In Maethner v. Someplace Safe, Inc., No. A17-0998 (Minn. Ct. App. Feb. 12, 2018), the Minnesota Court of Appeals held that defamatory statements about criminal conduct by the plaintiff made by an award recipient at a fundraising banquet and in an article published for fundraising purposes was not protected by a qualified privilege. The appellant, Maethner, was divorced from his ex-wife, Jorud, four years before the statements were made. Nothing in the court records regarding the marriage dissolution mentioned domestic abuse. At the time of the dissolution proceedings, however, Jorud had met with an advocate from Someplace Safe, a non-profit organization that provides services for victims of violence and domestic abuse in northwestern Minnesota.
In 2014, Someplace safe held a fundraising banquet for its 35th anniversary and gave a “Survivor Award” to Jorud as a “survivor of domestic abuse.” Statements about the award were posted on the organization’s Facebook page and republished in local newspapers. Jorud also wrote a short article for the organization’s newsletter about “surviving domestic violence” related to a “divorce.” Nothing in any statements mentioned Maethner by name.
Maethner sued both Jorud and Someplace Safe for defamation. A trial court judge dismissed the suit following a motion for summary judgment, in part because it found the statements were protected by a “qualified privilege.” The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that qualified privilege did not apply to the statements under these circumstances. It first noted that a qualified privilege protects a defamatory statement based on a court’s assessment of four factors: (1) whether the statement is made in good faith, (2) on a proper occasion, (3) from a proper motive, and (4) based on reasonable or probable cause. The court then determined that a banquet and newsletter were not the proper occasion to disseminate statements alleging criminal conduct and that the purpose of fundraising was not a proper motive. It also reversed dismissal of a claim against Someplace Safe, holding that the organization had a duty to exercise reasonable care before publishing the statements. The Court’s decision distinguished other cases in which courts have found a qualified privilege and proves useful guidance as to the applicability of the doctrine of qualified privilege.
The case is also interesting in that it demonstrates some of the challenges faced by plaintiffs in defamation cases where the plaintiff is not specifically mentioned by name or not, for example, specifically accused of committing a crime. A plaintiff must show that the alleged statement “concerns or is understood to concern the plaintiff.” In this case, Maethner alleged that he had an unusual last name and his divorce was known in the community. The court found that there was at least a triable issue as to whether a reasonable person in the community would believe the statements to be about Maethner and would conclude that Maethner had committed domestic violence.