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Schoff v. York County

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MAINE SUPREME JUDICIAL COURT	Reporter of Decisions
Decision:	2000 ME 205
Docket: 	Yor-00-318
Argued:	November 8, 2000
Decided:	November 29, 2000

Panel:WATHEN, C.J., and CLIFFORD, RUDMAN, DANA, ALEXANDER, and CALKINS, JJ.


JOYCE SCHOFF v. YORK COUNTY et al.


CALKINS, J.

	[¶1]  Joyce Schoff appeals from a judgment entered in the Superior
Court (York County, Fritzsche, J.) granting the summary judgment motions
of York County and Dennis Daniels on Schoff's claim for defamation.  We
affirm the judgment.
I. FACTS
	[¶2]  Schoff is the mother of Steven Schoff.  Steven had been indicted
for murder and was being held at the York County Jail.   On September 9,
1997, Steven appeared in Superior Court and changed his plea to guilty. 
Following his plea, he was taken back to the jail.  Schoff visited Steven at the
jail twice on that day.  The first visit was during visiting hours, and she
returned in the evening to retrieve a suit she had rented for him to wear to
court.  At the second visit, Schoff took a pair of new sneakers in a shoe box
to the jail for Steven.  Schoff handed the box containing the sneakers to a
corrections officer, who took them into another room and searched them. 
The officer found three hacksaw blades and a tube of glue hidden in the
shoes.  Thereafter, Schoff was taken to an interview room where officers
questioned her.  She denied any knowledge of the hacksaw blades.  Officers
followed her home and conducted a consensual search of her home, but
nothing was seized.   No charges were brought against Schoff.
	[¶3]  The next day, jail officials and the Attorney General's office
sought an order from the Superior Court to transfer Steven from the jail to
the Department of Corrections on the grounds that he was dangerous and
the Department of Corrections had a more secure facility than the county
jail.  See 30-A M.R.S.A. § 1656 (1996 & Supp. 1999).   The request was
accompanied by an affidavit signed by Daniels who was the administrator of
the York County Jail.  Daniels' affidavit states that Schoff had come to the jail
to deliver sneakers to Steven; that jail personnel inspected the sneakers and
found hacksaw blades; and that damage to a cement wall in Steven's cell had
been discovered.  The Superior Court (Mills, J.) granted the transfer
request.
	[¶4]  After the transfer order was issued, Daniels spoke to a reporter
for the Portland Press Herald in the courthouse hallway.  The following day,
September 11, the Portland Press Herald published an article containing
the information that Daniels had given the reporter.  The article stated that
Schoff went to the jail to deliver a pair of high-top sneakers; that jail officials
made a routine inspection of the sneakers and found three hacksaw blades
concealed under the insoles, two of which were 12 to 14 inches in length
and a third blade that was half that length; that the glue underneath the
insoles was wet; that Schoff had been advised of her right to speak with an
attorney, but waived that right and was questioned by deputies; that she told
the deputies she knew nothing about the blades; and that several of Schoff's
relatives were being questioned by the police to determine who put the
blades in the shoes.  The article quoted Daniels as saying that Schoff
"appeared to have no knowledge."  The remainder of the article contained
background information regarding Steven, the murder charge, and Steven's
appearance in court the day before.  The following week two other
newspapers carried stories about Schoff and the sneakers.  The Portland
Press Herald also ran a follow-up story a week later. 
	[¶5]  Schoff brought this defamation action against Daniels and his
employer, York County.{1}  Schoff alleges that Daniels' statement to the
reporter falsely imputed that she attempted to break her son out of jail.
II. DEFAMATION
	[¶6]  In reviewing whether summary judgment should have been
granted to a party, we view the evidence in the light most favorable to the
party against whom the judgment was issued.  Selander v. Rossignol, 1998
ME 216, ¶ 4, 717 A.2d 380, 381.  We determine independently whether
the record supports the conclusion that no genuine issue of material fact
exists and whether the party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.  Id.
	[¶7]  To prove defamation Schoff must establish that:  (1) Daniels
made a false and defamatory statement concerning her; (2) the statement
was an unprivileged publication to a third party; (3) Daniels was at least
negligent in making the statement; and (4) the publication caused special
harm, or the statement was such that special harm need not be shown. 
Lester v. Powers, 596 A.2d 65, 69 (Me. 1991); Restatement (Second) of
Torts § 558 (1977). 
	[¶8]  The focus in this case is on the first element.  For purposes of
the summary judgment motions the parties do not dispute what Daniels said
to the reporter.  Likewise, there is no dispute about the context in which
the statement was made.  The issue is whether the statement made by
Daniels was false and defamatory.{2}    
	[¶9]  It is not enough for Schoff to prove that Daniels made a
defamatory statement.{3}  The statement must also be false or carry a false
implication.  "One who publishes a defamatory statement of fact is not
subject to liability for defamation if the statement is true."  Restatement
(Second) of Torts § 581A (1977).  
	[¶10]  Although it is generally accepted that there is no liability for a
true statement, we have allowed true but incomplete statements to fulfill the
falsity requirement, thus forming the basis for liability in a defamation action
when those statements falsely impute criminal conduct to the plaintiff.  In
Marston v. Newavom, 629 A.2d 587 (Me. 1993), for example, the defendants
were liable for making a statement to others about the plaintiff which was
true but falsely imputed dishonesty to her.  In that case, however, the
defendants failed to tell the whole story and omitted material facts.  The
statement made by defendants to plaintiff's co-workers was that the
plaintiff, an employee of the defendant company, had charged personal
expenses to the company's credit card.  Id. at 589.  It was true that the
plaintiff had done so, but it was also true that it was accepted practice for
certain employees to charge personal items on the company credit card as
long as they paid the company promptly.  Id.  The statement about the
plaintiff was true, but it was a partial truth and as such was capable of
carrying a defamatory meaning to those who heard the statement by falsely
implying that the plaintiff was dishonest.  
	[¶11]  Cases from other jurisdictions also hold that true statements
can form the basis of liability for defamation when the omission of additional
information renders the true statement false and defamatory.  See Toney v.
WCCO Television, Midwest Cable and Satellite, Inc., 85 F.3d 383, 387, 392,
395 (8th Cir. 1996) (applying Minnesota law); Memphis Publ'g Co. v.
Nichols, 569 S.W.2d 412, 420 (Tenn. 1978).  Defamation claims of this type
come under the rubric of implied defamation, and they are limited to
situations where there is a material omission of facts or where a series of
facts are juxtaposed in an artificial manner so as to imply defamatory
conduct by the plaintiff.  See Toney, 85 F.3d at 387; W. Page Keeton Et Al.,
Prosser and Keeton on the Law of Torts § 116 (5th ed. Supp. 1988).
	[¶12]  In this case, Schoff does not claim that any material facts were
omitted by Daniels, nor does she articulate any juxtaposition of true
statements that create a false implication.  True statements cannot give rise
to a defamation action unless the speaker or publisher of the statement
omitted other true information which if stated would dispel the defamatory
sting, or phrased and arranged the true statements in such a way as to give
them a false and defamatory meaning.  Not only did Daniels not omit any
information, or make any artificial juxtaposition of facts, he negated any false
implication by stating that Schoff had denied any knowledge of the hidden
hacksaw blades and by stating that she did not appear to have any
knowledge.  
	[¶13]  Summary judgment was appropriately granted to Daniels and
York County, and for this reason we need not discuss the remaining issues of
privilege, fault, and immunity for a discretionary act of a governmental
official.
	The entry is:
			Judgment affirmed.

Attorney for plaintiff: Stuart W. Tisdale, Esq., (orally) Tisdale & Davis, P.A. P O Box 572 Portland, ME 04112 Attorney for defendants: Michael E. Saucier, Esq. P O Box 4630 Portland, ME 04112
FOOTNOTES******************************** {1} . Schoff originally named other defendants, and the complaint contained a claim for violation of her civil rights which stemmed from her detention at the jail and the search of her home. Schoff voluntarily dismissed several of the defendants from the case, and summary judgment was granted to the remaining defendants on the civil rights claim. Schoff has not appealed that portion of the summary judgment, and the only defendants remaining in the case are Daniels and York County. {2} . Whether a statement is capable of bearing a defamatory meaning is a question of law. Bakal v. Weare, 583 A.2d 1028, 1030 (Me. 1990); Restatement (Second) of Torts § 614 (1977). If a court determines that the statement is capable of bearing a defamatory meaning, the matter goes to the factfinder to determine if the statement was understood by the recipient as defamatory. Restatement (Second) of Torts § 614 (1977). {3} . "A communication is defamatory 'if it tends so to harm the reputation of another as to lower him in the estimation of the community or to deter third persons from associating or dealing with him.'" Bakal, 583 A.2d at 1029 (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts § 559 (1977)). In determining whether a statement is defamatory, the statement must be interpreted in its context, which includes the entire publication and all extrinsic circumstances known to the recipient. Id. at 1030.