Is a Chaplain’s Betrayal Actionable?

Florida Supreme Court to weigh whether school official harmed teen he outed

BY ARTHUR S. LEONARD  

A divided panel of the Florida 4th District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach has called on the state’s Supreme Court to determine whether a gay teen thrown out of Jupiter Christian School after confiding about his sexuality to a school chaplain can sue the chaplain, who outed him to administrators, for negligent infliction of emotional distress.

The three-judge appellate panel was sharply divided in its October 12 ruling.

Jeffrey Woodard was a senior at Juniper, an independent, Bible-based school not affiliated with any church. Todd Bellhorn, a teacher and school chaplain, approached him at the request of school administrators to “question and counsel” Woodard about his sexual orientation. Woodard was reluctant to talk about the matter with Bellhorn, but after being assured that the conversation was confidential, disclosed that he was gay. Bellhorn then counseled Woodard about Biblical views of homosexuality, after which he promptly betrayed the confidence by reporting the conversation to administrators.

The administrators in turn expelled Woodard in a very public manner. According to Woodard’s legal complaint, he was “berated by the press and the president of JCS, and shunned by his schoolmates as a result of the disclosure.”

Woodard and his mother sued both the school and Bellhorn as an individual defendant. Among many claims, Woodard asserted one directly against Bellhorn for negligent infliction of emotional distress, claiming Bellhorn’s unauthorized disclosure violated his duty as a chaplain to preserve the confidentiality of their conversation, and that the student’s resulting emotional injury was a foreseeable consequence of being outed in that manner. Woodard relied for this claim on prior Florida cases recognizing emotional distress liability on the part of a psychologist and a lawyer for inappropriate disclosures of confidential information.

Bellhorn moved to dismiss this claim, and the trial judge did so ruling that a claim for emotional damages could not be maintained in the absence of physical injury, which is a requirement under common law tradition. This particular tradition, which predates the emergence of modern psychology, was based on the concern that emotional distress claims can easily be feigned.

Writing for the appellate panel, Judge Melanie G. May asserted that while the Florida Supreme Court adheres to the traditional requirements for emotional damage claims, it recognizes a series of narrowly crafted exceptions. May accepted Woodard’s claim that Bellhorn, although not an ordained minister, should be treated as clergy in this case, and thus was bound by the confidentiality rules applicable under that circumstance. However, she wrote, the state’s high Court had yet to ruled on whether a breach of confidentiality by clergy qualifies as an exception to the usual treatment of emotional distress claims. May did not accept the analogy Woodard made to the cases involving a psychologist and a lawyer.

Though May voted in the majority to uphold the trial judge’s dismissal of the claim, she also voted to “certify” to the Florida Supreme Court the question of whether the common law tradition would “preclude a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress arising out of the breach of confidential information provided to a clergyman.”

That nuanced position keeps Woodard’s claim alive, at least technically, until the higher court rules.

In a brief separate opinion, Judge Barry J. Stone, who also voted to affirm the lower court ruling, took the position that Bellhorn is not a clergyman, merely a school counselor, and thus no special confidentiality requirements would attach to the conversation.

Judge Gary M. Farmer dissented from the decision to affirm the trial court, arguing that in fact the Florida Supreme Court’s past rulings had not merely created narrow exceptions to the common law tradition on emotional distress claims but overturned that tradition wholesale in a wide range of cases in which foreseeable emotional distress was caused by something other than a physical injury.

Farmer found that the prior cases involving confidentiality breaches by a psychologist and lawyer had clearly marked out a class of cases for which the traditional approach was irrelevant, and would have allowed Woodard to maintain his claim against Bellhorn. Farmer particularly noted the irony of denying a clergy confidentiality claim in the face of a precedent allowing a psychologist confidentiality claim, pointing out that psychology is the modern-day equivalent of religion as a source of spiritual affirmation and comfort.

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