On June 26, 2019, the Minnesota Supreme Court held that a private plaintiff may not recover presumed damages for defamatory statements involving a matter of public concern unless the plaintiff can establish actual malice. This holding is significant as it resolved the open issue regarding whether the “actual malice” standard for presumed damages set in Richie v. Paramount Pictures Corp. applies only to defamatory statements made by media defendants. 544 N.W.2d 21 (Minn. 1996). The Supreme Court clarified that Richie’s holding is not so limited. Any defendant, not only media defendants, can benefit from this heightened standard when matters of public concern are at issue.
In Maethner v. Someplace Safe, Inc., Respondent Kurt Maethner brought a defamation and negligence action against Appellants Someplace Safe, an advocacy organization for victims of domestic violence, and Jacquelyn Jorud, his former wife, claiming that their published statements about Jorud being a “survivor” of domestic violence were false and defamatory per se as accusing him of the crime of domestic abuse. Maethner v. Someplace Safe, Inc., No. A17-0998, 2019 Minn. LEXIS 343 (Minn. June 26, 2019). For his defamation claims, Maethner offered proof of only emotional harm damages, which the Supreme Court has deemed “parasitic” damages, only recoverable “once the cause of action is made without them.” Maethner nonetheless presented no evidence of reputational harm and instead argued that damages could be presumed on his libel per se theory.
Relying on Richie, the district court granted summary judgment to Someplace Safe and Jorud on the defamation per se claims, finding that Maethner did not prove actual damages and could not recover presumed damages because he failed to establish a genuine issue of material fact on malice. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that Maethner’s claims of defamation per se are “actionable without proof of actual damages” because Richie’s actual malice standard only applied to media defendants. The Supreme Court, however, rejected the appellate court’s interpretation that Richie’s holding is limited to media defendants. While the Court recognized that Richie did rely on the fact that one of the defendants was a member of the media, it stressed that it also noted in Richie that “the matters at issue were ones of public concern” and that it “applied the same rule on presumed damages to the attorney defendant [in Richie] as [it] did to the media defendant.”
In reversing the Court of Appeals’ decision, the Minnesota Supreme Court relied heavily on U.S. Supreme Court precedent, Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974), and Dun & Bradstreet, Inc. v. Greenmoss Builders, Inc., 472 U.S. 749 (1985). In Gertz, the U.S. Supreme Court required proof of actual malice for a private plaintiff to recover presumed damages for a defamation claim against a media defendant. The Minnesota Supreme Court explained that, in Dun & Bradstreet, Inc., the Court limited the Gertz ruling by permitting presumed damages without actual malice only where the defamatory statements did not involve matters of public concern. In a somewhat troubling footnote for media defendants, the Court also wondered whether Dun & Bradstreet limited Gertz’s holding that states may impose any standard of liability, “so long as they do not impose liability without fault.” The Court noted that the parties did not raise the issue of whether a showing of fault is required only in those cases involving a matter of public concern and thus “reserve[d] for another day” the question whether plaintiffs must “prove negligence in all defamation cases, or whether that requirement is limited to defamation cases that involve matters of public concern.”
In any event, taking Gertz and Dun & Bradstreet in consideration, the Minnesota Supreme Court reasoned that “the proper focus regarding the availability of presumed damages is not on the status of the defendant as a media or nonmedia defendant. Rather the dispositive inquiry is whether the matter at issue is one of public concern.” Applying this rule to Maethner, the Court stated that while the media/nonmedia status of the defendant is not determinative of the applicability of the actual malice standard, whether a “defendant is a member of the media may be relevant to determining whether a matter is one of public concern.” The Court, here however, did not rule on whether the challenged statements involved a matter of public concern because neither the District Court nor the Court of Appeals decided or reached this issue. The Court, therefore, remanded that issue to the District Court to rule in the first instance whether challenged the statements involve a matter of public or private concern. (On remand, only claims against Jorud remain, as the Court went on to conclude that Maethner had not created an issue of fact as to negligence by Someplace Safe.)
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