Monday, May 14, 2018

Truth is always a defense to a defamation claim

This defamation claim alleges that a vocational school defamed one of its students in claiming she was disruptive in class and exhibited threatening and aggressive behavior toward other students and teachers. The Court of Appeals assigned pro bono counsel to brief and argue whether the plaintiff was able to maintain a defamation per se claim, but the Court sidesteps that issue and rules against plaintiff under a simpler theory: the school's statements about plaintiff were true.

The case is Cain v. Altelier Esthetique Institute, a summary order issued on May 3. Plaintiff was involuntarily terminated from the program after a week of classes. The school said she was disruptive. So plaintiff sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act and state defamation law. The defamation claim was dismissed on summary judgment because, the trial court held, you cannot have a defamation per se claim as a student. Defamation per se -- which presumes you suffered damages if someone tells a falsehood about your profession -- does not apply when the student is the defamation victim. At least that's what the trial court said.

The disability discrimination case went to trial, without a jury. The trial court ruled in favor of the defendant. So this appeal is limited to the defamation claim that was dismissed on summary judgment. The Court of Appeals assigned a lawyer to brief the issue of whether students may bring defamation per se claims in the same manner that a business professional could. As the Second Circuit notes, the trial court "held that extending the doctrine of presumed damages under the 'trade, business, or profession' category to students 'makes little sense.'"

I am sure pro bono counsel did a great job in briefing this issue, but the Court of Appeals (Wesley, Chin and Furman [D.J.]) rules in favor of the school on a different basis: the school's comments about plaintiff were true. Truth is always a defense to a defamation case. How do we know the comments were true? In ruling against the plaintiff on her disability claim, the trial court said "plainly, Ms. Cain appears to suffer from delusions, and although these may be manifestations of her mental disabilities, they resulted in behaviors that rendered her unqualified to to participate in Altelier's educational program." The trial court also said plaintiff had tuned out in class. "While these findings were made in the context of the trial court's post-trial rulings on Cain's discrimination claims, nothing in the record suggests that Cain would have produced any additional evidence if the defamation claim had proceeded to trial."

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