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Cornell Dolan Wins Precedent-Setting Anti-SLAPP Case

· Defamation,Anti-SLAPP,Litigation,Invasion of privacy,Attorney's fees

A couple of years ago, VTDigger published a long article exploring how a Vermont judge handled allegations of sex abuse that were brought in the midst of a child custody feud. Drawing from law enforcement documents and other sources, the story told how difficult sorting out truth from fiction can be in a case like this.

Even though the names of the parents and child were changed in the article to protect their identities, the child's sued VTDigger for libel, invasion of privacy, and other grievances. Faced with a suit that could ruin the company if it succeeded, VTDigger turned to Cornell Dolan for help.

Working with Richard Cassidy, an esteemed trial lawyer in Vermont, Timothy Cornell drafted briefs to get the case dismissed early under the state's anti-SLAPP Law. That law is designed to protect public discourse by making it easier to dismiss suits targeted at speech.

To win, though, Cornell Dolan had to thread a few needles:

  • Was the article about a public issue? The mother argued that it was a private issue that should have been kept within the family.   
  • Was the article really based on public records? Vermont courts only said that police records intended to be viewed by the public could be considered public records. But the article used law enforcement records that had not been made public.
  •  Can a newspaper be liable for publishing documents that were sealed by a court? The mother argued that the documents could not properly be called public documents if they were sealed by the court. 

In a precedent-setting First Amendment victory, Cornell Dolan persuaded the Vermont trial judge to dismiss the defamation action at the outset. The opinion is available here.

Judge Mary Teachout applied the anti-SLAPP law, finding that the article was absolutely about an important public issue. The fact that the names were changed showed that the actual identities of the people were not important, but the issues were, the judge wrote. And the fact that documents were under seal cannot prevent a newspaper from publishing stories based on documents already in its possession, she concluded.


As far as the defamation claim itself, the judge found that the article did not print anything that the mother alleged was untrue, so there could be no defamation.


Winning the anti-SLAPP motion allowed Cornell Dolan and Rich Cassidy to turn the tables and demand that the plaintiff pay the lawyers' hourly fees. Judge Teachout awarded those fees and denied the mother's request for reconsideration.

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