A 3rd Circuit Court judge on Monday threw out a defamation lawsuit against Hawaii County, County Council Chairman Dominic Yagong and County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi.
Judge Elizabeth Strance said she agreed with the county’s argument that Elections Division Administrator Pat Nakamoto could not sue the county for claims of defamation, defamation through negligence, portraying the plaintiffs in a false light, negligent investigation and negligent infliction of emotional distress because those claims arose from actions related to Nakamoto’s employment with the county. That means the claims would be covered by the state’s worker’s compensation laws.
The two employees were trying to argue “their injuries didn’t arise out of their employment,” Deputy Corporation Counsel Laureen Martin said after the hearing at the Kealakekua courthouse.
Worker’s compensation laws are fairly broad, she added, because the state wanted workers to be able to have injuries covered as quickly as possible and without having to sue their employers.
Nakamoto’s attorney, Ted Hong, said he intended to appeal the ruling.
“It overextends the workers compensation exclusivity” clause further than any previous ruling by any state or federal court in Hawaii, he said. “I’m very confident we’re going to win on appeal.”
The ruling may pertain only to Nakamoto’s complaint against the county and the two officials in their official capacities, West Hawaii attorney Francis Jung said. Strance’s oral ruling Monday did not specify whether the case was dismissed with regards to the officials in their private capacities.
Jung said a second defamation lawsuit, brought by Elections worker Shyla Ayau, is still pending.
At issue was information given to the media in January regarding a county investigation into drinking parties and a private business operation at the elections warehouse that led to Nakamoto’s termination.
She was later reinstated to her position. Martin said because Nakamoto was given her job back and received back pay, it was like she never stopped being a county employee.
Hong disagreed, noting Nakamoto did receive a 10-day suspension. Further, the comments that were eventually included in media reports were made after Nakamoto was terminated and before she was reinstated. He asked Strance to deny the motion to dismiss the case to allow for discovery, the exchange of documents in a legal case, to reveal who he said leaked the information to the media.
The case was moved to West Hawaii after two Hilo judges recused themselves. Judges are not required to give a reason when choosing to step down from a case.
Nakamoto and three other employees were fired in January. After union grievance hearings, Nakamoto received a 10-day suspension, and she and Ayau were reinstated to their positions.
One of the fired elections workers was reinstated and went back to work. The other, former Warehouse Manager Glen Shikuma, was scheduled for a union arbitration in October, but died of an aneurysm in August.