ILNews

Court: Student complaints are absolute privilege

Jennifer Nelson
January 1, 2008
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In a case of first impression, the Indiana Supreme Court held complaints made by current students under a university's anti-harassment policy are protected by absolute privilege.

The Supreme Court granted transfer to Virginia Hartman and Suzanne Swinehart v. Dr. Gabe Keri, No. 02S03-0706-CV-233, to determine whether Hartman and Swinehart's statements alleging sexual harassment against professor Keri were granted absolute privilege or qualified privilege.

Keri was a professor in the education department at Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne (IPFW), and Hartman and Swinehart were students who had taken courses Keri taught. In April 2003, Keri was informed his contract would not be renewed because of unsatisfactory teaching performance. The next month, Hartman and Swinehart filed formal complaints with Purdue's Affirmative Action Office at IPFW alleging sexual harassment by Keri.

The university assigned an investigator to interview Keri, Hartman, Swinehart, Keri's colleagues, and current and former students of Keri. The investigator concluded that statements from other students found Keri created a hostile environment, other students had wanted to come forward but were scared to make a report, and that Keri had harassed Hartman. The investigator recommended Keri be removed from teaching and away from contact of students.

The report's findings were reviewed and approved; Keri appealed to Purdue University's president, who upheld the decision. Keri then filed suit in the Northern District of Indiana against Purdue, alleging state tort claims and violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of Purdue, and the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court's ruling.

Keri then filed suit in Allen Superior Court against Hartman and Swinehart, alleging libel, slander, and malicious interference with his employment contract. The two students moved for summary judgment, which the court granted on the malicious interference count; but it denied summary judgment on the libel and slander claims.

The students appealed and the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court, deciding Hartman and Swinehart's statements were protected by an absolute privilege.

The Indiana Supreme Court today affirmed the Court of Appeals ruling, finding many courts have described the processes of educational institutions as quasi-judicial, wrote Justice Theodore Boehm. Even though Purdue's anti-harassment procedures don't have such formal apparatus as subpoena power, discovery, and proceedings under oath, as long as the process is reasonably transparent and fair, and allows the subject an opportunity to respond, it qualifies as quasi-judicial and allows for absolute privilege.

"Although Purdue's procedure may lack the trappings of a traditional court proceeding, it is orderly and reasonably fair, requires 'appropriate discipline' for those who file knowingly false or malicious complaints, and promises reasonable efforts to restore the reputation of anyone charged with discrimination or harassment that proves unsubstantiated," wrote Justice Boehm.

Absolute privilege is necessary for students like Hartman and Swinehart who file complaints according to university policy, or else it could have a chilling effect on legitimate complaints for fear of retaliation. To try to curb false or malicious reports by students, students who are found to have lied will be punished academically, which should curb false reporting, he wrote.

In a separate but concurring in result opinion, Justice Robert Rucker further explored what makes the university's procedures for addressing harassment complaints quasi-judicial in nature. Keri had argued he should have been allowed to subpoena witnesses and cross-examine witnesses for it to be a quasi-judicial process. Justice Rucker wrote based on the facts of the case, it's clear the university's administrative procedure is quasi-judicial because the school exercised judgment and discretion, determined facts to make a decision, made binding orders, affected Keri's property rights, examined witnesses, and enforced its decision. As such, the students' communications made pursuant to the anti-harassment policy are entitled to absolute privilege, he wrote.

The Supreme Court remanded to the trial court with instructions to grant Hartman and Swinehart's motion for summary judgment.
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  1. So that none are misinformed by my posting wihtout a non de plume here, please allow me to state that I am NOT an Indiana licensed attorney, although I am an Indiana resident approved to practice law and represent clients in Indiana's fed court of Nth Dist and before the 7th circuit. I remain licensed in KS, since 1996, no discipline. This must be clarified since the IN court records will reveal that I did sit for and pass the Indiana bar last February. Yet be not confused by the fact that I was so allowed to be tested .... I am not, to be clear in the service of my duty to be absolutely candid about this, I AM NOT a member of the Indiana bar, and might never be so licensed given my unrepented from errors of thought documented in this opinion, at fn2, which likely supports Mr Smith's initial post in this thread: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html

  2. When I served the State of Kansas as Deputy AG over Consumer Protection & Antitrust for four years, supervising 20 special agents and assistant attorneys general (back before the IBLE denied me the right to practice law in Indiana for not having the right stuff and pretty much crushed my legal career) we had a saying around the office: Resist the lure of the ring!!! It was a take off on Tolkiem, the idea that absolute power (I signed investigative subpoenas as a judge would in many other contexts, no need to show probable cause)could corrupt absolutely. We feared that we would overreach constitutional limits if not reminded, over and over, to be mindful to not do so. Our approach in so challenging one another was Madisonian, as the following quotes from the Father of our Constitution reveal: The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties. I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power. All men having power ought to be mistrusted. -- James Madison, Federalist Papers and other sources: http://www.constitution.org/jm/jm_quotes.htm RESIST THE LURE OF THE RING ALL YE WITH POLITICAL OR JUDICIAL POWER!

  3. My dear Mr Smith, I respect your opinions and much enjoy your posts here. We do differ on our view of the benefits and viability of the American Experiment in Ordered Liberty. While I do agree that it could be better, and that your points in criticism are well taken, Utopia does indeed mean nowhere. I think Madison, Jefferson, Adams and company got it about as good as it gets in a fallen post-Enlightenment social order. That said, a constitution only protects the citizens if it is followed. We currently have a bevy of public officials and judicial agents who believe that their subjectivism, their personal ideology, their elitist fears and concerns and cause celebs trump the constitutions of our forefathers. This is most troubling. More to follow in the next post on that subject.

  4. Yep I am not Bryan Brown. Bryan you appear to be a bigger believer in the Constitution than I am. Were I still a big believer then I might be using my real name like you. Personally, I am no longer a fan of secularism. I favor the confessional state. In religious mattes, it seems to me that social diversity is chaos and conflict, while uniformity is order and peace.... secularism has been imposed by America on other nations now by force and that has not exactly worked out very well.... I think the American historical experiment with disestablishmentarianism is withering on the vine before our eyes..... Since I do not know if that is OK for an officially licensed lawyer to say, I keep the nom de plume.

  5. I am compelled to announce that I am not posting under any Smith monikers here. That said, the post below does have a certain ring to it that sounds familiar to me: http://www.catholicnewworld.com/cnwonline/2014/0907/cardinal.aspx

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