Citation. 451 S.W.2d 539 (Court of Civil Appeals of Texas, 1970)
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Brief Fact Summary.
A lady resided in a maternity home for woman who were pregnant out-of-wedlock. While in the maternity home, various individuals attempted to convince her to put her child up for adoption. She finally consented, but brought suit thereafter alleging she was unduly influenced by the agents and employees of the maternity home.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
"[A] finding of undue influence is justified only where the actor's free agency and will have been destroyed and subverted to the extent that his act, instead of expressing his own will, expresses the will of the person exerting the influence."
The Plaintiff, N__A__B__ (the "Plaintiff"), consented to the placement of her child for adoption with an adoption agency in Texas. The Defendant, the Methodist Mission Home of Texas (the "Defendant"), was a maternity home for woman who are pregnant out-of-wedlock. The Plaintiff alleges that three agents of the Defendant, Rev. Don Lilljedahl, Mrs. Sharon Burrows and especially Mrs. Jo Ann Burns ("Mrs. Burns") unduly influenced her to put her child up for adoption. The Defendant's policy was to encourage unwed mothers to put their children up for adoption. One way the Defendant accomplished this was to have their counselors, who regularly met with the woman, including the Plaintiff, encourage adoption. After the birth of her baby, the Plaintiff decided she wanted to keep the child. After she made this decision, Mrs. Burns initiated a series of meetings with the Plaintiff, which led to the Plaintiff agreeing to put the child up for adoption. During those meetings, Mrs. Burns solely discussed the reasons why the Plaintiff should give up the child. Additionally, Mrs. Burns tried to convince the Plaintiff that her parents' offers to help her raise the child were really an attempt to take advantage of the Plaintiff.
• The Plaintiff eventually signed the instruments giving up custody of her child on December 3. However, between November 26 and December 3, right after giving birth, the Plaintiff was very weak. Nonetheless, Mrs. Burns "repeatedly and 'emphatically stressed' that if plaintiff 'was any sort of person' she would give up the child." The Plaintiff also testified that she felt 'trapped' and that the only reason she consented to the adoption was to avoid further harassment.
• The Plaintiff then brought this suit to revoke the instruments granting the adoption because the Defendant and its agents "unduly influenced her to put her child up for adoption. "
Was the Plaintiff unduly influenced by the Defendant's agents and employees to put her child up for adoption?
The court first observes "[w]hat constitutes 'undue influence' depends on the particular facts and circumstances of each case, viewed in the light of applicable principles of law." Further, "a finding of undue influence is justified only where the actor's free agency and will have been destroyed and subverted to the extent that his act, instead of expressing his own will, expresses the will of the person exerting the influence." No specific definition of undue influence exists. The law does not "condemn all persuasion, Entreaty, cajolery, importunity, intercession, argument and solicitation."
• The court concedes "that calling to the attention of an unwed mother the considerations which tend to show that her best interest, and that of her child, would best be served by placement of the child for adoption cannot be branded as undue influence, even though she is thereby induced to give up her child." However, the court recognizes this case is different because the testimony demonstrates the existence of "excessive persuasion."
• Witnesses testified that the Plaintiff was both shy and reluctant to discuss her personal problems. Additionally, a lot persuasion was done during the days immediately after the Plaintiff gave birth. During this time period, it is well known that a woman is "usually emotionally distraught and peculiarly vulnerable to efforts, well-meaning or unscrupulous, to persuade her to give up her child." Further, "[i]mmediately following plaintiff's announcement that, contrary to the expectations of Mrs. Burns, she intended to keep her son, she was subjected to an intensive campaign, extending over a five-day period, designed to convince her to give up her baby, rather than to insure that her decision, whatever it might be, would be based on a consideration of all relevant factors." Additionally, "[w]hat Mrs. Burns described as a discussion of the 'pros and cons' consisted entirely of an endless recital only of the 'cons'–a repetitive monologue of the reasons why plaintiff should not keep her child." Most disturbingly, "this concentrated assault on plaintiff's will came from a person to whom plaintiff was encouraged to look for guidance, a member of an organization to which plaintiff was undoubtedly indebted and on which, according to all the testimony, she was dependent for help in finding her employment and a place to live."
It is very interesting to read this case alongside [Francois v. Francois] and see how another court analyzes undue influence.