Judge: Fired Portsmouth city attorney’s $2M defamation suit will be dismissed if it’s not amended

Portsmouth

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — A judge has ordered that the lawsuit from former Portsmouth CIty Attorney Solomon Ashby against former Mayor John Rowe will be dismissed if the suit is not amended by April 16.

 In his March 26 opinion, Norfolk Judge Everett Martin said that he views the lawsuit claiming Rowe’s statement to WVEC-TV defamed Ashby — “culminating in an opinion that you can’t fire the city manager, that the city manager is bulletproof, and that just does not hold up,” the judge said — as a “mischaracterization of legal advice.”  

Ashby filed the $2-million defamation lawsuit in October. It alleges Mayor John Rowe defamed Ashby’s character when he spoke to local news reporters after Ashby was fired in September.

Rowe spoke to the media outlet and said Ashby’s advice that City Council shouldn’t fire then-City Manager Dr. Lydia Pettis Patton was “not very balanced and good advice.”

“I have never seen an opinion like that before. It just did not make any sense and it doesn’t make any sense now,” Rowe said at the time. “Culminating in an opinion that you can’t fire the city manager, that the city manager is bulletproof, and that just does not hold up.”

Ashby’s attorney said that the statement was false and Rowe “knew that such statement was false when he made it.”

Patton resigned in September ahead of her planned retirement. City Council planned to meet that day to discuss whether to fire both Patton and Ashby because they had both “lost confidence” from a majority of council members.

Ashby was fired and Patton resigned amid the controversy surrounding the city’s Confederate monument and the aftermath of a destructive protest at the statue. Patton came under scrutiny after Portsmouth Police Chief Angela Greene was placed on administrative leave after the police department charged state Sen. L. Louise Lucas and other prominent community members in connection with a demonstration that left the Portsmouth Confederate monument painted and damaged.

Greene was fired in November, after Patton resigned.

The judge said in his order that “It is correct that the plaintiff never wrote that the City Council could not fire the city manager. However, he did write that the City Council should not do so.”

“This slight mischaracterization of advice does not injure the plaintiff’s ‘reputation in the common estimation of mankind,’ throw shame or disgrace upon him, or ‘tend to hold him up to scorn or ridicule or render him infamous or ridiculous,'” the judge wrote.

In the first line of the opinion, the judge played off Ben Franklin’s famous quote that “The Only Two Certainties In Life Are Death And Taxes.” He wrote that “There is, after all, a third certainty in life: acrimony among public officials in Portsmouth will find its way into the press. Of late, it also finds its way across the Elizabeth River into this Court.”

If the lawsuit isn’t amended by April 16, it will be dismissed with prejudice.

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