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Newmyer v. Sidwell Friends School

Court of Appeals of Columbia District

December 24, 2015


Argued January 21, 2015.

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Appeals from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (CAM-3727-11). (Hon. Michael Lee Rankin, Trial Judge).

Steven S. Rosenthal, with whom Kerry Alan Scanlon and Jeremy M. White were on the brief, for appellants Arthur G. Newmyer and D.

John T. May, with whom Raphael J. Cohen was on the brief, for appellant/cross-appellee Arthur G. Newmyer.

William D. Nussbaum for appellee The Sidwell Friends School.

Andrew Butz and Barton D. Moorstein, with whom Barry D. Trebach, Katherine B. Yoder, and Megan Kinsey-Smith were on the brief, for appellee/cross-appellant James F. Huntington.

Before Fisher and Blackburne-Rigsby, Associate Judges, and Ferren, Senior Judge.

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This case came to be heard on the transcript of record, the briefs filed, and was argued by counsel. On consideration whereof, and as set forth in the opinion filed this date, it is now hereby

ORDERED and ADJUDGED that the trial court's grant of summary judgment as to appellee/cross-appellant, Dr. Huntington's, counterclaims against appellant/cross-appelle, Mr. Newmyer, for tortious interference with Dr. Huntington's business relationships with appellee Sidwell and Wake Kendall, and for intentional infliction of emotional distress, are reversed. The matter is remanded for proceedings consistent with this opinion. In all other aspects, the judgment on appeal is affirmed.

Although many issues are before us, this appeal addresses two primary questions: First, when a school counselor became romantically involved with the mother of a child at the school, did the evidence justify recovery in tort against the counselor and the school, under multiple theories, for endangering the child's well-being? Second, when the child's father not only filed the complaint in court but also publicized it widely through the news media, allegedly as a weapon to disrupt the private life and career prospects of the school counselor, did the evidence justify the counselor's counterclaim in tort for emotional distress and interference with his contractual and business relationships?

Underlying these questions is a troubled marriage, pursuant to which appellant/cross-appellee Arthur G. Newmyer and Tara Mehrbach, the parents of a five-year-old child, appellant D., entered into a separation agreement. While D. was a

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pre-kindergarten student at the Lower School of The Sidwell Friends School (" Sidwell" ), Ms. Mehrbach began dating appellee/cross-appellant Dr. James F. Huntington, a psychologist who served as a school counselor at Sidwell's Middle School. Mr. Newmyer discovered the relationship and began a determined campaign to have Dr. Huntington fired, which eventually culminated in the present litigation. Dr. Huntington responded to Mr. Newmyer's campaign with litigation of his own. The trial court granted both parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, dismissing the case in toto.

Mr. Newmyer appeals from the trial court's dismissal of multiple tort claims, filed individually and on behalf of D., against Sidwell and Dr. Huntington, in which he generally asserts that Dr. Huntington established a physician-patient relationship with D. while engaged in a romantic relationship with D.'s mother Ms. Mehrbach. Mr. Newmyer brought claims for (1) professional malpractice against Sidwell and Dr. Huntington, (2) negligent supervision against Sidwell, (3) breach of fiduciary duty against Sidwell and Dr. Huntington, (4) negligent infliction of emotional distress against Sidwell and Dr. Huntington, and (5) intentional infliction of emotional distress against Sidwell and Dr. Huntington.

Dr. Huntington cross-appeals from the trial court's dismissal of his counterclaims against Mr. Newmyer, in which he generally asserts that Mr. Newmyer maliciously campaigned to have him fired from Sidwell out of spite over the romantic relationship, causing him to lose three jobs and tarnishing his reputation. Dr. Huntington brought claims for (1) tortious interference with contractual or business relationships with Sidwell and two private practices, The Wake Kendall Group PLLC (" Wake Kendall" ) and Rathbone and Associates (" Rathbone" ); and (2) intentional infliction of emotional distress.

For the reasons that follow, we affirm the trial court's grant of summary judgment dismissing Mr. Newmyer's claims. We reverse the trial court's grant of summary judgment dismissing Dr. Huntington's counterclaims against Mr. Newmyer for tortious interference as to his employment at Sidwell and Wake Kendall, and for intentional infliction of emotional distress. Finally, we affirm the dismissal of Dr. Huntington's counterclaim for tortious interference with his employment at Rathbone.

I. Factual Background

A. The Events at Issue

Arthur Newmyer and Tara Mehrbach were married in 2001 and had two daughters while living in Florida. The couple separated in 2009 and entered a separation agreement in which they stipulated that they would live apart, " freed of any and all marital responsibilities and duties[.]" Mr. Newmyer remained in Florida while Ms. Mehrbach relocated with their two daughters to the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. Shortly thereafter, Ms. Mehrbach enrolled one daughter, D., then five years old, in the Lower School at Sidwell, over Mr. Newmyer's objections. As a former Sidwell student, Mr. Newmyer thought that the school would not fit D.'s needs, as D. is an advanced learner with a history of emotional problems.

D. in fact experienced adjustment issues related to her emotional problems in her first few months at Sidwell and received report cards that seemed at odds with her intellectual ability. In an effort to help D. succeed at Sidwell, Ms. Mehrbach and Mr. Newmyer engaged Dr. Frederic Solomon, whom Ms. Mehrbach referred to as " a leading pediatric psychiatrist," to treat D. Over the course of this treatment, Dr.

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Solomon conferred with D.'s teachers at Sidwell and, along with two colleagues, conducted a complete " educational, cognitive, and psychological" evaluation of D. that concluded in March 2010.

Meanwhile, on November 13, 2009, Ms. Mehrbach hosted a potluck dinner at her home for families of pre-kindergarten students enrolled in Sidwell's Lower School. Dr. James Huntington attended the potluck with his daughter, who was D.'s classmate. In addition to being a Sidwell parent, Dr. Huntington is a licensed clinical psychologist who worked as a counselor at Sidwell's Middle School. Dr. Huntington explained in his deposition that Sidwell's Middle School and Lower School are separated by approximately four miles and that counselors from the Middle School do not generally work with students at the Lower School. Dr. Huntington's statement is corroborated by testimony from Ms. Louise Whalen, the Lower School's resource teacher, and Mr. Stephen Barker, the interim Head of School at Sidwell.[2]

Several months later, on January 12, 2010, Dr. Huntington emailed Ms. Mehrbach to state his regret at being unable to spend more time talking with her at the potluck and to ask whether she would like to arrange a " playdate" for his daughter and D., who seemed to get along well. After scheduling the playdate, the two parents exchanged many emails expressing mutual romantic interest. In one of these emails, Ms. Mehrbach explained that D. had opened Ms. Mehrbach's laptop and had likely seen several emails from Dr. Huntington. Dr. Huntington responded by expressing surprise that D. could read at such a young age, which prompted Ms. Mehrbach to share her frustration at how Sidwell had handled D.'s intellectual needs. Ms. Mehrbach explained that she had intended to mention this topic to him and suggested that they discuss it again in the future.

The playdate occurred on January 22, 2010. Over several hours, Dr. Huntington's three children, including his daughter, interacted with Ms. Mehrbach's two daughters, including D. At some point during the playdate, Dr. Huntington and Ms. Mehrbach discussed D.'s difficulties at Sidwell and Dr. Huntington suggested that Ms. Mehrbach contact the school's resource teacher, Ms. Louise Whalen. Two days later, Ms. Mehrbach summarized her interaction with Dr. Huntington in an email to Mr. Newmyer, explaining that Dr. Huntington had " spent a little time with [D.] on Friday at the playdate and [she] explained [their] frustration with [the] school," and that Dr. Huntington had " agreed to talk to the lower school resource teacher on [D.]'s behalf." In the same email, Ms. Mehrbach explained to Mr. Newmyer that she and Dr. Huntington met for drinks the night after the playdate and again discussed D. so that when Dr. Huntington contacted Ms. Whalen " he could act like he know[s] [D.] better than he does." She also shared that Dr. Huntington " was blown away by her reading, etc." Ms. Mehrbach explained that Dr. Huntington had told her about a " turf war" between Lower School teachers and Ms. Whelan " because the teachers don't want to admit if they cant [sic] handle something." She continued:

So [Dr. Huntington] is going to call the resource woman and explain that he has spent some time with [D.] and . . . thinks she needs more stimulation because she is really advanced and isn't getting recognized for it. That way we don't ...

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