Slandering a School?
Zirkel, Perry A., Phi Delta Kappan
IN EARLY 1999, Nampa Charter School obtained approval under Idaho's Public Charter School Act of 1998 to open its doors for enrollment. On 1 August 1999, Nampa hired Ersilia DeLaPaz to be the school's receptionist and bookkeeper. Several months later, DeLaPaz enrolled her child, who has Down's syndrome, in Nampa's special education program.
A few months thereafter, the school's principal, Rebecca Stallcop, notified DeLaPaz that her performance was unsatisfactory and needed improvement. In response, DeLaPaz allegedly attempted to discredit Stallcop and the special education program. (1) More specifically, she told a parent that she had information that would "take the charter down." She also made false statements concerning the principal's integrity and competence, implying that Stallcop had engaged in illegal behavior and claiming that she had accused several teachers of being "mean to students." She spread word that Stallcop intended to leave Nampa and to take four teachers with her to a new charter school. Finally, in April 2001, DeLaPaz told one of the teachers that Stallcop had misused grant money.
On 30 April 2001, Nampa terminated DeLaPaz for refusing to follow directions and for demonstrating that she was not willing or competent to perform her bookkeeping duties.
Shortly thereafter, DeLaPaz filed a complaint with the state education department asserting deficiencies in her child's special education services. Following a complaint investigation, the department ordered, and Nampa agreed to, some corrective actions.
In September 2001, per the corrective action plan, a Nampa special education teacher initiated various school/parent communications, including invitations to meetings. DeLaPaz resisted or ignored the letters but made harassing calls to teachers. She also sent five letters to Nampa criticizing the special education program and the administrators and sent copies to Nampa's board and representatives of the governing school district.
In January 2002, DeLaPaz filed a separate complaint with the state education department, accusing Nampa of violating her right to privacy with regard to her child's medical condition. The department rejected her complaint.
In June 2002, DeLaPaz filed a complaint with the U.S. Office for Civil Rights, alleging discrimination and retaliation. OCR has not yet completed its investigation and resolution of this complaint.
On 13 September 2002, Nampa filed suit in state court against DeLaPaz, alleging that she had used her "child's participation in the special education program in a manner ... calculated to accomplish [her] often stated purpose ... to 'bring down' [the school]." More specifically, Nampa claimed that De-LaPaz had tortiously interfered with Nampa's responsibilities to fulfill its legislative mandate, resulting in a loss in excess of $10,000, and that she had slandered and libeled the school in an effort to induce the governing school district to revoke or not renew Nampa's charter. In addition to money damages, Nampa sought an injunction barring De-LaPaz from making any further false statements concerning Nampa or its principal. DeLaPaz, through her attorney, filed a motion to dismiss both claims.
On 28 April 2003, the trial judge granted DeLaPaz's dismissal motion, ruling that Nampa had failed to provide any legal support for recognition in Idaho of its tortious interference claim and that a government entity may not maintain an action for slander or libel against an individual. DeLaPaz then filed a motion for attorney fees under various state laws, and the court granted 20% of her attorney fees and court costs on the basis that the tortious interference claim was frivolous.
Nampa filed an appeal, and DeLaPaz cross-appealed for a higher attorney-fees award.
On 23 April 2004, Idaho's supreme court affirmed both the dismissal and the 20% attorney-fee award. (2) First, citing a classic U. …