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Defamation claim was incorrectly sent to jury

Virginia Lawyers Weekly//July 8, 2019

Defamation claim was incorrectly sent to jury

Virginia Lawyers Weekly//July 8, 2019

A defamation verdict for plaintiff is reversed because the complained-of statement expressed an opinion. The claim should not have been submitted to the jury.


Defendant Sroufe, the division superintendent for Patrick County Public Schools, removed plaintiff Waldron from her position as principal of an elementary school. He said Waldron would be transferred to the central office and reassigned to a teaching position.

In a letter Sroufe wrote to Waldron memorializing these actions, he stated that she “failed to ensure” that the criteria for determining whether students qualified for the Virginia Alternative Assessment Program were being properly applied.

The letter came into the local media’s possession. Waldron sued, alleging the statement was defamatory.

At trial

“The circuit court correctly determined that the Statement was opinion when Dr. Sroufe moved to strike the evidence when Waldron rested her case-in-chief. It specifically referred to Waldron’s testimony that reasonable people could disagree [whether the VAAP applies to a particular student]. Nevertheless, the court denied the motion, stating ‘I’m interested to see what will happen,’ and ‘I want to see what a jury will do.’ It opined that ‘[i]f the [j]ury comes back and gives her two million dollars, I will be the villain and most likely will set it aside.’

“Dr. Sroufe renewed his motion to strike at the conclusion of all the evidence, and the circuit court again denied it. After the jury returned its verdict and [$500,000] award, he moved to set them aside. Contrary to the court’s earlier prediction when it denied Dr. Sroufe’s first motion to strike, it denied this motion, too.”

Judicial duty abdicated

“‘[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.’ …

“In this case, the trial judge ignored that function by consciously disregarding the law and permitting the jury to return a verdict and award damages on a statement that he knew was not actionable as defamation as a matter of law. The case should have been dismissed on Dr. Sroufe’s first motion to strike, and the court erred by failing to do so. It compounded this error by failing to do so on his second motion to strike, and compounded it yet again by failing to set aside the jury’s erroneous verdict after the trial ended.

“The attitude expressed in the letter opinion is deeply troubling. It displays a profound misapprehension of the proper role and responsibilities of a judge. There is a difference between self-deprecating acknowledgement of the hierarchy within the judicial branch, and the possibility that one’s ruling is erroneous on one hand, and recognition to the point of near-certainty what the correct legal ruling should be but consciously choosing to rule the opposite way — especially to ‘send a message’ to one of the parties — on the other.

“The first simply expresses an appreciation of human fallibility. The second is an abdication of the duty of a judge — to the parties, who bring their claims to the court for adjudication at great expense; to the attorneys, whose time and efforts are paid for and expended to present those claims competently and professionally; to the jurors, whose daily lives have been disrupted to aid the court in rendering judgment; and to the people of the Commonwealth, who entrust their judges to correctly apply their legal training, experience, and expertise when resolving the questions put to them for decision.

“As this Court recently observed, the power to render judgment includes the power to render an erroneous one. … But that observation presumes the best efforts, reasoned judgment, and good faith of the judge. A court’s power to render an erroneous judgment is not an invitation to judges to render one in knowing and conscious disregard for the law, with the assumption that someone else higher in the judicial hierarchy will correct it later.

“The trial judge’s misinterpretation and misuse of judicial power in this case unnecessarily prolonged trial and led to this full appellate review on the merits, which, despite his assertion to the contrary, has not only delayed the just adjudication the parties were entitled to but also imposed very real financial burdens on them. This Court must and does reprove it.”


Sroufe v. Waldron. (Published Order); Record No. 181014, June 27, 2019. (Patrick Circuit Court). Jim H. Guynn Jr. for Appellant; Roger B. Willetts, Norman A.Thomas for Appellee. VLW 019-6-043, 6 pp.

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