False statements: the relationship between who published them and what claims may be brought.
7 June 2020
Defamation comes is many forms and can occur in all types of mediums. In addition, who (or what) made the false statement determines what type of additional claim a victim may have. The example highlighted in this post is a statement made by a public official.
In C.M. v. Commissioner of the Department of Children and Families the plaintiff alleged false statements were made by a DCF case worker with the approval of her immediate supervisor in the legal pursuit of state custody of the plaintiff’s child. 97 Mass. App. Ct. 343, 344 (2020). DCF’s petition, allegedly based on these falsehoods, prevailed initially and resulted in the deprivation of custody for months with the child being taken from the plaintiff and placed in foster care. The plaintiff raised a classic civil rights violation under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 charging various actions of these two DCF workers were violations of same. (It appears the plaintiff also could have raised a defamation claim as well, but for whatever reason did not.). The interesting legal fact to understand is that section 1983 claims can only be raised against state actors, thus, if these falsehoods were stated by a neighbor, stranger, or other regular citizen, she could not raise section 1983.
DCF put up a vigorous defense and raised privilege based affirmative defenses in their motion for judgment on the pleadings and motion for summary judgment. (It is unclear why these motions were raised and decided together as they typically are raised at different stages of a civil action). The court largely sided with DCF but left one part of the claim intact to be decided at trial.
The case will continue under the plaintiff’s civil rights statutory claim, and not defamation, to trial where the fact finder will decide. The author is curious how the plaintiff’s choice of law to pursue will affect the legal result of the case, if that can be discerned. The future may satisfy the curiosity.