Last year I wrote a post about how it can be defamatory for an employer to misrepresent the reasons for an employee’s termination. If an employer says that an employee was fired because of reasons X, Y, and Z, the employee may have a valid defamation claim even if statements X, Y, and Z are all completely true. If the reason for the employee’s termination had nothing to do with those pretextual reasons, then the employer’s statement, taken as a whole, is false and therefore potentially defamatory. A case came across my desk today involving a very similar issue: whether a university can be held liable for defamation when announcing that a student’s dismissal from a degree program was due to certain seemingly valid and legitimate concerns based on the student’s failure to pass a required test, when the student’s dismissal was actually due to something else entirely. Consistent with earlier rulings, the court found that on these alleged facts, the plaintiff had presented a viable defamation claim.
The case is John Doe v. Shenandoah University. The alleged facts of the case, according to the opinion, go something like this. The plaintiff was born in Nigeria and emigrated to the United States, where he is now a permanent resident. He enrolled in the Physician Assistant Studies Program (“PA Program”) at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia. At some point after his enrollment, he developed Social Anxiety Disorder, a health condition characterized by extreme fear of social settings. He requested and received various accommodations due to this disorder, such as (a) time and a half for all quizzes and examinations and (b) testing in a quiet, distraction-free environment. One test he was required to pass as part of the PA Program was the Objective Structured Clinical Exam (“OSCE”), a “time-limited practical exam conducted at the end of certain semesters in the PA program” consisting of “a set of predefined stations related to patient care.”