Lawrence Connell Sues Widener Dean Linda Ammons For Defamation

We previously discussed the extraordinary actions taken against Associate Professor Lawrence J. Connell at Widener University School of Law after he used Dean Linda L. Ammons in hypotheticals in his class. He is now suing for defamatory statements that have harmed his reputation or career that painted him as a racist and sexist.

Connell suggested that Ammons and others targeted him for his “conservative, political and legal beliefs.”

Connell has taught at the school for 26 years and was placed on administrative leave after several students accused him of “discrimination and/or harassment.”

He admits to using Ammons in violent hypotheticals, but insisted that such hypotheticals are standard in the legal academy. While professors should use restraint in such hypotheticals, many professors including myself incorporate faculty into hypotheticals. It is usually a practice that generates good-faith humor on both sides. Connell notes that in his hypotheticals he was the perpetrator and that Ammons was not shot in the hypotheticals. He insists that using “quirky hypotheticals, captures students’ attention.”

This could make for a fascinating case. I felt that the placing of Connell on administrative leave was an excessive response by the law school. Faced with a student complaint, the law school has a duty to investigate but I fail to see why such a thing should lead to forced leave.

The question of defamation is particularly interesting. There may be matters covered by the “intracorporate privilege,” though the privilege can be lost if statements are made public or made out of a malicious purpose. The complaint below cites press release statements by the school and Ammons. However, it sounds like this press release and public statements referred to the charges.

The complaint notes that Connell was accused of referring to “women as ‘bitch’ and ‘honey.'” If this statement can from the student, it may be covered by privilege. However, if it was truly false, there would be evidence of malice. He is not suing the students who brought the original claims to the law school.

One of the most interesting claims is found in the “third defamatory act” where Connell alleges “Ammons also told James Harris the president of Widener University that plaintiff was a threat to her physical safety and the physical safety of other persons in the Law School community.” This would also appear to fall within the intracorporate privilege and would appear a subjective view from Ammons — even if a misplaced or ungrounded view.

Some courts have found that willful blindness to the facts can constitute such a waiver. Laurie Gambardella vs. Apple Health Care Inc., Gambardella was an admissions counselor at the Waterbury Extended Care Facility and fired for stealing the furniture from a deceased patient. It turns out that she was given permission to do so by a relative. She was awarded $224,000 in damages plus costs– a verdict upheld by the court. While the state Supreme Court ruled that an honest mistake is protected, it added that it is “clear that the settled law in Connecticut is that a showing of either actual malice or malice in fact will defeat a defense of qualified privilege in the context of employment decisions.” In this case, the court found there was “simply was no basis for a belief that the plaintiff had stolen property from the facility” and “[i]t is axiomatic that a defendant who closes his eyes to the facts before him cannot insulate himself from a defamation charge merely by claiming that he believed his unlikely statement. We conclude that there was sufficient evidence to support the trial court’s finding of actual malice.”

The complaint attacks the fact that the allegations were given to school security officials and people in the registrar’s office — classic attacks on intracorporate privilege.

The complaint itself is a bit raw, however. Ammons is described as “of the liberal political and legal persuasion” to lay the foundation for a political motivation, because “Plaintiff’s conservative political and legal persuasion was well known within the Law School community and by Ammons.” Ammons is further described as “proud and thin skinned.” The law school itself is described as having “a reputation as a liberal law school. There are only two known conservative faculty members out of over 60 faculty members, one being plaintiff.”

One of the other interesting aspects of the filing is a dispute of whether the term “black folks” is a racist term. He claims that Ammons said that this was a well-known racist term but then notes that people like President Obama have used the term. This could be an issue of mitior sensus where, given two different meanings of term, the court must take the less offensive or actionable construction.

Here is the complaint: Connell complaint FINAL

Jonathan Turley

34 thoughts on “Lawrence Connell Sues Widener Dean Linda Ammons For Defamation

  1. That dude has the troubled, insecure look of a dumb (is there any other kind?) conservative douche who resorts to liberal arguments in his own defense when cornered.

  2. In case you missed it Greg, that dude is wearing a blue dress and is described by the pronouns “she” and “her”.

    Other than that, you have a point.

  3. Are we all Italicized today? That should make everyone happy….Not a Deigo in site… thats tomorrow…or was that yesterday…. I don’t know because I am Herr today….thank goodness my last name is not brush…. cause I could have an issue being called Herr Brush…

    Was the above Defamation?

  4. Will this turn off the italics?

    This is a hypothetical, will I be put on leave by disrespecting italics?

  5. The process that Dean Ammons is using – claiming that Connell is a threat and requires a psychiatric evaluation – is a common tactic for universities to use to try to get rid of tenured professors.
    Ironically, it implicates the ADA, such that Dean Ammons now has bigger problems than just the defamation suit.

  6. Here’s a little ditty from one of Professor Connell’s lectures cited in his Complaint as proof of the alleged inoncence of his examples:

    “For example, in trying to teach students the law of attempts and murder, plaintiff would use an example where, in retaliation for Ammons’ threat to fire him for stealing her parking space at the school, plaintiff would rush to her office to shoot her and discover, to his surprise, that he had shot instead of the actual Dean a manakin with a pumpkin head.”

    Not exactly pedagogical to me — more like ridicule.

    (i>In facetia, veritas.

  7. That’s not that far from what I recall some of my exam questions to be, mespo. I’m not saying this isn’t just another office politics pissing match though. It is. Just that suspension and the later “warnings” went over the line. Personally, I think they should both be sent to their rooms without a cookie.

  8. BIL:

    “Personally, I think they should both be sent to their rooms without a cookie.”

    It’s all about intent and the mindset of the parties as they approach this mess. In the abstract these are permissible examples. In the context of the dispute, it’s just gasoline on the wildfire.

    Yours is a proper verdict in my estimation, too.

  9. I have to agree that this seems to be a minor incident that has been blown up way beyond proportions. That being said, the language quoted by Mespo does seem to show that this professor is a bit of an ass. Now, the two individuals should be forced to eat one of the lunches from the Chicago Public Schools discussed in the other thread.

  10. I downloaded the complaint. The lead lawyer is THOMAS S. NEUBERGER. I looked him up on the Internet and he has a really great resume.

    Complaint paragraph 103 is “Plaintiff’s right to be free from defamation has been denied under the common law
    of the State of Delaware”.

    That’s interesting to me because it is a right I have not been able to get recognized. Is that just because I am not a lawyer and many lawyers and judges hate pro se litigants or is that a right that is not recognized in general?

  11. To those of you who read this entire post, please let me apologize for the length of this rant, but I was searching for a photo of Professor Connell to use in my Outlook contacts folder and came across this story, which struck a nerve to say the least. The reason this story struck a nerve with me is that I am both a former Widener School of Law student, and student of Professor Connell’s Criminal Law class. I can attest to the lack of validity of the claims made by Dean Ammons concerning the hypos used by Professor Connell in the classroom environment. In fact, the only hostility at Widener I ever felt came from both my fellow students and from various faculty members for any conservative thoughts or viewpoints expressed in or out of the classroom by me or any other openly conservative or Republican students.

    During classes in Constitutional Law I was literally the only student in my section who argued for any conservative viewpoints when asked to do so by Professor Kelly. I had no qualms about expressing my thoughts about my service in the Marines when discussing the various cases dealing with the war on terror, or my political opinions, and was called on many times in various classes because of this. I was by no means a gunner who desired to gain attention or somehow prove my level of intelligence from speaking in class, but only spoke out if called upon to do so. I guess after expressing my political views the first time, and being the only one who would argue the conservative side openly, it made me a favored target of the professors who wanted both sides of a political argument when needing one. Now this was usually in the Con Law class, but came up in other courses as well (Crim Law, Torts, and Property).

    Anyway, while I received praise from most of my professors, including Professors Kelly and Connell, as correctly applying the jurisprudence and making cogent legal arguments, and made some good grades to boot, (especially in Con Law) I received nothing but harsh words and sometimes ridicule from most of the students in my section and even from some professors at Widener. Only two other students out of something like 50 in the section ever came up to me after class and supported me for making the arguments asked for by Professor Kelly or others. These closet conservatives literally told me (in hushed whispers in the hallway) that they believed as I do as to the nature of the law, but were afraid of speaking out in class.

    While at Widener, I made grades at or above the curve in the classes that had anonymous grading, which included Professor Connell’s Crim Law class. However, in the legal research and writing classes, which lacked true anonymity for the grading, I failed. Early in the course, our professor in those classes presented us with cases in which we argued for one side or the other. It seems I made the mistakes of arguing the wrong side.

    In one case I argued against the drug use (cocaine, marijuana, and abuse of other prescription drugs) by an attorney and member of the state bar. I took the side that a drug abuser should not be allowed to practice law again after he went before his state’s Supreme Court and argued for his client while he was high on cocaine. The attorney in that case broke down in front of his state’s Supreme Court and his client paid a horrible price for the attorney’s drug problem. My professor brought up my opinion in class and made it a point to argue against it and for the cocaine-abusing attorney.

    In another case, presented by the same professor, I argued for the Boy Scouts of America’s right to association. Woops, big mistake on my part! Again, the professor made it a point to bring up my writing in class and argue against my legal opinions. I did not really care that she did that, but I did receive extremely low grades in both classes taught by that professor.

    Funny enough, due to the low grades in my legal research and writing classes at Widener I was academically dismissed. I will not say that I did not deserve the dismissal from Widener (or did I just do that?), however, I entered another law school and up to this point in time my performance is exemplary. In fact, while I know it is hard to believe from this unedited rambling, I made the highest grade in my legal research and writing sections (go figure-from worst to first). I also made Dean’s List several times at my new law school, received various awards for my community service, and awards for performing well during Mock Trial and Moot Court competitions, and hope to win a national competition or two in my upcoming final year of law school. (Ouch! I sprained my shoulder patting my own back!)

    Now it is possible that I was just outclassed at Widener. After all, a law student’s grades depend on how well they do in comparison with their fellow students, and at least ten or twenty percent (I don’t recall which) have to receive below curve grades due to the ABA requirements. It is possible that all of those intellectually superior elite progressives I attended Widener Law School with just aced their writings in the legal research and writing classes I attended and I deserved the lowest grade because of it. But if that is true, how does one explain my good grades in the classes with anonymous grading at Widener, and then horribly low grades in the only two classes with a lack of anonymous grading?

    Anyway, Professor Connell was the only Professor I met at Widener who actually expressed conservative views somewhat similar to mine. Funny enough, I never heard him express his political points of view in the classroom, unlike some of my more liberal Democrat leaning professors at that law school. In fact, the only way I learned he is conservative in his political thinking was to ask him. He described his own political opinions as more libertarian than conservative in nature.

    I heard Professor Connell use the same hypo about shooting a dummy of Dean Ammons instead of the intended human target. He used that hypo and various others to get the students talking and to delve into their level of understanding of the material in the course. It was Crim Law for cripes sakes! So what if the hypos sometimes touched on foul language and violence. Read some of the cases we had to read and you will understand that law students deal with some seriously morbid, violent, and grotesque cases. It is from those hypos and the cases that we have to come to understand the meaning of intent, malice, mere thoughts, acts, aiding and abetting, etc. Good luck in trying to get concepts like mens rea and actus reus across to students hearing the Latin phrases for the first time without using hypos!

    Other professors at Widener, and even professors at my current law school (some of the best professors around I might add) use each other in their hypos! I just finished a Secured Transactions final that had one of the professors at my current school doing some seriously strange things while borrowing money creating security interests! For instance, at Widener I recall Professor Turezyn used her students in her hypos for battery, assault, etc. At my current law school my Torts professor constantly uses our Dean and others professors to receive hypothetical abuses, some intentional and some unintentional! To read now that Professor Connell is going through this ordeal upsets me. This action by Dean Ammons and the students accusing Professor Connell damages any prestige that Widener might have as an institution of higher learning. Law students learn to be logical and reasonable in their thinking, and this action by the Widener bigwigs is anything but.

    Any student who complains about Professor Connell’s hypos is a foolish child who fails to understand the lesson because of their politics. Out of all of the professors at Widener who use similar hypos, Professor Connell, the token conservative on the faculty bears the student’s complaints and Dean Ammons wrath. The hypos used by Professor Connell are no different from the hypos I heard in Torts, Property, Con Law, etc. at both Widener and my current law school. I guess this is the kind of thing you get from a law school that keeps an office for Vice President Joe Biden and proudly lists him as a professor (of constitutional law no less). By the way, Joe Biden was on scholastic probation too when he went to law school.

  12. It sounds plausible to me that they graded on who they thought you were and what they thought you thought as opposed to your work. Something similar happened to me. I was ordered to pay $103 K which the 10th Circuit claimed were Rule 11 sanctions without a Rule 11(c)(6) order. See 11-1227 and I was imprisoned by USMS for 5 months without a criminal charge or an arraignment or bail hearing. So I guess we now have the thought police instead of a free and open discussion.

  13. On a lighter note Maggie sime se riaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa mucho has been a good week for the good side:))))))No caps ,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,nothing to say to HANDLEYDREAMER,,,,,,,,,,,,,,HAHAHHAHAHSEEMS THE COLLEY PLAYED WITH MANY EH? OH WRONG STORY SORRY PROF!!

  14. I too, am a former law student at Widener. I withdrew to return to military service. Upon retirement, I tried to get back in but alas, they no longer wanted me. Anyway, If I remember correctly (and I believe that I do, because I recall thinking how refreshing it was to finally have a good-looking, non-boring professor), Mr. Connell was my criminal law professor. Unfortunately, I withdrew prior to completion of his class, but his was the only class that I regretted leaving. I found Professor Connell, upbeat, exciting, and yes, somewhat controversial and I loved that. Not once, however, did I ever consider him racist or sexist. He made the class interesting and he used examples that included faculty, staff, students, etc. The dean may have been offended by whatever she feels that he did; but in my opinion, barring some behavior that could be considered a criminal offense, the professor did not deserve to be terminated in this manner.

  15. What is most damning about Dean Ammons is that she decided to impose a 1 year suspension (with an intentionally humiliating order for psychiatric evaluation) against her own faculty commission’s recommendations.

    This speaks volumes of what kind of person Ammons is.

  16. “(with an intentionally humiliating order for psychiatric evaluation)”

    I think it’s more than just humiliating. As a psychologist commenting over at the Volokh Conspiracy says:

    “As someone in the medical field, I hate it when psychiatry is used as a weapon against someone. There is enough stigma against mental health to the point that people don’t get the help they need.”

    Abuse of court ordered psych evaluations is a technique practiced by totalitarians and family law attorneys.

  17. Am I wrong in the assumption that Prof. Connell is of a different race than the students as well as the dean and that the un-pointed to elephant in the room is that the professor’s audacity to be a conservative white American male in the midst of a successful career?

  18. It doesn’t suprise me that Deans Ammons, Luce, and the rest of the clan are making much ado about nothing, and yet again appear to be playing the role of psychological experts, despite not having the slightest experience, knowledge, or training in the field.
    This reminds me of a time – not too long ago – where Ammons and her group attempted to withdraw scholarships, awards, and the title of ‘Valedictorian’ from a student who, in addition to being a psychologist herself, was ranked 1st in the class and made several other contributions to the welfare of the school. Yet, because this student had a DUI, Ammons and her group, to the objections of REAL psychologists and drug abuse experts teaching at the school and elsewhere, felt it necessary to allege that the student was psychologically impaired and required treatment for alcoholism.
    Funny how the school now requests alumni donations from this student on a monthly basis now that the student found success elsewhere…
    Congratulations, Dean Ammons and her group, for continuing to water-down our degrees in the name of your self-righteous campaign for political correctness. Perhaps you might consider working to enhance students’ knowledge of the law, instead of meddling in the psychological affairs of which you have no business…

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