Fraud in Missouri Adoption Nets Lawyer Just a Tap on the Wrist

March 13, 2019 by Robert Franklin, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

This case is a couple of years old, but offers a view of the adoption industry that we often get glimpses of but rarely see at such close range.  In re Sanford P. Krigel is a review of disciplinary action taken against adoption lawyer Krigel.  It’s amazing because the Missouri Supreme Court gives Krigel little more than a tap on the wrist for conduct that the dissent in the case argues merits disbarment.

Krigel is suspended from the practice of law for six months, with execution of such suspension stayed, subject to Krigel’s completion of a two-year term of probation in accordance with conditions imposed by this Court.

In other words, Krigel was allowed to continue practicing law as if nothing had happened.  If he received no other complaints within two years, he would be out from under the watchful eye of Missouri’s disciplinary authority.

So what had Krigel done?

It seems two young people, about 18 years old had an affair and the young woman had become pregnant.  She wanted to place the child for adoption but he wanted to keep and raise it.  His desire to do so made her break off their relationship and turn to adoption agency operator Hillary Merryfield for assistance.  She then turned to Krigel, with whom she’d had an ongoing business relationship for 20 years.

The father had also consulted attorney Jeff Zimmerman who unfortunately had little experience in adoption cases.

Eventually, Merryfield got the two estranged parents-to-be together at which time Dad told her he intended to raise the child in his parents’ house and with their help.  Merryfield duly reported same to Krigel along with her opinion that he didn’t really mean it, that, when push came to shove, he’d consent to the adoption.

Krigel opted for a strategy designed to remove Dad from the adoption process.  That included having Mom lie to Dad.  She told him that the doctors had said her due date had changed from April 8 to May 1.  That threw Dad off the scent.  Meanwhile,

Krigel employed a “passive strategy” in his representation of Birth Mother. Accordingly, Krigel and Birth Mother would “actively do nothing” to communicate with Birth Father or his counsel; they would not advise Birth Father or his counsel of the adoption plans, the birth of the child, and the instigation of any legal proceedings.

It worked.  Dad and his lawyer believed that the adoption plans had stopped and that he’d be able to get custody of his child.  But Mom gave birth in April, plenty of time in which to turn the baby over to the adoptive parents and hold a hearing on the termination of parental rights.  Krigel told Dad and his lawyer nothing about the hearing and of course they didn’t attend.   At that hearing, it was necessary to lie to the court, which Krigel adroitly did.

In response to a question by Krigel, Birth Mother agreed that Birth Father “had been consulted at length about the matter.” Birth Mother also agreed when Krigel asked “even though you’ve talked to him and his family at some length, he has not stepped forward since the birth of the child claiming any rights to the child.” Birth Mother’s parental rights were terminated. Immediately thereafter, a “Motion to Transfer Custody and for Adoption” was heard. The custody of the child was transferred to the prospective adoptive parents.

But apparently Mom posted something to Facebook about the adoption that Dad happened to see.

On May 6, 2011, the trial court entered its judgment in the adoption proceedings, denying the petition of the adoptive parents and awarding legal and physical custody of the child to Birth Father.

Only through dumb luck was Dad able to circumvent the ruse Krigel had so carefully planned and executed.  The accident of viewing a Facebook posting was the only thing that preserved his parental rights and possibly allowed two perfectly fit parents to adopt some child somewhere who truly needs to be adopted.

The Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel was less than pleased with Krigel’s conduct and brought an action against him for violations of numerous ethical rules.  He was found by the OCDC to have violated four and the Supreme Court agreed on all those findings.

Rule 4-3.3(a)(3) requires a lawyer shall not knowing “offer evidence that the lawyer knows to be false ….”

Rule 4-4.1(a) specifies that when representing a client, a lawyer shall not knowingly “make a false statement of material fact or law to a third person ….”

Rule 4-4.4(a) requires that in representing a client, a lawyer “shall not use means that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay, or burden a third person ….”

Rule 4-8.4(d) provides that it is professional misconduct for a lawyer to “engage in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice ….”

In short, he intentionally misled the court hearing the termination matter and lied to Zimmerman and possibly Merryfield.  It can’t have helped Krigel’s cause that he charged the adoptive parents an astonishing $22,000 for doing what he admitted was less than 10 hours of billable work.  Greed like that rarely wins friends.

Nor did it help that his actions caused Dad to incur between $30,000 and $50,000 in legal expenses.

Still, the Supreme Court winked at all that and I think I can see why.  I think the Court believed that what Krigel did simply wasn’t terribly important.  Now, it’s true that he’d never had a finding of unethical conduct before in some 30 years of law practice.  Of course, given his conduct in this case, one wonders whether he simply hadn’t been caught, but who knows?  We certainly see adoption attorneys in other cases behaving in the most outrageous of ways, and always in the interest of removing a father from the adoption process and forcing adoption on a child who doesn’t need it to enhance the cash flow for the lawyer and the adoption agency.  Needless to say, that means nothing about Krigel.

Still, the Supreme Court described Krigel’s behavior this way:

Krigel’s most egregious act of misconduct was lack of candor toward the tribunal.

Say what?  A more accurate description would be that he engaged in a months-long pattern of intentional deception of the father, Zimmerman, the court and possibly Merryfield, and fleeced the adoptive parents of money to the tune of 10 times what they should have paid.  Lack of candor indeed.

And here’s something that not one of the judges (one majority opinion, one concurrence and one dissent) mentioned: what Krigel’s fraud took aim at was not only a father’s parental rights but a child’s best interests and that of the adoption system as a whole.

I fully understand that technically the OCDC and the court had only to look at the various ethical violations.  But is it really their belief that an attorney who violates ethical precept A commits the same violation in a traffic ticket case as one who commits the same violation in a murder case?  Does the underlying legal case mean nothing?  The U.S. Supreme Court has called parental rights “far more precious than property rights,” but those very rights don’t merit a mention by the Missouri Supreme Court.

 Despite the majority of adoption agencies and lawyers who are surely ethical and provide a much-needed service to parents and children, there is far, far too much about the adoption industry that fairly reeks of moral and legal wrongdoing for the sake of filthy lucre.  Nothing about the Court’s decision will clear the air.  Indeed, it tells lawyers tempted by big paydays that even intentional wrongdoing will barely get them a tap on the wrist.

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