The Minnesota Court of Appeals heard oral arguments Feb. 25 in the defamation case brought by Crosby Mayor James Hunter against Crosby city officials.
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 district court dismissed his lawsuit, stating Hunter failed to provide the evidence required to survive the defendants’ motion for dismissal of his 44 claims and he did not meet the requirements needed in the case under the law of defamation.
The claims were dismissed with prejudice, meaning the case was final and Hunter could not bring the defamation claims again into a courtroom. However, Hunter had the right to appeal the judge’s ruling within 60 days with the Minnesota Court of Appeals, which he did.
Due to the pandemic, the Minnesota Judicial Branch is hosting virtual court hearings, including Hunter’s defamation lawsuit against the city of Crosby, former Crosby Police Chief Kim Coughlin and former Lt. Kevin Randolph. To listen to the Feb. 25 arguments, go to mncourts.gov/CourtOfAppeals/OralArgumentRecordings.
Court of Appeals judges Louise Dovre Bjorkman, Edward J. Cleary and Susan Segal heard the arguments during which each party had 15 minutes to argue their case. The judges asked questions during the arguments and in closing stated they will take the matter under advisement for up to 90 days, per state law.
Brainerd Attorney Ed Shaw argued first on behalf of Hunter and then Attorneys Patrick S. Collins and Joseph Flynn of Jardine, Logan & O’Brien in Lake Elmo argued second on behalf of Crosby officials.
Shaw said the key issue in the case is the distinction of written and oral defamation — slander and libel. Defamation is the action of damaging a good reputation of someone; libel is a published false statement damaging to a person’s reputation; and slander is a false oral statement damaging a person’s reputation.
Shaw said the written defamation is easy to argue, but the oral defamation statements are more difficult as they can be vague. Shaw cited a defamation case in Hennepin County when Benilde-St. Margaret’s School suspended one of its hockey standouts for two days, concluding the student hosted a party where students drank alcohol.
Shaw said when the case made it to the court of appeals, the defamation statements made by the school were “extremely vague.” Shaw said it wasn’t possible in the Hennepin County case to state who said what, to whom and what was said or how it was said — resulting in the court of appeals finding the student failed to allege a defamatory statement and present evidence that Benilde-St. Margaret's made any statement with actual malice.
Bjorkman agreed with Shaw about how defamation statements are made, but questioned the amended allegations made in 2016 by Coughlin and Randolph. The judge said a paragraph in the complaint states false and defamatory statements were made, but it doesn’t state the content of the statement. The judge asked Shaw if it was sufficient to state it was an actionable defamation statement under state law.
Shaw drew the court’s attention to the other portions of the amended complaint that showed past statements made by the defendants including certain witnesses would receive a financial reward if Hunter was convicted; that someone should take Hunter somewhere, to kill and bury him; telling an individual Hunter is a criminal; telling an individual Hunter was charged with sexual assault of a family member; and that witnesses who testified in Hunter’s case were paid off.
Bjorkman said the statements were made in 2017 and one of the grounds on why the district court dismissed parts of the complaint was because the statute of limitations ran out after two years. She asked if all these statements were made in the two-year window.
Shaw said some comments were and some were not and he believes his client has the right to pursue the claims outside the statute of limitations.
“Because of the conduct of the defendants and falsely accusing the plaintiff of a crime and excessive prosecution that didn’t end until the spring of 2019, it was simply impossible for an appellant to take any action,” Shaw said. “Discovery was not available.”
The judge said it is not impossible and in civil matters, it happens all the time. Shaw said it is extremely difficult to find out exactly what was said and most of the statements came to light after the criminal proceedings.
Shaw argued the entire complaint needs to be looked at, not just some of the statements made inside or outside the two-year statutory limitation period. He said the statements may not be verbatim, but are pretty close to the exact statements made. He said some statements may be more of an opinion than fact, but said, “When (it’s) a uniformed police officer acting under the authority of the city of Crosby, it is more than just a mere opinion saying someone is a jerk ... it’s a government official, a police officer, probably the highest ranking officer, saying someone should be killed that has more weight than just me, a private citizen saying, someone is a jerk.”
Cleary said it sounded like there was a variety of opinions in the statements. He asked how someone in a position of authority making a statement of opinion made that opinion defamatory. Cleary said there is no law that would suggest there are different standards in how to analyze the opinion based on the status of a person making a statement of opinion, whether they are a bus driver or a police officer.
During the defense’s argument, Collins pointed out that for more than 100 years, Minnesota courts have applied strict pleading requirements for defamation cases. He said the district court analyzed every one of Hunter’s allegations and pointed out multiple reasons why they should be dismissed with prejudice.
Collins said Hunter has repeatedly refused to analyze each of his claims and states the district court erred. The district court dismissed the claims based on a lack of specificity.
Collins said regarding the written allegations of defamation, Shaw admitted the language needs to be cited verbatim.
“If you look at his complaint which is the only thing the court looks at, (Shaw) has failed to do so,” Collins said. “He has failed to state verbatim. What he claims is defamatory and the written documents that are attached to this brief ... it is undisputed that the district court was correct in dismissing those claims with prejudice. That leaves the oral defamatory statements.”
Collins said Shaw argues the oral defamatory statements do not need to be pleaded verbatim, and they disagree. Collins cited several defamation cases to support his argument.
Bjorkman asked Collins why they can’t just assume the statements are verbatim like Shaw argues, even if not exact comments. The judge said with the statement about Hunter being charged with sexually assaulting a family member, the statement may not be verbatim, but a person is able to read into it quite clearly about what the statement is about.
Collins argued it is not known exactly when the statements were made, or to whom. He also argued Shaw failed to state how the allegations affected Hunter’s business. Bjorkman said the statements don’t have to affect his business, but show presumed damages. Collins disagreed and went on to state Hunter, as a public figure needs to allege actual malice.
Collins cited a case similar to Hunter’s. He said a Mr. Steele was a candidate for a state position and somebody made a remark he was under investigation for first-degree sexual assault. Steele claimed defamation and the court dismissed it as there was no evidence of actual malice. Collins said the court stated the comments were Steele was under investigation for the crime, not that he committed the crime. And in Hunter’s case, the alleged statement was he was charged with the crime, not that he committed the crime.
Collins also argued the alleged statement of wanting Hunter dead is one of opinion, protected by the First Amendment and not defined as defamatory. Collins said this statement is not enough to allege actual malice.
Collins argued the statute of limitations was expired and there were problems with the defense’s claim about a bad faith criminal prosecution of the appellant.
“Number one, he’s barred from making the claim because he's made it the first time on appeal,” Collins said. “The defendants did not prosecute Mr. Hunter. Crow Wing County did and he has failed to cite any authority to support that claim whatsoever.”
In a telephone interview, Thursday, March 4, Shaw said he is optimistic the Minnesota Court of Appeals will allow Hunter’s case to proceed as it is an appropriate defamation claim as defined by state law.
“The actions of the defendants, Mr. Randolph, Ms. Coughlin, were grossly out of line, were politically motivated and was the prosecution of an individual for a personal agenda,” Shaw said. “That ended up in an individual being put in jail, reputation ruined over a few years of fighting charges, which of course while dismissed, it takes a lot out of someone to be accused as a serious criminal. To be fighting that for two years, until you get vindicated and have your name all over the media with your mugshot and being accused of this and that ... it’s a huge negative impact. No one should have to go through that.
“That’s what the lawsuit is all about is accountability, to hold these people accountable. To get justice for Mr. Hunter and, more importantly, to make sure it doesn’t happen again. This cannot be allowed to happen to anybody else.”
Collins stated in an email statement: “From the beginning of this lawsuit, we have maintained that many, if not all, of Mr. Hunter’s claims should be dismissed immediately as a matter of law. The district court agreed with us, and based on the recent oral argument, we are confident the Minnesota Court of Appeals will agree with us as well.”