Lawyer’s Letter to School Seeking Money for Long-Past Alleged Sexual Abuse by Ex-Teacher May Be Libelous,

Start at Ralston v. GarabedianJudge Mark Kearney, E.D., ruled Thursday in favor of the petition. Pa.):

Lawyer representing former students may contact a school to inform them about an alleged teacher who sexually assaulted his student twenty-plus years before. The former student may not wish to have the matter made public, so the lawyer could do it privately without any court or media involvement. However, student allegations of sexual abuse can damage a teacher’s reputation. Even if the lawyer is not serious about litigation, valid policy grounds protecting advocates’ rights fade.

Today, we will examine whether two letters sent by a lawyer to a headmaster of a private school in 2018 that contained allegations of sexual abuse of a former teacher between 1993 and 1995 and demanded a million dollars of compensation, despite the fact that his claims were barred under the statute of limitations could be defamatory. Both the lawyer and his client want summary judgment. Arguments include that private correspondence are confidential and that former teacher cannot be shown to have actual malice in order for the client to file a defamation suit.

The teacher’s right to report all sexual abuse is balanced with his rights to keep his reputation clean from any false statements. Both the client and lawyer did not show that they have any right to dismiss the claim of defamation against the former teacher. The lawyer and his client have not provided any grounds for us to apply a privilege or an actual Malice standard to private statements that were made about the teacher. We deny the lawyer’s and his client’s motions for summary judgment….

We deny Attorney Garabedian’s Motion for summary judgment because: (1) judicial privilege does not apply because Attorney Garabedian did not seriously contemplate judicial or quasi-judicial proceedings when he sent the 2018 letters; (2) Mr. Ralston need not show Attorney Garabedian published with actual malice because Mr. Ralston is not a limited-purpose public figure; (3) genuine disputes of material fact as to Attorney Garabedian’s negligence preclude application of a conditional privilege; (4) Attorney Garabedian did not need to publish the 2018 letters in Ohio where Mr. Ralston lived; and (5) Mr. Ralston need not show “special harm” as Attorney Garabedian defines it to succeed on a defamation claim….

Here’s the core of the court analysis regarding item 1, the litigation confidentiality:

Attorney Garabedian argues judicial privilege bars Mr. Ralston’s defamation claims. He argues he sent the 2018 letters while serving a client—Mr. Poulos—who contemplated filing a lawsuit when the letters were sent. Ralston says that the judicial privilege doesn’t apply since Attorney Garabedian stated that he won’t sue and had not considered judicial or quasi-judicial procedures. We find the judicial privilege does not apply because Attorney Garabedian does not show he seriously contemplated instituting judicial or quasi-judicial proceedings when he sent the 2018 letters…..

A person is entitled to absolute immunity from ‘communications that are issued in regular course of judicial proceedings, and are relevant and material for the redress/request sought’. “[T]He judicial privilege doesn’t just cover statements in open court. The privilege also applies to “less formal communications” such as pre-conferences and correspondence between lawyers in support of the client’s interests. “The contours of the privilege … have been shaped by a case-by-case evaluation of whether its application in specific circumstances is needed to advance its underlying policy objectives.”

These policy goals of the judicial privet include the “fundamental social need” for justice to be freely administered and efficient through the eliciting and evaluating speech from parties or witnesses. This may not only reflect poorly on the character of another person but also be an accusatory statement. It encourages “[a]ll persons involved in a judicial proceeding … to speak frankly and argue freely without danger or concern that they may be required to defend their statements in a later defamation action.” This is an integral component of a policy that allows all suitors to have access to courts of justice for any claims they may make, no matter how bold or wicked or how virtuous or timid.

The essential realm protected communication has its limits. Pennsylvania court limit privilege application to cases where the policy considerations that facilitate the privilege cannot be implicated. The privilege applies to “communications preliminary to a proposed judicial proceeding … only when the communication has some relation to a proceeding that is actually contemplated in good faith and under serious consideration by the witness or a possible party to the proceeding.” The mere possibility of a proceeding being instituted should not be used to grant immunity from defamation. “Where a declarant has no intention of initiating proceedings or otherwise obtaining a remedy, clothing his or her statement with immunity cannot serve” its “goal” of “incentivizing individuals to … speak freely in Looking to start? judicial or quasi-judicial proceedings.”

This is a question of whether Attorney Garabedian had in good faith considered initiating or quasi-judicial proceedings when he sent his 2018 letters accusing Mr. Ralston sexually abusing Mr. Poulos. We find he offers no evidence of doing so….

Both Attorney Garabedian, and Mr. Poulos, swear that they were aware of the expiration date for the statutes of limitations in place to protect Mr. Poulos from potential lawsuits when Attorney Garabedian wrote the 2018 letters. In their 2018 correspondence, Attorney Garabedian made sure that Mr. Poulos and Attorney Garabedian had agreed to a contingent fee agreement. They also agreed that they would not file a “complaint or bring a suit.” Will not be filedThe Statute of Limitations is either out of date or inapplicable to this case. This agreement defined the boundaries of Attorney Garabedian’s representation for Mr. Poulos. Attorney Garabedian sought to obtain a remedy for Mr. Poulos—but not through a judicial proceeding. While the letter of April 2018 stated it as “an attempt for settlement and compromise cases”, we must determine the privilege’s request. This requires “an inquiry into factual issues of the speaker’s intent.” The letter’s self-serving description does not establish a genuine dispute about material fact concerning Attorney Garabedians true intent. This is what his contingent fee agreement shows. The parties’ written agreement forecloses Attorney Garabedian’s serious contemplation of judicial proceedings when he published the 2018 letters….

Attorney Garabedian asserts that he had seriously considered quasi-judicial procedures because he wanted to mediate his disagreement and instigate an inquiry into Mr. Ralston. This is not quasi-judicial, we disagree.

Communications made in anticipation or during a quasi-judicial proceeding are protected by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Quasi-judicial proceedings are those in which “tribunals … perform judicial functions, such as proceedings by administrative officers, boards, and commissions.” If a proceeding involves discretionary exercise and requires notification and hearing, it is considered “quasi-judicial.” Pennsylvania judges “look at the existence and exercise discretionary decision-making power (i.e.Applying the law and rules to the facts of the case. There are also procedural safeguards that can be used in an administrative proceeding, similar to those available at a judicial proceeding.e.g. Notice and hearing. Right to cross-examine witnesses. Our Court of Appeals ruled “government involvement is a prerequisite for granting quasi-judicial status in grievance processes” under Pennsylvania law.

Attorney Garabedian claims he meant to start proceedings, as he suggested mediation repeatedly to Attorney Rees. The mediation process is not quasi-judicial. The mediator is not able to make decisions for the parties; she only intervenes between them. Reconciliation or convincing themThey can adjust or resolve their dispute. Mediating is an informal form of dispute resolution that does not require government agencies or administrative functions. The parties may take or leave the mediator’s suggestions….

Rightly, Mr. Ralston asserts that today’s facts are in contradiction to our 2019 findings. Fogel v. University of the ArtsIn this case, we used the judicial privelege to file a defamation lawsuit against a university professor for reporting sexual misconduct to its Title IX officer. We found the professor’s allegations privileged because she intended to “initiate … quasi-judicial proceedings” by reporting misconduct to the university’s Title IX officer. A Title IX investigation involves an administrative body that has discretionary decision-making power, and is not quasi-judicial like the Hill School private investigation. The District Judges reject applying the judicial privilege for “entirely Private Grievance Procedure”[s].” …

Our findings should not discourage abuse victims from reporting violence in schools, and especially at school. Laws must be written to encourage victims of abuse to sue malfeasant educators. It does. It does so often. Does protect those reporting educators’ misconduct—but only when those allegations are To hold educators responsible. These allegations are often made to the authorities with quasi-judicial and judicial jurisdiction to investigate the abusers. The judicial privilege shields accusers from liability for defamation, even if they are only made to initiate the education reform process.

But, in this instance, Attorney Garabedian was not going to initiate a case that would hold Mr. Ralston liable. Contrary to what Attorney Garabedian stated in his April 2018 letter, “Find a compromise” Claims arising from Mr. Ralston’s purported abuse. Attorney Garabedian did not seek to hold anyone accountable—he sought a million dollars. The judicial privilege does not protect this behavior which admittedly never sought a judicial remedy….