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Friday, June 14, 2024 | Back issues
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Facebook Paternity Notice Rejected in Okla.

(CN) - Notification via Facebook message does not satisfy a man's constitutional right to be informed that he fathered a child, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled.

The biological parents in question broke off contact after a sexual relationship that lasted from August 2011 to September or October of that year.

Billy McCall testified he saw the mother, who is identified in the court record only by her initials T.Z., once more in December 2011 when she visited him at his workplace.

It didn't come up that T.Z. was pregnant.

An adoptive couple named Marshall and Toni Andrews took custody of child, who is identified in the court record as KPMA, as soon as she was released from the hospital.

McCall testified that he learned seven days after the child's June 21, 2012, birth. When McCall tried to contact T.Z. on Facebook at some point in July 2012, he allegedly saw for the first time that T.Z. had sent him a Facebook message during her pregnancy, informing him that planned to give the child up for adoption.

The Andrews petitioned on June 27, 2012, to terminate the parental rights of KPMA's natural parents, and they petitioned to adopt the baby on Aug. 14.

T.Z. voluntarily relinquished her rights on that same day, and she attended 2013 court proceedings in Rogers County on the motion to terminate McCall's paternity rights,

The trial court sustained T.Z.'s motion for a directed verdict to terminate McCall's parental rights.

Though an appellate panel endorsed the trial court's findings in April 2014, the Oklahoma Supreme Court vacated the appellate opinion Tuesday, 6-3, and reversed the trial court's ruling.

"This court does not believe that attempts to provide notice via Facebook comport with the requirements of due process," Justice Douglas Combs wrote for the majority. "While the adequacy of Facebook as a means of providing notice in a due process context is an issue of first impression in Oklahoma, to date only one federal court - of at least three that have considered the issue - has allowed service of process via Facebook and even then only as a supplementary means of providing notice."

The trial court erred by placing the burden on the father to discover whether he fathered a child, the opinion states.

Oklahoma precedent reveals that a biological father has a constitutional right to notice of the existence of a child born out of wedlock so that he has the opportunity to assert his right to build a relationship with his son or daughter, the court found.

Here the mother had an obligation to contact the father directly but instead "left him a message on Facebook, which is an unreliable method of communication if the accountholder does not check it regularly or have it configured in such a way as to provide notification of unread messages by some other means," according to the ruling.

"This court is unwilling to declare notice via Facebook alone sufficient to meet the requirements of the due process clauses of the United States and Oklahoma Constitutions because it is not reasonably certain to inform those affected," Combs wrote.

Two justices joined a dissent by Justice James Winchester that says Facebook messages can qualify as notice.

"Admitting the message was there, the father either saw it and ignored it, or did not see it and wishes the trial court to conclude that the pregnancy was kept from the father," Winchester wrote. "The majority opinion concludes that the 'Mother allegedly informing Father of her pregnancy via a Facebook message was insufficient to satisfy the notice requirement of due process.' There is no 'allegation' of a Facebook message as the majority opinion states. The Father admits there was a message. Either he had actual notice or he had constructive notice."

The dissent criticizes the majority for not informing the mother precisely what notice would satisfy the court.

"Why would Facebook be any less reliable than other forms of electronic communication?" Winchester asked. "Does the court require a face-to-face confrontation with witnesses? Face-to-face discussions can be denied; letters can remain unopened; and faxes can be lost."

Stating that Facebook is as dependable a method of communication as email, Winchester found "no support that Facebook is less dependable as an actual notice than a fax, a letter or some form of email other than Facebook."

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