JACKSON, Miss. (WDAM) - On Thursday, the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed a Court of Appeals decision in a 2013 lawsuit filed against the city of Hattiesburg, former Mayor Johnny Dupree and city council members.
Sharon Mark, a former municipal court clerk, sued the city, as well as Dupree and five city council members individually, for slander, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Mark claimed the mayor and council members were individually liable because they acted with malice.
The lawsuit came after an investigation into allegations that Mark and several deputy clerks she supervised had hidden paperwork, shredded documents, accepted bribes in exchange for dismissing tickets, fines and warrants, and engaged in inappropriate contact with judges, according to court documents.
The Hattiesburg Police Department conducted the internal investigation, leading to discipline against the clerks. Mark and two deputy clerks were suspended without pay and another deputy clerk was fired. Mark was also ordered to pay $300 in restitution.
Former Councilman Kim Bradley released HPD’s investigative report of the court system to the media, which was posted online. The report contained a medical leave form submitted by Mark, revealing her diagnosis and surgery for breast cancer.
Mark sued and the Forrest County Circuit Court granted a summary judgement for the city but denied it for the mayor and city council members, allowing legal action to proceed against them individually.
After a five-day trial in 2016, the circuit court judge granted a directed verdict motion for Dupree and the council members because Mark failed to prove that the individuals acted with malice. Mark appealed, but the Mississippi Court of Appeals affirmed the rulings.
The Mississippi Supreme Court agreed to hear Mark’s appeal on whether the Court of Appeal erred on the invasion of privacy ruling only.
According to the Supreme Court’s ruling, there was "no evidence for a reasonable juror to conclude that he [Bradley] acted maliciously — that is, with any ill will toward Mark or wanton disregard of her privacy rights” when he released the report to the media.
For this reason, the court affirmed the Court of Appeal’s ruling.
In a separate written opinion, Presiding Justice James W. Kitchens dissented, with Presiding Justice Leslie D. King joining the opinion.
Kitchens wrote that he would have allowed the invasion of privacy claim against the individual city council members to go to the jury.
“I would find that a jury question exists on whether the public disclosure of Sharon Mark’s breast cancer surgery would have been highly offensive to a reasonable person,” Kitchens wrote. “I further would find that Mark’s evidence of malice was sufficient to create a jury question on that element of her claim.”
According to Kitchens, because a reasonable juror could interpret Bradley’s disclosure of Mark’s medical leave form as “reckless disregard of her right to privacy,” the question of if malice was proved should be determined by a jury.