Family Law

$3.25M award for alleged bungled adoption is overturned; lawyer isn't liable for emotional distress

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An Iowa lawyer isn’t liable for emotional distress damages for a failed adoption that left a baby in the temporary care of a birth father who was later charged with the child’s murder, the state supreme court has ruled.

The Iowa Court of Appeals overturned a $3.25 million emotional distress verdict against lawyer Jason Rieper in a July 3 opinion, report the Des Moines Register and WHO-TV.

The appeals court said the would-be adoptive parents couldn’t recover emotional distress damages in a malpractice action that alleges ordinary negligence, unless the lawyer’s acts were illegitimate and especially likely to produce serious emotional harm. There was no showing of illegitimate conduct in the case against Rieper, the court said.

Rieper’s former clients, Heidi and Rachel McFarland, had claimed that Rieper committed malpractice by failing to quickly obtain a release of custody from the birth mother.

The child, Gabriel, was born to a minor in December 2013, who identified another minor, Andrew Weehler-Smith, as the likely father.

On Dec. 30, 2013, the birth mother released the child to Rieper, who gave the child to the McFarlands. In January 2014, Rieper filed a petition to terminate parental rights and sought guardians ad litem for the birth mother and father, as well as the child.

In February 2014, the birth mother—who had not signed a release of custody—told Rieper that she wanted to back out of the adoption. The McFarlands returned baby Gabriel.

The baby died in April 2014 when the birth father, Weehler-Smith, was babysitting. He later pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the child’s death.

A lawyer for Rieper, David Brown, told the Des Moines Register that the court of appeals decision is a vindication for Rieper. “It’s surprising how many adoptions fail,” Brown said. “People change their mind.”

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