Imagine being sued because you wrote a letter to your school district’s superintendent expressing concerns about your child’s education and the grownups managing that education.
This actually happened in Bibb County. A mother of a child with special needs was sued by her child’s former special education case manager, referred to simply as a teacher in the lawsuit.
The teacher claimed the mother had made libelous statements about her in letters to the superintendent of the school district.
The suit was filed in Bibb County District Court in April of this year.
A District Court judge dismissed the case in late July, stating the teacher had not “brought a triable issue of any material fact”, which means the facts as presented didn’t amount to the conditions necessary to bring a libel claim.
The teacher’s attorney appealed the case to the Circuit Court, but on October 10, 2014, a Circuit Court judge dismissed the Appeal for not being timely filed.
In her original answer to the complaint, the mother filed a Counterclaim under the Alabama Litigation Accountability Act (ALAA), claiming that the “plaintiff is attempting to use litigation to stifle free expression of criticism of her service as a public employee”. That claim remains alive in the District Court.
That was the short version.
The details of the case are contained in the public court documents. I am awaiting the outcome of the ALAA claim before publishing the full set of documents.
Why This Is Important
One of the most fundamental rights that parents and guardians have with respect to their children is the right to advocate on their behalf.
Given that our children spend at least 13 years in school (Kindergarten through 12th grade), it stands to reason that at some point along the way parents may have conflict with one or more of their child’s teachers. Parents must have a way to effectively address those conflicts. Typically that involves first talking with the teacher, and, if necessary, escalating the concern up the chain until a viable resolution is reached.
Imagine if, every step of the way, you had to worry about getting sued for expressing your concerns about what may or may not be happening in your child’s classroom.
The mere threat of a lawsuit could have a chilling effect on a parent’s ability to effectively advocate for their child.
Imagine having to hire an attorney and defend yourself against a libel suit. Even if the case is dismissed, defending yourself against a libel claim is costly, both in time and money.
Wondering whether teachers have successfully sued parents for defamation in other places, I found only a few cases. Interestingly, none were in America.
Canada, though, is a different story.
The $1 Million Damage Award
This really happened. I can’t tell it any better than this Toronto Sun writer did, so just click this link and read it.
The Montreal Gazette covered the story as well.
The quick facts: in 2005, parents sued a teacher in Montreal due to perceived bullying of their child by the teacher in the classroom in 2004.
In 2008, the parents and the school settled the case, which included a confidentiality agreement. During media interviews immediately following settlement of the case, the parents said, um, too much. The teacher turned around and sued the parents for breach of the confidentiality clause and for defamation in 2010. Teacher won initial judgment of $234,000 (American dollars). Here’s media coverage of that judgment.
In 2013, teacher claimed to still be suffering from fallout and sued for more damages (that right was preserved in the first judgment of the Canadian court). On October 17, the teacher was awarded $1 million (American dollars) in Montreal court. But that is Canada.
Let’s get back to Alabama.
What Alabama Law Says
Alabama case law has held that teachers are public figures. The Bibb County District judge agreed.
That is an important distinction. In order to prove libel (written statements) or slander (spoken statements) against a public figure, a plaintiff must prove that the defaming statement was made with actual malice.
Proving actual malice is a high bar for any plaintiff. Actual malice means that the statement was made with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.
The judge in this case acknowledged that the teacher did not allege malice, nor did the judge find there was malice on the part of the mother when she wrote the letters to the superintendent.
What the Mother’s Attorney Said
The mother’s attorney, Gina Lowe, is a partner with The Gallini Group. James Gallini and Lowe co-founded the group which is, according to their web site, Alabama’s only law firm dedicated entirely to the field of special education law. Because the child for whom the mother was advocating receives special education services, Lowe took the case.
When asked about the importance of this case, Lowe said that in her practice, she sees the day-to-day struggles parents endure, jumping through hoops that parents just to get services for their children with special needs.
Parents shouldn’t have to worry about getting sued for advocating for their child on top of all of that, she added.
The teacher’s attorney did not return a call asking for comment.