Teacher Defamation | Default Judgment | Prior Conviction

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Teacher Sues PTA Officer for Defamation

Teacher Sues PTA Officer for Defamation

In Coyle v. Trum, an elementary school teacher who alleged that the vice president of her school’s PTA said she “makes children cry every day,” can proceed with her defamation suit, a Nassau County Supreme Court Justice has ruled.

Stavroula Coyle, who teaches fourth grade, has been a full time teacher at Rhame Avenue Elementary School in East Rockaway since 1999. During a public PTA meeting in June 2014, the PTA vice president, Victoria Trum, allegedly said Coyle, as a teacher, “makes children cry every day.” The next day, Tara Elias, the mother of a student, told the PTA’s president and another teacher that Coyle was a “compulsive and pathological liar.” About six months later, she faced termination charges that were based, in part, on the claims she made kids cry. Coyle sued Trum and Elias for defamation.

Trum sought dismissal of the complaint, arguing that her statement during a heated PTA meeting, could not be regarded by a reasonable listener as anything but “fiery rhetoric or hyperbole.”

The Court stated that “the elements of a cause of action for defamation are a false statement, published without privilege or authorization to a third party, constituting fault as judged by, at a minimum, a negligence standard, and it must either cause special harm or constitute defamation per se. Statements which tend to injure the plaintiff in his or her trade, business or profession constitute defamation per se.”

“Since falsity is a necessary element of a defamation cause of action and only ‘facts’ are capable of being proven false, it follows that only statements of facts can properly be the subject of a defamation action.” On the other hand, one’s pure opinion cannot be defamatory.

The Court observed that a “mixed opinion is a statement of opinion that implies that it is based upon facts which are unknown or undisclosed to the listener. Mixed opinion is actionable.” The Court concluded that even if Trum’s statement was seen as a “surmise or opinion, a reasonable listener could infer that it was based upon facts, known to Trum but not disclosed to the PTA audience, regarding plaintiff’s conduct in the classroom or her effect on children.” And the audience could reasonably infer that Trum, through her role in the PTA, could have access to such information based on her contact with other parents and teachers.

Turning to the question of whether the statement was shielded by the common interest privilege – a privilege that covers communications made from one person to another on subjects of shared interests, the Court concluded that the privilege’s protections disappear with a showing the defendant spoke with “malice.” The Court pointed to Coyle’s allegations that Trum made the statements to undermine Coyle’s reputation and endanger Coyle’s employment at the school. Thus, the Court concluded that the complaint adequately stated a claim for defamation per.

Denial of Service is Insufficient

Denial of Service is Insufficient

In 203 East Post Road, LLC v. Amra Electrical Corp., a plaintiff appealed from an order granting the defendant’s motion to vacate a default judgment in an action to recover damages arising from work performed by defendant at plaintiff’s building.

The summons and complained were served on defendant by delivering a copy of them to an authorized agent of the Secretary of State. The plaintiff obtained a default judgment for over $13,000 after the defendant defaulted in appearing and answering.

Under New York’s Business Corporation Law, the New York State Secretary of State is deemed an agent upon whom process against a corporation may be served. This is in addition to, or in lieu of, serving an actual officer, director or managing agent of the corporation.

Here, the defendant corporation moved to vacate the default judgment arguing it never received a copy of the summons and complaint, and it possessed a meritorious defense. Under New York’s Civil Practice Law and Rules a movant need only demonstrate that he did not personally receive notice of the summons in time to defend and that he has a potentially meritorious defense.

On appeal from the Supreme Court’s granting the defendant relief from the default judgment, the plaintiff argued that the defendant failed to show service was improper or that it possessed both a meritorious defense and a reasonable excuse for the default.

The president of the corporate defendant stated that the defendant did not appear and answer because it had not been served with a summons or complaint and that, prior to the entry of judgment, defendant had no “notice that plaintiff allegedly has a claim against defendant.” The appellate Court held that this statement “is insufficient to establish a lack of actual notice of the summons so as to entitle defendant to relief.” “Pursuant to Business Corporation Law §306, after service of process was made upon the Secretary of State, the Secretary of State was required to promptly mail, by certified mail, return receipt requested, a copy of the process to the address designated by defendant for this purpose. Since defendant has offered no evidence to demonstrate that the office of the Secretary of State failed to comply with its statutory duty, and we presume that defendant received the mail sent to it, in order to meet this burden of establishing a lack of actual notice of the summons, defendant had to submit more than a conclusory denial of notice.” In addition, the Court concluded that the corporate defendant’s statements that “plaintiff had never complained about the services rendered and that ‘there may have been a balance due by the plaintiff to defendant’ were, in and of themselves, insufficient to demonstrate the existence of a meritorious defense to the action.”

Consequently, the defendant was not entitled to vacate the default judgment, and the Supreme Court order was reversed and defendant’s motion to vacate the default judgment was denied.

Ex-Attorney Not Fit to Drive a Cab

Ex-Attorney Not Fit to Drive a Cab

In the Matter of Joseph C. Levine v. N.Y.C. Taxi and Limousine Commission, a former attorney’s application for a license to operate a yellow taxicab in the City of New York was denied by the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission (“NYC TLC”), when it found an unreasonable risk to the public if he were permitted to engage in “unsupervised financial transactions” with customers.

In a proceeding pursuant to CPLR Article 78 to review the Commission’s decision, a Queens County Supreme Court Justice vacated that determination and remitted the matter back to the NYC TLC for further proceedings. An Appellate Court, however, recently reversed the Supreme Court and dismissed the petition.

According to the recent decision, the petitioner was suspended from the practice of law for two years following his mail fraud conviction in federal court for bribing insurance adjusters. After the two years, he was reinstated to practice law, but he resigned from the Bar two years later when he was charged with failing to safeguard funds in certain escrow accounts. He later pled guilty to grand larceny in the second degree, admitting to stealing money from those escrow accounts to cover his gambling debts. He was sentenced to an indeterminate term of imprisonment of 3 to 9 years, and directed to make restitution in the sum of $432,500. He was paroled after several years and complied with parole conditions to attend treatment for his gambling problem.

When he then applied for the taxi license, he appeared for a “fitness interview” before a TLC investigator where the petitioner “minimized his responsibility for his crimes, and blamed one of his clients for the seriousness of his predicament.” The application was denied based upon the criminal convictions, “which the investigator found were directly related to the employment sought and would create an unreasonable risk to the public by permitting the petitioner to engage in ‘unsupervised financial transactions’ with customers.”

In prior newsletters we wrote about New York’s Correction Law which provides that “no application for any license or employment…shall be denied or acted upon adversely by reason of the individual’s having been previously convicted of one or more criminal offenses…unless: (1) there is a direct relationship between one or more of the previous criminal offenses and the specific license…sought…by the individual; or (2) the issuance…of the license…would involve an unreasonable risk to property or to the safety or welfare of specific individuals or the general public.”

In considering whether one of those exceptions applies, the law also provides that an agency should consider (1) that the public policy of the State is to encourage the licensing and employment of persons previously convicted of one or more criminal offenses, (2) the specific duties and responsibilities of a person granted the license or employment, (3) the bearing, if any, that the criminal offenses have on the fitness of the applicant to perform one or more duties or responsibilities of the job, (4) the time which has elapsed since the occurrence of the criminal offenses, (5) the age of the applicant at the time he or she committed the prior offenses, (6) the severity of the offenses, (7) any information submitted by the applicant with respect to his or her good conduct and rehabilitation, and (8) the legitimate interest of the public agency or private employer in protecting property, and the safety and welfare of specific individuals or the general public (Correction Law §753(1)).

Here, the Court concluded that the petitioner’s crimes were “recent and serious, and bore a direct relationship to how he dealt with persons who hired him for services. Further, at his fitness interview, he minimized his culpability. Under the totality of circumstances, the determination under review was not arbitrary or capricious or irrational.”

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