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Jacobs v. Oath for Louisiana, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Fourth Circuit

June 22, 2017

JAMUS JACOBS
v.
THE OATH FOR LOUISIANA, INC., ET AL

         APPEAL FROM CIVIL DISTRICT COURT, ORLEANS PARISH NO. 2002-19037, DIVISION "E" Honorable Clare Jupiter, Judge

          Dwan S. Hilferty COUNSEL FOR PLAINTIFF/APPELLANT

          Richard E. King Renee S. Melchiode MELCHIODE MARKS KING, LLC, Jeff Landry ATTORNEY GENERAL Lance Guest Shelley Winters ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERALS LOUISIANA DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE LITIGATION DIVISION COUNSEL FOR DEFENDANTS/APPELLEES

          Court composed of Judge Terri F. Love, Judge Daniel L. Dysart, Judge Madeleine M. Landrieu, Judge Joy Cossich Lobrano, Judge Sandra Cabrina Jenkins

          Madeleine M. Landrieu Judge

         Plaintiff, Jamus Jacobs, appeals the district court's granting of two motions for summary judgment against him, and the trial court's denial of his motions for new trial as to each ruling. The trial court's rulings dismissed with prejudice the defamation claims brought by Mr. Jacobs against two separate groups of defendants. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

         FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS BELOW

         The plaintiff is a former employee of The Oath for Louisiana, Inc. (the "Oath"), a private insurance company operating in Louisiana. On December 10, 2002, Mr. Jacobs filed suit against the Oath, Venture Health Partnership Group, Inc. ("VHPG"), The Scheur Management Group, Inc. ("SMG"), Barry S. Scheur, Nancy Belle, the Louisiana Department of Insurance (the "DOI"), James Robert Wooley (individually and in his capacity as Acting Commissioner of the Louisiana Department of Insurance), and Amy Whittington.[1] Mr. Scheur, Ms. Belle, and SMG (collectively, the "Scheur defendants") filed one of the motions for summary judgment under consideration here; Mr. Wooley, Ms. Whittington, and the DOI (collectively, the "DOI defendants") filed the other. The facts underlying Mr. Jacobs' action are as follows.

         Mr. Scheur began operating the Oath through the companies he solely controlled, SMG and VHPG, when the state of Louisiana allowed him to take over Southeast Medical Alliance in 1999. Mr. Jacobs was hired by Mr. Scheur to assume the position of Vice President of Sales and Marketing for the Oath, and began working for the company on August 1, 2000. Between late October and early November of 2000, Mr. Jacobs supported the decision of the Oath's Chief Financial Officer, who refused to sign the Oath's third quarter financial report required by the DOI. Mr. Jacobs objected to the report because it included an improper reclassification of certain claims by the Oath, which made a loss of several million dollars appear to be a profit of $500, 000.00. As a result of this improper reporting, the Oath appeared to be in compliance with the DOI's statutory reserve requirements. Later, in December of 2000 and January of 2001, in reviewing the Oath's budget, Mr. Jacobs questioned the $325, 000 monthly consulting fee the Oath was paying to Mr. Scheur's company, SMG. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Jacobs was fired, allegedly without being given a reason for his termination. The termination became effective February 2, 2001.

         On October 26, 2001, Mr. Jacobs filed a wrongful termination claim (the "2001 lawsuit"). In addition to alleging that he had been wrongfully terminated, Mr. Jacobs alleged that Mr. Scheur had made improper payments from the Oath to his children's trust accounts, that Mr. Scheur was taking excessive consulting fees, that Mr. Scheur had illegally reclassified claims, and that the DOI's Deputy Commissioner had improperly provided information to the Oath about another insurance company's products. The 2001 lawsuit was settled in December of 2001.

         On December 10, 2001, before Mr. Scheur had paid Mr. Jacobs the final installment of the money due to him under the settlement agreement, an article was published in the New Orleans City Business titled "State Launches Investigation Based on Suit Against Oath." The article focused on allegations made by Mr. Jacobs in the 2001 lawsuit. The article contained quotes from Mr. Scheur and Mr. Wooley in response to those allegations. In pertinent part, the article read:

Scheur says the allegations are "beyond absurdity." "This was a disgruntled employee who was a former senior executive for one of our competitors" Scheur says. "The lawsuit has been settled and withdrawn. I vehemently deny all of the allegations."

         The reporter also noted that Mr. Scheur had refused to provide the financial terms of the settlement with Mr. Jacobs. The article also contained statements made by Mr. Scheur concerning the DOI's investigation. Mr. Scheur was quoted as saying that he "welcomes the investigation" and also: "I have a great relationship with the Department of Insurance. I know that I am going to be vindicated." Mr. Scheur also stated, regarding the Oath's finances, "I've never tried to hide when we have had financial difficulties. When we have had losses, we have reported losses. I wouldn't even know how to change the numbers."

         Mr. Wooley, too, was quoted in the City Business article. As to Mr. Wooley, the article read:

Acting Louisiana Insurance Commissioner Robert Wooley says he opened an investigation two weeks ago into the accusations in the lawsuit. Nevertheless, he says the motive behind the allegations makes him "a little leery" of them. "There was a lot of stuff in the lawsuit that seems intended to get publicity so they could try to get a settlement, " Wooley says.

         Three days later, on December 13, 2001, the Baton Rouge Advocate published an article entitled "Insurance chief eyes The Oath Operations." The article restated many of the allegations raised by Jacobs in his 2001 lawsuit. In responding to these allegations, Mr. Scheur was quoted in the article as stating:

I welcome any review that the DOI believes is necessary. The lawsuit is frivolous, baseless, and absurd. The allegations have been withdrawn by the party filing them.

         Ms. Whittington, acting as a spokesperson for the DOI, was also quoted in the Advocate article. That portion of the Advocate article read:

Acting Insurance Commissioner J. Robert Wooley confirmed through a spokeswoman [Wooley] Tuesday that he is "looking into" The Oath's financial reports filed in the third quarter of 2000 after accusations of accounting irregularities were leveled in a wrongful termination lawsuit filed by the company's former marketing director…But Wooley's action was not an investigation, the spokeswoman said…. "A person at the Department of Insurance has been given the task of looking at the allegations, " Amy Whittington said. "This is not a big thing. It's not a top priority for the Department of Insurance." Whittington said Wooley took action because he thought it was the "responsible thing to do" since the allegations were made in a lawsuit….But the review was not a high priority since the allegations were made by "a disgruntled employee, " she said.

         In 2002, following the publication of these articles, Mr. Jacobs filed the defamation lawsuit that is the subject of the instant appeal. The matter was stayed by the district court for approximately ten years (from March 11, 2003, until April 2, 2013) while the Oath and VHPG completed liquidation. [2]

         On March 4, 2015, the Scheur defendants filed a motion for summary judgment and on September 22, 2015, the DOI defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, both motions asserting that Mr. Jacobs, as a matter of law, could not prove his defamation claims.[3] The motions were heard by the district court on January 8, 2016. The court issued written judgment granting both motions on February 26, 2016. Mr. Jacobs filed motions for new trial regarding both grants of summary judgment against him, which were denied by written judgment dated May 19, 2016. This appeal followed.

         APPLICABL ...


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