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Sroufe v. Waldron

Supreme Court of Virginia

June 27, 2019

William D. Sroufe, Appellant,
v.
Muriel Tamera Waldron, Appellee.

          Upon an appeal from a judgment rendered by the Circuit Court of Patrick County No. CL15000126-00

         Present: All the Justices

         Upon 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.

         William 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.

         At a 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. Sroufe's actions:

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.[1]

         The 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.

         After 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 damages.

         Dr. 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.

         "Where 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 marks omitted).

         However, "[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." Id.

         Evaluated 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 ...

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