DENNIS IRISH and WANDA IRISH, husband and wife, Plaintiffs-Appellants-Cross Respondents,
JEFFREY HALL and DONA HALL, husband and wife, Defendants-Respondents-Cross Appellants.
Opinion No. 42
from the District Court of the First Judicial District, State
of Idaho, Kootenai County. Hon. Cynthia K.C. Meyer, District
district court's order is vacated and remanded for
Vernon & Weeks, PA, Coeur d'Alene, for appellants.
Susan P. Weeks argued.
P. Smith, PC, Coeur d'Alene, for respondents. Erik P.
BURDICK, Chief Justice.
and Wanda Irish (collectively, Irishes) appeal the Kootenai
County district court's order granting a directed verdict
in favor of Jeffrey and Dona Hall (collectively, Halls). The
Irishes brought a defamation action against the Halls after
the Halls changed their home wireless internet designation to
read, "[D]ennis & [W]anda Irish stocking u2."
The complaint requested an injunction, damages, attorney fees
and costs. This followed an acrimonious history between the
parties stemming from Wanda Irish's role as the mayor of
the city of Harrison. The district court granted the
Halls' motion for a directed verdict, concluding the
statement conveyed via the wireless designation was an
opinion, and as such was protected under the First Amendment.
The Irishes appealed the district court's order, and the
Halls cross-appealed, challenging the district court's
denial of attorney fees. We vacate the district court's
order granting a directed verdict, affirm the denial of
attorney fees, and remand for proceedings consistent with
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
following facts and subsequent procedural history were
produced at trial. At the time of trial, Wanda Irish had been
the mayor of Harrison since 2010. Dennis Irish is her
husband. Jeffrey and Dona Hall are the owners of the Gateway
Marina in Harrison, and Jeffrey Hall also serves as a member
of City Council. This is a defamation case involving a series
of statements made by the Halls about the Irishes. At issue
is the Halls' changing of their home wireless internet
designation to read, "[D]ennis & [W]anda Irish
tension between the parties has been going on for several
years, with most of the disputes centering on Wanda
Irish's role as mayor, and the Halls' ownership of
the Gateway Marina, with conflict arising over an easement
the city has near the marina. The dispute underlying the
present case began in May 2012, after the Halls' boat and
trailer were towed off of the public easement. Upon
discovering his boat had been towed, Jeffrey Hall called
Wanda Irish eight times within one hour calling her vulgar
names and accusing her of having his boat towed, which Wanda
Irish denied doing. Following this incident, Jeffrey Hall
placed posters in his vehicle that read, "MAYOR IRISH
LIED!!!" and "MAYOR IRISH LIES!!!" Later that
year, the Halls found several cameras around town and in the
campground near the marina, which were later revealed to
belong to Dennis Irish. The Irishes stated the cameras were
for security, due to recent graffiti that had been occurring
around the city.
2013, the Halls reported to the Kootenai County Sheriff's
Office that Dennis Irish was stalking Dona Hall. The alleged
incident of stalking occurred when Dennis Irish and his
business partner drove past Dona Hall when she was standing
near the side of a public road. Dennis was subsequently cited
for stalking; however, the prosecutor dismissed the stalking
continued to escalate between the parties, and in 2015,
Jeffrey Hall confronted Wanda Irish at her place of
employment and accused her of holding secret meetings.
Jeffrey Hall also accused Wanda Irish of favoring family
members on social media. Following these events, in July
2015, Jeffrey Hall changed the Gateway Marina's wireless
internet designation to read, "Mayor Wanda Irish
Terrorist." Wanda Irish saw the wireless name on her
cell phone, and the Irishes' attorney subsequently sent a
cease and desist letter to the Halls. The Halls responded by
changing the Gateway Marina's wireless designation to,
"she really is a [t]errorist." The Halls then
changed their home wireless internet designation to read,
"[D]ennis and [W]anda Irish stocking u2." In August
2015, the Halls again changed their home wireless designation
to "Move Irish." The Halls admit they made the
August 2015, the Irishes filed a complaint claiming
defamatory slander against the Halls. A three-day jury trial was
scheduled, but after the first day at the close of the
Irishes' presentation of evidence, the Halls'
attorney made a motion for a directed verdict. The district
court granted the directed verdict in favor of the Halls, and
subsequently entered judgment on December 1, 2016. The
district court stated, "defamation is a morass of gray
areas. It's very difficult to prove. It kind of reminds
me of the Shrek movie when Shrek talks about onions and
having layers and you peel back a layer and there's
another layer and another layer and another layer." The
district court went on to say,
The next statement, "Dennis and Wanda stocking U2,
" again, who are they talking about? And then with the
misspelling of "stalking, " again, we know that
what was intended is s-t-a-l-k, stalking, harassing, spying
on, or at least I think that's the intent. I think
that's a reasonable inference based on the evidence that
that was the intent of that name, but it's misspelled
s-t-o-c-k-i-n-g, and then there's U2, you, the letter,
and 2, the numeral.
For someone who is seeing that for the first time, what does
that mean? Does it mean that they're actually stocking U2
albums for sale? Sounds kind of preposterous, but I don't
know that it's any more preposterous than another
interpretation. And, again, I believe it's an opinion. I
don't believe it's subject to something that can be
proven or disproven.
court ultimately granted the Halls' motion for a directed
verdict, concluding that the statements made by the Halls
about the Irishes were published, but that they were
opinions, exaggeration, and hyperbole, and as such not
February 2017, the district court granted the Halls'
request for costs, but denied their request for attorney
fees, stating the case was not frivolous, unreasonable, or
without foundation. The Irishes timely appealed the granting
of the directed verdict and the Halls cross-appealed the
denial of attorney fees.
II. ISSUES ON APPEAL
1. Whether the district court erred in granting the
Halls' motion for a directed verdict.
2. Whether the district court abused its discretion in
denying the Halls' request for attorney fees and whether
the Halls are entitled to attorney fees on appeal.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
reviewing a decision to grant or deny a motion for a directed
verdict, this Court applies the same standard the trial court
applied when originally ruling on the motion."
DrugTesting Compliance Grp., LLC v. DOT
Compliance Serv., 161 Idaho 93, 100, 383 P.3d 1263, 1270
(2016) (quoting April Beguesse, Inc. v. Rammell, ...