Joffe v. Vaughn

Annotate this Case

Joffe v. Vaughn
1993 OK CIV APP 169
873 P.2d 299
65 OBJ 1651
Case Number: 79505
Decided: 10/26/1993

PAMELA KNE JOFFE, PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE OF THE ESTATE OF ROBERT JOFFE, DECEASED, APPELLEE,
v.
CLAYTON VAUGHN, AN INDIVIDUAL; KOTV, INC., A DELAWARE CORPORATION; AND DAVID CASSIDY, AN INDIVIDUAL, APPELLANTS, and A.H. BELO CORPORATION, A TEXAS CORPORATION, AND MARK BOGATAY, AN INDIVIDUAL,
DEFENDANTS.

Appeal from the District Court of Tulsa County, Jane P. Wiseman, Judge.

AFFIRMED

Sam P. Daniel, S. Douglas Dodd, and Charles S. Plumb, Doerner, Stuart, Saunders. Daniel & Anderson, Tulsa, for appellants.
Stephen Q. Peters, Sam P. Daniel, III, Short, Harris, Turner, Daniel & McMahan, and Gary L. Richardson, Richardson, Meier & Stoops, Tulsa, for appellee.

OPINION

BAILEY, Judge

¶1 Clayton Vaughn, David Cassidy and KOTV, Inc. (collectively Appellants or individually by name) seek review of judgment on jury verdict for Pamela Kne Joffe (Pamela), personal representative of the estate of Robert Joffe, deceased, (Robert) in Pamela's action against Appellants and Defendant Mark Bogatay (Bogatay) for intentional infliction of emotional distress. In this appeal, Appellants assert error by the Trial Court (1) denying Appellants' demurrer to the evidence, motion for directed verdict, motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, and motion for new trial and/or remittitur, and (2) admitting/excluding certain evidence.

¶2 After receiving a degree in broadcast journalism from Southern Methodist University, Robert began working for KOTV as a reporter in 1986. He became a well known and award winning member of the news department while independently producing numerous "special projects" and actively participating in community civic and charitable affairs.

¶3 In 1989, KOTV promoted Robert to coanchor of the 5:00 p.m. newscast. In November 1989, the KOTV station manager suspended Robert for three weeks following the broadcast of a segment of the "Month of the Child" series produced by Robert which news director David Cassidy (Cassidy) and others felt contained a violation of journalistic ethics. Robert returned to his reporting, special assignments, and co-anchor duties without further incident.

¶4 In February 1990, KOTV's "command" anchor for well over fifteen years, Clayton Vaughn (Vaughn), called Cassidy at work and demanded Cassidy come to Vaughn's home on an urgent matter. There, Vaughn told Cassidy that Vaughn's hair dresser, Bogatay, had informed Vaughn that Bogatay had had a homosexual liaison with Robert. Cassidy in turn repeated the allegation to the station manager who then confronted Robert. Despite denial by Robert and a pledge by KOTV to thoroughly investigate the matter, neither KOTV management nor Cassidy would reveal the name of the accuser to Robert, nor did Robert Know Vaughn was the source. KOTV did not inform the police, hire a private investigator, nor allow Robert to participate or assist in any investigation. Rather, Cassidy was assigned to investigate the matter, which investigation resulted in a memorandum to management containing little additional information but which was fraught with misinformation.

¶5 Within a month of the allegation, KOTV management gave Robert the option of resigning or suffering termination. Robert refused to resign, and KOTV then terminated Robert's employment without explanation under the termination clause of his employment contract.

¶6 Throughout the ordeal, Robert became the subject of rumors and speculation throughout the Tulsa news community, none positive. After marrying his then-fiance, Robert began his own investigation, within two months discovering the name of his accuser. Robert then filed suit against Vaughn, Cassidy, Bogatay, KOTV and its parent company, A.H. Belo Corporation, for slander, wrongful termination, intentional interference with contractual relations against Vaughn only, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

¶7 During pendency of the lawsuit, Robert took his own life. Robert's spouse, Pamela, as personal representative of Robert Joffe's estate, obtained substitution as party plaintiff. The slander action failed to survive Robert's death, and the Trial Court eventually disposed of all remaining causes of action except the tort claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. After presentation of the evidence, the Trial Court submitted the emotional distress claim to the jury which returned a verdict for Pamela, assessing $2,000,000.00 in actual damages and $2,000,000.00 in punitive damages. The Trial Court denied Appellants' post-trial motions attacking the verdict, and Appellants appeal.

¶8 In their first proposition of error, Appellants assert Pamela failed to adduce sufficient evidence of Appellants' extreme and outrageous conduct with intent to inflict emotional distress and harm upon Robert. Thus, argue Appellants, the Trial Court erred in denying their demurrer to the evidence, motion for directed verdict, and motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

¶9 When the lower court considers a demurrer to the evidence or a motion for directed verdict, "it must consider as true all evidence and all reasonable inferences favorable to the party against whom the demurrer or motion is directed, and disregard any conflicting evidence which is favorable to the demurrant or movant."

¶10 In the present case, Pamela presented evidence and reasonable inferences drawn therefrom which, if believed, demonstrated that Vaughn desired to anchor the 5:00, 6:00 and 10:00 p.m. newscasts as solo anchor; that Vaughn disliked Robert and opposed his promotion to co-anchor on the 5:00 p.m. newscast, replacing Vaughn; that Vaughn commanded power and influence at KOTV; that Cassidy maintained a personal vendetta against Robert; that Cassidy and KOTV management, with Vaughn's assistance, concocted a plan to "get rid of" Robert, including discrediting Robert in the news market; that the allegation of homosexual activity was not credible; that Appellants' conduct in handling the allegation of homosexual activity and subsequent termination of Robert's employment was extreme, outrageous, and intentional; and that Robert suffered as a result. Under these circumstances, we find Pamela presented sufficient evidence of the elements of the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress to withstand Appellants' motions.

¶11 In the alternative, Appellants assert a privilege exists protecting communications in furtherance of legitimate business interests, thus barring Pamela's claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress.

[A]n unreasonable and wrongful act done intentionally, without just cause. Malice may be inferred in the situation where the defendant has no reasonable basis for believing that the statement is true. This would be the case where there had been a failure to make an adequate investigation.

Brown v. Skaggs-Albertson's Properties, 563 F.2d 983, 986 (10th Cir. 1977).

¶12 In the present case, the Trial Court instructed the jury (over Pamela's objection) on the business privilege claimed by Appellants. So instructed, the jury nevertheless concluded either that the communication regarding Robert's alleged homosexual activity did not further a legitimate business interest, or that such communication was made with malice. Stated otherwise, the jury, as the trier of fact, rejected Appellants' privilege defense, and we find sufficient competent evidence in the record, apparently believed by the jury, to support that conclusion. We will not substitute our judgment on the facts for that of the jury, and we therefore reject these allegations.

¶13 Appellants next complain the Trial Court erroneously excluded evidence crucial to their case. Specifically, Appellants contend the Trial Court should have admitted depositions of three witnesses who knew Robert as a teenager when he worked as a "teen reporter" for a television station in Kentucky. In support thereof, Appellants assert this evidence would have demonstrated a "pattern of behavior on the part of [Robert] which was consistent with the poor judgment for which his employment was terminated," and would have challenged the "extensive and one-sided positive character evidence." The Trial Court specifically held the proffered testimony too remote in time and relevance, and the evidence of any juvenile adjudication inadmissible.

¶14 The relevance and admission of evidence are matters addressed to the sound discretion of the Trial Court whose rulings thereon will not be disturbed absent a showing of abuse of discretion.

¶15 We here note Appellants' opinion that because Pamela failed to adduce sufficient evidence to support a verdict for intentional infliction of emotional distress, this case was actually tried to the jury on the theory of wrongful termination

¶16 We find this argument untenable in view of Appellants' willingness, without benefit of a reasonable investigation, to believe Bogatay's apparently unsubstantiated allegation that Robert walked into a well-known "gay" bar, "picked up" a stranger, Bogatay, who recognized Robert as a KOTV personality, took Bogatay to an apartment for a homosexual liaison, then bragged about his co-anchor position on KOTV. We specifically reject this aspect of Appellants' argument.

¶17 Appellants next attack the Trial Court's exclusion of certain testimony offered to impeach testimony of one of Pamela's witnesses directly controverting the testimony of Bogatay. However, Appellants did not offer this testimony until some nine days into the trial. The Trial Court, after allowing Pamela - with minimal preparation and time - to take the witness's deposition, heard argument and ruled the witness's testimony inadmissable as cumulative and constituting unfair surprise. We agree with the Trial Court and find no abuse of discretion, miscarriage of justice or violation of constitutional or statutory right in the exclusion of the proffered evidence.

¶18 Appellants also attack the Trial Court's exclusion of an exhibit offered during the third day of trial arguably demonstrating KOTV's justified termination of Robert. However, Appellants did not apparently tender the exhibit at pre-trial conference, and the exhibit was not listed on the pre-trial order.

¶19 We assume no such thing. The pre-trial order controls the issues to be litigated,

¶20 Appellants next complain the Trial Court erred in permitting Pamela to testify concerning statements made to her by Robert both before and after his termination, arguing Pamela's testimony constituted "blatant hearsay designed to elicit sympathy for [Robert] and prejudice against your Appellants." We note that once again Appellants proffer unsupported and subjective belief in support of their argument, failing to cite any legal authority

¶21 Appellants next claim error by the Trial Court in the admission of a letter from Robert to Pamela written after Robert's termination. After protracted argument by counsel as to the letter's relevance and whether a pre-trial objection thereto had been interposed, the Trial Court admitted the letter as demonstrating Robert's state of mind.

¶22 Having examined the document, we first note the letter refers to Robert's termination only indirectly and does not mention Appellants or Defendants; rather, it is a love letter written on Yom Kippur. Once again, the relevance and admission of evidence are matters addressed to the sound discretion of the Court, whose rulings thereon will not be disturbed absent a showing of abuse of discretion.

¶23 Finally, Appellants challenge the Trial Court's denial of their motion for new trial and/or remittitur. A motion for new trial is addressed to the sound discretion of the lower court to be applied in accordance with recognized principles of law; absent error as to a pure question of law, or arbitrary or capricious action, this Court must indulge in the presumption in favor of the Trial Court's ruling.

¶24 Further, Oklahoma recognizes the jury has broad discretion to determine the amount of damages for intangible injuries which determination will not be set aside as excessive unless it is "so excessive as to `strike mankind, at first blush as being beyond all measure unreasonable and outrageous and such as manifestly shows the jury to have been actuated by passion partiality, prejudice or corruption.'"

¶25 In the present case, Appellants' motion for new trial and/or remittitur raises the same alleged errors as brought forth in this appeal, i.e., sufficiency of evidence to support the verdict, error by the Trial Court in evidentiary rulings, and excessiveness of the verdict, influenced by passion and prejudice. Considering our previous holdings affirming the Trial Court's denial of Appellants' challenges to the evidence and the Trial Court's evidentiary rulings, and in absence of error on a pure question of law, we find no abuse of discretion by the Trial Court in denying Appellants' motion for new trial and/or remittitur.

¶26 The judgment on jury verdict for Pamela is therefore AFFIRMED.

¶27 HUNTER, P.J., and GARRETT, J., concur.

Footnotes:

1 Cassidy's entire "investigation" consisted of talking to Bogatay. The information gained therein was published to KOTV management by memorandum. Both at deposition and trial, Bogatay's testimony contradicted the Cassidy memorandum. None of the alleged corroborating witnesses was contacted (although Pamela Powell, named by Cassidy as a witness for Bogatay, testified for Joffe and directly controverted both the Cassidy memorandum and Bogatay's testimony). Further, Cassidy failed to check the date of the alleged incident, the bar or the automobiles allegedly involved, or the apartment where the incident allegedly took place.

2 Messler v. Simmons Gun Specialties, Inc., 687 P.2d 121, 130 (Okl. 1984).

3 Messler, 687 P.2d at 130.

4 Ray v. Redpath, 145 Okl. 69, 291 P. 546 (1930).

5 12 O.S. 1991 § 698 .

6 In order to submit a claim for intentional infliction of emotion distress to the jury, the Trial Court must first determine whether Appellant's "conduct may reasonably be regarded as so extreme and outrageous as to permit recovery, or whether it is necessarily so. Where, under the facts before the court, reasonable persons may differ, it is for the jury, subject to the control of the court, to determine. . . ." The same is true for determining the existence of severe emotional distress. Breeden v. League Services Corp., 575 P.2d 1374, 1377 (Okl. 1978).

7 Citing, inter alia, Brown v. Skaggs-Albertson's Properties. Inc., 563 F.2d 983 (10th Cir. 1977).

8 See also, Kirschstein v. Haynes, 788 P.2d 941 (Okl. 1990).

9 12 O.S. 1991 §§ 2402 , 2403; Whiteley v. OKC Corp., 719 F.2d 1051 (10th Cir. 1983); Cooper v. State, 671 P.2d 1168 (Okl.Cr. 1983); Samara v. State, 398 P.2d 89 (Okl. 1964), cert. den. and appeal dismissed, 381 U.S. 354, 85 S.Ct. 1556, 14 L.Ed.2d 681.

10 Samara v. State, 398 P.2d at 89, 90.

11 Amicus curiae briefs filed by Oklahoma State Council for Human Resources Management and Oklahoma State Chamber of Commerce and Industry also argue the true cause of action tendered to the jury in this case was one of damages for wrongful termination "disguised" as intentional infliction of emotional distress. However, the Trial Court disposed of the action for wrongful termination and instructed the jury only on intentional infliction of emotional distress, and we will not look beyond the face of the verdict on the basis of subjective speculation. We therefore find these briefs unresponsive to the issues on appeal.

12 See, footnote 9, supra.

13 The record does reflect that although the document had previously been given to Pamela's counsel, the document had curiously and recently been "relocated" after two years of extensive discovery.

14 Shadid v. Monsour, 746 P.2d 685 (Okl. 1987).

15 Dailey v. Barnhart, 768 P.2d 907 (Okl. 1988).

16 Short v. Jones, 613 P.2d 452 (Okl. 1980).

17 See, Vaughn v. Texaco, Inc., 631 P.2d 1334 (Okl.App. 1981) ("An argument in a brief which is unsupported by citation of authority is not sufficient to overcome the presumption in favor of the correctness of the trial court's decision and will not be considered.").

18 Vaughn v. Texaco, Inc., 631 P.2d at 1334.

19 Footnote 9, supra.

20 See, 12 O.S. 1991 § 2803 (3) recognizing a "state of mind" exception to the hearsay rule.

21 Footnote 9, supra.

22 Id.

23 See, e.g., Bennett v. Hall, 431 P.2d 339 (Okl. 1967).

24 Brown, 563 F.2d at 983.

25 Chandler v. Denton, 741 P.2d 855, 868 (Okl. 1987).