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Parent cannot sue based on co-parent’s criticism, Md. appeals court says

Court upholds dismissal of interference with parental relations claim

Court of Special Appeals Judge Gregory Wells wrote the opinion. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

Court of Special Appeals Judge Gregory Wells wrote the opinion. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

One parent’s incessant and insulting criticism of the other to their child does not give rise to a compensable claim of intentional interference with parental relations by the criticized parent, even if the child does not want to visit him or her as a result, Maryland’s second-highest court ruled Wednesday in a battle between ex-spouses.

Intentional interference applies only if a parent physically removes or harbors the child from the other parent, the Court of Special Appeals stated in its reported 3-0 decision.

Though not giving rise to a personal-injury claim, the verbal criticism can still provide the criticized parent with a courtroom argument for modifying custody or visitation because the insults are likely not in the child’s best interests, the court added.

In its ruling, the appellate court upheld a Carroll County Circuit Court judge’s dismissal of a father’s claim that the mother’s intense criticism intentionally interfered with his parental relations with their child, including meaningful visits.

The Court of Special Appeals agreed with the judge that the harsh words by the mother, Gretchen Vogel, did not amount to the child’s physical separation from the father, Vogel’s ex-husband Gregory Haines, and thus did not constitute intentional interference under Maryland law.

The court cited two Maryland high court cases in holding that intentional interference involves not only outrageous behavior by one parent but keeping the child away from the other.

In Khalifa v. Shannon, the Court of Appeals held in 2008 that a mother’s move to Egypt with the child constituted intentional interference based on the physical distancing from the Marylander father. In 1986, the high court held in Hixon v. Buchberger that “belligerent words” were not so outrageous as to amount to intentional interference with parental relations.

“Based on this analysis, father falls short of alleging that mother’s conduct, though perhaps vexing and hurtful to him, constitutes intentional interference with the parent-child relationship, as we have concluded it is defined in Maryland,” Judge Gregory Wells wrote for the Court of Special Appeals. “To be sure, mother’s alleged actions, if proven, could be said to have contributed to the (child’s) estrangement from father.”

But “the type of inducement required” for intentional interference “is to facilitate the physical removal of the child, not the psychological or emotional distancing of the child from a parent, no matter how bad the conduct,” Wells added.

Haines’ attorney, John J. “Jack” Condliffe, said he and his client will seek review by the Court of Appeals based on the argument that intentional interference with parental relations can include a barrage of criticism leveled at the other parent and does not require a physical separation of the child.

“That’s what we do as lawyers,” said Condliffe, of Levin Gann PA in Towson. “We argue about the meaning of words.”

The mother’s incessant criticism of the father has stripped him of any meaningful opportunity to bond with the child, Condliffe said.

“It is almost impossible to alienate a child from a parent when both parents have access to the child,” he added. “My client is going to leave no stone unturned to get access to his child.”

Vogel’s attorney, Geoffrey H. Genth, declined to comment on the ruling. Genth is with Kramon & Graham PA in Baltimore.

Though his personal injury claim for intentional interference is lost, Haines could still pursue a motion to modify custody or visitation and file a petition for civil contempt based on Vogel’s alleged behavior toward him, the Court of Special Appeals stated.

“Importantly, both actions would allow the court, rather than a jury, to resolve what will undoubtedly be conflicting and emotion-laden testimony,” Wells wrote.

“Either remedy would allow the court to make what, based on the record, could well be a complex assessment of the dynamics between the minor child and his parents,” Wells added. “Either petition would be a more prudent course than allowing one parent to sue the other for money damages to resolve these important issues.”

Wells was joined in the opinion by Judges Kathryn Grill Graeff and Glenn T. Harrell Jr., a retired jurist sitting by special assignment.

The Court of Special Appeals rendered its decision in Gregory Haines v. Gretchen Vogel, No. 1789, September Term 2019.

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