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Cheating Allegations Net Archdiocese Teacher $508K

Max Mitchell, The Legal Intelligencer

Gallagher v. Archdiocese of Philadelphia $508,000 Verdict

A teacher accused of providing her students the answers for a standardized test has won $508,000 against the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

According to the amended complaint of plaintiff Cindy Gallagher, she worked at St. Philip Neri School as a sixth-grade English teacher, and in early 2014 began preparing her students to take the annual Terra Nova test, which are administered by the archdiocese. Gallagher developed a practice test with questions that, according to the complaint, tested the same concepts on the Terra Nova test, but contained different questions and answers.

The complaint said Betty Veneziale, the school’s principal, found a copy of the practice test on a copier machine, and confronted Gallagher about it in her classroom, allegedly calling her a liar. The complaint said Gallagher said she prepared the questions for the Terra Nova test.

The following day, according to the complaint, Veneziale told teachers at a meeting that Gallagher had cheated, and said the prep constituted plagiarism. Soon after, another meeting was held with all the teachers regarding a “serious cheating scandal,” in which another school official said Gallagher had cheated, lied and plagiarized.

Gallagher’s teaching contract was not renewed for the following year.

Gallagher’s complaint said she had not cheated and it could have been easily determined that the practice questions she prepared were different from the questions that would be on the test. The complaint also said the teachers were not given any prep materials, or rules and regulations about how she should prepare the students for the test. Nobody told Gallagher that her prep method violated the school’s rules and regulations, the complaint said.

Gallagher suffered from depression, anxiety, hypertension, inability to work and lost wages as a result of the conduct.

Gallagher sued the archdiocese for defamation.

In its motion for summary judgment, the Diocese said that Gallagher’s preparation was based on actual questions that would appear on the exam that year, and she admitted that the questions were similar. The motion said Veneziale compared both test questions, and contended that everything Veneziale and other school officials said about Gallagher’s conduct was true.

The motion further contended that Gallagher could not show that the allegedly defamatory statements had been ­published to a third party. The motion also said Gallagher did not return to work after April 2014, and noted that Gallagher had obtained a teaching job for the following year in which she earned more money.

A jury awarded Gallagher $508,000 in Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Karen Shreeves-Johns’s courtroom, with $108,000 for her actual damages and $400,000 for damage to her reputation.

Bryan Lentz of Bochetto & Lentz represented Gallagher.

“We viewed it as absolute vindication for the plaintiff who had been wrongfully accused of something she didn’t do,” Lentz said.

Frank R. Emmerich and Jacquelyn J. Ager, of Conrad O’Brien tried the case for the defendants.

A church spokesman said the archdiocese was disappointed and will pursue appellate options.

“The archdiocese’s unwavering commitment to providing the best education to students in the region with integrity continues to be our top priority,” spokesman Kenneth A. Gavin said in an emailed statement.

View story on The Legal Intelligencer.

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