Law School Case Brief
Conley v. Doe - 14 Mass. L. Rep. 59 (2001)
As a matter of law, a sixth grader does not engage in conduct that is extreme and outrageous, beyond all possible bounds of decency and utterly intolerable in a civilized community" when he privately writes that he wants to kill a teacher but does not act to communicate that intent to the teacher. Such conduct, however sad and disturbing, cannot rise to the level of triggering a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress unless, at the very least, the student acts to communicate that intention to his teacher. In short, if the conduct fails to constitute a criminal threat because the student has not acted to communicate the threat, it fails to state a cause of action for the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Plaintiff Mary Conley, a sixth grade teacher at a suburban middle school in the Boston metropolitan area, saw John, her student in her English class and homeroom, writing on a piece of paper with a black marker and observed that he had written the words, "People I Want to Kill," across the top of the paper. No names had been written on the paper. Ms. Conley confiscated the paper and brought John to the school office, informing school authorities of what she had found. Five days later, Ms. Conley learned that school authorities had discovered on January 12 a second piece of paper that had been written by John and that also was entitled, "People I Want to Kill," but this paper included the names of nine people, including Ms. Conley. When Ms. Conley learned of the piece of paper that included her name on January 17, she left the school building and became "deathly afraid" of returning. School officials met with John's parents, telling them that John could not return to school until, among other things, he had completed a psychological evaluation. Early that same evening, one of John's parents accompanied John to school before a school dance and delivered to a school official what the parent contended was a full and complete psychological evaluation of John, as had been required by the school. Having received that evaluation, the school allowed John to attend the school dance that evening. Ms. Conley sued defendants, John and his parents, alleging intentional infliction of emotional distress by all defendants, assault and negligent infliction of emotional distress by the student, parental negligence, and civil conspiracy. Ms. Conley further contended that the purported psychological evaluation could not have been a genuine full and complete psychological evaluation of John, because it was produced in too short a time. The defendants moved to dismiss all counts.
Did plaintiff teacher's claim against defendant student and parents for intentional infliction of emotional distress fail?
The trial court allowed the motion to dismiss all counts of the complaint. The court held that the assault and intentional infliction of emotional distress claims failed, as the student did not communicate the list to the teacher, who discovered it by other means. The student did not commit negligent infliction of emotional distress, as the teacher was not closely related to a third person directly injured by the student's tortious conduct. The parental negligence claims failed, because, inter alia, the student committed no tort and the teacher had no standing to base a claim on the allegedly false evaluation submitted to the school. The civil conspiracy claim also failed, because, inter alia, there was no evidence defendants conspired to commit a tort against the teacher.
The court looked to the four-part test that a plaintiff must meet to in a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress: (1) that the defendant intended to inflict emotional distress, or knew or should have known that emotional distress was the likely result of his conduct, but also (2) that the defendant's conduct was extreme and outrageous, beyond all possible bounds of decency and utterly intolerable in a civilized community, (3) the actions of the defendant were the cause of the plaintiff's distress, and (4) the emotional distress suffered by the plaintiff was severe and of such a nature that no reasonable person could be expected to endure it.
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