Father Sues His 8- and 10-Year-Old Daughters for Slander

Be good, boys and girls, or we'll sue you, too.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

The daughters allegedly told police officers, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, "and other persons" that the father had punched the 8-year-old and pulled her hair; this led to the father being "arrested on a Domestic Violence charge," which "remains pending."

His ex-wife (with whom he had been "involved in an extensive and litigious divorce matter") allegedly told police, DCFS, "and other persons" that he told the older daughter "that if she behaved as her sister then [he] would also strike her," and that he "is mentally and emotionally abusive to his children." According to the complaint, "Upon information and belief, Lisa Peters [the ex-wife] was the primary witness pushing to prosecution of Denny Peters [the father] in that criminal matter."

Denny Peters says those were lies, so he's suing the girls, as well as his ex, demanding $50,000 from each of the three, plus an extra $50,000 for civil conspiracy. I can't say I've ever seen a lawsuit quite like this, but perhaps I'm naïve.

The case is Peters v. Peters, just filed by Peters' lawyer (Timothy M. Barnes) Monday in Cook County, Illinois.

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  1. Sue them for everything theyve got

    1. I think that was perhaps to subtle .

  2. Since the defendants are minors, if the plaintiff wins, he’ll be able to collect from the Defendants’ father, will he not?

    I sincerely hope the defendants’ father has the means to pay the plaintiff. Plus the lawyers.

    1. That’s what I thought as well. Suing the mother might make sense but suing the kids? Seems self-defeating.

      1. I imagine this is all in aid of getting the mother to stop coaching the kids to make false accusations.
        If he just sued Mom, she might retract her accusation, but coach the kids to double-down.

    2. Parents are not necessarily liable for the torts of their children, especially not when they do not have custody or control of the children. Parental liability is usually predicated on negligent supervision of some such.

    3. Given that they’re divorcing and there’s an abuse claim, I’m guessing the mother is trying to get custody, and while I’m not a lawyer, I’d assume that means it would be on her

  3. It sounds like he’s trying to cancel out the child support he’ll inevitably be forced to pay.

    1. Or maybe he just has more money than is good for him. We lawyers are adept at helping people with that problem.

  4. He should sue his wife’s lawyer.

  5. I know very little about Illinois defamation law, but is it possible that he had to sue the daughters because they also made these statements, i.e. if he only sued the mother, she could say she was just repeating what her daughters told her?

    As a guess, the statements about criminal conduct likely happened as a negotiation tactic for the divorce. If he is removed from the home and custody is temporarily granted to the mother, she has a much easier time keeping the house and primary custody: the “best interests of the child” will be to be with the parent who has been the primary caregiver over the several years that the divorce may take, and to remain where they had been living. (My uncle’s ex-wife did this to him on the advice of her lawyer.)

    Aside from punching back, the aim of a defamation lawsuit may be to get the girls to admit that their mother put them up to this stunt.

    1. I’ve heard about the madness that goes in divorce courts, and convincing small children to make false accusations is practically routine. I’m not going to jump into judgement on either side

    2. It’s perfectly permissible to sue a republisher and not the original publisher.

      1. But wouldn’t the mother have a complete defense that her daughter told it to her, and she has no particular reason to disbelieve it?

        Even if the father could prove that the daughters statement was false (by recantation or similar) the mother would still be protected – she’d have had no reason to distrust daughter at the time.

        Only be proving that mother knew (or should have known) that daughter was lying could he win, and while that’s not inconceivable it is implausible (baring a very specific past record of similar lies)

        1. But wouldn’t the mother have a complete defense that her daughter told it to her, and she has no particular reason to disbelieve it?

          Not unless the mother is a public official/public figure, no.

          1. Er, the father, I meant.

  6. I assume the goal is to collect from a homeowner’s insurance policy that provides coverage for slander.

    1. I thought about that, but as I understand it such policies generally don’t cover intentional misconduct, and here he is alleging that the slander was malicious and said with knowledge that it was false. (I can’t speak with confidence on Illinois law as to that, though, or as to the terms of any homeowner’s insurance policy that might or might not be available.)

      1. Even if there is no coverage, the insurer may still have a duty to defend the case. If so, the insurer may offer some money to avoid defense costs.

  7. Perhaps he thinks that, if he can get a ruling that the claims were defamatory, the court won’t treat them as true for purposes of custody/alimony rulings?

    1. The court would both not treat the claims as true for purposes of custody, but might be able to consider the fact that one parent defamed the other, in an official police record, which resulted in an investigation and legal proceedings, in custody disputes. A lot of judges wouldn’t grant custody to the parent who blatantly lies and tries to get the other parent thrown in jail.

  8. And, somehow, people wonder at the declining rates of both marriage and child bearing.

  9. I’m increasingly of the opinion that a world without any defamation torts would be infinitely better than the one we’re living in. Full textualism now.

    1. Disagreed, because then those who buy ink by the barrel will be free to trash anyone they dislike, or talk about that time JeffR24 lost his virginity when your mother raped you in an outhouse.

      Instead something like loser pays on all defamation claims would go a long way, tied to automatic garnishment.

      1. “[he] lost his virginity when [his] mother raped [him] in an outhouse”
        ref to Falwell v Hustler (district court) and Hustler v Falwell (SCOTUS) for those who forgot the past, lest ye relive it.

        In this parody case, however, Hustler won because they were Hustler and the parody was obvious because Hustler had no credibility beyond being jokesters; unlike Raphael Golb who posted BS sockpuppeting as actual people and claimed it was protected parody.

        Wikipedia: “In 2010, in People v. Golb, 50-year-old lawyer Raphael Golb was convicted on 30 criminal charges, including identity theft, criminal impersonation, and aggravated harassment, for using multiple sockpuppet accounts to attack and impersonate historians he perceived as rivals of his father, Norman Golb. Golb defended his actions as “satirical hoaxes” protected by free-speech rights. He was disbarred and sentenced to six months in prison but remained free on appeal on $25,000 bail.”

  10. The goal may be to depose the wife and kids to aid in the defense of the criminal case. In most jurisdictions, you can engage in discovery left and right over a few thousand bucks, but not over the prospect of locking someone in a cage for years or decades.

  11. What is a lawyer’s ethical obligation to warn a client of the high likelihood of negative publicity from a suit like this? It seems close to certain that a suit like this would draw coverage on the internet, which could damage the client’s reputation. A few Conspirators have written about the Streisand Effect before. Ken White discusses it often. It seems almost malpractice not to inform clients of that potential cost.

    1. The man is an accused child abuser. He has no reputation left. If he is correct and the mother manipulated the children to lie, he could think that this is the best way to make the matter public.

      Or he could just be a horrid narcissist.

      I lack the information to tell which is correct.

      1. Never discount the option that it’s both.

  12. “police officers, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services”

    I would have thought such witness statements would be privileged.

    1. That was what I was going to post.

      The suit actually says, “police officers, IDCFS and other persons,” (emphasis added), so it’s possible that not all of the statements are privileged. But unless pleading standards are really low out there, “Oh, yeah, she told some unspecified person” wouldn’t be sufficient.

  13. The relevant comment thread is now closed, so ….

    Hey Volokh – still no follow-up on the Yale Law School swastika story you reported in October. And nothing on the Internet – just crickets.

    Could we get a follow-up story? Just like the MSM, you do a drive-by story of outrage, and then drop it for the next shiny thing. When institutions refuse to talk ‘for now,’ there should ALWAYS be a follow-up story written.

    1. There’s nothing wrong with curiosity, or asking them to followup, but this isn’t a media outlet; they’re not under any obligation to do any such thing.

  14. Assuming that the father is rational (I was an econ major), I presume that (i) the mother’s homeowner’s policy covers defamation (there are such policies) and (ii) if so, it covers minors who live in the house (which homeowners’ policies usually do) and (iii) the father doesn’t want the mother to escape liability by arguing that all the defamatory statements were made by the children.

  15. A basic point about defamation that I constantly need to remind clients about: No matter how unfair, false, or hurtful an allegation may be, even if it is utterly and completely false, you have no remedy in court unless (1) other people actually believe the allegation, and (2) you suffer actual economic harm as a result of the false allegation. In the absence of actual economic harm, the most you may recover is a dollar or two in purely “symbolic“ damages, which is hardly worth the investment of tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

    1. It lead to his arrest. It shouldn’t be hard to itemize economic harm based on that.

      1. That’s malicious prosecution or abuse of process, not defamation.

      2. And in most states, the filing of a criminal complaint is subject to absolute privilege from defamation liability. (In contrast, falsely accusing someone of a crime without filing a criminal complaint is defamatory if all other requirements of a defamation claim are met).

        So if it was true that the allegation of domestic violence led to an arrest and prosecution on criminal charges, the wife and children are absolutely privileged against defamation liability. His suit is going nowhere.

        1. Except if he can get it proven that the children were manipulated to lie, he would get sole custody of the children.

        2. Lie to the press, get sued for slander.
          Lie to the cops, and you’re immune?

          I suspect I’m misunderstanding something, because that’s obviously absurd.

          1. You’re missing something.

            Lie to the public, get sued for slander.
            Lie to the police, immune from slander, go to jail for filing a false police report.

            But let’s kick it up a notch.

            Tell the truth to the FBI but they write their notes down wrong, go to jail.
            FBI lies to you, sucks to be you.

            1. Lie to the police, immune from slander, go to jail for filing a false police report.

              Unfortunately, the state is often very hesitant to go after people for filing a false police report; particularly when the alleged victim is a minor making accusations of sexual harassment.

    2. The availability of damages for injury to reputation in the absence of economic harm varies with jurisdiction. Some states allow it, some don’t. For example, in Massachusetts I believe that damages may be awarded in the absence of economic harm in cases of defamation per se. Is your statement that they are unavailable based on a knowledge of Illinois law?

  16. IANAL, but I wonder if suing the girls is a way to force their testimony in a case actually directed at the wife.

  17. Without knowing which side is telling the truth, it’s hard to say What It All Means.

  18. It s very common in child custody cases to make accusations of child abuse and child molestations in order to obtain full custody of the minor children. Divorce court judges are used to the accusations and typically discount the credibility of the accusations. Unfortunately, real cases of child abuse tend not to be believed due to the multitude of false accusations.

    Separate issue exists as to whether filing suit is a viable litigation strategy.

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