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Fourth Circuit sides with television station in defamation claim by former Prince George County school worker

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The oldest TV station in the South has been cleared by the federal 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in a defamation lawsuit filed by a felon and former Prince George's County School Board employee who was the unnamed subject of one of its stories.

The story dates to 2015 and dealt with the Prince George County School Board’s hiring and then firing of Angela Horne, who was not named in the story. She had been convicted of felony conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute methamphetamine. She claimed she informed the School Board of this criminal history throughout the hiring process and was reassured it would not impact her ability to keep the job. She was hired in September 2014, however she was fired in February 2015 under a state law which forbids felons from working in schools.

Shortly after Horne’s firing, CBS-6 reporter Wayne Covil received a phone call from a confidential source who told him about the hiring and firing of a felon, however Horne’s name was not given to the reporter. Covil interviewed a regular source at the School Board, then-superintendent Bobby Browder, who refused to confirm any details, claiming officials do not discuss personal matters with the media or public. But Covil pressed Browder on the school’s hiring process and later told a judge “he believed Browder implied that the felon at issue had lied on her job application by failing to disclose her prior felony.”

Several days later CBS ran the story and made the claim, without naming Horne, that the School Board had hired and then fired a felon, and that the reason for the firing was the failure to disclose a felony record.

Horne filed a lawsuit against the School Board shortly after the story aired, but it wasn’t until 2016 when she sued WTVR in this claim.

In the suit, she alleged the station had defamed her. WTVR moved to have her considered a public figure, which would protect the station from the suit. The court granted the station’s request saying school employees qualify because they must be held accountable as public employees.

At trial, Horne argued WTVR acted with “actual malice,” the requirement for a defamation claim to supersede someone's status as a public official, however she failed to sway the court because her title, director of budget and finance for the county school system, fit the bill of a public official.

Horne appealed and landed at the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, only to once again find she could not challenge her public official status or sue the station for defamation. “The Supreme Court has held that the public official designation applies ‘at the very least to those among the hierarchy of government employees who have, or appear to the public to have, substantial responsibility for or control over the conduct of governmental affairs,’” wrote Judge Henry Floyd in the 21-page opinion, released Monday.

Horne had argued her job had little power and no control over school purse strings. But that too failed to sway the judges.

“We are convinced that serving as the Director of Budget and Finance ... created the appearance that Horne’s governmental responsibilities were significant,” Floyd wrote. “This would, we believe, 'invite public scrutiny and discussion of the person holding it,' and provide 'independent interest in the qualifications and performance of the person' in that position.”

As for the actual malice claim, the three-judge panel was similarly unswayed. Horne had argued the station published the story “with reckless disregard for the truth” by failing to investigate whether a felon falsified her job application, or that they ignored the larger story of a School Board official hiring someone despite a felony conviction.

“WTVR had a history of working with Browder and receiving accurate information from him on dozens of stories over several years, weighing in favor of his veracity and giving credence to Covil’s testimony that he believed Browder implied that Horne lied on her application,” Floyd wrote. “WTVR’s failure to investigate every potential lead cannot amount to reckless conduct.”

In a phone call, Horne's lawyer Richard Hawkins said his client was disappointed with the court's ruling.

"We do not think she's a public official in any way shape or form, for defamation purposes," he said. "She's not elected, she didn't forfeit her rights to defend her reputation when she took that job." Hawkins says he plans to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a statement sent to Style Weekly, CBS-6’s president and general manager, Stephen P. Hayes, says its company policy “not to comment on legal matters.”

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