Appellate court upholds jury verdict against Archdiocese of Philadelphia in defamation case

By Dee Thompson | Dec 5, 2017

HARRISBURG – A defamation case against the archdiocese of Philadelphia has been decided in the favor of the teacher who sued. The Catholic school teacher was accused of helping her students cheat on standardized tests.

The case was filed as Cindy Gallagher v. Archdiocese of Philadelphia. A trial was held in September 2016, and the jury awarded Gallagher $508,000, according to The Legal Intelligencer. The archdiocese of Philadelphia appealed that judgment.

The case centered on Gallagher, who taught at the Philip Neri School, part of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, from 2007 through 2014. According to the court, Gallagher was responsible for administering the TerraNova standardized tests. 

Principal Elizabeth Veneziale allegedly noticed that some of the questions on the practice test were similar to the actual test questions.

“Upon review, we agree with the trial court that, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to appellee, she met her burden of proving that appellant abused its conditional privilege where it had failed to adequately investigate the truth of the defamatory statements before publishing them and included defamatory statements in the letter to parents that were unnecessary," the state Superior Court ruled Nov. 13. 

"Therefore, we conclude that the trial court did not err because the evidence was such that no two reasonable minds could disagree that appellee proved all of the elements of defamation and that appellant abused its conditional privilege."

On March 18, 2014, the opinion states Veneziale confronted Gallagher in her classroom in front of her students. The next day, at a meeting of some of the teachers, Gallagher testified that the principal said there was a “''terrible cheating scandal that has happened with the sixth grade teachers,’ which was very serious, and that both the Archdiocese and Monsignor Charles Vance, the head of St. Philip Neri School, had been notified,” the memorandum states.

The next day at a staff meeting, according to Gallagher, “Garvin said that the teachers who cheated could be fired, lose licenses, and could be charged as criminals,” the memorandum states.

In May, after conducting an investigation, parents were notified that the test results were not valid because students had been given practice questions the same as those in the tests, the memorandum states. Gallagher’s teaching contract was not renewed for the next year.

Gallagher claimed she was defamed in three ways, according to the court’s memorandum: “Here, appellee provided evidence with respect to three defamatory communications: (1) oral statements from Veneziale to teachers during the March 19, 2014 meeting; (2) oral statements from Garvin to teachers at the March 24, 2014 training session; and (3) the May 19, 2014 letter to parents.” 

Senior Judge William H. Platt filed the non-precedential decision on Nov. 13. Judge Mary Jane Bowes and Judge Anne E. Lazarus also heard the case. 

Cindy Gallagher was represented by Bryan Lentz of Bochetto & Lentz.

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