The St. Bernadette Defamation Case-Teachers Vindicated-$1,000,000 Verdict

Defamation, slander and libel are serious and personal injuries to your reputation. If you have been damaged you need the lawyers at the Milano law firm. So imagine for a moment that you are a grade school teacher at a local Catholic school…

For 24 years, you’ve worked day in and day out with young girls and boys, helping them with math, science and reading classes. You’ve watched younger brothers and older sisters move through from kindergarten on up until they are ready for high school and every weekend you continue to watch the children and the families grow at Sunday mass.

After 24 years of faithful service, however, the world changed – for the worst. Suddenly the new priest and the new principal don’t want you around anymore and decide not to renew your contract. Parents, who’ve been with the school for years, demand to know why the teacher who oversaw the educational development of their children is suddenly being told to leave.

There is a public meeting, in the Church. More than 400 people from the community gather at the meeting to find out why a teacher with such a long history at the school had been told to leave so abruptly. Reporters are there from the local papers.

The pastor, your boss and your spiritual advisor, walks to the pulpit in his full priestly garb, just like it was a mass.  He then issues the astounding claim that the Diocese has conducted its own investigation into the issue and agrees with the school’s decision to let you go. The priest looks out over the large crowd gathered at the church and holds up a stack of papers. He tells your friends and family and the whole world that if they knew what was in those files then they would understand why the church had not renewed the contract. None of it is true. There was no investigation.Your career was flawless. How could this happen? It was apparent to you, but unfortunately not to anyone else, that the priest was trying to cover his own hind end. If he made a bad decision it would only add to the body of criticism already swirling around him. If the Diocese made the decision it was unassailable.

In a heartbeat, your entire world has changed. Not only are you out of your job, but more than 400 people want to know what you did that was so wrong to warrant why you were fired. The implication is that you are a criminal.

Yet you know the truth – that the Diocese never conducted any investigation and that there isn’t anything is your personnel files that can justify for the way you’ve been treated. What are you supposed to do now?

For three local teachers this was more than a nightmare – it was the reality they faced.  So “the ladies” found themselves sitting in our office, looking for a solution to an unsolvable problem.  In the glass walled conference room of our building’s first floor the three teachers and their husbands sat and did their best to explain everything that had happened leading up to the meeting- leading up to what they called the most humiliating experience of their lives.

We listened to the entire story. What happened was defamation. That is when you lie about someone and it damages him or her. They had a case.

Cases are easy-apply law to facts. But putting the ladies’ lives back together, restoring their dignity would not be so easy.  We knew, and explained to them at that first meeting, that taking on an entity as powerful as the Catholic Church would be a difficult proposition. The Diocese would fight and spend and accuse to protect their own-right or wrong. That was our opinion, based upon our experience.

We would fight for vindication-to clear their names. The case could not be about money, not for them and not for us.  In the end, however, the amount of the verdict-the money-was clear evidence of the outrage of the jury.

Over years of fighting together we become close to our clients. “The ladies” would meet with us in our conference room and then stay on for hours after the lawyers left to work together with the burden of the effort. It was intimidating and tiring for them. They were, however, resolute.

The case started in the summer of 2006 and kept going for more than three full years. During that time the teachers kept answering more and more questions, and we kept digging for more answers and more proof that they were purposefully defamed and humiliated. For its part, the church fought every inch of the way claiming that the teachers and several other parishioners were just trying to attack the priest and the parish. “How dare you?” was their unambiguous response.

But this wasn’t just a case about the church or a priest, or even about teachers. It was about what happens when a bad boss makes a mistake and then tries to hide behind the company or the institution rather than accept responsibility. For three years, the boss tried to dodge responsibility for his words and actions and it was our job to make sure that in the end he was accountable for the embarrassment and heartache that he caused for those teachers. The trial was brutal. The defense was that anyone who criticized the priest or the principal was part of a “gang of 90,” out to ruin the parish. The priest’s defense included the proposition that he had subjected himself to civil authority for two weeks and that was punishment enough. Again and again, it was “How dare you challenge us?”

The jury verdict was clear and unambiguous.  The priest’s words and actions were false, and they had caused serious damage to the teachers’ lives and reputations. The jury awarded more than $300,000 to each of the teachers for a grand total of $975,000; giving the teachers the thing they wanted most – vindication and the right to say they hadn’t done anything wrong.

P.S. Both sides had the right to appeal. On the day the appeals would start (and with an appeal, another 5 year fight) the case was settled and dismissed.

P.P.S. Jay, why would you take on the Catholic Church, both in this case and the sex abuse cases?

First, we do not pick our targets. It does not matter who the opponent is. If we were intimidated by power or perception, we would have no value to our clients.

We accept clients. If a client comes to us and has been treated unfairly, or felt the abuse of power, or was hurt by a serious mistake; and if they need and deserve help: then we accept their case.

We would never attack God or the faithful. Faith and belief are important and helpful for people and we would never attack those values. However, sometimes some people use the faith of others for their own benefit-for power, for greed, for prestige, for money, or for sex. Those people are not holy. They are hypocrites. Interestingly enough, Jesus had a name for them, “Whited Sepulchres”. That was the name for the stones that covered the burial caves above Jerusalem. They were whitewashed and looked pretty from afar. When you approached-they stank. Of course, when you attack a hypocrite, what do they do? They claim you are attacking their institution or the values they seek to hide behind.

This case, at least from our point of view, was not about the church. It was about hypocrisy and abuse of power. That is the way the jury saw it. Eight people from differing backgrounds, brought together to do justice.

Posted in Reports.