The opinion of the court was delivered by SKILLMAN, J.A.D.
This is a defamation action against Princeton University and certain of its administrators based on their statements to the media regarding an investigation into the alleged improper use of University property by University employees.
Plaintiff was employed by Princeton as the manager of plumbing and heating in its Facilities Department. After receiving an anonymous letter in the spring of 1989 alleging employee thefts and improper use of University property, the Princeton administration commenced an investigation of the Facilities Department. When plaintiff became one of the targets of this investigation, Princeton temporarily suspended him with pay. After several Princeton administrators met with plaintiff to discuss the allegations of wrongdoing against him, plaintiff submitted a letter of resignation on August 21, 1989.
Princeton's investigation of the Facilities Department and the resignations of plaintiff and two other supervisors spawned various rumors within the University community. Indeed, plaintiff characterized these rumors as "rampant." Anticipating inquiries from the press, Princeton prepared a written statement, subsequently published in the September 17, 1989 issue of the Princeton Weekly Bulletin ("Weekly Bulletin"), a University owned publication distributed to members of the faculty and administration, which stated:
Subsequently, two independent University newspapers published stories about the investigation and resignations which are the focus of plaintiff's defamation claims. Even prior to publication of the University's statement, a reporter for the Princeton Alumni Weekly ("Alumni Weekly"), a publication distributed to Princeton alumni, learned of Princeton's investigation into improprieties in the Facilities Department and began to prepare a story. A "source" in the Facilities Department told the reporter that "three supervisors in the department had resigned after the investigation revealed that the three men had used University equipment improperly." The reporter then met with defendant Eugene McPartland, the University Vice President for Facilities, who declined to reveal the details of the investigation or to confirm the identities of the persons involved. However, McPartland did indicate that the losses were in the range of $10,000. The reporter also spoke with defendant Justin Harmon, the University's Director of Communications and Publications, who indicated that a statement about the matter would be printed shortly in the Weekly Bulletin. The reporter also met with a "senior university official," who discussed the investigation on a "not for attribution" basis. This official confirmed information previously obtained by the reporter regarding the identities of the persons who had resigned, including plaintiff. Shortly thereafter, the reporter received a copy of the Weekly Bulletin statement which he also used in his article.
The article in the Alumni Weekly, which appeared on October 11, 1989, read in pertinent part:
The other independent University newspaper that published a story about the investigation was the Daily Princetonian, a student operated newspaper distributed to Princeton students, faculty and administrators and available by subscription to alumni, parents and other interested parties. After reading the University's statement in the Weekly Bulletin, the editors of the Daily Princetonian decided that the investigation into the operation and management of the Facilities Department would be of interest to its readers, and therefore assigned a reporter to prepare a story. The reporter interviewed McPartland, Richard Spies, the University's Vice President for Finance and Administration, and Joseph Bielamowicz, Director of Internal Audits, who was one of the primary participants in the investigation, and various lower level employees in the Facilities Department. The Daily Princetonian's article, which was published on September 28, 1989, read in pertinent part:
Thereafter, plaintiff filed this lawsuit against the Daily Princetonian, the Alumni Weekly, Princeton University, McPartland and Harmon. Plaintiff alleged that Princeton, McPartland and Harmon defamed him by publishing or causing to be published "a media release and other verbal and written statements to the named media defendants and other media ... indicating that plaintiff resigned from his position and ... that plaintiff had used University equipment and personnel, or positions of responsibility ... for personal gain." Plaintiff further alleged that these defamatory statements "were intended to convey, and did convey, to the public and [to] the Princeton University community that the plaintiff was and is guilty of dishonest, illegal and fraudulent conduct." Plaintiff's complaint also asserted defamation claims against the Daily Princetonian and the Alumni Weekly. In addition, plaintiff claimed that Princeton's actions constituted the intentional infliction of emotional distress and/or an invasion of
After substantial discovery was completed, including depositions of plaintiff, McPartland, Harmon, Spies and Bielamowicz, the trial court granted motions for summary judgment in favor of all defendants. In dismissing plaintiff's defamation claims against Princeton, McPartland and Harmon, the court found that all the statements in Princeton's September 16, 1989, release published in the Weekly Bulletin were true. In addition, the court concluded that the investigation into alleged financial improprieties in the Facilities Department was a matter of legitimate concern within the University community, and consequently Princeton and its administrators were entitled to qualified immunity from suit for defamation based upon their comments to the media. The court also concluded that even if defendants' statements contained inaccuracies, there was no evidence from which it could be found that the statements were made with knowledge of their falsity or reckless disregard for their truth or falsity.
Plaintiff does not appeal from the dismissal of his defamation claims against the Daily Princetonian and the Alumni Weekly. Plaintiff argues, however, that Princeton's prepared statement regarding the investigation of the Facilities Department published in the Weekly Bulletin and the stories published in the Daily Princetonian and Alumni Weekly were defamatory, and that the question whether Princeton, McPartland and Harmon breached a qualified privilege, assuming they had such privilege, was a question of fact which should have been decided by the jury. Plaintiff also contends that the trial court erred in dismissing his claims for invasion of privacy and constructive discharge. We reject plaintiff's arguments and affirm the dismissal of his complaint.
"A defamatory statement is one that is false and `injurious to the reputation of another' or exposes another person to `hatred, contempt or ridicule' or subjects another person to `a loss of good will and confidence' in which he or she is held by others." Romaine v. Kallinger, 109 N.J. 282, 289, 537 A.2d 284 (1988) (quoting Leers v. Green, 24 N.J. 239, 251, 131 A.2d 781 (1957). "In certain situations, however, the public interest presents the `vital counter policy' that persons should be permitted to communicate without fear of a defamation action." Fees v. Trow, 105 N.J. 330, 336, 521 A.2d 824 (1987). The common law has accommodated these countervailing policies "by recognizing that some otherwise defamatory statements should be `privileged,' i.e., that their publication does not impose liability upon the publisher." Dairy Stores, Inc. v. Sentinel Publishing Co., 104 N.J. 125, 136, 516 A.2d 220 (1986).
"Privileges may be `absolute,' which means that the statements are completely immune, or `qualified.'" Ibid. "Because an absolute privilege protects even a maliciously-spoken untruth, it is provided only in the narrowest of instances, where the public interest in unfettered communication justifies the complete abrogation of the plaintiff's right of recovery for damaged reputation." Fees v. Trow, supra, 105 N.J. at 337, 521 A.2d 824. A "qualified privilege, on the other hand, is designed to advance the important public interest in unrestrained speech while retaining a measure of protection for the plaintiff who is maliciously defamed." Ibid. Consequently, qualified privileges are recognized in a broader range of circumstances than absolute privileges. See, e.g., Erickson v. Marsh & McLennan Co., 117 N.J. 539, 562-67, 569 A.2d 793 (1990) (qualified privilege extended to statements about employee by former employer to prospective new employer); Fees v. Trow, supra, (qualified privilege extended to statement by employee of state facility for developmentally disabled that another employee had abused resident); Dairy Stores, Inc. v. Sentinel Publishing Co., supra, (qualified privilege extended to statements by laboratory
A qualified privilege, sometimes referred to as a conditional privilege, see Swede v. Passaic Daily News, 30 N.J. 320, 332, 153 A.2d 36 (1959), may be recognized for the protection of the publisher's "own interest, the interest of the recipient or other third person, or an interest common to the publisher and the recipient." Bainhauer v. Manoukian, 215 N.J.Super. 9, 36, 520 A.2d 1154 (App.Div. 1987); accord Erickson v. Marsh & McLennan Co., supra, 117 N.J. at 563, 569 A.2d 793. A qualified privilege for the protection of the publisher's own interest will be recognized "if the circumstances induce a correct or reasonable belief that (a) there is information that affects a sufficiently important interest of the publisher, and (b) the recipient's knowledge of the defamatory matter will be of service in the lawful protection of the interest." Restatement (Second) of Torts § 594. A qualified privilege for the protection of an interest common to the publisher and the recipient will be recognized "if the circumstances lead any one of several persons having a common interest in a particular subject matter correctly or reasonably to believe that there is information another sharing the common interest is entitled to know." Restatement (Second) of Torts § 596; see Murphy v. Johns-Manville Prods. Corp., 45 N.J.Super. 478, 492-93, 133 A.2d 34 (App.Div. 1957), certif. denied, 25 N.J. 55, 134 A.2d 833 (1957). Even if a qualified privilege exists, a party may lose the privilege by "excessive publication, that is, by publishing defamatory matter without a reasonable belief `that the publication is a proper means of communicating the defamatory matter to the person to whom its publication is privileged.'" Bainhauer v. Manoukian, supra, 215 N.J. Super. at 43, 520 A.2d 1154 (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts § 604).
Applying these principles, courts in other jurisdictions have recognized that charitable institutions and private corporations
We conclude for similar reasons that the written statement published in the September 17, 1989 issue of the Weekly Bulletin, and the oral statements of McPartland, Harmon and other Princeton administrators to the reporters for the Daily Princetonian and Alumni Weekly, were entitled to qualified immunity. When these statements were made, there were already widespread rumors within the University community regarding the investigation into improprieties in the Facilities Department. Consequently, Princeton's administrators had to anticipate that they would receive inquiries regarding the investigation from the press as well as University employees, students, alumni and other interested parties. Indeed, the Alumni Weekly's reporter had already gathered substantial information regarding the investigation from other sources before the University's representatives made any statements. Therefore, the Princeton administration had an interest in informing the University community of the actual facts of the investigation rather than allowing the investigation to remain the subject of vague and exaggerated rumors which could be damaging to the University's reputation.
The members of the University community also had an important interest in obtaining information about the investigation. A large portion of the University's revenues is derived from tuition and other fees paid by students and from contributions by alumni and other supporters of the University's activities. These members of the University community have a legitimate interest in being informed of any allegations of improprieties involving the diversion of University property for private gain and of the University's response to such allegations. The University's employees also have a legitimate interest in knowing that any allegations of wrongdoing made against other employees have been
Moreover, the dissemination of information concerning the investigation of the Facilities Department through University publications such as the Alumni Weekly and Daily Princetonian did not constitute excessive publication. Princeton has tens of thousands of employees, students, and alumni who reside throughout the world. Therefore, the dissemination of information through University publications is the only effective method of communicating with all members of the University community.
When a statement falls within the protective umbrella of a qualified privilege, the plaintiff "must establish that the publisher knew the statement to be false or acted in reckless disregard of its truth or falsity." Dairy Stores, Inc. v. Sentinel Publishing Co., Inc., supra, 104 N.J. at 151, 516 A.2d 220. "Reckless disregard as to truth or falsity exists when there is a high degree of awareness of probable falsity or serious doubt as to the truth of a statement." Sisler v. Gannett Co., 222 N.J.Super. 153, 162, 536 A.2d 299 (App.Div. 1987) (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts § 600, comment b), certif. denied, 110 N.J. 304, 540 A.2d 1283 (1988). A plaintiff must prove such an abuse of a qualified immunity by "clear and convincing evidence." Erickson v. Marsh & McLennan Co., supra, 117 N.J. at 565, 569 A.2d 793.
Plaintiff failed to present any evidence in opposition to defendants' motion for summary judgment from which a jury could find that defendants made any statements which they knew to be false or that they acted in reckless disregard of their truth or falsity. Indeed, plaintiff failed to identify any false statement made by a Princeton administrator, which is the essential prerequisite of any defamation claim. See Kotlikoff v. The Community News, 89 N.J. 62, 69 n. 2, 444 A.2d 1086 (1982). Plaintiff does not dispute the
Plaintiff argues that even if defendants did not make any express statements that were literally false, their statements describing evidence of improprieties failed to carefully distinguish among the three Facilities Department supervisors who resigned, and consequently the stories published in the Daily Princetonian and Alumni Weekly falsely implied that plaintiff himself had committed such improprieties. Plaintiff's claims rest primarily upon the statement in the Alumni Weekly article that he was one of "the three men [who] had used `university equipment and personnel, or positions of responsibility ... for personal gain," and the statement in the Daily Princetonian that he was one of "three top maintenance officials" who had resigned because of "abuses costing at least $10,000." Since the allegation that plaintiff used University equipment and personnel for personal gain is a statement of fact that would tend "to harm [his] reputation" by lowering him "in the estimation of the community" and/or by deterring others "from associating or dealing with him," Ward v. Zelikovsky, 136 N.J. 516, 529, 643 A.2d 972 (1994) (quoting W. Page Keeton et al., Prosser and Keeton on the Law of Torts § 111 at 773 (5th ed. 1984)), and there is a factual dispute as to whether this statement and other similar statements in the two newspaper articles were false, we agree with plaintiff's contention that the statements could be found to be defamatory. However, these statements were not published by Princeton but rather by independent University newspapers, and they were not simply a republication of statements made by Princeton administrators.
Moreover, even if the University's statement published in the Weekly Bulletin or its administrators' later oral statements could be reasonably construed to imply that plaintiff had engaged in improprieties with respect to University property, there is no evidence that defendants knew any of their statements were false or that they acted in reckless disregard of their truth or falsity. To the contrary, Princeton's administrators acted with circumspection in all their public comments regarding the investigation of the Facilities Department, by withholding any comment regarding the matter until it was already the subject of rampant rumors within the University community and later declining to identify the persons who resigned until the reporters for the University publications had secured this information from other sources. Even after identifying these persons, the administrators declined to discuss specific employees' cases and described the resignations as "mutually arrived at decisions." The administrators also indicated in response to reporters' questions that the University had no intention to pursue criminal charges or to seek restitution.
In sum, the statements made by the University's representatives regarding the investigation of the Facilities Department served Princeton's important interest in preventing damage to its reputation within the University community which supports its activities. The University's representatives also reasonably could have believed that the University community was entitled to information concerning the alleged diversion of University property
Plaintiff's arguments relating to the dismissal of his claims for invasion of privacy and constructive discharge are clearly without merit and require only brief discussion. "[I]nvasion of privacy by unreasonable publication of private facts occurs when it is shown that `the matters revealed were actually private, that dissemination of such facts would be offensive to a reasonable person, and that there is no legitimate interest of the public in being apprised of the facts publicized.'" Romaine v. Kallinger, supra, 109 N.J. at 297, 537 A.2d 284 (quoting Bisbee v. John C. Conover Agency, 186 N.J.Super. 335, 340, 452 A.2d 689 (App.Div. 1982)). As previously discussed, Princeton's investigation into improprieties in the Facilities Department did not involve a purely private matter, and the University community had a legitimate interest in being informed of the results of that investigation. Therefore, the trial court properly rejected plaintiff's invasion of privacy claim.
Plaintiff did not have an employment contract with Princeton that included a term of employment or required Princeton to follow specified procedures before terminating him. Thus, plaintiff was an at-will employee who Princeton could have terminated at any time, with or without cause. Bernard v. IMI Sys., Inc., 131 N.J. 91, 105-06, 618 A.2d 338 (1993); Velantzas v. Colgate-Palmolive Co., 109 N.J. 189, 536 A.2d 237 (1988). Therefore, even if Princeton's investigation of the Facilities Department and plaintiff's