Virginia Supreme Court Opinions Affecting Local Government Law: June 4, 2015

The Virginia Supreme Court issued opinions on June 4, 2015 during its June term.  This term resulted in several opinions affecting Virginia local government law.  These opinions addressed defamation alleged from statements by a planning commissioner, more defamation alleged from statements made by public school officials, and the grievance of an employee of a redevelopment and housing authority.  One additional “bonus” opinion is included because of the City of Hampton’s interest in the Marble Technologies, Inc. v. Mallon case, which addressed access (or lack thereof) to a strip of beach in that fair city.

The case summaries are taken from the Virginia Supreme Court opinions website. Click on the case number to read the opinion.

141085 Alexandria Redev. & Housing Auth. v. Walker 06/04/2015 In ruling on a complaint alleging that plaintiff had been improperly discharged by a housing authority, the circuit court erred in applying Code § 15.2-1507 and in concluding that plaintiff was entitled to have her claims arbitrated under the authority’s grievance procedure. The judgment is reversed and final judgment is entered for the authority.

141116 Pendleton v. Newsome 06/04/2015 In a defamation action, the circuit court erred in sustaining a demurrer and dismissing the complaint without leave to amend. Whether a claim for defamation by inference, implication or insinuation, defamation actions may proceed in Virginia only upon statements which may actually defame a plaintiff, and in this case it is clear that any innuendo proceeding from the defendants’ statements about the death of a child was aimed directly at the mother and at no other person. The statements were published, and were capable of conveying the defamatory innuendo that the plaintiff bore responsibility for her child’s death. Assuming the truth of all the facts properly pled, and giving her the benefit of all facts implied and fairly and justly inferred from them, in the context set forth in the complaint the words ascribed to the defendants, given their plain meaning, are reasonably capable of conveying the defamatory innuendo of which the plaintiff complains. Because the circuit court erred in sustaining the demurrer, the judgment is reversed and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

141480 Schaecher v. Bouffault 06/04/2015 In a case by a landowner alleging that a neighbor, who also served as a member of the local planning commission, is liable for defamation and tortious interference with contract for sending numerous email communications relating to plaintiff’s application for a special use permit to operate a dog kennel on her property, the circuit court did not err in sustaining a demurrer to several claims based on communications that did not contain a defamatory statement, as well as a demurrer regarding a defamation claim by a corporate plaintiff. With regard to an email charging that the individual plaintiff “is lying and manipulating facts,” the basis for the writer’s rationale was fully disclosed, and the two persons to which it was sent would have perceived the accusation as pure opinion of the writer based upon her subjective understanding of the underlying scenario and not upon an implied factual predicate of which they were unaware. Thus, in the absence of a claim that the underlying facts stated in that email were themselves false and defamatory, the statement was purely the defendant’s subjective analysis. It is protected by the First Amendment and not actionable. Dismissal of the corporate plaintiff’s claim for tortious interference with contractual relations is affirmed for lack of any allegation that the contract at issue was terminated, or that it became more expensive or burdensome for that plaintiff. The judgment is affirmed.

140972 Marble Technologies, Inc. v. Mallon 06/04/2015 In a suit by landowners concerning the continued existence of an express easement granted along waterfront properties in 1936 by deed and an accompanying map showing metes and bounds of land that is now submerged under the Chesapeake Bay, the circuit court did not err in proceeding with the parties before it, since the necessary party doctrine does not implicate subject matter jurisdiction and there were numerous and varied parties added to the action, multiple opportunities for the litigants to add parties, and no claim that any of the allegedly missing parties were indispensable. The deed in this case was unambiguous and the annexed map designated the easement location with numerical point references, a drawing of its entire length and width, and the express legend that the easement road ran “along present mean high water.” Because the deed and map are unambiguous, there was no need for the circuit court to review evidence beyond the documents themselves to interpret them, and it erred in considering parol evidence. The easement never moved from the mean high water mark as it existed in 1936. The beach has eroded in the meantime, and the land where the easement was once located is now under the Chesapeake Bay and cannot serve as a road. Thus, the express easement created by the 1936 deed has been extinguished. The judgment of the circuit court finding that the plaintiff landowners have a variable express easement that moves with the mean high water line is reversed, and final judgment is entered on this appeal in favor of the defendants.