A Fergus Falls nonprofit that helps victims of domestic violence had no duty to verify a client’s allegations against her ex-husband when it presented her with a “Survivor Award” at a 2014 fundraiser, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
The decision overturned an appellate court ruling that found that District Judge Frank Kundrat had erred when he dismissed a libel lawsuit filed by Kurt A. Maethner against the nonprofit, Someplace Safe Inc., and his ex-wife, Jacquelyn Jorud.
But the decision left open the question of whether Jorud herself could be sued for publishing her claims on Facebook and in a newsletter that she had survived domestic abuse and stalking. Though Jorud did not identify Maethner as her abuser, he contended that the inference was obvious and that his reputation was damaged as a result. He noted that Jorud filed no police reports alleging abuse and that their divorce documents make no mention of it.
Maethner and Jorud married in 1995, separated in 2008 and divorced two years later. During the separation and divorce proceedings, Jorud was a client of Someplace Safe.
Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea wrote the complex, 30-page opinion for the court, which she characterized as weighing the “delicate balance” between free speech protections under the First Amendment and the interests of people claiming that certain speech damaged their reputations.
The ruling sends the case back to district court to determine whether the domestic abuse allegations were a matter of “public concern” or a “private matter.”
If the former, then Maethner would have to prove at trial that Jorud showed “actual malice” by accusing him of crimes for which he has not been charged. That seems unlikely, given that the court wrote in a footnote that he simply had accused Jorud of showing “ill will.” The court said that fails to meet the legal threshold of actual malice.
Gildea wrote that while domestic abuse is clearly a matter of public concern, whether the offending speech rises to that level must be determined by examining the content, form and context of the whole record.
Justice Paul Thissen agreed that the case should be returned to the district court to make that finding. But he wrote a blistering 18-page dissent stating that the ruling went too far, establishing what he called a de facto legal immunity in libel cases for organizations such as Someplace Safe.
A jury should be allowed to decide whether Someplace Safe acted with reasonable care when it published Jorud’s allegations of domestic abuse without first investigating them, Thissen said.
Justice G. Barry Anderson wrote that he shared Thissen’s concerns about granting a “qualified immunity” for such organizations, but otherwise concurred with the court’s opinion.
Margaret Skelton, an attorney for Someplace Safe, called the ruling a victory for nonprofits representing domestic abuse victims.
“Victims of domestic violence often do not have police records, witnesses or photographs that verify their abuse. The Court determined that Someplace Safe acted as any reasonable, nonprofit victims’ advocacy group would act by referring to its client as a ‘survivor’ and by publishing a client’s statements about her personal experiences. Further, the court found that Someplace Safe had no reason to question the accuracy of its client’s accounting of her history of suffering domestic abuse,” Skelton wrote in an e-mail.
“Someplace Safe will continue its important work in assisting victims of not only domestic violence, but sexual assault, sexual exploitation, sex trafficking, labor trafficking, and other crimes in the communities in a nine county region in West Central Minnesota.”
John Bursch, Jorud’s attorney, said that while his client is disappointed that the court did not dismiss the case in its entirety, “We’re greatly heartened by the language the Minnesota Supreme Court used in its opinion and are very confident that we’ll prevail in the trial court on remand.”
Bursch said the footnote finding no actual malice by Jorud was a crucial part of the opinion, especially with the case law the court cited.
“I think what the [Supreme] Court did is, it gave a road map to the trial court about how to resolve this case in Jackie’s favor,” Bursch said.
Marshall Tanick, an attorney for Maethner, said he would consider an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“The decision will pose new challenges for people who claim their reputation has been damaged in some respects,” Tanick said. “But it also provides some opportunities for those claims to be successful in matters deemed to be private rather than public.”