Today was a good day. For me and for my client. It fills me with hope that tomorrow will also be a good day. Why you ask? After 36 years of wondering, guessing, dreaming, frustrating, I brought my client one step closer to knowing, for certain, who she is.
You see, this client found me about 3 months ago. After speaking to several attorneys, all of whom told her she had no case because of her age, she found me. We had a lengthy phone call where she shared her life story with me. What brought her to the point of seeking legal recourse was simple – she was facing a variety of medical issues, the causes of and exact diagnosis difficult to know without having a full medical history, including that of her natural birth parents. And here her problem lied.
My client, a 36 year old woman residing outside the state of New Jersey had no way to provide that information to her doctors. Her mother was deceased. And she had no confirmation of exactly who her biological father was. She did have a solid suspicion based on information and stories she was told growing up, but her birth certificate was devoid of this.
We talked about her medical challenges in great detail. We mulled over the options. Ultimately, we decided to file a Complaint to Establish Paternity, despite the fact that we were 13 years pass the statute of limitations (technically) to bring such a claim. But as with many areas of the law, there is gray and our facts fit squarely into the gray.
To give some perspective, the New Jersey Parentage Act, N.J.S.A. 9:17-38 et seq., provides the legislative mechanism by which parties may seek to establish paternity for a child in the state of New Jersey. The Act establishes a twenty-three (23) year statute of limitations on bringing actions to establish parentage thereunder, as no action shall be brought more than five (5) years after the child reaches the age of majority, which is eighteen (18) years of age. The Act permits the child to bring the action on his or her own behalf. In reality, any interested party has until the child reaches the age of twenty-three (23) to bring the action.
However, in certain circumstances, the twenty-three year statute of limitations may be equitably tolled. The seminal case on this issue is the New Jersey Supreme Court opinion in R.A.C. v. P.J.S., Jr., 192 N.J. 81 (2007). In that case, the child’s mother’s husband (who believed he was the child’s father) brought a reimbursement action against the alleged biological father. The action was brought past the statute of limitations, when the child was over thirty (30) years old. The trial court in R.A.C. decided that the “[s]tatute of Limitations should not frustrate [the son’s] right to know his own potential genetic make-up,” particularly in light of the “serious medical condition” he may have inherited from his biological father. The appellate court affirmed, finding that the “application of the doctrine of equitable tolling in this case [did] not undermine the purposes of the Parentage Act” because allowing the claim to proceed would not “disrupt fragile familial relationships,” thus “leav[ing] a young child bereft of required paternal guidance,” but rather lead to “a reconciliation of obligations.” The appellate court went on to note that although statutes of limitations generally protect a party from having to defend against stale claims, when that party induces or tricks a putative plaintiff into letting the deadline pass, equitable tolling may apply. In R.A.C., the appellate court determined that the mother and biological father engaged in a pattern of deception, concealing from plaintiff his son’s true parentage and did not time-bar the claim.
The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed this decision, finding that the plain language of the Parentage Act and the legislative intent barred such actions beyond the twenty-three (23) year time limit. The Supreme Court noted that the tendency in New Jersey has been to reject the discovery rule for statutes of limitations that run from a fixed, specified event. The Court found that: “the question here is whether equitable tolling can ever apply to a repose statute…we believe that it can. However, in light of the purpose of a repose statute, which is to set a fixed end to the limitations period regardless of when the cause of action accrues, we expect that equitable tolling will arise only in extraordinary circumstances consistent with legislative intent.” (emphasis added).
Noting the scant legislative history, the Court found that:
The twenty-three-year timeframe for filing a paternity action coincides with the recognized period when a child is in need of financial support and a parent legally bears a financial obligation to provide that support. See Wingate, supra, 149 N.J. at 239, 693 A.2d 457. In most cases, a parent will no longer be bound to support a child who reaches the age of majority. Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529, 543, 443 A.2d 1031 (1982). Therefore, the “major concern” of the Parentage Act, the financial support of children, is no longer an issue after children have reached the age of twenty-three and presumably are capable of supporting themselves….By setting a fixed time period, the Legislature evidently understood that there would be cases, perhaps many cases, in which paternity would not be established within the twenty-three-year timeframe and that a biological father who bore the responsibility of raising and supporting a child would be relieved of his obligation. The Legislature did not create a scheme providing for an indefinite liability period, but instead created one that allowed persons to reasonably expect that the slate would one day be “wiped clean.” The Legislature evidently knew what has been known since time immemorial that children would be born of adulterous relationships and that the true identity of the father might not be known for more than twenty-three years. The repose statute does not contain any carve out for such situations.
I must point out that the Court was addressing an action for support (or more specifically, reimbursement for support). The prayers for relief in R.A.C. were financial in nature. In a footnote, the Court stated that:
In light of the muscular dystrophy gene that afflicted Patrick’s family, we do not doubt that Darren’s need to know his biological background for health and family planning purposes might have been an “extraordinary” circumstance warranting the tolling of the statute to allow for DNA testing to establish paternity. See generally Fazilat, supra, 180 N.J. at 88, 848 A.2d 761 (commenting that “confirmation of one’s lineage may also provide `medical benefits’ by allowing the child to learn of the potential diseases and abnormalities he or she may inherit from parents and their forbears”). In this case, Darren was not a named plaintiff, and therefore this lawsuit is not about Darren’s right to know his genetic make-up. Id. (emphasis added).
This footnote became highly relevant to my client’s argument and helped to establish the “extraordinary circumstances” we believed the court intended.
She will now, by virtue of court Order get paternity and genetic testing. If the information she was provided her entire life regarding the identity of her biological father was correct, she will have confirmation and peace of mind. Even now she feels legitimized and well on her way to finding the missing piece of her puzzle. After all, should we not all have that?
I love the practice of law. My specialty area gives me opportunities to impact people’s lives in a way that other attorneys may never experience in their career. Today some lost idealism was returned to me and for that, it was a good day.