Parental Alienation Not Actionable Between Parents

An appeal court in New Jersey held that a divorced mother’s actions in moving with her children without advising the children’s father, and preventing the children from communicating in any fashion with their father for three months, was not serious enough to support the father’s claim for intentional infliction of emotional suffering.

The case began in Toronto where the unmarried couple lived for six years and raised their two children, one born in 1994 and the other in 1996. The couple separated in 2001 and initially were able to amicably co-parent their children. Father moved to New Jersey in 2003 and for one year continued to see the children regularly. The legal issues were resolved in Ontario with the mother receiving child support, spousal support and property valued at $11 million.

In 2006 the mother moved with the children to New Jersey and effectively hid the children from their father for three months. The father alleged that during this period of time his former partner alienated the children such that they no longer sought a relationship with him. The father sued the children’s mother in New Jersey for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

At trial the judge dismissed the father’s lawsuit. The principal grounds for the dismissal was the finding that the facts of the case were not sufficiently egregious to satisfy a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress and that the father’s allegations should be dealt with by the family court and not in a separate court action.

On appeal the trial judge’s decision was affirmed, based on a different analysis of the law. The appeal court held that a spouse could sue his partner for intentional infliction of emotional distress but that where the case involved children, the “best interests of the child” and the doctrine of “parens patriae” applied.

The appeal court said that the obvious witnesses in a trial for infliction of emotional distress would be the children and the best interests of the children could not permit the action to proceed.

The appeal court did, however, confirm that the cause of action could be made out where the facts were so outrageous that justice required court intervention. They suggested that prolonged parental abduction or repetitive allegations of sexual abuse against an innocent parent might provide the grounds required.

Instances of parental alienation occur all too frequently. Regrettably, a parent who alienates a child from another parent will not be sanctioned on the basis of infliction of emotional suffering even though it is both the estranged parent and the children who are victims. Segal v. Lynch May 3, 2010 New Jersey Court of Appeal.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

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