Former Portsmouth mayor’s comments about fired city attorney are not defamation, judge decides

Josh Reyes, The Virginian-Pilot
·2 min read

A Norfolk judge dismissed a defamation lawsuit filed by former Portsmouth City Attorney Solomon Ashby against former Mayor John Rowe, saying he considers the alleged defamation a mischaracterization of legal advice.

In September, former City Manager Lydia Pettis Patton placed Angela Greene on administrative leave after the then-police chief filed controversial charges against prominent Black leaders in the aftermath of the destruction and defacement of Portsmouth’s Confederate monument. The council sought advice from Ashby regarding Pettis Patton’s employment.

Shortly after, Pettis Patton and Ashby were out of work. She resigned, and Ashby was fired by a 4-3 City Council vote.

Rowe, who voted to fire Ashby, said a majority of council members had “lost confidence” in Ashby and Pettis Patton in an interview with WVEC-TV.

Ashby sued Rowe for $2 million over comments in that interview.

Rowe referred to an email in which Ashby advised council members to “resist any inclination to act in a manner that may be in violation of the law” as they considered firing Pettis Patton. Rowe claimed Ashby advised council members they could not fire Pettis Patton and “the city manager is bulletproof.” Rowe described that as “not very balanced and good advice.”

Ashby said that was a mischaracterization of his advice — he said the council should not fire Pettis Patton, not that the council could not fire her.

Judge Everett A. Martin Jr. agreed with Ashby that Rowe mischaracterized the attorney’s advice. He did not agree with Ashby’s assertion that the mayor’s public criticism damaged his reputation, causing “great humiliation, shame, vilification, exposure to public infamy, scandal, and disgrace.”

Martin said Rowe’s words lacked defamatory “sting,” citing several legal cases.

“This slight mischaracterization of advice does not injure (Ashby’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,’” Martin wrote in his dismissal.

He also wrote that this type of conflict between officials in Portsmouth has become rote.

Along with death and taxes, “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.”

Ashby’s attorney Christian Connell said he was working with his client to see if there is a path forward with the lawsuit. Martin granted Ashby the opportunity to amend his complaint and refile it by April 16.

Josh Reyes, 757-247-4692, joreyes@dailypress.com