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:
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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