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8th Circuit: School Board’s Statements Do Not Support Defamation Claim

By Chris Arbery and Marcia Alembik   1/25/2008
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The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appealsreversed the denial of a school district’s motion to dismiss a defamation suit by a superintendent against his former school district and its officials, holding that public statements made in connection with the former employee’s severance were not, as a matter of law, sufficiently stigmatizing to invoke his procedural due process right to a “name-clearing hearing.”

Ronald Stodghill served as superintendent of Wellston School District for more than 12 years. Stodghill’s employment contract specified that his employment could be terminated prior to the expiration of the contract in accordance with applicable law or board regulation and policies.

In 2003, the district failed to meet accreditation standards and remained unaccredited through 2005. In addition, one of the requirements for provisional accreditation mandated students’ attainment of a specified score in a program that tested students’ reading level performance. Although the students’ scores met the required level, the scores were disqualified because, the district concluded, they showed too much improvement to be legitimate.

Under Missouri law, when a school district remains unaccredited for two successive years, the corporate organization lapses and the board of education may appoint a Special Administrative Board (SAB) to administer the district. In June 2005, a SAB member asked Stodghill to vacate his office and Stodghill was taken off the district’s payroll.

Stodghill filed suit against the district, members of the district’s board of directors and members of the SAB in federal district court, alleging that one or more of the SAB members made defamatory statements about him in connection with his separation, and that such comments were sufficiently stigmatizing to justify a name-clearing hearing.

Specifically, Stodghill alleged that the SAB members made statements to the public that cheating had occurred on the student tests, which was the reason for higher test scores than in years past, and that the district did not even achieve provisional accreditation under Stodghill’s leadership.

The SAB members filed a motion to dismiss on grounds of qualified immunity and on grounds that the statements Stodghill “alleged the SAB members made were too ‘broad and vague … to necessarily refer to Stodghill.’ ” The district court denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss, and the defendants appealed to the 8th Circuit.

In reviewing whether the allegedly defamatory statements of the SAB members were sufficient to justify a name-clearing hearing, the 8th Circuit considered whether the “requisite stigma” existed, which “generally can be found when an employer has accused an employee of dishonesty, immorality, criminality, racism and the like,” such that the employee has been “deprived of a constitutionally protected property or liberty interest.” After reviewing the alleged statements, the federal appeals court held that neither statement satisfied the “stigmatizing” requirement.

Regarding the statement that the district did not achieve even provisional accreditation under Stodghill’s leadership, the court held that such statements about mere unsatisfactory job performance do not “create the level of stigma necessary to implicate [a plaintiff’s] liberty interests in his reputation,” and, thus, are not actionable.

The 8th Circuit held that the public statement alleging that cheating had occurred in the district also did not implicate Stodghill’s liberty interest. The court pointed to the fact that Stodghill “did not allege the SAB members accused him of cheating.”

Instead, the court found that the statement could, at most, be construed to refer to cheating occurring “on [Stodghill’s] watch.” The statement did not accuse Stodghill of direct involvement in “dishonesty, immorality, criminality or other similar stigma.” As a result, the 8th Circuit held that the SAB members were entitled to qualified immunity and reversed the district court’s denial of the defendants’ motion to dismiss.

Stodghill v. Wellston Sch. Dist ., 8th Cir., No. 07-1190 (Jan. 9, 2008).

Professional Pointer: This case demonstrates that employers should be cautious when making any public statements, whether oral or written, particularly when an employer is directly or indirectly referring to an employee or former employee. Although the defendants in this case were able to avoid a finding of liability, the decision to issue public statements about the reasons for the superintendent’s departure may have created unnecessary expense and exposure.

Chris Arbery and Marcia Alembik are attorneys on the Labor & Employment Team at Hunton & Williams LLP.

Editor’s Note: This article should not be construed as legal advice. 

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