A Selah woman’s attempt to have a defamation lawsuit filed against her by Selah City Administrator Don Wayman summarily dismissed was rejected Tuesday.
Yakima County Superior Court Judge Blaine Gibson ruled Shirley Johnson-Hoy’s allegation that Wayman was investigated for domestic violence in Texas was “literally false.” He also threw out Johnson-Hoy’s argument that the statement could be substantially true based on a plea Wayman entered to an assault charge involving a student in a JROTC program he oversaw.
“There has never been a domestic violence report, nor has anyone seen a domestic violence report (involving Wayman), said D.R. “Rob” Case, Wayman’s attorney. Case was hired as Selah’s attorney in September, five months after Wayman’s suit was filed.
Kevan Montoya, Johnson-Hoy’s attorney, is awaiting the judge’s ruling before deciding on whether to appeal.
Wayman filed suit against Johnson-Hoy, who unsuccessfully ran for Selah council in 2015, in April 2019 for a statement she posted on a local television station’s Facebook page. Johnson-Hoy, in her post, said Wayman should have been fired because he did not disclose that his wife had filed a domestic violence report on him when they were living in Texas, according to court documents.
In the post, Johnson-Hoy said she learned about the allegation after overhearing a council member mention it, court documents said.
Wayman’s wife never filed a complaint against her husband, the suit states, and Wayman accuses Johnson-Hoy of not bothering to check facts before she made her statement.
But Montoya, Johnson-Hoy’s attorney, argued that while her statement may have gotten the details wrong, it was substantially true because Wayman had entered a no-contest plea to a misdemeanor assault charge in Granbury, Texas, in 2012, court documents said.
The charge was later dismissed as part of a diversion agreement, Wayman and court records said.
In a no-contest plea, a defendant does not admit guilt or offer a defense. While it is considered a guilty plea, it is inadmissible to cite in Washington state, Case said.
The charge was based on a female student’s accusation that Wayman, then overseeing the JROTC program at the high school, rubbed against her and kissed her, the documents state.
The school district’s investigation recommended Wayman be fired, and he instead resigned and received a neutral reference from the school district.
But the court dismissed that argument and ruled the evidence could not be brought into the case.
Case said Johnson-Hoy attempted to “backfill” her statement by substituting the school incident for her false statement of a domestic violence report against his wife. To use the substantial truth argument, Case said one would have to have an overall allegation correct but make an error in detail, such as saying someone stole $50,000 when in fact it was only $30,000.
“The sad part about this is (Johnson-Hoy’s attorneys) used their briefing to further slander my client,” Case said.
Among the questions that remain to be answered is whether Wayman can be considered a public figure for the lawsuit, Case said. While Wayman is a city official now, the allegation involved a time when he was not a city official.
If the judge finds Wayman should be considered a public official, then he would have to demonstrate that Johnson-Hoy acted with what is known as “actual malice,” meaning that she knew the statement was false and published it anyway, or didn’t bother to verify it first, Case said. A private individual only must prove negligence, meaning that the information was wrong.
But Case is confident that Wayman could win if he were held to the higher standard, based on Johnson-Hoy’s past comments calling him a “bully” and a liar.
This story was updated to reflect that the charge against Don Wayman was subsequently dismissed.