Maethner v. Someplace Safe, Inc.

Decision Date26 June 2019
Docket NumberA17-0998
Citation929 N.W.2d 868
Parties Kurt A. MAETHNER, Respondent, v. SOMEPLACE SAFE, INC., Appellant, Jacquelyn Jorud, f/k/a Jacquelyn Hanson Maethner, Appellant.
CourtMinnesota Supreme Court
OPINION

GILDEA, Chief Justice.

This defamation appeal requires us to strike a delicate balance between the State’s interest in providing redress for citizens claiming reputational injury and the free speech protections the First Amendment provides. Respondent Kurt Maethner brought this defamation and negligence action against appellant Someplace Safe, Inc., an advocacy organization for victims of domestic violence, and appellant Jacquelyn Jorud, his former wife, contending that their statements accused him of committing domestic violence. The district court granted summary judgment to Someplace Safe and Jorud, but the court of appeals reversed and remanded for trial. The court of appeals concluded that Maethner provided sufficient evidence of damages and breach of duty to warrant a trial on his claims. Because we conclude that the damages question requires a remand, and that summary judgment was properly awarded to Someplace Safe on negligence, we affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand to the district court for further proceedings consistent with our opinion.

FACTS

Kurt Maethner and Jacquelyn Jorud married in 1995, separated in 2008, and divorced in 2010. During the separation and divorce proceedings, Jorud was a client of Someplace Safe, a nonprofit organization that provides services for victims of domestic violence. A dissolution decree was issued in October 2010. That dissolution decree did not reference domestic violence. Jorud never sought an order for protection against Maethner and no criminal charges were filed against Maethner for domestic violence. After the divorce, Jorud kept "Maethner" as her legal surname, but also used "Jorud" after she remarried.

A few years after the divorce, Jorud began volunteering with Someplace Safe and speaking at community events about her experience as a survivor of domestic violence. On October 4, 2013, Jorud posted the following to her Facebook page, under the name Jacki Hansen Maethner: "By God’s grace I am a survivor. Because of His love I am living with many blessings today! Domestic violence is real."

In 2014, Someplace Safe presented Jorud with a "Survivor Award" at its 35th anniversary fundraising banquet. To advertise the event, Someplace Safe issued a press release, which noted that "Jacki Maethner Jorud" would be receiving the award. Several local newspapers republished this information. Someplace Safe presented Jorud with a certificate at the banquet, which recognized her for "empowering [herself] and inspiring others to stand against violence."

After the banquet, Someplace Safe and Jorud posted pictures on Facebook of Jorud holding the award certificate. The Facebook page of Someplace Safe has over 1,000 followers. In addition, Jorud wrote an article for the fall 2014 newsletter of Someplace Safe that was published to approximately 2,500 people. The newsletter was seven pages long, with the last page containing a request for donations.

Jorud’s article was approximately one page long, was signed "Jacki Maethner Jorud," and was accompanied by a photo of Jorud with her husband and stepchildren. The article did not mention Maethner by name nor did it specifically state that the domestic violence happened during Jorud’s prior marriage to Maethner. Nonetheless, Maethner identifies the following statements from the article as defamatory:

"I was asked to write a short article celebrating the fact of not just surviving domestic violence, but thriving through recovery."
"Getting out of an unhealthy, threatening and dangerous relationship is hard. It is scary."
"I don't know if there will ever be a time when I can be certain I am no longer being stalked and watched."
"I didn't want to live in a constant state of fear."
"I didn't want daily conflict and fighting."

Months later, on February 1, 2015, Jorud posted the following to her Facebook page: "I, Jacki Maethner, will continue to speak out and educate against domestic violence. Neither the uncomfortableness of the subject, nor intimidation from others will keep me from speaking out. I am not just a survivor. I have learned to thrive in a life rich with blessings of LOVE, RESPECT, KINDNESS and EQUALITY."

Maethner sued Someplace Safe and Jorud for defamation. Maethner alleges that Someplace Safe defamed him by presenting Jorud with the Survivor Award at its banquet, publicizing the award in its press release and on its Facebook page, and publishing Jorud’s article in its fall 2014 newsletter. Maethner alleges that Jorud defamed him by posting pictures and statements on Facebook that identified her as a survivor of domestic violence, as well as writing the article for Someplace Safe’s newsletter. Although the statements did not identify him by name, Maethner asserts that a reasonable person in the community would understand the statements to refer to him because the Maethner surname is not common and his marriage to Jorud was well known in the community. Maethner further alleges that Someplace Safe was negligent in publishing the newsletter article without investigating the accuracy of Jorud’s statements. Maethner requests damages for emotional harm, including anxiety, headaches, stomach aches, and difficulty sleeping. He also argues that his damages may be presumed because the statements accuse him of "criminal behavior or moral turpitude" and such statements are "deemed to be defamatory per se. "

Someplace Safe and Jorud each filed motions for summary judgment. The district court determined that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the defamatory statements were "about" Maethner, even though none of the statements explicitly named him.1

Nonetheless, the district court granted summary judgment to Someplace Safe and Jorud on the defamation claims, concluding that (1) the statements were protected by a qualified privilege, and Maethner failed to establish a genuine issue of material fact on malice; and (2) Maethner had not shown proof of actual damages. The district court also granted summary judgment to Someplace Safe on the negligence claim, concluding that Someplace Safe did not have a duty to investigate Jorud’s statements.

The court of appeals reversed and remanded. See Maethner v. Someplace Safe, Inc. , 907 N.W.2d 665, 675–76 (Minn. App. 2018). The court of appeals rejected each of the bases on which the district court relied in granting summary judgment. First, the court of appeals concluded that "the allegedly defamatory statements were not protected by a qualified privilege because they were made to raise funds for Someplace Safe and not to protect Jorud or to report a crime." Id. at 667. Next, the court of appeals concluded that Maethner must prove negligence as an element of his defamation claim against Someplace Safe, and therefore, he "does not have a separate negligence claim" against Someplace Safe. Id. at 673. In addition, the court of appeals determined that Someplace Safe owed a duty to exercise reasonable care before publishing Jorud’s statements, and "[w]hether Someplace Safe breached its duty of reasonable care raised a fact question for the jury." Id. at 674. Finally, the court of appeals said that "Maethner produced sufficient evidence of damages to survive summary judgment." Id. Therefore, the court of appeals remanded for trial on Maethner’s defamation claims. Id. at 675–76.

Someplace Safe and Jorud each petitioned for further review. We granted both petitions.

ANALYSIS

This is a defamation case. To provide a framework for our analysis, we begin with some general principles. Under the common law, a plaintiff pursuing a defamation claim "must prove that the defendant made: (a) a false and defamatory statement about the plaintiff; (b) in [an] unprivileged publication to a third party; (c) that harmed the plaintiff’s reputation in the community."2 Weinberger v. Maplewood Review , 668 N.W.2d 667, 673 (Minn. 2003). As the second element suggests, the common law recognizes privileges, both absolute and qualified, that operate to defeat a defamation claim. Harlow v. State Dep't of Human Servs. , 883 N.W.2d 561, 569 (Minn. 2016). A qualified privilege is overcome if the plaintiff demonstrates that the defendant made the statement with malice. Bahr v. Boise Cascade Corp. , 766 N.W.2d 910, 920 (Minn. 2009). Malice under the common law means that the defendant made the statement "from ill will and improper motives, or causelessly and wantonly for the purpose of injuring the plaintiff." Stuempges v. Parke, Davis & Co. , 297 N.W.2d 252, 257 (Minn. 1980) (citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted).

To avoid chilling constitutionally protected speech, the Supreme Court has imposed prerequisites to recovery in certain types of defamation actions. For example, the Court has held that public figures and public officials must meet a higher standard when challenging defamatory statements, requiring proof of actual malice.3 See generally Curtis Publ'g Co. v. Butts , 388 U.S. 130, 155, 87 S.Ct. 1975, 18 L.Ed.2d 1094 (1967) ; New York Times Co. v. Sullivan , 376 U.S. 254, 278–80, 84 S.Ct. 710, 11 L.Ed.2d 686 (1964). To satisfy the constitutional actual-malice standard, a statement must be "made with the ‘knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.’ " Weinberger , 668 N.W.2d at 673 (quoting New York Times , 376 U.S. at 279–80, 84 S.Ct. 710 ); see also Moreno v. Crookston Times Printing Co. , 610 N.W.2d 321, 329 (Minn. 2000) (defining "actual malice" and noting that "it is important to distinguish between ‘actual malice’ and ‘common law malice’ ").

With this framework in mind, we turn to the issues raised here. First, we address whether Maethner produced sufficient evidence of damages to survive summary judgment, including whether he may rely on...

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