A St. Louis County man was strangely fortunate to have been under house arrest in 2016, as he’s now been freed from liability for several thousand dollars in unpaid child support.
The Missouri Court of Appeals Eastern District on Aug. 23 threw out a default paternity judgment against the man after finding no evidence that he was properly served with the petition. As a result, the court said, the judgment was void for lack of jurisdiction.
In 2016, state authorities had alleged that the man, referred to in the opinion as J.M., was the father of a then 6-month-old baby. J.M. did not answer the petition and did not appear for the hearing in St. Louis County family court. A judge entered a default judgment ordering J.M. to pay $277 per month in child support and $83 in public assistance benefits for the minor child.
Nearly five years later, J.M. moved to set aside the judgment, arguing that the court had never acquired personal jurisdiction over him. The St. Louis Sheriff’s Department had served the petition at a St. Louis address where he allegedly lived and had given the document to a woman named Reta Johnson, who the service papers identified as a “cousin.”
J.M., however, said he had no such cousin and had not lived at that address for eight years. Instead, he was living with his girlfriend in the city of St. John in St. Louis County.
Shortly before the petition was served, J.M. had been released from the St. Louis County Justice Center, and his location was being monitored by an electronic home detention device. J.M. submitted records from Sentinel Offender Services, the company that monitored the device, which showed that he had been at the St. John address when the sheriff visited his former residence.
The family court denied J.M.’s motion to set aside the default paternity judgment, but the appeals court disagreed. Court rules allow a defendant to be served by leaving the summons and petition with a family member at his or her usual place of abode. But Judge Gary M. Gaertner Jr., writing for the Eastern District, said the records constituted clear and convincing evidence that J.M. lived at the St. John address.
“Even if Reta Johnson had been J.M.’s cousin, because the summons and petition was not left with a family member at J.M.’s usual place of abode, service there was not proper,” he wrote.
Judges Robert M. Clayton III and John P. Torbitzky concurred.
The Missouri Department of Social Services’ Family Support Division, which initiated the petition, had urged the Eastern District to defer to the judge’s findings that service was proper. But the court said no evidence tied J.M. to the St. Louis address at the time of the attempted service.
“Without specific factual and credibility findings — and without even some evidence that contradicted Sentinel’s sworn business records — there is nothing to which we can defer in fact or by implication,” Gaertner wrote.
Craig Kallen of the Kallen Law Firm in Town and Country, an attorney for J.M., said the case indicates the problems that can arise when a defendant is not personally served with a lawsuit. Although he noted that the rules are intended to prevent defendants from forever dodging service, it also makes it possible for someone to find themselves on the hook for a judgment in a suit he knows nothing about if the person who received the summons is untruthful or unwilling to deliver them.
In most cases, he noted, it’s the word of the party against the word of the process server. In this case, however, he said the Sentinel company was able to locate and provide the five-year-old monitoring records.
“But for those records, it would have been a very difficult case to have set aside,” he said.
The case is M.F.S.D.-C.S.E v. J.M., ED110001.