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Boyd v. Disabled American Veterans

Court of Appeals of Georgia, First Division

March 11, 2019

BOYD
v.
DISABLED AMERICAN VETERANS et al.

          BARNES, P. J., McMILLIAN and REESE, JJ.

          Reese, Judge.

         Thasha Boyd, proceeding pro se, filed a defamation action against the Appellees, Matthew Jahn and his employer, Disabled American Veterans ("DAV"), alleging that Jahn had falsely accused her of sexual harassment, which resulted in the termination of her employment with the Department of Veterans Affairs ("Department"). The Superior Court of DeKalb County dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.[1] Boyd appeals, contending that the trial court improperly considered evidence outside the pleadings and erred in determining that the intracorporate privilege applied. For the reasons set forth, infra, we reverse and remand the case for further proceedings.

         Construed in favor of Boyd, as the non-moving party, [2] the complaint alleges the following facts. Boyd and Jahn "were employees who worked within the Atlanta Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) offices [in] Decatur[.] However, [Boyd] was employed by the [Department]; and . . . Jahn is/was employed by the . . . DAV[.]" In 2016, Jahn made false statements to his fellow employees, and, in December 2016, he filed a written complaint with the Department, alleging that Boyd had sexually harassed him.[3]

         According to the complaint, Jahn also "coached" a coworker to make false statements about Boyd to the Department. Based on these reports, the Department terminated Boyd's employment. Boyd alleged that the "defamatory statement(s)" made by Jahn and the DAV "were intentional and malicious" and that the Appellees "conspired with the Department . . . for personal and financial gain in exchange for assisting the [Department] in its retaliation against [Boyd] for her protected activity against the [Department]."

         Although Boyd alleged in her complaint that she sent a demand letter to Jahn and the DAV in January 2017, requesting that they "withdraw these false allegations and/or reach out to her employer to mediate the matter[, ]" neither Jahn nor the DAV responded to the letter or took any corrective action. Thus, according to the complaint, the DAV "failed to exercise proper care in vetting the truth" of the allegations, and, instead "cover[ed] up" the false statements of Jahn and his coworker. Specifically, the complaint alleged that a DAV "legal counsel/representative" told Boyd "that he would not cooperate with [Boyd's] subpoena/discovery to a third-party (in her administrative appeal of her termination)."

         In its order granting the Appellees' motion to dismiss, the trial court found that Boyd's complaint "allege[d] that she and . . . Jahn were coworkers, both working within the Atlanta Veterans Benefits Administration, though in different departments." The court concluded that, as a result, the alleged communications were all "intracorporate," and thus privileged, so the face of Boyd's complaint demonstrated that she could prove no set of facts amounting to defamation.

Under current Georgia law, it is not necessary for a complaint to set forth all of the elements of a cause of action in order to survive a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. Rather, the Georgia Civil Practice Act requires only notice pleading and, under the Act, pleadings are to be construed liberally and reasonably to achieve substantial justice consistent with the statutory requirements of the Act. Thus, a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim should not be granted unless the allegations of the complaint disclose with certainty that the claimant would not be entitled to relief under any state of provable facts asserted in support thereof.[4]
We review de novo a trial court's determination that a pleading fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, construing the pleadings in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and with any doubts resolved in the plaintiff's favor. [T]he pleadings to be construed include any exhibits attached to and incorporated into the complaint and the answer.[5]

         Moreover, "we are required to hold pro se pleadings to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers[.]"[6] With these guiding principles in mind, we turn now to Boyd's specific claims of error.

         1. Boyd argues that the trial court improperly converted the motion to dismiss into one for summary judgment, arguing that the trial court considered exhibits attached to the motion to dismiss.[7] This argument is without merit.

         In its order, the court discussed the standard for deciding a motion under OCGA § 9-11-12 (b) (6), and stated that it had considered only the pleadings and the parties' arguments at oral argument before granting the Appellees' motion to dismiss. According to the trial court, "the face of Boyd's Complaint demonstrate[d] that she [could] prove no set of facts amounting to defamation." The trial court's order also did not refer to any evidence outside the pleadings. Because there is no transcript of the motion hearing in the record, Boyd has failed to show that the Appellees introduced evidence outside the pleadings.[8] Thus, there is nothing in the record to support Boyd's claim that the Appellees' motion to dismiss was converted into a motion for summary judgment.[9]

         2. Boyd contends that the trial court erred in determining that the intracorporate privilege applied to the Appellees' defamatory statements. We agree.

         "A cause of action for defamation consists of four elements: (1) a false and defamatory statement concerning the plaintiff; (2) an unprivileged communication to a third party; (3) fault by the defendant amounting at least to negligence; and (4) special harm or ...


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