HILO — The Hawaii Supreme Court has overturned the dismissal of a defamation lawsuit filed by county Elections Administrator Pat Nakamoto and a former elections clerk against Hawaii County, former Councilman Dominic Yagong and a private investigator.
The 48-page ruling filed Tuesday, however, clears former County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi, saying the comments attributed to her in a 2012 newspaper article weren’t defamatory because they were true.
The court sent the rest of the case back to circuit court for further proceedings for all defendants except Kawauchi. The circuit court must decide because “whether Yagong’s allegedly defamatory statements were true involves a disputed question of material fact.”
Higher courts rule only on the law; it’s up to the circuit court to rule on facts in a case.
The lower court must also decide whether the private investigator hired by the county, Corporate Specialized Investigations and Intelligence Services LLC, breached its duty of care, “to conduct an investigation honestly, truthfully, with fair dealing, and to report the results of the investigation accurately, without misrepresenting any facts,” the ruling states.
Nakamoto and former elections clerk Shyla Ayau sued after statements by Yagong and Kawauchi were quoted in a Jan. 12, 2012, article in Big Island newspapers naming four employees who had been fired for unspecified violations of county policy. In the article, written by former Hawaii Tribune-Herald reporter Jason Armstrong, Kawauchi identifies the four who were fired.
Ted Hong, a Hilo attorney representing Nakamoto and Ayau, said the impact of this decision in the workplace cannot be understated.
“This is an important decision for all employees who need to protect their reputation from malicious employers and co-workers,” Hong said in a statement. “The court’s decision will help protect workers in the changing, modern workplace for the next 50 years, at least.”
The county, in its defense, had claimed worker compensation law is the only recourse for employees who believe they are defamed or their reputations injured by action at the workplace.
The court disagreed.
“We hold that the (worker compensation law) bar on claims for injuries incurred in the course of employment does not extend to injuries to a person’s reputation. Accordingly, employees may bring defamation and false light claims against their employers,” the ruling says.
Yagong and Kawauchi were investigating reports that county employees were hosting parties with alcohol at the county’s Elections Division warehouse. The county code forbids alcohol use on county property. The two were also looking into reports that the warehouse manager, Glen Shikuma, was running a private sign-making business in the county’s leased warehouse building, which would also have been against the county code.
Investigators turned up evidence of empty, full and partially consumed alcohol containers, as well as sign-making equipment Shikuma said he was storing at the warehouse, but claimed he never used on county property. After union grievance hearings, Nakamoto received a 10-day suspension and was reinstated. Shikuma died of an aneurysm before completing the union arbitration process.