Recently, Bresky Law helped a mother obtain an appellate reversal of the final judgment in a paternity case. At the Final Hearing, the Father was afforded his right to present his case-in-chief. The trial judge stated repeatedly at the hearing that the Mother would have the same opportunity. However, due to the time limitations that the trial court imposed, the Mother did not have the opportunity to present her case-in-chief and was limited to presenting closing argument.
The final judgment established the Father’s paternity, awarded the Father the majority of timesharing of the child, ordered the Mother to make child support payments to the Father, and denied the Mother’s request for attorney’s fees. In the court’s findings, the trial court referred to the lack of evidence presented.
The Mother retained our firm to appeal the final judgment. We argued that the trial court abridged the Mother’s constitutional due process rights by precluding her from presenting her case-in-chief, which denied her an opportunity to be heard, and by severely restricting the Mother’s right to cross-examine the Father’s witnesses. We asked the Fourth District Court of Appeal to reverse the final judgment and remand for the trial court to hold a new final hearing so that the Mother may present her case for the first time.
The Fourth DCA agreed with our argument that the trial court denied the Mother’s due process rights by precluding her from presenting her case-in-chief. The appellate court noted that the Court’s prior decision of Julia v. Julia, 146 So. 3d 516 (Fla. 4th DCA 2014), was instructive. In Julia, the Fourth DCA held that “[d]ue process requires that a party be given the opportunity to be heard and to testify and call witnesses on the party’s behalf . . . and the denial of this right is fundamental error.” Id.at 520.
The Fourth DCA concluded that fundamental error was committed because of the due process violation. Although a harmless error analysis was inapplicable, the appellate court also determined that the error was not harmless. The Fourth DCA reasoned that the trial court relied on the lack of testimony offered by the Mother in several of the court’s findings and that it was not known whether she could have presented testimony addressing those matters since the trial court precluded her from presenting her case.
Therefore, the Fourth DCA reversed the final judgment and remanded for completion of the final hearing for the Mother to present her case-in-chief followed by a meaningful opportunity for both parties to present closing arguments. We are pleased that justice was achieved for our client who will now have her day in court to present her evidence, including evidence of the best interests of the parties’ child.
* The Fourth DCA’s decision is not final until disposition of timely filed motion for rehearing.