• Key point 3-08.09. Clergy can be liable for disclosing communications shared with them in confidence to others without the permission of the counselee.
* A Florida court ruled that a student at a religious high school could not sue the school as a result of the disclosure of his sexual orientation. Administrators at a private religious high school asked the school chaplain to counsel a 12th grade student (the ‘plaintiff’) about his sexual orientation. The chaplain met with the plaintiff in a private area of the campus. The plaintiff claimed that the chaplain assured him that their conversation was confidential and that only after receiving this assurance did he disclose that he was homosexual. The plaintiff alleged that he made this disclosure to seek spiritual counsel, and that the chaplain counseled him about biblical views of homosexuality. The plaintiff further alleged that the chaplain disclosed the confession to school administrators who later expelled him from the school and shared his sexual orientation with others. As a result of the school’s actions, the plaintiff was shunned by his former classmates and berated by the media. He sued the school for damages, claiming that its actions amounted to a negligent infliction of emotional distress based on the chaplain’s breach of a fiduciary duty of confidentiality.
A Florida appeals court dismissed the lawsuit based on the so-called ‘impact rule.’ This rule states that claims for negligent infliction of emotional distress require proof of a physical impact. The court explained: ‘The impact rule requires that before a plaintiff can recover damages for emotional distress caused by the negligence of another, the emotional distress suffered must flow from physical injuries the plaintiff sustained in an impact.’ This rule is based on the assumption that ‘allowing recovery for injuries resulting from purely emotional distress would open the floodgates for fictitious or speculative claims.’ The court stressed that very few exceptions to the impact rule had been recognized by the state supreme court, and it declined to create an exception for disclosures of confidential information by members of the clergy. It submitted this issue to the state supreme court for clarification. Woodard v. Jupiter Christian School, 913 So.2d 1188 (Fla. App. 2005).
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