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In re Paternity of M.A.M.

Court of Appeals of Indiana

December 11, 2019

In the Matter of the Paternity of M.A.M.
v.
T.M., Appellee-Respondent State of Indiana by the IV-D Prosecutor of Miami County, Appellant-Petitioner,

          Appeal from the Miami Circuit Court The Honorable Timothy P. Spahr, Judge Trial Court Cause No. 52C01-1812-JP-37

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT Curtis T. Hill, Jr. Attorney General Frances Barrow Deputy Attorney General Indianapolis, Indiana

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE Dan J. May Kokomo, Indiana

          Vaidik, Chief Judge

         Case Summary

         [¶1] B.S. ("Alleged Father"), a man who believes he is the father of five-year-old M.A.M. ("Child"), applied for child-support services through the Miami County Prosecutor's Office ("Prosecutor"). The Prosecutor then filed a petition seeking to establish that Alleged Father is Child's father. Child's mother, T.M. ("Mother"), moved to strike the petition, arguing that the Prosecutor is not authorized to bring such an action. The trial court agreed and granted Mother's motion to strike. The Prosecutor appeals. We reverse.

         Facts and Procedural History

         [¶2] Child was born out of wedlock in September 2014 and, according to the pleadings, lives with Mother in Miami County. In November 2018, Alleged Father "completed an application for Title IV-D Child Support Services believing he was the father of [Child]." Appellant's App. Vol. II p. 21. "Title IV-D" is a reference to Title IV-D of the federal Social Security Act, which provides for the payment of federal money to states that provide certain services relating to child support, including assistance in establishing paternity. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 651-669b. In Indiana, the required services are typically provided by county prosecutors.

         [¶3] After receiving Alleged Father's application, the Prosecutor filed a Verified Petition to Establish Paternity, naming Alleged Father as the "Petitioner." At an initial hearing held in January 2019, the trial court ordered genetic testing. That testing established a 99.999999996% probability that Alleged Father is Child's father. Shortly thereafter, Mother, "Individually and as next friend" of Child, filed a combined motion to dismiss, motion for judgment on the pleadings, and motion for summary judgment. Appellant's App. Vol. II p. 17. Mother asserted, in part, that Alleged Father is barred from bringing the action by Indiana Code section 31-14-5-3, which provides that a man claiming to be a child's father must generally file a paternity action within two years of the child's birth.

         [¶4] The Prosecutor filed a response to Mother's motion, acknowledging that the original petition "was erroneously filed by the State of Indiana as though the alleged father was the petitioner" and asserting that the petition "should have been filed by the State of Indiana on behalf of the child with the Miami County Prosecutor as the next friend of the minor child." Id. at 21. Accordingly, the Prosecutor also filed an Amended Petition to Establish Paternity ("Amended Petition"), which indicated that the Prosecutor was filing as next friend of Child.

         [¶5] Mother moved to strike the Amended Petition, arguing that Indiana's paternity statutes do not authorize the Prosecutor to bring the action. After hearing oral argument from counsel, the trial court granted Mother's motion.

         [¶6] The Prosecutor now appeals.

         Discussion and Decision

         [¶7] The sole issue in this appeal is whether the Prosecutor was statutorily authorized to file the Amended Petition. Statutory interpretation is a matter of law that we review de novo. Dobeski v. State, 64 N.E.3d 1257, 1259 (Ind.Ct.App. 2015). If a statute is clear and unambiguous, we need not apply any rules of construction; we simply give the words and phrases their plain, ordinary, and usual meanings. Id. Where a statute is open to more than one interpretation, it is deemed ambiguous and subject to judicial construction, and our task is to ascertain and give effect to the legislature's intent. Id.

         [¶8] Prosecuting attorneys are clearly allowed to file paternity actions. As mentioned above, Title IV-D of the federal Social Security Act requires states to provide various child-support services, including assistance in establishing paternity, in exchange for receiving certain federal funds. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 651-669b. To qualify Indiana for those funds, our General Assembly established a Child Support Bureau within the Department of Child Services and charged it with "the administration of Title IV-D of the federal Social Security Act." Ind. Code § 31-25-3-1. Under Indiana Code section 31-25-4-13.1, the Child Support Bureau is required to contract with a prosecuting attorney or other person or entity in each judicial circuit "to undertake activities required to be performed under Title IV-D," including "establishment of paternity" and "establishment, enforcement, and modification of child support orders[.]" Ind. Code § 31-25-4-13.1(b). In turn, Indiana's paternity statutes, found at Indiana Code article 31-14, identify "a prosecuting attorney operating under an agreement or contract with the department described in IC 31-25-4-13.1" as one of the persons authorized to file a paternity action. Ind. Code § 31-14-4-1(7)(B).[1] The Prosecutor asserts that he is operating under such a contract in this case.

         [¶9] Mother does not dispute that the Prosecutor is operating under such a contract, but she contends that the authority granted by Section 31-14-4-1(7)(B) is strictly limited by Indiana Code section 31-14-4-3, which provides, in relevant part, that

a prosecuting attorney operating under an agreement or contract described in IC 31-25-4-13.1, may file a paternity action if:
(1) the mother;
(2) the person with whom the child resides; or
(3) the [Department of Child Services];
has executed an assignment of support rights under Title IV-D of the federal Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. 651 through 669).

         Mother contends that this statute identifies the only circumstances in which prosecutors can file paternity actions and that because neither she nor the Department of Child Services has executed an assignment of support rights, the Prosecutor was not authorized to file the Amended Petition. The trial court agreed with Mother and ruled that in Section 31-14-4-3 "the General Assembly has clearly enumerated the circumstances under which 'a prosecuting attorney operating under an agreement or contract described in IC 31-25-4-13.1' may file a paternity action." Appellant's App. Vol. II p. 10. For the reasons that follow, we disagree.

         [¶10] Most importantly, Title IV-D (42 U.S.C. §§ 651-669b) and Indiana's corresponding IV-D statutes (Indiana Code chapter 31-25-4) specifically contemplate the State filing paternity actions in circumstances beyond those set forth in Section 31-14-4-3. Section 31-14-4-3 deals with situations in which benefits have been paid out under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, or "TANF," which was established by Part A of Title IV (42 U.S.C. §§ 601-619). A mother or another person with whom a child resides receives assistance under Part A and executes an assignment of support rights, and a prosecutor proceeds under Part D and Section 31-14-4-3 to establish paternity and then seeks to recoup funds from the father.

         [¶11] However, the grant of assistance under Part A is not a prerequisite to action under Part D. The first section of Part D, 42 U.S.C. § 651, provides:

For the purpose of enforcing the support obligations owed by noncustodial parents to their children and the spouse (or former spouse) with whom such children are living, locating noncustodial parents, establishing paternity, obtaining child and spousal support, and assuring that assistance in obtaining support will be available under this part to all children (whether or not eligible for assistance under a State program funded under part A) for whom such assistance is requested, there is hereby authorized to be appropriated for each fiscal year a sum sufficient to carry out the purposes of this part.

(Emphasis added). Likewise, 42 U.S.C. § 654(4)(A) provides that a State plan for child and spousal support must provide that the State will

provide services relating to the establishment of paternity or the establishment, modification, or enforcement of child support obligations, as appropriate, under the plan with respect to--
(i) each child for whom (I) assistance is provided under the State program funded under part A of ...

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