The Star Tribune doesn't have to reveal a source from a 2013 story critical of a Chisholm nursing home, according to a state Court of Appeals ruling Monday that reversed a decision by the St. Louis County District Court.
The Range Development Co., which owns HillCrest Terrace Assisted Living Facility, sought the identity of a confidential source who had leaked a Department of Health report to former Star Tribune reporter Paul McEnroe in advance of its public release. The report found neglect in the care of a patient. But Range Development claimed the story contained nine damaging "misstatements" not in the report, so it sought the identity of the confidential source, claiming the person may have provided the "embellishments."
But the court sided with the Star Tribune in a 21-page opinion written by Judge Lucinda Jesson, a former commissioner of the state Department of Human Services, and also signed by Judges Larry Stauber and Peter Reyes Jr.
Journalists can only be compelled to reveal sources when a plaintiff shows that disclosing the identity would lead to "persuasive evidence" of falsity or malice. For purposes of this lawsuit, Range Development is a public figure, the decision said, meaning that "actual malice" is legally defined as knowingly false or in "reckless disregard for the truth."
"We are pleased that the court strongly and clearly upheld the reporter's privilege in Minnesota," the media company's general counsel, Randy Lebedoff, said in a statement.
James Clark, Range Development's Hibbing-based lawyer, said the company was disappointed, but that no decision had been made on whether to seek an appeal at the state Supreme Court. Regardless of what they decide, the underlying defamation case is still slated for trial although no date has been set.
In its analysis of the source issue, the court said the case "stands at the intersection of common-law defamation, the First Amendment right to free speech and the parameters of a journalist's privilege, if any." The court noted that the debate over the disclosure of journalists' confidential sources remains unanswered.
The report at issue concerned the care of a patient found slouched and unresponsive in his chair in January 2013. When Chisholm police and an ambulance service arrived, the resident was in a urine-soaked chair and still not responding. Police noted the resident's room was cluttered and the carpet soaked in urine, creating a stench so strong the officer walked out.
The resident, who had developmental disabilities, dementia and diabetes, also had critically low blood sugar. After being transported to a hospital, the resident was diagnosed with urosepsis. At the hospital, the patient improved. A week later, ambulance-service employees filed a report alleging neglect in violation of Minnesota's Vulnerable Adults Act.
The ensuing government report found "neglect" by the HillCrest staff, mentioning urine odors, inadequate blood-sugar levels, the sepsis and inadequate housekeeping.
McEnroe obtained a copy of the government report from a confidential source and wrote an article published online on April 17, 2013, and in print the following day.
Range Development sued, claiming the story contained damaging claims not in the report that had potentially been supplied by the source, including the story's assertion that the resident was "barely alive" and the case had been sent to the county prosecutor for possible criminal charges.
Because McEnroe said that information didn't come from the source, the court said there is no need to compel disclosure of the source's identity.
McEnroe, who retired from the Star Tribune in 2015, declined to comment, deferring to the media company's counsel.