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Virginia Supreme Court Remands Defamation Case For Trial

Published by on February 11, 2009

On January 16, 2009, the Virginia Supreme Court remanded the case of Hyland vs. Raytheon Technical Services Company for a jury trial in the Fairfax County Circuit Court.  A copy of the opinion is here.  We previously commented on the lower court granting the defendant’s motion for summary judgment in a post here.  More after […]

On January 16, 2009, the Virginia Supreme Court remanded the case of Hyland vs. Raytheon Technical Services Company for a jury trial in the Fairfax County Circuit Court.  A copy of the opinion is here.  We previously commented on the lower court granting the defendant’s motion for summary judgment in a post here.  More after the break.

The case involved statements made in a performance review that Hyland contended were defamatory.  In the first trial, a jury returned a verdict in favor or Hyland in the amount of $1,850,000.  On appeal, the Supreme Court of Virginia reversed because three of the five statements submitted to the jury were statements of opinion that could not be proved true or false. 

The first statement that the court found actionable was:

Cynthia lead [sic] [Raytheon] in the protest of the FAA’s evaluation selection process for the TSSC contract and through a difficult procurement for the TSA, both of which demanded her constant attention.  These visible losses created significant gaps in our strategic plans and in her business unit financial performance. 

The court concluded that this statement was actionable because it was subject to empirical proof.  The second statement that the court found actionable was:

Cynthia and her team met their cash goals, but were significantly off plan on all other financial targets including Bookings by 25%, Sales by 15.5%, and profit by 24%. 

The court noted that “whether the business unit missed its goals by the stated percentages is a fact that maybe proved true or false.”

On remand, the circuit court dismissed the case on a motion for summary judgment finding that the two statements were true.  The court, in its opinion, first set forth an excellent summary of defamation law in Virginia.  It then noted that in determining whether a statement is one of fact or opinion, a court may not isolate one portion of the statement at issue from another portion of the statement.  Reviewing the entire defamatory statement as a whole is important because, under Virginia law, defamatory statements may be made by implication, inference, or insinuation.

In its critical holding, the court stated that “only if a plaintiff unequivocally has admitted the trust of an allegedly defamatory statement, including the fair inferences, implications, and insinuations that can be drawn from that statement, may the trial judge award summary judgment to the defendant on the basis that the statement is true.”  It therefore remanded the case for a jury trial before the circuit court. 

This case is a very clear message to employers that accuracy is important in performance reviews and performance counseling.

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