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Rhode Island Supreme Court Dismisses Plaintiff’s Paternity Case Based on Full Faith and Credit Clause

In the early 2000s, a Florida resident (plaintiff) attempted to establish that a Rhode Island resident (defendant) was the natural father of her minor child, CMH. Defendant filed for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff’s former husband was determined to be the father of CMH based on a Florida divorce judgment. In May 2002, the Rhode Island Supreme Court affirmed the family court’s judgment granting summary judgment to defendant.

This Rhode Island family law case arose from a relationship between the plaintiff and defendant from 1976 and 1996. During an interruption in the affair in 1983, the plaintiff married BH on January 14, 1984. Despite the marriage, the plaintiff’s sexual relationship with the defendant resumed in 1985 and continued into 1996.

In 1985, the plaintiff conceived CMH. In 1989, the marriage between the plaintiff and BH ended and they were divorced. The judgment stated that CMH was “born of the marriage.” BH did not dispute this finding and agreed to pay child support.

In March 2000, the plaintiff filed a paternity complaint in Rhode Island asserting that the defendant was the biological father of CMH. Following a hearing, the magistrate granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment. The plaintiff appealed, and the family court upheld the magistrate’s order. The plaintiff appealed to the Rhode Island Supreme Court.

The plaintiff argued that the trial justice erred by granting the defendant’s motion because the divorce judgment was susceptible to collateral attack and that public policy demands that biological parents be correctly identified, which outweighs the Full Faith and Credit Clause. Plaintiff further argued that the divorce judgment was modifiable and undeserving of the protection of the Full Faith and Credit Clause. Finally, the plaintiff argued that the trial justice erred in failing to consider the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel.

The Full Faith and Credit Clause requires that State Courts recognize judgments of the courts of sister states, provided the sister state’s court properly exercised subject-matter and personal jurisdiction. The plaintiff argued that the Full Faith and Credit Clause should not be applied to the divorce judgment because it is a modifiable judgment and not final. The state high court disagreed, reasoning that the plaintiff accepted the benefits of the divorce judgment by accepting child support from BH.

Plaintiff argued that public policy demanded that the Full Faith and Credit Clause not be applied to enforce the Florida divorce judgment, relying on a case in which neither party had a connection to the outside forum. The plaintiff could not assert that neither she nor BH had a connection to Florida, since both were residents of that state. Thus, the court held this argument failed.

Finally, the plaintiff argued that the trial court erred by failing to consider the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel. She argued that the defendant could not rely on res judicata or collateral estoppel as support for enforceability of the divorce judgment because he was not a party to the Florida divorce judgment. However, the family court was not required to consider the plaintiff’s argument because his decision to apply the Full Faith and Credit Clause was dispositive of this case. Thus, the family court did not err by applying the Full Faith and Credit Clause to enforce the divorce judgment of the Florida court.

For these reasons, plaintiff’s appeal was dismissed and the family court judgment affirmed.

Bilodeau Capalbo, LLC’s experienced family law team will fight zealously to help Rhode Island residents with paternity issues. Call (401) 400-8182 to schedule your complimentary consultation today.

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