A father who was accused of sexually abusing his son will not be able to sue the social worker whose interview of the boy triggered the allegations, the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled Feb. 16.
The plaintiff in the case, Michael Piro, alleges that Rebecca McKeever, a licensed clinical social worker, inappropriately employed overly suggestive questioning and interpretations that were aimed at eliciting a false allegation of sexual abuse and that led to the inaccurate conclusion that Piro had abused his son.
Piro contends that he suffered extreme emotional distress as a result of the accusations and their consequences, and he filed suit against McKeever, bringing claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) and negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED).
A Mecklenburg County Superior Court judge granted McKeever’s motion to dismiss the suit. (Similar claims against other defendants were also dismissed and not appealed.) On appeal, a fractured panel voted to uphold the dismissal, finding that Piro had not proven several essential elements of his claims.
A successful claim for IIED requires proof of three things: extreme and outrageous conduct by the defendant, her intent to cause severe emotional distress, and actual distress suffered by the plaintiff. Judge Wanda Bryant, writing for the court, held that Piro had failed to meet his threshold of proof on each of the elements.
“Plaintiff’s complaint essentially asks the court to speculate on what action exhibited by defendant was extreme and outrageous,” Bryant wrote.
Bryant also agreed with the trial court that it was not reasonably foreseeable that McKeever’s conduct would cause severe emotional distress to Piro personally. Piro had argued that foreseeability was an issue that should be left to a jury.
Judge Martha Geer wrote a separate opinion concurring in the result on different reasoning. She cited a case in which a department store employee exaggerated a report of child abuse against a store customer and reported it to social services. In a 1999 decision, the Court of Appeals had held that the employee’s conduct was not outrageous, in part due to the existence of an independent investigatory process that served to protect the plaintiff from further proceedings based on false accusations.
“Although the allegations in the complaint indicate [McKeever’s] questioning was professionally negligent, the complaint does not allege facts sufficient to allow an inference that defendant McKeever’s conduct was intentionally aimed at eliciting a false accusation [or] that defendant McKeever willfully and knowingly disregarded facts that would exonerate plaintiff,” Geer wrote.
Judge John Tyson dissented from the majority’s holding and argued that Piro should be allowed to bring his case before a jury. Tyson noted some of the conduct that the Court of Appeals had deemed extreme and outrageous in previous cases, including a case where a store manager accused two patrons of shoplifting and a case where the defendant had breached a contract.
“I believe the allegations that defendant McKeever used suggestive questioning and other techniques specifically aimed at eliciting a false allegation of sexual abuse by a ten-year-old boy against his father, are more ‘atrocious’ and ‘intolerable’ than the facts our Supreme Court found to be extreme and outrageous in [those cases],” Tyson wrote. “The plurality’s opinion erroneously weighs the evidence and ‘speculates’ to reach its conclusion to the contrary.”
Jake Epstein of Raleigh represented McKeever. Epstein said he felt that the trial court had properly applied the existing law to the facts of this case, and that the appeals court’s opinion didn’t represent any change to existing law.
“Social workers exist and work hard to help their client, and I’m glad to see that the Court of Appeals’ opinion protected this important function,” Epstein said. “I don’t think that the facts or the torts are particularly complex. There are a number of reasons why this case should be dismissed, and this can be seen to some extent by the fact that there are multiple opinions.”
Epstein said that his client denies the allegations made by Piro.
Gena Graham Morris and Christopher Hood of Horack Talley Pharr & Lowndes in Charlotte represented Piro. Morris said that she was disappointed but not surprised by the ruling.
“The law does not pave a good avenue for parents who are damaged by the intentional or negligent misconduct of their children’s mental health providers,” Morris said. “If [McKeever’s conduct] is not extreme and outrageous, I do not know what is. [It] was literally a laundry list of what not to do if you are a therapist treating a child who has made sexual abuse allegations.”
Despite the three separate opinions, Bryant’s decision becomes the decision of the court because she was chosen by the panel to write the majority opinion. Because of the court’s 2-1 split, Piro is entitled to have an appeal of the decision heard by the North Carolina Supreme Court. Morris said that her client had not yet decided whether he would pursue that option.
The 29-page decision is Piro v. McKeever (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-057-16). The full text of the opinion is available online at nclawyersweekly.com.
Follow David Donovan on Twitter @NCLWDonovan