German Court Rejects Document-Phobia Defense

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A German court has rejected a woman’s appeal of a decision terminating her child-support benefits, despite her disability claim.  The woman had argued that she could not respond earlier to an agency’s requests for information because she has a "phobia of official correspondence."

Had I known about this idea sooner I might have tried it at the DMV this morning.  In San Francisco, they might just go for it.

But not in Germany.  According to the report, the woman was sent a letter in May 2007 asking her to send documents supporting her claim to continued payments.  (These appear to have been government payments, not support from a former spouse.)  When she did not respond, she was sent another letter in July saying that the payments would be ending but that she had a month to appeal.  That deadline also passed.  She finally replied in September, well after the deadline, saying that her unreasoning fear of the government’s letters had delayed her response to them.

On second thought, maybe this would work better as a tax argument than at the DMV.  The IRS would be a tougher sell, but then their letters are a lot more terrifying.  Wesley Snipes’s attorneys should have at least run this one up the flagpole — I think it’s better than the defense they did put on.

Anyway, according to the court, the woman said she "was and still is petrified of the contents of official letters," and that she had "already suffered many financial disadvantages" due to ignoring or throwing out official-looking mail.  (Do they have the Publishers’ Clearinghouse Giveaway over there?  That looks pretty official.)  She said she had "long considered" seeking treatment, but had never done so (possibly imagining the letters she might get from her government insurance plan).  But the court rejected her case, saying that since she conceded this was a long-standing problem, she could and should have sought help long before.

The article did not say what evidence the woman provided, if any, that her phobia is real.  Even on the Internet, where there are loads of unofficial "phobia-list" sites, I could not find a reference to a "fear of correspondence," official or otherwise.  The DSM-IV doesn’t try to list all specific phobias, but instead classifies them under a diagnostic code for "Specific Phobia," the essential feature of which is a "marked and persistent fear of clearly discernible, circumscribed objects or situations."  So, if it’s real, this case would likely be coded as 300.29 (Specific Phobia, Other Type).  If not, I was surprised to find that it would still get a code: either 300.16 (Factitious Disorder), in which one makes up symptoms with no external incentive for doing so, or, if such an incentive does exist (let’s say, the incentive of avoiding having one’s benefits cut), it would be V65.2 (Malingering).

Yes, the DSM-IV actually has a code for "Malingering," defined as "the intentional production of false or grossly exaggerated physical or psychological symptoms, motivated by external incentives such as avoiding military duty, avoiding work, [or] obtaining financial compensation," which to me sounds a lot like . . . well, malingering.  As it happens, Malingering, says the DSM-IV, should be strongly suspected in the "medicolegal context."  So maybe that is the better diagnosis here.

It also notes that hypnosis generally will not help, which is unfortunate, but unsurprising.