Legal Newsline

Monday, February 24, 2020

Pre-K teacher loses wrongful termination, slander case against Catholic school

By Nicholas Gueguen | Mar 15, 2017

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MANCHESTER, N.H. (Legal Newsline) – The New Hampshire Supreme Court on Feb. 24 decided to uphold the decision of the Hillsborough Superior Court to dismiss allegations against the Roman Catholic Bishop of Manchester, or Saint Christopher School, in the case of Beverly A. Cluff-Landry v. the Roman Catholic Bishop of Manchester.

In its decision, the Supreme Court explained that Cluff-Landry taught at Saint Christopher School. According to the factual background of the case laid out in the decision, Cluff-Landry, who taught pre-kindergarten, told the principal about a student that was acting up in the pre-kindergarten class and that Cluff-Landry was concerned that the school didn't have the resources to handle the student's behavior.

Cluff-Landry told the principal that the student's behavior went against the student-parent handbook, and the principal allegedly laughed off the concerns.

Even though Cluff-Landry told the principal about the student, the principal just told her that the student was immature and needed to go through pre-kindergarten again.

Cluff-Landry alleged that the principal began to get back at her. She said on Jan. 27, 2012, the principal came in around 45 minutes before school began and spoke loudly about an incident the day before in which the student had a part. According to the decision, Cluff-Landry told the principal that she was not there when the incident happened but that she would investigate.

Cluff-Landry went to her car, and when she came back in at the time she'd normally show up to work, she found that the principal called in a substitute for her.

Parents of one of Cluff-Landry's students reported that January that the student bullied their daughter, and the principal expelled that student. At that time, Cluff-Landry alleged the principal began to retaliate against her. The principal sent Cluff-Landry a letter of insubordination for the Jan. 27 incident on Feb. 3 of that school year and put Cluff-Landry on a teacher improvement plan on Feb. 22.

The principal began watching Cluff-Landry in her classroom in March of that school year, and on April 13, 2012, the principal gave Cluff-Landry a report of observations in which she said Cluff-Landry needed to improve her conflict-resolution plans, needed to be accountable for what goes on with students in her classroom, and needed to improve her work with other teachers and teacher aides in her classroom.

The principal told Cluff-Landry on April 15, 2012, that the school would not be renewing her contract, and that her contract would end on or before June 30. Cluff-Landry finished her work at the school on June 15, the decision states.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court stated that Cluff-Landry then hired Allison & Taylor Inc., to see how St. Christopher School was referring her. Allison & Taylor called the school principal Aug. 5, 2014, and the principal said that Cluff-Landry left on bad terms, had bad relationships with her co-workers and couldn't control her classroom like she needed to.

According to the decision, Cluff-Landry sued the school in May 2015 on allegations that because the school didn't renew her contract after Cluff-Landry told about a student breaking school and public policies, that the school violated RSA Chapter 275-E:2 of the New Hampshire Whistleblowers' Protection Act, as well as making claims for wrongful discharge and slander, which came from what the principal told Allison & Taylor.

The Supreme Court reasoned that it agreed with the Superior Court that Cluff-Landry did not allege that she committed an act that was protected under the Whistleblowers' Protection Act.

The Supreme Court also explained that it agreed with the Superior Court in its opinion that Cluff-Landry's report of the student's behavior to the principal would not lead a "reasonable employer to understand her complaint to be a report that the child violated the simple assault statute."

The Supreme Court reasoned that Cluff-Landry didn't say anything in her complaint to back her claim that "a reasonable employer would understand she was reporting a violation of anything other than the school's policies and procedures and other public policies such as assault." The Supreme Court said Cluff-Landry "at most alleged issues related to internal management matters."

To the allegation of wrongful termination, the Supreme Court reasoned that the Superior Court correctly ruled that Cluff-Landry's claim was prevented by the three-year statute of limitations because Cluff-Landry's claim of wrongful termination would have started building up on April 15, 2012, but she did not initiate her claim in time, as she initiated her suit on May 13, 2015.

Cluff-Landry tried to argue that the Superior Court made a mistake in granting the school's motion to dismiss her wrongful termination allegation because it's prevented by that statute of limitations.

With the allegation of slander, the Supreme Court upheld the Superior Court's decision that Cluff-Landry couldn't claim the statements that the principal made as slander. It explained that the Superior Court opined that Cluff-Landry couldn't claim the statements were slanderous because "she asked Allison & Taylor to do the reference check and that one could infer that she asked the company to call the school," which meant "she invited the statements."

Cluff-Landry tried to argue that the Superior Court made a mistake in not drawing that it was possible that the principal said things like what she said to Allison & Taylor to others besides Allison & Taylor.

"(I)n evaluating the sufficiency of claims of slander, courts have required that the complaint adequately identify the allegedly defamatory statements, the person who made the statements, the time when the statements were made, and the third parties to whom the statements were published," the court wrote.

The Supreme Court reasoned that the Superior Court ruled that Cluff-Landry only "speculated" that the principal said similar things to others and did not back up her "speculation" with "sufficiently pleaded facts."

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New Hampshire Supreme Court