A time for sanctions? Grisham strikes back in St. Anne's case
March 21 was a busy day for John Grisham. That evening, he was a relaxed and engaging speaker to a packed house at Culbreth Theater as part of the Virginia Festival of the Book.
The world's #1 writer of legal thrillers gave no hint that he himself had been in court that morning. Grisham is seeking sanctions against Katherine Almy and her attorneys, who have filed an $11-million lawsuit against him, St. Anne's-Belfield School, its development director, Alan Swanson, and two handwriting experts.
Defense attorneys argued that Almy's claim of "severe emotional distress" failed to produce any supporting evidence, and that her filings had needlessly increased the cost for all defendants. They asked Judge Edward Hogshire to impose sanctions, which nearly three years into the case– could include reimbursing hundreds of thousands in attorneys' fees.
Two weeks before a January 22 trial date, Almy's lawyers yanked the suit, with the right to refile within six months.
The mystery began in 1996, when co-defendant Donna Swanson began receiving anonymous threatening letters designed to break up her marriage, according to the suit. In 1998, Grisham also received some mysterious letters. His buddy Alan Swanson allegedly had removed Almy's St. Anne's-Belfield contract from the school's files. The two submitted it to two handwriting experts, who indicated that Almy probably wrote the letters.
Police investigated, but after a state handwriting expert examined the letters, did not file charges against Almy. "Nobody's ever said Almy didn't write the letters," says Tom Albro, Grisham's Charlottesville lawyer.
Back in court last week, Albro told the judge that Almy had never sought medical treatment to support her claim of severe emotional distress. "Psychological counsel is not medical treatment," said Albro.
Almy saw psychologist Stephen Alexander seven times between November 1998 and March 1999, but didn't see Alexander again until February 2001, according to Albro. He described Almy's depression as moderate and said in a deposition that Alexander had only a vague recollection of some documents involving St. Anne's.
As for Almy's charge that handwriting experts Cina Wong and David Liebman conspired with Grisham to manufacture false evidence against Almy, "that didn't happen," says Albro.
He also pointed out that the legal standard Almy had to meet was that the defendants were guilty of "committing outrageous and intolerable acts" that violated the standards of decency and morality.
"The plaintiff may be upset, but she had no cause for action," he continued. "The plaintiff and her counsel had to know they had no case."
He also told Hogshire: "The plaintiff can't just nonsuit without sanctions."
Grisham, absent for the last three hearings The Hook has attended, sat in the second row in Albemarle Circuit Court, behind the defense team and a "reserved" sign on the first bench. He chose an orangey tie to go with his suit, perhaps an indication of his displeasure with Almy's legal maneuvers. Swanson, in an open neck Oxford shirt, sat on one side of Grisham, with handwriting expert Cina Wong on the other.
Katherine Almy, an elegant blonde wearing a top with a horse motif, and with her upswept hair held in place by a chopstick, sat across the aisle as defense attorneys attacked her case.
Don Morin, Wong's attorney, said his client and Liebman wrote that authorship of the letters "was difficult to determine because the handwriting was disguised," but that it appeared Almy addressed the envelopes. "The plaintiff knew there was no basis for a conspiracy," said Morin.
Cal Thomas, attorney for St. Anne's-Belfield, said the school should have been dropped from the suit back in August 2002, when Almy admitted that Grisham and Swanson were not acting on behalf of the school. "How can the school be liable?" he asked.
He also disputed Almy's claims of bodily injury and of seeing a psychologist continually for four years.
"I don't want to use the term 'lying,'" said Thomas, pointing his glasses toward Almy across the courtroom, "but that was not true. Mrs. Almy knew it, and her counsel knew it that she hadn't gotten treatment."
Thomas also said he didn't feel good about the sanction request. But in this case, because of the "gross unnecessary expense" to his client, "the court needs to say, I believe, that litigants and lawyers have duties, and you can't come in here and pursue a claim because you're mad at the school."
When Almy's lawyer, Ben DiMuro, stood up to respond to the motions for sanction, Judge Hogshire said, "I have a lot of trouble with the timing of the nonsuit and lack of medical evidence."
DiMuro argued that the timing of dropping the case should not be a factor in the judge's decision on sanctions. He also stated that Almy had listed two medical doctors in filings, and that it was a "fallacious predicate" that medical treatment had to be constant throughout four years or that it had to come from a medical doctor.
"I'm not trying to pick a fight with you, your honor," said DiMuro, after several Hogshire questions. "They've accused us of false evidence."
Almy's legal team has two weeks to file new briefs and the defense has two weeks to respond. "The judge has this under review," says DiMuro from his Alexandria office a few days after the hearing. "I don't want to say too much."
In court, Hogshire also warned the plaintiff: "If you file another case like this, you've got a real problem."
For that reason, Thomas thinks it unlikely Almy's lawyers will refile.
In January DiMuro told The Hook there was "no chance" that he wouldn't refile the suit. Now he's more circumspect. "I've got one thing to worry about at a time," he says.
Whatever Judge Hogshire rules, Grisham legal fans are unlikely to be any closer than they ever were to learning who wrote the incendiary letters.