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Giles v. Kanawha County Board of Education

Supreme Court of West Virginia

January 5, 2018

Clinton Giles, Plaintiff Below, Petitioner
v.
Kanawha County Board of Education and Pete Thaw, individually and in his capacity as a member of the Kanawha County Board of Education, Defendants Below, Respondents

         Kanawha County 16-C-74

          MEMORANDUM DECISION

         Petitioner Clinton Giles, by counsel James M. Cagle, appeals the January 17, 2017, order of the Circuit Court of Kanawha County that dismissed his claims of false light invasion of privacy and defamation against Respondents Kanawha County Board of Education ("Board") and Pete Thaw, individually and in his capacity as a Board member. The Board, by counsel M. Andrew Brison, and Mr. Thaw, by counsel Johnnie E. Brown and Megan Goodall, filed responses in support of the circuit court's order. Petitioner submitted a reply.

         This Court has considered the parties' briefs and the record on appeal. The facts and legal arguments are adequately presented, and the decisional process would not be significantly aided by oral argument. Upon consideration of the standard of review, the briefs, and the record presented, the Court finds no substantial question of law and no prejudicial error. For these reasons, a memorandum decision affirming the circuit court's order is appropriate under Rule 21 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure.

         Petitioner, a thirty-four year employee of the Board, became principal of Capital High School in 2002. On February 3, 2015, he 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.[1] Also on that date, petitioner was suspended without pay and then, on February 9, 2015, he voluntarily resigned his position.

         It is undisputed that Respondent Thaw made the following statements to local news media on February 9, 2015, at a press conference following the Board meeting at which petitioner's resignation was accepted: (1) "I voted to make Clinton Giles principal at Capital High School. It was the second worst mistake I ever made but I did it and I want to apologize but I did and I've had nothing but complaints[;]" (2) "I do regret that we're letting him call the tune when he quits[;]" and (3) "Let's face it, when this sort of crime occurs most people would report it immediately, apparently we have to say so." The local news media widely reported the events giving rise to the criminal charge and, later, petitioner's resignation and Thaw's statements.

         On March 13, 2015, the criminal case against petitioner was dismissed, with prejudice.[2]

         On May 16, 2016, petitioner filed an amended complaint against 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 Respondent Thaw filed a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss or, alternatively, a motion for summary judgment. Petitioner filed responses thereto. By order entered January 17, 2016, the circuit court granted respondents' motions.[3] This appeal followed.

         This Court has held that "'[a]ppellate review of a circuit court's order granting a motion to dismiss a complaint is de novo.' Syl. Pt. 2, State ex rel. McGraw v. Scott Runyan Pontiac- Buick, Inc., 194 W.Va. 770, 461 S.E.2d 516 (1995)." Syl. Pt. 1, Roth v. DeFeliceCare, Inc., 226 W.Va. 214, 700 S.E.2d 183 (2010). Further, we review the appropriateness of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss as follows:

"The trial court, in appraising the sufficiency of a complaint on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, should not dismiss the complaint unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief." Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 [78 S.Ct. 99');">78 S.Ct. 99, 102, 2 L.Ed.2d 80, 84] (1957).

Syl. Pt. 3, Chapman v. Kane Transfer Co., 160 W.Va. 530, 236 S.E.2d 207 (1977). See also Long v. Egnor, 176 W.Va. 628, 632, 346 S.E.2d 778, 782 (1986). However, we have stated that, although this rule is generally applicable in the ordinary case,

[t]he First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article III, Section 7 of the West Virginia Constitution require that trial courts apply a stricter standard in appraising defamation actions filed by public officials or public figures under a motion to dismiss filed pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure. Unless the complaint demonstrates on its face sufficient facts to support the elements of a defamation action, the complaint should be dismissed under Rule 12(b)(6).

Long at 630, 346 S.E.2d at 780, syl. pt. 3. [4]

         In his first assignment of error, petitioner argues that the circuit court erred in dismissing his defamation claim against respondents. The appropriate test for determining defamation was set forth in syllabus point four of Long, in which we held:

"[A] public official . . . can sustain an action for libel only if he can prove that: (1) the alleged libelous statements were false or misleading; (2) the statements tended to defame the plaintiff and reflect shame, contumely, and disgrace upon him; (3) the statements were published with knowledge at the time of publication that they were false or misleading or were published with a reckless and willful disregard of truth; and, (4) the publisher intended to injure the plaintiff through the knowing or reckless publication of the alleged libelous material." Syllabus Point 1, in part, Sprouse v. ...

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