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Schanne v. Addis

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

August 17, 2015

ROBERT SCHANNE, Appellant
v.
JENNA ADDIS, Appellee

Argued March 10, 2015

Appeal from the U.S. Court of Appeals, Third Circuit No. 12-4044.

For Women's Law Project, Amicus Curiae: Amal Munas Bass, Esq., James Norman Boudreau, Esq., Terry L. Fromson, Esq., Carol E. Tracy, Esq., Women's Law Project. Christiana Lynn Signs, Esq., Greenberg Traurig, LLP.

For United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit, Participants: Marcia Mary Waldron, Esq.

Hon. Jane R. Roth (Sr.), Participants, Pro Se.

For Robert Schanne, Appellant: Wayne Arlen Ely, Esq., Timothy M. Kolman, Esq., William Charles Sipio, Esq., Kolman Ely, P.C.

For Jenna Addis, Appellee: Stephen J. Britt, Esq., Donnelly & Associates, P.C.

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE SAYLOR. SAYLOR, C.J., EAKIN, BAER, TODD, STEVENS, JJ.

OPINION

Page 943

MR. SAYLOR, CHIEF JUSTICE.

We granted the Third Circuit's petition for certification in this defamation case. The question is whether the judicial privilege extends to an allegation made concerning a school teacher by a former student, where the allegation was made before quasi-judicial proceedings were commenced and without any intent that it lead to such proceedings.

Robert Schanne taught physics at Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, Pennsylvania from September 1997 through December 2010. Jenna Addis was his student during her junior and senior years, from 2001 until her graduation in 2003. After Addis graduated, she attended Tulane University in New Orleans, where she still resides.

In late November 2010, Addis (then age 26) was visiting Pennsylvania for the Thanksgiving weekend. During her visit, Addis spoke to Susan O'Bannon, a friend who was employed by Lower Merion High School. Addis told O'Bannon that she and Schanne had been romantically involved while Addis was a high school senior and during the summer after she graduated. O'Bannon reported Addis's allegation to school officials. Addis testified in her deposition that she discussed the matter with O'Bannon as a friend and not as an agent of the school. Addis stated, moreover, that she did not intend for O'Bannon to

Page 944

report the information to the school, that she was not aware O'Bannon would feel obligated to make such a report, and that she was surprised to learn that O'Bannon had done so. See N.T., Dec. 1, 2001, at 137, 141.

Upon hearing the allegations, school officials called Addis in New Orleans to investigate the matter further. They made two such calls in early December 2010 and memorialized the content of the conversations in papers which they sent to Addis for her correction and signature. The federal district court described these papers as Addis's official statement to the school concerning her relationship with Schanne.

According to the statement, while Addis was a high school senior, she developed an emotional attachment to Schanne and the two would sometimes eat lunch together in a workroom connected to the main physics classroom. For a period of four to six weeks in the fall of 2002, Schanne assisted Addis in preparing for the SAT physics exam by tutoring her at her home. During this time, the pair developed a relationship that included a physical component, albeit they did not have intercourse until Addis graduated. After Addis moved to New Orleans for college, she and Schanne kept in touch and would have intimate relations whenever Addis was in Pennsylvania for holidays, although they were " not a couple anymore." Statement at 3. At some point, however, Addis began to believe her high school involvement with Schanne was interfering with her ability to have healthy relationships with others, and she wanted Schanne to admit that his conduct had been inappropriate. She sent him an email to this effect, but was disappointed when Schanne responded by stating there was nothing improper about their relationship. During Addis's November 2010 visit to Pennsylvania, she met Schanne at a bookstore and repeated her concerns, but he again maintained that their relationship " wasn't wrong." Statement at 4.

Based on Addis's statement, school officials provided Schanne with a pre-termination Loudermill hearing as required by due process. See Cleveland Bd. of Educ. v. Loudermill, 470 U.S. 532, 542, 105 S.Ct. 1487, 1493, 84 L.Ed.2d 494 (1985). Shortly thereafter, Schanne was suspended. Schanne refused to attend a follow-up hearing in January 2011, and the school district terminated his employment later that month.

Schanne filed a defamation action against Addis directed to the federal court's diversity jurisdiction. In his amended complaint, Schanne alleged that his romantic involvement with Addis did not begin until after she graduated from high school, and that any contrary assertions by Addis were false and made with malice due to Addis's jealousy over Schanne's relationship with another woman. Schanne averred that Addis's statements were not judicially privileged because: they were not made during a school board meeting, hearing, or other judicial or quasi-judicial proceeding; no judicial or quasi-judicial proceeding regarding Schanne was " convened or contemplated" at the time Addis made her allegations; and no other privilege applied to the statements. Amended Complaint, ¶ 28.

Addis filed a motion for summary judgment which the federal court granted on the basis that all of her assertions were protected by the judicial privilege. See Schanne v. Addis, 898 F.Supp.2d 751 (E.D. Pa. 2012). In reaching this conclusion, the court reviewed state court decisions it construed as holding that statements published prior to or during judicial proceedings which relate to those proceedings are privileged. See, e.g., Post v. Mendel, 510 Pa. 213, 220, 507 A.2d 351, 355

Page 945

(1986); Binder v. Triangle Publ'ns, Inc., 442 Pa. 319, 323, 275 A.2d 53, 56 (1971). Referencing Milliner v. Enck, 709 A.2d 417 (Pa. Super. 1998), the court expressed that the privilege also applies in relation to quasi-judicial proceedings. See id. at 419 n.1. The court observed, moreover, that Schanne admitted in his pleadings that the school's pre-termination Loudermill hearing constituted a quasi-judicial proceeding, and that he conceded at oral argument that the material in Addis's statement to school officials was pertinent to that proceeding. See Schanne, 898 F.Supp.2d at 755-56. Thus, according to the court, the sole issue was whether Addis's initial allegation to O'Bannon was " pertinent and material" to the Loudermill hearing. In addressing the issue, the court reasoned:

Courts must also consider whether applying an absolute privilege in a given case would promote the privilege's purpose. The purpose of the privilege is " to afford [parties] freedom of access to the courts," to " encourage [witnesses'] complete and unintimidated testimony in court," and " to enable [counsel] to best represent his client's interests." Binder, 275 A.2d at 56. If not for this privilege, " a realm of communication essential to the exploration of legal claims [ ] would be hindered . . .." Post v. Mendel, 507 A.2d at 355. In this case, protecting Addis' statement furthers the purpose of the privilege.

Id. at 757 (alterations in original). Particularly since the declaration to O'Bannon had " served as the catalyst" for the Loudermill hearing, id., the court determined that the privilege applied to that statement. See id. at 758.

On appeal, Schanne argued that Addis's statement to O'Bannon was not made in the regular course of a judicial action, because Addis had gone to O'Bannon as a friend and did not contemplate possible judicial or quasi-judicial proceedings. Addis responded that her intent in communicating with O'Bannon was irrelevant and that, because it resulted in quasi-judicial proceedings, it was privileged as a preliminary communication. After the matter was briefed and argued before the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, that tribunal certified the following question for our resolution:

Does the absolute judicial privilege apply to an allegation of sexual misconduct against a teacher by a former student, which allegation was made prior to the commencement of any quasi-judicial proceeding and without an ...

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