The Minnesota Court of Appeals Monday, May 17, dismissed 29 of 31 claims made by Crosby Mayor James Hunter against Crosby city officials — sending the remaining two back to district court for review.
Hunter, who was elected mayor in the November 2020 election, appealed the Crow Wing County District Court’s Aug. 7 decision to dismiss his defamation case. Hunter filed the defamation case Sept. 9, 2019, stating he 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.
Hunter was first elected as mayor in November 2016 for a two-year term. He 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, related case.
Hunter resigned as mayor in August 2017. After a two-year-long court battle, 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 two charges were dismissed.
Since then, Hunter filed a defamation lawsuit against the city and ran for and won the mayoral seat in the 2020 election in Crosby.
The court of appeals case was decided by Presiding Judge Louise Dovre Bjorkman; Chief Judge Susan Segal; and retired Judge Edward J. Cleary. The judges filed their opinion Monday where they dismissed 29 of 31 claims in the defamation lawsuit. The other two claims are sufficient to proceed and will go back to district court to decide.
“On behalf of Mr. Hunter I am pleased to report that the Court of Appeals has allowed this matter to proceed,” Brainerd Attorney Ed Shaw, stated in an email release. “It has always been our goal to hold the individuals responsible for the wrongful prosecution of Mr. Hunter accountable. A free and democratic society depends on government and law enforcement being accountable to the citizens.”
Attorneys Patrick S. Collins and Joseph Flynn of Jardine, Logan & O’Brien in Lake Elmo represented the defendants — former Crosby Police Chief Kim Coughlin, former Crosby Lt. Kevin Randolph and the city of Crosby.
Collins provided the following statement regarding the court of appeals decision:
“... the Minnesota Court of Appeals found that Hunter’s dismissed claims did not “contain even an approximation of any actual statements,’ ‘were statements of opinion not actionable on a claim for defamation,’ and are ‘barred by the statute of limitations.’
“We welcome the opportunity to explore Hunter’s two remaining claims and we are confident these claims will be dismissed after discovery is completed.”
The judges opinion
According to the 17-page court document, the court of appeals agreed with the district court’s decision that all the allegations made by Hunter, except the two sent back to district court , should be dismissed for lack of specificity, meaning the claims did not contain any actual statements. The court of appeals stated Hunter’s allegations “simply repeat in conclusory terms that false and defamatory statements were made and that they were part and parcel of a campaign by Coughlin and Randolph to damage Hunter’s reputation and force him out of the mayoral race and out of office.”
The court of appeals stated the complaint fails to state a sufficient claim for harm to his reputation in this case in regards to the allegations dismissed. However, the court of appeals ruled two of the allegations were sufficient to withstand a motion and were remanded, or sent back to the district court to review.
The first allegation is in regards to Coughlin making statements to an individual, after the criminal proceedings were concluded, falsely claiming that Hunter was charged with a crime involving a sexual assault of a family member, the court document stated. The document further stated that this statement is defamation as Coughlin knew it was not true and said it with the intention of causing harm to his reputation. These statements were made in August and September 2019, and caused actual and obvious harm to Hunter’s reputation, the court ruled.
The second allegation to go back to district court is Coughlin and Randolph in 2018 told Hunter’s bank that he had committed a number of serious crimes, including crimes of dishonesty and financial crimes, causing the bank to withdraw a line of credit Hunter used for his business, causing further damage his reputation and his ability to do business.
“These allegations arguably constitute claims of defamation per se, for which damages are presumed,” the court document stated.
These claims are the only two that the district court will look at, all the others are dismissed. The allegations dismissed were on the grounds that they were statements of opinion and not alleged facts. A few of the claims that were dismissed include:
Coughlin said, “I hope Mr. Hunter does time as he deserves to do time;”
Randolph said, “This is bulls--t” at the end of Hunter’s trial for theft by swindle;
Randolph said “prior to and after all three trials,” words to the effect that “anyone who was favorable to Mr. Hunter must have been paid off.”
The court of appeals stated the district court correctly dismissed these allegations as they were setting out statements of opinion not fact. For example, Coughlin’s words, “I hope” discusses what she believes Hunter “deserves.” The second allegation, ‘This is bulls--t,” allegedly said at the end of a trial, is even more clearly one of opinion, the court document stated. The allegation that anyone who was “favorable” to Hunter “must have been paid off,” similarly appears to be a statement of opinion rather than a factual allegation that Hunter had bribed witnesses.
Ed Shaw also provided a few comments via phone, stating there will be further discovery regarding the two claims as the case goes back to district court.
“We are pleased the court of appeals reinstated the case,” Shaw said. “It's very important to make sure that people are held accountable for their actions. That's kind of a bedrock of the legal system, even if they work in government. ... The case is about the former leadership of the Crosby Police Department basically running a rogue operation ... that ended up getting rid of a mayor they didn't like, Mr. Hunter ... using bogus criminal charges, false accusations and all kinds of nasty inflammatory statements made to all kinds of people in the community that discredit him because he was a political opponent who was critical of how the police department was led.”