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Irish v. Hall

Supreme Court of Idaho

April 26, 2018

DENNIS IRISH and WANDA IRISH, husband and wife, Plaintiffs-Appellants-Cross Respondents,
v.
JEFFREY HALL and DONA HALL, husband and wife, Defendants-Respondents-Cross Appellants.

         2018 Opinion No. 42

          Appeal from the District Court of the First Judicial District, State of Idaho, Kootenai County. Hon. Cynthia K.C. Meyer, District Judge.

         The district court's order is vacated and remanded for further proceedings.

          James, Vernon & Weeks, PA, Coeur d'Alene, for appellants. Susan P. Weeks argued.

          Erik P. Smith, PC, Coeur d'Alene, for respondents. Erik P. Smith argued.

          BURDICK, Chief Justice.

         Dennis 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 this opinion.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         The 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 stocking u2."

         The 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.

         In 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 charges.

         Tensions 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 wireless designations.

         In August 2015, the Irishes filed a complaint claiming defamatory slander against the Halls.[1] 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.

         The 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 defamatory.

         In 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.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         "When 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, ...


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