Reflections of a downstate family lawyer’s experience with domestic violence and the law: Intentional infliction of a spouse’s emotional distress

Stephanie is a graduate of Thomas M. Cooley Law School and has practiced law in Henry County since 1997. Henry County has a population of about 50,000 people and is located in the 14th Judicial Circuit. Stephanie has three children and resides in rural Lynn Center. She is a member of the 14th Judicial Circuit Family Violence Coordinating Council. She is also involved in provided Law Day presentations, as well as job shadowing opportunities, to elementary children. She is a member of the Illinois State Bar Association, the Henry County Bar Association and the Rock Island County Bar Association

Most marriages end because irreconcilable differences became so vast that the parties believe there is just no going back. The parties come to me with various complaints, mostly of non-communication or infidelity. Once in a while, though, I will have a spouse that comes to me with a special kind of complaint—that she has been the victim of spousal abuse. With Domestic Violence awareness on the rise, and with Henry County arresting at least one alleged batterer per week, and with the 14th Judicial Circuit creating the Family Violence Coordinating Council, I ask myself: why are these cases in the minority? Why so few divorces?

I recently was involved in a case that really made me ponder this question. Shortly after I attended the 14th Judicial Circuit’s first Family Violence Symposium, I accepted a client who, for purposes of anonymity in this article, I’ll refer to as Linda. Linda was the victim of spousal abuse. This was not my first brush with domestic violence. I had been involved with other abuse cases, and while attending Northern Illinois University, I was a Rape Victim Advocate and was on NIU’s Task force against date rape. I also had taken two in-depth courses dealing with family violence and crisis issues while in law school, but Linda’s situation was different.

I came back from court one afternoon and my secretary was practically in tears. She refused to leave my office until I called this woman back. When Linda answered the phone, I instantly understood my secretary’s reaction. Linda had been married for 30 years. By all accounts the marriage had been happy and nothing was out of the ordinary. Her husband had a good job. They lived in a nice house. The kids were grown up and happily living on their own. Good wholesome American family, right? Wrong. For 30 years Linda put up with abuse from her husband, but he never once hit her; he had sexually assaulted her. When she called, she was five hours from my office with no money and no place to live. She really couldn’t even tell me why she left, but she knew she couldn’t go back. There was such terror and desperation in her voice that I literally felt sick. I wondered what had happened to this woman to make her run so far away. I knew I had to protect her. I convinced her to come to my office.

When she arrived she was disheveled and crying and her left arm and hand were shaking uncontrollably. She could barely speak to me. She kept telling me this was all her fault and that she just couldn’t take it anymore and that she had to run. She just had to run. I tried to calm her down, but there was just no way to console her. I tried to get her to tell me why she ran but she insisted that she just didn’t know. Now, I don’t have a degree in psychology, but I have had enough experience with survivors of abuse to know that this woman was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

I talked to her for literally hours that first night and we talked over and over as we prepared for her case. The longer she was away from her husband, the more she came to realize just what made her run that fateful night. The memories of her husband acting out rape fantasies wherein she was not a willing participant on an average of once a month for almost 30 years became clearer and clearer. And because of that abuse she found herself jobless, homeless, seeing therapists at least once a week and on eight medications a day to survive. Unbelievably, even after all this she couldn’t acknowledge that she had been a victim of abuse. (Sexual assault is rated one of the most severe forms of domestic violence). She felt what her husband had done to her was horrible, but okay and that she was truly the bad one. She kept saying to me, “...but he has never once hit me.” Even worse, I realized as the case progressed that not only didn’t she realize she was abused, but that her husband, who admitted that he had done these things, truly didn’t see himself as an abuser.

I thought about this case day and night. I thought how can I help Linda get the help that she needs (i.e., medical treatment and prescriptions and money to live on while she’s in therapy)? We decided to file suit against her husband for Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress. At one time the law stated that you could not sue your spouse. Believe it or not, it wasn’t until 1976 that the first protection from abuse laws went into effect. And still more than 20 years later, every 18 seconds a spouse batters their spouse and every hour a spouse kills their spouse.(FBI, 1986-7). The question is how do we make it stop? How do we make the abuser even realize that their conduct is wrong. I tried to make Linda’s husband see that his conduct was unacceptable by hitting him where it hurt most—his wallet.

The approach was recently sanctioned by the Fifth District appellate court in Feltmeier v. Feltmeier, 777 N.E.2d 1032 (Ill.App.5 Dist.). In that case, the courts joined the war against domestic violence. The Fifth District held that a woman could sue her husband for his alleged physical and verbal abuse over an 11-year marriage, which allegedly resulted in her diagnoses of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression, fear of men and inability to form relationships with men. The court held that such acts constituted a continuous series of acts, such that the two-year limitations period for the wife’s action against her husband for intentional infliction of emotional distress began to run when the last act of abuse was suffered.

Since Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress is a very difficult case to prevail upon, the more acts that can be claimed the better the chances are that the party will prevail. This is a big victory toward making battering spouses financially accountable for their actions. The justices did more than just rule on this issue, they made a strong statement to Illinois about domestic violence.

The court chastised the defending attorney’s argument that the abuse only occurred three or four times per year over the course of the marriage. The court stated in response to this argument, “The argument suggested that one beating a year, coupled with an act of physical restraint or an annual pelting from flying missiles, when spread out over an 11 year span, constituted marital conduct that any reasonable wife should be able to endure without suffering emotional distress.”

As forcefully, the court also stated: “It cannot be trivialized below the threshold of outrageousness that is actionable, by calculating the annual number of abusive events and arguing that there were not enough of them per year to matter. The allegations of Lynn’s complaint typify the kind of abusive relationship that spawns a series of posttraumatic stress symptoms coined the “battered wife syndrome.” This syndrome results from domestic violence and abuse that recurs, but is not necessarily constant or all that frequent. It routinely occurs between long periods of normal and routine family life. This accounts, in part, for why its victims tend to hold steadfast to the hope that the most immediate abusive episode will be the last of its kind...Most cries for help are heard only after the psychological, and in some cases physical, damage is irreversible. Even though the abusive events may only occur a handful of times over the course of a year, the repeated pattern of abuse inflicts daily psychic torment. Its victims live in a constant state of silent fear, generated by the knowledge that their spouse, the very person with whom they sleep every night, harbors the capacity to hurt them. “

It was this case and the other domestic violence literature that finally made my client Linda understand that she had been an abused wife. Upon analysis, it was determined that her husband fit many of the characteristics of a batterer and she fit almost all of the characteristics of a battered woman. The moral of the story is, Illinois is up and coming on the war against Domestic Violence. Thanks to the Fourteenth Judicial Circuit, more professionals like me are being trained to help recognize domestic violence and combat it at the source. This circuit is dedicated to instituting programs and services that will educate and reach much farther than the criminal court. Ultimately, this education will lead the abusers to criminal court and possibly to civil court. For more information about the Family Violence Council, contact Amber McReynold at (309) 558-3738 or amcreynolds@co.rock-island.il.us

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November 2003Volume 9Number 2PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)