The Maryland Court of Special Appeals has affirmed an opinion and order from the Circuit Court for Harford County granting a motion to dismiss for a Maryland Board of Education and a BOE employee. The BOE employee was the BOE’s Supervisor of Transportation, responsible for ensuring compliance with school bus driver certification. The BOE and employee were sued for defamation by a bus driver who had been issued a decertification letter by the employee, disqualifying her from operating as a bus driver. The letter was also sent to Plaintiff’s employer. Plaintiff alleged that the letter contained false statements regarding her performance, that the statements were published to third parties, that the BOE and employee were legally at fault for making the statements, and as a result, she suffered damages in the form of lost employment opportunities, lost wages, and mental anguish. ACK filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the defamation claimed failed as a matter of law because both absolute and common interest privileges applied to the decertification letters.
In Maryland, absolute privilege applies when communications occur in a legislative, judicial, or (in certain circumstances) an administrative proceeding. Whether the statements made during an administrative proceeding will be protective depends on (1) the nature of the public function of the proceeding, and (2) the adequacy of procedural safeguards which will minimize the occurrence of defamatory statements. A common interest privilege applies when two parties share a mutual interest and the publication of statements advances or protects their mutual interest. The trial court found that both privileges applied to this case and dismissed the case.
Following the dismissal of her case, Plaintiff filed an appeal with the Court of Special Appeals. After oral argument, the Court quickly affirmed the dismissal of all claims. The Court noted in its opinion that the trial court was correct in its determination that communications between the BOE and the employer were privileged because of the common interest in promoting safe transportation of students. The Court noted that Plaintiff admitted that the defendants acted without malice, which “elimate[d] the need to submit the question to a jury because it would be impossible for her to prove its existence without contradicting her own admission.” The Court found that the BOE and its employee were shielded from both an absolute and common interest privilege, which prevented Plaintiff from advancing her claim of defamation.