Women and Justice: Court: Court of Appeals of Virginia

Domestic Case Law

Bergaust v. Flaherty Court of Appeals of Virginia (2011)

Gender discrimination, Property and inheritance rights

The plaintiff, a mother, brought a petition for child support against the putative father.  The two met during a trip to France and had a long-distance relationship for 18 months.  After returning to Virginia from another visit to the defendant in France, the plaintiff learned she was pregnant.  Because the defendant was her only sexual partner during the relevant time period, she informed the defendant that the child was his.  The defendant said he would help in any way he could and called twice a week during the pregnancy.  Their child was born in Alexandria, Virginia, and the defendant continued to call regularly during this time.  When the child was seven months old, the defendant came to Virginia to meet and spend time with the child.  Following this visit, the defendant’s contact with the plaintiff decreased and ultimately ceased.  Several years later, the plaintiff learned of the defendant’s whereabouts and brought a petition for child support.  The circuit court dismissed the petition for lack of personal jurisdiction. The question before the Virginia Court of Appeals was whether the defendant had fathered a child in Virginia pursuant to the long-arm statute that provided, in part, that a court may exercise personal jurisdiction over a person when it is shown that the person “conceived or fathered” a child in Virginia.  The statute does not define the terms “conceived or fathered.”  In finding no personal jurisdiction, the Court of Appeals affirmed the circuit court’s interpretation of the term “fathered” to mean “to beget or to procreate as father,” rejecting the plaintiff’s argument that the term encompassed “the acknowledgment of parentage” while in Virginia.  Although the Court of Appeals acknowledged that the ordinary meaning of “fathered” includes “to make oneself the father…by acknowledgment,” the court concluded that if the state legislature had intended this broader meaning of the term, it “presumably would have included the word ‘mothered’ along with ‘conceived or fathered’ to encompass the non-custodial mother of a child living in [Virginia].”  Therefore, per Virginia law, the child was not fathered in Virginia and the long-arm statute could not grant personal jurisdiction over the matter.