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In Dobias v. Oak Park & River Forest High School District 200, 2016 IL App (1st) 152205, the Illinois Appellate Court recently held that Danielle Dobias, a teacher and coach employed by Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200, successfully stated claims of defamation per se against her former head coach and fellow teacher, Thomas Tarrant, the school district athletic director, John Stelzer, and the school district for alleged statements Tarrant made in an internal email to Stelzer concerning Dobias.

The court noted that there are five categories of statements that are considered to be defamatory per se, including the following type of statements at issue in this case: “words that impute a person is unable to perform or lacks integrity in performing her or his employment duties.” If a plaintiff claims that a statement constitutes defamation per se, the plaintiff is not required to plead or prove that his or her reputation was actually damaged, because the statement is considered so obviously and materially harmful that injury to the plaintiff’s reputation may be presumed.

Dobias claimed that the following statements in an email Tarrant allegedly sent to Stelzer, and which Stelzer allegedly forwarded to two interim human resources directors, constituted defamation per se because they imputed that she lacked integrity as a school professional and otherwise prejudiced her in her profession:

  1. [Dobias] [c]elebrated an athlete[’]s accomplishment by drinking alcohol.
  1. [Dobias] [w]as rolling around on a bed in a hotel alone with an athlete as witnessed by another coach who walked in.
  1. [Dobias] [w]as called after 2 am by athletes who were drunk and high. Went to where the athletes were. Hung out with them then took them home without notifying parents or the athletic office.

The defendants filed a motion to dismiss on the basis that each of the above statements was capable of reasonable, innocent constructions (which is a defense to defamation per se). The trial court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss and Dobias appealed.

On appeal, the appellate court held that the statement accusing Dobias of drinking alcohol in the presence of a student did not amount to defamation per se because an accusation that a teacher merely drank alcohol in the presence of students would not impugn a teacher’s or coach’s professional integrity or otherwise prejudice the teacher or coach in his or her profession.

However, the appellate court held that the statement accusing Dobias of “rolling around on a bed in a hotel alone with an athlete” could be defamatory per se because “[a] teacher rolling around on a bed with a student, when the two of them are alone in a hotel room, is inappropriate no matter how it could reasonably be viewed.” The court also found that the statement that Dobias “hung out” with students who were “drunk and high” could be defamatory per se because “[e]ven if a teacher-coach did not herself use alcohol or drugs, it would reflect unfavorably on any teacher’s reputation if she socialized with underage students while they were engaged in drug and alcohol abuse.” Id. The appellate court returned the case back to the trial court for further proceedings.

Notably, the appellate court did not address whether a provision of the Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act (745 ILCS 10/2-210), which states that “[a] public employee acting in the scope of his employment is not liable for an injury caused by his negligent misrepresentation or the provision of information either orally, in writing, by computer or any other electronic transmission, or in a book or other form of library material,” provides a defense to Dobias’s claims because the defendants did not raise the Tort Immunity Act as an affirmative defense before the trial court.

Administrator and employee communications can create multiple and complex issues for school districts.   Contact Rob Swain or Michelle Todd with your inquiries.