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Jury Rejects Tortious Interference Claim Against Quad City Times

A Scott County, Iowa jury unanimously sided with the Quad City Times, and two of its journalists, in a lawsuit brought by the former city administrator of Davenport, Iowa, who had claimed articles written by the paper had wrongly interfered with his contract with the city. Malin v Quad City Times et al. (October 4, 2019).

Background

In 2017, plaintiff Craig Malin sued the paper, columnist Barb Ickes, reporter Brian Wellner, as well as the paper's parent company, Lee Enterprises, for defamation and false light, in addition to the tortious interference claim.

The 41-page complaint alleged that a series of articles published in the paper in 2014 and 2015 had falsely accused him of mismanagement in his official actions handling various public-private works projects for the city. The heart of the case involved the plaintiff's claim that the paper falsely accused him of making decisions favoring a developer of a casino without informing the mayor and city aldermen.

Specifically, the paper reported that the mayor and aldermen had been led to believe that the city was only paying for a road leading to the privately-owned casino but that Malin had negotiated the deal such that the city would also pay for grading and paving the lot.

Furthermore, plaintiff claimed that the reporting on him was a deliberate effort to get him fired after he had started a city-run news outlet, davenporttoday.com, which had hired two Quad City Times reporters. Quad City Times' editorials had called the website taxpayer-funded propaganda. Plaintiff alleged that defamatory statements in the paper led to his removal as city administrator after a 14-year tenure. The mayor asked him to resign, which he did in connection with a severance package that precluded him from suing the city.

In a 2018 motion for summary judgment, the defendants moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that allegations made in the paper were substantially true and non-actionable opinion, and that plaintiff was a public figure who lacked proof of actual malice, and further lacked proof of reputational damage. In a mixed ruling, Judge Nancy S. Tabor, dismissed the defamation and false light claims based upon the plaintiff's failure to demonstrate reputational damage caused by the articles.

Although the court found that the plaintiff was a public figure, and that that actual malice standard applied with respect to the plaintiff's defamation and false light claims, it permitted the tortious interference claim to proceed to trial without consideration of the constitutional defenses. The defendant moved for reconsideration and sought interlocutory appeal on multiple grounds, including that the interference claim was subject to the actual malice standard and that articles in question constituted constitutionally protected opinion, but those applications were denied.

Trial

A different judge, the Hon. Henry W. Latham II, was assigned to the trial, and he was apparently more receptive to the defense's First Amendment arguments. Notwithstanding the unfavorable rulings on summary judgment, the defense was successful in obtaining several favorable jury instructions, including one that largely put the actual malice question back in the hands of the jurors. That instruction read, in part, that "so long as the Defendants reasonably believed the published information was true, did not act with reckless disregard for the truth, and the publications involved an issue of public concern, then they are entitled to protection of the First Amendment." Other jury instructions provided the newspaper defendants with a public interest defense, if they were, among other factors, "acting in good faith for the protection of the public interest," and another instruction protected the defendants if their conduct was intended to petition the government about specific grievances.

At trial, the plaintiff called about a dozen witnesses in his case, including most of the defense witnesses, reporter Brian Wellner, columnist Barb Ickes and editorial page editor, Mark Ridolfi, in effort to try to prove his case that it was their intent to get him fired by painting a false portrait of plaintiff, but apparently the jury was more persuaded by the picture brought out in their cross-examination, that they were simply doing their job as hard-nosed journalists (a defense journalism expert witness backed up this aspect of the defense). But perhaps the most damning witness was the plaintiff himself, who on cross-examination repeatedly said that he didn't dispute any of the specific allegations written in the paper, which were often direct quotes of criticism lodged by the mayor and city aldermen.

At the close of plaintiff's case, the defendants moved for a directed verdict, which the court granted with respect to the newspaper's parent company, Lee Enterprises, for a lack of evidence that it had any involvement in the dispute.

After about a week and a half of testimony, and a day of closing arguments and jury charges, a jury of 4 men and 4 women deliberated for three hours before returning a verdict in favor of the remaining defendants. The plaintiff has filed an appeal.

Defendants were represented Ian Russell and Abbey Furlong, Lane & Waterman LLP, Davenport, Iowa. Plaintiff was represented by Larry Thorson, Ackley Kopecky & Kingery, L.L.P., Cedar Rapids, Iowa and Richard A. Pundt, Pundt Law Office, Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

 
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