Earlier this year, Pennsylvania’s highest federal court (3rd Circuit Court of Appeals) asked the Pennsylvania (state) Supreme Court to answer a question about defamation and the defense of judicial privilege. See Schanne v. Addis, August 17, 2015. The question was raised in a defamation lawsuit filed by a former Montgomery County, PA high school teacher against a young woman who was a former student. Ultimately, the court decided the case in favor of the teacher and held that former students who, as adults, tell others of abuse allegations may face defamation lawsuits.
Related: Sexually Abused by a Teacher in Pennsylvania? What to Know About Your Legal Rights [Noted civil sex abuse lawyer, Brian Kent, talks about legal rights in teacher abuse cases.]
The case involved allegations of sexual misconduct which the young woman claimed occurred during her senior year in high school, almost 13 years ago. After graduation and over the course of several years, the young woman maintained a sexual relationship with the teacher. Then in 2010, she confided in a school employee about the relationship. That school employee reported the allegations to school administrators who took disciplinary action against the teacher. He was ultimately fired.
After he was terminated, the teacher filed a defamation lawsuit against his former student, arguing that she defamed him when she told the school employee, who was also the woman’s friend and neighbor, about what had occurred years earlier. Just last month, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided a critical issue in the case in favor of the teacher. The decision could have serious ramifications for victims of child molestation and abuse in schools or other institutional settings such as hospitals, churches, etc.
The issue in the case was whether the former student’s statements about the alleged abuse were protected under what is known as the “judicial privilege.” This is a defense which can be raised in a defamation lawsuit. If the defendant’s defamatory statements were made in furtherance of a judicial or quasi-judicial proceeding or in contemplation of such a proceeding, the statements are protected from claims of defamation. In a nutshell, you may make defamatory statements to further a judicial proceeding. In this recent case, the issue was whether the teacher’s defamation case could proceed when the former student’s statements about the alleged abuse resulted in a quasi-judicial proceeding (the teacher’s termination hearing).
The PA Supreme Court held that in the context of defamation cases involving the judicial privilege defense, the speaker’s intent must be evaluated. In other words, when the defamatory statements were made, what was the speaker’s intent?
In this case, the former student’s statements resulted in a disciplinary proceedings. However, she admitted that when she confided in the school employee/friend, she did not intend that the teacher face any kind of investigation. She also indicated that she was surprised that any action was taken at all.
In essence, the court zeroed in on her intent. Since she stated that she didn’t intend for the teacher to be disciplined, she could be sued for defamation. The court stated that the judicial privilege doesn’t apply to allegations/statements made by an adult before a judicial proceeding starts, where there is no intent that the statements lead to a judicial proceeding.
More: Civil Lawsuits for Sex Abuse in Child, Youth Centers in PA & NJ [Learn about the civil lawsuit process in school sex abuse cases. Students can file claims for financial compensation against teachers, schools, etc.]
How This Decision Affects Child Sex Abuse Survivors
This opinion has some long-lasting ramifications for survivors of child sex abuse who report allegations of abuse to others. Basically, the PA Supreme Court’s decision means that a survivor who tells another person about the abuse could later face a defamation lawsuit, if the statements aren’t made in furtherance of a judicial proceeding, i.e., a criminal, civil or other legal proceeding.
In this case, the former student stated that she felt her ability to have normal adult relationships was affected. She attempted to confront the teacher who denied that anything inappropriate occurred when she was a student. After the teacher’s denial, she confided in her friend who was an employee of the school. That’s how the disciplinary proceedings and defamation case began.
The court’s opinion reflects a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of sexual abuse and how sexual abuse as a child or teen affects adults. It seemed that the court gave deference to the fact that the former student was well into her twenties when she came forward with the allegations of abuse. If she had been 18 when she reported the abuse, the court’s decision may very well have been entirely different.
Victims and survivors of child sex abuse are often mentally unable to come to grips with the abuse until much later, into adulthood. This is true even when the abuse occurs or is initiated when the victim is an older child or a teenager. In fact, teenagers who engage in these kinds of sexual “relationships” often suffer long-lasting effects well into adulthood.
For more news and info, visit the Sex Abuse Law News Page where you can access recent news relating to sex abuse lawsuits in Pennsylvania.
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