Forty-four claims in a defamation lawsuit filed by former Crosby Mayor James Hunter last fall against the city of Crosby, former Police Chief Kim Coughlin and former Lt. Kevin Randolph were dismissed.
Crow Wing County District Judge Patricia Aanes Friday, Aug. 7, made the ruling on the case brought forth by Hunter Sept. 9, 2019. The court stated Hunter, represented by Brainerd attorney Ed Shaw, failed to provide the evidence required to survive the defendants’ motion for dismissal of his 44 claims and he did not meet the requirements needed in the case under the law of defamation.
The claims were dismissed with prejudice, meaning the case is final and Hunter cannot bring the defamation claims again into a courtroom. However, he has the right to appeal the judge’s ruling within 60 days with the Minnesota Court of Appeals.
“Mr. Hunter and I are seriously considering an appeal as we believe that the law allows for an individual victimized by the wrongful conduct of city officials to pursue redress, and it is the job of the Court of Appeals to interpret the laws of this state,” Shaw stated in a Monday press release. “This case is about justice for Mr. Hunter, who has lost his reputation, his elected office, and spent over two years of his life charged with serious crimes as a result of the actions of Crosby City Officials. It is also about accountability, holding those responsible for attacking Mr. Hunter accountable for their actions.
“Most important, it is about bringing basic freedoms to the citizens of Crosby, who have the right to criticize their leadership without fear of retaliation or prosecution at the hands of city leaders. Mr. Hunter and I thank all of the residents of Crosby and other communities who have supported him throughout this ordeal, the citizens who sat on three separate juries, all of which found Mr. Hunter not guilty, and the members of the media who have covered this case.”
Hunter, who was elected in November 2016 for a two-year term as Crosby mayor, was charged in March 2017 in Crow Wing County District Court with felonies of second-degree assault, theft by swindle, receiving stolen property and unlawful gambling, and a gross misdemeanor for selling vehicle financing without a license. Hunter also was charged in August 2017 for falsely reporting a crime in a separate case.
Hunter resigned as mayor in August 2017. It was a two-year-long court battle and all charges against Hunter — tried separately — were dismissed or he was acquitted by a jury of his peers. The case ended April 19, 2019, when the last of the two charges were dismissed.
Attorney Joe Flynn, of Lake Elmo-based law firm Jardine, Logan & O'Brien, who represents the city officials in the civil case, Monday said he is pleased with the judge’s ruling and he had no doubt his client’s case would prevail.
“We did not see any merit to his claims so the judge’s ruling is consistent with our thoughts on it,” Flynn said. “None of his claims survived.”
In an amended complaint, Hunter lists 44 claims against Coughlin, Randolph and the city of Crosby for making defamatory statements between 2016-19 about him that resulted in damages. Statements such as:
Accused Hunter of criminal activity and arranged for his arrest and prosecution for the crimes;
Spoke about Hunter in unfavorable ways to members of the Crosby community;
Attempted to tarnish his reputation in order to adversely impact his campaign and service as mayor of Crosby;
Contacted numerous local and statewide media outlets and made defamatory statements;
Issued press releases on Crosby Police Department letterhead containing further false and defamatory statements against Hunter.
Shaw argued Hunter was found not guilty in three criminal trials, while the other charges were dismissed and that he suffered financial loss, marital dissolution, loss of business, loss of elected office, ethical complaints against his attorney, hospitalization due to the suffering he had experienced; and he endured the loss of prestige and reputation in his community as a result of the defamation.
In her order and memorandum, Aanes ruled Hunter failed to state a claim as to which relief can be granted. Under Minnesota common law, a plaintiff pursuing a defamation claim must prove that the defendant made a false and defamatory statement about the plaintiff; and did so in an unprivileged publication to a third party; and that it harmed the plaintiff’s reputation in the community.
The court stated certain false statements about an individual are considered defamation per se and are actionable without proof of damages. Statements classified as defamation are false and defamatory statements that affect a person in their business, trade, or profession; or impute a loathsome disease or unchastity to a person; or falsely charge another with a crime or a crime involving moral turpitude.
“The statements must be peculiarly harmful to the person in his business,” the document stated. “A general disparagement is not sufficient to establish defamation per se. The remarks must relate to the person in his professional capacity and not merely as an individual without regard to his profession.”
In defamation cases involving private persons, as opposed to public officials, the burden of establishing each element of the claim is on the plaintiff. The plaintiff must demonstrate the defendants made the statement with malice, which under common law means they made the statement “from ill will and improper motives, or causelessly and wantonly for the purpose of injuring the plaintiff.”
The court dismissed the claims and some claims were dismissed for multiple reasons.
Hunter alleged the statements were generally made about him by Coughlin and Randolph. The court stated this is not enough. Hunter is required to plead a defamation claim with a certain degree of specificity, including pleading who made the alleged defamatory statement, to whom the statement was made, and where the statement was made, the court document stated.
“In a defamation suit, the plaintiff must plead ‘verbatim’ the precise words alleged to be defamatory,” the court stated. “It has been established that the ‘specific words which have been published must be set out … it is not sufficient to merely state the effect of the language, or that the publication was a certain defamatory tenor or import … it is absolutely necessary to set forth in precise words such parts or passages as are claimed to be actionable.’”
In this case, Aanes ruled, Hunter offered only “generalizations and characterizations,” the court document stated. “The Court further found that, under the well-settled rule requiring specific pleading of defamatory language, the plaintiffs’ failure was fatal to their defamation claim.”
The court document stated Hunter, at the very least, must identify which defendant made a false and defamatory statement and a general idea of what was contained in the statement, to whom it was made and where. Hunter’s amended complaint failed to do this.
Hunter argued the defendants allegedly made false criminal accusations against Hunter, implied that he was a criminal; had committed criminal or bad acts; was a dishonest businessman; and was convicted of crimes that he had been cleared of as a result of trial or charges being dismissed.
The court stated the statements lack verbatim and were not specific.
“There is a generalization that the Defendants made statements to certain individuals, but there is no allegation of where these statements were made, and Plaintiff only offers a considerable range of dates and times when they could have been made. Further, a significant portion of the alleged statements are not attributed to one particular Defendant,” the court stated.
There are allegations where Hunter asserts there are unknown or unidentified individuals who heard the underspecified statements.
“(The) Defendants cannot reasonably respond to unspecified statements made to unspecified individuals at undisclosed times and circumstances,” the court document stated. “Even the claims that do identify who a Defendant made the statements, or a general timeframe of when the statement occurred, cannot qualify as defamation because of the lack of specificity as to what the statements were.”
Two of the claims were statements made in the context of ethics complaints regarding Shaw.
“The ethics complaints were not made by any of the defendants in this action and accordingly, dismissed as without tie to this case,” the document stated. “Even if the Court was to consider the ethics complaints made by a non-party about a non-party as potential defamation in this case, the claims would still fail due to lack of specificity as to what the defamatory statements were. A mere reference to the documents that contained the complaints are not enough.”
Hunter also alleged the defendants made defamatory statements in the media. These claims also were dismissed as they did not contain exact language.
The court also dismissed claims as they were opinions or statements of non-fact. Statements included Hunter stating the defendants allegedly made comments that they wished he would die, they hoped he would do jail time for his alleged crimes, that some of the conclusions of his criminal trials were (an explicit word) and that witnesses who testified on his behalf must have been paid off.
“Further, in Claim 19 Defendant Randolph is alleged to have made a comment regarding taking Plaintiff somewhere to kill and bury him,” the court document stated. “While these statements may be described or characterized in a negative manner, they do not qualify as defamation for two reasons. First, the statements are opinion ... Second, Claim 19 fails to state to whom the statements were made or where said statements were made.”
The court also said statements wishing Hunter would die do not qualify as defamation.
“Statements that can be interpreted as opinion, rhetoric, or figurative language are generally not actionable if it could not be reasonably interpreted as being a statement of fact,” the court stated.
The final issue the court considered was whether Hunter made the required showing of substantive evidence to support his claims that the defendants statements caused him any actual or monetary damages to his reputation, his business dealings, his community dealings, or in any other sphere of his existence.
The court concluded the plaintiff didn’t have the necessary facts or requisite verbatim statements, to show or even infer whether the statements could lower the plaintiff in the estimation of the community. While Plaintiff offered many conclusions and correlations as to damages, the requisite facts are not alleged as to causation, the document stated.
Hunter currently is running for a mayoral seat in the 2020 election in Crosby.