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Coward v. Wellmont Health System

Supreme Court of Virginia

May 3, 2018


          FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF WISE COUNTY David B. Carson, Judge Designate



         In Wyatt v. McDermott, 283 Va. 685, 725 S.E.2d 555 (2012), this Court recognized for the first time the tort of intentional interference with parental rights. The present case tests the limits of this theory of tort liability. The circuit court sustained several demurrers to Samantha Coward's complaint, [1] finding that the allegations did not constitute a viable claim as a matter of law. We agree. Our holding in Wyatt and the context in which we offered it do not extend to the factual allegations against the defendants presently on appeal.


         Coward makes the following specific factual allegations in support of her claim for tortious interference with her parental rights.

         A. January 19-20 - The Hospital Stay

         On January 19, 2016, Coward was 19 years old and delivering her second child. See J.A. at 48-49. The complaint states that she was prescribed Percocet, a pain medication, during her stay and upon her discharge, see id. at 49, 53, but does not allege that the medication rendered her mentally incapacitated. In the delivery room after the child's birth, Coward "talked about placing the baby up for adoption." Id. at 50. In response, she alleges, unnamed employees of the hospital told her that the treating obstetrician, Dr. Jodi A. Turano, had "directed that they give [Coward] a telephone number of someone who wanted to adopt her baby." Id. These employees, Coward adds, told her not to "tell anyone about the phone number or about how she got the phone number because 'they' could get in trouble." Id. That same day, Coward called the phone number and initiated a conversation with Synthia Hunley ("Hunley") about adopting the child. Hunley said that she and her husband Dennis were interested and would meet with Coward later that day.

         At some point on January 19, Coward "asked to see [the child], but was denied the opportunity due to his respiratory distress." Id. Dr. Samuel Patton Deel, a doctor of osteopathic medicine employed by Wellmont Medical Associates, Inc., provided pediatric care for the child and directed that the child be transferred to a "neo-natal intensive care unit" at Holston Valley Medical Center approximately 40 miles away in Tennessee. Id. at 50-51. Hunley worked as a licensed practical nurse for Dr. Deel. Id. at 51. When transferring the child, the "transport team noted no signs of distress in [the child]." Id. The child's discharge summary "noted that [Coward] had orally consented to place [the child] up for adoption." Id.

         Following up on Coward's earlier phone call, Hunley and her husband met with Coward on the evening of January 19 and informed her that they would be willing to adopt the child. Hunley also advised Coward that because marijuana had been found in Coward's urine, "social services would remove the child and place [him] in foster care" if Coward "did not agree to an adoptive placement." Id. The complaint does not allege that this information was false. Instead, the complaint acknowledges that on January 19, Coward "verbally agreed to allow the Hunleys to adopt [the child]." Id. at 52.

         On January 20, Hunley faxed a proposed agreement to the hospital for Coward's review and approval. Coward and the child's biological father reviewed the agreement in her hospital room. Titled "Adoption Agreement, " the document provided that both Coward and the biological father agreed to a "termination" of their parental rights and agreed to "assign custody" of the child to the Hunleys "pending finalization of documents with lawyer." Id. at 69. Coward and the biological father signed the agreement before two witnesses, as did the Hunleys. The complaint does not allege that Coward was coerced into signing the agreement, that anyone misled her about its meaning, or that she was mentally incapacitated.

         B. January 21 - The JDR Petition & Order

         While the parties were forming this agreement, the newborn was still a patient at Holston Valley Medical Center. On January 21, Holston Valley Medical Center advised Hunley that without a court order it would have to refer the child's case to the local department of social services ("DSS"). In response, Hunley provided the hospital with the executed Adoption Agreement assigning custody to her and her husband. Hunley then called Coward and asked her to call Holston Valley Medical Center to confirm her intentions. Hunley advised Coward that without a court order the hospital would refer the child's case to DSS, which might spell "trouble" for Coward because DSS would place the child in foster care after discovering that "marijuana was detected" in Coward's urine. Id. at 53.

         Coward called and advised the hospital, as Hunley had instructed, that the Hunleys had an attorney named Sue Baker and that "as soon as they were able to reach her, the adoption paperwork would be finalized." Id. Coward then called Hunley to report on the conversation with the hospital. Coward said that the hospital had informed her that legal counsel would not be necessary if the hospital simply referred the child's case to DSS. Hunley declined the suggestion of involving DSS and, in another telephone conversation moments later, asked Coward and the biological father to go to Baker's office to sign additional legal documents.

         Coward and the biological father promptly drove to Baker's office where a staff member read them a Petition and Agreed Order transferring "joint legal" and "sole physical" custody of the child to the Hunleys. Id. at 54. Baker assured Coward and the father "that they were 'doing a good thing'" because "the Hunleys were 'good people' and would give [the child] a 'good and happy life.'" Id. Coward and the biological father signed the Petition and Agreed Order. The complaint does not allege that either ever voiced any reluctance or objection to executing the documents.

         Baker presented the Petition and Agreed Order to the Wise County Juvenile & Domestic Relations District Court ("JDR court") that same day. See id. The JDR court entered the order, which provided that "upon agreement of the parties, " Coward and the biological father would share "joint legal custody" of the child with the Hunleys and that the Hunleys would have "sole physical custody" of the child. Id. at 71-72. The order was endorsed "SEEN AND AGREED" by the Hunleys, Coward, and the biological father. Id. at 72. After the JDR court entered the Agreed Order, the Hunleys faxed a copy of it to Holston Valley Medical Center. That afternoon, Hunley "advised [Coward] that a date would be set to finalize the adoption once her lawyer completed the paperwork." Id. at 56. Having received a copy of the Agreed Order, Holston Valley Medical Center discharged the child into the Hunleys' physical custody four days later. See id. at 56, 101; Appellee's Brief (Wellmont) at 3.

         C. January 29 - Coward Revokes Consent

         On January 29, 2016, ten days after announcing her interest in placing her child up for adoption and more than a week after executing the Adoption Agreement, Petition, and Agreed Order, Coward announced for the first time that she had changed her mind. She advised Hunley that she "wanted full custody of [the child]." J.A. at 56. Coward alleges that "[i]n response, Synthia Hunley threatened and lied to [Coward]." Id. at 57. The complaint, however, identifies no specific threatening statements or misrepresentations. When Coward later asked to visit the child, Hunley "threatened to sue [Coward] for all their expenses and to have her prosecuted for adoption fraud" and stated that Coward should direct further communications to the Hunleys' lawyer. Id. After Coward obtained legal counsel, the parties engaged in months of litigation in the JDR court over the custody of the child. The JDR court ultimately awarded Coward exclusive physical custody of the child.

         Coward thereafter filed the present lawsuit against Hunley, Dennis Hunley, Baker, and the medical defendants (the Lonesome Pine Hospital, Dr. Turano, and Dr. Turano's medical practice, Wellmont Medical Associates, Inc.). Alleging various predicate tortious acts, Coward claims that each defendant intentionally interfered with her "constitutional right to establish and maintain a parental and custodial relationship" with her newborn child. See id. at 58-65.

         After all of the defendants demurred to the complaint, the circuit court issued a comprehensive letter opinion overruling Hunley's demurrer and granting the demurrers of all of the remaining defendants. The court found that the complaint stated a prima facie case of tortious interference against Hunley because of the allegations that she had "threatened and used deception to convince [Coward] to give up her baby by telling [Coward] she had marijuana in her urine and that [Hunley] would call social services." Id. at 153. The court drew from that allegation the further inference that "Hunley intentionally told the lies to [Coward] in order to adopt the baby." Id. Thus, the court concluded, Coward's consent "was obtained by the undue influence" of Hunley and was the product of "fear" and not "free will." Id. As for the other defendants, however, the allegations did not allege that they had removed the child from Coward's custody without her consent or had otherwise interfered with her custodial rights. See id. at 151-53.

         The circuit court entered a Partial Final Judgment allowing Coward to appeal the demurrer rulings in favor of the medical defendants and Baker. Coward does not ...

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