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Rocci v. Ecole Secondaire MacDonald-Cartier

August 01, 2000


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Verniero, J.

Argued February 15, 2000

On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 323 N.J. Super. 18 (1999).

In this appeal we consider the application of the doctrine of presumed damages to a claim of defamation asserted by plaintiff, a teacher. The claim centers on a letter by defendant, also a teacher, in which defendant asserts that plaintiff behaved unprofessionally on a class trip. The Appellate Division affirmed the Law Division's grant of summary judgment, holding that plaintiff did not establish a claim of defamation because she did not proffer proof of reputational or pecuniary harm. 323 N.J. Super. 18 (1999).

We affirm but for reasons different from those expressed by the Appellate Division. We conclude that defendant's letter, which concerns a teacher's behavior around her students and was sent only to that teacher's supervisor, requires heightened free- speech protections. In view of that conclusion, we hold that reputational or pecuniary harm may not be presumed in this case absent a showing of "actual malice" as that term is defined under New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 279-80, 84 S. Ct. 710, 726, 11 L. Ed. 2d 686, 706 (1964). Because plaintiff was unable to show such harm and has alleged no facts sufficient to demonstrate actual malice, the grant of summary judgment was appropriate in this case.


Plaintiff Ana Rocci and defendant Edward Tilli are teachers who in 1995 took students on a trip to Spain. Rocci, a teacher at St. Joseph's High School in Metuchen, accompanied twenty-three students from that school. She and the St. Joseph's students joined Tilli, a teacher at École secondaire Macdonald-Cartier High School (École secondaire) of Ontario, Canada, and ten students from that school. Together, the group toured through Spain.

After the trip, on May 9, 1995, Tilli wrote a letter to the principal of St. Joseph's High School, complaining that, among other things, Rocci had consumed seven bottles of wine on the plane and acted unprofessionally during the trip by keeping the students out late:

My name is Ed Tilli and I am a teacher at Macdonald Cartier High School. . . . In all my years of experience as a teacher and counselor I have had to deal with very few problems in comparison with this years [sic] Spain experience. As you may already know this years [sic] adventure was a joint canadian-american [sic] school trip. Our ten students of which [sic] eight girls and two boys teamed up with your twenty-three boys excluding the adults. As such, this experience would have benefited [sic] all students if it were not for the unfortunate lack of professionalism on the part of Mrs. A. Rocci. If I may I would now like to relate to you both our personal experiences with her as well as those of Javier Matiacci Rodriguez (the E.F. Tour Guide during the Spain visit).

Thursday, April 13 As related by the Tour Guide the [sic] and students, Mrs. Rocci had had seven bottles of wine on the flight from J.F.K. to Amsterdam. This was to set the tone for things to come. That very same evening fully aware that the next day we were to get up at 7:00 a.m. for the Madrid guided tour, Mrs. Rocci kept her students, with some of ours, out until 2:00 a.m. This would make it very difficult for the students to stay awake and remain focused that day.

Friday, April 14 On the way to Toledo, being overtired, the students did very little listening if any at all. . We were . . . told by our E.F. Tour Guide that Mrs. Rocci (forgetting that we were all equal paying customers) felt that because she had the majority number of students that she could therefore make all decisions for both groups.

Once again, that evening your students were kept out until 2:30 a.m. while being fully aware of the 7:00 a.m. wake-up call and early departure to Segovia.

Monday, April 17

In the evening your students were forced out until 1:30 a.m. and were scheduled to get up and leave for Tangiers, Morocco at 4:30 a.m. As usual the students were very tired and had difficulties in enjoying Tangiers. (Information related by both students and Tour Guide).

Plaintiff commenced an action for defamation against Tilli, École secondaire, tour guide Javier Matiacci Rodriguez, and ten unnamed defendants. Rodriguez and the unnamed defendants are not represented in this litigation. Additionally, although Rodriguez was identified as a defendant, plaintiff's complaint alleged no claims against Rodriguez. 323 N.J. Super. at 21 n.1.

In her complaint, plaintiff alleged the following damages: "loss of earnings and grievous mental injury in that she was exposed to the contempt and ridicule of her friends and acquaintances and was rendered outraged in mind, spirit and body, to the extent that she required prolonged medical treatment to restore her health." However, at her deposition, plaintiff stated that she was neither fired nor suspended from her teaching position and that she did not suffer any economic damages. She further stated that after the letter arrived at her school she met with the principal and, using information provided by her colleagues and students, she proved the falsity of the statements to the principal. Although she attributed a digestive ailment to anxiety she experienced after receiving the letter, plaintiff stated that she did not incur medical expenses related to the alleged defamation. Finally, plaintiff testified that she was upset by students' inquiries about the wine she allegedly drank on the airplane, but she acknowledged that she showed the letter from Tilli to the students in an effort to have them discredit Tilli's accusations.

On motion by defendants Tilli and École secondaire, the Law Division granted summary judgment in favor of defendants. That court concluded that Tilli's letter was not defamatory, and also noted that plaintiff had not alleged pecuniary damages. Although the Appellate Division acknowledged that the letter could be defamatory and concluded that plaintiff's European undertaking with her students did not implicate a public interest, 323 N.J. Super. at 22, it affirmed the trial court's disposition. Citing this Court's decision in Sisler v. Gannett Co., 104 N.J. 256, 280, 291 (1986), the panel held that to maintain a claim of defamation under New Jersey common law a plaintiff must prove that her reputation has been injured, that she suffered pecuniary loss, or that she suffered extreme emotional distress. 323 N.J. Super. at 23-24. One member of the panel dissented. The dissenting member, relying on the doctrine of presumed damages, concluded that proof of actual harm is not a prerequisite to plaintiff's right to recover damages. Id. at 27 (Lesemann, J.S.C., dissenting). Plaintiff appealed to this Court as of right pursuant to Rule 2:2-1(a)(2).

Following oral argument, we afforded the parties the opportunity to submit supplemental briefs concerning whether defendant Tilli's letter implicated the public interest. In response, the parties, as well as the New Jersey Press Association as amicus curiae, submitted briefs in which they discussed that question. Defendants Tilli and École secondaire contend that because Tilli's letter implicated the public interest, plaintiff could not presume damages and would have to prove actual malice to sustain her suit. In contrast, plaintiff argues that, although the letter implicated a matter of public concern, she should be permitted to present her case to the jury to demonstrate that defendants were motivated by malice.


"The law of defamation embodies the important public policy that individuals should generally be free to enjoy their reputations unimpaired by false and defamatory attacks." Swede v. Passaic Daily News, 30 N.J. 320, 331 (1959). The law, however, is not without its limits. Defamation-law principles must "achieve the proper balance between protecting reputation and protecting free speech." Ward v. Zelikovsky, 136 N.J. 516, 528 (1994). In that regard, "speech on `matters of public concern' . . . is `at the heart of the First Amendment's protection.'" Sisler, supra, 104 N.J. at 264-65 (quoting Dun & Bradstreet, Inc. v. Greenmoss Builders, Inc., 472 U.S. 749, 758-59, 105 S. Ct. 2939, 2945, 86 L. Ed. 2d 593, 602 (1985)). The same is true under our State Constitution. Id. at 271-72 ("[O]ur ...

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