Plaintiff’s Fraud Did Not Necessitate ROPA Judgment Being Vacated | Speaker Law
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Plaintiff’s Fraud Did Not Necessitate ROPA Judgment Being Vacated

Posted on Wednesday, November 3, 2021

The trial court in this disputed parentage case properly held that, in light of its finding that the plaintiff had committed fraud on the court, it did not have to vacate its previous judgment under the Revocation of Paternity Act (ROPA) and did not have to revoke the plaintiff’s paternity, the Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled.

In Burnett v. Ahola (Docket Nos. 356502 and 356505), the Genesee County Circuit Court found that the plaintiff had committed intrinsic fraud and fraud on the court during a previous bench trial. In Docket No. 356502, the defendants appealed the trial court’s decision to hold the plaintiff in contempt, fine him $7,500 and ordering him to pay 25 percent of the defendant’s attorney fees accrued since the defendant first moved for relief from the judgment previously issued under ROPA, MCL 722.1431 et seq. The defendants argued the trial court was essentially without authority to exercise discretion regarding the appropriate remedy after concluding that the plaintiff had committed fraud.

The Court of Appeals ruled, however, that the defendants’ argument ignored the plain and unambiguous language in the applicable court rule, MCR 2.612(C). “In short, the plain and unambiguous language used in MCR 2.612(C) shows that a trial court ‘may’ provide relief from judgment when, as here, a party proves the opposing party committed intrinsic fraud or fraud on the court.”

Here, the defendants moved to set aside the ROPA judgment and revoke the trial court’s determination that the plaintiff was the child’s father because of fraud committed by the plaintiff, the Court of Appeals explained. “After determining plaintiff committed fraud, the trial court had discretion regarding whether to actually set aside the ROPA judgment and change JDA’s paternity. According to MCL 722.1443(4), when considering whether to enter an order ‘setting aside a paternity determination,’ the trial court is permitted to address the minor child’s best interests. Thus, contrary to the claims by defendants, the trial court did not err in doing so.”

Background

The parties’ parentage dispute arose in 2014. The child, JDA, was conceived while the plaintiff, Nicholas Burnett, and the defendant, Tracy Ahola, were “engaged in an extramarital sexual relationship ….” At the time of the extramarital relationship with the plaintiff, Tracy was married to the defendant, Derek Ahola.

The parentage dispute proceedings in this case have been acrimonious and lengthy, with several appeals. Relative to the present appeal, the trial court ruled in early 2021 that the plaintiff had committed both fraud and intrinsic fraud on the court.

The trial court subsequently declined to vacate its previous ROPA judgment and declined to revoke the plaintiff’s paternity, finding that it would not be in JDA’s best interests to do so.

The defendants filed a motion for reconsideration, which the trial court denied. The defendants appealed.

ROPA Judgment

The defendants originally moved for relief from judgment under MCR 2.612(C)(1)(c) and (C)(3). MCR 2.612(C)(1)(c) says, “On motion and on just terms, the court may relieve a party or the legal representative of a party from a final judgment, order, or proceeding on the following grounds: … [f]raud (intrinsic or extrinsic), misrepresentation, or other misconduct of an adverse party.” Meanwhile, MCR 2.612(C)(3) says the trial court has the power to “set aside a judgment for fraud on the court.”

On appeal, the defendants asserted the trial court abused its discretion by refusing to vacate the ROPA judgment and revoke the plaintiff’s paternity after determining that the plaintiff committed intrinsic fraud and fraud on the court.

Addressing the defendants’ argument, the Court of Appeals pointed out that MCR 2.612(C) has two relevant parts. “The first, under MCR 2.612(C)(1), provides for the ability of the court to provide a party relief from judgment under certain sets of circumstances. Importantly, the rule provides the authority to relieve a party from a judgment, but it does not mandate providing such relief, even where the circumstances have been proven. … Further, MCR 2.612(C)(3) does not contain any provision that would suggest, in cases of fraud on the court, that a trial court is required to set aside the relevant judgment: ‘This subrule does not limit the power of a court … to set aside a judgment for fraud on the court.’ Stated differently, while MCR 2.612(C)(3) provides that it does not limit the power of a trial court to set aside a judgment, it fails to establish that setting aside a judgment is mandatory after fraud on the court is proven.”

The “plain and unambiguous language” in MCR 2.612(C) “shows that a trial court ‘may’ provide relief from judgment when, as here, a party proves the opposing party committed intrinsic fraud or fraud on the court,” the Court of Appeals said. “Considering our Supreme Court’s decision to use the permissive word ‘may’ in the court rule, we must enforce that language as it is written. … If the Court wished to force trial courts to set aside judgments for proof of intrinsic fraud or fraud on the court, it would have used the word ‘shall’ in place of the word ‘may,’ thereby changing the permissive nature of the court rule to mandatory. … That the Court did not do so with respect to MCR 2.612(C) is determinative with respect to defendants’ arguments the trial court did not have the authority to exercise discretion when determining whether to set aside the ROPA judgment and revoke plaintiff’s paternity.”

Rather than address the language in the court rule, the defendants relied on caselaw, the Court of Appeals pointed out. The defendants cited Baum v Baum, 20 Mich App 68 (1969), which was superseded by statute on other grounds as stated in Glaubius v Glaubius, 306 Mich App 157 (2014), and Allen v Allen, 341 Mich 543 (1954).

However, the caselaw cited by the defendants “does not stand for the position asserted,” the Court of Appeals said. “In analyzing the applicability of Baum, Derek Ahola suggests that this Court held that a trial court must set aside a judgment that would not have been entered but for fraud. On closer look at the case, … it is clear that the panel in Baum did not make such a holding. Indeed, the opinion in Baum reflects caselaw suggesting that if a fraudulent statement did not affect the judgment, then vacating the judgment is not warranted. … This statement of law, contrary to Derek Ahola’s preferred analysis, does not reflect that the converse is true – when fraud caused entry of a judgment it must be vacated. … The Baum Court did not provide any analysis to suggest that the use of the word ‘may’ could be overlooked when a situation arose in which a judgment would not have been entered but for a party’s fraud. … Instead, Baum leaves this analysis exactly where it started – the trial court has discretion whether to grant relief from a judgment after proof of fraud is presented, which comports directly with the language our Supreme Court decided to use in MCR 2.612(C).”

Further, “Derek Ahola suggests that the Allen Court established law requiring a trial court to set aside a judgment if it determined that, but for fraud, the judgment would not have been entered,” the Court of Appeals explained. “But it is clear that the factual scenario in Allen is not presented in the case before this Court. Here, the trial court held it would not exercise its discretion to set aside the ROPA judgment, while acknowledging it had the power to do so, after finding plaintiff committed intrinsic fraud and fraud on the court without which the ROPA judgment never would have been entered. There is nothing in our Supreme Court’s analysis in Allen to suggest that, once a trial court finds fraud was committed on the court, it must set aside the judgment obtained via that fraud. Instead, because the trial court had already established its belief that setting aside the judgment for fraud was warranted, but for a faulty legal ground, the Court in Allen was merely enforcing the trial court’s expressed intent, if it believed it had the discretion to do so.”

In other words, “like in Baum, the Allen Court verified that it is not an abuse of discretion to set aside a judgment on the basis of fraud without which the judgment would not have been entered in the first place,” the Court of Appeals wrote. “For the same reasons discussed above, that does not amount to a holding that refusing to set aside such a judgment must be an abuse of discretion. Thus, defendants’ reliance on that caselaw to suggest the trial court lacked discretion to refuse to vacate the ROPA judgment and revoke plaintiff’s paternity of JDA is misplaced.

Best-Interest Factors

Next, the Court of Appeals examined whether the trial court abused its discretion when it considered JDA’s best interests. The defendants argued the trial court improperly considered MCL 722.1443(4) because that statute was only meant to apply when analyzing an original action under the ROPA.

“In exercising its discretion, the trial court deemed it was appropriate to consider JDA’s best interests,” the Court of Appeals said. “The trial court reached that decision after concluding that defendants’ request, as one to set aside the ROPA judgment establishing plaintiff’s paternity of JDA, implicated MCL 722.1443(4).”

Contrary to the defendants’ argument, the “plain and unambiguous language of the statute, which we must enforce, … is not so limited,” the Court of Appeals wrote. “MCL 722.1443(4) unambiguously states that a trial court should consider the best interests of a minor child under a distinct set of circumstances in a ROPA case. One such situation is a decision regarding whether to set ‘aside a paternity determination.’ … Undoubtedly, defendants were moving the trial court to set aside its prior determination of paternity in favor of plaintiff. Whether the Legislature imagined MCL 722.1443(4) would be raised more than five years after the original ROPA judgment and paternity decision was made is not necessarily relevant. The simple fact is that MCL 722.1443(4) provides an opportunity for a trial court to consider the best interests of a minor child before entering an order ‘setting aside a paternity determination.’ Thus, the trial court’s decision to do so, in light of its inherent discretion when considering whether to grant a motion for relief from judgment on the basis of fraud, MCR 2.612(C), was not an error.”

Accordingly, the Court of Appeals turned to the final question: whether the trial court clearly erred in finding JDA’s best interests favored maintaining his parental relationship with the plaintiff. “The trial court decided to believe plaintiff, and found that JDA had a bond with plaintiff and would be harmed by the sudden cessation of the parental relationship. On appeal, defendants have not presented any reason or evidence, other than their own conjecture, to disturb that decision by the trial court. Consequently, because we must defer to the trial court’s credibility determinations, id., and because defendants have not provided anything to cause us to be ‘definitely and firmly convinced that [the trial court] made a mistake,’ … we must affirm the trial court’s factual findings that JDA’s best interests were served by denying defendants’ motion to set aside the ROPA judgment and revoke plaintiff’s paternity. Furthermore, considering JDA has spent more than half of his life in a situation in which plaintiff is his father and he spends half of his time at plaintiff’s home, the trial court’s finding regarding best interests is understandable and has evidentiary support.”

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