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Doyle v. Shane

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

August 21, 2018

SHANNON DOYLE
v.
SHANE SHANE CHAPLEN
v.
SHANNON DOYLE

          Argued January 18, 2018

          John K. Miller, for the appellant (defendant in the first case, plaintiff in the second case).

          Maureen E. Donahue, guardian ad litem, for the minor child.

          Keller, Bright and Harper, Js.

         Procedural History

         Petition, in the first case, for support of a minor child, and for other relief, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of Litchfield, Family Support Magistrate Division, where the family support magistrate, David A. Dee, rendered a judgment of support, and application, in the second case, for custody of a minor child, and for other relief, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of Litchfield, Family Support Magistrate Division, where the family support magistrate, Jed N. Schulman, issued an order consolidating the two cases and that they be heard by the Superior Court; subsequently, the court, Danaher, J., granted the motion of the plaintiff in the first case to open the judgment, and rendered judgment of nonpaternity in the first case and judgment for the defendant in the second case, from which the defendant in the first case and the plaintiff in the second case appealed to this court; thereafter, the court, Danaher, J., granted in part the motion filed by the defendant in the first case and the plaintiff in the second case, for articulation. Affirmed.

          OPINION

          BRIGHT, J.

         This appeal arises out of two actions that were consolidated by the trial court. In the first action (support action), the Office of the Attorney General, on behalf of the Commissioner of Social Services (commissioner) and in the name of Shannon Doyle, filed a petition for support (support petition) against Shane Chaplen, the acknowledged father of Doyle's minor child. In the second action (custody action), Chaplen[1] filed an application for custody of the minor child, pursuant to General Statutes §§ 46b-56 and 46b-61. In the support action, Chaplen appeals from the judgment of nonpaternity rendered by the trial court following the granting of Doyle's motion to open the judgment of paternity by acknowledgement;[2] in the custody action, Chaplen appeals from the judgment of the trial court rendered in favor of Doyle.[3]

         On appeal, [4] Chaplen claims that the trial court erred in granting Doyle's motion to open the judgment of paternity in the support action for the purpose of declaring him not to be the father of the minor child.[5] Specifically, he claims that the trial court improperly (1) found that Doyle signed the acknowledgment of paternity on the basis of a material mistake of fact, (2) concluded that opening the judgment was in the best interests of the minor child after making a clearly erroneous finding that there was no parent-like relationship between Chaplen and the minor child, and (3) applied the law regarding laches and equitable estoppel. We affirm the judgments of the trial court.

         The following facts and procedural history, as found by the trial court or as undisputed in the record, inform our resolution of Chaplen's appeal. On February 5, 2013, the Office of the Attorney General, on behalf of the commissioner and in the name of Doyle, filed a support petition against Chaplen, the acknowledged father of the minor child, pursuant to General Statutes § 17b-745, formerly § 17-324, and General Statutes §§ 46b-215 and 46b-172. A copy of a fully executed acknowledgment of paternity, with the mother's affirmation of paternity, was attached to the support petition, which Chaplen and Doyle both had signed two days after the minor child was born.[6]

         ‘‘In the [support action], the [commissioner], in the name of . . . Doyle, asserted in [the] . . . support petition that [the minor child], born [in] [October, 2011], was receiving Medicaid child support services. The petition asserted, further, that Chaplen is the acknowledged father of the minor child and that Chaplen had refused or neglected to support the minor child. . . .

         ‘‘On March 25, 2013, the court [rendered a judgment of support], order[ing] that Doyle and Chaplen were equally responsible for the minor child's health care costs. On August 20, 2014, Doyle filed her appearance in the [support action] and also filed a motion to open the judgment, asserting that she ‘was not present at this case' and was seeking genetic testing to establish paternity. . . . By order dated December 8, 2014, the [f]amily [s]upport [m]agistrate ordered that the motion to open be addressed in the Superior Court.

         ‘‘On May 29, 2014, Chaplen initiated the custody action, seeking sole legal custody of the minor child, primary residence with him, and child support payments from Doyle. . . . Thereafter, the parties agreed to the appointment of a guardian ad litem and also agreed to supervised visitation between Chaplen and the minor child who, as of the date of that first agreement, was two years of age.''

         Doyle, with the assistance of her mother, had a genetic test performed in or around September, 2014, which established that Chaplen is not the biological father of the child. The court found: ‘‘On October 6, 2014, Doyle moved to modify the order of visitation . . . . Thereafter, the parties filed a series of motions regarding visitation and also reached a series of agreements allowing Chaplen visitation.''

         On February 5, 2015, the court held a hearing on Doyle's motion to open, and Doyle was the only witness to testify. The parties agreed to bifurcate the proceedings, agreeing that the court first would address whether there had been a material mistake of fact that would permit opening the judgment of paternity by acknowledgment, pursuant to General Statutes § 46b-172, [7] before addressing whether equitable doctrines precluded opening the judgment.

         At the hearing, Doyle testified that she began to question whether Chaplen was the biological father when the minor child was approximately six months old. She claimed that when the child was approximately one year old, in October, 2012, the Department of Children and Families (DCF) became involved with her, and she expressed her doubts as to the paternity of the child at that time. Doyle testified that she had been asking for a genetic test ‘‘since this all started, '' but Chaplen refused. She claimed that Chaplen had been aware of the possibility that he was not the child's father since the child was one year old because they had a meeting with DCF and discussed genetic testing at that time.

         Doyle further testified that, upon receiving advice from the guardian ad litem, she contacted Raymond Osterhoudt, the man whom she believed to be the child's biological father, and she brought the child and Osterhoudt to have a genetic test performed. The results of the genetic test confirmed that Osterhoudt is the biological father, and the results were admitted into evidence.

         The court credited Doyle's testimony that she did not believe that Osterhoudt was the father when the child was born, finding that the basis for her ‘‘belief that Chaplen, and not Osterhoudt, was the father of the minor child was that when Doyle was pregnant with the child, she had an ultrasound test that produced an indicator as to the number of weeks of the fetus' development. The technicians who performed the test explained to Doyle that the testing equipment measured the level of development of the fetus. Other technicians had given Doyle similar information with regard to one of Doyle's earlier pregnancies. Doyle took the information generated by the ultrasound equipment, counted [backward] on a calendar, and thereby concluded that she and Chaplen had had sexual relations at the time the child was conceived. Doyle had used this same method of determining the date of conception, on earlier occasions, with one or more of her other children.'' The court found that Doyle had established that there had been a material mistake of fact that warranted opening the judgment of paternity in the support action because Doyle ‘‘received advice from medical technicians that she accepted and that she had no reason to doubt.''

         Following its finding that there had been a material mistake of fact, the court held three hearings, on June 25, September 24, and October 7, 2015, in order to address whether equitable principles barred opening the judgment, and whether opening the judgment was in the best interests of the minor child. At the June 25, 2015 hearing, Doyle called several witnesses, including Ashley Brady, Doyle's relative, Brianna Chase and Kaitlyn Vach, Doyle's sisters, and Osterhoudt.

         At the hearing, Brady testified that Chaplen was not a consistent presence in the child's life prior to commencing the custody action. Chase testified that Doyle and Chaplen had a hostile relationship, and that excluding Chaplen from the child's life would not be traumatic for the child because Chaplen had not been a consistent presence in the child's life. Chase also testified that, when the child was approximately one year old, she was present at the meeting with DCF when Doyle requested genetic testing. Vach testified that Chaplen did not have a parent-like relationship with the child; she explained that the relationship was more akin to a friendship. Osterhoudt testified that he knew he was the father of the child since the child was approximately one year old, because he and Doyle had purchased a genetic test at Walgreens and the results confirmed that he was the child's father.[8] He expressed his desire to support the child; although he acknowledged that he had not provided Doyle with child support when they initially discovered that he was the child's father; he testified that he wanted to support the child going forward.

         Following Doyle's witnesses, ‘‘the state introduced evidence that an employee of the Department of Social Services ([department]) [had] sent a notice, dated January 31, 2013, to Doyle advising her that there [would] be a hearing regarding child support . . . on March 25, 2013. The [department] employee then relied on a brief internal notation [in the department's file] . . . to conclude that she had spoken with Doyle by telephone on February 4, 2013, a call placed by Doyle that had been prompted by the January 31, 2013 notice. According to [the department's file], Doyle told the [department] employee that Doyle was receiving $100 per week [for] child support from Chaplen and that she was not seeking a support order. The [department] employee told Doyle that the state needed to obtain a support order and explained that to her. The [department's file] does not indicate whether the [department] employee told Doyle that the March hearing would be going forward, what role Doyle might play in sucha hearing, or whether [the department] wanted or needed Doyle to appear at the hearing.'' (Footnote omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.)

         Approximately three months after the June 25, 2015 hearing, on September 24, 2015, Chaplen presented his witnesses. The court heard testimony from the following witnesses: Chaplen, Cynthia Eastman, an employee at Litchfield Visitation Services; James Fournier, a department employee; Jessica LaMesa, Chaplen's former coworker; Patricia Chaplen, Chaplen's mother; JoAnn Maher, Chaplen's girlfriend; and Maureen Donahue, the guardian ad litem and attorney for the minor child. Chaplen testified that he had seen the child every week since the child was born, until May 22, 2014, when Doyle told him that he was not the father and that he would never see the child again. Chaplen submitted several exhibits, including photocopies of money orders, which had been given to Doyle for child support, several photographs of the child, and a personalized calendar that contained photographs of the child for each month in the calendar.

         Chaplen also testified that he had claimed the child as a dependent on his 2013 tax return in order to obtain a larger refund. Chaplen explained that Doyle, because she had minimal taxable income in 2013, told him to claim the child as a dependent in order to maximize any tax refund. According to Chaplen, he gave Doyle half of his 2013 tax refund. The court, however, found that there was no evidence to support Chaplen's claim that Doyle told him to claim the child as a dependent.

         Chaplen then called Eastman, who had supervised the court-referred visitation between Chaplen and the child. Eastman testified that she ‘‘observed a very close and affectionate relationship between'' Chaplen and the child. She recalled that, at the first meeting, the child hugged Chaplen and said that he missed Chaplen. Chaplen then called LaMesa, who testified that Doyle would come to the restaurant where Chaplen worked to pick up child support or food. Chaplen's mother testified that she had known the child since he was born, that she had developed a strong bond with him, and that he calls her ‘‘grandma.'' Additionally, Chaplen called Maher, his girlfriend since September, 2012, who testified that she has a bedroom at her house for the child, and she many times babysits the child for Chaplen. Maher further testified that there is a parental bond between Chaplen and the child.

         The last witness to testify was Donahue, whose testimony spanned two hearings, beginning on September 24, 2015, and concluding on October 7, 2015. Donahue testified that although Chaplen and Doyle disagreed as to whether Chaplen had an ongoing relationship with the child, after Chaplen provided her with photographs and videos of Chaplen and the child, she concluded that Chaplen had an ongoing relationship with the minor child until May, 2014. Donahue, however, also acknowledged that she knew ‘‘nothing about [Chaplen's relationship with the child] from the time [the child] was born until [the fall of 2014] . . . other than what [she] learned through pictures and conversations with [the] parties.'' Donahue further testified that it is in the child's best interests to preserve his relationship with Chaplen. Nevertheless, Donahue acknowledged that the child may require therapy in the future as a result of confusion regarding the identity of his father. Donahue also testified that if the court were to grant Doyle's motion to open, then there would be no more controversy between Chaplen and Doyle affecting the child.

         Following the hearing on October 7, 2015, the court granted Doyle's motion to open, concluding that laches and equitable estoppel did not preclude the granting of the motion and that opening the judgment was in the best interests of the child. On November 30, 2015, on the basis of its findings in its November 25, 2015 memorandum of decision, the court rendered a judgment of nonpaternity in the support action. Thereafter, on December 3, 2015, Chaplen filed a motion to amend his custody application in order to seek the right of visitation in lieu of custody, which the court denied. The court stated that ‘‘even if the request for leave to file the amended petition were not untimely, nonetheless, based on the evidence introduced, I still made the finding . . . that [Chaplen] does not have a parent-like rela-tionship[9] [with the child].'' (Footnote added.) Accordingly, the court rendered judgment in favor of Doyle in the ...


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