NEWS- The defendant: Supreme Court okays Grisham suit

One of Charlottesville's longest legal dramas breathed new life when the Supreme Court of Virginia ruled 6-1 that an Albemarle Circuit Court judge erroneously dismissed Katharine Almy's lawsuit against mega-selling author John Grisham and Alan and Donna Swanson. The January 12 decision allows Almy to go back to court to sue for intentional infliction of emotional distress, more than six years after she first filed suit.

The story starts in 1996 when Donna Swanson began getting anonymous letters designed to break up her marriage to St. Anne's-Belfield development director Alan Swanson. 

Grisham, too, received an anonymous letter in 1998. The three, all parents of children at St. Anne's, suspected Almy, also a St. Anne's parent, and provided samples of her handwriting– a thank-you note and her daughter's registration to play baseball in a league in which Grisham was a coach, according to the Supreme Court ruling– to handwriting expert David Liebman.

When Liebman requested more samples of Almy's writing, Swanson allegedly rifled Almy's confidential files at St. Anne's and provided copies to Grisham, who was on the school's board of directors. Liebman and another handwriting analyst, Cina Wong, concluded that it was possible Almy could have written the letters.

Grisham and Swanson met with Commonwealth's Attorney Jim Camblos, who contacted the Albemarle County Police Department. In August 1998, Detective Thomas Grimes was sent round to talk to Almy, who denied sending the letters and suffered "severe emotional distress" from his visit, according to court documents. She took a polygraph test and submitted handwriting samples to the state forensics lab, and no charges were filed against her. 

Almy sought treatment and was diagnosed with a "major depressive disorder." She was doing better until about a year later, in August 1999, when she learned that Swanson and Grisham had obtained her children's confidential files from St. Anne's. She suffered a setback, and her lawyers have described her condition as "almost catatonic," and that at times she was "curled up in fetal position."

Intentional infliction of emotional distress claims are rarely made and difficult to prove, and must include evidence of four elements: that the wrongdoer's actions were "intentional or reckless," that the conduct was "outrageous or intolerable," that there's a connection between the conduct and the distress, and that the distress is severe.

The court concludes that Almy's pleadings sufficiently allege that Grisham and the Swansons intended to cause her "severe emotional distress" and that the threesome "acted intentionally to falsely accuse Almy, with the specific purpose of causing her humiliation, ridicule and severe emotional distress."

Almy still has to prove her case, but the court holds that if her allegations are true, reasonable persons could view the defendants' conduct as being "so outrageous in character, so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized society."

Off the hook for intentional infliction of emotional distress are handwriting experts Liebman and Wong. The court also dropped Almy's claims of conspiracy to intentionally inflict emotional distress, reasoning that it's just too darn hard to prove.

Grisham attorney Tom Albro declined to comment on the ruling. 

"I think the Supreme Court ruling speaks for itself," says the Swansons' attorney, James H. Revere.

Says Almy attorney Ben DiMuro, "In a story that could have come directly out of one of Mr. Grisham's novels, Ms. Almy became the victim and wrongful target of a Barney Fife-style investigation instigated by Mr. Grisham and the Swansons that tarnished her reputation in the community while inflicting severe emotional distress. We look forward to bringing the case to trial, and are confident that a jury will agree that Mr. Grisham's and the Swansons' conduct was completely outrageous and they should be held accountable for their actions." 

Still held unaccountable for her or his actions: the wannabe, home-wrecking letter writer.

To be continued...

The Supreme Court of Virginia is allowing Katharine Almy's lawsuit against John Grisham to go forward. Now she must prove "outrageous or intolerable conduct" by Grisham and his co-defendants.FILE PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO