CHARLESTON – The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals ruled a lower court rightfully dismissed privacy claims in a lawsuit filed by a former Capital High School principal.
Clinton Giles appealed the Jan. 17, 2017, order of Kanawha Circuit Court that dismissed his claims of false light invasion of privacy and defamation against Kanawha County Board of Education and Pete Thaw, individually and in his capacity as a Board member.
On Feb. 3, 2015, Giles was charged by criminal information with the misdemeanor offense of failing to timely report an alleged sexual assault that occurred on the school’s premises. He was suspended without pay and then, on Feb. 9, 2015, he voluntarily resigned his position.
Thaw made statements to local news media on Feb. 9, 2015, at a press conference following the board meeting at which Giles’ resignation was accepted.
On March 13, 2015, the criminal case against Giles was dismissed with prejudice.
On May 16, 2016, Giles filed an amended complaint against the respondents alleging claims of defamation and false light invasion of privacy. The board filed a motion to dismiss under West Virginia Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), while Thaw filed a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss or, alternatively, a motion for summary judgment.
By order entered Jan. 17, 2017, the circuit court granted the respondents’ motions. Giles’ appeal followed.
“It is petitioner’s contention that the circuit court erred in concluding that Respondent Thaw’s statements are not capable of a defamatory meaning and were protected speech under the United States and West Virginia constitutions,” the Jan. 5 memorandum decision states. “Petitioner argues that the statements are defamatory as they tended to ‘reflect shame, contumely, and disgrace’ upon him…”
According to petitioner, Thaw’s statements that he regretted letting petitioner “call the tune on when he quits,” as petitioner was permitted to submit his resignation on the same day he was charged with a crime, and that “when this sort of crime occurs most people would report it immediately” are defamatory because they accuse petitioner, a mandatory reporter, of failing to timely report a sexual assault.
“Petitioner argues that, in fact, he had followed Board policy and had not violated any criminal law,” the decision states.
Similarly, Giles argued, Thaw’s statement that he “apologize[s]” for voting to hire petitioner as principal at Capital High School and that “[i]t was the second worst mistake I ever made…and I’ve had nothing but complaints” is defamatory because it can only mean that Thaw finds Giles to be unfit for his employment as an educator and principal.
The Supreme Court found no error.
“The challenged statements relate to Respondent Thaw’s personal belief that he should not have voted to hire petitioner as principal, his feeling of regret over the Board’s decision to allow petitioner to resign on his own, and his opinion that other people in petitioner’s position would have immediately reported the incident to police,” the decision states.
The Supreme Court wrote that the statements do not indicate that petitioner committed a crime.
“We, therefore, conclude that the statements reflect Respondent Thaw’s feelings and opinions regarding his own judgment about petitioner, do not include provably false assertions of fact, are protected under the First Amendment, and cannot form the basis of a defamation claim,” the decision states. “Accordingly, we find that the circuit court did not commit error in granting respondents’ motion to dismiss petitioner’s defamation claim.”
As it pertains to the false light invasion of privacy claim, the Supreme Court also found no error and concluded that the claim was properly dismissed.
“The fact that a sexual assault allegedly occurred at the school, that petitioner was charged with failing to timely report it to authorities and that he was suspended without pay were fodder for the local news media six days before the challenged statements were made,” the decision states.
The court said it would be disingenuous to conclude that Thaw’s statements on Feb. 9, 2015, somehow “gave publicity” to already widely publicized facts.
The court concluded that the elements of a false light invasion of privacy claim were not satisfied and that the claim was properly dismissed.
W.Va. Supreme Court of Appeals case number: 17-0139