HEIDI McFARLAND and RACHEL McFARLAND, Plaintiffs-Appellees/Cross-Appellants,
JASON RIEPER, Defendant-Appellant/Cross-Appellee.
from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Jeanie K.
defendant appeals and the plaintiffs cross-appeal from the
jury verdict in favor of the plaintiffs on their
L. Brown and Alexander E. Wonio of Hansen, McClintock &
Riley, Des Moines, for appellant.
Roxanne Barton Conlin of Roxanne Conlin & Associates,
P.C., Des Moines, for appellees.
by Mullins, P.J., Bower, J., and Vogel, S.J. [*]
Rieper appeals and Heidi and Rachel McFarland cross-appeal
from the jury verdict in favor of the McFarlands on their
legal-malpractice claim. Rieper represented the McFarlands in
an unsuccessful adoption. Rieper asserts emotional distress
damages are not available here, the McFarlands did not
establish a prima facie case for legal malpractice, and a new
trial or a reduction or remittitur of the jury award is
warranted due to prejudicial statements and violations of the
court's rulings. On cross-appeal, the McFarlands assert,
in the event of a new trial, evidence of the baby's death
should be admitted and we should clarify the standards for
evaluating juror bias. We find the McFarlands have not shown
Rieper engaged in illegitimate conduct, as required to
recover emotional distress damages in a legal-malpractice
claim. We therefore reverse and remand for entry of judgment
in favor of Rieper. Because this issue is dispositive, we do
not reach the parties' other issues.
Background Facts and Proceedings
fall of 2013, Felicia West, Rachel's coworker, informed
Rachel that her sixteen-year-old daughter, M.A., was
pregnant. West asked if Rachel and her wife Heidi wanted to
adopt M.A.'s baby. Rachel and Heidi soon met with West
and M.A., and the four verbally agreed the McFarlands would
adopt the baby. The McFarlands remained in contact with West
and M.A. throughout the remainder of M.A.'s pregnancy,
providing food and taking M.A. to medical appointments. M.A.
eventually identified Andrew Weehler-Smith, who was also a
minor, as the likely father of the baby.
October 7, the McFarlands entered into a contract with
attorney Rieper for him to represent them in the private
adoption. On December 28, M.A. gave birth to the baby in Des
Moines. M.A. recovered in her room while the McFarlands
stayed with the baby in a separate hospital room. On December
30, M.A. and West signed an authorization to discharge the
baby to Rieper. Rieper then left the hospital with the baby
and placed him in the McFarlands' care.
January 20, 2014, Rieper sent an email to attorney Penny
Reimer asking her to serve as guardian ad litem (GAL) for
M.A. In his email, Rieper noted M.A. "is cooperating,
but I can't have her sign a Release of Custody until she
has counsel." Reimer agreed to the request. On January
22, Rieper filed a petition to terminate parental rights,
which also sought to appoint Reimer as GAL for M.A. and two
other attorneys as separate GALs for Weehler-Smith and the
baby. The court scheduled a hearing on the petition for March
24. On February 25, M.A., having yet to sign a release of
custody for the baby, notified Reimer that she wanted to back
out of the adoption. On March 13, the McFarlands returned the
baby to M.A. through Rieper. On March 14, Rieper moved to
dismiss the petition without prejudice.
August 7, the McFarlands filed their petition claiming Rieper
committed legal malpractice arising from his negligent
conduct by failing "to draft, execute and communicate to
[the McFarlands] that he had failed to obtain the signed
release of custody from [M.A.] prior to placing the child
with" them. Trial was held July 31 through August 15,
2017. The jury found Rieper was negligent in representing the
McFarlands, and it awarded $1, 500, 000 in past emotional
distress and $1, 750, 000 in future emotional distress-a
total damage award of $3, 250, 000 in emotional distress to
the McFarlands. Rieper filed a motion requesting judgment
notwithstanding the verdict, new trial, and reduction or
remittitur of the jury award, which the court fully denied.
Rieper now appeals, and the McFarlands cross-appeal.
Standard of Review
review the denial of a motion for judgment notwithstanding
the verdict for correction of errors at law. Channon v.
United Parcel Serv., Inc., 629 N.W.2d 835, 859 (Iowa
2001). In considering a ruling on a motion for judgment
notwithstanding the verdict, we consider "whether
substantial evidence exists to support the plaintiff's
claim, justifying submission of the case to the jury. In