Couple sues lawyers over failed adoption Infant was returned to his birth father

November 12, 1993|By Alan J. Craver | Alan J. Craver,Staff Writer

A North Laurel couple has filed suit against their former lawyers, charging that the attorneys mishandled their adoption of an infant boy who was taken from them by his natural father.

Michael and Theresa McCleaf are seeking $550,000 in damages from Herbert Nelson, Thomas Kavanagh and their Greenbelt practice in a suit filed Oct. 19 in Howard County Circuit Court.

The McCleafs accuse the lawyers of "reckless, extreme and outrageous malpractice" in the suit for failing to take steps to ensure that the adoption was successful, such as never obtaining the consent of the baby's birth parents.

The couple, who named the boy Nicholas, had cared for him for three months when his father obtained custody of him, the suit states.

"The plaintiffs expect that the scars associated with this separation will last for a lifetime," the suit states. "The defendants never adequately advised [the McCleafs] of the risk that their prospective adoption would be upset."

Mr. Kavanagh said he could not comment. But he said that many of the allegations are based on the McCleafs' beliefs and not on facts.

"It's something that I think is going to be quietly resolved," Mr. Kavanagh said.

The McCleafs could not be reached for comment. Their attorney, David Greber of Frederick, said his clients do not want to discuss the case.

The suit contends that the lawyers showed disregard for the McCleafs' emotional anguish.

In a similar case, which received national attention at the time the McCleafs pursued their adoption, the birth parents of Baby Jessica gained custody of the 2 1/2 -year-old girl from her adoptive parents in Michigan.

The McCleafs, who have tried to conceive a child for seven years, hired Mr. Nelson and Mr. Kavanagh in March when they learned of a potential independent adoption of a newborn boy in Harrisburg, Pa., the suit states.

Mr. Nelson contacted the baby's mother on March 10 to initiate adoption proceedings, the suit states. The woman, who was single, informed Mr. Nelson and Mr. Kavanagh that she knew the identity of the baby's father and how to contact him.

However, the attorneys never tried to contact the man directly to get his consent for the adoption, the suit states. The lawyers never informed the McCleafs that the father's consent was necessary for the adoption, according to the suit.

On March 12, when the McCleafs went to Harrisburg with Mr. Nelson to get the boy, the lawyer informed the couple that they could take the baby to Maryland without the necessary legal approvals, the suit alleges.

The suit contends that employees of the hospital where the boy was born informed Mr. Nelson that they believed legal or regulatory approvals were necessary before the McCleafs could take the baby to Maryland.

Three months later, when the McCleafs signed adoption papers, the couple asked if they needed to be concerned about complying with interstate adoption requirements, the suit states. Mr. Nelson responded by saying that he did not know if they had to comply with the rules, according to the suit.

When the McCleafs' adoption petition went to court, a Prince George's County Circuit judge said the petition was "defective" because it lacked numerous requirements, such as compliance with interstate adoption rules, the suit states.

Meanwhile, the baby's mother contacted the father on May 6 and informed him for the first time that they had a child, according to the suit. The next day, the couple obtained a lawyer to oppose the McCleafs' adoption of their son.

The father, whose name is not listed in the suit, called Mr. Nelson to report that he opposed the McCleafs' adoption, the suit states. Mr. Nelson informed the McCleafs of the call but also said he expected the adoption to be granted.

The suit contends that the McCleafs believe the attorneys never informed court officials that the father opposed the adoption.

The McCleafs, who paid a $1,500 retainer to Mr. Nelson and Mr. Kavanagh, fired the lawyers and hired Mr. Greber, the Frederick attorney. Mr. Greber informed the couple that court officials would not grant their adoption because of the birth father's opposition, the suit states.

The boy's birth mother instructed the McCleafs to give custody of the baby to his birth father on June 11, the suit states. The McCleafs complied a day later.

The McCleafs have requested a jury trial. The case has been assigned to Judge Raymond Kane Jr., but no proceedings have been set.

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