Court Upholds Alienation of Affections
Special Report - January 10, 2008
By declining to accept an appeal of a Mississippi case, the U.S. Supreme Court has effectively upheld actions for alienation of affections. Alienation of affections is a common law remedy whereby a married person can sue a third party who has intentionally “alienated” the affections of his or her spouse. In most cases, this “alienation” results in the breakup of the marriage. It has been abolished in all but seven statesMississippi, Hawaii, Illinois, New Mexico, South Dakota, Utah, and North Carolina.
The U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up the case of a Mississippi man who won a verdict of $756,500 against his wife’s millionaire boss for alienating the wife’s affections resulting in her leaving their marriage. According to legal documents filed in the case, Sandra Fitch was married to plumber Johnny Valentine, when she became involved in an affair with her boss, Jerry Fitch. The affair resulted in a child, and, upon learning the child was not his, Mr. Valentine sued for divorce and then sued Jerry Fitch under Mississippi law for alienation of affections. Mr. Valentine, whose ex-wife eventually married her boss, won a judgment against Mr. Fitch for $642,000 in actual damages and $112,500 in punitive damages. The Mississippi Supreme Court upheld the verdict, and Mr. Fitch appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Mr. Fitch’s lawyers argued that under Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court case that struck down a Texas sodomy statute, the state cannot penalize private intimate conduct between consenting adults. (The Lawrence case extended constitutional protection for same-sex intimate relationships, but Mr. Fitch sought constitutional protection for heterosexual adulterous intimate relationships.) Because punitive damages require a showing of malice, Mr. Fitch argued that an adulterous relationship could not meet the malice requirement, since intimate sexual relationships are “protected under Lawrence.” The Court disagreed.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court refused to take up the case, the verdict stands, and Mr. Fitch must compensate Johnny Valentine $756,500 for breaking up his marriage. By implication, the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the case affirms the right of states to allow actions by a spurned spouse for the recovery of both actual and punitive damages caused by the adulterous relationship of the other spouse and a third party. It also signals a refusal on the part of the Supreme Court to extend the Lawrence v. Texas decision into the realm of adulterous heterosexual intimate relationships.
North Carolina Family Policy Council Attorney Jere Royall responded, “This case is a victory for people whose marriages have been torn apart by the wrongful and malicious actions of parties outside of the marriage. The Supreme Court acted in the best interest of families and the institution of marriage by reaffirming the common law action for alienation of affections.”
Copyright © 2008. North Carolina Family Policy Council. All rights reserved.