Nonsuited: Case against St. Anne's, Grisham on hold
The $11-million lawsuit against mega-selling author John Grisham took a surprise turn last week when attorneys for plaintiff Katherine Almy filed a nonsuit.
That means the case is over– but Almy has the right to refile her lawsuit within six months. The suit had been scheduled to go to trial January 22.
The lawsuit stems from mysterious letters that co-defendant Donna Swanson, wife of St. Anne's development director Alan Swanson, began receiving in 1996, letters that were designed to break up her marriage, according to the lawsuit.
When Grisham began receiving mysterious letters in 1998, he and Alan Swanson decided Katherine Almy must be the culprit. Swanson removed a copy of Almy's contract marked "strictly confidential" from St. Anne's, and the two hired handwriting experts, who concluded Almy indeed was the sender.
That's not what police determined.
After the pair of amateur sleuths filed a complaint with police, Almy passed a polygraph test, and a state handwriting analyst determined she was not the author of the letters.
Almy filed suit in August 2000 charging conspiracy to inflict emotional distress and engage in malicious prosecution. In addition to Grisham, the suit named St. Anne's, the Swansons, and handwriting analysts Cina Wong and David Liebman.
Attorneys were in court on January 6 arguing 22 pre-trail motions, including one that St. Anne's be dismissed from the suit. Three days later, on January 9, Almy's attorneys filed the nonsuit.
Why make such a move so close to trial date?
"The other side, with all those motions, made their strategy clear and raised some new issues that we're going to investigate," says Alexandria attorney Ben DiMuro, whose firm is representing Almy.
St. Anne's attorney Cal Thomas scoffed at the notion that the private school should have been sued. "We're being told the school is responsible for the conduct of Mr. Grisham and Mr. Swanson," he told Judge Edward Hogshire.
Hogshire seemed amenable to his point. "There was nothing St. Anne's did that authorized or facilitated or approved this," he said. "Where lies the dereliction of St. Anne's?" the judge asked Almy's attorneys. "Because they didn't call the police? Because they didn't sanction it by terminating Mr. Swanson? What is it they should have done?"
Thomas admits he was surprised by the nonsuit. "From a personal standpoint, I'm happy because it gave me a much better weekend than I thought I'd have," he says. And he says he's delighted for his client because now "they can go back to teaching children."
The St. Anne's lawyer says he has no idea why Almy's team filed a nonsuit, but he offered this observation: "A lot of times a nonsuit comes up when the plaintiff realizes he has little chance of prevailing."
While Hogshire hadn't ruled on the motion to dismiss, Thomas says, "I had a very good feeling. I felt the motion was well taken and appropriate."
Grisham attorney Tom Albro is taking the nonsuit in stride. "I'm too old to be surprised by anything," he says.
After last week's hearing, "The sense we came away with was that most of [Hogshire's] rulings tended to favor the defendant, and that may have prompted them to dismiss their lawsuit," Albro says. "I don't know."
DiMuro insists the nonsuit is a strategic move. "They tipped their hand on a number of things," he says. "Just as they used a procedural advantage, we're using one, too."
He adds that nothing has changed about the facts of the case. "Mr. Grisham and Mr. Swanson went into [Katherine Almy's] son's records and acted as their own police department. Nobody, whether a teacher or board member, should take files for handwriting analysis."
So is there any chance Almy will drop the case and not refile in six months? "No chance at all," replies DiMuro.