On February 24, 2017, the New Hampshire Supreme Court agreed with the trial court’s dismissal of former teacher Beverly Cluff-Landry’s claims against the Roman Catholic Bishop of Manchester, d/b/a St. Christopher’s School. That case arose from Cluff-Landry suing with a claim: under our state’s whistleblower statute; wrongful discharge; and slander. Cluff-Landry in 2008 had been hired by the school’s former principal to work the 2008-2009 academic years as a pre-kindergarten teacher and a teacher of visual arts. Her contract was renewed annually in 2009, 2010, and 2011. However by the academic year of 2011-2012 a new principal was appointed and Cluff-Landry was given a notice of nonrenewal on April 15, 2012; meaning that she would not be renewed as a teacher for the academic year of 2012-2013. Cluff-Landry surmised that it was because of her reporting a 4-year old’s unsafe behavior and the school’s inability to keep other students safe. Cluff-Landry asserted that during the 2011-2012 academic year two students in the pre-kindergarten program exhibited deviant behavior including kicking, hitting, slapping, punching, spitting, biting, screaming, throwing things, and verbal abuse. One of the students left the school in October 2011, but the other student remained in the program. Cluff-Landry claims that she was fired in retaliation for whistleblowing and that firing was a wrongful discharge. She claimed also was later slandered for a bad job reference.
The school filed a motion to dismiss the claims which is an assertion by the school that even if you assume the allegations in the complaint are true, Cluff-Landry could not win at trial. First, the Court noted that under the whistleblower statute, the employee has to show that she reported or caused to be reported what she reasonably believed to be a violation of any law or rule. Cluff-Landry stated that the child’s behavior was assault, yet the disruptive student at issue was 4-years old. The complaint did not suggest in any way that Cluff-Landry had made it clear to the principal of the school that she believed the 4-year’s conduct was a violation of the criminal statute. To the extent the child’s conduct was a violation of the internal policies of the school, the Court specifically held that the internal policies such as the school’s student/parent handbook are insufficient to constitute a violation of a law or rule under the whistleblower statute.
Second, as to a wrongful discharge claim, while her last day of employment was not until June 15, 2012 and she filed her claim on May 13, 2015, the Court still found that she had failed to file the wrongful discharge claim within the 3-year statute of limitations in which to file a law suit in court. The Court noted that when the school notified her on April 15, 2012 that they were not renewing her contract, it was at that point in time, based upon the allegations and complaint, that a 3-year statute of limitations began to accrue and therefore she missed the deadline to file by just a little under a month.
Lastly, as the slander claim, Cluff-Landry alleged in her Complaint that she had hired a reference company to do a reference check obviously because she was concerned that the school would give a bad reference. When the reference company called the school, it was told negative things about her. Slander is generally the oral statement form of defamation, with libel being the written form. The Court found that the issuance of a defamatory statement where the injured party precipitated the statement’s release is not actionable. In other words, if an employee is concerned that the former employer is providing bad references and has a friend or a reference company call the employer for a reference and false derogatory statements are then made by the former employer, those false statements are not enough to form the basis of a defamation claim. Also that bad reference to her reference company alone could not prove damages since she was not failing to get a new job because of a bad reference. She would need evidence that false derogatory references were being given to real potential employers for which she had applied for jobs and those references caused her to lose job opportunities she would had otherwise received.
J. Daniel Marr is a Director and Shareholder at Hamblett & Kerrigan, P.A. His legal practice includes counseling businesses and individuals on a variety of legal issues and advocating on their behalf. Attorney Marr is licensed and practices in both New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Attorney Marr can be reached at [email protected]