Maethner v. Someplace Safe, Inc., No. A17-0998 (Minn. Sup. Ct.) June 26, 2019.
Plaintiff’s ex-wife and a local domestic violence non-profit included plaintiff’s name, which the ex-wife retained, in online news of her award for involvement in domestic violence advocacy. Plaintiff was not referenced directly, but lived in an area of close social connections and a relatively small population.
Plaintiff sued both the non-profit and his ex-wife for defamation. The Supreme Court of Minnesota concluded that damages for emotional harm, standing alone, are not recoverable in defamation because proof of injury to reputation is required.
Recovery for defamation per se cannot be had where First Amendment protections are involved.
The law of defamation provides a qualified privilege to media defendants who may publish without fear unless plaintiff demonstrates actual malice.
Private parties traditionally enjoy no such privilege.
In this case, though, the Minnesota Supreme Court determined that a distinction between media and private parties ought not remain the core focus of defamation analysis. The key issue in cases of presumed damages is not the status of the parties but whether the challenged speech concerns matters of public concern.
The court outlined the method of analysis. Presumed damages may be available if the speech challenged as defamatory per se is not about matters of public concern. Unless a plaintiff can show actual harm to reputation or actual malice, there can be no recovery for defamation per se for matters not of public concern.
The decision is significant in that it places media and non-media defendants on the same footing for purposes of defamation per se, and offers both some protection where non-malicious statements about matters of public concern are in issue.
The Minnesota Supreme Court declined to impose on the non-profit any duty to investigate plaintiff’s ex-wife’s assertions of domestic violence. The court rejected the notion that no duty in negligence could ever attach. Rather, conduct must be evaluated in accordance with what a reasonable person would do in similar circumstances.
The court concluded that the non-profit did not breach any duty to investigate. The non-profit was not unreasonable in basing its views on its interactions with plaintiff’s ex-wife in the absence of evidence indicating that there was any reason to question her credibility or honesty.
Although custom within the publishing profession may be relevant, custom does not control, because plaintiff offered no proof that a reasonable person would investigate or that non-profit advocates customarily investigate claims of their service recipients.
One justice disagreed with the court’s conclusion that no duty to investigate attached on these facts. While a qualified privilege may attach to professional discussions such as employee references, credit assessments, or medical evaluations, publication about plaintiff’s ex-wife’s status as a survivor of domestic violence enjoys no such privilege.
Adherence or not to custom or practice is not to be conclusively presumed to constitute “due care,” the dissent noted.
While the dissent acknowledged the concerns — such as the absence of corroboration in many domestic violence cases — that prompted the non-profit to credit plaintiff’s ex-wife’s assertions, the dissent found equally compelling the principle that plaintiff be afforded a fair hearing. The court here would impose on plaintiff a duty to show that the party whose statement was believed was not credible, a position which the dissent felt deflects from the core issue of whether investigation needed to be conducted. Where questions about the non-profit’s conduct exist, judgment as a matter of law was not proper.
While many will be pleased by the leveling of status between media and non-media defendants, much more will likely be in issue in the future concerning whether any duty to investigate exists before a non-media defendant publishes information.