GARCIA v. COUNTY OF SANTA CLARA

Reset A A Font size: Print

Court of Appeal, Sixth District, California.

Johnny GARCIA, et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. COUNTY OF SANTA CLARA, Defendant and Respondent.

No. H006447.

Decided: November 29, 1990

Brenton Rogozen, Douglas A. Bird, Legal Aid Soc. of Santa Clara County, for plaintiffs and appellants. Steven M. Woodside, Brian L. Carr, County Counsel, for defendant and respondent.

After default judgments for reimbursement of welfare benefits were entered against them, Johnny Garcia and James Mastro filed a class action for declaratory relief, challenging Santa Clara County's practice of not specifying an amount of reimbursement in its complaints to establish paternity and child support obligations.  (Code Civ.Proc., §§ 425.10, 580, 585;  Welf. & Inst.Code, § 11350.)   They appeal from the trial court's order denying their motion for class certification, and granting the county's motion for summary judgment (Code Civ.Proc., § 437c).   We affirm the order for the reasons stated below.

Facts

The county filed a complaint against appellant Garcia, alleging he was the father of a minor child and that he was separated from the child who was receiving public assistance.   County alleged Garcia had the ability to reimburse county for its expenditures and to pay costs and attorney's fees.   In the prayer for relief, county requested a declaration that Garcia was the father of the child, and an order requiring Garcia to pay a reasonable amount of child support each month and to reimburse county for all expenditures made for the support of Garcia's minor child to the time of trial.   County filed a similar complaint against James Mastro.

On county's request, the superior court clerk entered the defaults of Garcia and Mastro.   The trial court then entered default judgments.   County's judgment against Garcia was for $2,420.65 in reimbursement;  the judgment against Mastro was for $2,200, and the court ordered him to pay ongoing support of $100 per month.   Appellants now urge, as they did to the trial court, that the judgments are void because the complaints did not set out the amount of reimbursement that was sought.  (Code Civ.Proc., §§ 425.10, 580, 585.)

Before appellants filed their class action, their attorneys negotiated with the District Attorney's office, which agreed to modify its form complaint to include an amount in the prayer for relief.   Three of four samples of the modified complaint in the record contain prayers such as $633 per month for the three years prior to the date of the filing of the complaint, and $633 per month from filing.

Discussion

Appellants' primary contention is that County's paternity complaints violated the requirements of sections 425.10, 580, and 585 of the Code of Civil Procedure.   Specifically they complain that the form complaints on their faces do not describe an ascertainable amount of damages, so that entry of the default judgments violated their due process rights.   Appellants further contend that Welfare and Institutions Code, section 11350 does not supersede the cited sections of the Code of Civil Procedure.   Finally, appellants assign as error the trial court's denial of their motion for class certification.

Background

Congress amended the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. § 301 et seq.) in 1974 because the welfare rolls reflected that a significant number of children participating in the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program were not being supported by their absent parents.  (Cunningham v. Superior Court (1986) 177 Cal.App.3d 336, 339, 222 Cal.Rptr. 854.)   Studies showed the main factor explaining the increase in the welfare rolls was illegitimacy.   (Ibid.)  Federal and state legislation was enacted to require absent parents of children receiving aid to reimburse all or a part of the public funds spent on supporting their children.  (Ibid.;  42 U.S.C. § 654;  45 C.F.R. § 302.31;  Welf. & Inst.Code, §§ 11350, 11350.1, 11475 et seq.)  California law requires a custodial parent to assign his or her right to child support to the county as a condition of receiving AFDC benefits.  (Id. at p. 340, 222 Cal.Rptr. 854;  Welf. & Inst.Code, § 11477.)

The county District Attorney is charged with the responsibility of enforcing support orders and recovering from noncustodial parents the aid paid to support their minor children.  (Welf. & Inst.Code, §§ 11350, 11475.1, 11476.)   The county must bring an action against the noncustodial parent for either the amount specified in a support order or the amount of aid paid to a family during separation, limited by the parent's reasonable ability to pay.  (Welf. & Inst.Code, § 11350, subds. (a) and (b).)   Fulfilling this obligation, county sued appellants Garcia and Mastro.

Sufficiency of County's Form Complaint

In the complaint against Garcia, County alleges the jurisdictional facts that he is separated from his minor child who lives in the county and is receiving welfare benefits.  (County of Los Angeles v. Ferguson (1979) 94 Cal.App.3d 549, 555, 156 Cal.Rptr. 565.)   County alleges that Garcia has the reasonable ability to reimburse it for public assistance paid for this child.   In the prayer county asks for a judgment of paternity, for an order of ongoing child support, and for reimbursement for all expenditures made for the child until the time of trial.   Appellants do not challenge the default judgments for ongoing support and paternity, only the order for reimbursement.

Except for an action for personal injury or wrongful death brought in superior court, a complaint which demands monetary recovery must specify the amount sought.  (Code Civ.Proc., § 425.10.)  “The relief granted to the plaintiff, if there be no answer, cannot exceed that which he shall have demanded in his complaint;  but in any other case, the Court may grant him any relief consistent with the case made by the complaint and embraced within the issue.”  (Code Civ.Proc., § 580.)   When defendant defaults, the court hears plaintiff's evidence and renders judgment for plaintiff for the relief demanded in the complaint.  (Code Civ.Proc., § 585.)

The county argues that if the language of the prayer of the complaint puts a defendant on notice of the amount prayed for, the purpose of section 580 is met.   It relies for this proposition on Greenup v. Rodman (1986) 42 Cal.3d 822, 231 Cal.Rptr. 220, 726 P.2d 1295.   In that case a majority stockholder had his answer stricken as a discovery sanction in the minority stockholder's suit for fraud.  (Id. at p. 824, 231 Cal.Rptr. 220, 726 P.2d 1295.)   In the body of the complaint plaintiff claimed damages “ ‘in a sum that exceeds the jurisdictional requirements of this [superior] court,’ ” and in the prayer plaintiff asked merely for damages subject to proof at the time of trial.   (Id. at p. 825, 231 Cal.Rptr. 220, 726 P.2d 1295.)   The trial court awarded compensatory damages of $338,000, and the Supreme Court reversed.  (Id. at pp. 826, 831, 231 Cal.Rptr. 220, 726 P.2d 1295.)   The Court held, however, that the award was valid for $15,000, then the minimum amount in controversy for superior court, because defendant, when he defaulted by obstructing discovery, was on notice that his exposure to liability would be at least $15,000.  (Id. at p. 830, 231 Cal.Rptr. 220, 726 P.2d 1295.)

The county also relies on Brown v. McAdoo (1987) 196 Cal.App.3d Supp. 20, 242 Cal.Rptr. 473, a similar case.   In suit by a tenant against his landlord, plaintiff waived all amounts in excess of the jurisdictional limits of the municipal court.  (Id. at Supp. 22, 242 Cal.Rptr. 473.)   Plaintiff obtained a default judgment.  (Ibid.)  The appellate court held that defendant was on notice his exposure could reach $25,000, the maximum amount in controversy for municipal court, so the judgment for that amount was affirmed.  (Id. at Supp. 23–24, 242 Cal.Rptr. 473.)

County's proposition is sound, but we fail to see the analogy between the minimum or maximum amounts in controversy in Greenup and Brown and the pleadings under scrutiny here County's prayer for relief seeks reimbursement for all expenditures made to support defendant's minor child to the time of trial.   No specific amount of reimbursement is designated.   The cited statutes in the Welfare and Institutions Code do not specify a jurisdictional minimum or maximum amount.   We find more relevant precedent for the premise that a court may award child support or alimony even in the complete absence of a request in the prayer.

In Cohen v. Cohen (1906) 150 Cal. 99, 100, 88 P. 267, for instance, wife obtained a decree of divorce by default.   The trial court ordered permanent alimony of $10 per month, although there was no specific request for alimony in the general prayer for relief.  (Id. at pp. 100–101, 88 P. 267.)   About four years later wife assigned to one White all money due her under the decree.  (Id. at p. 100, 88 P. 267.)   White obtained an order requiring husband to show cause why an execution should not issue against him.   (Ibid.)  Husband brought a motion to vacate and modify the decree of alimony, on the ground his ex-wife had married another man and equity demanded a modification.  (Id. at pp. 100–101, 88 P. 267.)   The trial court heard both motions together, and directed that payments should cease but ordered execution be issued for the sums already accrued.  (Id. at p. 101, 88 P. 267.)

Defendant husband appealed, arguing the decree insofar as it ordered alimony was void on its face, because the court lacked jurisdiction to grant relief that was not requested in the prayer.  (Ibid.)  Provision for support, held the court, is an incident of divorce and the court's jurisdiction to determine it does not depend on averments in the complaint.  (Ibid.)  The court held that the judgment awarding support might have been erroneous, but it had to be attacked by direct appeal or by motion for relief from default (Code Civ.Proc., § 473) in the trial court.  (Id. at p. 102, 88 P. 267.)   The judgment was not void on its face and was not subject to collateral attack.   (Ibid.)

The California Supreme Court reiterated this rule in Parker v. Parker (1928) 203 Cal. 787, 789, 266 P. 283, in which the trial court ordered spousal and child support without a specific request in the prayer.   In affirming, the court held that an award of alimony is so germane to the cause of action for divorce that the trial court under a prayer for general relief would have the jurisdiction to award it.  (Id. at p. 793, 266 P. 283.)   Also, in a case in which wife requested temporary child support but the court entered a permanent order for child support, the judgment was not void in light of section 580 of the Code of Civil Procedure.  (Karlslyst v. Frazier (1931) 213 Cal. 377, 381, 2 P.2d 362.)   In that case, the Supreme Court stated, “In view of the fact that the interests of the child are a factor of prime importance the court is not bound by the contract of the parties or the prayer for relief.”   (Ibid.)  (Accord Miller v. Superior Court (1937) 9 Cal.2d 733, 740, 72 P.2d 868;  Bowman v. Bowman (1947) 29 Cal.2d 808, 812, 178 P.2d 751.)

 Although these cases all involve parents who were married to each other at one time, we do not think this distinction significant when applied to the policy that parents should support their children.   We hold that the county's complaints as to Garcia and Mastro were sufficient.   Although the complaint did not notify them of the exact amount of aid it required, they were on notice that the court sought reimbursement.   By the simple expedient of calling the District Attorney's office, or by appearing in the action to show a lack of ability to support and to pay reimbursement, they could have found out the arrearages due.   Even if the underlying judgments in the paternity actions were erroneous for awarding relief not requested, we hold the only methods for correcting that error were by direct appeal or by application for relief from default.  (Code Civ.Proc., § 473;  Cohen v. Cohen, supra, 150 Cal. at p. 102, 88 P. 267.)   Appellant's collateral attack, in the form of an action for declaratory relief, is unavailing to challenge the final judgments determining paternity and child support obligations.

Since we find county's form complaints did not offend the provisions of the Code of Civil Procedure or due process, it follows the trial court correctly denied the motion for class certification.

The order is affirmed.   Each party must bear its own costs on appeal.

ELIA, Associate Justice.

CAPACCIOLI, Acting P.J., and PREMO, J., concur.