The Virginia Supreme Court has overturned a unanimous ruling by a jury in Patrick County that former Stuart Elementary School Principal Muriel Tamera Waldron had been defamed when she was removed from her job.
The jury in Patrick County Circuit Court in March 2017 awarded Waldron $500,000 of the nearly $6 million she had sought in her claim against then-Patrick County Schools Superintendent William D. Sroufe and others.
Waldron had said Sroufe maliciously made false statements against her in a performance evaluation letter when her removed her as principal on April 24, 2015, and reassigned her to Quest, the division’s alternative school for students with serious discipline offenses, where she taught for two years. She said this demotion hurt her reputation.
Sroufe had denied the allegations.
Martin F. Clark Jr., who recently retired, was the trial judge, and the court's ruling pointed out his performance in the trial. stating, in part: “… ‘[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,’ Webb, 287 Va. at 90. 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 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 ruling also said in part: “…the power to render judgment includes the power to render an erroneous one. Commonwealth v. Watson, 297 Va. ___, ___ (2019). 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. For these reasons, the Court reverses the judgment of the circuit court and enters final judgment for Dr. Sroufe…..”
Sroufe said he was pleased the case finished and with the court's decision.
"The opinion of the court has been my opinion all along," he said. "I’m glad they voiced the outcome. ... All along I was perplexed about how it was being handled. We thought it would go away, that we would be able to get it thrown out, that it had no merit. ... Judge Clark allowed it.”
Sroufe served as superintendent from 2014 until Monday, when he became superintendent of Colonial Heights Public Schools. In February 2017, he was named Superintendent of the Year for Region 6, which includes Patrick and Henry counties, Martinsville and Danville. During his tenure, he said, the school division moved from 75th in the state on academic performance to 19th for two years in a row, and the scores were even better this past school year.
Patrick County Public Schools “will go on and do what’s best for kids, and that’s what I was doing then,” Sroufe said, referring to the time reviewed in the lawsuit.
But Waldron, who goes by Tammy, not surprisingly sees the outcome differently.
“I was very surprised by the Supreme Court ruling,” she said in a phone interview Wednesday. “I felt the [Patrick County] jury took their time, listened well and understood the case. They didn’t come to their decision lightly, and I felt the Supreme Court should have respected their decision. I don’t know why they [the Supreme Court] didn’t read the case more carefully before they came up with their decision.”
Waldron, who lives in the Spencer area, said she feels the court based aspects of its ruling on an approximately 17-page opinion that Clark wrote several months after the jury's verdict. A lot of it, as Waldron sees it, was Clark’s personal opinion and not mentioned during the trial. For example, she said, “he talked about the community being angry, which was not mentioned in the case.
“I thought the Supreme Court was very, very critical of Judge Clark. Personally, I like Judge Clark. I thought he did a good job. I hate that for him. I personally thought he did an outstanding job. I think a lot of him and admire him.”
The appeal of the jury's verdict by Sroufe was heard by the Court of Appeals. "And they bumped it up [advanced the case] to the Supreme Court. ... We were surprised the Supreme Court took the case,” Waldron said.
In June 2015 she had sued Sroufe and the Patrick County School Board, seeking at least $5.5 million in actual and punitive damages. She amended that suit in September 2015, dropping the school board as a defendant but adding school board chairman Ronnie N. Terry and vice chair Kandy Burnett and increasing the actual and punitive damages being sought to at least $5.95 million.
The lawsuit alleged that the manner in which Waldron was removed from her position and reassigned, allegedly without notice, on April 24, 2015, and some statements about her resulted in defamation.
Ultimately, Clark allowed only a fraction of Waldron’s claims involving Sroufe to proceed to trial, and Terry and Burnett were dropped from the lawsuit.
The trial in Patrick County Circuit Court lasted three days in late March 2017.
On the first day of the trial, Waldron testified that she received a performance evaluation letter from Sroufe when he removed her as principal. That letter, she said, contained several provably false statements, including that Waldron failed to ensure that all eligible students were screened for Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening; that Waldron failed to ensure an administrator from Stuart Elementary School attended required training to help improve student skills in reading; and that Waldron failed to ensure the Individualized Education Program teams understand Virginia Alternate Assessment Program participation criteria and apply them appropriately.
VAAP is designed to evaluate the performance of students with significant cognitive disabilities who are working on academic standards that have been reduced in complexity and depth, according to the Virginia Department of Education.
However, when questioned by Sroufe’s lawyer about whether Waldron failed to ensure the IEP teams understood VAAP participation criteria and applied them appropriately, Waldron, who had testified earlier that proper state procedures were followed, said reasonable people could disagree about that point.
Waldron also testified that she was not allowed to return inside Stuart Elementary after Sroufe told her he was reassigning her and that her email promptly was cut off. Her lawyer (her father, Roger B. Willets) alleged that Sroufe or his associates told dozens of people that Waldron had been removed as principal. Because of the manner in which she was removed, Willets argued, some people thought she might have committed a crime.
On the morning of the third day of the trial, Clark ruled that the jury would be allowed to consider only one of the allegedly false statements from Sroufe’s letter: that Waldron failed to ensure that IEP teams understand VAAP participation criteria and apply them appropriately, resulting in students taking Standards of Learning tests who would not have been required to do so.
Sroufe’s attorney, Jim H. Guynn Jr., contended the principal failed to fulfill some of her responsibilities, was insubordinate, that the superintendent had absolute right to reassign the principal to a different job and that Sroufe acted in the best interests of students and without malice against Waldron.
Sroufe testified that, based on what Special Education Director Ann Fulcher told him, “I think Mrs. Waldron didn’t understand VAAP criteria.” He said he also felt Stuart Elementary was not following the correct VAAP protocol, that some special education students were not even being considered for VAAP and that some special education students were taking and failing Standards of Learning tests (based on regular curriculum) having not been taught regular curriculum.”
Sroufe also testified that when he reassigned Waldron he was following the procedures an attorney advised him.
The jury unanimously ruled in Waldron’s favor, awarding her $500,000 of the nearly $6 million she sought.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court said that Sroufe was expressing his opinion in his statement concerning IEP teams and the VAAP criteria in his performance evaluation letter to Waldron and that Sroufe’s statement was not defamatory. The Supreme Court noted that even Waldron testified during cross-examination that “opinions differ."
“Just as a student’s parents may disagree with an IEP [Individualized Education Program] team’s assessment of their child or an IEP team member may dissent from the majority of the team’s conclusion whether a student is eligible for participation in the VAAP [Virginia Alternate Assessment Program], Dr. Sroufe was able to reach an independent conclusion about Waldron’s IEP teams’ application of the VAAP participation criteria. And, as Waldron’s supervisor rather than subordinate, Dr. Sroufe’s divergent opinion had greater weight and came with substantial consequences. But it remained opinion because it was relative in nature and depended largely on his own, independent viewpoint. The Statement therefore was not actionable as defamation, and the claim should not have been submitted to the jury,” the court wrote.
The ruling also found “deeply troubling” aspects of the “letter opinion” that Clark wrote about the case, parts of which the court quoted:
“My legal conclusion in this matter comes as no surprise to the plaintiff; the record reveals I stated throughout the trial that I thought the statement in this case was not actionable as a matter of law. It is opinion; if it is not opinion, it is true; and if it is factual and false, it is too mild to be defamatory. However, as I mentioned to [Waldron’s counsel], I have always felt this is a message case, and for that reason — and to provide an alpha-to-omega appeal record — I allowed the plaintiff to have her full day in court.
“While I am virtually certain that this verdict is legally flawed and will not survive [appellate] scrutiny, I am also aware that seven objective citizens spoke in very loud and very clear terms, and I feel that their verdict is being utterly ignored by the audience that should be the most attentive. More to the point, I am convinced that if I simply set aside this verdict, then there will be a return to business as usual, and that variety of business is the very mischief that prompted the biggest jury verdict in the history of this county. While I understand that the school board has no financial exposure and is operating under the assumption (most likely correct) that this verdict is not legally sound and will be set aside — and therefore is not inclined to address the issue at the heart of this lawsuit — I would hope that my ruling below will give them a chance to explore precisely what went wrong with their system, perhaps via another mediation or a review with a qualified neutral.
“This jury indicated it was mad as heck. [It] didn’t quite direct its anger in the right way and at the right time legally, but its voice needs to be heard a little bit longer. My hope is that this verdict will be taken seriously and productively addressed in the months ahead while this case is on appeal. . . .
“Accordingly, and in light of the foregoing, and with the full expectation that I will be reversed by a unanimous Supreme Court of Virginia, I hereby affirm the verdict.”
The court's opinion said that, in a footnote, Clark further acknowledged that Sroufe “will suffer a short-term penalty in this matter. Still, this case, no matter what my ruling, is headed to the Supreme Court, and the only difference is that the defendant will be the petitioner and not the respondent. The issues, briefs and costs for each side will be essentially the same.”
When asked Wednesday his reaction to the Supreme Court’s ruling, Clark wrote in an email: “I do not feel comfortable commenting on my opinion beyond what I wrote in it. I have a deep and profound respect for Justice Lemons and the entire Virginia Supreme Court, understand and accept their criticism and certainly take it to heart.”
Donald W. Lemons is the chief justice of the Virginia Supreme Court.
Roger B. Willetts, a lawyer for Waldron, said in a statement: “I regret the Supreme Court did not focus more on the use of the same context by each litigant to prove the statement both true (defendant) and false (plaintiff) and of sufficient factual content to allow the verdict to stand.
“This case was always about context and the audience hearing the statement. The defendant prepared an exhibit of six specific students titled the ‘students on the caseload in question’ and used it to prove to the audience [the Patrick County School Board] his assessment of Waldron was true, warranting her immediate removal as principal. Plaintiff used the same exhibit, and the defendant’s expert as well as her own to prove to the jury’s satisfaction the statement was false.”
Sroufe said the case was time consuming for him and his staff.
“The amount of time we had to put in between trial, everybody on my staff had to go to deposition, go to court, the agony of it all, if you will, the aggravation of it. You can’t put a price on it. It certainly weighed on people. I’m sure other people other than me are glad that it’s done,” he said.
Waldron, 54, said Wednesday that in April 2017 Sroufe did not renew her contract with the school division. For the past two years, she has been working at George Washington High School in Danville, where she is the assessment specialist there, doing Standards of Learning testing.
“I just wish Dr. Sroufe and Patrick County all the best," she said. "It’s a great school system. I’m just glad to put this part of the history behind me.”