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Court rules against Parkersburg privacy complaint

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Parkersburg resident Joseph Backus failed to substantiate allegations that his privacy had been invaded or that he'd been libeled by the city's mayor and police chief, U.S. Judge Joseph R. Goodwin ruled recently.

Backus's hand-written complaint, originally filed pro se in Wood County Circuit Court, alleged Mayor Bob Newell and Police Chief Joseph Martin violated his first, fourth and 14th amendment rights when they ran a background check on him. He asked for $12 million in damages from the city. The case was transferred to U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia in July, and the following month Backus retained an attorney.

Goodwin granted the city's request for summary judgment and dismissed the case from federal court, something Newell said he'd expected.

"We did win; I always felt we would," he said. "We didn't do anything wrong. We had good reason to see if he had violence in his background."

Newell characterized the complaint as "one of those political lawsuits filed before or during an election."

Goodwin pointed out the complaint was never updated after Backus hired Charleston attorney Paul Stroebel of Stroebel & Johnson to represent him. While pro se complaints are more liberally construed by the court, the standards were raised once he was represented by legal counsel.

"His original pro se status no longer entitled him to a liberal interpretation of his pleadings," Goodwin wrote, noting the original complaint "failed to state a claim" upon which relief could be granted. "Without an actionable claim, there can be no factual issue for a jury to determine."

"(His) obligation to provide the ‘grounds' of his entitlement to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do," the judge said, adding there was no factual basis to support Backus's claim that the checks were done in retaliation because he'd exercised his First Amendment right to free speech and were a due process violation.

"Mere allegation ... is not sufficient to state a claim for invasion of privacy," Goodwin wrote. 

Likewise, on the libel claim, he said Backus "does not offer more than a scintilla of evidence in support of his argument, and thus does not demonstrate a genuine issue of material fact on his libel claim."