The Lawletter Vol 37 No 6
The Supreme Court of Iowa has permitted a man (Dier) who was falsely charged with fathering a child, and who then voluntarily provided support to the child and the mother (Peters), to seek recovery of those support payments in an action alleging common-law fraud. Dier v. Peters, 815 N.W.2d 1 (Iowa 2012).
The child was born to Peters in February 2009. Peters knew that Dier was not the biological father, but she told him that he was. Based on Peters's representations, Dier provided financial support for both Peters and the child.
Dier filed an application seeking custody of the child; when Peters realized she might not get custody, she requested a paternity test. The test excluded Dier as the biological father.
Dier then filed a petition seeking reimbursement from Peters of money given to her, money given to support the minor child, and money spent litigating custody. Peters moved to dismiss the petition, stating that Iowa did not recognize an action for "paternity fraud" and that Dier had therefore failed to state a claim on which relief could be granted. Dier opposed the motion, alleging that all the elements of fraud were present. The trial court granted Peters's motion to dismiss, and Dier appealed.
The Iowa Supreme Court recognized that the "sole issue on appeal is whether Iowa law allows a putative father to bring a paternity fraud action against a biological mother to obtain reimbursement of payments that were voluntarily made." Citing authority from other jurisdictions, the court stated that "paternity fraud" occurs when a mother "makes a representation to a man that the child is genetically his own even though she is aware that he is not, or may not be, the father of the child." Id. at 4 (internal quotation marks omitted). The court noted, however, that Dier "seeks only reimbursement of payments that he made without court compulsion." Id. at 4-5.
The Iowa court recognized that the courts of other jurisdictions are divided on whether to recognize such claims. The courts that do not allow such claims cite considerations of public policy and child welfare. The courts that permit such suits reason that paternity fraud is not unlike other tort claims and should be allowed to go forward if the elements of the tort are met.
The Iowa Supreme Court first reaffirmed those cases that have established that parents cannot obtain retroactive relief from court-ordered child support. The court then noted that Dier was not seeking recovery under Iowa Code § 600B.41A(4)(b), which permits a person in Dier's circumstances to avoid all unpaid and future support obligations. The court then held that "Dier's cause of action appears to fit comfortably within the traditional boundaries of fraud law." Id. at 7.
Under Iowa law, the plaintiff must prove the following to establish a claim of common-law fraud:
(1) [the] defendant made a representation to the plaintiff, (2) the representation was false, (3) the representation was material, (4) the defendant knew the representation was false, (5) the defendant intended to deceive the plaintiff, (6) the plaintiff acted in [justifiable] reliance on the truth of the representation . . . , (7) the representation was a proximate cause of [the] plaintiff's damages, and (8) the amount of damages.
Id. at 7 (internal quotation marks omitted). The court reversed the dismissal of Dier's claim, concluding that the claim was supported by common-law standards for fraud and was not contrary to the public policy of the State. Whether Dier would be able to provide sufficient factual evidence to establish his claim would be determined at trial. The court emphasized, further, that Dier would not be able to recover attorney's fees and costs incurred in the custody litigation with Peters. Id. at 14.