KONDO DRESSER v. BUFFALO PUBLIC SCHOOLS 31

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Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Fourth Department, New York.

Stella KONDO-DRESSER, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. BUFFALO PUBLIC SCHOOLS, Marion Cañedo, Individually and as Superintendent of Buffalo Public Schools, and Fatima Morrell, Individually and as Principal of Buffalo Public School # 31, Defendants-Respondents.

Decided: April 29, 2005

PRESENT:  SCUDDER, J.P., KEHOE, MARTOCHE, SMITH, AND HAYES, JJ. Sanders & Sanders, Amherst (Melanie M. Peterson of Counsel), for Plaintiff-Appellant. Michael B. Risman, Corporation Counsel, Buffalo (Kelly Gale Eisenried of Counsel), for Defendants-Respondents.

Plaintiff commenced this action seeking damages for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.   According to plaintiff, defendant Fatima Morrell, individually and as principal of Buffalo Public School # 31, made defamatory statements in her performance evaluation of plaintiff, a special education teacher for defendant Buffalo Public Schools (School).

 We agree with plaintiff that Supreme Court erred in granting that part of defendants' motion seeking dismissal of the first cause of action, for defamation, against Morrell and the School, and we therefore modify the order accordingly.  “A privileged communication is one which, but for the occasion on which it is uttered, would be defamatory and actionable” (Park Knoll Assoc. v. Schmidt, 59 N.Y.2d 205, 208, 464 N.Y.S.2d 424, 451 N.E.2d 182).   A qualified privilege applies “where the communication is made to persons who have some common interest in the subject matter” (Foster v. Churchill, 87 N.Y.2d 744, 751, 642 N.Y.S.2d 583, 665 N.E.2d 153;  see Liberman v. Gelstein, 80 N.Y.2d 429, 437, 590 N.Y.S.2d 857, 605 N.E.2d 344;  Kilcoin v. Wolansky, 75 A.D.2d 1, 6, 428 N.Y.S.2d 272, affd. 52 N.Y.2d 995, 438 N.Y.S.2d 289, 420 N.E.2d 87).   The defense of qualified privilege is defeated by a showing that the defendant spoke with malice, i.e., where it is shown that “the motivation for making such statements was spite or ill will (common-law malice) or [that] the statements [were] made with [a] high degree of awareness of their probable falsity (constitutional malice)” (Foster, 87 N.Y.2d at 752, 642 N.Y.S.2d 583, 665 N.E.2d 153 [internal quotation marks omitted];  see Liberman, 80 N.Y.2d at 437-438, 590 N.Y.S.2d 857, 605 N.E.2d 344).   Here, Morrell was protected by a qualified privilege in communicating the performance evaluation to defendant Marion Cañedo, the Superintendent of the School (see Stukuls v. State of New York, 42 N.Y.2d 272, 278-279, 397 N.Y.S.2d 740, 366 N.E.2d 829).   We conclude, however, that the complaint contains sufficient allegations that Morrell acted with malice in making the alleged defamatory statements to withstand that part of defendants' motion seeking dismissal of the defamation cause of action against Morrell and the School, her employer (see id. at 280-283, 397 N.Y.S.2d 740, 366 N.E.2d 829).   We reject defendants' contention that all of the statements were inactionable opinion (see generally Steinhilber v. Alphonse, 68 N.Y.2d 283, 289, 508 N.Y.S.2d 901, 501 N.E.2d 550).

 Contrary to plaintiff's contention, however, the court properly granted that part of defendants' motion seeking dismissal of the second cause of action, for intentional infliction of emotional distress.   The statements made by Morrell in plaintiff's performance evaluation were “not so outrageous in character and so extreme in degree that they are utterly intolerable in a civilized community” (Harville v. Lowville Cent. School Dist., 245 A.D.2d 1106, 1107, 667 N.Y.S.2d 175, lv. denied 92 N.Y.2d 808, 678 N.Y.S.2d 594, 700 N.E.2d 1230;  see Sclar v. Fayetteville-Manlius School Dist., 300 A.D.2d 1115, 753 N.Y.S.2d 636, lv. denied 99 N.Y.2d 510, 760 N.Y.S.2d 101, 790 N.E.2d 275;  Doe v. County of Wayne, 261 A.D.2d 950, 689 N.Y.S.2d 802).

It is hereby ORDERED that the order so appealed from be and the same hereby is unanimously modified on the law by denying the motion in part and reinstating the first cause of action against defendants Buffalo Public Schools and Fatima Morrell, individually and as principal of Buffalo Public School # 31, and as modified the order is affirmed without costs.

MEMORANDUM: