“Despite the Legislature’s clear directive that child support agencies not pursue mistaken child support actions, the County is asking that we do so. We will not sully our hands by participating in an unjust, and factually unfounded, result. We say no to the County, and we reverse.”–County of Los Angeles v. Navarro, (2004)
In a stunning victory, duped dad Pedro Soto and his attorney Richard A. Lowe, Esq. have prevailed against the Orange County Department of Child Support Services in a paternity fraud case emblematic of the numerous outrageous injustices faced by men and fathers in family court. In this case, Soto has paid over $75,000 in child support for a child DNA tests have established is not his, and who has been living with both of his biological parents for many years.
Action Alert–Your Participation Needed
Fathers and Families condemns the conduct of OCDCSS in fighting to preserve a paternity judgment it knows to be false. We want to add your name to our letter to OCDCSS, which will also be copied to the California DCSS–to read the letter and add your name, please click here.
Also, victories cost money. As you’ll read below, F & F’s efforts to preserve the crucial Navarro decision led directly to the Soto victory, and opened the door to many others. Please give to support our vital work by going to www.FathersandFamilies.org/give.
The Soto Case: Background
In 1998, Soto, deceived by his then-girlfriend Maricela Guerrero into believing that her newborn son Aaron was Soto’s, stepped up and did what he thought was right by signing a paternity declaration.
Talented Los Angeles family law attorney Richard A. Lowe, Esq., with the valuable assistance of Pepperdine law student Sarah dela Cruz McKendricks, represented Soto. He explains:
Petitioner made his child support payments and had regular visitations with Aaron without the slightest suspicion that he may not be Aaron’s biological father…Petitioner’s visitations with Aaron continued on a regular basis with Aaron spending alternate weekends with Petitioner and his family in their home…[in] 2008 Aaron [said]….he had a “real” dad, Francisco Serrano, and knew that Petitioner was only his “step” dad…Identigene labs concluded that Pedro Soto is not the biological father of Aaron Soto…Chromosomal Laboratories, Inc. concluded that…Francisco Serrano was Aaron’s father.
Since Aaron is living with and being supported by his biological father, Francisco Serrano, it is clear that Petitioner’s child support payments are really pocket money for Maricela Guerrero and not the “child support” that the courts have ordered…by lying about the real father of Aaron, Ms. Guerrero has set up a scheme whereby she can fleece her innocent former boyfriend and have the County aid her in enforcing this unfair scheme…
As Petitioner states in his Declaration, Aaron will always be welcomed in his home, however, he does not wish to continue the falsehood that he is Aaron’s biological father. Clearly it is in the best interest of the child that his biological…father be established.
Soto’s Attempt to Get Equitable Relief
In Soto’s motion to set aside his paternity judgment, Lowe wrote:
[T]he Department concedes that Francisco Serrano, not Petitioner [Pedro Soto], is the real father of Aaron Soto, but insists that due to the passage of time the injustice of Petitioner paying child support for a child that is living with, and being supported by his real father, should be extended at least another five years until Aaron reaches eighteen and finishes high school. The sheer injustice of the situation does not seem to bother the Department one bit.
Lowe conceded that the law is against Soto but argued that under subsection (c) of Family Code Section §7575 “[T]his court still possesses the authority to right this wrong under its equitable powers.”
The 2004 Navarro Case
Lowe cited County of Los Angeles v. Navarro (2004) as case law in urging the Court to exercise its equitable powers to right a clear injustice in a paternity case. In Navarro, the trial court denied a motion to vacate a judgment entered against Manuel Navarro establishing him as the father of two boys and ordering him to pay child support for them. Navarro had been erroneously “defaulted into fatherhood” of children he did not know.
The motion was filed over five years after Judgment had been entered against him and was definitely time-barred. The County of Los Angeles opposed the motion, arguing that relief should not be granted Mr. Navarro because the statute of limitation had run against him.
The trial court sided with the County and denied the motion. Navarro’s resolute and gifted attorney, Linda Ferrer, Esq., appealed, and the Court of Appeal reversed the denial and granted Navarro’s request that the judgment against him be set aside. The Navarro Court explained:
A profound mistake occurred here when appellant was charged with being the boys’ father…Instead of remedying its mistake, the County retreats behind the procedural redoubt offered by the passage of time since it took appellant’s default.
It is this State’s policy that when a mistake occurs in a child support action the County must correct it, not exploit it…Thousands of individuals each year are mistakenly identified as being liable for child support actions. As a result of that action, the ability to earn a living is severely impaired, assets are seized, and family relationships are often destroyed. It is the moral, legal, and ethical obligation of all enforcement agencies to take prompt action to recognize those cases…and correct any injustice to that person.
Despite the Legislature’s clear directive that child support agencies not pursue mistaken child support actions, the County is asking that we do so. We will not sully our hands by participating in an unjust, and factually unfounded, result. We say no to the County, and we reverse.
The Soto Decision
Judge Paula J. Coleman agreed with Lowe and the Navarro court, and granted Soto’s motion to set aside his paternity judgment. She also ordered that a new birth certificate for Aaron be issued, and that Pedro Soto’s name not be on it. To read Coleman’s order, click here.
The Long, Hard Struggle to Defend Victims of Paternity Fraud
Senator Rod Wright (D-Los Angeles), a longtime family court reform advocate, was the sponsor of the Child Support Enforcement Fairness Act of 2000, and the Navarro court cited this law as the basis for its decision.
Fathers and Families’ legislative representative Michael Robinson has successfully worked for many years to bring equity and fairness to child support and paternity fraud cases, and many of Robinson’s actions directly impacted the Soto case.
After Navarro, the Los Angeles County Department of Child Support Services asked the California Supreme Court to depublish the case, which would prevent other paternity fraud victims from using Navarro to liberate themselves. Robinson sought and submitted amicus letters against depublication from numerous California legislators and prominent attorneys, including: former Assemblywoman Nicole M. Parra; former Assemblyman Raymond Haynes; former Senator Dick Ackerman; former Senator Roy Ashburn; Senator Rod Wright; prominent family law appellate specialist Jeff Doeringer; Roger Dale Juntunen, J.D., M.B.A.; and others, as well as the Los Angeles County Public Defenders Office and the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. To read their amicus letters, click here [37MB].
Navarro’s attorney, Linda Ferrer, praised Robinson’s “extraordinary” work in this letter.
When attorneys for the Fresno Department of Child Support Services tried in the Sanchez paternity fraud case to assert that Navarro had been abrogated by AB 252 (an earlier paternity fraud bill that Robinson helped pass), Robinson got one of the bill’s principal co-authors, then-Senator Roy Ashburn, to issue a declaration stating that the legislature’s intent in passing the bill was not to abrogate Navarro. To read Ashburn’s declaration, click here.
Continuing the Fight: F & F’s SB 375 & SB 377
Fathers and Families’ SB 375 & SB 377 will end outrageous injustices such as those experienced by Soto and tens of thousands of men who have been unable to get out of fraudulent paternity judgments. These bills will be heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee early next year. To learn more, click here. Also, see our column Bill would give ‘duped dads’ some fairness under the law (Los Angeles Daily News, 6/2/11).
If you are a victim of paternity fraud, whether in California or in another state, we want to know your story–please click here.
Pedro Soto Thanks Lowe, Fathers and Families
Pedro Soto writes:
Mr. Lowe and Ms. McKendricks did an excellent job with my case, and I am forever grateful with them. Mr. Lowe took my case when other attorneys refused, citing the statute of limitations. I had given up hope, but Mr. Lowe gave me the desire to continue the fight and move forward.
Fathers and Families is a great organization that fights for what is right and just. Thank you all for keeping cases such as Navarro available for all of us, and I hope that my case also helps right the many similar injustices still out there.
Soto Case Documents
Below are the documents in the Soto case: