Jurors will begin deciding today whether a Sea Pines' security chief and other plantation officials intentionally maligned a local judge.
Attorneys presented their closing arguments Tuesday in the six-day trial of Hilton Head Island Municipal Court Judge Maureen Coffey's defamation lawsuit.
Coffey has accused the Sea Pines' property owners association, Community Services Associates, and its security chief, George Breed, of harassing and defaming her and her family as authorities investigated a series of break-ins in 2004 and 2008, in which her adopted brother was a suspect.
In a deposition read in court last week, Breed has stood by his contention that Coffey "hindered and interfered" with a Beaufort County Sheriff's Office investigation of Otis Coffey. Breed's suspicions led him to file a judicial complaint against Maureen Coffey that was later dismissed.
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In his letter to the S.C. Commission on Judicial Conduct, Breed alleged Judge Coffey is unable to be neutral in cases involving Sea Pines and showed a pattern of "prejudicial" conduct.
Judges should expect to be criticized, CSA attorney Andrew Halio told the jury Tuesday.
"Criticism is an occupational hazard for judges," he said. "They are people that work for you and (you) ought to be able to express your opinion on their conduct."
Halio argued Breed's statements were true and that Judge Coffey's actions gave the appearance that she was "trying to throw her weight around as a judge." A former appellate court judge testified to that effect Monday as an expert witness.
Breed and CSA were within their constitutional rights under the First Amendment to complain of her conduct as a public official, Halio said.
Coffey's attorney, Robert Mathison, argued Breed and CSA acted with "actual malice," a legal standard established by a 1964 U.S. Supreme Court ruling which said public officials suing for defamation have to prove those who maligned them did so intentionally. That establishes a higher burden of proof that requires Coffey to prove Breed and CSA knew the statements were false or acted in reckless disregard of its truth.
Mathison claims Breed's statements were false, based on testimony from officials with the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office that said Coffey never interfered with their investigation into the Sea Pines break-ins. He also cited Breed's and CSA's failure to provide "a shred of evidence" the judge acted with bias, prejudice or partiality while on the bench.
He also pointed to the fact the state's Commission on Judicial Conduct determined there was insufficient evidence to file charges against Coffey or investigate Breed's claim further.
"What was in Mr. Breed's letter is an example of hyperbole -- not an outright lie -- but gross exaggeration based on bad facts ... intended to harm and injure Maureen Coffey," Mathison said in his closing Tuesday.
S.C. Appellate Court rules prohibit judges from filing civil lawsuits against those who lodge complaints against them.
Mathison, however, said he believes Coffey still has a right under the law to sue for defamation and damages, saying Breed and CSA tarnished her reputation by sharing the judicial complaint with town officials and others in Sea Pines. Judicial complaints are confidential unless disciplinary action is taken.
Halio argued Breed and CSA's chief operations officer Cary Kelley shared the complaint with the CSA board because they share a common interest in Sea Pines' security, and did so as agents of the plantation. He also argued Breed and CSA had the right to complain to Coffey's supervisor, assistant town manager Greg DeLoach.
Coffey also claims CSA employees falsely accused her of having an affair with a former Sea Pines Security officer. Coffey is separated from her husband.
"Maligning someone over sexual impropriety is the standard refuge of a scoundrel," Mathison said.
Halio responded by calling rumors of an affair nothing more than "water cooler" and "smack" talk.
- Former appellate judge: Sea Pines officials right to question judge's actions: June 4, 2012
- Breed denies directing Sea Pines officer to lie, stands behind complaint: June 1, 2012
- Sea Pines security officers cast doubt on former co-worker's testimony: May 31, 2012
- Former Sea Pines officer testifies security chief ordered him to lie: May 30, 2012
- Hilton Head judge's defamation suit moves to trial: May 19, 2012
- Sea Pines property owners association responds to Judge Coffey's lawsuit: Dec. 26, 2008