Court: Agency did not defame ex-employee
Page News and Courier The Shenandoah Valley-Herald The Valley Banner The Warren SentinelFRONT ROYAL – The Sehnandoah Area Agency on Aging won at least a temporary victory in Warren County Circuit Court recently in the case of a former employee who sued for defamation of character.
Ann McIntyre, the group's former director of development, says agency officials allowed her name to be linked repeatedly over a 10-day period to financial irrregularities at the SAAA involving two other fired employees, before clarifying that she was terminated for a policy violation.
The SAAA board fired McIntyre, President and Chief Executive Officer Helen Cockrell and finance director John Shaffer Sept. 8.
The agency's attorney, Benjamin Butler, confirmed the firing Sept. 12 and said financial irregularities had been uncovered at the nonprofit organization.
Judge Gaylord Finch Jr. of Fairfax ruled in favor of the SAAA, finding that McIntyre had not brought enough evidence to prove she had been defamed by the agency.
Finch allowed 21 days for McIntyre to amend her suit. If a new complaint is not filed within that time, her suit will be dismissed with prejudice — meaning it could not be reinstated.
SAAA attorney Rosalie Pemberton Fessier successfully argued that McIntyre's suit was based on statements in two local newspapers.
She said no statements were attached to show that any SAAA officials had connected McIntyre with the issues involved in the firing of Cockrell and Shaffer.
John Hudson, chairman of the SAAA Board, said at the time that the financial issues concerned 81 unmailed checks totaling nearly $265,000 that were discovered in the agency's offices in early August.
McIntyre apparently was fired for giving her agency credit card to a co-worker at the group's offices to purchase $187 worth of postage for an SAAA mailing to patrons and sponsors.
Hudson announced Sept. 21 that McIntyre's termination was not linked to the agency's financial problems.
Fessier argued that the statements from the SAAA in the articles were true: that McIntyre had been fired for violating the credit card policy, a financial irregularity, and that any inferences that were drawn were the conclusions of the reporters.
The SAAA had no hand in the writing of the stories in the local newspapers, Fessier added.
Monica Miles, representing McIntyre, unsuccessfully countered that the SAAA announced all three firings under the heading of financial irregularities and only later clarified that McIntyre's termination had to do with credit card policies, not the $265,000 deficit.
The agency “recklessly provided the information to the reporters,” Miles said.
The implication, she said, was that McIntyre had some part in the “adverse activity,” which she said will “prejudice her in her profession.” Defamation, she added, can be accomplished by “inference and insinuation.”
“We can't control how newspapers structure news stories,” Fessieer countered.
Miles noted her objections to the judge's ruling and said after the session that McIntyre would file and amended complaint within the time limit.
Finch also agreed to remove Jonathan Hudson from the suit after Fessier presented testimony that he was the son of John Hudson and was not chairman of the SAAA board.
Jonathan Hudson was named a defendant in the suit and had twice been served with papers that should have gone to his father.