A woman's suit against an Archdiocese for allegedly coercing her into surrendering her child for adoption 40 years before was not barred by the statute of limitations.
In 1965, the natural mother, a minor and devout Catholic, allegedly conceived a child with her parish priest. The mother's complaint alleged the following: Throughout the pregnancy, a nun, who was also the mother's teacher, pressured the mother to surrender the child for adoption and to keep silent about the father's identity. The nun also told the mother that the child could never be baptized or cleansed of original sin absent adoption. The nun continuously told the mother that the pregnancy was solely the mother's fault for which adoption was a necessary penance. The priest in turn told the mother that she had to surrender the child for adoption because he would lose his priesthood if the church had to pay child support for 18 years. Heeding the priest and nun's words, the mother surrendered the child for adoption. Consequently, the mother allegedly suffered emotional and mental anguish for years.
The mother sued the Archdiocese for negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress, interference with familial relations, loss of consortium (loss of company and affection of family member), breach of fiduciary duty (breach of special trust relationship), and negligent supervision and retention (of employees). The trial court found the suit barred by the statute of limitations. The mother appealed, arguing that the doctrine of equitable estoppel defeated the statute of limitations defense.
Equitable estoppel applies where the defendant makes a misleading factual representation, inducing actual and reasonable reliance by, and causing detriment to, the relying party. In the statute of limitations context, the plaintiff must effectively allege that the defendant either misrepresented the limitations period, promised a better settlement of the claim should plaintiff not sue, or engaged in similar misleading conduct.
Did the mother effectively allege equitable estoppel so that she may pursue her claims?
(1) The allegations that the Archdiocese intimidated the mother into believing that the pregnancy was solely her fault, pressured her into surrendering the child, and coerced her into believing the child could not otherwise be baptized, effectively alleged that the priest and nun's statements were misleading factual misrepresentations.
(2) The complaint alleged that the statements were made solely to coerce the mother into foregoing the best interests of her and her child and that the statements resulted in the mother losing her parental rights--which were detriments and conduct inducing her to delay bringing her claim.
(3) The First Amendment did not defeat the suit because it could be reasonably inferred from the mother's complaint that the Archdiocese's actions were motivated by the secular purpose of protecting the church and its pecuniary interests rather than by a reliance on, or furtherance of, the church's religious beliefs.
NOTE: The court ultimately held that the mother could not pursue her claims for negligent infliction of emotional distress, loss of consortium, and negligent supervision/retention because, respectively, the mother did not witness a "sudden traumatizing event," the child did not suffer physical injury, and the mother did not allege that the Archdiocese could have foreseen its employee's behavior before the behavior occurred. But the mother did state pursuable claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress, interference with familial relationships, and breach of fiduciary duty. The mother would still need to prove all of her allegations at trial. I do not know whether the case has been appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court.