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Horne v. WTVR, LLC

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division

April 6, 2017

ANGELA ENGLE HORNE, Plaintiff,
v.
WTVR, LLC, d/b/a CBS6, Defendant.

          OPINION

          JOHN A. GIBNEY, JR., UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         The Prince George County School System (the "School System") hired, and then fired, Angela Engle Home, a convicted felon, as its Director of Budget and Finance. A local television station, WTVR, LLC, doing business as CBS 6 ("WTVR"), aired a segment about the "Felon Hired, Then Fired." The segment did not provide details on the specific employment situation, but it did review the hiring process, including the fact that making a false representation about prior criminal convictions on an application is a criminal offense. In reality, the School System hired Home after she disclosed her prior criminal conviction on her application, and then fired her when it realized that hiring her had violated state law. Home has sued WTVR for defamation, alleging that the segment it broadcast defamed her by implying that Home had committed a crime by lying on her application. WTVR has moved for summary judgment. Because the segment is reasonably capable of the alleged defamatory meaning, and because disputes of fact exist as to WTVR's intent when it published the segment, the Court will deny the motion for summary judgment, and the case will proceed to trial.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In July 2014, Home completed an online application for the position of Director of Budget and Finance for the School System. On the application, Home disclosed a prior felony conviction. The School System hired Home for the position. She started in September 2014.

         The Director of Budget and Finance (the "Director") is responsible for managing the financial, budgetary, and purchasing affairs of the School System. The Director reports to the Assistant Superintendent for Administration and Personnel, and supervises the Accounting Associate. The position description includes nineteen responsibilities, which involve planning, directing, coordinating, managing, tracking, overseeing, and analyzing. Most of the responsibilities focus on the internal logistics, such as accounting, reports, audits, and benefits. Additionally, the Director "[m]ust be available to attend regular school board meetings and be comfortable presenting to the school board." (Mem. Supp. Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 2.) According to Home, she only spoke at a meeting once.

         In January 2015, the Prince George County School Board (the "School Board") received an anonymous letter that, in relevant part, asked why the School Board had hired Home despite her prior conviction. The School Board directed the Superintendent for the School System, Bobby Browder, to consult a lawyer about the issue. The lawyer advised Browder that Home's hiring was illegal under Virginia law. On February 10, 2015, Browder asked Home to resign. Home refused, so Browder fired her.

         WTVR is a television station that broadcasts in the Metro-Richmond area. At some point prior to February 13, 2015, Wayne Covil, a reporter for WTVR, received a tip that the School System had hired a convicted felon. Mid-moming on February 13, 2015, Covil received an anonymous email with the same information. Covil directed another WTVR employee to look into Home as the potential felon. The employee found a possible phone number for Home, and Covil left a message at this number. Covil also contacted Browder, who said that he could not discuss specific details on the individual whom the School System had hired and fired, but could discuss the hiring process in general. Later that day, Covil interviewed Browder about the hiring process.

         That evening, at the top of the 5:30 p.m. broadcast, WTVR aired a segment titled "Hired and Then Fired." The "teaser" said: "A CBS 6 viewer reached out to us concerned about a felon working for a local school system." One of the anchors then introduced the segment: "Getting a job with a felony conviction is perfectly legal in Virginia, unless you want to work in a school. That's not allowed. CBS 6 Senior Reporter Wayne Covil is working for you. He spoke to the School System about how they keep this from happening."

         The camera then turned to Covil, who began: "Sources tell us the person who was hired to work in the School Board Office is no longer employed. While the School Superintendent cannot legally talk about personnel matters, he did talk to me about the hiring practice, and it starts with this book-Virginia School Law." The segment then explained the hiring process, using clips from the interview with Browder, voice-overs from Covil, and related images and video clips. Throughout the segment, the banner at the bottom of the screen read: "Felon Hired, Then Fired: How Prince George Schools Prevents This."

         The segment explained that the hiring process starts with an online application, which includes a question that asks specifically about crimes. If an applicant lists a prior crime, the School System asks for further details. Once the School System selects the final applicant, it then starts the finger printing and background check process. This process, however, could take from four to six weeks, and the new hire sometimes starts before the School System receives the results of the background check. Browder explained that state law prohibits people with felony convictions and people with misdemeanor convictions for crimes toward children from working for the School System. The segment ended with the following statement: "Virginia state law is also specific when it comes to filling out an application for a school system. It is a Class 1 misdemeanor to make false representations when it comes to revealing criminal convictions."

         Virginia law does mandate that school board applications must require the applicant to certify that the applicant has not been convicted of certain crimes. Va. Code Ann. § 22.1-296.1(A). As interpreted by the Supreme Court of Virginia, "[a] felon cannot make such a certification." Butler v. Fairfax Cty. Sch. Bd., 291 Va. 32, 37, 780 S.E.2d 277, 280 (2015). The same statute makes it a misdemeanor for a person to make a "materially false statement regarding any such offense." Id.

         II. DISCUSSION [1]

         Home has sued WTVR for defamation, arguing that the segment implied that she hid her prior conviction when she submitted her application and that, in doing so, she committed a crime. To state a claim for defamation in Virginia, the plaintiff must allege that the defendant published an actionable statement about the plaintiff with the requisite intent. Schaecher v. Bouffault, 290 Va. 83, 91, 99, 772 S.E.2d 589, 594, 598 (2015). To be actionable, the statement must be both false and defamatory, and, depending on the statement, must result in actual damages. Id; Carwile v. Richmond Newspapers, Inc., 196 Va. 1, 7, 82 S.E.2d 588, 591 (1954). WTVR has moved for summary judgment, claiming that Home cannot establish that the segment was defamatory or that WTVR acted with the requisite intent. WTVR also raises the fair comment and fair report privilege as a defense to Home's claim.

         A. ...


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