Judge Tosses Defamation, Conspiracy Suit

FAIRFIELD – A civil lawsuit, filed last year against the County by David Michael Hollis, former head of Animal Control, was dismissed last month by a Sixth Judicial Circuit Court judge. The judge in the case, Brooks P. Goldsmith, tossed the suit after agreeing with the County that Hollis was barred from his defamation claim under the S.C. Tort Claims Act, and that his status as a public official and an at-will employee barred him from making a claim of civil conspiracy.

Hollis filed the action March 1, 2012 against the County, as well as County Administrator Phil Hinely and Deputy Administrator Davis Anderson, after being terminated from his position in January of 2012. David Brown, who was then an Animal Control officer and is now the head of Animal Control, was also named as a defendant in the suit. The termination came on the heels of questions about how Hollis handled a January 2012 incident in which one dog attacked another in Fairfield County. The victim in the attack eventually had one hind leg amputated by a Fairfield County veterinarian, while the attacking dog was later euthanized. Hollis’s suit alleged defamation and civil conspiracy and sought $2 million in damages.

In his analysis of the defamation claim, Goldsmith wrote that, under S.C. law, a plaintiff must show that “a false and defamatory statement was made; the unprivileged publication was made to a third party; the publisher was at fault;” and that the statement caused “special harm.” As a public official, Hollis also had the “constitutional burden” of proving the statements were made with “actual malice,” Goldsmith noted.

In his analysis of the civil conspiracy claim, Goldsmith wrote that Hollis, as a public official and an at-will employee, “cannot maintain a civil conspiracy claim against a private party.”

In his original lawsuit, Hollis claimed that he was fired by Anderson on Jan. 20, 2012 for alleged incompetence in the handling of the dog attack case. The suit also alleged that, at the behest of the defendants, an e-mail message was circulated by a third party requesting “honest people” to attend a meeting to speak out about Hollis’s “abuse of his job.” The suit also alleged that Hollis was approached by Brown at a Feb. 9, 2012 County Council meeting and publicly accused of incompetence in the dog attack case.

Hollis’s suit also claimed that Brown was brought in as his replacement because of Brown’s relationship to the Clerk to County Council – Brown’s wife, Shryll Brown. Hollis claimed that Anderson and Brown together conspired to replace him, meeting in secret over a span of several months in order to hatch their scheme.

Goldsmith dismissed the case on March 18.