Kagan Stern Attorneys Achieve Trial Victory for Client
May 2, 2023
Kagan Stern is pleased to share that it successfully defended Ronald Bateman, the former Sheriff of Anne Arundel County, in a defamation action brought by George White, a Maryland State Police Officer and former employee of Compass Marketing, Inc.
The complaint alleged that Mr. Bateman, upon being hired by Compass Marketing to investigate suspected misconduct involving the company’s minority shareholders (Daniel White and Michael White) and other former employees, made numerous defamatory statements about George White when he reported to the Maryland State Police that George White “[stole] computer equipment, fraudulently work[ed] secondary employment at Compass [Marketing] while on duty with his other job at the Maryland State Police, and that [George White] had intentionally interfered with the computer systems of Compass Marketing.” George White is a former employee of Compass Marketing who oversaw the company’s IT function. He also is the son of minority owner, Michael White, and the uncle of minority owner, Daniel White.
After a three-day bench trial in late February before the Circuit Court of Maryland for Anne Arundel County, the Honorable Elizabeth S. Morris issued her verdict in late March, finding for Mr. Bateman on all counts (in addition to the count for defamation, the trial also involved a count for false light; a count for intentional infliction of emotional distress had previously been dismissed at summary judgment).
In issuing her opinion, Judge Morris found that the defamation claim was barred by the applicable one-year statute of limitations, which had started to run no later than November 15, 2019, which was more than one year before George White filed his complaint in June 2021. The court found that George White was on inquiry notice about Mr. Bateman’s alleged defamatory statements in November 2019 when George White received a call from a Sergeant with the Maryland State Police who informed him that the police were conducting an investigation related to Compass Marketing. The court found George White’s testimony not credible when he tried to explain why he believed he was not on inquiry notice after this call. Although the details of what was communicated to George White during that call were unclear, it was clear from witness testimony that George White was “alarmed enough by the situation that he indicated that he most likely would have an attorney present during an interview.” Under these circumstances, namely George White’s desire to retain counsel for himself, the court found that “a reasonable person [would have] ma[d]e further inquiry” into matters related to the investigation. The court further found that had George White made further inquiry regarding matters related to the police investigation, he would have discovered the allegedly defamatory statements. In this regard, the court noted that, even though George White was no longer employed by Compass Marketing, it was “a family business and Mr. White still maintained relationships with multiple family members who worked at the company” and “[a] reasonably prudent person would have, at a minimum, attempted to leverage those relationships to gain some additional information from family members[,]” which would have resulted in him learning the particulars of Mr. Bateman’s investigation.
The court also issued substantive findings regarding George White’s claims. With respect to the claim that Mr. Bateman defamed George White by reporting to the State Police that George was simultaneously on the clock for the Maryland State Police while performing work for Compass Marketing, the court found that, based on email evidence, “Mr. White was clocked in for the Maryland State Police at the same time he was sending emails performing his job responsibilities as Compass Marketing’s manager of technology.” With respect to the claim that Mr. Bateman defamed George White by reporting to the police that George continued to access and assert control over Compass Marketing’s compassmarketinginc.com domain after George White’s employment ended, the court found that George White failed to satisfy his burden of proving that the statements were false. One key fact that the court relied on was that there was evidence demonstrating George White and Michael White (George’s father) still had access to the company’s network after their employment ended and several employees were denied access to their compassmarketinginc.com emails. Lastly, with respect to the claim that Mr. Bateman defamed George White by reporting he had not returned company equipment, such as his computer and computer pass codes, the court found that these matters were disputed and Mr. White failed to present enough credible evidence to resolve the disputed evidence in his favor.
This is a significant victory for Mr. Bateman, as this case has been covered by local media (see here and here). In addition, the lawsuit filed by George White is part of a larger series of cases involving the owners of Compass Marketing and other individuals/entities (see here). Stephen Stern served as lead counsel for Mr. Bateman, and Shannon Hayden, an associate with the firm, played a significant role in litigating the case to a successful conclusion.