February 15th, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
A Dade County, Florida judge has slammed the State Attorney’s Office and the mother it represented for pursuing a father for child support when both the state’s lawyer and the mother knew her allegations against him were false. Read about it here (Miami Herald, 2/7/13).
It’s long been a scandal that state Attorneys General and other state level child support enforcement agencies represent custodial parents free of charge in child support cases while non-custodial parents, likely already strapped for cash, have to hire their own lawyers to represent them. As I’ve said before, the U.S. Office of Child Support Enforcement budgets some $5 billion a year to help custodial parents (overwhelmingly mothers) but a mere $10 million to help non-custodial parents (overwhelmingly fathers). But the inequality in child support matters hardly ends there.
One of the many problems is that those receiving child support have summary procedures at their disposal with which to enforce the obligations, but those who pay do not. If fathers want to seek a modification of a support order, they have to file an original pleading, pay the filing fee (often hundreds of dollars) and hire an attorney to navigate the legal system. Of course a dad seeking a modification likely does so because he’s lost his job, become disabled or had some other mishap that’s reduced his earnings. So states’ refusal to establish the type of quick, simple procedures for modifications that they do for enforcement carries the distinct odor of gender bias.
But the linked-to case adds another dimension to the problem. As is so often the case, the mother has only to file an affidavit in court that the father isn’t up to date with his payments to get the State’s Attorney involved. The enormous power of that office immediately swings into action on her behalf. That turns out to be true even though the affidavit she filed is false, as Lina Maya-Schehtman’s was.
Soon enough, her ex-husband produced plentiful evidence proving conclusively that he’d paid what he owed, but Maya-Schehtman’s state-employed lawyer didn’t care. He pursued Tony Schehtman anyway long after he’d seen the evidence showing that Schehtman had paid in full.
Schehtman, the judge later found, filed documents with the court and prosecutors showing the affidavit was wrong. Prosecutors nevertheless “certified” the delinquent child support, reporting it through a computer system to the Florida Department of Revenue.
Of course, simply having to defend oneself in court isn’t the only penalty Florida makes “deadbeat dads” pay. It turns out that, based solely on a mother’s say-so, word of her allegations is passed to the U.S. State Department which automatically suspends dad’s passport.
And that’s just what happened to Tony Schehtman. To put the cherry on top, they didn’t tell him. Schehtman is the CEO of a small tech sales company and travels to Latin America frequently for work. That is, he did before his ex, the State of Florida and the U.S. State Department teamed up to prevent it. He was out of work for months because of the actions of the state and his ex-wife.
None of that sat very well with Circuit Judge Pedro Echarte. On January 8, he entered an order requiring that Maya-Schehtman and the AG’s office each pay Schehtman the sum of $7,645 to reimburse him for attorneys fees he expended defending the patently false claim. In his order, Echarte called the actions of Maya-Schehtman and her state-provided lawyer “irresponsible” and “reprehensible.”
The judge said that even though Schehtman had proven he was not in arrears, the prosecutors failed to correct the wife’s claim, instead quibbling in court for months and hindering Schehtman’s ability to travel for work.
“This court finds that the State Attorney’s Office engaged in pointless litigation,” Echarte wrote.
Schehtman’s lawyer was even more blunt.
“This is one of the most egregious cases I have ever witnessed in 19 years of practicing family law,” said Schehtman’s lawyer, Jonathan Jonasz.
That may be, but for those familiar with the shenanigans of state child enforcement lawyers it looks like business as usual. After all, they’re the ones who have the habit of simply tagging the wrong guy with a support charge and, if he doesn’t show up in court, stick him – not the actual dad – with 18 years of support. What they did to Schehtman is probably pretty common. The reason the lawyer doesn’t think it is is that, being a lawyer, he tends to see only clients with money to pay him. But the tactics used in Schehtman’s case look to be more often targeted at the poor, the uneducated and most importantly, the self-represented.
Put simply, the lawyers in the State Attorney’s Office figured they could roll over Schehtman the way they do most guys. Just keep up the pressure and eventually the guy’s so fed up and confused that he folds. My guess is it happens many times a day in Florida alone.
Unsurprisingly, Schehtman has contacted a lawyer about suing the state and his ex. I say ”more power to him.” Judge Echarte didn’t have the authority to award him damages, but unquestionably Schehtman has been damaged. If nothing else, he’s lost business income from being unable to travel.
“The State Attorney deprived a law-abiding citizen of a fundamental liberty: his freedom of movement,” Heller said. “We will do what it takes to make sure this never happens again.”
In fact, that’s already happened; the state has changed its policy. It now waits for there to be a court order stating there’s a deficiency in support payments before having the dad’s passport suspended. Up till now it’s done that on the word of the mother alone. You’d think giving an irate ex-wife that much power might have troubled someone in state government, but no. As with just about everything else about family law, states are content to place fathers’ rights in mother’s hands. This is the first time I’ve heard that a state did that with a father’s right to travel, though.