Appeals court rules Arlington sperm donor doesn't owe child support
National bodybuilding champion Ronnie Coleman of Arlington thought he had an ironclad arrangement.
Coleman agreed several years ago to donate sperm at a California sperm bank for a friend who used to live in Arlington, but he made clear that he had no interest in being a father to any child who was eventually born.
But for four years the 47-year-old former Arlington policeman has been involved in a paternity suit over whether he should still be forced to pay to support the children the woman delivered. She gave birth to triplets in June 2007, though one child died several months later.
Coleman described how he felt at the filing of the lawsuit in 2008: "I was totally blown away. I was already married and had moved on with my life."
Coleman paid thousands in child support until this month when an appeals court overturned court rulings saying he owed the woman money. And though Coleman and his attorney are relieved that a court finally ruled in their favor, legal experts say the case raises interesting questions about the responsibilities of a sperm donor - even when the donor is known.
"The appeals court essentially recognized the statute in California that allows women to receive sperm from a medical facility ... and not have to worry about the specter of the donor coming back and filing a paternity action," said Peter Lauzon, the Los Angeles attorney representing Coleman. Lauzon has filed a motion to terminate the child-support payments and is exploring the idea of getting reimbursements made to his client.
The woman, identified as Jo D in court documents, and her attorney, Lemuel Makupson, did not return phone calls seeking comment. It is unclear whether they will appeal to the California Supreme Court.
Lauzon said he doesn't believe that she will do so "because the law is so clear."
He added, "If the potential sperm donor was presented with the possibility of he would have to pay child support, men would be less inclined to donate sperm."
Coleman and Jo met in 1991 at the Arlington apartment complex where they lived, and they had an "intermittent" sexual relationship, according to court documents.
At the time Coleman was a police officer and was launching his career as a bodybuilder, a career that eventually brought him eight Mr. Olympia championships -- a record that only one other bodybuilder has achieved.
After Jo moved to California in 2001, she and Coleman remained friends. He occasionally saw her when he went to the Los Angeles area to visit his daughter, an aspiring actress. He also saw Jo when he participated in bodybuilding competitions in California.
In 2006, Jo said she was planning to become a parent through artificial insemination, so Coleman agreed to donate sperm so she would know whom the sperm came from.
"She came to me and said she wanted to go through a sperm bank and get pregnant. I said I could probably do that [donate sperm] for you," he said.
In June 2007, Jo gave birth to premature triplets. Six months later, Coleman married someone else, and in March 2008 one of the triplets died.
In court testimony, Jo described a relationship that was not as casual as Coleman remembers it. She contends that she and Coleman talked about getting married and having children, court records say.
After her children were born, Jo said, Coleman signed papers stating that he was the father and visited the children in her home and had an overnight visit with them at his daughter's apartment.
But Coleman and court documents say that although he visited the babies at Jo's house, he did not take steps to declare that he was the children's father, such as welcoming them into his home.
And while court records say that five days after Jo delivered the triplets, Coleman signed documents at the hospital saying he was the father, Coleman said he thought he was signing forms that only confirmed that he was the sperm donor but not the father.
Coleman said he did not have an understanding of what he was signing and did not read the forms. He also did not have an attorney.
Lower courts said the documents that Coleman signed made him responsible for the children's care, but the appeals court sided with Coleman.
"The donor of semen provided to a licensed physician and surgeon or to a licensed sperm bank for use in artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization of a woman other than the donor's wife is treated in law as if he were not the natural father of a child," the court ruled.
The law in Texas
In Texas, the law is similar. Lauren Duffer, an attorney specializing in reproductive technology law, said an unmarried sperm donor must intend to be the parent of a child if he donates sperm to a licensed physician for use by an unmarried woman.
"When an unmarried man donates sperm to a licensed physician or sperm bank, was it his intent to be the father or the donor?" she said. "In situations where women donate their eggs, it is more common to have a contract, but that's not often the case for sperm donors."
Duffer cautioned that people do not understand the consequences of what it means to be a donor or surrogate.
"We find lots of situations where people don't understand what they are doing. Because of the economy, people are circumventing expenses," she said.
For instance, in a surrogacy arrangement, people find agreements online when it is better to have an attorney involved.
Coleman is ready to put the case behind him. He works out several days a week at a gym in Fort Worth, and after months of training and two back surgeries, he said he is considering making a comeback.
Coleman, who said he served as an Arlington police officer from 1989 to 2000 and as a reserve officer until 2003, was quoted in a 2000 Star-Telegram article as saying he earned $500,000 a year in prize winnings, endorsements and appearance fees. On his website, bigroncoleman.com, Coleman advertises a line of nutritional supplements that he hopes to launch in September.
"I learned a very valuable and easy lesson: Never donate sperm," Coleman said. "A lot of women asked me to donate sperm. I turned them all down except for one."