with, in order for a court to render a valid personal judgment, that court must have personal jurisdiction over the defendant. It follows, then, that a “trial court is without jurisdiction to render judgment or to make findings against a person who was not served summons, did not appear, and was not a party to the court proceedings.”

Under the parentage action law, a court proceeding to establish the existence of a father-and-child relationship must include the child as one of the necessary parties. The law states that the child shall be made a party to the action unless the person filing the case shows good cause for not doing so. The failure to include an interested and necessary party constitutes a jurisdictional defect that precludes the court from rendering judgment in the case.

As was mentioned earlier, Roccaro failed to name the child — an interested and necessary party according to the law — as a party to this action. And he failed to show good cause why the child should not be included as a party to the action. The child was not served with a summons, did not appear in court, and was not a party to the parentage action.

Therefore — as Capper later conceded — he lacked jurisdiction to proceed in the case by ordering that the child submit to genetic testing.

After reviewing this case, we concluded — by a 7-0 vote — that Capper patently and unambiguously lacked jurisdiction to proceed in the parentage action case. We granted the writ of prohibition to prevent him from exercising further jurisdiction and to compel him to dismiss the case and to find void the orders that have been entered in the case — including his order of genetic testing.

Paul E. Pfeifer

State ex rel. Doe v. Capper