A lawsuit filed as a result of the public firing of the director of the Pittsylvania County Department of Social Services in mid-2018 still is working its way through the court system.
More than a year after the Pittsylvania County Social Services Board fired director Sherry Flanagan, which followed allegations of a hostile work environment and corruption, Flanagan still is pushing a $4 million defamation and wrongful termination suit.
Three separate briefs were filed in Roanoke Federal District Court on Friday requesting the case be tossed. Collectively, the defendants argue Flanagan has not met the burden of proof required to support her case even with her amended complaint.
One was written by Michael Finney, an attorney representing Henry Hurt, a Chatham resident and former journalist who is listed as a defendant in the case. Another was written by Vic Ingram, a private investigator hired by Hurt to investigate the Pittsylvania County Social Services Department amid complaints of a hostile workplace. The last was written by attorney Jim H. Guynn Jr. on behalf of both Pittsylvania County and Ronald Scearce, supervisor for the Westover District.
The premise of the suit, which originally was filed in Roanoke Circuit Court last April before being transferred to Roanoke Federal District Court in June, is that Flanagan was wrongfully terminated as a result of a “stigmatizing and defamatory public smear campaign” intended “to rally County community members to advance a political agenda and weaken DSS autonomy and authority,” according to the complaint.
At the request of Flanagan and her counsel, Senior United States District Judge Glen Conrad ordered Nov. 6 Flanagan have until Dec. 13 to amend her complaint, providing more factual exhibits. The defendants have moved to dismiss the case, arguing there still is no evidence of a smear campaign or wrongful termination, just as they did with the original complaint.
In her complaint, Flanagan’s lawyer Tommy Strelka refers to social media posts from the three individual defendants that reference Flanagan as an “abuser,” a “liar,” a “witch,” “corrupt,” and a “donkey,” as evidence of defamation. Strelka also contends in the lawsuit Flanagan was deprived of due process and wrongfully terminated.
Per Virginia laws, for defamation to occur, a plaintiff must establish a statement of fact — or one that can be proven false or true and is not simply an opinion — was made or published to third-parties, and the statement must be, in fact, false and made with malice or a reckless disregard for the truth.
Finney argued on behalf of Hurt no defamation occurred because the statements — many of them made publicly on Facebook — were matters of opinion, were not said with any malicious intent or disregard for their accuracy, and not directly about Flanagan.
In addition to the general requirements for defamation, Finney argues, “individuals enjoy statutory immunity from a defamation claim based on statements: (1) regarding matters of public concern protected under the First Amendment; and (2) not “made with actual or constructive knowledge that they are false or with reckless disregard for whether they are false.”
Vic Ingram, who wrote a brief on his own behalf, argued the investigation he conducted on behalf of Hurt was factual and not intended to ruin anyone’s reputation, and the statements made on his Facebook were private and his own opinions.
“What was written, spoken or shared by the defendant was truthful and/or believed to be truthful,” he wrote.
In the brief on behalf of Pittsylvania County and Scearce, Guynn argues “the statements attributed to Scearce lack the requisite sting to be defamatory.”
In 2018, two other lawsuits arose against Flanagan. One, filed by several former employees of the Pittsylvania County Department of Social Services over allegations of a hostile work environment, was dismissed with prejudice, a decision that was upheld in October.
The other, a wrongful death lawsuit which was filed against Flanagan individually, as well as both the state and local social services boards, alleges the inaction of the local and state departments led to the death of a toddler in 2016.
Investigator Julianna Boyles, of the Roanoke Medical Examiner’s Office, confirmed for the Register & Bee that 1-year-old Dreama Rose Irvin died of sudden infant death syndrome — or SIDS — which is a rare and unexplained condition that causes babies to suddenly die. No other documents have been filed in the case since it opened in October 2018.
Ayers reports for the Register & Bee. Reach him at (434) 791-7981.