CRIME, POLICE + COURTS

Utah Court of Appeals says libel claims filed by former Utah County Commissioner will stand

Jul 17, 2023, 12:00 PM | Updated: Oct 23, 2023, 2:16 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — A libel lawsuit filed against a woman who claimed a Utah County commissioner har...

A libel lawsuit filed against a woman claiming a Utah County commissioner harassed her is moving forward again after an appellate court ruled it should not have been dismissed. A libel lawsuit filed against a woman claiming a Utah County commissioner harassed her is moving forward again after an appellate court ruled it should not have been dismissed. (Kristin Murphy/Deseret News)

(Kristin Murphy/Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — A libel lawsuit filed against a woman who claimed a Utah County commissioner harassed her is moving forward again, after an appellate court ruled it should not have been dismissed.

The Utah Court of Appeals ruled on July 6 that a lawsuit filed by Greg Graves, who served as County Commissioner from 2015 to 2018, had enough facts to show he was “intentionally defamed” by the woman and his two fellow commissioners.

Background

In 2017, Utah County human resources director, Cammie Taylor, claimed Graves sexually harassed her and retaliated against her when she filed an official complaint and contacted media outlets.

According to the libel lawsuit filed by Graves, Taylor claimed Graves made inappropriate and suggestive statements to her, rubbed her knee, and said, “don’t show it if you don’t want it touched,” told her he wanted a divorce, asked her if she dated divorced men and told her he “could get sex anywhere because women are attracted to the power he had as a commissioner.” He said all of these allegations were false.

Utah County hired an independent investigator, who, according to Graves’ lawsuit, was unable to conclude there was any unwelcome sexual or suggestive behaviors between Graves and Taylor. However, the investigation did find that Graves is “widely viewed as a workplace ‘bully,’ ‘dishonest,’ ‘demeaning,’ ‘intimidating,’ ‘threatening,’ ‘explosive,’ and someone with whom personal interaction is to be avoided as much as possible,” according to the investigation.

The investigation determined Taylor appeared to be a credible witness and had complained to multiple other county employees that Graves’ behavior made her feel uncomfortable.

A footnote in the opinion quoted the investigation saying that Graves “began treating (Taylor) in a very poor manner” after she asked him to not accompany her on a trip, including waving his buttocks near her face, calling her stupid and telling others he wanted her fired.

The investigation determined that his behavior with Taylor was consistent with the way he treated other employees.

The other two county commissioners, Nathan Ivie and William Lee, voted to disclose the report and addressed media and the public about the accusations and the investigation, after the results were determined. They publicly named Graves and called on him to resign, saying that he showed abuse of power and intimidated employees.

Graves then sued, claiming invasion of privacy, defamation, slander or libel and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress in the lawsuit against Taylor, the county and his two fellow commissioners.

In the complaint, he alleged Taylor fabricated the allegations to avoid termination, or to get a settlement when she was fired. He said she was worried about being fired because of issues in the human resources department, as Graves was interested in privatizing the human resources department and Graves had openly said to others he would terminate Taylor if he had the choice.

Graves claimed he was controversial and had an “often contentious relationship” with the other commissioners who accused him of not acting like a conservative. At one point, he switched his party affiliations to see if it would deter his co-comissioners from forcing his resignation and keep the position from being filled by a democrat.

The district court granted a motion to dismiss all of the claims on March 10, 2020. Fourth District Court Judge Robert Lunnen agreed with the county and others that the complaints were barred by the Governmental Immunity Act and that he could not properly claim the county, Taylor and the other commissioners had acted with malice.

Lunnen ruled that the county was required to disclose the report, and that Taylor’s actions to leak the complaint to the media did not waive Graves’ immunity.

The appeal outcome

Utah’s Court of Appeals agreed with the dismissal of the claims against Utah County, but determined the claims against the other two defendants should continue forward in court.

The Court of Appeals opinion, written by Judge Michele M. Christiansen Forester, said governmental employees who are committing “willful misconduct” are not entitled to immunity, and analyzed whether the actions taken by Taylor and the other commissioners were “governmental functions” and whether the actions were negligent or intentional.

“Immunity is waived for individual employees when they commit willful misconduct by making and maliciously repeating false claims, as Graves has alleged happened here,” the opinion said.

The judges determined that if Graves had only claimed that Taylor’s allegations were false, the claims would rightfully have been dismissed, but the complaint had a “constellation of facts” to support that the claims were false — specifically, the opinion cited claims that Taylor feared she was about to be terminated.

Similarly, the Court of Appeals said Graves’ evidence that he took the drastic step to switch political parties and that he was in a contentious relationship with his fellow commissioners allowed the lawsuit’s claims against them to stand. The complaint said that Ivie and Lee “engaged in additional conduct intended to harm him, so as to rid themselves of a political rival.”

Graves’ complaint against the county said the county released a redacted complaint, with his name included, a day before releasing the redacted report, with no names mentioned. He said releasing the complaint before the report portrayed him in a false light, and cause people to falsely believe he was guilty of sexual harassment. He said media reported about the allegations, which led to calls for his resignation.

Both courts determined that the county was required to disclose the report, and that there was not evidence that it was done maliciously, so that claim will not move forward.

The 4th District Court will now oversee the case as it continues.

Related: Washington Co. House candidate may sue over recount audit

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Utah Court of Appeals says libel claims filed by former Utah County Commissioner will stand