WLP Case Highlight: Schanne v. Addis

by Tara Murtha, WLP Staff

If a person discloses to a teacher that another teacher started a romantic relationship with her years earlier while she was his student, and that disclosure leads to a termination hearing at the school — should the teacher be able to sue his former student for defamation?

What if the student did not intend, at least at first, to initiate a termination hearing at the school?

These are the issues at the heart of Schanne v. Addis, a case argued before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court yesterday. The case came to Pennsylvania’s highest court via a certified question from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

This much is not in dispute: Robert Schanne was a teacher at Lower Merion High School in the Philadelphia suburbs, and Jenna Addis was his student. Schanne, a physics teacher, taught Addis, now an engineer in New Orleans, her junior and senior years. Their relationship eventually became sexual.

After the sexual relationship ended, Addis told her neighbor, who was also a teacher at Lower Merion, about the situation because she did not want Schanne to victimize other students. Consistent with her legal obligations under Title IX, her neighbor subsequently told school authorities of the allegation of sexual misconduct. Ultimately, Schanne was fired after a hearing at the school.

Schanne then filed a defamation lawsuit against Addis based on her initial statement to her neighbor. Addis’ position is that, based on Pennsylvania law, she can’t be sued because her disclosure resulted in a quasi-judicial proceeding.

Attorneys at the Women’s Law Project and Greenberg Traurig filed an amicus curiae brief on behalf of 24 organizations in support of Addis. Addis was represented by Stephen Britt.

The amicus brief argues that students should be able to disclose improper and potentially illegal sexual misconduct to school authorities without fear of retaliatory defamation suits.

In short, we argue that Addis’s speech should be protected.

To protect the integrity of the judicial system, Pennsylvania adopted an ‘absolute privilege’ from defamation liability for statements made in relation to an ongoing or potential judicial or quasi-judicial proceeding. In this case, Addis’ initial disclosure to her neighbor, who was required to report the alleged misconduct to school authorities under Title IX, initiated the hearing that led to Schanne’s termination.

A result from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Schanne’s favor will enable abusers and teachers guilty of sexual misconduct with students — a problem particularly rampant in Pennsylvania — to wield the threat of burdensome and expensive defamation lawsuits against students and former students for speaking out. It will deter students from reporting.

The best data suggest that almost 10% of students in public middle and high schools in the United States have been sexually victimized by a school employee. Many students taken advantage of by teachers and other adults in positions of authority do not disclose the transgression or assault, or significantly delay reporting, in fear of retaliation.

Allowing defamation lawsuits based on the very disclosures needed to initiate school hearings will impede the purpose of Title IX—the prevention of sexual misconduct on campuses.

What student will come forward and speak out about abuse if she or he believes they may be sued for doing so?

Parties accused of misconduct already have the opportunity to clear their name at the quasi-judicial hearing. Filing retaliation lawsuits against complainants is unnecessary.

To encourage the reporting of school sexual misconduct and to protect the purpose and enforcement of Title IX, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court should apply the absolute judicial privilege to situations where the statement resulted in a quasi-judicial hearing, even when it may have been made without the intent to lead to such a proceeding.

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The Women's Law Project creates a more just and equitable society by advancing the rights and status of all women throughout their lives. To this end, we engage in high-impact litigation, advocacy, and education.
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