Trial Courts Must Screen Out Defective Defamation Cases

The Virginia Supreme Court has had enough of defamation verdicts based on subjective statements that are relative in nature and depend largely on the speaker’s viewpoint. Such statements are statements of opinion, not fact, and cannot support a defamation verdict. A few years ago, the Court made it very clear that “ensuring that defamation suits proceed only upon statements which actually may defame a plaintiff, rather than those which merely may inflame a jury to an award of damages, is an essential gatekeeping function of the court.” (See Webb v. Virginian-Pilot Media Companies). This means that if a plaintiff files an action for libel or slander based solely on a statement of opinion, the trial court’s duty is to dismiss the case at the outset.

Of course, this doesn’t always happen, as illustrated by the recent case of William D. Sroufe v. Muriel Tamera Waldron. Mr. Sroufe is the division superintendent for Patrick County Public Schools. Ms. Waldron is a former principal of Stuart Elementary School in Patrick County. Mr. Sroufe was unhappy with Ms. Waldron’s performance, particularly in connection with her administration of Virginia’s Alternative Assessment Program (“VAAP“) for students with learning disabilities. He decided to ask the school board to reassign her to a teaching position, explaining his reasoning as follows in a letter he gave to her:

You failed to ensure that the [Individualized Education Program] Teams understand the [VAAP] participation criteria and apply them appropriately when considering students with disabilities for the VAAP. Your actions will result in students being required to take [Standards of Learning] assessments who, under a correct interpretation of the criteria, should not have been required to do so.

Based solely on that statement, the case was tried to a jury, who decided to award the former principal $500,000.00, the largest verdict in the history of the county. There was a problem, though. The statement is nothing but the personal opinion of Mr. Sroufe. As such, it doesn’t matter how much money the jury thinks the roadblock-300x154case is worth; the jury should have never been asked to decide the case to begin with.

Expressions of opinion are not actionable as defamation, and it’s up to the trial judge to make a preliminary determination regarding whether a particular statement is one of opinion or one of fact. Sometimes the distinction isn’t clear. Basically, “when a statement is relative in nature and depends largely on a speaker’s viewpoint, that statement is an expression of opinion.” (See Hyland v. Raytheon Tech. Servs. Co., 277 Va. 40, 47 (2009)). When making this determination, courts examine the speaker’s choice of words, the context in which the statement was made, and determine whether the statement is capable of being objectively characterized as true or false.

Here, the Virginia Supreme Court pointed out that Ms. Waldron’s own trial testimony demonstrated that the letter accusing her of misinterpreting VAAP criteria was merely an expression of opinion. When she was asked on cross-examination whether she believed that anyone who disagreed with her assessment that certain students did not qualify under the VAAP criteria must be wrong, she answered, “Not necessarily. Opinions differ.”

Even the trial judge acknowledged that the statement was one of opinion and therefore not actionable as defamation. “Legally speaking, Dr. Sroufe’s statement is an opinion and not actionable,” the trial court wrote in its opinion. In a bizarre and unusual twist, the trial judge allowed the jury to consider the case anyway, reasoning that he “want[ed] to see what a jury will do.” The jury awarded a large sum, but the Virginia Supreme Court did not approve, reiterating its holding in Webb that trial courts are obligated to act as gatekeepers against frivolous defamation claims. If a defamation verdict is based on a statement of opinion, the verdict is going to be reversed, no matter how much money is at stake.

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