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Estepp v. Johnson County Newspapers, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Kentucky

June 28, 2019

DAVID A. ESTEPP, JR. APPELLANT
v.
JOHNSON COUNTY NEWSPAPERS, INC., D/B/A THE PAINTSVILLE HERALD APPELLEE

          APPEAL FROM JOHNSON CIRCUIT COURT HONORABLE JOHN DAVID PRESTON, JUDGE ACTION NO. 17-CI-00217

          BRIEF FOR APPELLANT: Mitchell D. Kinner Paintsville, Kentucky

          BRIEF FOR APPELLEE: Jeremy S. Rogers Louisville, Kentucky

          BEFORE: ACREE, DIXON AND K. THOMPSON, JUDGES.

          OPINION

          THOMPSON, K., JUDGE

         David A. Estepp, Jr. filed suit against the Johnson County Newspapers, Inc., d/b/a The Paintsville Herald (the Herald), arguing he was defamed and the Herald engaged in outrageous conduct when it used the terms "removed from" and "relieved of" in news articles referring to him leaving his employment. Estepp appeals from the judgment of the Johnson Circuit Court granting the newspaper's motion for summary judgment and dismissing the case. As the newspaper did not defame Estepp or engage in outrageous conduct, we affirm.

         Estepp was employed as President/General Manager of Big Sandy RECC (Big Sandy), an electric cooperative. While Estepp was serving in this position, in January 2017, local resident George Spriggs began to campaign for a seat on Big Sandy's Board of Directors. While doing so, according to Estepp, Spriggs began to circulate a document accusing Estepp of taking bribes and kickbacks, illegally using FEMA funds, and improperly using Big Sandy's facilities and personnel. On February 27, 2017, Estepp sued Spriggs for defamation. The Herald reported on this lawsuit.

         Meanwhile, members of the labor union that represented many of Big Sandy's employees were frustrated with their prior collective bargaining negotiations. In March 2017, some of the membership organized a petition calling for the termination of Big Sandy executives including Estepp and placed the petition in a local grocery store.

         On April 10, 2017, Estepp went to the grocery store and removed the petition. Estepp argues he did so under the belief that the petition contained defamatory statements about him.

          On April 12, 2017, the Herald reported that the petition had been taken from the grocery store and the incident was recorded on the store's surveillance video. Other news outlets also published information about the petition's removal, including video footage which showed Estepp removing the petition and stuffing it into his back pocket.

         On April 14, 2017, the Herald reported that the petition was returned, and the Kentucky State Police had begun an investigation.

         Subsequently, Estepp left his position as President/General Manager of Big Sandy. On May 12, 2017, the Herald published a news report with the headline: "Big Sandy RECC replaces general manager." The article began:

Big Sandy Rural Electric Cooperative Company (RECC) has replaced David Estepp with Bobby Sexton as general manager of the company.
Estepp was removed from his position on April 27, as confirmed by William Maxey, board member for Big Sandy RECC[.]
"Bobby Sexton has been hired to serve as interim general manager of Big Sandy RECC." said Lance Daniels, RECC Board Attorney. "David Estepp is no longer general manager."

         The article had a paragraph discussing Sexton's background and a paragraph discussing Big Sandy's ...


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