Saturday, May 16, 2020

On tortious interference with parental rights in the context of custody litigation

With interest I listened to the arguments and read the opinion in Padula-Wilson v. Landry. In an opinion by Justice McCullough, the Court affirmed the dismissal of Ms. Wilson's claims of tortious interference with parental rights against the various professionals who got sucked into her custody litigation. She sued her children's guardian ad litem and the various therapists and counselors who gave opinions about her and her children for $16 million on various theories, but only the tortious interference claim and one of the defamation claims went to the Supreme Court.

In the Circuit Court, the judge sustained the Defendants' demurrers to the tortious interference claim, concluding that "extending the tort to cases like this one would open the door to every parent on the losing side of a custody or visitation case to sue the prevailing parent's witnesses, alleging that their testimony was false."

The Supreme Court affirmed, distinguishing its prior decision in Wyatt v. McDermott, which was a 4-3 decision, dealing with an adoption obtained through fraud. In Wyatt, the majority opinion concluded that "rejecting tortious interference with parental rights as a legitimate cause of action would leave a substantial gap in the legal protection afforded to the parent-child relationship."  The dissenting opinion by Justice McClanahan in Wyatt pointed out that there was rather a great deal of substantive and procedural protection afforded by Virginia law in the context of adoption cases.

In Padula-Wilson, Justice McCullough cited many of those same statutes in concluding that the universe of legal protections related to custody litigation precluded the application of the tortious interference cause of action in the context of custody and visitation determinations, in which as with adoptions the injuries are based on the effects of court orders.

The Supreme Court did not say so, but it seems to me that the Circuit Court was correct, as a matter of economics and risk management professionals like the Defendants in this case would be deterred from providing services in connection with high-conflict litigation if their participation was likely to result in multi-million dollar liability claims against them brought by the losing side.