Cooley & Handy Obtains Extraordinary Reversal in Supreme Court of Pennsylvania of Superior Court Decision Quashing Appeal of Paternity by Estoppel Case as Moot

After a lengthy and, at times, frustrating legal battle, Cooley & Handy secured their clients’ right to appeal an adverse paternity by estoppel decision in the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. On November 9, 2011, the Supreme Court reversed the Superior Court’s decision that quashed the appeal in the paternity by estoppel custody case as “moot.” The Superior Court had quashed the appeal as moot because DNA blood testing had already occurred, which confirmed a third-party’s status as the child’s biological father. In reversing the Superior Court, the Supreme Court reaffirmed its prior holding that orders for genetic testing involving issues of paternity by estoppel are subject to immediate appellate review. The Supreme Court’s decision represents a significant victory for Cooley & Handy’s clients.

This case arose out of a strongly contested Bucks County child custody case, with the primary issue being the theory and application of paternity by estoppel. The litigation began when an alleged biological father (the “Petitioner”) filed a Petition for Custody of a child. The child was born during the mother’s marriage to another man (the “Father”), having been conceived as the result of an illicit affair between mother and Petitioner, unbeknownst to Father. The child was raised, along with his two older brothers, as a child of the marriage, in a loving and happy environment. After mother and Father’s divorce, the child was subject to an equally shared custodial arrangement between them. The Petitioner, who had been a close family friend of mother and Father’s during their marriage, was aware at all times of both his likely parentage of the child and of Father’s status in the child’s life, and he knowingly permitted Father to raise the child as his son, both emotionally and financially. For at least four and a half years, Petitioner stood by, though he knew that the child might be his biological son, and never attempted to assert any parental rights.

Cooley & Handy defended mother and Father in the custody proceedings instituted by Petitioner. During the lengthy trial, mother and Father vehemently emphasized to the Bucks County trial court that paternity by estoppel should preclude Petitioner from asserting any custodial rights over the child. They argued that Petitioner knowingly permitted Father and son to establish a strong parent-child bond and that he acquiesced in Father taking on the role of father in the child’s life. Under the mandatory paternity by estopple analysis, the law should not allow Petitioner, a third party, to interfere in the firmly established parent-child bond that had already been established between Father and son.

Notwithstanding their sound argument, the trial court repeatedly diminished application of the paternity by estoppel analysis in the case and stated that Father’s role in the child’s life was, essentially, irrelevant. It held that Petitioner was not equitably estopped from seeking custody of the child and that he was entitled to DNA blood testing and ordered such testing. Mother and Father appealed the trial court’s decision to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania based on the trial court’s misapplication of the paternity by estoppel analysis. In the meantime both the trial court and the Superior Court refused to stay the order for DNA blood testing pending appeal and subsequent testing confirmed that Petitioner was in fact the child’s biological father (although that information was not revealed to the child).

In a cursory opinion, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania dismissed the appeal as moot because mother, child and Petitioner had already undergone the court-ordered DNA blood testing which revealed that Petitioner was, in fact, the child’s biological father. By quashing the appeal as moot, the Superior Court, however, overlooked the fact that Petitioner’s biological status in relation to the child was not the pertinent inquiry in a paternity by estopple analysis. Mother and father then filed a Petition for Allowance of Appeal before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

While the appeal of the Superior Court’s decision was pending in the Supreme Court, Petitioner filed for an emergency hearing for custodial time in the trial court. In complete contravention of the Pennsylvania Rules of Appellate Procedure, and over mother and Father’s strenuous objections, the trial court proceeded with the hearing on the custody matter, notwithstanding the pending appeal on the estoppel and DNA testing issues. At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court entered a custody order granting Petitioner custodial time with the child. Mother and Father’s request to stay such order from the trial court was denied.

Anticipating that the trial court would ignore the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure and enter a custody order while the paternity by estoppel appeal was pending in the Supreme Court, attorneys at Cooley & Handy worked to obtain a stay of the trial court’s proceedings in the Supreme Court while the custody case was being tried in the trial court. Cooley & Handy’s attorneys successfully convinced the Supreme Court on an emergency basis to stop the trial court’s implementation of the custodial order. They reiterated that the trial court’s proceedings and custody order were in direct violation of the Pennsylvania Rules of Appellate Procedure and contrary to the Court’s prior holdings, which dictate that a trial court’s paternity by estoppel analysis is immediately subject to strict review by an appellate court. Mother and Father argued that, because blood testing is entitled to interlocutory review, the Supreme Court implicitly directs that such orders be stayed pending such review. Cooley & Handy explained that an immediate stay of the lower court’s order and proceedings was warranted since grave and irreparable harm to the child and his Father would result from enforcing the custody schedule and openly questioning Father’s parental status. In a crucial victory, the Supreme Court agreed and stayed the trial court’s improper custody order until it decided mother and Father’s appeal on its merits.

In reviewing the merits of mother and Father’s appeal, the Supreme Court agreed that the Superior Court erred when it determined that the paternity by estoppel issue was moot simply because the DNA blood testing had already occurred. As Cooley & Handy had argued all along, the Supreme Court reiterated that genetic testing does not resolve estoppel issues – rather the focus of paternity be estoppel principles is wanting to ensure a child’s security in knowing that the man with whom he has formed a father/son bond is, in fact (legally and otherwise), his father. The Court further reiterated that genetic testing is immediately appealable in estoppel cases and remanded the matter to the Superior Court to consider the merits of mother and Father’s equitable estoppel or paternity by estoppel argument.