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Del. judge calls employees' allegations in defamation suit 'far-fetched'

By Jessica M. Karmasek | Jun 20, 2012


WILMINGTON, Del. (Legal Newsline) - A Delaware judge ruled a state law bars two town employees' claims for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress -- which, they argued, is to blame for their diabetes diagnoses -- against a group of town officials.

New Castle County Superior Court Judge Peggy L. Ableman said in her June 13 order that the facts in the case "read like the plot of a televised drama."

In July 2008, defendant William Phillips, the chief of police of Milton, Del., told fellow defendants Leah Betts and Rhonda Abraham that he saw plaintiffs George Dickerson and Julie Powers -- who were, at the time, town employees -- in a "compromising position" in Dickerson's office.

Betts, the vice mayor of Milton, and Abraham, a member of the town council, looked into Phillips' allegations, later concluding they were not true.

However, more than a year later, Phillips repeated the allegations -- this time, at a public hearing.

Abraham and Betts, who were at the hearing, did not attempt to correct the record.

Dickerson and Powers then filed three lawsuits -- consolidated in October 2011 -- in superior court.

The plaintiffs allege they suffered harm to their reputations, embarrassment, public humiliation, mental anguish and emotional distress as a result of Phillips' "slanderous" accusations.

They also assert Phillips made his statements -- to Betts and Abraham in 2008 and at the public hearing in 2009 -- "with actual and constitutional malice."

In addition, Dickerson and Powers allege that Abraham and Betts "intentionally stood mute" when Phillips repeated his accusations at the public hearing in an effort to further harm them and their reputations.

The defendants, including the town of Milton itself, responded by filing a motion for judgment on the pleadings.

Such a motion admits the allegations of the opposing party's pleadings but contends they are insufficient as a matter of law.

The defendants, in their motion, argued the state's County and Municipal Tort Claims Act requires dismissal of the complaint as a matter of law because they are immune from suit under the statute.

In this case, the court was tasked with determining whether the plaintiffs' allegations that they developed diabetes as a result of the stress and anxiety associated with the alleged defamation satisfies the "bodily injury" exception to the immunity bar under the act.

Ableman, in her eight-page ruling, granted the defendants' motion.

"It is well-established that allegations of emotional distress do not amount to bodily injury for purposes of the Tort Claims Act," she wrote.

"Plaintiffs' attempt to bring their claim within the 4011(c) exception by asserting that the emotional distress resulting from plaintiffs' defamatory statements was so severe as to cause an exacerbation of diabetes in Dickerson's case and the development of Type 2 diabetes in Powers' case fails."

Even assuming that the plaintiffs' allegations of "stress-induced diabetes" had been properly pled, Ableman said their claims would not meet the requirement of pleading "bodily injury" necessary to avoid the immunity bar.

"Plaintiffs' allegations that their stress and anxiety caused by the defamation of character resulted in diabetic complications are too attenuated, and too far-fetched, to form a plausible claim that defendants caused bodily injury to plaintiffs by an intentional act," she concluded.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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