Long v. Egnor

Decision Date03 July 1986
Docket NumberNo. 16825,16825
Citation176 W.Va. 628,346 S.E.2d 778
CourtWest Virginia Supreme Court
Parties, 13 Media L. Rep. 1855 Bill LONG and the W. Va. Education Association v. Hon. L.D. EGNOR, Jr., Circuit Judge of Cabell County.

Syllabus by the Court.

1. Prohibition will lie to prohibit a case from proceeding to trial when the

remedy of appeal is manifestly inadequate to protect against the chilling effect of allowing a suit to proceed because the complaint, as a matter of constitutional law, contains insufficient allegations to warrant interference with a citizen's right to free speech under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article III, Section 7 of the West Virginia Constitution.

2. A citizen's constitutional right to freedom of speech is equal to the media's constitutional right to freedom of the press where the speech involves an area of public concern.

3. The 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).

4. "[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. Clay Communication, Inc., 158 W.Va. 427, 211 S.E.2d 674, 95 A.L.R.3d 622, cert. denied, 423 U.S. 882, 96 S.Ct. 145, 46 L.Ed.2d 107 (1975).

5. "Under New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 84 S.Ct. 710, 11 L.Ed.2d 686 (1969), whenever there is a First Amendment defense to actions under state law, the state court is required to be a judge of both the facts and the law." Syllabus Point 2, in part, Mauck v. City of Martinsburg, 167 W.Va. 332, 280 S.E.2d 216 (1981).

6. A court must decide initially whether as a matter of law the challenged statements in a defamation action are capable of a defamatory meaning.

7. Following Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 94 S.Ct. 2997, 41 L.Ed.2d 789 (1974), courts have held that statements of opinion are absolutely protected under the First Amendment and cannot form the basis for a defamation action. These courts also hold that whether a statement is one of fact or opinion is an issue that must be decided initially by a court.

Rudolph L. DiTrapano, Joshua I. Barrett & Rebecca A. Baitty, Charleston, for petitioners.

James Allan Colburn, Baer, Colburn & Morris, Huntington, for respondent.

MILLER, Chief Justice:

In this case, we are being asked to prohibit further proceedings in a libel action filed by the individual members of the Cabell County Board of Education against the West Virginia Education Association (hereinafter "WVEA") and Bill Long, a WVEA employee responsible for representing WVEA members in administrative proceedings.

The alleged defamatory publication is a memorandum from Mr. Long, acting on behalf of the WVEA, to some of its members in Cabell County. The memorandum, which has the WVEA letterhead at the top of the page, contains a reference heading which states: "RE: Harassment and Coercing of Members." The relevant text of the memorandum is:

"It has been reported to me that a member of the Cabell County Board of Education has allegedly visited job locations in Cabell County to tell our ESP members that the administration and Board will systematically deny all grievances filed by any ESP member. Furthermore this Board member has allegedly stated that anyone who files a grievance ought to be fired.

"If any of these reported events did occur, they would be in violation of individual and organizational Constitutional rights and also in violation of West Virginia State Law." (Empahsis in original). 1

In their complaint, the Board members claimed the memorandum was false, demeaning, and libelous per se. Furthermore, they alleged that the memorandum imputes the plaintiffs are unfit to perform their duties, infers a want of integrity in the discharge of their duties, and prejudices them in their chosen field of public service. The complaint included a claim under W.Va. Code, 55-7-2, which provides a cause of action for insulting words. 2 The plaintiffs prayed for $500,000 as compensatory damages and $1,500,000 as punitive damages on each claim.

Although the WVEA moved to dismiss the complaint on several grounds, its main argument was that the complaint failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The circuit court denied the WVEA's motion to dismiss and refused its request to stay the initiation of discovery by the Board members. Following this decision, the WVEA filed a petition for a writ of prohibition in this Court to cease any further proceedings in this action.

I.

The WVEA seeks prohibition relief contending, among other things, that the language in the memorandum is not defamatory as a matter of law. The Board members initially urge that prohibition is an inappropriate remedy. However, we believe prohibition is appropriate after the denial of a motion to dismiss in certain circumstances, as illustrated by our decision in Webb v. Fury, 167 W.Va. 434, 282 S.E.2d 28 (1981).

Webb involved a person who was the managing agent of an environmental group opposed to certain surface mining activities of a coal company. He filed complaints against the coal company with federal regulatory agencies maintaining that the company was not complying with applicable surface mining statutes. He also published a newsletter which alleged that surface mining by the company was destroying and damaging several streams. The coal company sued claiming his statements to the administrative agencies and in the newsletter were false and defamatory.

Although Webb dealt with a citizen's right to petition the government pursuant to the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article III, Section 16 of the West Virginia Constitution, its primary concern was the chilling effect of litigation on a citizen who was exercising a sensitive constitutional right, which was at the heart of the litigation. In Syllabus Points 2 and 3 of Webb, we concluded prohibition was appropriate in this type of situation:

"2. While the denial of a motion to dismiss is not usually an error for which prohibition will lie, prohibition will be used to examine the propriety of such a ruling when, as here, the ruling invades the unique constitutional guarantee of the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances contained in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and article III, § 16 of the Constitution of West Virginia.

"3. Prohibition will lie to prohibit a case from proceeding to trial when the remedy of appeal is manifestly inadequate to protect against the chilling effect of allowing a suit to proceed because the complaint, as a matter of constitutional law, contains insufficient allegations to warrant an interference with a citizen's right to petition the government."

Consequently, we conclude prohibition will lie to prohibit a case from proceeding to trial when the remedy of appeal is manifestly inadequate to protect against the chilling effect of allowing a suit to proceed because the complaint, as a matter of constitutional law, contains insufficient allegations to warrant interference with a citizen's right to free speech under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article III, Section 7 of the West Virginia Constitution.

II.

Ordinarily, in reviewing the appropriateness of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, we have followed the general rule summarized in Syllabus Point 3 of Chapman v. Kane Transfer Co., 160 W.Va. 530, 236 S.E.2d 207 (1977):

"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, 102, 2 L.Ed.2d 80, 84] (1957)."

See also Sticklen v. Kittle, 168 W.Va. 147, 164, 287 S.E.2d 148, 156 (1981); John W. Lodge Distributing Co. v. Texaco, Inc., 161 W.Va. 603, 605, 245 S.E.2d 157, 158 (1978).

While this rule is generally applicable in the ordinary case, we believe that where First Amendment rights are implicated, courts have applied a stricter standard in judging the sufficiency of a complaint.

There can be little doubt that since New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 84 S.Ct. 710, 11 L.Ed.2d 686, 95 A.L.R.2d 1412 (1964), the right of public officials to sue for libel has been severely curtailed because of the actual malice requirement and other restrictions based upon the First Amendment's free speech right that have become critical factors in libel cases. 3 The basis for this rule was to prevent stifling speech directed at criticizing the actions of public officials, as explained in Sullivan, 376 U.S. at 270, 84 S.Ct. at 721, 11 L.Ed.2d at 701, 95 A.L.R.2d at 1430: "Thus we consider this case against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and...

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