There’s a little bit to like and a little to dislike in this case (Law.com, 5/10/10).
In it, the New Jersey court of appeals ruled that one parent could sue the other parent for denying access to the child. The court held that a civil cause of action for infliction of emotional distress can be pursued by the parent against whom the child has been severely alienated. So what’s the problem with that? Well, it turns out a person can file such a suit, but just not in this case. Why not? The “best interests of the child,” that’s why not.
In the case decided by the court, Segal v. Lynch,
Segal and 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 June 2005, a Canadian court awarded Lynch custody and ordered Segal to pay her more than $11 million Canadian dollars for child and spousal support and to resolve other financial issues. During that case, the Court of Appeal for Ontario called Segal, a developer, “an extraordinarily wealthy man” with a net worth of more than $100 million.
Lynch also moved to New Jersey in 2006, and allegedly enrolled the children in school under her name and terminated all communication between them and Segal. He claims he had no contact for more than three months, during which Lynch alienated the children “by telling them false and spiteful things about their father.”
Segal alleges he tracked them down with the help of a private investigator. He then won a court order granting supervised visitation starting in October 2006, but once he started seeing his children again, it became apparent that his relationship with them had been poisoned, he claims.
So, after cashing his check for $11 million Canadian, Mom refused to let Dad see the children and turned them against him. Apparently, that’s not egregious enough to satisfy the court that a legal wrong was done to Segal or to his kids.
It did not rule out an emotional distress claim 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.”
In short, garden variety parental alienation is to be allowed; there’s no civil cause of action for damages when one parent alienates the kids from the other parent. And it’s to be allowed, ironically enough, because of the best interests of the child. Stated another way, the emotional and psychological abuse of a child occasioned by the alienation of that child from one parent, plus the loss to the child of that parent, are to be tolerated because it’s in the child’s best interests. Understand? I don’t. No wonder Mr. Bumble in Oliver Twist said, “The law, sir? The law is a ass.”
Still, the case does inch matters forward a bit. In New Jersey, parental kidnapping and false claims of sexual abuse are now actionable in civil court. Let all parents be aware of the fact.
I wouldn’t be surprised to find that, in the future, the court tears down its artificial barrier between the type of parental alienation and denial of access that don’t now support a civil case, and parental abduction that does. The legal difference between the two escapes me, and I’d wager the court will cease to see it too in the years to come.
Thanks to John for the heads-up.