Child Care Worker, Dismissed for Striking Child, Sues Former Employer

An Ohio court recently faced a difficult issue.

Church Law and Tax1991-07-01Recent Developments

Child Abuse

Can a child care worker who is dismissed for striking a child sue the child care facility for breach of contract and defamation? That was the difficult question presented to an Ohio state appeals court. A child care center hired a woman as the head teacher in a class of 2-year-old children. The center enrolled a 2-year-old boy who cried a great deal during his first few days at the facility. An employee informed the director that the teacher in the 2-year-old class had struck the boy. When the director entered the classroom, she saw the boy crying hysterically. As she was removing the boy from the room, she noticed a hand-mark on his face. Upon being questioned, the boy stated (and demonstrated) that the teacher had put her hand over his mouth and shook him. The teacher was confronted with this information, but denied it. However, she offered no other explanation as to the boy’s condition. The director was not satisfied that the teacher was being truthful, and accordingly she dismissed her. A teaching assistant later confirmed that the teacher had abused the boy by putting her hand over his mouth, shaking him, and telling him to “shut up.” The director later reported the incident to the boy’s mother, and to the state department of human services. The fired teacher sued the center, alleging defamation and breach of contract. She claimed that the center’s personnel manual constituted a contract, and that the center “breached the contract” by terminating her without utilizing “progressive discipline,” and by terminating her without “good cause.” She claimed that these actions were required by the personnel manual. Further, the fired employee claimed that she had been defamed by the director’s communications to the boy’s mother, to other workers at the center, to the president of the center’s board of directors, and to the state. A trial court rejected all of the teacher’s claims, and dismissed the lawsuit. The teacher appealed to a state appeals court, which also rejected her claims. The court noted that the teacher was an “employee at will” since she had been hired for an indefinite term. As an employee at will, she could be dismissed at any time for any reason. The court rejected the teacher’s claim that the personnel manual limited the center’s right to terminate her. It noted that the manual “specifically states that hitting or abusing a child is grounds for termination of service.” In rejecting the defamation claim, the court noted that the director was required by state law to report suspected cases of abuse to the department of human services, and so this communication did not constitute defamation. Further, there was no evidence that the director ever informed other workers at the center as to the reason that the teacher had been terminated. With respect to the communications made to the boy’s mother, and to the president of the center’s board of directors, the court concluded that such communications “enjoyed at least a qualified privilege” since they were matters of “common interest.” As such, the communications would not be defamatory unless they were made with “malice.” The court observed that “the record is devoid of evidence of actual malice on the part of [the director in communicating] the statements. On the contrary, the record reveals that [she] acted properly and reasonably under the circumstances.” Lail v. Madisonville Child Care Project, 561 N.E.2d 1063 (Ohio App. 1990).

Child Abuse Reporting | Failure to Report Child Abuse | Child Abuse Reporting | Child Abuse Reporting by Child Care Workers

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