By Joe Beck
A judge in Warren County Circuit Court handed a tentative legal victory to the Shenandoah Area Agency on Aging Friday by scrapping a defamation lawsuit complaint filed by a former top executive who was dismissed in September 2011.
Judge Gaylord Finch of Fairfax County, substituting for Judge Dennis L. Hupp, ruled that the plaintiff, Ann T. McIntyre, had 21 days as of Friday to file a new complaint that passes judicial muster or the suit will be permanently dismissed.
Finch's ruling upheld a demurrer filed by the SAAA, a written response to a complaint that calls for dismissal of the complaint on the grounds that it lacks a legal basis, even if the facts are true.
McIntyre, a former director of development and community relations, is asking for $2.35 million in damages plus attorneys fees from the agency. Her attorney, Monique Miles of Reston, argued that she was defamed by articles appearing in The Northern Virginia Daily and The Winchester Star that were based on information given to reporters by agency officials.
After the hearing, Miles signaled she was ready to file an amended complaint.
"We're disappointed the judge didn't find validity to our claims," Miles said. "Next time, around, we're confident the demurrer is going to be dismissed."
McIntyre, along with former SAAA executive director Helen Cockrell and former finance director Jim Shaffer, was fired around the same time that the staff and a state agency were uncovering evidence of severe financial irregularities that have imperiled the agency's future ever since.
McIntyre contended that her dismissal was unrelated to the scandal and the dismissals of Cockrell and Shaffer, contrary to what she claimed was an erroneous impression left by articles in the two newspapers.
McIntyre has insisted in court papers that she was fired for violating the agency's credit card policies, not the potential fraud and embezzlement alleged in an investigation by the state Department for the Aging into SAAA's finances.
SAAA's attorney, Rosalie Pemberton Fessier of Staunton, said McIntyre had presented no evidence that anyone from the SAAA told the newspapers that McIntyre's firing was linked to the same actions that led to the firings of Cockrell and Shaffer.
Fessier also said that any implication in the newspaper stories that McIntyre's firing was related to financial havoc at the agency was a fair conclusion to reach in light of McIntyre's alleged misused of credit cards.
"To that extent, the press got it right," Fessier said, adding, "credit card irregularities are major financial irregularities."
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or email@example.com