Powell v. Jones-Soderman and Foundation for the Child Victims of Family Courts, No. 20-532-CV (2nd Cir.) February 26, 2021.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit recently upheld a Connecticut federal court judgment that the founder of a child advocacy foundation had libeled a Connecticut father when, during pending divorce proceedings, she published on her website allegations that the father had committed child sexual abuse.
On appeal, Jones-Soderman argued that the trial court erred in finding her liable because proof of the falsity of her statements was lacking, and such proof was necessary to overcome her First Amendment defense. Moreover, she said that the trial court failed to give consideration to her good faith belief that she was publishing the truth.
While the First Amendment may protect commentary on matters of public interest, no such protection extends to demonstrably false statements, which the appellate court found were amply examined by the federal trial court in taking testimony and in admitting to the record state court findings that the allegations of sexual abuse were without merit.
Jones-Soderman is not entitled to reliance on an “actual malice” standard for publication of defamatory material, the Second Circuit found, but even if she were, that standard would have been met, and it would negate any qualified privilege she might have.
That Jones-Soderman published statements about the plaintiff when in his ex-wife’s employ in a custody battle and with knowledge that clinicians, state authorities, and the state court had found the abuse claims without foundation. No qualified privilege may serve as shield in such circumstances, nor may a “good faith belief” in the truth of the published statements be invoked where Jones-Soderman knew of evidence contradicting the claims.
Jones-Soderman’s status as a mandated reporter of child abuse is of no moment with respect to the facts in this case, particularly where no complaint to Child Protective Services was ever made.