Facts: While Mother and Husband were dating, Mother became pregnant and told Husband the soon-to-be Son was his. The parties married and Son was born. Husband was listed on Son’s birth certificate. Husband also adopted Daughter, Mother’s child from a prior relationship. Father then decided he did not want to have any more children and had a vasectomy. The parties divorced. Ultimately, the parties agreed that Husband would be the primary residential parent of Son while Mother would be the primary residential parent for her Daughter. Each had co-parenting time with both children. Husband paid child support to Mother. After some parenting disputes arose, Husband agreed to voluntarily surrender his parental rights to Daughter. As a result, Mother now paid child support to Husband. The opinion explains the heartbreaking turn of events that followed:
Sometime in 2006 or 2007, Husband became suspicious that he might not be [Son]’s biological father, based in part on [Son]’s evolving appearance. In February 2007, while [Son] was sleeping, Husband swabbed [Son]’s cheek; this sample was used to obtain a DNA test. The test results revealed that [Son] is not Husband’s biological son.
After keeping the DNA results secret for several weeks, Husband called Mother and told her. Mother responded to Husband that he was “crazy.” She then told [Son] about the results of the DNA test. After learning this information, [Son] asked to move back in with Mother, and Husband consented. A second independent DNA test confirmed that Husband is not [Son]’s biological father.
After [Son] learned that he and Husband are not biologically related, in an effort to maintain the relationship, Husband told [Son] that he felt that nothing had changed between them. [Son], however, was no longer comfortable maintaining the father-son relationship with Husband. Consequently, their relationship deteriorated.
Mother filed a petition to declare her the sole residential parent of Son and terminate her child support obligation. Husband counterclaimed and asserted tort claims for fraud and misrepresentation and sought compensatory and punitive damages totaling $300,000.
[Son] testified at trial briefly. [Son] testified that Husband had been a good father to him. He confirmed that, after Mother told him that Husband is not his biological father, Husband told [Son] that nothing would change and he would always love [Son]. [Son] visited Husband once after that, but as of the trial date had not seen Husband in almost two years. [Son] testified that this was a result of [Son]’s choice.
The trial court awarded Husband over $125,000 in damages, including reimbursement for child support, medical expenses, and health insurance premiums paid by Husband for the benefit of Son and damages for emotional distress. Mother appealed.
On appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.
Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-5-101(f)(1) provides:
Any order for child support shall be a judgment entitled to be enforced as any other judgment of a court of this state, and shall be entitled to full faith and credit in this state and in any other state. Such judgment shall not be subject to modification as to any time period or any amounts due prior to the date that an action for modification is filed and notice of the action has been mailed to the last known address of the opposing parties.
The Court explained its reasoning as follows:
Husband maintains that the trial court’s damage award is not in effect a retroactive modification of the child support award. We must respectfully disagree. . . . The effect of the trial court’s award of damages in the amount of the child support and related payments is “to absolve [Husband] of responsibility” for the payments required under the prior child support order, in effect retroactively modifying the order. This is clearly contrary to the language in Section 36-5-101(f)(1) . . . .
Thus, regardless of the theory of recovery asserted by Husband, we must conclude that the trial court was without authority to award compensatory damages in amounts correlating to the child support, medical expenses, and insurance premiums paid by Husband pursuant to the earlier child support orders in this cause. Accordingly, this portion of the trial court’s award of compensatory damages must be reversed.
Regarding the emotional distress award, the Court of Appeals held that non-economic damages were not available for claims of fraud and misrepresentation. The Court hinted that non-economic damages might have been available to Husband under a theory of intentional infliction of emotional distress, which theory was curiously not pleaded by Husband.
As a result of the foregoing, the trial court’s damage award was reversed in its entirety.
***UPDATE***: The Tennessee Supreme Court accepted the appeal from this decision on May 25, 2011. I will blog that opinion when it is issued. Stay tuned.
Information provided by K.O. Herston, Tennessee Divorce Lawyer.