Parental Alienation as Form of Emotional Distress Tort Claim
As divorce lawyers, we see quite a bit of parental alienation in its various forms. Some cases are severe, like the Tsimhoni case from Oakland County, with its attendant perils for the judge and other family court professionals assigned to the case, while other cases are mild; amounting to a series of disparaging editorials against the other parent.
An interesting case, Fukimaki v Ichikawa, decided last month in the Washtenaw County Circuit Court makes the Tsimhoni case look like a pro confesso divorce proceeding. One particularly unusual aspect of the case is that the ex-husband filed a brand new case against his ex-wife in the court of general jurisdiction more than a decade after his divorce was completed in the family court.
The basis of the new case: tort claims for “alienation of parental affection” and “intentional infliction of emotional distress”. The trial court judge dismissed the action on the grounds Michigan does not recognize the parental alienation tort claim and that the emotional distress claim was time-barred.
Not so fast, says the Michigan Court of Appeals. While the appellate court agreed that there is no cause of action for parental alienation, it held that the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim did not accrue until the mother began preventing parenting time with the father. The trial court selected a much earlier date to begin running the “statute of limitations” clock: the date mother was awarded sole physical and legal custody of the child.
To establish the intentional infliction of emotional distress, the appellate court held that plaintiff must demonstrate that a defendant’s conduct was, “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.” In sum, the courts have held that to be actionable, the defendant’s conduct must be so severe and shocking that a community member is compelled to shout, “Outrageous!”
In his complaint, father sets forth the following allegations:
- Mother was twice held in contempt of the family court for disallowing father’s parenting time with the child;
- Mother arranged for the child’s teacher to keep the child while she served a stint in the county jail following her second contempt of court ruling;
- Mother sent father letters promising that she was committed and determined to completely destroy father’s relationship with the child;
- Mother denied father parenting time for 22 consecutive weeks, and
- Mother conspired with the child’s school to exclude father from all school-related events.
Well, based on these facts, if proven by a preponderance of the evidence, we here at this law firm would exclaim, “Outrageous!”.
The case now goes back to the Washtenaw County Circuit Court where this father gets the opportunity to establish the elements of an intentional infliction of emotion distress claim; not an easy thing to do. Father will have to prove extreme and outrageous conduct that is intentionally designed to cause severe emotional distress.
Although rare, torts can be filed against one’s spouse or former spouse, just like any other named defendant. If you or a family member are facing intractable parental alienation, give our law firm a call to discuss your options.