488 N.W.2d 282 (Minn. 1992), CX-91-406, M.H. v. Caritas Family Services

Docket Nº:CX-91-406, C9-91-672.
Citation:488 N.W.2d 282
Opinion Judge:The opinion of the court was delivered by: Wahl
Party Name:M.H. and J.L.H., Respondents, v. CARITAS FAMILY SERVICES, Petitioner, Appellant.
Attorney:For appellant: Gordon H. Hansmeier, Kevin F. Gray, 11 Seventh Avenue No., P.o. Box 1433, St. Cloud, MN 56302.
Case Date:August 21, 1992
Court:Supreme Court of Minnesota

Page 282

488 N.W.2d 282 (Minn. 1992)

M.H. and J.L.H., Respondents,


CARITAS FAMILY SERVICES, Petitioner, Appellant.

Nos. CX-91-406, C9-91-672.

Supreme Court of Minnesota.

August 21, 1992

Page 283

Syllabus by the Court

1. Public policy does not preclude a negligent misrepresentation action against an adoption agency where the agency, having undertaken to disclose information about a child's genetic parents and medical background to the adoptive parents, negligently withheld information in such a way that the adoptive parents were misled as to the truth.

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2. The district court properly granted defendant summary judgment on intentional misrepresentation claim.

3. The district court did not abuse its discretion in denying plaintiffs' leave to amend their complaint to add claims of intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress and punitive damages.

Gordon H. Hansmeier, and Kevin F. Gray, St. Cloud, for petitioner, appellant.

Kay Nord Hunt, Minneapolis, for respondents.

James P. Kempf, Bloomington, for Lutheran Social Services of Minnesota and Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and Children's Home Soc. of Minnesota, amicus curiae.

WAHL, Justice.

We are asked to decide whether public policy precludes an action against an adoption agency for alleged negligent misrepresentations made during the placement of a child in adoption proceedings and to review pre-trial rulings by the district court.

Caritas Family Services (Caritas), defendant in the lawsuit, moved for summary judgment on the grounds that a negligent misrepresentation claim against an adoption agency is precluded on the basis of public policy. The trial court denied the motion, but certified the question as important and doubtful pursuant to Rule 103.03(h), Minn.R.Civ.App.Pro. 1 Caritas appeals the denial of summary judgment in case number CX-91-406. In case number C9-91-672, M.H. and J.L.H., the plaintiff adoptive parents, appeal the trial court's dismissal of their claim of intentional misrepresentation and its denial of their motion to amend their complaint.

The appeals were consolidated by the court of appeals and decided in M.H. v. Caritas Family Servs., 475 N.W.2d 94 (Minn.Ct.App.1991). 2 The court of appeals affirmed in part by holding as to the certified question that public policy does not preclude an action for negligent misrepresentation under the circumstances in this case and that the trial court had properly denied the H.'s motion to add a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. 3 The court of appeals reversed in part by reinstating plaintiffs' claim for intentional misrepresentation and holding that plaintiffs should be permitted to amend their complaint to include claims for negligent infliction of emotional distress and punitive damages. We granted Caritas' petition for review. 4

Plaintiffs M.H. and J.L.H., who married in 1977, sought to adopt a child after learning J.L.H. was unlikely to conceive a child. Plaintiffs first contacted Caritas Family Services, a Catholic social service agency active in placing children for adoption, in early 1980. In May of that year, they filled out an application for adoption during an interview in their home by a Caritas social worker.

On November 23, 1981, Caritas conducted a second home visit. The purpose of the second visit was, according to Caritas' adoption summary, "to explore with [the H.s] their feelings regarding a child with incest in the background." According to the summary, the H.s "appeared open to any child except one with a very serious mental deficiency."

Two days later, in a telephone conversation, Sister Cathan Culhane, a Caritas social worker, told J.L.H. that Caritas had a child the H.s might wish to adopt. According to J.L.H., Sister Culhane told her there was a "possibility of incest in the family."

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J.L.H. said she told sister Culhane, "Well, it's a baby. We're happy. As long as it's in the family, it didn't affect him." Sister Culhane described the baby as having a plugged tear duct and an undescended testicle, but otherwise in good health.

Two days after this telephone call, the H.s met with Sister Culhane in Caritas' office in St. Cloud. Sister Culhane again raised the question of incest and, according to M.H. and J.L.H., asked "Did it matter if there was incest in the family's background?" M.H. said he replied, "No problem, didn't matter to me in the background." According to M.H., Sister Culhane said there was a slight chance that the child might have abnormalities related to incest in his "background." The H.s asked no further questions and there was no more discussion of incest.

At this meeting, Caritas gave the H.s a document with information about the child, including his name, birth date, birth weight and length, cultural heritage, and a description of the genetic parents. The health of the genetic parents was described as follows:

HEALTH Both parents of normal intelligence and in good health as are their parents, brothers and sisters. Older members of their families--(Grandparents' generation) have had coronary trouble, Muscular Dystrophy and also nervous breakdown. One cousin of the natural mother is retarded and an uncle had an ulcer.

Both parents planned for the adoption of their child because they are young, still in school, and unable to assume the role of parents at this time.

The H.s took the baby, C.H., home with them that day. He was 45 days old. The H.s soon noticed that C.H. was jumpy, nervous, cried a lot, and did not sleep very much. The H.s consulted their physician who wanted information as to whether C.H.'s genetic mother had taken drugs during pregnancy. Mrs. H. contacted Sister Culhane who said that the genetic mother was not on drugs during pregnancy.

Sometime between November 1981 and when the adoption became final in September 1982, Caritas sent the H.s a document saying the birth mother was 17 years old instead of 13 as they had been previously told. The document also mentioned the "possibility of incest" but said nothing more specific on the subject. The H.s inquired about the discrepancy in the genetic mother's age and were assured by Sister Culhane that the original information given them about the genetic mother's age (that she was 13) was correct and a new document was sent to replace the mistaken one. Neither the H.s or Sister Culhane discussed incest at this time.

Throughout his childhood, C.H. has had serious behavioral and emotional problems. He has been diagnosed as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. He has exhibited hyperactivity, violent behavior when upset (i.e. kicking, biting, pulling hair), and has set fires indoors. On one occasion, he struck, punched, bit, and scratched J.L.H. while she took him to an appointment with his psychiatrist. He has...

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