When SolAVerde’s attorney spoke to the media about his client’s defamation claims against the Town of Front Royal and certain councilmen, he sounded pretty confident. The court, however, disagreed with his arguments and dismissed the Town from the lawsuit, finding it to be immune. The court also dismissed the defamation claims against the other defendants, but left the door open for SolAVerde, a Virginia solar energy company, to amend its claims against them.
The Complaint alleged that the defendants, in effect, accused the owners of SolAVerde of offering a bribe to public officials in connection with the bidding on a contract for a solar energy processing and production facility. According to plaintiff, a member of the Front Royal town council, whom they were unable to identify specifically, leaked a memorandum to the news media that raised the question of whether certain proposed monetary incentives were actually bribes. The plaintiffs sought $30 million in reputational damages.
However, in a May 26, 2011, opinion, Judge Paul Peatross Jr., sitting by designation in the Warren County court, dismissed the defamation claim. He found that the town was entitled to sovereign immunity because whatever the council members had done in connection with the bids and the possible contract, they were making a governmental decision. “The doctrine of sovereign immunity protects municipalities from tort liability arising out of the exercise of governmental functions,” he wrote. Judge Peatross concluded that the acts alleged by the plaintiffs, including the alleged leak of the document, “amount to a governmental function by the Town of Front Royal acting in its legislative capacity regarding the consideration of solar power for the Town of Front Royal,” and that the town is thus immune from defamation liability.
Regarding the defamation claims against the other defendants, the judge dismissed those too. Citing the Model Jury Instructions, he recited the elements of a defamation claim as “(1) a defendant made a statement of fact; (2) about the plaintiff; (3) that was heard or seen by someone other than the plaintiff; (4) which statement was false; and the defendant knew the statement was false or, believing it to be true, lacked reasonable grounds for such belief or acted negligently to ascertain the facts on which the statement was based.” It was not necessary to get beyond the first element, as the court found no allegation of a factual assertion. The statement at issue was a legal question posed to the Town Attorney, not a statement of fact. As such, it was insufficient to state a proper defamation claim.