Ohio Appeals Court Rules Gay Sperm Donor Who Sought Paternity Declaration Must Pay Child Support to Lesbian Mom

The Ohio Court of Appeals has ruled that a gay man who donated sperm to a lesbian couple so they could conceive a child and subsequently sought a declaration of paternity was obligated to pay for support of the child.  Curtis v. Prince, 2010-Ohio-5999, 2010 Westlaw 5071195 (9th Dist., Dec. 8, 2010).   The court invoked the doctrine of res judicata (collateral estoppel), holding that the appellant's failure to appeal the original paternity determination barred his attempt six years later to resist a child support order.

According to Judge Carla Moore's opinion for the court, domestic partners Laura Prince and Vicki Griffin asked their friend Robert Curtis, a gay man, to donate sperm so they could conceive a child.  Curtis initially resisted, but ultimately agreed and a child conceived with his sperm, M.P., was born to Prince in July 2002.  Curtis, Prince and Griffin had signed a written agreement providing that Curtis's name would not appear on the birth certificate and he would not be designated as the father, but that he could babysit the child from time to time. 

However, shortly after M.P. was born, Curtis instituted an administrative proceeding before the Summit County Child Support Enforcement Agency to determine his paternity, and the agency made an administrative paternity determination that Curtis was the father of M.P. on November 27, 2002.  Several months later, the agency ordered Curtis to provide child support of $282.56 per month, but Curtis appealed this determination to the trial court, which found that Prince had waived child support.  The trial court record shows that Curtis had also sought an order for parenting time with M.P., but the court noted that he would have to file a separate motion for determination of that issue, and he never did so.

Curtis subsequently moved from Ohio to Florida, where he currently resides.  Evidently Prince changed her mind about needing child support for M.P., as the agency file an administrative action seeking child support on her behalf in December 2008, and a magistrate heard the case on April 2, 2009.  Curtis and Prince both appeared pro se.  Curtis argued that as a sperm donor for alternative insemination, he should not be held liable for child support.  The magistrate rejected this argument, ordering that he pay $533.22 a month.  Curtis retained counsel and filed an objection, which the trial court sustained, finding that since Curtis was a sperm donor, there was "no legal basis for imposing upon him a child support order."  The agency appealed.

The court of appeals agreed with the agency's argument that the trial court abused its discretion by finding that the parties had participated in "artificial insemination" in light of the prior, unappealed determination of Curtis's paternity.  Judge Moore pointed out that an administrative determination that is not appealed stands as a final judgment on the merits.  Curtis did not appeal the paternity determination (no surprise, since he had initiated the paternity proceeding), but he had appealed the initial order that he pay child support.  When Prince waived any claim to child support at that time, the case was closed, the appeal not judicially decided.  "Any challenge regarding artificial insemination should have been raised at that time," wrote Judge Moore.  "Therefore, collateral estoppel barred him from raising artificial insemination as a defense to the child support action brought several years later."

"In light of the personal relationships in place at the time of the child's conception, the trial court's attempt to create an equitable result is understandable," Judge Moore continued.  "However, Curtis's failure to challenge the paternity determination at the appropriate time precludes him from doing so at this time."  Thus, the trial court's decision was reversed, with the court of appeals ordering that a special mandate issue directing the Court of Common Pleas to "carry this judgment into execution," requiring Curtis to begin paying child support.  Under principles of full faith and credit, the court's order will be enforceable in Florida courts if Curtis resists payment.

The court also mentioned a second assignment of error brought by Prince, on which it declined to rule.  Prince argued that because the parties had not complied with statutory requirements to establish artificial insemination, Curtis was not entitled to the protection against financial liability that would ordinarily be provided to a sperm donor.  But the court found this issue moot in light of its collateral estoppel ruling.

Summit County prosecuting attorneys Sherri Bevan Walsh and Lisa M. Vitale represented the Agency and Prince, while private attorney Sarah Gabinet represented Curtis on the appeal.

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