Tyler v. Children's Home Society, C016382

CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals
Citation29 Cal.App.4th 511,35 Cal.Rptr.2d 291
Decision Date21 October 1994
Docket NumberNo. C016382,C016382
PartiesLea TYLER et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. CHILDREN'S HOME SOCIETY OF CALIFORNIA et al., Defendants and Respondents.

Page 291

35 Cal.Rptr.2d 291
29 Cal.App.4th 511
Lea TYLER et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants,
CHILDREN'S HOME SOCIETY OF CALIFORNIA et al., Defendants and Respondents.
No. C016382.
Court of Appeal, Third District, California.
Oct. 21, 1994.
Review Denied Jan. 5, 1995.

Page 295

[29 Cal.App.4th 521] Stahnke & Russo and Brenda J. Russo, for plaintiffs and appellants.

Murphy & Jacobs, Timothy P. Murphy, Victoria M. Jacobs and William P. Brodbeck, for defendants and respondents.

SIMS, Acting Presiding Justice.

In this action seeking rescission of agreements relinquishing a child for adoption through a licensed private adoption agency, plaintiffs Lea Tyler and Matthew Darrah 1 appeal from the trial court's judgment in favor of defendants Children's Home Society of California (CHS), Davis Crisis Pregnancy Center, Inc. (DCPC), Kathy Huntziker, and Dee Heszler. On appeal plaintiffs contend the relinquishments are void due to the failure of adoption agency CHS and its employee Heszler to comply with Department of Social Services (DSS) regulations.

[29 Cal.App.4th 522] We shall conclude plaintiffs have failed to show prejudice from any regulatory violations. We shall therefore affirm the judgment. 2


On April 14, 1991, 18-year-old college freshman Tyler gave birth unattended to a

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premature baby girl in the bathroom of her dormitory at the University of California, Davis, while her roommates slept in adjoining rooms. Tyler's family, friends, and roommates were unaware of the pregnancy or birth.

The alleged birth father, 4 Darrah, was aware of the pregnancy. He and Tyler had become involved when they were both honor students at the same high school. At the time of the baby's birth Darrah was a freshman at the University of California, San Diego.

On April 15, 1991, the day after the baby's birth, Tyler telephoned DCPC, which advertised itself as a Christian organization offering free services to pregnant women. Tyler expressed to DCPC volunteer Huntziker an interest in placing a baby for adoption.

Also on April 15th, Tyler traveled with the baby to San Diego, where they spent five days at Darrah's apartment while Tyler and Darrah discussed their situation.

[29 Cal.App.4th 523] On April 21st, Tyler and the baby returned to Davis and met with Huntziker and Heszler, a field representative for CHS. Heszler had been contacted by Huntziker, who related that Tyler was interested in immediate foster care and placement of the baby for adoption.

At the meeting on April 21st, Tyler stated she and Darrah decided after much discussion to place the baby for adoption. Tyler said she could not tell her parents about the birth. Her parents did not even know about the pregnancy or that she was sexually active. They were a traditional family. Tyler was a role model for her two younger sisters. She could not disappoint her parents. Tyler was consistent throughout the interview that she and Darrah had decided on adoption as their choice. Tyler wished to proceed quickly in order to allow the baby to bond with adoptive parents.

Heszler encouraged Tyler to reconsider the option of telling her parents about the baby and offered to help Tyler do so. Tyler declined. When asked what would happen if her parents found out later, Tyler said she expected Heszler and Huntziker to maintain confidentiality, and she did not see any way her parents would find out.

Heszler brought up the possibility of Tyler raising the child by herself, but Tyler insisted she would not do anything that would mean her parents would find out about the baby.

Heszler and Tyler discussed the possibility of Tyler and Darrah getting married and raising the child together. Tyler said she and Darrah had talked about that at great length but decided it was not possible. They were both college freshmen who intended to complete their education, and they were not in a position to give the baby what they wished her to have.

At Tyler's request, the baby was placed in foster care.

Heszler gave Tyler blank copies of a "Statement of Understanding" and relinquishment forms to take home, advising that they were not to be signed but Tyler should review them because she would be signing similar forms if she decided to proceed with adoption.

The Statement of Understanding begins as follows: "Relinquishing a child means permanently giving the child to the adoption agency so the agency can choose other parents to adopt the child. You permanently give up the child to the adoption agency by signing this Statement of Understanding and the Relinquishment document. You will no longer have any rights as a parent to your child once these documents have been filed with the State [29 Cal.App.4th 524] Department of Social Services, Adoptions Branch." The Statement of Understanding contains specific information material to the decision to relinquish, as we discuss below.

On April 25th, Heszler mailed to Darrah copies of relevant forms, including a Statement of Understanding for "alleged fathers," 5

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5 the relinquishment form, and a memorandum telling him the documents were for his review and inviting him to call with any questions.

On April 27th, Tyler told Heszler that Tyler and Darrah had chosen a prospective adoptive family from an album of photographs and resumes previously provided by Heszler.

On Wednesday, May 1, 1991, plaintiffs met at Central Park in Davis with Heszler and the prospective adoptive parents. This first meeting, which was somewhat strained, lasted about 50 minutes. This was Heszler's first meeting with Darrah. Darrah said he loved the baby but there was no way he and Tyler could provide for her because they were both college freshmen who needed to complete their education.

After a second meeting with the prospective adoptive parents on May 3d, Tyler reported to Heszler that she and Darrah were certain they wanted to place the baby with the couple. Tyler said she and Darrah wanted to proceed with the relinquishment the following day, Saturday, because Darrah would be returning to San Diego on Sunday. Tyler rejected Heszler's suggestion that plaintiffs give themselves one more day to think about it.

On Saturday, May 4th, plaintiffs met at the DCPC office with Heszler, Huntziker, the prospective adoptive family, the foster parents, and the baby. Tyler presented flowers to Huntziker, the foster mother, and the prospective adoptive mother.

[29 Cal.App.4th 525] Heszler took plaintiffs into a private room and told them they would be asked to answer the following questions in front of the witnesses to the execution of the relinquishment documents: (1) "[H]ave you read this relinquishment and are you aware of what you are signing"; (2) "are you aware that when this signed relinquishment is filed with the State Department of Social Services by [CHS] all your rights to the custody, service, and earnings of this child and any responsibility for the care and support of this child will be terminated and that the child cannot be reclaimed by you"; and (3) "are you signing this relinquishment of your own free will." Plaintiffs listened and had no questions.

Heszler then called in the foster parents to witness execution of the documents. Heszler asked the questions she had previewed with plaintiffs, and plaintiffs responded affirmatively. Heszler asked if plaintiffs had read the Statement of Understanding. They said they had. Heszler had plaintiffs reread the Statement of Understanding to themselves and initial the boxes next to each paragraph to reflect their understanding of the information contained in each paragraph. The Statements of Understanding called for the parent to choose between immediate filing of the relinquishment or a hold of up to 30 days. Heszler told plaintiffs they had this option. Plaintiffs chose immediate filing. Heszler told plaintiffs they had one full working day--until 5 p.m. Monday--to change their mind and revoke the relinquishments. Plaintiffs signed the forms. The process took 15 or 20 minutes. Plaintiffs were tearful, as they had been at times throughout the process, but Heszler considered that to be normal emotion at relinquishing a baby. Neither

Page 298

Heszler nor the foster parents observed any indication that plaintiffs felt coerced or pressured into signing.

The child was turned over to the prospective adoptive parents.

The relinquishment forms were filed with DSS on Tuesday, May 7, 1991.

On May 30, 1991, Tyler gave the prospective adoptive mother a Mother's Day card, signed by Tyler and Darrah, on which Tyler had handwritten: "Thank you so much for giving Michelle exactly what we want for her, loving parents. Happy Mother's Day!"

Several months later, in mid-September 1991, Tyler told her parents about the baby. Darrah also told his parents in the fall of 1991. Tyler's parents told her there must be something she could do to get the baby back. On September 14, 1991, Tyler telephoned Heszler and said she (Tyler) had made a mistake and wanted to get the baby back. Heszler said it was too late to revoke but sent forms to request rescission. Tyler submitted a formal request for rescission, which was denied by CHS.

[29 Cal.App.4th 526] On October 29, 1991, plaintiffs filed this contract action for (1) rescission of the relinquishment agreements, on the grounds of fraud, coercion and undue influence, (2) intentional infliction of emotional distress, and (3) punitive damages.

The trial court ordered a stay of the pending adoption proceedings. 6

At trial, in addition to their accusations of coercion and intimidation, plaintiffs asserted Heszler and CHS violated DSS regulations governing relinquishment of children for adoption by failing to (1) give plaintiffs full counseling, (2) give plaintiffs copies of the signed and filed forms, and (3) obtain a full medical history from Darrah. Heszler admitted noncompliance in that she did not discuss the option of placing the baby...

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