Lawsuit ends unless
amended or appealed
By Nancy Lindsey
Judge Martin Clark granted the demurrers filed by Dr. William Sroufe, division superintendent, and the Patrick County School Board in the defamation lawsuit filed by Muriel Tamera (Tammy) Waldron, former principal of Stuart Elementary School.
The hearing on the demurrers, or responses to the lawsuit, was held in Patrick County Circuit Court Aug. 21.
Clark told Roger B. Willetts, attorney for Waldron, that he could think about amending her lawsuit for 10 days and have another 30 days to amend it or appeal Clark's decision to the Virginia Supreme Court.
According to Clerk of Court Susan Gasperini, Clark signed a non-suit order dismissing the claim against the school board.
The demurrers, filed July 1 by Jim H. Guynn Jr. of Salem, stated that the complaint was "deficient at law and ought not to be prosecuted" because "the school board cannot be held liable by virtue of the doctrines of sovereign and/or governmental immunity" and "as an immune entity the school board cannot be held liable for the actions of its employees."
Waldron was removed as principal of SES on April 24 and reassigned to another position in the school system.
Waldron filed a defamation lawsuit on June 9, claiming that her dismissal was "the result of a plan devised and implemented by Defendant Sroufe and reinforced by actions and statements" of the school board.
Waldron's suit claimed that Sroufe's alleged actions--dismissing her in the middle of a school day on a Friday afternoon, taking away her e-mail account and keys, not allowing her to return to her office to get her belongings, then telling every teacher in the school that she was no longer principal--constituted "defamation by implication."
Sroufe also went to the six other schools in the county and informed those principals that Waldron had been reassigned, the suit stated.
Sroufe's actions were "unprecedented" and led those who heard the news to conclude that the plaintiff (Waldron) was "guilty of conduct making her unfit to be principal, requiring immediate dismissal," the suit stated.
Waldron's civil action was seeking a judgment against Sroufe and the school board for the sum of $5,200,000 in actual damages and no less than $350,000 in punitive damages, along with court costs and other expenses.
At the beginning of the hearing, Clark said he had been asked by someone from Guynn's office if he planned to appoint someone else to preside over the case.
Clark said he did not know Sroufe, and had only occasional dealings with Waldron, once in a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) case and once in a child custody case.
"I don't know her," Clark said. "I have a clean slate. I can be objective and fair."
Guynn said Sroufe's primary response to those who asked about Waldron's removal was that "she is no longer principal" and he could not discuss a personnel issue.
"If he can't say that, he can't say anything," Guynn said.
Guynn said he thought Sroufe's manner of dismissing Waldron was "low-key and humane."
Willetts said the statement was "benign," but the acts accompanying it made it seem that Waldron was guilty of something warranting her dismissal.
Clark said Sroufe, as superintendent, could have dismissed Waldron for a number of reasons, such as health issues or just wanting to "shake up" the system like racing teams and sports teams do frequently.
In this case, Willetts said, Waldron was "walked out of the building" in the middle of the day in front of a large audience of teachers, staff members and students.
That set the stage for the belief that "this was not a normal reassignment," Willetts said.
Willetts said Sroufe's actions were not "standard protocol" or policy for changing a principal's status and that, to his knowledge, it had never been done that way before in the Patrick County school system.
When the former superintendent, Dr. Roger Morris, reassigned Waldron as interim principal of Patrick County High School, it was done with a news release announcing the change, Willetts said. That was the method used by Sroufe when he made other principal appointments at the end of the year, Willetts added.
When Willetts made another reference to "walking her out of the building," Clark said it was his understanding that Waldron was called to the superintendent's office and told there that she was being moved from SES.
"His predecessor did it differently," Clark said, "but he (Sroufe) didn't violate any policy."
To respond "no comment" on a personnel matter, accompanied by a set of facts, does not make the complaint "actionable," Clark said.
Willetts said if Waldron had performance issues that caused her dismissal, she should have been entitled to a 90-day improvement plan to address those issues.
"Wouldn't it be a worse case if he had dismissed her by some other means?" Clark said. "We're already in an e-commerce, e-communications world." If Sroufe had posted the information on social media, wouldn't the attorney be objecting loudly to that form, he asked.
"The audience is the critical factor," Willetts said. "Who are you sending the message to? They understood what the message was."
At the conclusion of the hearing, Clark said he didn't think the laws of Virginia supported the civil action against the school board, and he was "non-suiting" that entity.
He commended the attorneys on their "top-flight work" in the case.
Clark said there were three things the case was not about: contract law, administrative law, or due process.
The scope was narrow, Clark said, and while he had never tried a case of "defamation by implication," he researched it as far back as the early 20th century and found only two cases that applied.
If this case is seen as "actionable," then every case of at-will transfer of an employee is also actionable, Clark said.