William D. Sroufe, Appellant,
Muriel Tamera Waldron, Appellee.
an appeal from a judgment rendered by the Circuit Court of
Patrick County No. CL15000126-00
All the Justices
consideration of the record, briefs, and argument of counsel,
the Court is of opinion that there is reversible error in the
judgment of the circuit court.
D. Sroufe, Ed.D., is the division superintendent for Patrick
County Public Schools. Prior to the events that gave rise to
the proceedings below, Muriel Tamera Waldron was principal of
Stuart Elementary School in Patrick County.
meeting in April 2015, Dr. Sroufe removed Waldron as
principal and ordered her not to return to the school. He
told her that he was transferring her to the central office
and would recommend that the school board reassign her to a
teaching position the following school year. He provided her
with a letter to that effect. The letter included the
following statement ("the Statement"), which,
together with others in the letter, purported to justify Dr.
You failed to ensure that the [Individualized Education
Program ("IEP")] Teams understand the [Virginia
Alternative Assessment Program ("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 ("SOL")] assessments who,
under a correct interpretation of the criteria, should not
have been required to do so.
letter eventually came into the possession of the local news
media. Waldron subsequently filed a fourth amended complaint
alleging, as relevant to this appeal, that the Statement was
defamatory. The matter proceeded to trial by jury.
Waldron rested her case-in-chief, Dr. Sroufe moved to strike
her evidence, arguing that the Statement either (1) was
opinion, (2) was true, or (3) lacked defamatory sting. The
circuit court denied the motion. After the conclusion of all
the evidence, Dr. Sroufe again moved to strike. The court
again denied the motion. The jury thereafter returned a
verdict for Waldron and awarded her $500, 000 in compensatory
Sroufe then moved to set aside the verdict on the same
grounds as his motions to strike. The circuit court denied
the motion for reasons set forth in a letter opinion, which
was incorporated into an order entering judgment in
accordance with the jury's verdict. Dr. Sroufe appeals.
the trial court has declined to strike the plaintiff's
evidence or to set aside a jury verdict, the standard of
appellate review in Virginia requires this Court to consider
whether the evidence presented, taken in the light most
favorable to the plaintiff, was sufficient to support the
jury verdict in favor of the plaintiff." Bitar v.
Rahman, 272 Va. 130, 141 (2006) (alteration omitted).
The Court "will not set aside a trial court's
judgment sustaining a jury verdict unless it is plainly wrong
or without evidence to support it." Parson v.
Miller, 296 Va. 509, 524 (2018) (internal quotation
"[e]nsuring 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."
Webb v. Virginian-Pilot Media Cos., 287 Va. 84, 90
(2014). Expressions of opinion are not actionable as
defamation. Lewis v. Kei, 281 Va. 715, 725 (2011).
Whether a statement is an expression of opinion is a question
of law, which this Court reviews de novo. Cashion v.
Smith, 286 Va. 327, 336 (2013). In reviewing whether a
statement is an expression of opinion, the Court considers
the statement as a whole. Hyland v. Raytheon Tech. Servs.
Co., 277 Va. 40, 47 (2009). "When a statement is
relative in nature and depends largely on a speaker's
viewpoint, that statement is an expression of opinion."
in light of these principles, the Statement was an expression
of Dr. Sroufe's opinion. Waldron's own testimony
emphasizes this conclusion. When she was questioned during
cross-examination in her case-in-chief about 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." Cross-examination then proceeded as follows:
Q: Isn't that one of the things about VAAP that makes it
sometimes difficult, that reasonable people can disagree over
whether or not ...