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