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GAIL MCK. BECKMAN v. RICHARD S. DUNN AND TRUSTEES UNIVERSITY PENNSYLVANIA (04/11/80)

filed: April 11, 1980.

GAIL MCK. BECKMAN, APPELLANT,
v.
RICHARD S. DUNN AND TRUSTEES OF UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA



No. 1980 October Term, 1978, Appeal from the Order in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County, Trial Division, No. 3627, May Term, 1977.

COUNSEL

William F. Coyle, Philadelphia, for appellant.

Richard M. Shusterman, Philadelphia, for appellee.

Price, Dowling and Gates, JJ.*fn*

Author: Price

[ 276 Pa. Super. Page 531]

Appellant brought an action for defamation alleging that she had been libeled in a letter written by Professor Richard S. Dunn, Chairman of the department of history at the University of Pennsylvania. In a well-reasoned opinion, the Honorable Edward J. Blake granted appellees' motion for judgment on the pleadings*fn1 based on his finding that the allegedly defamatory statements were incapable of defamatory meaning. We agree and affirm the order of the trial court.

To determine the propriety of awarding judgment on the pleadings, we must treat the motion as we would a preliminary objection in the nature of a demurrer, Trost v. Clover, 234 Pa. Super. 255, 338 A.2d 630 (1975), by accepting as true all well-pleaded averments of fact of the party against whom the motion is granted and considering against him only those facts that he specifically admits. Bata v. Central-Penn National Bank, 423 Pa. 373, 224 A.2d 174 (1966), cert. denied, 386 U.S. 1007, 87 S.Ct. 1348, 18 L.Ed.2d 433 (1967); Shumaker v. Lear, 235 Pa. Super. 509, 345 A.2d 249 (1975). A judgment on the pleadings will not be entered when unknown or disputed issues of fact are present. Potts Manufacturing Co. v. Loffredo, 235 Pa. Super. 294, 340 A.2d 468 (1975).

Viewed in this fashion the pleadings in this case disclose the following facts. Appellant was a graduate student in the department of history at the University of Pennsylvania from 1964 to 1967. In her pursuit of a Ph.D. degree, she was required to pass a departmental comprehensive test. Appellant took an oral examination before a committee of three history department faculty members in September of 1966. The examining committee decided that her performance was inadequate and that the continuation of her studies was not merited. Appellant appealed this decision and was granted

[ 276 Pa. Super. Page 532]

    the opportunity to take a second examination, in writing. Once again, the examiners found her work inadequate.

From 1966 to December 31, 1969, appellant petitioned the university and the department in an effort to reverse the department's decision that she was ineligible to continue in the Ph.D. program. In February of 1968, she received a written notice from the University of Pennsylvania that it was the policy of the history department to allow to each student no more than two opportunities to pass the examination and that the department had voted unanimously to deny an exception to the rule in her case.

On May 7, 1976, nine years after her termination as a Ph.D. candidate, appellant wrote to Professor James O. Freedman, Ombudsman of the University, requesting that he reopen her case because of doubt about the circumstances under which she was denied the degree and that he impartially appraise it after investigation. Ombudsman Freedman responded by sending a copy of appellant's grievance to Professor Dunn, who, as well as being chairman of the history department, had been one of the examiners at both of appellant's examinations. By letter of June 7, 1976, Professor Dunn requested that the case not be reopened and gave a detailed review of the reasons that appellant failed to qualify for the degree. During the course of this discussion he made the following statements upon which the instant action is based:

"In the months following [the first] examination, Ms. Beckman spent far more time quarreling with our verdict, and seeking to overturn it, and fighting over the arrangements for a re-examination, than she did in making further preparations. Between September 1966 and February 1967, I find in our file, seven letters from her, fifteen letters concerning her case by graduate chairman, James C. Davis, and five letters from Provost David Goddard, who became involved in the case when Ms. Beckman and her mother ...


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