Warren DSS v. Gerrelts, No.COA20-868 (June 2021).
This is an oddity of a case. Civil procedure has an interesting quirk called choice of law. It is an intensely fact-driven area of law that is still being actively researched and written about. Just the mere mention of the Erie Doctrine is probably enough to evoke trauma induced flashbacks to law school for many practicing attorneys. Put simply, since the state courts are courts of general jurisdiction, a state court sometimes has to apply another state’s law. Below is an interesting case about artificial insemination, paternity, and child support arising from a case where there are multiple states involved.
- Facts: Plaintiff and her partner asked Defendant to serve as a sperm donor. Defendant agreed and the parties and proceeded with the conception. At the time, all parties lived in Virginia. The parties then went before a Virginia court to “sign over his parental rights.” The parties then went their separate ways: Plaintiff to California and Defendant to North Carolina. The DSS in Warren County (North Carolina) then filed an action for Defendant to pay child support. Defendant argued that Virginia’s laws about artificial insemination should apply, disqualifying Defendant as a parent with support obligations. DSS argued that North Carolina law should apply, which has no such provision for paternity. The court ruled that Defendant must pay child support, and he appealed.
- Issue: Did the trial court err in applying North Carolina law?
- Rationale: The trial court relied on the Full Faith and Credit clause of the US Constitution. It means that the judgment of a state court should be given the full credit, validity, and force in every other court of the United States that it had in the state where it was pronounced. Foreign judgments are honored with the same force in North Carolina courts as they would in those foreign states. However, there was no foreign judgment. The child has not been part of a case where paternity was decided. In claims that are tort-like and involve breach of contract, the NC courts apply a doctrine called lex loci—the situs of the claim decides the applicable law. Since the artificial insemination and paternity was negotiated in Virginia and the procedure itself in Virginia, the laws of Virginia should apply. Additionally, the Court held that to hold otherwise would promote forum shopping.