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McFarland v. Rieper

Court of Appeals of Iowa

July 3, 2019

HEIDI McFARLAND and RACHEL McFARLAND, Plaintiffs-Appellees/Cross-Appellants,
v.
JASON RIEPER, Defendant-Appellant/Cross-Appellee.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Jeanie K. Vaudt, Judge.

         The defendant appeals and the plaintiffs cross-appeal from the jury verdict in favor of the plaintiffs on their legal-malpractice claim.

          David 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.

          Heard by Mullins, P.J., Bower, J., and Vogel, S.J. [*]

          VOGEL, SENIOR JUDGE.

         Jason 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.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings

         In the 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.

         On 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.

         On 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."[1] 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.[2] On March 14, Rieper moved to dismiss the petition without prejudice.

         On 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.

         II. Standard of Review

         We 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 ...


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