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Wilcox v. Newark Valley Central School District

Supreme Court of New York, Third Department

June 6, 2013

LYNDSEY WILCOX, Respondent- Appellant,
v.
NEWARK VALLEY CENTRAL SCHOOL DISTRICT et al., Appellants- Respondents.

Calendar Date: April 18, 2013

Law Firm of Frank W. Miller, East Syracuse (Frank W. Miller of counsel), for appellants-respondents.

Law Office of Ronald R. Benjamin, Binghamton (Ronald R. Benjamin of counsel), for respondent-appellant.

Before: Lahtinen, J.P., McCarthy, Garry and Egan Jr., JJ.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

McCarthy, J.

Cross appeals from an order of the Supreme Court (Tait, J.), entered June 14, 2012 in Tioga County, which partially denied defendants' motion for summary judgment dismissing the amended complaint.

Plaintiff was employed by defendant Newark Valley Central School District (hereinafter NVCSD) as a probationary physical education teacher, and she served as the coach for the girls' varsity field hockey team. Todd Broxmeyer, plaintiff's boyfriend at the time who also served as a volunteer coach for the NVCSD girls' field hockey teams, was arrested and charged with raping a female field hockey player from a different school district. In the course of the investigation, it came to light that plaintiff might have had some involvement in or knowledge of the illegal conduct underlying the allegations against Broxmeyer. Defendants then acted to terminate plaintiff's employment.

Plaintiff commenced this action alleging that defendants maliciously published defamatory oral and written statements about her and that defendants failed to provide her with a name-clearing hearing in violation of her state and federal due process rights [1]. Defendants moved for summary judgment dismissing plaintiff's amended complaint. Supreme Court partially granted the motion to the extent of finding that one statement at issue was protected by a qualified privilege, but the court otherwise denied the motion. Defendants appeal and plaintiff cross-appeals.

When a governmental employer "'fires an employee and publicly charges that she [or he] acted dishonestly or immorally, due process guarantees the employee an opportunity to defend her [or his] good name, reputation, honor or integrity'" (Wilcox v Newark Valley Cent. School Dist., 74 A.D.3d 1558, 1563 [2010], quoting Donato v Plainview-Old Bethpage Cent. School Dist., 96 F.3d 623, 630 [2d Cir 1996], cert denied 519 U.S. 1150 [1997] [internal quotation marks and citation omitted]). Accordingly, a probationary employee may be entitled to a posttermination name-clearing hearing where "'the [public] employer creates and disseminates a false and defamatory impression about the employee in connection with his [or her] termination'" (Matter of Lentlie v Egan, 61 N.Y.2d 874, 875 [1984], quoting Codd v Velger, 429 U.S. 624, 628 [1977]). In order to establish his or her entitlement to such a hearing, a plaintiff must allege "'(1) the utterance of a statement sufficiently derogatory to injure his or her reputation, that is capable of being proved false, and that he or she claims is false, and (2) a material state-imposed burden or state-imposed alteration of the plaintiff's status or rights'" (Wilcox v Newark Val. Cent. School Dist., 74 A.D.3d at 1562, quoting Sadallah v City of Utica, 383 F.3d 34, 38 [2d Cir 2004] [internal quotation marks and citations omitted]; see Matter of Swinton v Safir, 93 N.Y.2d 758, 764 [1999]; see also Zarabi v Incorporated Vil. of Roslyn Harbor, 90 A.D.3d 1037, 1038 [2011]). In other words, the plaintiff must establish "an allegedly defamatory governmental action together with a loss of employment and the dissemination of the stigmatizing material" (Guerra v Jones, 421 Fed.Appx 15, 19 [2d Cir 2011]).

Accordingly, plaintiff's stigma-plus due process claims are linked to her defamation per se cause of action. We therefore consider the arguments together. Plaintiff's defamation cause of action is actually based on four separate statements. Plaintiff alleges that defendant Diane Arbes, principal of NVCSD's high school, stated at a meeting with several staff members that plaintiff should avoid private one-on-one conversations with students and should take a leave of absence "for the safety of the students." Arbes also held a meeting with the field hockey team at which, according to plaintiff's allegations, Arbes told the students that plaintiff acquiesced in or did not challenge her termination. Defendant Mary Ellen Grant, NVCSD's superintendent, provided plaintiff with a statement of reasons for recommending termination, pursuant to Education Law § 3031, which stated, among other things, that plaintiff was aware of Broxmeyer's conduct that violated NVCSD's sexual harassment policy and did not report this conduct. Plaintiff also alleges that Grant spoke to parents of field hockey players and advised them that plaintiff acquiesced in or did not challenge her termination.

Defendants bore the initial burden of tendering "sufficient, competent, admissible evidence establishing a prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law"; only if defendants met that burden was plaintiff required to "produce competent admissible evidence establishing the existence of a material issue of fact which would preclude a grant of summary judgment" (Holly v Morgan, 2 A.D.3d 1170, 1171 [2003]; see Alvarez v Prospect Hosp., 68 N.Y.2d 320, 324 [1986]). In support of their motion, defendants submitted documents, Grant's affidavit, and deposition testimony of plaintiff, Grant and Arbes. Grant testified that she did not state to anyone that plaintiff acquiesced in her termination, and that the statement-of-reasons letter was not placed in plaintiff's personnel file, but in a separate legal file, and would not be disseminated to anyone. Grant also explained that when a potential employer seeks information about a NVCSD employee, the policy is to only provide the employee's position and dates of employment, with no further information. Arbes testified that she made the "safety of the students" remark only regarding private conversations with students, and did not recommend a leave of absence, the statement was not made in a defamatory context and was said in a meeting with only relevant staff and union representatives. This would make that statement privileged under the common interest qualified privilege (see Foster v Churchill, 87 N.Y.2d 744, 752 [1996]). Arbes also testified that she never told anyone that plaintiff acquiesced in her termination, although Arbes had earlier testified that she didn't recall if she ever made such a statement and "might have" said it.

This evidence was sufficient to satisfy defendants' burden of establishing a prima facie case regarding all of the allegedly defamatory statements except Arbes' acquiescence statement. A question of fact exists as to whether Arbes' stated to the field hockey team that plaintiff acquiesced in or did not challenge her termination. Plaintiff was not at the team meeting and did not submit affidavits from any students or faculty who were present, instead relying on her assertion that the statement is false, her own hearsay testimony and equivocal testimony from Arbes' deposition. Arbes was asked whether she had, from a certain date forward, ever said that plaintiff acquiesced in or did not challenge her termination. Arbes testified that she did not recall and, upon further questioning, that she "might have" said it. A break was then taken, after which defendants' counsel noted that Arbes had misunderstood the last question and wanted to correct her answer. Plaintiff's counsel did not allow a correction and, upon later questioning by defendants' counsel, Arbes testified that she did not understand the earlier question, had not said anything about whether plaintiff was challenging her termination, and never made a statement that plaintiff agreed with or did not challenge her termination. Viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to plaintiff, as the nonmovant (see Kumar v Kumar, 96 A.D.3d 1323, 1326 [2012]; Reil v Chittenden, 96 A.D.3d 1273, 1274 [2012]), Arbes' contradictory deposition testimony creates a credibility question. A trier of fact could accept that she was confused by the question and legitimately corrected herself, or could believe that she understood the question and originally answered it correctly but changed her answer after reflection of its implications and discussion with counsel during the break. This contradictory proof raises a question of fact as to whether Arbes made the acquiescence statement (see Yaziciyan v Blancato, 267 A.D.2d 152, 152 [1999]; see also Reil v Chittenden, 96 A.D.3d at 1274; Francis v New York City Tr. Auth., 295 A.D.2d 164, 164-165 [2002]; Meyer v Moreno, 258 A.D.2d 315, 316 [1999]; cf. O'Leary v Saugerties Cent. School Dist., 277 A.D.2d 662, 663 [2000]). Thus, that statement survives as a basis for the defamation per se cause of action and the underlying derogatory statement for the stigma-plus causes of action.

In response to defendants' motion, plaintiff submitted only a memorandum of law. Defendants submitted a reply with affidavits from Arbes and Jill Keeler, a teacher, coach and president of the teachers' union. At oral argument on the motion, plaintiff requested, and Supreme Court granted her, permission to file another affidavit, with defendants given time to respond. Plaintiff then submitted the affidavit of a parent averring that Grant stated to that parent that plaintiff acquiesced in her termination.

Supreme Court did not abuse its discretion by granting plaintiff permission to file a late affidavit. Motion papers must be served in accordance with CPLR 2214 and applicable time frames in order to be "read in support of, or in opposition to, the motion, unless the court for good cause shall otherwise direct" (CPLR 2214 [c]). A court may, in its discretion, accept late papers, should the delinquent party provide a valid excuse (see Payne v Buffalo Gen. Hosp., 96 A.D.3d 1628, 1629 [2012]). The court may consider "'[a]dditional factors relevant... includ[ing], among others, the length of the delay and any prejudice'" (id., quoting Mallards Dairy, LLC v E & M Engrs. & Surveyors, P.C., 71 A.D.3d 1415, 1416 [2010]). Here, the court did not abuse its discretion by finding that plaintiff proffered a valid excuse, considering the relatively short period of delay experienced by both parties and the lack of prejudice (see Mallards Dairy, LLC v E & M Engrs. & Surveyors, P.C., 71 A.D.3d at 1416). In that affidavit, a parent averred that Grant stated in a phone call that plaintiff acquiesced in her termination. Grant acknowledged speaking to the parent by phone but denied making the alleged statement. Considering these conflicting versions of the phone call, Supreme Court correctly denied defendants' motion for summary judgment regarding Grant's statements in phone calls to parents under the defamation and stigma-plus causes of action.

Grant's Education Law § 3031 statement-of-reasons letter cannot be used to support any cause of action. This Court has already determined that the statements made therein were sufficient to implicate plaintiff's liberty interests if the letter were to be "'placed in [her] personnel file and [] likely to be disclosed to prospective employers, '" or the dissemination prong was otherwise satisfied (Wilcox v Newark Val. Cent. School Dist., 74 A.D.3d at 1563, quoting Donato v Plainview-Old Bethpage Cent. School Dist., 96 F.3d at 631 [internal quotation marks and citation omitted]). At that stage, defendants' prediscovery motion to dismiss was denied on the basis that plaintiff had alleged in her complaint that the letter was contained in her personnel file and it was likely to be disclosed (Wilcox v Newark Val. Cent. School Dist., 74 A.D.3d at 1564). While a plaintiff must establish that the defamatory statement was made public (see generally Guerra v Jones, 421 Fed.Appx at 18), actual dissemination is not required to trigger his or her right to a name-clearing hearing; the Court of Appeals has held that a likelihood of dissemination is sufficient (see Matter of Swinton v Safir, 93 N.Y.2d at 765; see generally People v David W., 95 N.Y.2d 130, 137-138 [2000]). Relying on federal authority addressing the issue, the Court of Appeals noted that "'[t]he purpose of the requirement [of a public dissemination] is to limit a constitutional claim to those instances where the stigmatizing charges made in the course of discharge have been or are likely to be disseminated widely enough to damage the discharged employee's standing in the community or foreclose future job opportunities'" (Matter of Swinton v Safir, 93 N.Y.2d at 764, quoting Brandt v Board of Coop. Educ. Servs., 820 F.2d 41, 44 [2d Cir 1987]).

In support of the motion for summary judgment, however, Grant averred that the letter "was never a part of [plaintiff's] permanent employment file" and that "[i]t never entered her file, not even for a second." She also stated that, although NVCSD maintains the letter in a separate file, it had never been and would never be made available to plaintiff's potential employers. The same facts were reflected in Grant's deposition testimony. She further testified that NVCSD's policy with respect to inquiries from prospective employers was to confirm the hiring date, position held and length of employment, but to provide no additional information. Defendants thus submitted competent admissible evidence sufficient to establish that the letter was never going to be made part of plaintiff's personnel file and that it was unlikely that the letter or its contents would be disclosed to potential employers (see Swinton v Safir, 93 N.Y.2d at 764; Wilcox v Newark Val. Cent. School Dist., 74 A.D.3d at 1564). Plaintiff testified that she did not know whether the letter was contained in her personnel file, and there is nothing else in the record that raises a material issue of fact with respect to whether the letter was contained in her personnel file or otherwise likely to be disseminated. Given Grant's testimony regarding NVCSD's reference policies and her averment that the information would never be made available to future employers, defendants' submission was sufficient to establish the unlikelihood of future public disclosure of the letter that would injure plaintiff's status or future employment prospects (see Swinton v Safir, 93 N.Y.2d at 764; Wilcox v Newark Val. Cent. School Dist., 74 A.D.3d at 1564; compare Matter of VanDine v Greece Cent. School Dist., 75 A.D.3d 1166, 1167 [2010]) [2].

Arbes "safety of the students" statement was not actionable because, even if made as plaintiff alleges, it fell within a qualified privilege. Qualified privilege provides a complete defense to a claim of slander, and attaches to an otherwise defamatory statement "made to persons who have some common interest in the subject matter" (Foster v Churchill, 87 N.Y.2d at 751). "'A privileged communication is one which, but for the occasion on which it is uttered, would be defamatory and actionable'" (id., quoting Park Knoll Assocs. v Schmidt, 59 N.Y.2d 205, 208 [1983]). The defense does not apply, however, "where the motivation for making such statements was spite or ill will (common-law malice) or where the 'statements [were] made with [a] high degree of awareness of their probable falsity' (constitutional malice)" (Foster v Churchill, 87 N.Y.2d at 752, quoting Liberman v Gelstein, 80 N.Y.2d 429, 438 [1992] [internal quotation marks omitted]; accord Cusimano v United Health Servs. Hosps., Inc., 91 A.D.3d 1149, 1150 [2012], lv denied 19 N.Y.3d 801 [2012]). Arbes made the statement at issue at a meeting where she, plaintiff and three other individuals were present. Plaintiff acknowledges that Keeler, the junior varsity field hockey coach and union president, had a common interest in the subject, as did a union employee who was present. The third individual may have had the same interest because Keeler averred that the individual was a union representative. Additionally, she was a guidance counselor, and Arbes averred that guidance counselors were being made available to students who may have had difficulty dealing with the situation surrounding Broxmeyer's arrest, the police investigation and plaintiff's suspension and later termination. As all of the persons present for the meeting had a common interest in the subject matter and the record lacks any evidence of malice, Supreme Court correctly determined that Arbes' statement at the meeting was not actionable based on the qualified privilege.

Defendants contend that the federal stigma-plus claim must be dismissed because plaintiff could have sought the same relief, i.e., a name-clearing hearing, in a proceeding pursuant to CPLR article 78 (see Guerra v Jones, 421 Fed.Appx at 19). The availability of such a proceeding to plaintiff defeats her claim that she was deprived of due process (see Hennigan v Driscoll, 2009 WL 3199220, *10-11, 2009 U.S. Dist LEXIS 90881, *31-32 [ND NY Sept. 30, 2009]). Because plaintiff commenced this action within the time frame required for such a proceeding and sought a name-clearing hearing as relief, we convert this action into a hybrid action/proceeding by substituting a proceeding pursuant to CPLR article 78 for the federal due process cause of action (see CPLR 103 [c]).

Lahtinen, J.P., Garry and Egan Jr., JJ., concur.

ORDERED that the order is modified, on the law, without costs, by reversing so much thereof as permitted the first, second and fourth causes of action to proceed based on defendant Mary Ellen Grant's statement-of-reasons letter; convert the first cause of action into a proceeding pursuant to CPLR article 78; and, as so modified, affirmed.


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