Torts – Causes of action, private schools (breach of contract, libel, slander, invasion of privacy): Bentley v. Trinity Christian Academy (COA 5/29/2009)

Bentley v. Trinity Christian Academy
2008-CA-000574 05/29/2009 2009 WL 1491351

Opinion by Judge Dixon; Judge Moore and Senior Judge Knopf concurred.

The Court affirmed an order of the circuit court granting summary judgment in favor of the appellee private school on appellant’s claims for denial of due process, breach of contract, libel and slander, and invasion of privacy related to the expulsion of a student from the school.

The Court first held that the school’s student handbook did not guarantee the same due process protections as provided in public schools and even if it did, because the student was informed of the allegations against her and was given the opportunity to respond and defend her actions, her due process protections were not violated.

The Court then held that the school did not breach the contract by failing to follow the five-step disciplinary process or failing to document prior discipline issues in writing as the school retained the discretion to expel or suspend a student who committed a major offense, even if it was a first offense. Further, the student failed to avail herself of the required remedy of following the proper grievance procedure for appeal to the school board.

The Court next held that appellant failed to present sufficient evidence of libel and slander. The headmaster’s interviews with students to question them as to the details of what they had heard or observed of the alleged incidents was not slander when there was no allegation that he divulged information or opinions to the students. Further, emails from the headmaster to the school board following the student’s dismissal were properly characterized as internal reporting memos and fell under the purview of a qualified privileged communication.

The Court finally held that appellant failed to present sufficient evidence to support a claim for invasion of privacy. A letter sent to parents requesting permission to discuss with students their knowledge of the dismissed student did not contain any details of the dismissal and parents were specifically informed that students were not obligated to discuss the matter. The Court rejected appellant’s claim that the letter gave unreasonable publicity to the student’s private life and that it placed her in a false light. The complaint, which was public record, contained more detailed information than that included in the letter, the student published information on her MySpace page and the mother discussed the dismissal with a number of other parents. Therefore, neither had an expectation of privacy.

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