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Longtime Principal Sues For Defamation Following Communications To Parents About Her Termination
St. Joseph’s School is a Catholic school operated by St. Joseph’s Church, an entity in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Des Moines. A priest administers the church and the school. The priest is appointed by the Bishop of the Diocese. The Diocese’s Personnel Handbook states that a school’s principal functions as the spiritual, academic, managerial, communications, and public relations leader of the school.
In the fall of 1999, Phyllis Konchar became the principal of St. Joseph’s Catholic School. She served in this role for nineteen years. Konchar’s contract allowed for her employment to be terminated for “cause,” which the contract defined to include “performance, conduct, or behavior on the part of the employee, which, in the sole opinion of the employer, adversely affects the desirability of continued employment.”
Bishop Richard Pates appointed Father Joseph Pins as St. Joseph’s Parish Priest in July 2017. This position gave Father Pins authority over staff at St. Joseph’s School, including Principal Konchar.
Soon after Father Pin’s appointment, he learned of several problems involving Konchar. For example, a gym teacher filed a written complaint against Konchar for harassment, and, when a music teacher decided to resign, she sent an email to Father Pins stating that it was Konchar’s bullying that made her leave. Current and former employees told Father Pins the work environment was “toxic.” Other concerns included Konchar hiring an employee for the school office after Father Pins specifically told her not to; Konchar paying an employee extra money out of her own personal account; the Iowa Department of Education notifying the School that it would be audited concerning the free-and-reduced-lunch program; and a business manager believing Konchar had approved applications that were noncompliant because the families’ incomes had been too high to qualify for the program.
As a result, the Diocese’s human resources director began an investigation of Konchar in the fall of 2017, and Father Pins issued a performance improvement plan (PIP) to Konchar. The relationship between Father Pins and Konchard devolved, and in response, Bishop Pates suggested that Father Pins and Konchar try a form of mediation. During their mediation, Father Pins and Konchar created a document called “Building Agreements” on how to rebuild their relationship, including such items as keeping each other informed and supporting each other’s successes. Specifically, Father Pins agreed to offer his support, celebrate Konchar’s successes, help Konchar reach her leadership goals, and help Konchar reach her retirement plans on her terms. Konchar and Father Pins signed the document on February 22.
The Diocese’s human resources investigation concluded shortly thereafter and found that Konchar engaged in conduct that exposed St. Joseph’s to risks associated with potential violations of the Iowa Wage Payment Collections Act and the Iowa Black Listing Law. The same day, Father Pins informed Konchar that her contract would not be renewed for the next school year. Konchar was able to finish the school year if she did not disclose this decision, however, Konchar chose to send a message to parents and staff about this decision.
On March 11, Father Pins sent an email to the St. Joseph’s parish and school community, stating that complaints were raised by current and former staff and that with the assistance of the diocese, the concerns were investigated. The email said there was a pattern of conduct that warranted choosing not to renew Konchar’s contract. Father Pins stated that the decision was not due to any animosity between Father Pins and Konchar and that the prior two pastors and Bishop Pates were consulted and approved the decision following the evaluation of past conduct.
The next day, Konchar sent out another message to parents and staff, stating that the Diocese’s investigation into two complaints determined the complaints were unfounded and that Father Pins terminated her because he did not like her. Konchar’s message said that Father Pins gave her a document on February 22 that stated he wanted Konchar to remain at St. Joseph’s until her retirement, and then terminated Konchar on March 9.
The same day, the Diocese issued a press release that stated the investigation pointed to serious irregularities in the School administration under Konchar’s direction, and Konchar was invited to remain in place for the remainder of the school year on the condition that the situation remains private, but she chose otherwise.
In May 2018, Konchar filed suit against Father Pins, St. Joseph’s Church, and the Diocese of Des Moines. She alleged fraud and defamation by all defendants, and breach of contract against Father Pins only. Konchar’s claims of fraud and breach of contract were based on statements in the “Building Agreements” document and her defamation claims were based on statements in Father Pin’s March 11 email and the Diocese’s March 12 press release.
The Defendants moved for summary judgment. The trial court denied the motion as to Konchar’s defamation claims, but granted summary judgment as to Konchar’s breach of contract claim, fraud claim, and defamation claim on the “prior two pastors and Bishop Pates” language in Father Pins March 11 email.
The case went to trial as to Konchar’s defamation claims on portions of Father Pin’s March 11 email and on the Diocese’s March 12 press release. The jury returned defense verdicts on both defamation claims. Konchar appealed, arguing that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment on her breach of contract claim and her defamation claims on the “prior two pastors” language.
The Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court’s ruling as to Konchar’s breach of contract claim. The Building Agreements document was not sufficiently definite or certain as to be enforceable and said this document was bettered characterized as aspirational rather than contractual.
In regards to the “prior two pastors” defamation claim, the Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision. It is undisputed that Father Pins consulted with the prior two pastors about Konchar, and both pastors shared concerns. Konchar argues that Father Pins consulted with the two pastors in the fall of 2017, but not in response to the investigation. Therefore, Konchar argues the statement was defamatory because it created a false appearance that Father Pins had valid reasons to fire her when, in fact, Father Pins simply did not like Konchar. The Court of Appeals declined to reverse the trial court decision because it would involve questioning whether a Catholic priest was justified in deciding that Konchar should no longer serve as principal of a Catholic school, which would run afoul to the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling.
Konchar v. Pins (Iowa, Apr. 14, 2023) 2023 WL 2939140.
Note: The concurring opinion, in this case, brought up the ministerial exception, which was not invoked in this case because it is not part of Iowa’s case law. If this case were brought in California, where the ministerial exception is recognized, the case may have been dismissed sooner, avoiding a costly and lengthy trial.