Superior Court Navigates ‘Twists and Turns’ in Case Involving Paternity Tests
Pennsylvania Superior Court recently heard a rather complex and tangled case regarding how, when and what significance a paternity test may have in determining the paternity of a child. In the matter of H.Z. v. M.B., 2019 Pa.Super. 33, the Superior Court offered insights that may be instructive for other similar matters, especially in cases where attempted clever tactics and intrigue are elements.
In H.Z., the mother, seeking child support, filed for paternity testing in New York shortly before the child was born in March 2005. The results of the testing excluded M.B., the putative father. Consequently the parties entered into a stipulation providing that the mother would discontinue her paternity and support actions against M.B. with prejudice.
Two years later, the mother hired a private investigator to surreptitiously secure a sample of the father’s DNA. Specifically, the investigator followed M.B. to a Starbucks where he picked M.B.’s discarded coffee cup out of a trash can, and submitted it for genetic testing that resulted in a finding of a probability of over 99 percent percent that M.B. is the father of the child.
About a year later, the results of the investigator’s test motivated the mother to file a new paternity case against M.B., this time in New Jersey, where the mother had relocated. The case was transferred to Pennsylvania as New Jersey had no jurisdiction over M.B., who was a resident of Pennsylvania. A few months later, the parties again entered into a stipulation dismissing the mother’s case.
Undeterred, the mother almost immediately filed a third case, this time in Montgomery County, to which M.B. filed preliminary objections, a motion to dismiss and a motion to stay the testing, primarily on the basis of res judicata. While M.B. successfully had the Starbucks test excluded as evidence, per a motion in limine, the case, for some reason, was not scheduled for a hearing until about five years later. After that hearing the trial court ordered M.B. to submit to genetic testing once again. The father appealed, primarily on the basis of res judicata. In an unpublished opinion, the Superior Court ruled that the stipulation entered in the New York matter was in violation of New York law and, therefore, not controlling.
Finally, after another year’s time, M.B. submitted to a buccal swab genetic test requested by the mother’s petition requesting blood and hair testing, which again excluded M.B. as the father of the child. Upon receiving the result of this test, M.B. requested the dismissal of the case. The mother countered by requesting M.B. to submit to more rigorous testing on the basis that M.B.’s DNA samples had irregularities, and M.B.’s genetic profiles in the various tests all differed from one another which, she averred, means they did not come from the same person. The parties subsequently filed various motions seeking sanctions and striking filings. A trial court hearing on these issues was finally scheduled for December 2017.
At the hearing, the mother called two officials from the Montgomery County Domestic Relations Office who testified that, despite many years of experience and their knowledge of hundreds of cases, neither have had a case where the DNA sample they collected was insufficient for testing. In opposition to these witnesses, M.B. called a DNA lab director who testified that there was no evidence of tampering, no issues with the chain-of-custody of the DNA sample, and no issues with testing protocols. While the lab director did note that the DNA that was recently tested did degrade, she could not come to a definite conclusion as to why.
After some of the witnesses testified at the hearing (as described above), the trial court scheduled at least two more days of testimony. Without explanation or apparent reason, the trial court suddenly entered an order concluding that M.B. is the father and directed that an appropriate support order be awarded. M.B. immediately appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court.
On appeal, M.B. argued that the mother’s case should be dismissed on the basis that the Montgomery County test excluded him as father. M.B. specifically argued that a paternity hearing could only be scheduled if the results of a genetic test did not indicate that the putative father was not excluded from being the father. Consequently, per M.B.’s argument, in the instant matter, as the Montgomery County test excluded him as the father, the aforesaid rule required the mother’s case to be dismissed. The Superior Court rejected this argument and decided that the rule does not limit the scheduling of a hearing only when a test does not indicate an exclusion. The court also pointed out that the rule does not provide that a genetic test—by itself—is sufficient to establish paternity but, instead, indicates that a hearing on the reliability of genetic testing is permissible. The Superior Court also found that Rule 1910.15(d)(4) sets forth “a clear course of conduct addressing every possible result of the genetic testing” and M.B.’s request for dismissal was not relief afforded to him by the rule.
M.B. further argued that the Uniform Act on Blood Tests to Determine Paternity (23 Pa.C.S.A. Section 5104) eliminates any discretion on the part of the trial court to rule in this matter. Superior Court ruled that the aforesaid statute does not apply as no blood test ever took place in this matter, rejecting M.B.’s argument that it applies to all manner of genetic testing, not just blood testing.
M.B. then argued that 23 Pa.C.S.A. Section 4343 also requires the dismissal of an action for paternity when a man is excluded from paternity after genetic testing. The court rejected this argument as well, pointing out that the statute cited by M.B. actually directly opposes his argument. The Superior Court noted that the statute “does not provide that genetic tests are conclusive of the issue of paternity,” but such a determination may only be made by “a court in a civil action.” Additionally, the statute also allows for additional testing if a party contests the initial test.
M.B. proffered a cursory argument that additional testing would violate his Fourth Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution. However, as he did not raise this argument in a timely manner, the Superior Court did not consider it. Instead, it indicated that additional testing may be permitted if the first test can be demonstrated to be unreliable by the preponderance of the evidence.
M.B. finally argued that the trial court abused its discretion by basing its ruling on excluded evidence (the Starbucks cup) and the Montgomery County test (which he argued had no facts to suggest it was unreliable). The Superior Court was sympathetic to this particular argument, however it directed its focus to the fact that the trial court never completed the record due to inexplicably entering an order before finishing the hearing. As a result, the court could not sufficiently review the facts and evidence in the case as it was left incomplete. Indeed, the Superior Court ruled that 23 Pa.C.S.A. Section 4343 affords the mother the right to an additional genetic test at her own expense as a matter of right.
After all of the twists and turns in this case, the Superior Court ruled that the trial court committed an abuse of discretion when it ruled that M.B. is the father as the hearing was not complete. The Superior Court ultimately ruled that an additional test is to be administered if no stipulation between the parties is reached. If the new test indicates M.B. is the father, then a hearing may be scheduled to determine the reliability of the test. If M.B. is excluded as the father, then the parties may proceed to a hearing on the issue of paternity. If any additional testing is requested, then evidence of any prior tests’ unreliability must be presented, and Fourth Amendment implications can be considered. As a result, the trial court’s order was vacated and the matter was remanded for further proceedings and testing.
May this case be a warning to those who think that genetic testing to determine paternity speaks conclusively as to who a child’s father is or is not. While modern technology has made significant contributions in this area, there still remains sufficient doubt to warrant other forms of evidence and inquiry before a court.
This article was originally published in The Legal Intelligencer on March 19, 2019 and can be found here.