Papers filed to dismiss ex-employee’s lawsuit

Posted: January 12, 2013

The Winchester Star

FRONT ROYAL — A lawyer representing the Shenandoah Area Agency on Aging (SAAA) has filed documents in Warren County Circuit Court to have a defamation case against the agency dismissed.

On Dec. 20, Rosalie Fessier of the Staunton law firm Timberlake, Smith, Thomas & Moses filed a demurrer to the second amended lawsuit filed on behalf of Ann McIntyre, who was dismissed as the agency’s director of development in September 2011.

Accompanying the demurrer — a pleading in a lawsuit that objects to or challenges a pleading filed by an opposing party — was a memorandum in support of the agency and four of its officers.

“The defamation action by McIntyre is an attempt to silence all speech involving the SAAA financial crisis no matter how true, accurate, relevant or significant to the public concern the speech is,” Fessier wrote. “Her sole reason for silencing this speech is because she claims it casts her in a bad light by virtue of her termination, not by virtue of any false or defamatory statements made about her.”

McIntyre’s lawyers have said she was defamed in media coverage of financial irregularities uncovered at the SAAA in August 2011. That’s when an investigation was launched following the discovery of 81 unmailed checks to vendors totaling nearly $265,000 in a safe at the agency.

She and two other staff members — Helen Cockrell, then the agency’s president and chief executive officer, and John Shaffer, then its finance director — were fired the following month. In her lawsuit, McIntyre indicates that she was dismissed for violating the SAAA’s credit-card policy and not for any connection to the unmailed checks.

The suit seeks up to $2.35 million in damages from the agency; Cindy Palmer, its interim CEO; Roberta Lauder, its director of resource development; John Hudson, its board chairman; and Benjamin Butler, its attorney.

A previous suit filed by McIntyre was dismissed Nov. 9 because Judge Gaylord Finch Jr. ruled that the complaint did not contain enough evidence to show that McIntyre had been defamed. However, he allowed her attorneys time to file another complaint.

The complaint alleges that McIntyre’s reputation was damaged because her name was linked to the financial problems.

However, Fessier writes in the memorandum that the statements to which McIntyre has objected are protected by the First Amendment because they are about a public official (McIntyre) and relate to a matter of public concern.

The memorandum notes that the stories include no statements specifically linking her to the unmailed-checks issue and that Butler and Hudson stated that they did not know if any fraud occurred.

“There simply are no facts alleged demonstrating that any of the [d]efendants made a false defamatory statement about McIntyre,” the memorandum states.

Fessier also says McIntyre’s suit contains no allegations of malice regarding the statements. She alleges that such facts are “glaringly absent” from the lawsuit.

“SAAA and its officials cannot be held liable for the unreasonable and tortured inferences drawn by McIntyre from articles that stated actual facts,” she wrote in the memorandum.

The attorney also filed a plea to have Hudson removed as a defendant because he was not served paperwork related to the case before the one-year statute of limitations expired. Previous documents listed the defendant as “Jonathan Hudson” and were delivered to John Hudson’s son.

Online records indicate that no court dates have been set for the case.

McIntyre is represented by Charlson Bredehoft Cohen & Brown of Reston.

Cockrell also sued the SAAA in 2011, seeking unpaid leave compensation and damages for breach of contract.

The agency filed a countersuit alleging that she was fired for fraud and embezzlement, and she dropped her breach-of-contract complaint shortly afterward.

The parties settled their suits in August with no money changing hands. Cockrell and her husband filed for bankruptcy just after that decision.

Virginia State Police began an investigation into the financial irregularities at the SAAA more than 15 months ago. That probe continues, but no criminal charges have been filed.

— Contact Vic Bradshaw