When Life Coaches Get Sued
The estimated 53,000 professional coaches practicing worldwide in the nearly $2.4 billion industry of professional coaching have a public perception problem: people often don’t really know what coaches do. That’s one of the conclusions identified in a market research study recently conducted by the International Coaching Federation (ICF). Add to that problem the fact that anybody can introduce themselves to you as a coach — no specific training, license, or educational background is required by law — and it’s no wonder the public is confused about the benefits and quality of coaching.
That said, several professional coaching associations have taken on a self-regulatory role as a way of adding more credibility, reliability, and gravitas to the work their members do. ICF is the largest of those associations, and to become ICF-certified at the most basic level, a coach must complete course-based training, a rigorous supervised practicum, and several written and oral exams, all of which pay significant attention to a coaching code of ethics.
A large part of being an ethical coaching professional is understanding and anticipating legal risks. Current and aspiring coaches should be aware of the particular features of their discipline that may land them in a court of law defending against the claims of a former client. Most of the publicly available lawsuits against coaches fall into two broad categories: (1) breach of contract, and (2) tort (including claims of negligence, fraud, misrepresentation, and infliction of emotional distress). Cases falling under these categories are described below.
Breach of Contract
One reason for the public perception problem is that a contract for coaching services has more nebulous outcomes than, say, a contract for legal or landscaping services. After all, in the ICF Sample Agreement, the subject matter of the contract is described this way:
Coaching is a partnership (defined as an alliance, not a legal business partnership) between the Coach and the Client in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires the client to maximize personal and professional potential. It is designed to facilitate the creation/development of personal, professional or business goals and to develop and carry out a strategy/plan for achieving those goals.
One can see how, if a coach isn’t careful to manage a client’s expectations and correct any misunderstandings about exactly what is being contractually promised, clients may have differing understandings about what they’re getting in the bargain. And then they may feel cheated if they don’t get it.
For example, in a case published in February 2018, a California man contracted for coaching services with a Las Vegas company. Over the course of approximately three years, the client paid more than $100,000 to the coaching company, traveled regularly to Las Vegas for the coaching, and even paid for one of the company’s coaches to move to San Francisco so the client could receive coaching services closer to home. After the coaching company continued to ask for more money under the contract, the client sued, claiming that the coach had not delivered on the promise of providing structured coaching services with regular feedback, and instead had used the client’s money to fund a lavish party lifestyle in both Las Vegas and San Francisco. (The court ended up transferring the case to Nevada and the ultimate resolution of the case is not publicly reported.) Ponomarenko v. Shapiro, 287 F. Supp.3d 816 (N.D. Cal. 2018).
Breach of contract claims can go both ways, of course. In a case from Connecticut published in December 2018, a coach successfully sued a former client for breach of contract, alleging that the client failed to pay several years of fees under an agreement that called for the client to pay the coach $140,000 to $180,000 per year for the coach to help the client get through a difficult divorce. The services that the coach provided included not only coaching but also “services dealing with attorneys, accountants, law enforcement officials, real estate professionals, and other professionals.” Nkonoki Entertainment Group, LLC v. Callahan, №185023795S (Conn. Super. Ct. December 6, 2018).
Tort: Negligence, Fraud, Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress
Coaches also have been sued under tort theories including various forms of negligence, fraud, misrepresentation, and the infliction of emotional distress. Unlike a breach of contract action which arises from the coach’s alleged failure to deliver the services as promised under the agreement, a tort action is based on the coach’s wrongful act that breaches a duty that is imposed by law, not by promises made in the agreement between the parties.
Among the several primary areas of coaching — including executive, wellness, career, business — the area in which tort disputes are more likely to arise is life coaching. Two aspects specific to life coaching seem to create the potential for client dissatisfaction. One is that the goals and outcomes of life coaching are more ambiguous than in other coaching areas. The other is that the life coach-client relationship can be extremely personal, and while information conveyed between clients and coaches of any stripe is confidential, the sometimes intimate information shared by the client with the life coach can feel “more” confidential and can more likely create a possibility for abuse of trust, whether that’s perceived or real.
In that, life coaching can seem an awful lot like therapy. Well-trained and credentialed coaches know to explain to clients that therapy (which as a general matter helps clients heal, fix, or manage problems from the past) is different from coaching (which helps clients identify and take action toward future positive change). To clients, however, the line between coaching and therapy may not seem all that clear. And in fact, a good number of life coaches are former or current therapists who must pay close attention to the fine lines they walk when wearing their different hats. Moreover, coaches also often provide coaching services as part of another professional practice, most commonly consulting and training. No wonder the lines can sometimes seem blurred.
In general, life coaches create the potential for a tort lawsuit when they act outside their role of coach and give advice that they are not qualified to give, or when they develop relationships with clients that put the coach in a position to abuse or misuse the client’s trust. Even if the coach ultimately prevails in the dispute, by the time the case is over, the coach will have spent a lot of time and attorney’s fees just to get to a judgment saying they did nothing wrong.
For example, the following three cases show what happens when the coach-client relationship goes downhill.
Of note in all these cases: there’s no indication that any of the coaches were certified by ICF or any other coaching association.
Case №1 — Virginia. In a case from Virginia arising out of events that took place in 2005, a mother sued a counseling center, among other defendants, for overreacting and causing emotional distress by reporting her as a suspected child abuser. The mother had originally sought treatment from the center for panic attacks and anxiety. The center employed a psychiatrist, a psychologist, social workers, and licensed professional counselors, but the center assigned the mom to an employee who was a life coach with no training or expertise in mental health. In fact, it doesn’t even appear as though the coach had coaching training — she was described as an office manager who was designated as a life coach by the center director who gave her some limited training.
After the life coach reported suspected child abuse to the Department of Social Services (with the Center’s mental health professionals’ instruction and guidance), the mom sued for, among other things, negligent hiring of the life coach, defamation, breach of contract of confidentiality, negligence, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. All the claims were resolved in favor of the center and the coach, but not because they did nothing wrong. Instead, instrumental to the court’s holding was that the Virginia statutory scheme for the prevention of child abuse provided immunity to everyone, including the life coach even though she was not a mandatory reporter, because Virginia’s policy of protecting children took precedence over anybody’s missteps in the process. Wolf v. Fauquier Cty. Bd. of Supervisors, 555 F.3d 311 (4th Cir. 2009)
Case №2 — Wyoming. In a case from Wyoming, the defendant was a life coach who offered services to parents in highly contentious divorces with parental alienation issues. The coach began coaching a client in 2013 through a heated divorce and custody battle and also provided “consulting services to compile evidence, create timelines, and write scripts to provide to [the client’s] legal team” for assistance with her child custody case. When the client ran out of money, the parties agreed on alternative forms of payment: (1) the coach would receive twenty percent of any settlement or award received from a court proceeding related to the child custody dispute (note: this kind of fee arrangement is strictly prohibited in the legal profession); and (2) the client gave the coach rights to write the client’s life story.
The client ended up suing the coach, alleging that the coach made numerous misrepresentations, engaged in the unauthorized practice of law and psychology, and intentionally inflicted emotional distress on the client. More specifically, the client claimed that by escalating the conflict and fear in the client’s custody case, the coach intentionally increased stress in the client’’s life so that her life story would be more profitable. The client also claimed that the coach misrepresented the fact that the coach led a team of professionals assisting in the client’s case that included lawyers, psychologists, and paralegals. The court dismissed seventeen of the client’s claims prior to trial, and the jury found in favor of the life coach on the remaining three claims. Breen v. Pruter, 679 F. App’x 713 (10th Cir. 2017).
Case №3 — Pennsylvania. In a case from Pennsylvania arising from a professional coaching relationship that ran from 2011 to 2014, a life coach held retreats in Ohio that the Pennsylvania client attended over several years; once they met in person in Washington D.C; and they had regular telephone coaching calls from their respective states of residence. After several years, the relationship took a bad turn. The client alleged that: (1) the coach, representing that she was a physician, diagnosed the client with bipolar disorder; (2) the client was subjected to racial harassment at the retreats; (3) the coach made sexual overtures to the client; and (4) the coach disclosed the client’s confidences. The client sued the coach on claims of breach of contract, fraud, negligence in disclosing confidences, negligent sexual conduct; intentional infliction of emotional distress, assault, unjust enrichment, negligence in the unlicensed practice of medicine, medical malpractice, and violation of Pennsylvania’s Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Act. The published case doesn’t get to the resolution of those allegations — it only concludes that the client could require the coach to defend the lawsuit in Pennsylvania because the coach had deliberately solicited business from a Pennsylvania resident and had coached the client over the phone while the client was in Pennsylvania. Toussant v. Williams, 62 F. Supp.3d 417 (E.D.Pa. 2014).
These three cases demonstrate not only the kinds of tort claims that have been brought against coaches but also two other things of legal significance: (1) coaches who do business across state lines can be summoned to appear in a court very far from home; and (2) emails, texts, and other correspondence between coaches and clients are usually admissible in a lawsuit.
So what steps must a life coach take to minimize the possibility of being sued by an unhappy client? Not many. And they’re pretty simple. Be clear in your explanation to the client about your role. Explain that coaching is not therapy and be present enough to recognize when the coaching conversation veers toward problems that only a therapist can help solve. Don’t get involved in a personal relationship with your client. And most importantly, don’t give advice that only a therapist (or a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant) is qualified to give.
Coaches should also consider becoming credentialed by the ICF or another association that provides training, certification, and codes of ethics. An added bonus of ICF membership is access to a community of experienced professional coaches with whom to share ethical dilemmas and brainstorm solutions. Apart from ICF’s formal ethics community, any coach should enlist a brain trust of trusted colleagues to address problems before they get out of hand.
And as a client, if you want to minimize legal problems, there are also steps you can take. Know what coaches do (and what they don’t do). Insist on a coaching agreement that is clear and concrete in its mutual promises. Recognize the safeguards provided by associations like the ICF and hire a coach who is trained and certified and who promises to comply with those safeguards. An added bonus for clients of using an ICF-credentialed coach is that the association provides an internal dispute resolution process in which clients can contact ICF with any complaints about a coach and ICF will investigate and mediate the problem free of charge.
Coaching is a useful discipline for helping people grow and achieve goals. It’s rare for things to go wrong in a coaching relationship. But as the profession grows, disputes are inevitable — the best risk management tool is self-education.