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PICKETT ET AL. v. BROWN ET AL.

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES


decided: June 6, 1983.

PICKETT ET AL
v.
BROWN ET AL.

APPEAL FROM THE SUPREME COURT OF TENNESSEE.

Brennan, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Author: Brennan

[ 462 U.S. Page 3]

 JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case requires us to decide the constitutionality of a provision of a Tennessee statute*fn1 that imposes a 2-year limitations period on paternity and child support actions brought on behalf of certain illegitimate children.

I

Under Tennessee law both fathers and mothers are responsible for the support of their minor children. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 34-101 (1977); Rose Funeral Home, Inc. v. Julian, 176 Tenn. 534, 539, 144 S. W. 2d 755, 757 (1940); Brooks v. Brooks, 166 Tenn. 255, 257, 61 S. W. 2d 654 (1933). This duty of support is enforceable throughout the child's minority. See Blackburn v. Blackburn, 526 S. W. 2d 463, 466 (Tenn. 1975); Whitt v. Whitt, 490 S. W. 2d 159, 160 (Tenn. 1973). See also Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 36-820, 36-828 (1977). Tennessee law also makes the father of a child born out of wedlock responsible for "the necessary support and education of the child." § 36-223. See also Brown v. Thomas, 221 Tenn. 319, 323, 426 S. W. 2d 496, 498 (1968). Enforcement of this obligation depends on the establishment of paternity. Tennessee Code Ann. § 36-224(1) (1977)*fn2 provides for the filing

[ 462 U.S. Page 4]

     of a petition which can lead both to the establishment of paternity and to enforcement of the father's duty of support. With a few exceptions, however, the petition must be filed within two years of the child's birth. See § 36-224(2); n. 1, supra.

In May 1978, Frances Annette Pickett filed an action pursuant to § 36-224(1) seeking to establish that Braxton Brown was the father of her son, Jeffrey Lee Pickett, who was born on November 1, 1968. App. 3. Frances Pickett also sought an order from the court requiring Brown to contribute to the support and maintenance of the child. Ibid. Brown denied that he was the father of the child. Id., at 13. It is uncontested that he had never acknowledged the child as his own or contributed to the child's support. Id., at 5-6, 13-14; Brief for Appellants 5. Brown moved to dismiss the suit on the ground that it was barred by the 2-year limitations period established by § 36-224(2). Frances Pickett responded with a motion challenging the constitutionality of the limitations period. App. 5-7, 13.*fn3

The Juvenile Court held that the 2-year limitations period violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth

[ 462 U.S. Page 5]

     Amendment of the Federal Constitution and certain provisions of the Tennessee Constitution. Id., at 14. The court based its conclusion on the fact that the limitations period governing paternity actions imposed a restriction on the support rights of some illegitimate children that was not imposed on the identical rights of legitimate children. Ibid. Without articulating any clear standard of review, the court rejected the State's argument that the 2-year limitations period was justified by the State's interest in preventing the litigation of "stale or spurious" claims. Id., at 15. In the court's view, this argument was undermined by the exception to the limitations period established for illegitimate children who are, or are likely to become, public charges, for "the possibilities of fraud, perjury, or litigation of stale claims [are] no more inherent in a case brought [for] a child who is not receiving public assistance than [in] a case brought for a child who is a public charge." Ibid.*fn4

On appeal,*fn5 the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Juvenile Court and upheld the constitutionality of the 2-year limitations period. 638 S. W. 2d 369 (1982). In addressing Frances Pickett's equal protection and due process challenges to the statute, the court first reviewed our decision in Mills v. Habluetzel, 456 U.S. 91 (1982), and several decisions from other state courts. Based on this review, the court stated that the inquiry with respect to both claims was "essentially the same: whether the state's policy as

[ 462 U.S. Page 6]

     reflected in the statute affords a fair and reasonable opportunity for the mother to decide in a rational way whether or not the child's best interest would be served by her bringing a paternity suit." 638 S. W. 2d, at 376. The court concluded that "[the] Legislature could rationally determine that two years is long enough for most women to have recovered physically and emotionally, and to be able to assess their and their children's situations logically and realistically." Id., at 379.

The court also found that the 2-year statute of limitations was substantially related to the State's valid interest in preventing the litigation of stale or fraudulent claims. Id., at 380. The court justified the longer limitations period for illegitimates who are, or are likely to become, public charges, on the grounds that "[the] state's countervailing interest in doing justice and reducing the number of people on welfare is served by allowing the state a longer time during which to sue." Ibid. The court also suggested that "the Tennessee statute is 'carefully tuned' to avoid hardship in predictable groups of cases, since it contains an exception for actions against men who have acknowledged their children in writing or by supporting them, and it has been held that . . . regular or substantial payments are not required in order to constitute 'support.'" Id., at 379 (footnote omitted). Finally, the court found that the uniqueness of the limitations period in not being tolled during the plaintiff's minority did not "alone [require] a holding of unconstitutionality of a two-year period, as opposed to any other period which can end during the plaintiff's minority." Id., at 380.*fn6

[ 462 U.S. Page 7]

     We noted probable jurisdiction. 459 U.S. 1068 (1982). We reverse.

II

We have considered on several occasions during the past 15 years the constitutional validity of statutory classifications based on illegitimacy. See, e. g., Mills v. Habluetzel, supra; United States v. Clark, 445 U.S. 23 (1980); Lalli v. Lalli, 439 U.S. 259 (1978); Trimble v. Gordon, 430 U.S. 762 (1977); Mathews v. Lucas, 427 U.S. 495 (1976); Jimenez v. Weinberger, 417 U.S. 628 (1974); New Jersey Welfare Rights Org. v. Cahill, 411 U.S. 619 (1973); Gomez v. Perez, 409 U.S. 535 (1973); Weber v. Aetna Casualty & Surety Co., 406 U.S. 164 (1972); Glona v. American Guarantee & Liability Insurance Co., 391 U.S. 73 (1968); Levy v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 68 (1968). In several of these cases, we have held the classifications invalid. See, e. g., Mills v. Habluetzel, supra; Trimble v. Gordon, supra; Jimenez v. Weinberger, supra; New Jersey Welfare Rights Org. v. Cahill, supra; Gomez v. Perez, supra; Weber v. Aetna Casualty & Surety Co., supra; Glona v. American Guarantee & Liability Insurance Co., supra; Levy v. Louisiana, supra. Our consideration of these cases has been animated by a special concern for discrimination against illegitimate children. As the Court stated in Weber :

"The status of illegitimacy has expressed through the ages society's condemnation of irresponsible liaisons beyond the bonds of marriage. But visiting this condemnation on the head of an infant is illogical and unjust. Moreover, imposing disabilities on the illegitimate child is contrary to the basic concept of our system that legal burdens should bear some relationship to individual responsibility or wrongdoing. Obviously, no child is responsible for his birth and penalizing the illegitimate child is an ineffectual -- as well as an unjust -- way of deterring the parent. Courts are powerless to prevent the

[ 462 U.S. Page 8]

     social opprobrium suffered by these hapless children, but the Equal Protection Clause does enable us to strike down discriminatory laws relating to status of birth where -- as in this case -- the classification is justified by no legitimate state interest, compelling or otherwise." 406 U.S., at 175-176 (footnotes omitted).

In view of the history of treating illegitimate children less favorably than legitimate ones, we have subjected statutory classifications based on illegitimacy to a heightened level of scrutiny. Although we have held that classifications based on illegitimacy are not "suspect," or subject to "our most exacting scrutiny," Trimble v. Gordon, supra, at 767; Mathews v. Lucas, 427 U.S., at 506, the scrutiny applied to them "is not a toothless one . . . ." Id., at 510. In United States v. Clark, supra, we stated that "a classification based on illegitimacy is unconstitutional unless it bears 'an evident and substantial relation to the particular . . . interests [the] statute is designed to serve.'" 445 U.S., at 27. See also Lalli v. Lalli, supra, at 265 (plurality opinion) ("classifications based on illegitimacy . . . are invalid under the Fourteenth Amendment if they are not substantially related to permissible state interests"). We applied a similar standard of review to a classification based on illegitimacy last Term in Mills v. Habluetzel, 456 U.S. 91 (1982). We stated that restrictions on support suits by illegitimate children "will survive equal protection scrutiny to the extent they are substantially related to a legitimate state interest." Id., at 99.

Our decisions in Gomez and Mills are particularly relevant to a determination of the validity of the limitations period at issue in this case. In Gomez we considered "whether the laws of Texas may constitutionally grant legitimate children a judicially enforceable right to support from their natural fathers and at the same time deny that right to illegitimate children." 409 U.S., at 535. We stated that "a State may not invidiously discriminate against illegitimate children by denying them substantial benefits accorded children generally,"

[ 462 U.S. Page 9]

     period was not "substantially related to the State's interest in avoiding the prosecution of stale or fraudulent claims." Id., at 101. The problems of proof surrounding paternity suits do not "justify a period of limitation which so restricts [support rights] as effectively to extinguish them." Ibid. The Court could "conceive of no evidence essential to paternity suits that invariably will be lost in only one year, nor is it evident that the passage of 12 months will appreciably increase the likelihood of fraudulent claims." Ibid. (footnote omitted).*fn8

In a concurring opinion, JUSTICE O'CONNOR, joined by four other Members of the Court,*fn9 suggested that longer limitations periods also might be unconstitutional. Id., at 106.*fn10 JUSTICE O'CONNOR pointed out that the strength of the State's interest in preventing the prosecution of stale or fraudulent claims was "undercut by the countervailing state interest in ensuring that genuine claims for child support are satisfied." Id., at 103. This interest "stems not only from a desire to see that 'justice is done,' but also from a desire to reduce the number of individuals forced to enter the welfare rolls." Ibid. (footnote omitted). JUSTICE O'CONNOR also

[ 462 U.S. Page 11]

     suggested that the State's concern about stale or fraudulent claims "is substantially alleviated by recent scientific developments in blood testing dramatically reducing the possibility that a defendant will be falsely accused of being the illegitimate child's father." Id., at 104, n. 2. Moreover, JUSTICE O'CONNOR found it significant that a paternity suit was "one of the few Texas causes of action not tolled during the minority of the plaintiff." Id., at 104 (footnote omitted). She stated:

"Of all the difficult proof problems that may arise in civil actions generally, paternity, an issue unique to illegitimate children, is singled out for special treatment. When this observation is coupled with the Texas Legislature's efforts to deny illegitimate children any significant opportunity to prove paternity and thus obtain child support, it is fair to question whether the burden placed on illegitimates is designed to advance permissible state interests." Id., at 104-105.

Finally, JUSTICE O'CONNOR suggested that "practical obstacles to filing suit within one year of birth could as easily exist several years after the birth of the illegitimate child." Id., at 105. In view of all these factors, JUSTICE O'CONNOR concluded that there was "nothing special about the first year following birth" that compelled the decision in the case. Id., at 106.

Against this background, we turn to an assessment of the constitutionality of the 2-year statute of limitations at issue here.

III

Much of what was said in the opinions in Mills is relevant here, and the principles discussed in Mills require us to invalidate this limitations period on equal protection grounds.*fn11

[ 462 U.S. Page 12]

     Although Tennessee grants illegitimate children a right to paternal support, Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-223 (1977), and provides a mechanism for enforcing that right, § 36-224(1), the imposition of a 2-year period within which a paternity suit must be brought, § 36-224(2), restricts the right of certain illegitimate children to paternal support in a way that the identical right of legitimate children is not restricted. In this respect, some illegitimate children in Tennessee are treated differently from, and less favorably than, legitimate children.

Under Mills, the first question is whether the 2-year limitations period is sufficiently long to provide a reasonable opportunity to those with an interest in illegitimate children to bring suit on their behalf. 456 U.S., at 99. In this regard, it is noteworthy that § 36-224(2) addresses some of the practical obstacles to bringing suit within a short time after the child's birth that were described in the opinions in Mills. See 456 U.S., at 100; id., at 105-106 (O'CONNOR, J., concurring). The statute creates exceptions to the limitations period if the father has provided support for the child or has acknowledged his paternity in writing. The statute also allows suit to be brought by the State or by any person at any time prior to a child's 18th birthday if the child is, or is liable to become, a public charge. See n. 1, supra. This addresses JUSTICE O'CONNOR's point in Mills that a State has a strong interest in preventing increases in its welfare rolls. 456 U.S., at 103-104 (concurring opinion). For the illegitimate child whose claim is not covered by one of the exceptions in the statute, however, the 2-year limitations period severely restricts his right to paternal support. The obstacles to filing a paternity and child support suit within a year after the child's birth, which the Court discussed in Mills, see id., at 100; n. 7; supra, are likely to persist during the child's second year as well. The mother may experience financial difficulties caused not only by the child's birth, but also by a loss of income attributable to the need to care for the child. Moreover, "continuing affection for the child's father, a desire to

[ 462 U.S. Page 13]

     avoid disapproval of family and community, or the emotional strain and confusion that often attend the birth of an illegitimate child," 456 U.S., at 100, may inhibit a mother from filing a paternity suit on behalf of the child within two years after the child's birth. JUSTICE O'CONNOR suggested in Mills that the emotional strain experienced by a mother and her desire to avoid family or community disapproval "may continue years after the child is born." Id., at 105, n. 4 (concurring opinion).*fn12 These considerations compel a conclusion that the 2-year limitations period does not provide illegitimate children with "an adequate opportunity to obtain support." Id., at 100.

The second inquiry under Mills is whether the time limitation placed on an illegitimate child's right to obtain support is substantially related to the State's interest in avoiding the litigation of stale or fraudulent claims. Id., at 99-100. In this case, it is clear that the 2-year limitations period governing paternity and support suits brought on behalf of certain illegitimate children does not satisfy this test.

First, a 2-year limitations period is only a small improvement in degree over the 1-year period at issue in Mills. It, too, amounts to a restriction effectively extinguishing the support rights of illegitimate children that cannot be justified by the problems of proof surrounding paternity actions. As was the case in Mills, "[we] can conceive of no evidence essential to paternity suits that invariably will be lost in only

[ 462 U.S. Page 14]

     [two years], nor is it evident that the passage of [24] months will appreciably increase the likelihood of fraudulent claims." Id., at 101 (footnote omitted).

Second, the provisions of § 36-224(2) undermine the State's argument that the limitations period is substantially related to its interest in avoiding the litigation of stale or fraudulent claims. As noted, see supra, at 6, § 36-224(2) establishes an exception to the statute of limitations for illegitimate children who are, or are likely to become, public charges. Paternity and support suits may be brought on behalf of these children by the State or by any person at any time prior to the child's 18th birthday. The State argues that this distinction between illegitimate children receiving public assistance and those who are not is justified by the State's interest in protecting public revenue. See Brief for Appellee Leech 26-30. Putting aside the question of whether this interest can justify such radically different treatment of two groups of illegitimate children,*fn13 the State's argument does not address the different treatment accorded illegitimate children who are not receiving public assistance and legitimate children. This difference in treatment is allegedly justified by the

[ 462 U.S. Page 15]

     State's interest in preventing the litigation of stale or fraudulent claims. But as the exception for children receiving public assistance demonstrates, the State perceives no prohibitive problem in litigating paternity claims throughout a child's minority. There is no apparent reason why claims filed on behalf of illegitimate children who are receiving public assistance when they are more than two years old would not be just as stale, or as vulnerable to fraud, as claims filed on behalf of illegitimate children who are not public charges at the same age. The exception in the statute, therefore, seriously undermines the State's argument that the different treatment accorded legitimate and illegitimate children is substantially related to the legitimate state interest in preventing the prosecution of stale or fraudulent claims and compels a conclusion that the 2-year limitations period is not substantially related to a legitimate state interest.

Third, Tennessee tolls most actions during a child's minority. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-1-106 (1980).*fn14 In Parlato v. Howe, 470 F.Supp. 996 (ED Tenn. 1979), the court stated that "[the] legal disability statute represents a long-standing policy of the State of Tennessee to protect potential causes of actions by minors during the period of their minority." Id., at 998-999. In view of this policy, the court held that a statute imposing a limitations period on medical malpractice actions "was not intended to interfere with the operation of the legal disability statute." Id., at 998. Accord, Braden v. Yoder, 592 S. W. 2d 896 (Tenn. App. 1979). But see Jones v. Black, 539 S. W. 2d 123 (Tenn. 1976) (1-year limitations

[ 462 U.S. Page 16]

     period governing wrongful-death actions applies "regardless of the minority or other disability of any beneficiary of the action"). Many civil actions are fraught with problems of proof, but Tennessee has chosen to overlook these problems in most instances in favor of protecting the interests of minors. In paternity and child support actions brought on behalf of certain illegitimate children, however, the State instead has chosen to focus on the problems of proof and to impose on these suits a short limitations period. Although the Tennessee Supreme Court stated that the inapplicability of the tolling provision to paternity actions did not "alone" require invalidation of the limitations period, 638 S. W. 2d, at 380, it is clear that this factor, when considered in combination with others already discussed, may lead one "to question whether the burden placed on illegitimates is designed to advance permissible state interests." Mills v. Habluetzel, 456 U.S., at 105 (O'CONNOR, J., concurring). See also id., at 106 (POWELL, J., concurring in judgment).*fn15

[ 462 U.S. Page 17]

     Finally, the relationship between a statute of limitations and the State's interest in preventing the litigation of stale or fraudulent paternity claims has become more attenuated as scientific advances in blood testing have alleviated the problems of proof surrounding paternity actions. As JUSTICE O'CONNOR pointed out in Mills, these advances have "dramatically [reduced] the possibility that a defendant will be falsely accused of being the illegitimate child's father." Id., at 104, n. 2 (concurring opinion). See supra, at 10-11. See also Little v. Streater, 452 U.S. 1, 6-8, 12, 14 (1981). Although Tennessee permits the introduction of blood test results only in cases "where definite exclusion [of paternity] is established," Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-228 (1977); see also § 24-7-112 (1980), it is noteworthy that blood tests currently can achieve a "mean probability of exclusion [of] at least . . . 90 percent . . . ." Miale, Jennings, Rettberg, Sell, & Krause, Joint AMA-ABA Guidelines: Present Status of Serologic Testing in Problems of Disputed Parentage, 10 Family L. Q. 247, 256 (1976).*fn16 In Mills, the Court rejected the argument that recent advances in blood testing negated the State's interest in avoiding the prosecution of stale or fraudulent claims. 456 U.S., at 98, n. 4. It is not inconsistent with this view, however, to suggest that advances in blood testing render more attenuated the relationship between a statute of limitations and the State's interest in preventing the prosecution of stale or fraudulent paternity claims. This is an appropriate consideration in determining whether a

[ 462 U.S. Page 18]

     period of limitations governing paternity actions brought on behalf of illegitimate children is substantially related to a legitimate state interest.

IV

The 2-year limitations period established by Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-224(2) (1977) does not provide certain illegitimate children with an adequate opportunity to obtain support and is not substantially related to the legitimate state interest in preventing the litigation of stale or fraudulent claims. It therefore denies certain illegitimate children the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. Accordingly, the judgment of the Tennessee Supreme Court is reversed, and the case is remanded for proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.

Disposition

638 S. W. 2d 369, reversed and remanded.

Counsel FOOTNOTES

* James D. Weill, Marian Wright Edelman, and Judith L. Lichtman filed a brief for the Children's Defense Fund et al. as amici curiae urging reversal.


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