In a recent trial court opinion issued by the Superior Court in Hudson County, Judge Gallipoli recognized that parents in NJ may have a right to collect damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress when their relationships with their children are poisoned by former spouses or even grandparents who partake in alienating behaviors.
In a November 21, 2008 trial court decision, the court recognized the right of one parent to sue another, as well as grandparents, for what is known as the intentional infliction of emotional distress. In this particular case, the father sued the mother and maternal grandparents because they had alleged that the father sexually abused the children. The suit alleges that the ex-wife and her parents began alienating the children from the father during the pre-divorce separation in 2006. The defendants allegedly told the children, court-appointed psychiatrists and law enforcement officials that the father was a sex addict and had molested the children in the past, the suit says. It also says the children are afraid to sleep at their father’s home because they have been told they are in danger of being sexually abused.
The wife and her parents denied the allegations and argued in motions to dismiss the suit for failure to state a claim that the Heart Balm Act had eliminated the cause of action of alienation of affection. They argued that the term “alienating the children” is what the complaint calls the alleged wrong. Judge Gallipoli found that this claim was not a disguised claim for alienation of affections, which was banned in the state in 1935 by what is referred to as the Heart Balm Act.
This is the first time that a NJ Court has recognized the ability to bring such a claim. A prior suit was filed in the Morris County Superior Court but dismissed by Judge Rand on the grounds that the suit was nothing more than a disguised claim for alienation of affections. Noting Judge Rand’s opinion in his own, Judge Gallipoli respectfully disagreed with Judge Rand’s interpretation of the decisional law in this state and found that a claim existed for these types of behaviors. Since they are both trial court judges, Judge Rand’s opinion was not binding upon Judge Gallipoli. Judge Gallipoli noted that the father would have to file an application in the family part seeking relief, however his claims against the maternal grandparents would proceed in the law division.
The real question remains as to how the Appellate Division and perhaps even the state Supreme Court will view claims such as these.
EDITOR’S NOTE: It seems contrary to notions of judicial economy, mandatory joiner and the entire controversy doctrine that the claims against the mother and her parents would be handled in separate venues. In addition, while there is precedent to bring tort actions related to a divorce in the family part, a party may have a right to a jury on these issues and the cases are often severed and sent back to the law division anyway.
The bigger question is how a court should handle these claims in a post-judgment situation where there is not an ongoing matter and ultimate trial date pending. While court’s can order plenary hearings post-judgment, it seems that when these issues arise post judgment, the better place for them may be in the law division.
Also, the theory here that makes the claim viable is not that there has been an alienation of affections, but that a person’s intentional act has harmed another, where the only possible remedy for same may be money. ERIC S. SOLOTOFF