Graves v. Utah Cnty. Gov't

Docket Number20200296-CA
Decision Date06 July 2023
Citation2023 UT App 73
PartiesGreg Graves, Appellant, v. Utah County Government, Nathan Ivie, Cammie Taylor, and William Lee, Appellees.
CourtUtah Court of Appeals

Fourth District Court, American Fork Department The Honorable Robert C. Lunnen No. 190100114

Ryan J. Schriever, Attorney for Appellant

Andrew M. Morse and Andrew L. Roth, Attorneys for Appellees

Judge Michele M. Christiansen Forster authored this Opinion, in which Justice Jill M. Pohlman and Senior Judge Kate Appleby concurred. [1]

OPINION

CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, JUDGE:

¶ 1 Cammie Taylor lodged a complaint against then-County Commissioner Greg Graves, alleging that he sexually harassed and retaliated against her while she was employed as the human resources director for Utah County (County). The County hired an independent investigator, who produced an internal report (Report) to address Taylor's allegations. In response to public records requests from two media outlets, County Commissioners Nathan Ivie and William Lee (collectively Commissioners) voted to disclose redacted copies of Taylor's complaint and the Report. After the vote, the Commissioners addressed the press and the public regarding the accusations and the investigation, publicly named Graves as the subject of the Report, and called on him to resign.

¶ 2 Graves sued the County, the Commissioners, and Taylor bringing causes of action for false light invasion of privacy, defamation, slander/libel per se, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligent infliction of emotional distress. The district court granted the motion to dismiss Graves's complaint, and Graves appealed. We affirm in part and reverse in part.

BACKGROUND

¶ 3 We recite here the relevant allegations Graves made in his civil complaint filed in the district court.

¶ 4 Graves served as a county commissioner for three years from 2015 to 2018. He was regarded as a "controversial figure" in local politics. Graves claimed that his "often contentious relationship" with his fellow commissioners led to "fierce policy debates," an accusation that he was "not acting like a conservative," and threats "to force his resignation." Graves claimed that he "briefly switched his party affiliation under the belief that it would deter Ivie and Lee from forcing his resignation because of the likelihood he would be replaced by a Democrat if he was registered as a Democrat."

¶ 5 Graves alleged that he was so controversial that "a group of influential Utah County politicians . . . began attending what they called 'Power Meetings' at the County Courthouse," the "primary purpose" of which "was to institute a write-in campaign to prevent [his] election" and "to find ways to impugn [his] character and reputation." As an "example of the active campaign to impugn [his] reputation," Graves alleged that "the curator of an influential conservative blog in Utah County ran an article reporting that Graves had accessed an account on a website known as Ashley Madison."[2] Graves alleged that the Appellees knew the Ashley Madison story would predispose "many Utah County constituents . . . to believe Graves would sexually harass an employee."

¶ 6 Graves alleged that, in September 2017, Lee pulled him "into his office" and told him to "stay away" from Taylor. Approximately a month later, Taylor filed a "Notice of Charge of Discrimination" with the Utah Antidiscrimination and Labor Division of the Utah Labor Commission (UALD complaint) alleging Graves had sexually harassed and discriminated against her. Taylor sent a notice of claim to the County.

¶ 7 Graves asserted that "Taylor fabricated allegations of sexual harassment against [him] for malicious and improper purposes, including . . . retaliation, leverage to avoid termination, and/or leverage to force a settlement with Utah County when she was terminated from her job." Graves claimed that "Taylor was worried that Utah County would terminate her employment because of several issues in the human resources department," including the settlement of a grievance made against Taylor. Graves alleged that Taylor was also concerned about the future of her job because he was interested in "the potential of privatizing human resources." In addition, Graves "did not believe Taylor performed her job adequately" and had "openly stated to other employees that if it were his choice he would terminate Taylor's employment."

¶ 8 According to Graves, Taylor's "false allegations of sexual harassment" included claims that Graves (1) made "inappropriate statements to her of a sexual or suggestive nature"; (2) rubbed her knee and said, "Don't show it if you don't want it touched"; (3) told her that "he was unhappy in his marriage and wanted to get divorced"; (4) asked her if she dated divorced men; and (5) told her that "he could get sex anywhere because women are attracted to the power he had as a commissioner." He denied making these statements.

¶ 9 The County hired an investigator to conduct a factual inquiry into Taylor's allegations of sexual harassment and gender discrimination. Graves asserted that the investigator was "unable to conclude" that Graves had "engaged in any unwelcome sexual or suggestive behavior or conduct toward" Taylor.[3] ¶ 10 Graves's complaint alleged that around this same time, "Taylor sent an email to media reporter(s), or contacted the media through other means, informing the media of the complaint and/or the notice of claim she had filed." Two media outlets made public records requests under the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA), see generally Utah Code §§ 63G-2-101 to -901, for "the complaint against Commissioner Graves," "[a]ll emails sent between Utah County Commissioner Greg Graves and Cammie Taylor, the Utah County personnel director," and "any complaint of sexual harassment against Utah County Commissioner Greg Graves." The County initially denied the GRAMA requests because it had not yet received the complaint and "there were no documents to produce." And once the County received the complaint, it continued to deny the requests pending an investigation.

¶11 The Commissioners later held a GRAMA appeal hearing regarding the documents related to Graves's alleged misconduct; although he was still a commissioner, Graves did not attend the hearing. The Commissioners voted to release the requested documents but to redact personal identification from them. Immediately after the hearing, however, Ivie addressed the media, announcing that the Report was about Graves and that Ivie would release a prepared statement on his official social media page. Ivie's statement read,

I voted to release information pertaining to internal investigations into Commissioner [Graves's] conduct. I felt it important that his actions and the claims filed against him by multiple employees receive due process before entering the public arena. The conclusion of that investigation confirmed my personal feelings. He abuses his power, intimidates employees and is vindictive to those who disagree with him.
. . . .
. . . I believe Mr. Graves should resign his position effective immediately.
. . . .
. . . After [observing] multiple people in my office in tears, others in anger and all in complete frustration, I feel compelled to take this action for the benefit of the citizens of Utah County and those who dedicate their lives working for those citizens.

Lee reposted Ivie's statement to his own official social media page.

¶12 The County released the redacted UALD complaint,[4] but Graves's name was not redacted from it. The next day, the County released the Report, in which all the names-including Graves's-and identifying information were redacted. Graves alleged that the Commissioners "knew or should have known" that publishing the UALD complaint (with his name included) "without simultaneously releasing the [Report] would portray Graves in a false light in that people would falsely believe he was guilty of sexual harassment." Following the release of the UALD complaint, the media reported extensively about the allegations of Graves's sexual harassment, leading to calls for his resignation.

¶ 13 Graves's lawsuit against the Commissioners, Taylor, and the County alleged that Taylor's accusations against him were false and that she acted with malice in asserting claims of sexual harassment and gender discrimination. Graves also claimed that the Commissioners "acted with malice in publishing the false statements." He asserted that this conduct "irreparably damaged" his reputation, resulting in loss of employment opportunities, marital problems, bullying of his children, and exacerbation of a preexisting traumatic brain injury. He sought economic and non-economic damages.

¶ 14 In response, the County, the Commissioners, and Taylor filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim on which relief could be granted, see Utah R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), arguing that Graves's claims were barred by the Governmental Immunity Act of Utah (GIA), see generally Utah Code §§ 63G-7-101 to -904; that Graves did not and could not properly plead that the Commissioners or Taylor acted with actual malice; and that Graves's infliction of emotional distress claims failed as a matter of law.

¶ 15 The district court orally granted the motion to dismiss. Its subsequent written order explained that, under Deseret News Publishing Co. v. Salt Lake County 2008 UT 26, 182 P.3d 372, the Commissioners and the County were required to disclose the Report[5] because it was not a protected record, and that accordingly, "as a matter of law," Graves could not "prove they acted with actual malice." As to Taylor's conduct-including lodging the UALD complaint and allegedly surreptitiously...

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