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Virginia Supreme Court Says Parents Can Sue For Interfering With Parental Rights

Do not mess with Virginia parents!  That is the message from a recent Virginia Supreme Court opinion recognizing a parent’s right to sue third parties who intentionally interfere with the parent-child relationship.  The claim is officially called “tortious interference with parental rights,” and was found to exist in Wyatt v. McDermott, 2012 Va. LEXIS 92 (2012).

As the Supreme Court wrote, the allegations in the case are “astonishing and profoundly disturbing.”  But they explain how this claim works. The unmarried father, John Wyatt, alleged that he and the baby’s mother had agreed to raise the child together. Wyatt alleged, however, that  without his knowledge, (1) the mother retained an attorney to arrange for an adoption; (2) that the mother’s attorney worked with the mother to keep Wyatt “in the dark” about the adoption; (3) that they hid the birth from him; and (4) that the baby was ultimately adopted by a Utah couple without Wyatt’s knowledge. Wyatt sued the adoption attorneys in Virginia and Utah, the adoption agency (and an employee), and the adoptive parents. He sought damages for the “unauthorized adoption.”

The 4-3 decision was hotly contested by the Justices in an argument about judicial activism. The majority found that the claim had its roots in English common law going back to 1599. Thus, the majority argued that it was not “legislating from the bench” by recognizing the claim. It pointed out that most state high courts that have considered the issue have agreed that the claim exists. The dissent argued that the “decision of whether to create such a cause of action should be left to the legislature.”

But the majority ruled the day, and the claim now exists in Virginia. The elements of the claim are: (1) a parental relationship with the minor; (2) that a third party intentionally interfered with; (3) which interference caused harm; and (4) damages. The Court found that damages include not only the cost of securing the parent’s rights, but also the mental anguish and lost companionship.