Iowa Family Law Blog
“You are not the father!” Paternity fraud alive and well in Iowa
Jun. 8, 2012 – Mary A. Zambreno, Iowa Family Law Blog
In a landmark opinion, the Iowa Supreme Court in Dier v. Peters opined that a common law action for paternity fraud could proceed, thereby reversing a district court ruling that granted the mother’s motion to dismiss. A child was born to the mother, Cassandra Jo Peters, on February 10, 2009. She apparently knew that Plaintiff, Joseph Dier, was not the biological father but nevertheless told him that he was. Relying on these representations, Dier – voluntarily and without court order – provided financial support for the mother and child. Dier then filed an application to determine the parties’ custody rights, upon which Peters requested a paternity test. Two separate paternity tests concluded that Dier was not the biological father.
Dier then filed a petition seeking reimbursement from Peters for money that he spent on her and the child. Peters filed a motion to dismiss on the basis that the State of Iowa does not recognize an action for paternity fraud nor is any such cause of action recognized by the Iowa Legislature. The district court granted the motion to dismiss and Dier appealed.
According to the Court, “Paternity fraud,” also known as “misrepresentation of biological fatherhood” or “misrepresentation of paternity,” occurs “when a mother makes a representation to a man that the child is genetically his own even though she is aware that he is not, or may not be, the father of the child.” The Court recognized that cases in other jurisdictions are divided as to whether to recognize paternity fraud claims. Those that permit paternity fraud claims perform an analysis based upon regular tort claims and argue that such claims should be actionable so long as the elements of the tort are met. Those jurisdictions that do not permit it base their decisions on public policy and child welfare.
The Court examined plaintiff’s claim based upon the traditional elements of fraud, meaning that in order for Dier to prevail, he would have to prove: (1) that Peters made a representation to him, (2) that the representation was false, (3) that the representation was material, (4) that Peters knew the representation was false, (5) that Peters intended to deceive Dier, (6) that Dier acted in justifiable reliance on the truth of the representation, (7) that the representation was a proximate cause of his damages, and (8) the amount of damages.
The Court found that the first two prongs were met because Peters represented to Dier that the child was his and the paternity tests concluded otherwise. The Court stated that the third prong regarding the material representation was met because “[w]e cannot say that a reasonable person would not have attached significant importance to the specific fraudulent misrepresentation in this case.” The Court held that Dier met the fourth prong when he alleged that Peters had uttered a false representation with knowledge that this was false and made in reckless disregard of its truth or falsity. The Court determined that Dier met the fifth prong because he alleged that Peters not only knew he was not the biological father but used that assertion to secure money from him. The Court stated that Dier met the sixth and seventh prongs because he financially supported the mother and the child and then engaged in custody litigation and that “common sense tells us that the misrepresentation increased the likelihood he would spend this money.” Finally, the Court opined that Dier incurred out-of-pocket expenses that he would not otherwise have but for the misrepresentation.
Having determined that Dier’s claim met the traditional elements of fraud law, in the Court’s public policy analysis, the Court considered that “because of paternity fraud, one of the parties who thought he was part of the family is now being removed from it” and that “[t]his state has a recognized public policy interest in providing a remedy for fraud.”
Interestingly, it appears that Dier did not insist on a paternity test prior to providing financial support to Peters and the minor child, nor was his financial support pursuant to a court order. Perhaps this “Maury Povich”-esque litigation could have been avoided had he been advised to request a paternity test in the first place. The Court touched upon this issue briefly in the opinion, stating: “It is true that a paternity test could have established at the outset whether Dier was the child’s father, notwithstanding any representation by Peters. But we are unwilling to hold as a matter of law that a putative father can never rely on a mother’s representation that he is the father and must immediately insist upon paternity testing.” In other words, the burden did not shift to Dier to insist on the paternity testing. What mattered to the Court was that the misrepresentation was uttered at all.