Court reverses decision in Sroufe versus Waldron case

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By Debbie Hall

The Supreme Court of Virginia on Thursday reversed a judgment in Patrick County Circuit Court, finding for Dr. William “Bill” Sroufe in a defamation case involving a former principal.

“I’m pleased that the process and the judicial system found in favor of me. It has been a long process and I’m happy with the outcome,” Sroufe said after the hearing that was held June 27 in the Supreme Court Building in Richmond.

He had appealed a Patrick County jury’s decision in 2017 to award $500,000 in damages to Muriel Tamara “Tammy” Waldron. The case stemmed from an incident in April 2015, when in his role as superintendent of Patrick County Schools, Sroufe removed Waldron from her position at Stuart Elementary School and ordered her not to return to the school, according to court documents.

During Waldron’s removal, Sroufe told her that he was transferring her to the central office and would recommend that the school board reassign her to a teaching position the following school year. He also provided her with a letter to that effect, court documents stated.

The letter to Waldron stated in part that “you failed to ensure that Individualized Education Program (IEP) Teams understood the Virginia Alternative Assessment Program (VAAP) participation criteria and apply them appropriately when considering students with disabilities for the VAAP. Your actions will result in students being required to take [Standards of Learning (SOL)] assessments who, under a correct interpretation of the criteria, should not have been required to do so,” according to court documents.

The letter subsequently came into the possession of the news media; Waldron later filed a complaint alleging the statement was defamatory, according to court documents.

That case was heard in the spring of 2017 in Patrick County Circuit Court by then Judge Martin F. Clark Jr., now retired.

After Waldron rested her case, Sroufe moved to strike her evidence, arguing that the statement either (1) was opinion, (2) was true, or (3) lacked defamatory sting. The circuit court denied the motion. After the conclusion of all the evidence, Sroufe again moved to strike. The court again denied the motion. The jury later returned a verdict for Waldron and awarded her $500,000 in compensatory damages, court documents stated.  

Clark reaffirmed the jury’s decision in an 18-page letter of opinion issued in June 2017, but noted that he expected the finding to be set aside by a higher 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,” Clark wrote.

According to the order issued Thursday in Richmond, an essential gatekeeping function of the court is ensuring 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.

“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 court stated.

The case “should have been dismissed” on Sroufe’s first motion to strike, and the court erred by failing to do 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, documents stated.

“The attitude expressed in the letter opinion is deeply troubling. It displays a profound misapprehension of the proper role and responsibilities of a judge. There is a difference between self-deprecating acknowledgement of the hierarchy within the judicial branch, and the possibility that one’s ruling is erroneous on one hand, and recognition to the point of near-certainty what the correct legal ruling should be but consciously choosing to rule the opposite way—especially to ‘send a message’ to one of the parties—on the other,” documents stated.

“The first simply expresses an appreciation of human fallibility. The second is an abdication of the duty of a judge — to the parties, who bring their claims to the court for adjudication at great expense; to the attorneys, whose time and efforts are paid for and expended to present those claims competently and professionally; to the jurors, whose daily lives have been disrupted to aid the court in rendering judgment; and to the people of the Commonwealth, who entrust their judges to correctly apply their legal training, experience, and expertise when resolving the questions put to them for decision.

“As this Court recently observed, the power to render judgment includes the power to render an erroneous one. 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 order stated. 

“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,” documents stated.

All of the justices were present at the time of the hearing, records stated.

The order will be certified to the Circuit Court of Patrick County, according to a copy signed by Douglas B. Robelen, Clerk.