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Asia A. M. v. Geoffrey M.

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

May 15, 2018

ASIA A. M.[*]
v.
GEOFFREY M., JR. GEOFFREY M., JR.
v.
ASIA A. M.

          Argued January 11, 2018

         Procedural History

         Appeals from the decisions of the family support magistrate, David A. Dee, dismissing a petition for financial and medical support and maintenance of the minor child, granting a motion to open an acknowledgment of paternity and rendering judgment of nonpaternity, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of Hartford and tried to the court, Albis, J.; judgments affirming in part the decisions of the family support magistrate and remanding the matters for further proceedings, from which the state appealed to this court. Reversed; further proceedings.

          Joan M. Andrews, assistant attorney general, with whom were Sean O. Kehoe, assistant attorney general, and, on the brief, George Jepsen, attorney general, for the appellant (state).

          Richard A. Rochlin, with whom was Jennifer R. Flynn, for the appellee (defendant in the first case, plaintiff in the second case).

          Robert B. McLaughlin, for the guardian ad litem of the minor child.

          Lavine, Keller and Harper, Js.

          OPINION

          HARPER, J.

         The state of Connecticut appeals from the judgments of the trial court rendered in favor of the plaintiff, Geoffrey M., Jr., [1] affirming in part the decision of the family support magistrate (magistrate) that opened an acknowledgment of paternity. On appeal, the state claims that the court erred in concluding that (1) Ragin v. Lee, 78 Conn.App. 848, 829 A.2d 93 (2003), provided a nonstatutory ground for opening an acknowledgment of paternity, apart from the statutory grounds set forth in General Statutes (Rev. to 2011) § 46b-172 (a) (2)[2]; and (2) the magistrate had the inherent authority to grant the plaintiff's motion to open the judgment on the basis of the best interests of the child. We agree with the department and, accordingly, reverse the judgments of the trial court.

         The following facts and procedural history are relevant to our resolution of this appeal. On April 26, 2011, the plaintiff and the defendant, Asia A. M., executed a written acknowledgment of paternity (acknowledgment) for the minor child, who was born in February, 2011. See General Statutes (Rev. to 2011) § 46b-172 (a) (1). On October 28, 2014, the state filed a support petition against the plaintiff in the name of the defendant. On December 9, 2014, the plaintiff filed a motion to open the judgment pursuant to § 46b-172, [3] challenging the validity of the acknowledgment on the grounds of fraud, mistake of fact, and duress. Specifically, in his affidavit accompanying his motion to open, the plaintiff averred that (1) the defendant committed fraud by ‘‘intentionally conceal[ing] the fact that she had sexual relations with other men'' and ‘‘represent[ing] to the plaintiff that they were in a sexually exclusive relationship''; (2) a DNA test demonstrated ‘‘that there is a 0 percent chance that [the plaintiff] could be the biological father of the minor child'' and ‘‘[t]he fact of the plaintiff being the biological father is . . . a mistake of fact''; and (3) ‘‘[t]he plaintiff was under duress from the pressure being applied to him by the defendant and other family members, and [he] felt compelled to sign this acknowledgment due to this duress.'' The plaintiff further averred in his affidavit that ‘‘[t]he plaintiff does not have a [parent-child] relationship with the minor child at this time . . . and it is in the best interests of the minor child'' to establish the biological father.

         On January 6, 2015, the state's support petition and the plaintiff's motion to open were consolidated for a hearing. On February 24, 2015, a hearing was held on the plaintiff's motion to open before a magistrate. On March 3, 2015, relying on Ragin v. Lee, supra, 78 Conn.App. 848, the magistrate granted the plaintiff's motion to open the judgment, ordered a judgment of nonpaternity, and ordered the dismissal of the department's support petition. In its written order, the magistrate concluded that ‘‘[t]he plaintiff clearly and convincingly proved it is in the best interest of the minor child to open the judgment. A minor child has a fundamental and independent right and compelling interest in an accurate determination of paternity. [Id., 863]. . . . While the plaintiff did prove it is in the best interest of the child to open the judgment, he failed to prove any of the statutory grounds of fraud, duress or . . . mistake. See [General Statutes (Rev. to 2011)] § 46b-172 (a) (2). . . . The credible evidence clearly indicates the plaintiff was aware he was not the biological father of the minor child when he executed the acknowledgment. The defendant did not defraud the plaintiff at the time he signed the acknowledgment. The plaintiff was not under duress when he signed the acknowledgment. The parties were not . . . mistaken when the acknowledgment was executed. The motion to open is granted solely based upon the best interest of the minor child.''

         On March 17, 2015, the state appealed from the decision of the magistrate to the trial court pursuant to General Statutes § 46b-231 (n)[4] and Practice Book § 25a-29, [5] claiming, inter alia, that ‘‘[i]n the absence of fraud, duress or mistake, the [m]agistrate lacked the [authority] to open the judgment of paternity . . . .'' A hearing took place on May 5, 2015, before the court, and the parties filed posthearing briefs. On March 29, 2016, the court affirmed the decision of the magistrate in part, and remanded the case to the magistrate to hear additional evidence with respect to the best interests of the child. In its memorandum of decision, the court held that (1) Ragin v. Lee, supra, 78 Conn.App. 848, provided a fourth, nonstatutory ground to open a judgment of paternity, apart from the statutory requirements set forth in § 46b-172 (a) (2); and (2) the magistrate had the inherent authority to open the judgment on the basis of the best interests of the minor child. The court further held, however, that ‘‘it was an error of law for the magistrate to open the judgment . . . based solely on the results of genetic testing, without sufficient evidence as to other factors affecting the best interests of the child.''

         On April 11, 2016, the state filed a motion to reargue, which the court denied on April 28, 2016. This appeal followed.[6]

         We begin by setting forth the applicable standard of review. The state's claims present a question of law over which our review is plenary. See Pritchard v. Pritchard, 103 Conn.App. 276, 283, 928 A.2d 566 (2007) (‘‘[i]ssues of statutory construction raise questions of law, over which we exercise plenary review'' [internal quotation marks omitted]); see also Commissioner of Social Services v. Zarnetski, 175 Conn.App. 632, 637, 168 A.3d 646 (2017). ‘‘When . . . the trial court draws conclusions of law, our review is plenary and we must decide whether its conclusions are legally and logically correct and find support in the facts that appear in the record.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Ragin v. Lee, supra, 78 Conn.App. 855.

         I

         The state claims that the ‘‘court erred in concluding that Ragin v. Lee, [supra, 78 Conn.App. 848], provides a fourth and independent ground to open an acknowledgment of paternity, '' apart from the requirements set forth in § 46b-172 (a) (2). The state contends that, pursuant to § 46b-172 (a) (2), absent a finding of fraud, duress, or material mistake of fact, the magistrate lacked the authority to open the judgment outside of the rescission period, and that the court ‘‘erred in finding that the [f]amily [s]upport [m]agistrate . . . did not have to comply with the statutory criteria of . . . § 46b-172.'' In response, the plaintiff and the attorney for the guardian ad litem claim that the court properly concluded that the best interests of the child is a nonstatutory ground for opening an acknowledgment of paternity. We agree with the state.

         Paternity may be acknowledged voluntarily and extrajudicially through a written acknowledgment of paternity. See General Statutes (Rev. to 2011) § 46b-172 (a) (1). ‘‘[T]he acknowledgment procedure provides an alternative to a full scale judicial proceeding, and an agreement reached pursuant to it does not require court approval. The acknowledgment procedure may be followed [i]n lieu of or in conclusion of a paternity action initiated pursuant to [General Statutes] § 46b-160.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Cardona v. Negron, 53 Conn.App. 152, 154 n.4, 728 A.2d 1150 (1999). Section 46b-172 (a) (1) sets forth the process by which an acknowledgment may be executed, including the required notices that must be provided to the parties.[7] An executed ‘‘acknowledgment of paternity . . . shall have the same force and effect as a judgment of the Superior Court.'' General Statutes (Rev. to 2011) § 46b-172 (a) (1). ‘‘The mother and the acknowledged father shall have the right to rescind such affirmation or acknowledgment in writing within the earlier of (A) sixty days, or (B) the date of an agreement to support such child approved in accordance with subsection (b) of this section or an order of support for such child entered in a proceeding under subsection (c) of this section. An acknowledgment executed in accordance with subdivision (1) of this subsection may be challenged in court or before a family support magistrate after the rescission period only on the basis of fraud, duress or material mistake of fact which may include evidence that he is not the father, with the burden of proof upon the challenger.'' General Statutes (Rev. to 2011) § 46b-172 (a) (2).

         In the present case, the plaintiff and the defendant executed the acknowledgment on April 26, 2011. The plaintiff filed a motion to open the judgment more than three years later, on December 9, 2014. Because the plaintiff did not rescind the acknowledgment within sixty days, he could challenge it ‘‘only on the basis of fraud, duress or material mistake of fact.'' (Emphasis added.) General Statutes (Rev. to 2011) § 46b-172 (a) (2); see also General Statutes (Rev. to 2011) § 46b-172 (a) (1) (‘‘the acknowledgment cannot be challenged after sixty days, except in court upon a showing of fraud, duress or material mistake of fact''). In its written order, the magistrate explicitly found that there was no fraud, duress, or mistake of fact, stating that ‘‘[t]he credible evidence clearly indicates the plaintiff was aware he was not the biological father of the minor child when he executed the acknowledgment. The defendant did not defraud the plaintiff at the time he signed the acknowledgment. The plaintiff was not under duress ...


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