Jackson v. State

Citation287 Mont. 473,1998 WL 111032,956 P.2d 35
Decision Date04 November 1997
Docket NumberD,No. 96-688,I-I,96-688
Parties, 1998 MT 46 Eugene E. JACKSON and Peggy J. Jackson, individually and as parents and next friends of Aaron Jon Jackson, Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. STATE of Montana, a governmental entity, The Department of Family Services, a state agency, and John and Jane Doesefendants and Respondents. . Heard
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Montana

A. Clifford Edwards (argued) and Roger W. Frickle; Edwards Law Firm; Billings, for Appellants.

T. Thomas Singer (argued) and Nancy Bennett; Moulton, Bellingham, Longo & Mather, P.C.; Billings, for Respondents.

REGNIER, Justice.

¶1 In April 1994, adoptive parents Eugene and Peggy Jackson filed an action based in negligence with the District Court for the Thirteenth Judicial District in Yellowstone County against the State of Montana, the Department of Family Services, and John and Jane Does I-IV (the State). The Jacksons primarily alleged the State negligently misrepresented, and failed to disclose to them, certain material facts regarding the psychological and medical background of their adoptive son's birth mother and putative father.

¶2 On August 7, 1995, the State filed an initial motion for summary judgment with respect to all counts contained in the Jacksons' complaint. The Jacksons amended their complaint in November 1995, and the State filed a supplemental motion for summary judgment in April 1996. On November 6, 1996, the District Court issued an order granting the State's original and supplemental motions for summary judgment. It is from this order that the Jacksons presently appeal. For the reasons discussed below, we reverse.

¶3 We find the following issues dispositive on appeal:

¶4 1. Did the District Court err in concluding the State had neither a common law nor a statutory duty to fully and accurately disclose to the Jacksons information in its possession regarding the psychological and medical background of their adoptive son's birth mother and putative father?

¶5 2. Did the District Court err in implicitly concluding the State sufficiently established the absence of any genuine issue of material fact regarding a causal connection between the State's allegedly negligent conduct and the Jacksons' injuries?

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

¶6 Lawrence John Allen Russell (later renamed Aaron Jon Jackson by his adoptive parents and hereinafter referred to as Aaron) was born on November 8, 1983, to Deborah Annette Russell, his biological mother.

                Aaron's two putative fathers are Brian Scott and Robert T. Stevens.  Russell spent much of her pregnancy incarcerated at the Women's Correctional Center at Warm Springs, Montana, during which period she underwent a psychological evaluation by clinical psychologist, Dr. B.A. Peters.  Dr. Peters concluded that Russell had a Full Scale I.Q. of 73, and wrote that certain test scores "strongly suggest[ ]" the presence of an "organic or psychiatric impairment."   Dr. Peters additionally described Russell's thinking as "disorganized, unconventional, diffused, [and] possibly at times delusional" and characterized her as an "emotionally immature and inappropriate" young woman who "is making a marginal psychological adjustment."   Ultimately, Dr. Peters diagnosed Russell with borderline intellectual functioning and inadequate personality
                

¶7 In January 1984, Russell fed her infant son soda pop, meat, and vegetables, which caused him to aspirate and led to his hospitalization. As a result of this incident, the State began providing child protective services to Russell and Aaron. In February 1984, social worker Marylis Filipovich prepared a social study in which she noted Russell's "IQ is approximately 70, and [she] functions as though she is retarded." In conclusion, Filipovich remarked that "[b]esides [Russell's] low functioning, she seems to be quite disturbed and will need professional counseling."

¶8 In the following months, the State continued to provide child protective services to Aaron, Russell, and Aaron's two putative fathers, Brian Scott and Robert Stevens. The State, in fact, entered into a service treatment agreement with Russell and Scott, and into a second such agreement with Russell and Stevens. Moreover, the State arranged for Russell to undergo a psychological evaluation by clinical psychologist Kenneth Collier, on June 7, 1984. In his report, Dr. Collier noted that "[p]eople who produce similar clinical profiles are seen as having a long-standing and chronic emotional disturbance, most likely a personality disorder, though a paranoid disorder should be considered." Dr. Collier described Russell as "clinically intellectually dull" and his ultimate diagnosis was one of "Paranoid Personality Disorder with mild mental retardation."

¶9 In December 1983, Aaron's putative father, Stevens, was treated on an inpatient basis by Dr. R.V. Edwards of the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Sheridan, Wyoming. In his written report, Dr. Edwards noted that Stevens complained of "feelings of unreality as though things were floating" and diagnosed him with a "schizophrenic disorder, paranoid type." The State acquired a copy of Dr. Edwards' evaluation prior to Aaron's adoption in 1986.

¶10 On August 1, 1984, social worker Dave Wallace submitted a report to the court on behalf of the State which chronicled Russell's difficulties and recommended that the State receive permanent custody of Aaron and that he be made available for adoption. Among the items referenced in the report, were Dr. Peters' and Dr. Collier's psychological evaluations, as well as Filipovich's social study. In addition, copies of Dr. Peters' and Dr. Collier's reports were attached to the report.

¶11 On December 31, 1984, the District Court issued an order terminating the parental rights of Russell, Scott, and Stevens, and awarded permanent legal custody of Aaron to the State with the right to consent to his adoption. Roughly one month later, resource worker Betty Petek contacted the Jacksons and informed them that Aaron was available for adoption.

¶12 The Jacksons had applied with the State to become adoptive parents just one week after Aaron's birth, in November 1983. To become adoptive parents, the Jacksons completed a written application and participated in personal interviews with Petek. During the course of this application process, the Jacksons advised Petek that they could not provide care for a child that had, or might be at risk for, developing a mental disorder. On March 10, 1984, Petek completed the Jacksons' adoptive home study and recommended that they "be approved for the adoption of one Caucasian child, either sex, infancy through two years of age," noting that they would consider adopting a child with "a minor correctable handicap." In accordance ¶13 Thus, in January 1985, shortly after Aaron became available for adoption, Petek contacted the Jacksons and informed them of Aaron's availability. That evening, the Jacksons discussed the possibility of adopting fifteen-month-old Aaron and agreed between the two of them that "if the family history was acceptable ... and if the child appeared normal looking physically, that [they] would probably take him." On January 28, 1985, the Jacksons met with Petek and Wallace to discuss Aaron's family background, and the possibility of initiating visits with Aaron.

with Petek's recommendation, the Jacksons were approved as adoptive parents on May 1, 1984.

¶14 During this visit, the Jacksons specifically asked Wallace and Petek whether there was any history of mental illness in Aaron's family. Although they were each aware of the reports completed by Dr. Peters, Dr. Collier, and Dr. Edwards, as well as Filipovich's social study, neither Wallace nor Petek disclosed the content of these evaluations to the Jacksons in response to their inquiry. In Wallace's actual possession at the time of this meeting were Filipovich's social study, a January 9, 1985, social history update, and his August 1, 1984, report to the court to which copies of Dr. Peters' and Dr. Collier's evaluations had been attached. Wallace generally referred to the documents in his possession to answer the Jacksons' questions during the visit, but did not provide them with copies and did not disclose the various psychological evaluations.

¶15 Instead, Peggy Jackson's deposition testimony indicates that Wallace and Petek provided the Jacksons with the following background information during this January 28, 1985, meeting:

They told us that Aaron was removed from his parents, that they determined the mother not capable of caring for him, that when he was very little, that she had attempted to feed him some sort of solid food and pop and he aspirated and was hospitalized....

We talked about family. They mentioned that she came from a family, how they termed it was, several generation welfare family, it was low economic status. They felt the family was socially inept. They mentioned, well, when we asked what the mother was like, they told us that physically she was healthy.

There may have been a possibility of some drug usage, but they felt that was minimal, because they told us she had been incarcerated for most of her pregnancy on a criminal charge.

We asked why she was unable to take care of Aaron, and we were told that she moved around a lot and that she didn't meet his needs for feeding him or caring for him physically and that she didn't appear to even have the interest to stick it out and stay with him and learn those skills.

¶16 In the weeks following their meeting with Wallace and Petek, the Jacksons visited with Aaron on a number of occasions, and entered into an adoptive placement agreement with the State on March 5, 1985. On January 2, 1986, the District Court issued an order finalizing Aaron's adoption.

¶17 Although the State's records included Dr. Peters' and Dr. Collier's psychological evaluations of Russell,...

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