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Pet clinic owner says statements are insufficient for defamation claim

By Heather Isringhausen Gvillo | Sep 29, 2015

A pet clinic owner and employee battle over whether statements he made prior to her termination are sufficient for a defamation claim in a suit accusing the employer of breaching an IRA contract.

Tanya Pruitt filed the March 10 lawsuit against her former boss, James Hill, owner of Hillsdale Pet Clinic.

“Hill failed to put Pruitt’s contributions from her paycheck and the matching funds into any IRA account for Pruitt,” the suit states.

Hill is accused of keeping Pruitt’s IRA money from her paycheck and keeping the matching funds that were supposed to go into her IRA account. The plaintiff says the action is “fraudulent theft.”

She also accuses him of defamation of character and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Hill filed a motion to dismiss on May 1 through attorney Thomas A. Hill of Highland. He claims Pruitt couldn’t have been wrongfully terminated as a result of her request for repayment because she was allegedly discharged nine days before she made the request.

He argues that he reimbursed her for any lost IRA funds. The plaintiff allegedly cashed the check without objection on May 6, 2014.

He also claims Pruitt’s retaliatory discharge and defamation claims are not sufficient.

Pruitt responded on May 29, arguing that she made proper claims for retaliatory discharge and defamation.

Hill replied to Puritt’s response to his motion to dismiss on July 2 through attorney Thomas Hill of Highland.

In regards to Count I, which alleges retaliatory discharge, Hill argues that Pruitt voluntarily agreed to payroll deductions for contributions to the IRA plan, which were allegedly not contributed to fund her IRA.

However, the defendant claims “there [are] no allegations of intent to defraud or of facts to support the claimed fraud or theft. There is no allegation that the funds of Pruitt were obtained through fraud, deception, or without authorization. Such is required in order for there to be a theft … Nor is there any allegation that Pruitt was actually deprived of the funds that she authorized be deducted from her pay or of the employer matching funds.”

While Hill says Pruitt sufficiently alleged breach of contract, he argues that breach of contract is not enough to support a claim for retaliatory discharge. As a result, Hill claims Pruitt’s retaliatory discharge allegation is insufficient as a matter of law.

As for Count II, which alleges defamation per se, Pruitt claims Hill told his employees that Pruitt “lied about Pruitt’s relative being pregnant,” lied that her “relative agreed to give up her baby for adoption,” “lied that Pruitt’s relative went to Chicago,” “lied that Pruitt’s relative had run away from home,” and was “lying about Pruitt, herself, being pregnant.”

Hill argues that none of the alleged defamatory statements say anything about a crime being committed.

“Nor do they indicate anything about inability to perform employment duties or integrity in connection with employment duties. The allegations do not indicate that Pruitt had a trade, profession or business or that she was unable to engage in it,” the reply states.

Count II of Pruitt’s complaint alleges intentional infliction of emotional distress. Hill argues that the alleged defamatory statements are not sufficient to state a cause of action because they are “simply not sufficiently extreme and outrageous.”

On July 10, Circuit Judge Barbara Crowder denied Hill’s motion to dismiss Count I and ordered Pruitt to file a brief regarding Count II.

Pruitt filed a brief for the defamation allegation on July 24 through attorneys Michael Brunton and Mary Stewart of Brunton Law Offices in Collinsville.

She argues that Hill’s statements could be considered “‘imputing an inability to perform or want of integrity in discharge of duties of office or employment,’ especially considering that Pruitt was terminated from her job on the first day that Hill began making the statements.”

Hill responded to Pruitt’s brief on Aug. 5, arguing that none of the alleged statements relate to business or professional affairs.

He also claims the statements are subject to the “innocent construction rule,” meaning the statements could be understood as referring to something other than “the employment or professional competency of the plaintiff.”

Pruitt seeks damages in excess of $150,000 for her claims.

Madison County Circuit Court case number 15-L-325

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