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Free Speech

Interesting #TheyLied Appellate Libel Decision in Response to #MeToo Claims

I've been seeing many such libel lawsuits recently, though only a few have gone so far as to yield a verdict for the libel plaintiff.


From Louisiana Court of Appeal Justice Paula Brown's opinion (joined by Justices Edwin Lombard and Regina Bartholomew Woods) in Doe v. Lewis, decided by the Louisiana Court of Appeal on Dec. 30 but just posted on Westlaw:

Jane Doe filed a lawsuit against Mr. Lewis seeking damages for alleged assault and battery, rape, and false imprisonment. Mr. Lewis filed an answer and a [counterclaim] against Jane Doe for defamation…. At the conclusion of the [bench] trial, the district court dismissed Jane Doe's case with prejudice, and found in favor of Mr. Lewis on his [counterclaim], awarding Mr. Lewis $75,000.00 in general damages and $18,462.14 in lost wages…. Jane Doe appeals, challenging only the district court's finding of fault against her for defamation of Mr. Lewis. {Jane Doe does not appeal her underlying case asserting the allegation of rape against Mr. Lewis, which the district court dismissed with prejudice.} …

Jane Doe resided in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 2013. Mr. Lewis resided in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The two had been friends for several years and both were registered nurses. On July 20, 2013, Jane Doe had a birthday party, which Mr. Lewis attended. Prior to the party, Jane Doe and Mr. Lewis discussed that he could stay at her house and sleep on the couch in the living room, if he did not want to drive back to Baton Rouge. Jane Doe rented a party bus for the party. Jane Doe, Mr. Lewis, and other guests were drinking alcohol and dancing on the party bus. After returning home, Jane Doe and some of her guests went to a nightclub. Mr. Lewis stayed at Jane Doe's house and went to sleep in the extra bedroom.

When Jane Doe and several of her guests, including a couple, returned, Mr. Lewis was awakened. The couple planned to sleep in the extra bedroom. After the couple retired to the extra bedroom, Mr. Lewis and Jane Doe had sex. Jane Doe alleged it was non-consensual; Mr. Lewis alleged it was consensual.

On July 24, 2013, Jane Doe filed a police report with the New Orleans Police Department, alleging Mr. Lewis raped her. Mr. Lewis was arrested on the charge of simple rape … on December 31, 2013. Mr. Lewis testified he spent around 8 to 10 hours in jail and was released after posting bond in the approximate amount of $1,200.00. In 2014, the Orleans Parish District Attorney refused the charges against Mr. Lewis.

At trial, Jane Doe's attorney admitted that Jane Doe contacted Mr. Lewis' professional licensing board, the nursing board, and informed it of the alleged rape by Mr. Lewis. Mr. Lewis stated that after he was arrested he also contacted the nursing board to inform it of the pending charge as he was required to do. Mr. Lewis recalled Jane Doe had contacted the nursing board the week before he did. Due to the accusation, the nursing board conducted its own investigation.

Mr. Lewis was employed by the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections where he worked as a registered nurse at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women ("LCIW"). Mr. Lewis testified that Jane Doe contacted his work multiple times. Ms. Holland, the Assistant to the Warden at the LCIW, testified that she received a letter, via fax, from Jane Doe stating that Mr. Lewis sexually assaulted her. Ms. Holland gave the letter to the Warden of LCIW. She recalled Mr. Lewis was placed on administrative leave because of the accusation. Mr. Lewis testified he was on administrative leave for 544 hours and lost wages as a result….

We conclude that the district court was correct in finding Jane Doe's statement was defamatory per se. We note the district court, after trial on the merits, found that the criminal accusation of rape against Mr. Lewis was false and dismissed Jane Doe's petition for damages against Mr. Lewis with prejudice. This judgment of dismissal is a final judgment, as Jane Doe did not challenge the district court's judgment. Consequently, the record before this Court supports the district court's finding that Jane Doe communicated to another person, other than Mr. Lewis, the false criminal accusation that Mr. Lewis raped her.

Jane Doe, however, contests whether Mr. Lewis proved the element of unprivileged publication/communication to a third party. Because this is the only element of defamation Jane Doe contests, our review is limited to this element….

Jane Doe essentially argues that her communication to the nursing board was a conditional or qualified privileged communication…. She argued that as a registered nurse she had a duty to report Mr. Lewis' conduct, citing La. Admin. Code tit. 46 Pt XLVII, Section 306(T)(8)(m) which provides the nursing board will have grounds for disciplinary proceedings against a nurse who "fail[s] to report, through the proper channels, facts known regarding the incompetent, unethical, or illegal practice of any health care provider."

However, … to enjoy a conditional privilege, as affirmatively asserted by Jane Doe, she must show that the communication/publication was made in good faith…. [T]he district court found that Jane Doe failed to prove the rape accusation against Mr. Lewis; the district court reasoned that it did not find Jane Doe's testimony credible and "she … created a fictional account of her encounter with Mr. Lewis." Jane Doe did not challenge this finding.

Accordingly, we conclude Jane Doe failed to prove—at the time she communicated the criminal accusation against Mr. Lewis to the nursing board—that the communication was in good faith….

Turning to Mr. Lewis' award of $75,000.00 in general damages, Jane Doe asserts the district court abused its discretion in determining Mr. Lewis' general damage award as it was not supported by the evidence presented at trial. Jane Doe contends that Mr. Lewis, during his deposition, only testified that he had trouble sleeping, and Mr. Lewis failed to prove any damage to his reputation due to the alleged defamation….

Mr. Lewis testified how he suffered, following his arrest for the alleged rape:

"Well, my marriage has definitely suffered dealing with—I coach soccer. I have two daughters. I deal with them. I cannot have their friends sleep over. I cannot have my daughter's cousin sleep over with me being there…

"I was arrested[.] [I] did … go to Orleans OPP for something I did not do. It does affect my every day dealings when it comes down to being in the presence of women … If a woman walks in my office alone, I will get up and open my door if she closes my door … I do not want to put myself in a position where someone can do that to me again."

Mr. Lewis testified he had issues sleeping, eating, and dealing with his problems, and as a result, he spoke to a counselor. Mr. Lewis stated that he lived in fear as a result of going to jail for something he did not do. Mr. Lewis continued that he still has trouble sleeping and the prolonged matter has worn him down.

In addition, [Caroline Moore, a coworker of Mr. Lewis's], when questioned about how Mr. Lewis acted when he returned to work after his administrative leave, responded that Mr. Lewis was embarrassed and uncomfortable "returning with those allegations over his head." She continued that prior to being accused of rape, Mr. Lewis was very friendly, but that changed for a long time after he was accused….

We find the record supports the district court's findings. Mr. Lewis presented competent evidence of the injuries he suffered as a result of the defamatory statements and the statements were a substantial factor in causing the harm….

Note that the plaintiff was likely allowed to litigate pseudonymously because she was alleging that she had been raped; that's one commonly accepted exception from the rules that generally require people to sue using their real names. And the court's conclusion that the allegations were false didn't lead to a change in the caption. (Some have suggested that accused rapists should also be able to litigate such cases pseudonymously as well; but that generally hasn't been allowed, except in cases brought by college students challenging Title IX sexual misconduct proceedings.)