In the Matter of Felicita Luna,
2001 NY Int. 137
Felicita Luna, a New York resident, twice went to the
courts of Connecticut requesting a declaration that Dennis Dobson
is the father of her child. As a result of a series of missteps
by the Connecticut Attorney General, her champion in each matter,
both proceedings were dismissed without ever hearing Luna's
claims. In this New York paternity proceeding the child's
putative father seeks to invoke one of the Connecticut
proceedings as a total bar. We conclude that on these particular
In October 1994, Luna filed a paternity petition naming Dobson as the father of her two-month-old daughter and requiring him to pay child support and medical expenses. The paternity petition was transferred to Connecticut, Dobson's residence, pursuant to the Uniform Support of Dependents Law. On April 3, 1995, a Connecticut Magistrate ordered that New York schedule blood tests for the parties, and warned that the petition would be dismissed if the tests were not completed by July 10, 1995. The New York City Law Department's Family Court Division (the New York Office) notified Luna of the order and instructed her and her daughter to appear for blood tests at a designated time. In a similar letter, the New York Office requested that the Connecticut Support Enforcement Division (the Connecticut Office) contact Dobson and require him to appear for testing in Connecticut. Luna and her daughter were tested as scheduled. Dobson, however, was not tested; the Connecticut Office misplaced the New York Office's letter and failed to notify Dobson of his scheduled test.
On July 10, 1995, a Connecticut Assistant Attorney General represented Luna before the same Magistrate. Although the Connecticut Office had received notification of the scheduled blood tests from New York, the Assistant Attorney General was not aware of this essential fact. Dobson moved to dismiss the petition with prejudice for failure to comply with the Magistrate's order. Over the Assistant Attorney General's objection, the Magistrate granted Dobson's motion and dismissed the petition with prejudice.
The Assistant Attorney General moved for a rehearing after learning that the Connecticut Office had, in fact, timely received notification of the dates and times for the blood test. He argued that the New York Office complied with the court's initial order and that, but for the Connecticut Office's error in misplacing the scheduling letter, the court would not have dismissed the petition. Despite this unrefuted argument, the Magistrate nonetheless denied the motion without explanation. The Assistant Attorney General appealed the Magistrate's decision on Luna's behalf. Almost two years later, the Connecticut Superior Court dismissed the appeal for failure to prosecute.
A second paternity petition was filed in New York and
transferred to Connecticut in 1997. Dobson filed an objection
before a second Magistrate asserting that the second petition was
barred on res judicata grounds. The same Assistant Attorney
General represented Luna. Rather than contest Dobson's objection
Thereafter, the New York Office commenced this proceeding on Luna's behalf in New York. Dobson moved to dismiss, based only on Connecticut's dismissal of the first petition with prejudice. Luna opposed the motion, arguing that New York courts should not give full faith and credit to the Connecticut dismissal.
The Hearing Examiner initially granted Dobson's motion
to dismiss. Luna successfully moved for reargument and renewal.
Family Court denied Dobson's objections and affirmed the Hearing Examiner's decision to reinstate the paternity petition. Dobson appealed and the Appellate Division unanimously reversed (274 2 518). The court held that the doctrine of res judicata and full faith and credit barred Luna from prosecuting this proceeding because the Connecticut court dismissed the earlier proceeding with prejudice. We now reverse.
Luna argues that New York is not required to accord full faith and credit to the judgment because she was denied due process in the Connecticut proceeding. Dobson contends that the Connecticut proceeding passed the due process test. He points to the dismissal "with prejudice" to conclude that Luna's claim was dismissed on the merits and, therefore, precluded in New York. In our view, however, Connecticut law would not give this Connecticut judgment preclusive effect.
Article IV, § 1 of the United States Constitution
requires that the public acts, records and judicial proceedings
of each State should be given full faith and credit in every
other State. The purpose of the Full Faith and Credit Clause is
to avoid conflicts between States in adjudicating the same
matters, functioning to "weld the independent States into a
Under the Full Faith and Credit Clause a "'judgment of
a state court should have the same credit, validity, and effect,
in every other court of the United States, which it had in the
state where it was pronounced'" (Underwriters Natl. Assur. Co. v
North Carolina Ins. Guar. Assn., 455 US 691, 704 [citation
omitted]; see also, Kremer v Chemical Constr. Corp., 456 US 461,
462-463; Farmland Dairies,
"[u]nder the doctrine of res judicata,
or claim preclusion, a former judgment on a claim, if rendered on
the merits, is an absolute bar to a subsequent action on the same
claim" (State v Aillon, 189 Conn 416, 423-24 cert denied 464 US 837). The doctrine of claim preclusion "bars not only
subsequent relitigation of a claim previously asserted, but
subsequent relitigation of 'any claims relating to the same cause
The purposes of res judicata "must inform the decision
to foreclose future litigation" (Ellis,
"But by the same token, the internal needs of the
judicial system do not outweigh its essential function in
providing litigants a legal forum to redress their grievances"
(Ellis, 197 Conn, at 466,
The Connecticut Supreme Court has indicated that
Mindful of these competing interests, Connecticut's
highest court has repeatedly held that "[t]he doctrines of
preclusion * * * should be flexible and must give way when their
mechanical application would frustrate other social policies
based on values equally or more important than the convenience
afforded by finality in legal controversies" (In re Juvenile
Appeal, 190 Conn, at 318,
Connecticut law recognizes that a child has substantial personal and financial interests in the identification of his or her parent (see, Lavertue v Niman, 196 Conn 403, 408). Indeed, the Connecticut Supreme Court has referred to the State's interest in a paternity proceeding concerning a child on public assistance as "manifest and enduring" (id., at 406). Similar to New York, Connecticut statutes facilitate these interests by mandating blood testing in paternity proceedings and acknowledging the capacity of tests to establish paternity by creating a presumption of paternity based on the results (see, Conn Gen Stat § 46b-168[b]; see also, Family Ct Act § 418).
In Little v Streater (452 US 1, 13) -- a Connecticut case -- the United States Supreme Court noted the constitutional significance "of familial bonds, whether or not legitimized by marriage" and concluded that both the child and the father in a paternity action have a "compelling interest in the accuracy of [the] determination." The Court specifically acknowledged Connecticut's legitimate interest "in the welfare of a child born out of wedlock who is receiving public assistance, as well as in securing support for the child from those legally responsible" (id., at 14). Connecticut law, moreover, establishes that,
both the father and the child in a paternity proceeding have an interest in seeing that these rights are accurately adjudicated. The child's interests in this regard are particularly strong. "Any determination that a particular individual is a child's
biological father may have profound sociological and psychological ramifications * * * It is in the child's interest not only to have it adjudicated that some man is his or her father and thus liable for support, but to have some assurance that the correct person has been so identified"
(Lavertue v Niman, 196 Conn, at 409,
These are powerful considerations that, combined with the Attorney General's mishandling of the case and the dismissal on technical grounds, outweigh the finality concerns of res judicata. The child and her mother should have been given an opportunity for a hearing of their paternity claim. Paternity determinations, implicating rights of a fundamental importance, are now made with astonishing accuracy. In Pickett v Brown (462 US 1, 17), the United States Supreme Court recognized that "scientific advances in blood testing have alleviated the problems of proof surrounding paternity actions." "Science has since developed to the point that genetic testing of tissue or blood is capable, not only of excluding, but also proving paternity, in some cases to an exceptionally high degree of probability" (Matter of Clara C. v William L., , 96 NY2d 244, 256 [Levine, J., concurring]).
The Connecticut Supreme Court favors giving parties an
opportunity to be heard on the merits of their claims in its res
judicata jurisprudence (see, Linden Condominium Assn., Inc. v
McKenna, 247 Conn, at 594-595,
Accordingly, the order of the Appellate Division should be reversed with costs, and respondent's motion to dismiss the petition denied.
1 The Uniform Support of Dependents Law -- codified in article 3-A of the Domestic Relations Law -- was repealed at the end of 1997 and replaced by the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act in Family Court Act article 5-B (see, L 1997, ch 398, § 36).
2 It has been noted that "interstate cases are not as zealously pursued as intrastate cases" because "'the responding state bears most of the expense incurred in interstate enforcement while the initiating state enjoys most of the benefits'" (Janelle T. Calhoun, Interstate Child Support Enforcement System: Juggernaut of Bureaucracy, 46 Mercer L Rev 921, 943 [citation omitted]).
3 This paternity petition, dated December 2, 1997, was brought under Family Court Act article 5-B, § 580-201, which allows New York to exercise "long-arm" jurisdiction over a non- resident based on an allegation that the child was conceived as a consequence of sexual relations in this State. The enactment of article 5-B, effective December 31, 1997, replaced the transfer process in the now-repealed Domestic Relations Law article 3-A (L 1997, ch 398, § 36). Both parties appear to have operated under an assumption that article 5-B was effective throughout this case.
4 Since Connecticut law decides this matter and in light of the key role the Connecticut Attorney General's office played in the Connecticut proceedings, we invited the Connecticut Attorney General to file an amicus brief. The Attorney General declined our invitation.