When a person’s reputation is attacked, sometimes what stings the most is not so much what was actually said but what was implied. Virginia recognizes defamation by implication claims and permits plaintiffs to recover when (1) the defendant makes a statement designed and intended to imply certain false and defamatory facts, (2) in a context that would cause reasonable listeners or readers to infer the intended defamatory meaning, and (3) the plaintiff suffers harm as a result. (See Pendleton v. Newsome, 290 Va. 162, 175 (2015)). To be actionable, however, the inference urged by the plaintiff must be a reasonable one; if the judge has to squint her eyes and stretch her imagination to interpret the defendant’s statement the way the plaintiff is interpreting it, she will likely dismiss the case at the outset. That’s what happened earlier this year in a case brought against Ferrum College by its former athletic director.
The facts of John Abraham Naff v. Ferrum College go something like this, according to the April 2, 2021, opinion. Abe Naff had been employed by Ferrum College in southwest Virginia for nearly 35 years. He most recently served as its athletic director, a position he held for the past 15 years. On June 28, 2019, he was terminated. The lawsuit was based on various statements Ferrum College gave to the media about the supposed reasons for his termination. They included the following:
- “Abe is taking some time off like many of our faculty and staff do during the summer months.”
- “That’s all I can say and all I’m willing to say.”
- “If there is more to comment on, I will let you know.”
- “This is all I can say now. I’m not going to comment on whether [Naff] is still the Director of Athletics or any speculation other than to say that he’s taking some time off.”
- “Abe Naff has requested that Ferrum not make any comments about him to the press, so we are going to honor his request.”
- “However, I can assure you that Ferrum College has been more than fair to Mr. Naff, and we have acted in the best interest of the college and its athletics department.”
Naff took issue with these statements because one reading between the lines might infer that (1) Ferrum terminated Naff’s employment due to poor performance; (2) Naff lacked integrity and credibility; (3) Naff was otherwise unfit to perform his job duties; and/or (4) Naff struggled with addiction.
The court held (in so many words) that Naff was being overly sensitive. “There is nothing in these statements that are unpleasant or offensive, much less imply that the Plaintiff was terminated for performances [sic] reasons, unfit for his job or struggled with addiction,” the court wrote. “The statements made in the news article are neutral and do not imply any actionable defamatory statements. The plaintiff is attempting to extend the meaning of the words used by the defendant which is explicitly prohibited in defamation by implication claims.”
Having found no actionable defamation by implication, the court examined whether the complaint had alleged any express defamation and concluded that it did not. First, there were no allegations that Ferrum’s statements to the media were in any way false. Second, the statements given to the media lacked the requisite degree of sting in that they did not tend to lower Naff in the estimation of the community or deter third persons from associating or dealing with him. Finally, the statement about treating Naff fairly could only be interpreted as a statement of opinion, which is not actionable as a matter of law. For these reasons, the court sustained the college’s demurrer and dismissed the defamation claim with prejudice.