School Officials Held Not Liable For Defamation While Performing Official Duties

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School Officials Held Not Liable For Defamation While Performing Official Duties: ARCADD, Inc. v. Patterson, 80 Mass. App. Ct. 1111 (2011)

PD&P recently earned an Appeals Court victory in ARCADD, Inc. v. Patterson. Plaintiffs were originally retained by the Town of Falmouth to provide architectural services in connection with a multi-million dollar school renovation project. But when the Town attempted to terminate the contract due to multiple project delays, plaintiffs sued the Town for breach of contract. In a subsequent letter to the Massachusetts School Building Authority, the Town’s assistant superintendent of finances and human resources explained that the contract was terminated “for cause.” Also, while fielding questions at a parent forum convened to address the school renovation issues, the assistant superintendent and School Committee chairman allegedly stated that (1) plaintiffs were “not competent when it came to properly designing the school, managing the project and supervising construction”; (2) the replacement architect “inherited a project that was poorly designed”; and (3) the project would “be in worse shape today if we stuck with the original architect [i.e., plaintiffs.]” Plaintiffs thereafter commenced a separate action for defamation against the assistant superintendent and School Committee chairman.

PD&P moved for summary judgment in the defamation action on several grounds. First, defendants’ alleged statements did not rise to the degree of ridicule necessary to establish a claim for defamation. Second, the alleged statements constituted opinions for which plaintiffs could not recover. Third, as public officials, the defendants were conditionally privileged in making such statements in the performance of their official duties. The Middlesex Superior Court agreed and entered summary judgment in favor of the defendants.

In an unpublished Rule 1:28 decision, the Appeals Court affirmed the judgment entered below. The Appeals Court held that “plaintiffs did not present sufficient evidence to counter the defendants’ position that the statements made did not rise to the level of defamation,” and that the plaintiffs “did not provide anything that could contravene the reasonable inferences that the statements were nonactionable opinions or shielded by conditional privilege.” The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts denied ARCADD’s request for further appellate review.

Published in Developments in Municipal Law Winter 2012 Newsletter.