Vermont Supreme Court upholds dismissal of invasion of privacy suit against newspaper

By Takesha Thomas | Feb 12, 2019

MONTPELIER, Vt. (Legal Newsline) – The Vermont Supreme Court has affirmed a lower court's ruling that dismissed a complaint by a man who claimed a local newspaper portrayed him in a false light in published articles.

In a Jan. 25 ruling, the Supreme Court affirmed the Orleans Superior Court's ruling in favor of The Chronicle's motion to strike the claims under Vermont's anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) statute.

"We conclude that the claims were properly stricken under the anti-SLAPP statute and that the court erred in limiting the attorney’s fees award. Therefore, we affirm in part and reverse and remand in part," the ruling states.

Garrett Cornelius filed suit against The Chronicle, a newspaper, alleging invasion of privacy after the newspaper published two articles in 2016 containing information about him. 

One of the articles, which was published on the newspaper's website, "explained that the State Police Vermont Intelligence Center had cautioned local law enforcement about 'a possible threat from the Cornelius brothers, because of what they say is a history of erratic and violent behavior,'" the ruling states.

A second article described Cornelius' arraignment on criminal charges for aiding in the escape of his brother, the ruling states

"The article was based on the police affidavit supporting the information and the reporter’s own observations at the arraignment. This article described plaintiff as 'loud and combative' during the proceeding and stated that plaintiff 'offered verbal expletives to just about any officer of the court tasked with handling his case,'" the ruling states.

Cornelius filed suit against the newspaper alleging that the newspaper articles placed him "in a false light." The Chronicle moved to dismiss the suit under the anti-SLAPP statute.

The Supreme Court however, ruled that the, "newspaper was exercising a right of free speech by publishing the articles. ...We conclude that the articles in this case were exercises of free speech and connected to a public issue because they concerned public safety, law enforcement activity, possible criminal behavior, and the reporting of arrests. As an initial matter, we conclude that newspaper was exercising a right of free speech by publishing the articles."

As for court fees, the Supreme Court noted The Chronicle filed a request for $34,185.33 in attorneys' fees, and the lower court only awarded a litigation-insurance deductible of $5,000.

"We conclude that the court improperly limited the attorney’s fees to the insurance deductible. On remand, the court must determine the reasonable cost of attorney’s fees and award this amount to newspaper," the ruling states.

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