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New Minnesota Defamation Cases

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This spring marks the 50th anniversary of the famous New York Times case, which revolutionized defamation law in this country.  In New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), the U.S. Supreme court brought many claims of libel, written disparagement, slander and oral derogation under the umbrella of the First Amendment. 

The decision, handed down on March 9, 1964, applied first to public officials and was later extended to well-known public figures, issues of “public concern,” claims for punitive damages, in Minnesota claims by business entities and organizations.  Under the Times doctrine, a defamation claimant must prove that the statements causing harm to reputation were made with “knowing falsity” or “reckless disregard for the truth.”  The Court felt that statements that harm reputation, even if false, require “breathing room” in order to avoid imposing a “chilling effect” on the Constitutional right of freedom of expression.

While often criticized, the standard bar stood the test of time – 50 years to be exact. But the Times doctrine is not all-inclusive, as reflected in five cases recently before the Minnesota appellate courts.  In five cases this winter, the state appellate court and Supreme Court addressed defamation cases that fall outside of the broad protection of the New York Times cases.  Indeed, the Times doctrine was not even material in this quintet of cases coming up all of this time after Times.

  • In Heller v. Hennepin County, 2014 WL 349738 (Feb. 3, 2014), the appellate court ruled that a case by a Minneapolis property owning couple against Hennepin County could go to trial after county commissioners blamed them for trying to “manipulate” the sale of their property to the county for a planned library construction. The ruling reversed a lower court decision dismissing the lawsuit.
  • Dispute between neighbors in Orono did not constitute an actionable defamation case in Nygaard v. Walsh, 2014 WL 349761 (Feb. 3, 2014).  The Court of Appeals ruled that a land owner’s claim that he was defamed by statements made by a neighbor at a city council meeting about improper activities on the claimant’s property were immune from suit.
  • A patient at a physical rehabilitation clinic in St. Paul was barred from suing for defamation and other claims due to statements in his medical file that he tested positive for drug use.  In Smith v. Britton, 2014 WL 349742 (Feb. 3, 2014), the appellate court upheld dismissal of claims relating to data in the medical record.
  • In Briquet v. Davidson, 2014 WL 40294 (February 10, 2014), a letter from a shareholder in a small company accusing the majority owner of various improprieties was deemed actionable.  Reversing a lower court ruling, the appellate court held that the correspondence was not subject to an “absolute privilege” against libel because it was not made “in contemplation” of potential litigation.
  • Meanwhile, the Minnesota Supreme Court heard a case concerning discrepancy remarks made by a Minneapolis police officer in a background check of a former subordinate by the police in Mounds View.  In Minke v. City of Minneapolis, No. 12-2272, the Court is considering an appellate court ruling allowing the lawsuit to proceed despite a claim by the City that the case should be dismissed.

These cases show that, 50 years after the historic Times case, defamation litigation remains vibrant in Minnesota.

***

Marshall will be redirecting a panel program on defamation at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism on April 23, 2014, entitled “Time After Times.”  The program will be part of a symposium on defamation law honoring the late University of Minnesota Journalism Professor Donald Gillmor.