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Lovelace v. Van Tine

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Eastern District, Third Division

April 10, 2018

SANDRA LOVELACE, Appellant,
v.
BRIAN VAN TINE, Respondent.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of the City of St. Louis 1722-CC01298 Honorable Robert H. Dierker, Jr.

          Gary M. Gaertner, Jr., Presiding Judge.

         Introduction

         Sandra Lovelace (Lovelace) appeals the trial court's dismissal of her defamation petition against Brian Van Tine (Van Tine). She argues that the trial court erred in concluding that intra-corporate immunity applied to her claim. We affirm.[1]

         Background

         The allegations in Lovelace's petition are as follows. Lovelace worked as a medical assistant for Washington University School of Medicine from November 24, 2003 until August 5, 2015. Van Tine is a physician in the Department of Oncology at Washington University School of Medicine. Both Lovelace and Van Tine worked at the Siteman Cancer Center (Siteman), which is managed jointly by Washington University School of Medicine and Barnes-Jewish Hospital. Paula Goldberg (Goldberg), a registered nurse for Barnes-Jewish Hospital, was Lovelace's manager. Goldberg performed all of Lovelace's performance evaluations and controlled her daily assignments. Denitra Brinkley (Brinkley), an employee of Washington University, also supervised Lovelace.

         Van Tine, as a physician, maintained a medical team made up of nurses, a nurse practitioner, and occasionally medical assistants. On July 8-9, 2015, Lovelace was assigned to Van Tine's team as a "float" medical assistant. On July 13, 2015, Goldberg and Brinkley met with Lovelace. They told her that Van Tine had reported that Lovelace said, "Don't hire Angle Butcher, she doesn't like working with white people." Lovelace denied making any such statement, became very upset, and was allowed to leave work early. Lovelace called into work sick for several days due to her distress, and eventually Goldberg and Brinkley placed her on administrative leave. Lovelace was discharged from her employment on August 5, 2015.

         Lovelace's petition alleged that Van Tine maliciously and falsely accused Lovelace of making the statement regarding Angie Butcher in order to divert blame for making a racially-based hiring decision. Lovelace alleged that Van Tine's accusation directly and proximately caused Lovelace damage to her reputation and the loss of her employment, as well as extreme mental and emotional distress.

         Van Tine moved to dismiss Lovelace's petition for failure to state a claim, arguing that according to Missouri's intra-corporate immunity rule, Van Tine's statement to Lovelace's supervisors did not constitute publication to a third party, which is an essential element of defamation. Van Tine also argued that the statement was capable of an innocent and non-defamatory meaning. The trial court agreed with both of Van Tine's arguments and dismissed Lovelace's petition. This appeal follows.

         Standard of Review

         We review the dismissal of a petition for failure to state a claim de novo. Lynch v. Lynch, 260 S.W.3d 834, 836 (Mo. banc 2008). We treat the facts alleged in the petition as true and construe them liberally in favor of the plaintiff. Id. Dismissal is appropriate only where those facts, if proven, would not entitle the plaintiff to relief. See id.

         Discussion

         Lovelace raises two points on appeal, but the first is dispositive. She argues the trial court erred in applying intra-corporate immunity to her claim because Van Tine was not a supervisor. We disagree.

         The elements of a claim for defamation are "1) publication, 2) of a defamatory statement, 3) that identifies the plaintiff, 4) that is false, 5) that is published with the requisite degree of fault, and 6) damages the plaintiffs reputation." Farrow v. St. Francis Med. Ctr.,407 S.W.3d 579, 598-99 (Mo. banc 2013) (quoting Overcast v. Billings Mut. Ins. Co.,11 S.W.3d 62, 70 (Mo. banc 2000)). Here, we examine only the element of publication. "Publication is simply the communication of the defamatory matter to a third person." Blake v. May Dep't ...


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