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Feltmeier v. Feltmeier

September 18, 2002


Appeal from the Circuit Court of Jefferson County. No. 99-L-45 Honorable George W. Timberlake, Judge, presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Kuehn


It took the law a long time to recognize domestic violence for what it is. *fn1 In 1986, our legislature awoke to the reality that "the legal system has ineffectively dealt with family violence in the past, allowing abusers to escape effective prosecution or financial liability." 750 ILCS 60/102(3) (West 2000).

The Illinois Domestic Violence Act of 1986 (the Act) (750 ILCS 60/101 et seq. (West 2000)) created the crime of domestic battery and provides serious penalties for those who committed it. While the Act provides a number of remedies in an effort to protect abused spouses and family members, it did not create a civil cause of action to remedy the damages done. This case addresses the question of whether a victim of domestic violence can maintain a civil action to recover monetary damages for a pattern of marital abuse, inflicted over a number of years and resulting in severe emotional distress.

The plaintiff wants to recover damages from her former husband for the way he treated her during the course of their 11-year failed marriage. The complaint alleges a pattern of physical and mental abuse, along with the allegation that it inflicted severe and lasting emotional distress. We are asked to decide whether a former wife can maintain such an action against her erstwhile husband and, if so, whether an alleged pattern of domestic abuse constitutes one continuous tort, so that the statute of limitations begins to run only after the final abusive act has occurred.

As a rule of thumb, we rarely review questions that arise during litigation's course. However, if an interlocutory appeal can resolve novel legal questions and thereby facilitate judicial economy, we sometimes accept the review of questions certified for our consideration prior to a final adjudication in the trial court. 155 Ill. 2d R. 308(a). In this case, we have accepted three issues certified for review by the trial judge. Their resolution leads us to conclude that this plaintiff can maintain an action at law to recover monetary damages proximately caused by her ex-husband's pattern of abusive treatment during the course of their ill-fated marriage.

Lynn Feltmeier and Robert Feltmeier entered the bonds of matrimony on October 11, 1986. The ensuing marriage failed to measure up to the sacred vows under which it was entered. Lynn was awarded a divorce from Robert on December 16, 1997. She prevailed on grounds of mental cruelty. The judgment incorporated the terms of a December 10, 1997, marital settlement agreement, which contained a provision that called for the mutual release of all future claims that either party might have against the other.

On August 25, 1999, Lynn sued Robert for the intentional infliction of emotional distress. According to the allegations contained in the complaint, Robert engaged in a pattern of domestic abuse-both physical and mental in nature-that began shortly after the exchange of the marital vows, continued throughout the marriage, and did not cease even after the marriage ended. Lynn's complaint was very specific about the details and time frames of the alleged physical and emotional abuse. Lynn alleged that she was physically beaten at least 11 times. She claimed that many of the beatings were administered while her children were at hand to witness them. Lynn further alleged that she was physically restrained against her will on more than one occasion. In addition to the physical abuse, Lynn repeatedly found herself on the receiving end of verbal attacks and flying objects hurled in her direction. She alleged that her husband systematically isolated her from family and friends. Finally, she alleged that when she took action to rid herself of the abuse, Robert stalked her. The complaint specifically alleged more than 45 episodes of abusive behavior.

On October 20, 1999, Robert filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. Robert maintained that the complaint failed to allege facts that give rise to an action for the intentional infliction of emotional distress. He argued that the conduct alleged was neither extreme nor outrageous in nature. He also argued that even if the conduct alleged was actionable, the claim was still not viable because the statute of limitations had run on most of the alleged misconduct.

On February 14, 2000, the trial judge denied Robert's motion. Immediately thereafter, Robert filed an amended motion to dismiss that raised the marital settlement agreement as a release from the various claims presented by Lynn's lawsuit. The trial judge denied that motion on June 23, 2000.

On April 10, 2001, using the language of Supreme Court Rule 308(a) (155 Ill. 2d R. 308(a)) the trial judge found that the interlocutory orders denying Robert's motions to dismiss involved questions of law "as to which there is substantial ground for difference of opinion" and that an immediate appeal from the orders "may materially advance the ultimate termination of the litigation."

The issues certified for review are as follows:

1. Whether the plaintiff's complaint states a cause of action for the intentional infliction of emotional distress.

2. Whether the plaintiff's claims for the intentional infliction of emotional distress based on conduct prior to August 25, 1997, are barred by the applicable statute of limitations.

3. Whether the plaintiff's claim against the defendant for the intentional infliction of emotional distress has been released by the language of the marital settlement agreement.

We will address each issue in the order presented. Additionally, we address an immunity issue raised by Robert in this appeal.


When a trial judge is presented with a motion to dismiss a case for the failure to state a cause of action pursuant to section 2-615 of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2-615 (West 1998)), he or she must determine whether the complaint sets forth sufficient facts that, if established, could entitle the plaintiff to relief. Bryson v. News America Publications, Inc., 174 Ill. 2d 77, 86, 672 N.E.2d 1207, 1214 (1996). The judge must accept all well-pleaded facts in the complaint as true and draw reasonable inferences from those facts that are favorable to the plaintiff. Bryson, 174 Ill. 2d at 86, 672 N.E.2d at 1213. Because the judge is not being called upon to weigh any witness's credibility or weigh facts, on appeal we review the matter de novo. Jackson v. Michael Reese Hospital & Medical Center, 294 Ill. App. 3d 1, 9, 689 N.E.2d 205, 211 (1997). The same standard of review applies when determining the propriety of an order denying a motion to dismiss pursuant to section 2-619 of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2-619 (West 1998)). Dunn v. Patton, 307 Ill. App. 3d 375, 379, 718 N.E.2d 264, 268 (1999).

To state a valid cause of action for the intentional infliction of emotional distress, the plaintiff must plead certain facts. To maintain her action, Lynn had to initially allege that Robert engaged in conduct that was truly extreme and outrageous. She had to further allege that Robert intended to inflict severe emotional distress or knew that there was a high probability that his actions would cause severe emotional distress. Finally, Lynn had to allege that as a result of Robert's conduct, she actually suffered severe emotional distress. McGrath v. Fahey, 126 Ill. 2d 78, 86, 533 N.E.2d 806, 809 (1988). These elements are taken from section 46 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts. McGrath, 126 Ill. 2d at 86, 533 N.E.2d at 809; Restatement (Second) of Torts §46 (1965). The court system only intervenes in such matters when " 'the distress inflicted is so severe that no reasonable [person] could be expected to endure it.' " McGrath, 126 Ill. 2d at 86, 533 N.E.2d at 809 (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts §46, Comment j, at 77 (1965)).

Robert asks us to evaluate Lynn's claim in light of the marital context in which it arose. He draws upon several cases from other jurisdictions that have rejected efforts to maintain actions for the intentional infliction of emotional distress based upon marital misconduct. See Pickering v. Pickering, 434 N.W.2d 758, 761 (S.D. 1989) (The husband could not maintain an action for the intentional infliction of emotional distress based upon his wife's extramarital affair. Such an action does not lie, as a matter of public policy, when it is predicated upon conduct that leads to a divorce.); see also Hakkila v. Hakkila, 812 P.2d 1320 (N.M. App. 1991). We recognize that the family relationship is an important consideration in analyzing intrafamily torts.

In order to fully appreciate the importance of the marital context to a cause of action for the intentional infliction of emotional distress, we must generally review some of the policy considerations that underlie restrictions of the tort's scope. Liability does not flow from every act that intends to cause, and does cause, emotional distress. It is reserved for those who engage in "extreme and outrageous" conduct intended to cause such distress.

There are several simple reasons to support this limitation on the cause of action. The law simply cannot impose a degree of civility beyond human capacity. Courts cannot police every intentional infliction of emotional distress in a society where, like it or not, incivility is quite pervasive. Nor should they. As one noted scholar has observed, "[I]t would be unfortunate if the law closed all the safety valves through which irascible tempers might legally blow off steam." C. Magruder, Mental and Emotional Disturbance in the Law of Torts, 49 Harv. L. Rev. 1033, 1053 (1936). Most everyone needs some leeway to vent emotions in order to preserve proper mental health.

Making another person unhappy or upset may actually serve a useful purpose, other than simply maintaining a degree of mental health. Hence, witnesses at a trial have to suffer the anguish of harsh, and sometimes humiliating, cross-examination, just like young soldiers must suffer the distress that flows from a drill sergeant's wrath during basic training.

Basic liberty interests serve to justify the limitation of the tort's scope. "There is still, in this country, such a thing as liberty to express an unflattering opinion of another, however wounding it may be to his feelings ***." W. Prosser, Insult and Outrage, 44 Cal. L. Rev. 40, 44 (1956). Similarly, an interest in personal autonomy has led courts to reject lawsuits where a person intentionally causes emotional distress by engaging in an extramarital affair. Pickering, 434 N.W.2d at 761.

Finally, the restriction of this tort to extreme and outrageous behavior provides protection against unfounded and frivolous lawsuits, offering reliable confirmation of injury and causation, the other two elements of the tort. When conduct is truly extreme and outrageous, it is more likely that severe emotional distress suffered by the victim was actually caused by that conduct.

These considerations, limiting the liability for the intentional infliction of emotional distress to only outrageous behavior, caution a very limited scope for the tort in the marital context.

We agree with the analysis set forth by Judge Hartz of the New Mexico Court of Appeals:

"Conduct intentionally or recklessly causing emotional distress to one's spouse is prevalent in our society. This is unfortunate but perhaps not surprising, given the length and intensity of the marital relationship. Yet even when the conduct of feuding spouses is not particularly unusual, high emotions can readily cause an offended spouse to view the other's misconduct as 'extreme and outrageous.' Thus, if the tort of outrage is ...

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