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Fort Wayne businessman’s statements not defamatory per se

December 7, 2015

The former chancellor of Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne who filed lawsuits after he was required to retire at the age of 65 could not convince the Indiana Court of Appeals that statements in a private letter about him constituted defamation per se.

Dr. Michael Wartell was required under Purdue policy to retire at the age of 65, but his chancellorship could be extended by the Purdue University president. After learning Wartell sought to extend his chancellorship, Lawrence Lee, a Fort Wayne businessman and IPFW donor and supporter, and three other men sent an email to then Purdue President France Córdova asking her to deny the request. Lee then sent a private letter to Córdova, which contained statements such as “lack of integrity,” “[Wartell’s] word not always serving as his bond,” and “[W]e deserve a chancellor with impeccable integrity, the willingness to cooperate with other area universities, and the esteem to inspire complete trust from our business community.”

Wartell, after learning about this letter, sued Lee, alleging defamation per se, defamation per quod, tortious interference with contractual rights, and tortious interference with a business relationship. The court granted Lee partial summary judgment on the defamation per se claim, which is at issue in Michael A. Wartell v. Lawrence H. Lee,
02A03-1503-PL-81.

“Lee’s statements are vague and not objectively verifiable without referring to extrinsic evidence. Lee mentioned no specific incidents of misconduct but rather made general statements about Wartell’s character and conduct in his role as chancellor. Although Lee’s statements in his letter to Córdova were arguably defamatory, the vagueness with which they are stated prevents them from imputing misconduct and rising to the level of defamation per se,” Judge Paul Mathias wrote.

“It is understandable and indeed tempting to leap from a determination that an allegedly defamatory statement is related to a person’s trade, profession, office, or occupation to the conclusion that the statement is defamatory per se. However, that is simply not the proper legal analysis. As a matter of law, for an allegedly defamatory statement to qualify as defamation per se, it must impute not only the serious level of misconduct of the type described in (Dugan v. Mittal Steel USA Inc., 929 N.E.2d 184 (Ind. 2010)), but also in a way that does not require reference to extrinsic facts for context. Here, Lee’s statements require development of the underlying factual context in the legal determination of whether they were defamatory, and as such, the statements are not actionable as defamation per se.”
 

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