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Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Court address claims of breach of contract, negligent termination and defamation alleged by educator


Court address claims of breach of contract, negligent termination and defamation alleged by educator
Williams v. Buffalo Board of Education, et al, USCA, Second Circuit, Docket #17-3483-cv

Dr. Yamilette Williams, a school administrator, appealed a federal district court's ruling sustaining the Buffalo Board of Education's decision to terminate her from her position. Among the issues addressed by the Circuit Court of Appeals were Dr. Williams' claims concerning the Board's alleged breach of her contract resulting in her alleged negligent termination, and Dr. Williams' allegation that she was defamed by a member of the Board.


Breach of Contract

Addressing the alleged Breach of Contract, the court said that to plead a breach of contract claim under New York law, the plaintiff must allege (1) the existence of a contract; (2) his or her performance under the contract; (3) the defendants’ breach of the contract; and (4) damages.

Under New York law, said the court, "[t]he fundamental, neutral precept of contract interpretation is that agreements are construed in accord with the parties’ intent.” A contract is the best source of the parties’ intent and “if an agreement is ‘complete, clear and unambiguous on its face[, it] must be enforced according to the plain meaning of its terms.’”

A district court may dismiss a breach of contract claim at the pleadings stage “only if the terms of the contract are unambiguous ... Whether or not a writing is ambiguous is a question of law to be resolved by the courts."


Negligent Termination

With respect to Dr. Williams' claims of having been subjected to "Negligent Termination," the Circuit Court indicated that "It appears that New York courts do not recognize such a claim."

The court then opined that even if such a claim existed under New York Law, Williams’s relationship with the District was governed by contract, and the well-established rule is that "a simple breach of contract is not to be considered a tort unless a legal duty independent of the contract itself has been violated," citing Clark-Fitzpatrick, Inc. v. Long Island R.R. Co., 70 N.Y.2d 382.


Defamation

Finally, with respect to the claims advanced by Dr. Williams' alleging that she had been defamed by a member of the Board, the Circuit Court observed that defamation involves “the making of a false statement which tends to expose the plaintiff to public contempt, ridicule, aversion or disgrace, or induce an evil opinion of him [or her] in the minds of right-thinking persons, and to deprive him [or her] of their friendly intercourse in society.”

The elements of a defamation claim are "a false statement that is negligently, at minimum, causes harm, unless the statement is per se* defamatory" and only false statements of fact are subject to a defamation action. In contrast, said the court, "expressions of opinion are deemed privileged."

In the words of the court, "Determining whether a statement is one of fact or opinion requires consideration of several factors, including "the full context of the communication in which the statement appears ... whether the specific language in issue has a precise meaning which is readily understood and whether the statements are capable of being proven true or false.”

The Circuit Court also noted that “In an action for libel or slander, the particular words complained of shall be set forth in the complaint." In addition, the complaint also must specify “the time, manner and persons to whom the publications were made.”

The court then affirmed the district court's with respect to its dismissal of the issues alleging negligent termination and defamation.

The Circuit Court, however, remanded Williams’s breach of contact claim to the district court for its further consideration, explaining that given the present record, "it was error" for district court to conclude that Williams failed to satisfy a contractual provision obligating her to maintain professional certifications required by the Department of Civil Service or Department of Education, thereby obviating its finding that the Board did not violate the contract by terminating her.

* Court typically view "uttering a false and injurious statement" concerning an individual's sexual morality, he or she being guilty of a crime or being incompetent in his or her profession or trade as libel or slander per se

The decision is posted on the Internet at:


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