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Wartell v. Lee

Court of Appeals of Indiana

December 7, 2015

Michael A. Wartell, Appellant-Defendant,
v.
Lawrence H. Lee, Appellee-Plaintiff

Page 382

          Appeal from the Allen Superior Court. The Honorable Stanley A. Levine, Judge. Trial Court Cause No. 02D03-1306-PL-232 .

         ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT: J. Blake Hike, Larry L. Barnard, Carson Boxberger LLP, Fort Wayne, Indiana.

         ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE: James J. Shea, Sr., Linda A. Polley, Jeremy D. Lemon, Hunt Suedhoff Kalamaros LLP, Fort Wayne, Indiana.

         Mathias, Judge. Barnes, J., and Crone, J., concur.

          OPINION

         Mathias, Judge.

         [¶1] Dr. Michael Wartell (" Wartell" ), former Chancellor of Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne (" IPFW" ), filed a complaint in Allen Superior Court against Lawrence Lee (" Lee" ), alleging among other claims, defamation per se because Lee sent a private letter to then-Purdue president Dr. France Córdova (" Córdova" ) urging her to deny Wartell's request for an exception to Purdue's retirement policy. The trial court subsequently granted Lee's motion for partial summary judgment on the claim of defamation per se. Wartell now appeals and argues that the trial court erred in concluding that Lee's statements in the letter to Córdova did not constitute defamation per se.[1]

         [¶2] We affirm.

         Facts and Procedural History

         [¶3] Wartell served as the chancellor of IPFW for eighteen years, from 1994 until June 30, 2012. IPFW is the largest state university in Northeast Indiana and had an enrollment of over 14,000 students when Wartell left his position as chancellor. During Wartell's tenure, IPFW experienced positive growth and a strong reputation as a university. As chancellor, Wartell was well-known in the Fort Wayne community.

Page 383

          ¶4 Wartell was employed by Purdue University (" Purdue" ) and reported to the Purdue Board of Trustees (" the Board" ) through the Purdue president. Appellant's App. p. 126. Throughout his service as chancellor, Wartell was subject to administrative review, where Purdue and IPFW officials would interview individuals from Purdue, IPFW, and the community about Wartell's job performance. Integrity was one of the areas subject to review and a category in which Wartell always received " the highest marks." Appellant's App. pp. 119-20.

         [¶5] At the time, Purdue procedure required that chancellors be re-appointed on a year-to-year basis with the underlying contract renewed each year. Purdue policy required high-ranking administrators to retire from their positions during the fiscal year which they turn sixty-five. Appellant's App. p. 128. See also Appellee's App. pp. 23-25. Because of the policy, Wartell was required to retire at the end of the fiscal year in 2012 unless the Board agreed to extend his chancellorship. Wartell was aware of this policy, but he did not believe that he would be required to retire because no other high-ranking Purdue officials had been previously denied an extension request. On May 19, 2011, Wartell received a phone call from then-Purdue President Córdova, notifying him that the Board wanted Wartell to retire. In response to the call, Wartell submitted a request to the Board to extend his position beyond the mandatory retirement date. Appellee's App. p. 18. Wartell's request was denied, and he retired as chancellor on June 30, 2012.

         [¶6] Lee, a Fort Wayne businessman and owner of Leepoxy Plastics and president of Midwest Epoxy Applicators, is an active citizen in the Fort Wayne community and a longtime IPFW donor and supporter. Appellee's App. pp. 13, 70, 78-80. Lee was also on the Advisory Board for the Doermer School of Business at IPFW. Id. at 32-33. Lee had worked with Wartell on numerous occasions over the years, and that collaboration had sparked some disagreements. After discovering that Wartell had requested that the Board extend his chancellorship in spring of 2011, Lee contacted several other prominent businessmen in the community to arrange a meeting with Córdova to convince her that the Board should deny Wartell's request. Lee referred to this group of men as " the Worthy Brothers" which consisted of Keith Busse (" Busse" ), Ian Rolland (" Rolland" ), and Jim Vann (" Vann" ).

         [¶7] In an email sent to the group on June 22, 2011, Lee confirmed that their goals in a meeting with Córdova were " two-fold: (1) to express our conviction that Wartell's request to delay his retirement should be denied, and (2) his successor as chancellor at IPFW be of impeccable integrity, able to earn and command the respect of local and area business leaders." Appellant's App. p. 201. Additionally, Lee informed the group that he had learned " from a very reliable source that Córdova is the one and only determiner on Wartell's petition to delay [Wartell's] retirement date." Appellant's App. pp. 167, 201. A Skype meeting was scheduled on June 29, 2011, for Lee, Rolland, Busse, and Vann to discuss Wartell's extension request with Córdova. At the end of the meeting, Córdova requested that each of the men submit written comments to her and that she would confidentially submit the information to the Board. Appellant's App. pp. 64-66.

         [¶8] Lee sent a confidential letter to Córdova as requested on July 1, 2011. Lee discussed some of Wartell's accomplishments as chancellor but also expressed his concerns to Córdova about the Board granting Wartell's extension request.

Page 384

At issue in this appeal are the following allegedly defamatory statements contained in Lee's letter, as asserted in ...


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