Lester v. Powers

CourtSupreme Judicial Court of Maine (US)
Citation596 A.2d 65
Parties, 69 Ed. Law Rep. 1110 Lewis F. LESTER v. M. Jane E. POWERS.
Decision Date02 August 1991

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596 A.2d 65
60 USLW 2133, 69 Ed. Law Rep. 1110
M. Jane E. POWERS.
Supreme Judicial Court of Maine.
Argued June 19, 1991.
Decided Aug. 2, 1991.

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Jed Davis (orally), Jim Mitchell & Jed Davis, P.A., Augusta, for plaintiff.

Gerald Petruccelli (orally), Petruccelli, Cox & Martin, Portland, for defendant.


COLLINS, Justice.

Lewis F. Lester appeals from a summary judgment in the Superior Court (Kennebec County, Alexander, J.). The court concluded Lester could have no recovery on his claims for libel, slander, and tortious interference with contract 1 against his former student, Mary Jane E. Powers. We affirm.

Powers was a Colby College undergraduate majoring in psychology. In early 1985, during her junior year, she took a class in abnormal psychology from Lester, then an associate professor. One of the classes was a discussion of homosexuality--specifically, the appropriateness of classifying homosexuality as a disorder when the person is unhappy about his or her sexual orientation, but not when the person is happy.

During this time, Powers was coming to understand that she was a lesbian, and this process was causing her considerable internal turmoil. She had not, at that point, made public her sexual orientation beyond a few friends in the Colby community; her only attempt to discuss the issue with her mother had been painful.

In the class discussion, at least one student made comments to the effect that "gays are sick"; Lester questioned the appropriateness of the differential classification of the two classifications of homosexuality, and said that he had gay friends in the mental health profession who themselves did not understand why they were "that way." Powers understood his tone of voice to indicate disapproval.

An objective observer might not have found the class discussion hostile toward homosexuality; in fact, one of the students present later stated that "[n]o reasonable view of the class could see it that way" and that it was in no way unusual for a classroom discussion of a controversial topic. Lester denies any suggestion that he expressed personal prejudice against homosexuals or even allowed such expressions in class discussions.

Whether or not Powers overreacted, however, she undisputedly was upset. After the class, she went immediately to an assistant dean and complained that she had found Lester's handling of the subject offensive. She repeated that assertion later to various students, faculty members, and members of the college administration. Although she had other classes and independent studies supervised by Lester, she testified that she avoided him, insofar as possible, for the remainder of her Colby undergraduate career. She did not, however, initiate any formal complaint, nor did she

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ever approach Lester to discuss her feelings.

Lester had previously been affiliated with Colby in a non-tenure-track position, as a part-time faculty member and part-time clinical psychologist, for over ten years. He then started working toward tenure; this process culminated in a tenure review in the fall of 1986, after Powers graduated from Colby. As a part of the tenure review process, the Committee on Promotion and Tenure solicited letters from former students. Powers did not respond to this invitation to comment before the Committee's deadline, October 15.

Following a visit to Colby after the deadline, however, Powers contacted the Dean of the Faculty and asked if it was too late to comment. The Dean invited her to do so, even though the deadline had passed. Powers then wrote the letter that underlies the present case. The letter primarily related Powers's version of the class discussion that upset her, together with several other minor incidents involving Lester that she found distasteful, and concluded:

I don't want to use this letter as a way to "get even" with Professor Lester. I have found him to be entirely knowledgeable and competent in his field, and I have received valuable assistance from him on one or two occasions in my work. But as an ex-member of the college committee on sexual harassment, I know that a student should not ever be made to feel uncomfortable or intimidated in her/his learning on account of gender or sexual orientation, and I sadly feel this was definitely the case for me. I also know of others who still feel intimidated, much as I have and for the same reasons, and who have not written to add their input to this decision; I thank this Committee for the opportunity to express my (and their) opinion that Professor Lewis Lester should not be tenured.

Upon receiving the letter, the Dean distributed it to the Committee. The Committee asked for a review and response from the Psychology Department, which prepared a reply. The Committee tentatively voted not to recommend Lester for tenure. At its subsequent, final vote, the Committee recommended that Lester not be granted tenure.

Lester petitioned for reconsideration. He prepared a detailed rebuttal of all the reasons for his tenure denial, including a lengthy criticism and refutation of Powers's letter. 2 Upon reconsideration, the Committee reversed itself and recommended that Lester be granted tenure.

The Dean of the Faculty thereupon transmitted to the President of the College the Committee's recommendation that Lester receive tenure. The President, however, reviewed Lester's file independently, concluded that Lester should not receive tenure, and made that recommendation to the board of trustees, who denied tenure to Lester. 3

Lester filed a verified complaint in the Superior Court in February 1988 seeking damages from Powers for libel and tortious interference with contract; he also sought punitive damages. In February 1989, following discovery, Powers moved for a summary judgment on the basis that her letter expressed opinions and not facts, that Lester had consented to all tenure procedures by virtue of his employment contract and thus had consented to possibly defamatory statements about him, and that Powers's letter did not cause the denial of tenure. The court denied the motion, while granting Lester's simultaneous motion to amend the complaint to incorporate a claim for slander based on Powers's oral statements about him to other members of the Colby community.

Powers again moved for summary judgment in August 1990 on the basis that she enjoyed a "qualified privilege," citing our decision in Onat v. Penobscot Bay Medical Center, 574 A.2d 872 (Me.1990), and asserting

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that there was no evidence in the record generating an issue of material fact as to whether she had lost the privilege. Following a hearing, the court granted summary judgment. With regard to the letter, the court concluded that

defendant would have a conditional privilege regarding her comments made in the tenure consideration process. Frank and sometimes critical evaluations of a person's job performance are vital to employee rating, promotion or job change processes. If those who know most about one's job performance are deterred from frank evaluations by fear of defamation actions, and recommendations then come to be discounted as benign pablum, we all lose. Job movers and seekers will be left to the gut and necessarily arbitrary instincts of employment decisionmakers who act without confidence that they have the accurate evaluation history so vital to predicting future performance. To avoid this problem and bolster the integrity of the job evaluation process, persons who are expected to make comments on employment qualifications and do so in the normal channels of an employment review are entitled to a conditional privilege, Gautschi v. Maisel, 565 A.2d 1009, 1011 (Me.1989). See also True v. Ladner, 513 A.2d 257, 262 (Me.1986), approving a jury instruction which implicitly recognized a conditional privilege.

Examining the record, the court found no factual support for the suggestion that Powers made the statements in the letter knowing them to be false or recklessly disregarding whether they were true or false; instead, the court found that the record could support only the conclusion that Powers sincerely believed the statements in the letter.

With regard to Powers's oral statements to members of the Colby community, the court concluded that they conveyed constitutionally protected statements of opinion; to the extent that those opinions had factual implications, the court found the record contained no evidence of knowing falsehood, or reckless disregard of truth or falsity. 4

Following the court's grant of summary judgment for Powers, Lester filed a motion requesting findings of fact and conclusions of law. Treating the motion as one for reconsideration, the court denied it. Lester now appeals.


We review the Superior Court's grant of summary judgment to determine whether, taking the facts in the record in the light most favorable to the party against whom summary judgment was granted and giving that party the full benefit of all favorable inferences that may fairly be drawn from that evidence, the court erred in concluding that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the prevailing party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. Spickler v. Greenberg, 586 A.2d 1232, 1233 (Me.1991). See also Gautschi v. Maisel, 565 A.2d 1009, 1011 (Me.1989); Estes v. Smith, 521 A.2d 682, 683 (Me.1987).

Lester argues that the Superior Court improperly granted summary judgment because it failed to address any other defamatory statements besides the...

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