Iowa Court of Appeals Overturns Recovery of Emotional Distress Damages in Legal Malpractice Action

Posted on: December 27th, 2019

In 2013, Plaintiffs Rachel and Heidi McFarland hired Defendant Jason Rieper to represent them in adopting a child. On December 30, 2013, two days after the child’s birth, the birth mother signed an authorization to discharge the baby to Defendant, who then left the hospital and delivered the baby to the Plaintiffs. Prior to the hearing on the petition to terminate the parental rights of the birth parents, the birth mother changed her mind and elected to keep the child. As a result, the Plaintiffs were forced to return the baby to the birth mother. The Plaintiffs filed suit against Defendant alleging he was negligent in failing “to draft, execute and communicate to [the Plaintiffs] that he had failed to obtain the signed release of custody from [the birth mother] prior to placing the child with them.” At trial, the jury found Defendant was negligent and awarded $3.25 million in emotion distress damages. Defendant appealed.

On appeal, Defendant argued an award of emotional distress damages were not appropriate because Plaintiffs had failed to show Defendant’s negligent acts were “illegitimate” and “especially likely to produce serious emotion harm.” Miranda v. Said, 836 N.W.2d 8, 33 (Iowa 2013). The Iowa Court of Appeals agreed, stating that, although Defendant may have been negligent in failing to timely obtain a release of custody, there was “no indication [Defendant] advised the [Plaintiffs] to pursue an illegitimate strategy or otherwise acted contrary to Iowa law in pursing release of custody.” Therefore, the Iowa Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s findings and ordered judgment be entered in favor of Defendant.

McFarland v. Rieper, 929 N.W.2d 273 (Iowa 2019).

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