A Dundalk truck driver who temporarily lost custody of his infant daughter to an adoptive couple filed suit yesterday against the couple and two prominent adoption lawyers for erroneously telling a judge he had consented to the baby's adoption.
The $7 million negligence and fraud suit filed by Anthony Covino Sr. -- highly unusual in the field of adoption law -- is the last stage in his battle with a Montgomery County couple who tried to adopt his daughter.
"I went through a living hell knowing I had a daughter, not knowing where she was," said Covino, who saw his daughter only a few times before her first birthday. He shares custody of 20-month-old Sarah Lynn Christina Crowe Covino with the baby's mother, who had placed the child for adoption over his objection.
It is the second case in the nation filed against a lawyer by a parent whose child was placed for adoption against his wishes, said Jane Gorman, a California lawyer and president of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys.
In a 1996 West Virginia case, a jury awarded $8 million to a man whose baby was given by the birth mother to an adoptive couple in Canada, through a California lawyer. Although the father won the case, he never got his baby back.
Though such cases are rare, "I don't think it's going to be unusual, with the high degree of publicity the West Virginia case got," said Gorman.
Covino's case was filed in Superior Court for the District of Columbia, where the attorneys being sued -- Peter Wiernicki and Mark McDermott -- practice law. McDermott is former president of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys.
The suit also names the couple who had tried to adopt the baby, Trina and Harris Leonard, of Potomac. Mr. Leonard declined yesterday to comment on the suit.
Wiernicki and McDermott did not return a reporter's calls. Their lawyer, Paul J. Maloney, said he would have no comment.
The suit focuses on a petition the lawyers sent to a Montgomery County judge two days after the baby's birth, stating that Covino had signed a consent agreement to the adoption when he had not. Their petition prompted a Montgomery County judge to allow the Leonards to take temporary custody of the baby.
The suit accuses the Leonards and their lawyers of having "kidnapped [Covino's] child with a pen."
Covino, "was for a year, deprived of virtually all contact with his daughter" and was denied the "joys of fatherhood that all members of society take for granted," wrote Covino's Towson lawyer, John J. "Jack" Condliffe, who filed the suit with attorney Thomas C. Valkenet.
When the baby was born Nov. 12, 1996, Covino arrived at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center and became enraged on learning the newborn's mother -- his former girlfriend -- was proceeding with adoption against his wishes, according to hospital records.
Although Covino had agreed orally at least once to the adoption, he had recanted in later conversations with the lawyers and the baby's mother. He also had mailed a letter to Wiernicki stating that he opposed the adoption.
Montgomery County Circuit Judge Michael Pincus was told none of this when he granted the Leonards temporary custody of the (( rTC baby three days after her birth, according to Covino's lawyers.
In the days after her birth, Covino said, he did not know where his daughter was taken or what court had given the baby to the adoptive parents.
Seven months later, after Covino hired lawyer Judith Shub-Condliffe to find his child, Pincus dismissed the adoption case and turned the baby over to her birth parents, Covino and Kathleen Crowe.
And in November 1997, shortly after the child's first birthday, Baltimore County Circuit Judge Lawrence R. Daniels awarded joint custody to Covino and Crowe.
Just before his ruling, Daniels also took what he called a "very unusual" step of writing a letter to the Montgomery County judge who had first handled the case, warning him about "grossly unprofessional conduct" on the part of McDermott and Wiernicki for alleging that Covino had consented to the adoption.
"At best, these allegations would appear to me to be inaccurate, misleading and extremely sloppy lawyering; at worst, they are a fraud on the Court," wrote Daniels in an Oct. 3, 1997 letter.
"This lapse in professional conduct disturbs me greatly," wrote Daniels, who suggested that Montgomery County judges "scrutinize most carefully" any other legal documents filed by McDermott and Wiernicki.
He later said he has never before written such a letter in his ten years on the bench.
$30,000 in debt
For Covino, the loss of his daughter was an emotionally and financially draining experience. He said he spent $14,000 in lawyers' fees and still owes $30,000.
"Right now I'm broke, but I've got everything I need. I've got my daughter and my health," said Covino, a recovering alcoholic.
Although Covino said he has happily settled into the daily routines of fatherhood, "I still have nightmares of people running away with my daughter."
During the time he had lost his daughter, Covino said, he was seeing a therapist for depression and taking medication for anxiety.
Of the Leonards, who raised his daughter for most of the first year of her life, he said, "I feel sorry for the people, but I'm very angry with them because they played God. It's not their baby. I'll never get that first year back."
Pub Date: 7/08/98