Court of Appeals Rules in Employment Dispute

Kacie Kefgen

By Kacie Kefgen, MASB Assistant Director of Labor Relations and Legal Services

DashBoard, Feb. 3, 2016

Last week, the Michigan Court of Appeals issued a ruling in a case between Tracey Sahouri, a former elementary school principal, and Hartland Consolidated Schools. MASB filed an amicus curiae brief in support of the school district in this case. In its ruling, the Court found for the district on some counts and found for the plaintiff on others, allowing her to continue her case.

The facts of this dispute are fairly complex and atypical; especially those that relate to Sahouri’s whistleblower claims, but here are a couple of takeaway points from this unpublished opinion that could be good lessons for districts. Two of the former principal’s claims rested on her contention that a school administrator had a duty to defend her after she was accused of mishandling MEAP testing materials.

Lesson #1: Administrators are not liable for defamation simply because they decline to defend a subordinate who is accused of wrongdoing.

The plaintiff did not prevail in her defamation claim based on the fact that an administrator chose not to defend her when she was accused of wrongdoing. Generally, defamation could be found, for instance, when a defendant makes a false and defamatory statement about a plaintiff, communicates that statement to a third party, that communication is published and there is some sort of harm caused by the publication. For example, imagine a veterinarian’s neighbor stood up at a community meeting and claimed the vet was cloning goats in his backyard, and then the local newspaper printed a story repeating the lie. As a result, many of the vet’s clients left his practice. The vet might have a strong defamation case.

In this case, however, the court found that Sahouri failed to present facts to the court that showed that she had a viable defamation claim. She presented no examples of false statements made by the defendant. Instead, she argued that the administrator’s silence and refusal to defend her amounted to a false statement. The court rejected this argument.

Lesson #2: Administrators are not liable for false-light invasion of privacy simply because they decline to defend a subordinate who is accused of wrongdoing.

The former elementary principal did not prevail in her false-light invasion of privacy claim, also based on the fact that the administrator did not defend her when she was disciplined by the district. In a nutshell, false-light invasion of privacy can be found where a defendant broadcasts false information about someone that is objectionable and usually embarrassing. For example, if a tabloid magazine ran an untrue story about a veterinarian performing inappropriate surgery on some goats, the vet might have a good case for false-light invasion of privacy. The Court of Appeals found that Sahouri, however, did not have a good case against the district’s administration because she failed to present any facts that showed that the administrator broadcasted anything untrue and embarrassing about her.

The Court of Appeals remanded the case back to circuit court to consider Sahouri’s whistleblower claims.

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