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Beeton v. District of Columbia

August 30, 2001

BRENDA G. BEETON AND DENNIS BEETON, APPELLANTS
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, ET AL., APPELLEES



Before Terry, Steadman and Reid, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reid, Associate Judge

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (Hon. Curtis E. von Kann, Trial Judge)

Argued June 12, 2001

In this case, appellants, Mrs. Brenda Beeton and her husband Mr. Dennis Beeton, employees of the District of Columbia Department of Corrections ("DOC"), *fn1 challenge the trial judge's decision in favor of appellees, the District of Columbia ("the District"), Leon Hammond, and Vincent Gibbons, on their claims for defamation, loss of consortium, and wrongful discharge. Mrs. Beeton argues that the trial court erroneously concluded that: (1) she was a public official and therefore had to prove actual malice to prevail on her defamation claim, and (2) the unliquidated damages she sought for wrongful termination were unrecoverable. *fn2 She also argues that the evidence warranted damages in excess of $60,000. *fn3

We hold that as a District corrections officer, Mrs. Beeton was a public official at the time the defamatory article appeared; hence, she had to prove actual malice on the part of those responsible for its publication, that is, that the article was published "with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not." New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 280 (1964). Since Mrs. Beeton did not sustain her burden of proof by presenting clear and convincing evidence of actual malice, we affirm the judgment of the trial court.

FACTUAL SUMMARY

The record on appeal shows the following facts. Mrs. Beeton began working for the DOC around August 1986, and in 1989 was stationed at the DOC Modular Facility at Lorton, Virginia ("the Facility") where the incidents giving rise to this lawsuit occurred. She was a correctional officer, and was commonly addressed as "Corporal." In August 1989 she was named the Officer in Charge ("OIC") of the Facility's Control Center (Shift No. 2) through the Master Roster system. *fn4

Mrs. Beeton had the necessary experience for the OIC position, and was given the assignment. She functioned satisfactorily until she was removed in October 1989, after the publication of an article in The Modular Circular, a Facility-created newsletter, which implied that she had received the position through a connection. However, after she filed a complaint in the trial court challenging her removal, the trial judge concluded that Mrs. Beeton's "removal was not based on any just cause related to her performance of duties," and that "she was replaced by a less experienced officer . . . ."

At trial on her defamation and wrongful termination claims, Mrs. Beeton asserted that she was humiliated as a result of the article, and became depressed and withdrawn. Her marital relationship also deteriorated, and she lost the ability to be intimate with her husband. She sought therapy, and was diagnosed with general anxiety disorder. From her perspective, the article implied that she received the post in an "illicit" manner, and thus, her reputation was tainted as a consequence. She took time off from work *fn5 and was terminated in September 1991 for being absent without official leave. She was reinstated in May 1992, however, and awarded back pay as well as benefits.

ANALYSIS

The Defamation Claim

Mrs. Beeton's primary argument on appeal is that the trial court erroneously concluded that she was a public official for the purposes of her defamation action, and therefore had to prove actual malice. *fn6 The District maintains that the article was not defamatory, and even assuming that it was, the trial court correctly concluded that Mrs. Beeton was a public official who failed to satisfy her burden of proof.

"Our standard of review is well established. In a case tried without a jury, we address legal issues de novo, but the judge's findings of fact can be reversed only if they are `plainly wrong or without evidence to support [them].'" Jemison v. National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., 720 A.2d 275, 281 (D.C. 1998) (quoting D.C. Code § 17-305 (a) (1997)) (other citations omitted). The appellate record reveals the following factual background pertinent to our review of Mrs. Beeton's defamation claim. In 1989, the administrator of the Facility authorized the publication of a newsletter, called The Modular Circular, to boost employee morale, and allow staff members an opportunity to vent and voice their concerns. The September 5, 1989 issue of the newsletter included an article voicing contempt for the Facility's bidding process used to fill certain positions. One paragraph in particular noted that a certain female corporal always received "choice" assignments because of some sort of "Connection to which other [correctional] officers [were] not privy[.]" The article was entitled Teamsters Local 1714 News and read in relevant part:

In response to your recent newsletter article "teamsters Local 1714 News." You asked the question, "how do you feel about the recent bidding process?" As a Correctional Officer of over five years in the [DOC], not to mention my military work experience of over 10 years, I want to go on record as saying, "I personally believe the bidding process, as it occurred at this Facility, really sucked." Conditions do not appear to have been made better but ...


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