A panel of Indiana appellate court judges heard oral arguments in a local case Wednesday afternoon, an event that packed the expansive Courtroom 1 in the Allen County Courthouse.
The defamation case was one of about three lawsuits stemming from the 2012 forced retirement of former IPFW Chancellor Michael Wartell.
Purdue University forced the long-serving chancellor to retire, citing a little-used policy that required high-level administrators to retire at 65.
Although he was told that he would be forced to retire at the end of the 2012 academic year, Wartell had asked to be allowed to remain at the helm of IPFW until after the school’s 50th anniversary celebration in the 2014-15 academic year. His request was denied.
Before Wartell’s ouster, local businessman Larry Lee composed a letter to then-Purdue President France Córdova, requesting that she deny Wartell’s requested extension.
In the letter, Lee asserted that Wartell’s "word (does) not always serve as his bond," and that he had a "lack of integrity."
Wartell sued Lee in Allen Superior Court, alleging two types of defamation and tortious interference with a business relationship.
Lee responded, seeking summary judgment in his favor.
Allen Superior Court Judge Stanley Levine granted Lee’s request on the matter of defamation per se, meaning the statements made in the letter were not damaging on their face, according to court documents.
The case continues, though, and a jury could decide whether statements in the letter were made in good faith or were knowingly false.
According to court records, an attempt at mediation was unsuccessful in August.
Wartell appealed Levine’s judgment in the defamation per se portion of the case, and it was that issue heard by the Indiana Court of Appeals 3rd District, comprising Judge Michael Barnes, Judge Paul Mathias and Judge Terry Crone.
During the 45-minute hearing, the judges questioned the attorneys for both sides about Lee’s letter.
Wartell’s attorney Blake Hike argued that the letter is enough to determine defamation, that the phrase regarding Wartell’s "word not being his bond" is basically calling the educator a liar.
Lee’s attorney Linda Polley urged the appellate judges to study and consider only the words used in the letter, not any additional circumstances. The words were a general statement, not an allegation of misconduct, she said.
Mathias asked whether the last few lines of the letter made Lee’s intention clear, basically indicating that Lee and the other businessmen working for Wartell’s replacement were "out for blood."
Polley characterized the letter as a polite way of expressing criticism.
"He never called (Wartell) a liar," she said.
The judges took the matter under advisement and will issue their opinion at a later date.
Many in the packed courtroom were area attorneys and law students, receiving class credit or continuing education credit for attending the event.
Wartell’s federal age discrimination lawsuit was settled for $52,500.
Purdue University spent well over $200,000 defending itself in that case and trying to keep secret a report generated during its investigation.