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Public Statements Alone Insufficient to Prove “Publicity” in False Light Claims

On January 5, 2017, the West Virginia Supreme Court affirmed a circuit court’s Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal of false light invasion of privacy and defamation claims brought by former high school principal, Clinton Giles, against the Kanawha County Board of Education and one of its board members, Pete Thaw.

Our firm was part of the legal team representing Thaw in the case. Our team succeeded in convincing the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia to affirm the circuit court’s order to dismiss the claims in question.

Details of the case

Giles worked for the school district for 34 years, serving as principal of Capital High School starting in 2002. In February 2015, he was charged with the misdemeanor offense of failure to make a timely report of an alleged sexual assault that occurred on school grounds. Giles was suspended without pay the same day. The next week, he voluntarily resigned from his position.

In a press conference following a board meeting, Thaw made public statements expressing his regret for voting to hire Giles as principal of Capital High School. Thaw also stated, “most people would report [the assault] immediately.” These remarks were widely reported in the local media and were the primary basis of Giles’ claims of defamation and false light invasion of privacy.

The criminal case against Giles was dismissed in March 2015, approximately one month after his resignation. In May 2016, he filed claims against the Board and Thaw. In response, the Board filed a motion to dismiss under West Virginia Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), and Thaw filed a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss or, alternatively, for summary judgment. The circuit court dismissed the case and, upon its review, the Supreme Court reasoned, “it would be disingenuous to conclude that Respondent Thaw’s statements on February 9, 2015 somehow ‘gave publicity’ to these already widely publicized facts.” The Supreme Court of Appeals therefore affirmed the circuit court’s dismissal.

For more information about the steps you can take to defend yourself when facing a civil claim, consult the skilled West Virginia attorneys at Pullin, Fowler, Flanagan, Brown & Poe, PLLC, at 304-344-0100 or contact us online.

 

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