NJ Appeals Court, For The First Time, Recognizes Claim For Infliction Of Emotional Distress When One Parent Turns Children Against The Other Parent

This week, a New Jersey appeals court concluded, for the first time, that a cause of action for infliction of emotional distress can be asserted when one parent turns the couple’s children against the other. Segal v. Lynch, Docket No. A-0805-08T2 (App. Div., May 3, 2010)

Plaintiff, the father of two minor children, filed a complaint alleging that defendant, the children’s mother, intentionally or recklessly engaged in extreme and outrageous conduct designed to poison his relationship with his children, which alienated the natural bond and affection that should exist between them and caused both he and the children emotional distress. A lower court dismissed the claim as barred by the Heart Balm Act, which abolished the common law rights of action for alienation of affection, criminal conversation, seduction or breach of contract to marry. The Appellate Division held that that the Heart Balm Act does not bar plaintiff’s claim because the statute applies only to claims based on the loss of a marital or conjugal relationship. But the Court affirmed the dismissal of the case under the parens patriae doctrine, which allows courts to intervene when necessary to protect children. The Court held that “[P]laintiff’s cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress must be barred as inimical to and irreconcilable with the best interests of the children involved in this suit.” Thus, the father was not permitted to pursue any claim against the mother of his two children.

Moses Segal and Cynthia Lynch, who never married but lived together in Toronto for six years, have a daughter born in 1994 and a son born in 1998. After they separated in 2001, Lynch remained in Toronto with the children for a few years and allowed Segal, who moved to New Jersey in 2003, to visit and talk with them. In 2005, a Canadian court awarded Lynch custody and ordered Segal to pay her child and spousal support.

Thereafter, Lynch also moved to New Jersey, and enrolled the children in school under her name and terminated all communication between them and Segal. Segal tracked them down with the help of a private investigator. He then won a court order granting supervised visitation. However, once he started seeing his children again, he said it became apparent that his relationship with them had been poisoned. Siegal claimed that a court-appointed psychologist determined that defendant engaged in “alienating behavior with the children.”

In 2007, Siegal sued Lynch for infliction of emotional distress. The trial judge dismissed based on the Heart Balm Act. The Court also found Segal failed to make out a claim for infliction of emotional distress and that the entire controversy doctrine precluded the claim because it was not asserted in the family court. The Court also ordered Segal to pay Lynch $42,912 in legal fees as a frivolous litigation sanction.

The appeals court vacated the sanctions, saying Segal had a good-faith argument for the claim. The Court described the case as a novel one, pitting “the fundamental principles of a child’s best interests against the right of a civil claimant to obtain compensation for his or her injuries….” The Court found the “overarching force driving this civil action” was not the best interest of the children, who would be in the middle of a litigation “tug-of-war.”

Moreover, the Court also found that a tort claim for the intentional infliction of emotional distress had not been properly stated based on the facts asserted by Segal. The Court did not rule out the possibility that the tort claim of this kind could be properly asserted in another case, but said the tort claim would have to be based on facts “so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community,” such as “prolonged parental abduction, where children are intentionally removed to foreign jurisdictions for the purpose of frustrating the innocent parent’s custodial rights, or intentional false accusations of parent/child sexual abuse.”

The plaintiff is considering an appeal to the NJ Supreme Court.