Dismissed: Judge tosses Grisham suit

One of Charlottesville's longer-running legal dramas ground to a halt– temporarily– July 8 when a judge dismissed Katharine Almy's lawsuit against second-only-to-Harry Potter best-selling author John Grisham and four other defendants.

Retired Judge William R. Shelton said that Almy's claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress and conspiracy to intentionally inflict emotional distress would not survive demurrer.

That means that even if everything Almy alleged were true, there is no legal basis for a lawsuit.

Before the defendants could rejoice too much at the possible end to the case, which celebrates its fifth anniversary August 11, Almy's lawyer vowed to appeal the decision to the Virginia Supreme Court.

Not disputed in court June 22 was that Donna Swanson– wife of St. Anne's-Belfield development director and Grisham buddy Alan Swanson– received graphic anonymous letters in 1996 that were designed to break up her marriage.

When Grisham received anonymous letters in 1998, he and Alan Swanson compared notes and decided Almy was the author. They sent samples of her handwriting– including her application for her son to attend St. Anne's– to handwriting expert David Liebman, who reported he had no opinion whether Almy wrote the letters, but it was "possible" she addressed the envelopes.

Liebman consulted Cina Wong, another handwriting expert, who said that Almy "appeared to be" the author, according to court filings.

Grisham and Swanson went to a private attorney, the commonwealth's attorney, and then the police, who showed up at Almy's house August 13, 1998, a visit that caused her extreme emotional distress, according to her suit. Almy took a polygraph and submitted handwriting samples to the state forensics lab, and no charges were filed against her.

In court, Almy's lawyer, Michael Lieberman, described her devastation at being accused of writing the letters: "absolutely hysterical," "distraught," "almost catatonic," and at times "curled up in fetal position."

The defense contended that Almy's consultations with a licensed therapist did not meet the Supreme Court of Virginia's requirements for medical treatment, and that the defendants' behavior did not meet the definition of "intolerable" and "outrageous" in a civilized society, another criterion for an intentional emotional distress ruling.

Shelton apparently heeded the suggestion of the Swansons' lawyer, James H. Revere, to return a decision so simple it could be written in half a page.

The defendants– through their lawyers– were uniformly "pleased" by the decision.

"They're glad they've reached this point," says Revere of the Swansons. 'They're private people who don't appreciate their lives being played out in the press or in court."

As for whether they still believe Almy wrote the letters, "I have no comment on that," says Revere. "The Swansons have never publicly accused her of writing them."

"It's been a tremendous emotional and financial expense," says Don Morin, Cina Wong's attorney. "She feels vindicated."

"This has been dragging on for too long," says Tom Albro, Grisham's attorney. However, "We can't be sure this is the end," he cautioned– before Lieberman declared his intention to go to the Supreme Court.

"We invited the court to make this ruling early on if something were lacking," says Lieberman. "This gives the Virginia Supreme Court the opportunity to make clear what infliction of emotional distress is."

The argument of the defense, he says, is that Almy didn't suffer enough. "We think she met the standards," he says. "Now it's up to the Supreme Court to define it so we all know."

Almy v. Grisham et al. misses trial for the second time in two years.