Lafferty v. Jones

Decision Date23 July 2020
Docket NumberSC 20327
Citation246 A.3d 429,336 Conn. 332
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
Parties Erica LAFFERTY et al. v. Alex Emric JONES et al. William Sherlach v. Alex Jones et al. William Sherlach et al. v. Alex Emric Jones et al.

Norman A. Pattis, Bethany, with whom was Kevin Smith, for the appellants (named defendant et al.).

Joshua D. Koskoff, with whom was Alinor C. Sterling, Bridgeport, for the appellees (plaintiffs).

Robinson, C. J., Palmer, McDonald, D'Auria, Mullins, Kahn and Ecker, Js.*


This public interest appeal presents the opportunity to consider the scope of a trial court's inherent authority to sanction a party to litigation for his or her remarks about the case in light of that party's right to free speech under the first amendment to the United States constitution. The plaintiffs in these cases, a first responder and family members of those killed in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School,1 brought these actions against the defendants, Alex Emric Jones and several of his affiliated corporate entities,2 claiming that statements made on Jones’ radio show advancing certain conspiracy theories about the Sandy Hook shooting were tortious in nature. The defendants appeal3 from the orders of the trial court sanctioning them by revoking their opportunity to pursue the special motions to dismiss provided by Connecticut's anti-SLAPP4 statute, General Statutes § 52-196a,5 issued after the trial court found that the defendants had violated numerous discovery orders and that Jones personally had engaged in harassing and intimidating behavior directed at the plaintiffscounsel, Attorney Christopher Mattei. On appeal, the defendants claim, inter alia, that the trial court (1) improperly sanctioned the defendants because Jones’ speech was protected under the first amendment, and (2) abused its discretion in sanctioning the defendants because the trial court improperly permitted discovery that exceeded the limited scope contemplated by § 52-196a (d). The defendants also claim that the trial court violated their due process rights by failing to afford them sufficient notice and a meaningful opportunity to be heard before issuing the sanctions orders. We disagree and, accordingly, affirm the trial court's sanctions orders.

The record reveals the following relevant facts and procedural history. On December 14, 2012, Adam Lanza murdered twenty children and six staff members in a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. Some conspiracy theorists questioned the circumstances surrounding the shooting and called it a hoax. In response to statements made by Jones and other individuals featured on his radio show, the plaintiffs brought three separate civil actions against the defendants in 2018. The complaints alleged counts of invasion of privacy by false light, defamation and defamation per se, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligent infliction of emotional distress, all of which were accompanied by counts of civil conspiracy. In addition, the complaints claimed violations of the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act, General Statutes § 42-110a et seq. The trial court consolidated all three cases.

In November, 2018, the defendants filed special motions to dismiss the plaintiffs’ complaints pursuant to the anti-SLAPP statute. See General Statutes § 52-196a (b). In order to respond to the special motions to dismiss, the plaintiffs moved for limited discovery pursuant to § 52-196a (d). The plaintiffs argued that they had demonstrated good cause to entitle them to "specified and limited discovery relevant to the special motion[s] to dismiss" pursuant to § 52-196a (d) and asked the trial court to permit discovery on every issue raised by the defendantsspecial motions to dismiss to allow them to demonstrate probable cause of success on the merits of their complaints. See General Statutes § 52-196a (e) (3). The defendants opposed the plaintiffsmotion for limited discovery, claiming that the plaintiffs’ broad discovery requests were contrary to the purpose of the anti-SLAPP statute and that the plaintiffs had failed to show good cause.

With respect to the specific discovery requests, the plaintiffs initially requested five special interrogatories and twenty-one requests for production from Jones.6 At a hearing on December 17, 2018, the trial court found good cause and granted the plaintiffsmotion for limited discovery but indicated that it would not grant all of the plaintiffs’ requests and would consider each of the defendants’ objections individually. The trial court then allowed the parties numerous opportunities to mediate disputes and delineate their discovery obligations at discovery status conferences.

After narrowing the plaintiffs’ requests, the trial court initially ordered the defendants to produce their discovery compliance by February 23, 2019. The defendants failed to meet that deadline.7 The defendants then filed motions for an extension of time, which the trial court granted, allowing them until March 20, 2019, to produce their discovery materials. In granting the motions, the trial court "urge[d] the defendants to honor this court ordered deadline because the defendants are the ones [who] want their motion[s] to dismiss adjudicated, but if they're going to continue to ignore court deadlines, they're going to lose the ability ... to pursue their [special] motion[s] to dismiss."

Two days before the March 20, 2019 discovery deadline, the defendants again moved for an extension of time. This time, the trial court denied the motions, indicating at a hearing with the parties that the defendants had not substantially complied with its discovery orders. The trial court explained that the "defendants, at this point, are coming from a position of weakness. They've blown past the court's deadlines. There hasn't been a single piece of paper [produced] or interrogatory answered." In light of the defendants’ noncompliance, the plaintiffs moved for sanctions on March 20, 2019. Specifically, the plaintiffs argued that, under Practice Book § 13-148 and the trial court's inherent authority, the court should impose sanctions for the defendants’ violations of discovery deadlines.

At a hearing on April 3, 2019, the trial court began to address the plaintiffsmotions for sanctions but delayed ruling on them to allow the defendantscounsel time to resolve an unspecified ethical concern. Subsequently, on April 10, 2019, the court heard argument on the motions for sanctions. The defendants argued that they had responded by that time to almost every discovery request and that they were in substantial compliance with the court's discovery orders. The trial court agreed with the defendants, concluding that, although they had not complied with every discovery request, the production to that point was sufficient to allow them to pursue the merits of the special motions to dismiss.

Subsequently, in late May, 2019, the plaintiffs brought additional discovery issues to the trial court's attention. Specifically, the plaintiffs requested, inter alia, additional responsive marketing data from Google Analytics and a complete search of Jones’ cell phone. After another hearing, the trial court ordered the defendants to produce marketing data responsive to the court approved production requests. The court warned that it would "consider appropriate sanctions for the defendants’ failure to fully and fairly comply" with its latest orders.

On Friday, June 14, 2019, Jones and his attorney, Norman A. Pattis, appeared together on Jones’ radio broadcast to discuss the pending case. Jones explained to the broadcast audience that someone had embedded child pornography in e-mails turned over to the plaintiffs in discovery. Jones then began a long invective against those whom he believed had planted the child pornography, which we quote in relevant part:9

"Jones: I'm here to tell the little pimps, the Senator Murphys and the prosecutor, the Obama appointed prosecutor [who's] doing all this, bitch, I don't need to talk about poor dead kids to have listeners.

* * *

"Jones: They say you're a pedophile. We knew it was coming. And when the Obama appointed [United States] attorney demanded, out of 9.6 million e-mails in the last seven years since Sandy Hook, metadata, which meant tracking the e-mails and where they went, well, we fought it in court. The judge ordered for us to release a large number of those e-mails. That's Chris Mattei [who] got that done, a very interesting individual with the firm of Koskoff & Koskoff run by Senator Murphy and Senator Blumenthal that say, for America to survive, quote, I must be taken off the air. ...

"It was hidden. In Sandy Hook e-mails threatening us, there was child porn. ... And they get these e-mails a few weeks ago, and they go right to the [Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)] and say, [w]e've got him with child porn.’ The FBI says, [h]e never opened it. He didn't send it.’ And then they act like, oh, they're our friends. They're not going to do anything with this. ...

"Now, I wonder who during discovery would send e-mails out of millions and then know what to search and look at. ... One million dollars on conviction for who sent the child porn. ... We're going to turn you loose, the [internet service providers], the law enforcement. You know who did it. ...

"You think when you call up, oh, we'll protect you. We found the child porn. I like women with big giant tits and big asses. I don't like kids like you goddamn[ed] rapists, f-heads. In fact, you fucks are going to get it, you fucking child molesters. I'll fucking get you in the end, you fucks. ... You're trying to set me up with child porn. I'm going to get your ass. One million dollars. One million dollars, you little gang members. One million dollars to put your head on a pike. One million dollars, bitch. I'm going to get your ass. You understand me now? You're...

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