The Pennsylvania Superior Court has upheld a $508,000 verdict awarded to a Catholic school teacher who sued the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for defamation after she was accused of cheating by providing her students the answers to a standardized test.
The appeals court denied the archdiocese’s appeal of the award, which a Philadelphia jury handed up in October 2016 to Cindy Gallagher, who taught sixth-grade English at St. Philip Neri School.
On appeal, the archdiocese argued that Gallagher did not put forth a sufficient case for defamation and that the church was immune from suit through conditional privilege.
However, the three-judge panel of Judges Mary Jane Bowes, Anne E. Lazarus and William H. Platt disagreed.
In the court’s opinion, Platt wrote that Gallagher made concrete allegations that her supervisors made defamatory statements to her at a faculty meeting and through a letter sent to parents regarding the issue.
“It was clear that the letter was defamatory and that it applied to appellee. Appellee offered proof of harm, testifying that she suffered as a result of these statements, both in the form of mental anguish and damage to her reputation,” Platt said. “Finally, appellee testified that the statements were made negligently, in that an investigation had not been completed prior to accusing her of cheating, and that the defamatory language in the letter to parents was unnecessary.”
As to the issue of conditional privilege, Platt said Gallagher “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.”
In early 2014, Gallagher began preparing her students to take the annual TerraNova test, which is administered by the archdiocese. Gallagher developed a practice test with questions that, according to the complaint, tested the same concepts on the TerraNova test, but contained different questions and answers.
Her complaint said Betty Veneziale, the school’s principal, found a copy of the practice test on a copier machine, and confronted Gallagher about it in her classroom, allegedly calling her a liar.
The following day, according to the complaint, Veneziale told teachers at a meeting that Gallagher had cheated, and said the prep constituted plagiarism. Soon after, another meeting was held with all the teachers regarding what was referred to as a “serious cheating scandal,” in which another school official said Gallagher had cheated, lied and plagiarized. Her contract was not renewed for the next year.
Gallagher’s complaint said she had not cheated and it could have been easily determined that the practice questions she prepared were different from the questions that would be on the test. The complaint also said the teachers were not given any prep materials, or rules and regulations about how she should prepare the students for the test. Nobody told Gallagher that her prep method violated the school’s rules and regulations, the complaint said.
Gallagher suffered from depression, anxiety, hypertension, the inability to work and lost wages as a result of the conduct.
Frank R. Emmerich of Conrad O’Brien represented the archdiocese and did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Bryan Lentz of Bochetto & Lentz represented Gallagher. In an email Wednesday, Lentz wrote, “Obviously, we agree with the ruling which vindicates the jury’s finding and moves Mrs. Gallagher one step closer to closure on what has been an awful experience for her and her family.”