Arthur Newmyer and Tara Mehrbach were the separated parents of two young girls. Their separation agreement permitted them to live separate lives, with their own romantic relationships. Mehrbach moved with the girls to Washington D.C. and enrolled the 5-year old, D., at Sidwell Friends, a prestigious prep school. Sidwell has a very high profile, with many Washington insiders enrolling their children at the school, including both Obama daughters.
D. was very bright but had emotional issues and was not adjusting well to school. Mehrbach hosted a potluck for pre-K parents and met Dr. Huntington, whose daughter was in the same class as D. Dr. Huntington also worked at the Sidwell Friends middle school as a counselor. The schools are on two separate campuses and Huntington has no interaction with lower school students. A few months after the potluck, Huntington asked Mehrbach for a playdate, and the two exchanged emails indicating a mutual romantic interest.
During the January 2010 playdate, Mehrbach explained to Huntington her frustrations with the school regarding her daughter's performance. Huntington saw that D. was very academically advanced (for example, she could read already) and told Mehrbach to contact Louise Whelan, a resource teacher at the school. Huntington also contacted Whalen himself, telling her that he had seen D. during playdates and wanted to know if the school could assess her or see if she was under stimulated at school.
Mehrbach and Huntington went on to form a romantic relationship. Newmyer discovered this in February 2010 and became angry. He contacted the school and prompted the Head of School to conduct an internal investigation. The school concluded there was nothing inappropriate about a relationship between two consenting adults where Huntington was not treating D. as a therapist and had no counseling relationship with her. In April 2010, Newmyer again contacted the Head of School and said Huntington was in breach of ethical obligations for having a romantic relationship with Mehrbach while serving as D.'s therapist. Newmyer threatened to use his connections and money to mount a campaign against Sidwell in the press.
Sidwell received a letter from an attorney regarding Mehrbach and Huntington's relationship, purporting to be from a group of concerned parents. In fact, Newmyer was paying the attorney's fees. The school again investigated and found Huntington was doing nothing wrong and was not D.'s therapist.
In July 2010, Newmyer filed for divorce from Mehrbach. As part of those proceedings he obtained emails from Huntington to Mehrbach written on Huntington's school account. The emails were sexually explicit and written during school hours. Newmyer's attorney sent copies of the emails along with a legal memo, to the school. Huntington was terminated February 11, 2011 for violation of the school's email policies.
On May 12, 2011, Newmyer sued both Huntington and Sidwell, claiming professional malpractice, negligent supervision, breach of fiduciary duty, and negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The same day he filed the complaint, Newmyer hired a PR firm to distribute a copy of it to multiple newspapers and television stations, who likely picked up on it given the school's high profile. Newmyer also submitted the complaint to the D.C. and Maryland Boards of Psychology, both of which concluded Huntington did nothing wrong. Eventually, word travelled to two private clinics with which Huntington worked as an independent contractor. Both put Huntington on leave. Huntington filed a counter-complaint against Newmyer, alleging tortious interference with contractual relationships with Sidwell and the clinics, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The trial court granted the parties' summary judgment motions in full. Both appealed.
The appeals court first analyzed Newmyer's claims against Sidwell and Huntington. His negligent infliction of emotional distress and professional malpractice claims both failed because the court determined that there was no evidence that Huntington owed any duty to D. He did not have a physician-patient relationship with her, either by consent or implication. He never treated or analyzed her. In fact, D.'s parents hired several prominent psychologists to analyze and assess D. over the course of her time at Sidwell, and Huntington was not one of them. His calls to Ms. Whalen were based only on his limited personal interactions with D. at a playdate and his friendship with Mehrbach. Furthermore, Huntington was only a counselor at the middle school, not the lower school where D. attended.
To establish a prima facie showing of intentional infliction of emotional distress, Newmyer would have to show extreme and outrageous conduct on the part of Huntington and Sidwell that intentionally caused Newmyer severe emotional distress. Such behavior must be completely outside the bounds of civil decency. Here Newmyer failed as well. There was no evidence he or D. suffered any distress as a result of Huntington dating Mehrbach. The negligent supervision claim failed as well. First, Huntington never engaged in dangerous or incompetent behavior. Second, Sidwell acted appropriately each time it was informed of a concern regarding Huntington, engaging in two investigations, and interviewing all subjects before determining there was nothing inappropriate about Huntington and Mehrbach's relationship. The school also investigated the emails and ultimately terminated Huntington for his violation of school policies. All of Newmyer's claims were dismissed and Sidwell and Huntington were granted summary judgment.
The court then analyzed Huntington's counter-claims against Newmyer. For his tortious interference claim, Huntington had to demonstrate that there was a valid contractual relationship that Newmyer knew about and that Newmyer interfered with that relationship and Huntington suffered damages as a result. The court found that with respect to both Sidwell and one of the clinics, the claims could survive. Newmyer's motivation for interfering in the relationship was clearly nefarious, as he coupled his passing of "information" about Huntington with threats to publicize the issue and make Sidwell look bad if Huntington was not fired. Even though Huntington was ultimately fired because of the emails, there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Newmyer's interference was a cause of the termination and thus the claim should not be dismissed on summary judgment.
The court also held that Huntington did present enough evidence that a fact finder could reasonably find that Newmyer's actions were so outrageous as to satisfy the requirements for a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress. He published sexually explicit private emails and sent his legal complaint to media outlets on the same day he filed it. His motivations for revenge and public shaming were clear.
This case was decided right at the end of 2015 but is included here because it contains many issues that schools grapple with, from angry parents to student-staff boundaries. Here the school was really caught in between a dramatic interpersonal conflict between two parents. Schools, and even individual staff and faculty, often find themselves dragged into family disputes, and this case was the extreme version of that. The school was helped by its appropriate actions to investigate the complaints into Huntington's behavior, while refusing to be bullied by an angry and vengeful parent. The school also was able to rely on clearly stated policies to terminate someone who violated its acceptable email use rules.
Newmyer v. Sidwell Friends School, 128 A.3d 1023 (2015).