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Doe v. Gonzaga University

    Brief Fact Summary. John Doe (Plaintiff) sued Gonzaga University (Defendant) for defamation. Defendant argued that there was no publication because the alleged defamatory language was sent between Defendant’s agents.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. There is a qualified privilege for communications made between co-employees, but that privilege may be lost if the employees are not acting in the ordinary course of their work.

    Facts. Plaintiff was a student at Gonzaga University (Gonzaga). He had a sexually intimate relationship with Jane Doe, who was also a student at Gonzaga. Roberta League (League) an employee at Gonzaga overheard Julia Lynch (Lynch), a student, tell another student that Jane Doe was in obvious physical pain after Plaintiff raped her. League knew Plaintiff and told Dr. Susan Kyle (Kyle), another employee at Gonzaga, what she had overheard. League and Kyle met with Lynch. According to Lynch, Jane Doe told Lynch that Plaintiff had sexually assaulted her three times. Adelle Nora, an investigator, conducted an extensive investigation into the possibility of date rape. The school investigated the crime with multiple witnesses including Jane Doe. Plaintiff was not informed. The dean of Gonzaga met with the university’s employees and thereafter decided not to sign Plaintiff’s moral character affidavit for Plaintiff’s teaching certification. Plaintiff sued Defendant for defamation. The jury awa
    rded Plaintiff $500,000.00. Defendant appealed.

    Issue. There a qualified privilege for communications made between co-employees, but could that privilege be lost if the employees are not acting in the ordinary course of their work?

    Held. Yes. Judgment affirmed.
    * A plaintiff alleging defamation must show four essential elements: falsity, an unprivileged communication, fault, and damages. Liability for defamation requires that the defamation be communicated to someone other than the person defamed; in other words, there must be a “publication” of the defamation. The courts have held that intra-corporate communications are not “published” for purposes of defamation.
    * The court of appeals reasoned that the conversations and memoranda between Gonzaga’s employees regarding Plaintiff should be characterized as the university communicating with itself-not the kind of “publication” required to support a defamation claim.
    * When a corporate employee, not acting in the ordinary course of his or her work, publishes a defamatory statement, either to another employee or to a non-employee, there can be liability in tort for resulting damages. It could reasonably be found that Lynch was not acting in the ordinary course of her work as an office assistant when she told another student that P had injured Jane Doe during a sexual relationship. It could also be found that League was not acting in the ordinary course of her work as a certificate specialist when she eavesdropped on Lynch’s conversation and shared her concerns of possible misconduct with Susan Kyle. It could be found that Roberta League and Susan Kyle were not acting in the ordinary course of their work when they questioned Lynch about alleged sexual assaults of Jane Doe by P and then disclosed P’s identity and details about his sexual relations to Adelle Nore at OSPI. In this case, Gonzaga’s employees were not acting in the ordinary course of thei
    r employment.
    * When a defendant has a qualified privilege to communicate a potentially defamatory statement, the privilege may also be lost by showing that the defendant made the statement with actual malice. Actual malice exists when a statement is made “with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard of its truth or falsity.” “To prove actual malice a party must establish that the speaker knew the statement was false, or acted with a high degree of awareness of its probable falsity, or in fact entertained serious doubts as to the statements.

    Discussion. In this case, the court held there was publication of the defamatory language because the employees of Defendant were acting outside of their scope of employment.



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