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Junior Achievement case swells with defendants

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Retired Junior Achievement CEO Jeffrey M. Miller has taken full advantage of a judge’s order for news outlets to identify people who posted comments on their websites.

Miller and his wife, Cynthia, have sued 12 parties for defamation since Marion Superior Judge S.K. Reid issued an order earlier this year to IBJ, The Indianapolis Star and WRTV-TV Channel 6.

Most of the comments stem from the news outlets’ reporting on turmoil at Junior Achievement of Central Indiana in early 2010. A construction project at the organization’s headquarters had come to a halt after the Glick Fund at Central Indiana Community Foundation stopped paying on a $2 million grant, pending an audit.
 

miller-jeff-mug.jpg Miller

Miller already had retired from Junior Achievement, but he was president of a related entity that was overseeing the construction.

The fact that posters were responding to news articles could boost defendants’ arguments that they simply were expressing opinions, which would not amount to defamation, said Andrew Klein, the Paul E. Beam professor of law at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis.

That’s exactly what Andrew Wirick, an attorney for commenter Dave Wilson, has argued. Wilson, who works at 500 Festival Inc., admitted to posting two comments on the IBJ site from an office computer.

Although Wilson’s comments refer to a misuse of funds – something Miller was not accused of in IBJ articles – “Wilson was merely commenting and editorializing on the contents of the articles,” Wirick, a partner at Hume Smith Geddes Green and Simmons, argued in a recent court filing.

Miller’s attorney, Kevin Betz, did not respond to voice messages.

Wilson is one of several defendants hoping to be dismissed from the case after a Dec. 8 hearing. The case, which now has a total of 17 defendants, is set for trial January 2013.

Several of the defendants hoping for dismissal – including Federal Express Corp., Junior Achievement of Western Pennsylvania and Sanjo Steel Inc. of Greenwood – are companies where computers were used to post the comments.
 

miller-15col.jpg Turmoil around a project at the Junior Achievement building on North Keystone Avenue in 2010 prompted media coverage and anonymous comments from readers. (IBJ File Photo)

James Leagre, founder of Children’s Theatre Institute, which rented space in JA’s Keystone Avenue headquarters, is in a similar situation. A comment posted by his wife, Suzy, was traced to the Internet connection in his name, and he was named as a defendant.

The companies argue that supplying Internet access doesn’t make them liable, and they are protected by the Communications Decency Act, the same statute that protects Internet service providers.

That argument hasn’t been tested at the appellate-court level in Indiana, said Steven Springer, senior partner at Kightlinger & Gray, which represents Federal Express. “If Indiana follows the other states, that should be the end of it,” he said. “Our position is, we don’t even belong in the lawsuit.”

Miller retired from Junior Achievement at the end of 2008, but he remained president of the Experiential Learning and Entrepreneurship Foundation.

The foundation owns JA’s headquarters, and it was overseeing construction of a 25,000-square-foot addition to house a culinary school in late 2009. That’s when the Glick Fund stopped payment on its grant.

The issue hit headlines in early 2010, after contractors, who complained they hadn’t been paid, stopped working. The Central Indiana Community Foundation was holding up the grant until it had audited money it had previously released, IBJ reported at the time.

CICF has never made public the results of its audit, but it ultimately withdrew the grant.

In March 2010, Miller filed his defamation suit against Junior Achievement; its current CEO, Jennifer Burk; CICF; and its president, Brian Payne.

Miller claimed that he lost out on a job opportunity in Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s office because of rumors spread by Burk and Payne that he misused money. Later, he also sued Sarah Dansker Cotterill, wife of Ballard’s chief of staff, Chris Cotterill.

Miller alleges that Sarah Cotterill told her husband Junior Achievement was preparing a suit of its own against Miller.

Miller’s lawsuit also alleges that a consulting firm Miller and his wife formed has lost business because of the various defamatory statements.

Not all the comments posted online relate to Junior Achievement. One defendant, who is identified only as John Doe No. 7, made potentially embarrassing allegations about Miller’s personal life.miller-factbox.gif

That kind of statement leaves Miller with far fewer legal hurdles to clear, Klein said.

“He might be able to go after that commenter and argue that statement was not related to his arena of the public, which means the defendant would be forced to raise truth as a defense,” he said.

Most defamation cases boil down to “actual malice” – in other words, knowingly asserting something that isn’t true, or acting with a reckless disregard for truth. In those cases, the plaintiff bears the burden of proof.

John Doe No. 7 is one of three defendants who remain unidentified, possibly because Miller wasn’t able to trace the Internet protocol address to a specific person. In the case of John Doe No. 3, also known as “DownWithTheColts,” The Indianapolis Star refused to turn over the information.

All three media outlets objected to Miller’s request for the commenters’ Internet addresses, but Reid ruled in Miller’s favor. IBJ and Channel 6 complied with the judge’s order, but The Star filed an appeal.

The Star has cited Indiana’s shield law for journalists and First Amendment protection for anonymous speech. The Indiana Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments on that matter Dec. 12.

Reid’s order was the first of its kind that Jan Carroll, co-chairwoman of the media practice at Barnes and Thornburg has seen. Because lower-court decisions aren’t published, she said, it’s hard to tell whether Reid is the first judge in the state to issue such an order.•

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This story originally ran in the Dec. 5, 2011 issue of Indianapolis Business Journal, a sister publication of Indiana Lawyer.

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  1. Indianapolis employers harassment among minorities AFRICAN Americans needs to be discussed the metro Indianapolis area is horrible when it comes to harassing African American employees especially in the local healthcare facilities. Racially profiling in the workplace is an major issue. Please make it better because I'm many civil rights leaders would come here and justify that Indiana is a state the WORKS only applies to Caucasian Americans especially in Hamilton county. Indiana targets African Americans in the workplace so when governor pence is trying to convince people to vote for him this would be awesome publicity for the Presidency Elections.

  2. Wishing Mary Willis only God's best, and superhuman strength, as she attempts to right a ship that too often strays far off course. May she never suffer this personal affect, as some do who attempt to change a broken system: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QojajMsd2nE

  3. Indiana's seatbelt law is not punishable as a crime. It is an infraction. Apparently some of our Circuit judges have deemed settled law inapplicable if it fails to fit their litmus test of political correctness. Extrapolating to redefine terms of behavior in a violation of immigration law to the entire body of criminal law leaves a smorgasbord of opportunity for judicial mischief.

  4. I wonder if $10 diversions for failure to wear seat belts are considered moral turpitude in federal immigration law like they are under Indiana law? Anyone know?

  5. What a fine article, thank you! I can testify firsthand and by detailed legal reports (at end of this note) as to the dire consequences of rejecting this truth from the fine article above: "The inclusion and expansion of this right [to jury] in Indiana’s Constitution is a clear reflection of our state’s intention to emphasize the importance of every Hoosier’s right to make their case in front of a jury of their peers." Over $20? Every Hoosier? Well then how about when your very vocation is on the line? How about instead of a jury of peers, one faces a bevy of political appointees, mini-czars, who care less about due process of the law than the real czars did? Instead of trial by jury, trial by ideological ordeal run by Orwellian agents? Well that is built into more than a few administrative law committees of the Ind S.Ct., and it is now being weaponized, as is revealed in articles posted at this ezine, to root out post moderns heresies like refusal to stand and pledge allegiance to all things politically correct. My career was burned at the stake for not so saluting, but I think I was just one of the early logs. Due, at least in part, to the removal of the jury from bar admission and bar discipline cases, many more fires will soon be lit. Perhaps one awaits you, dear heretic? Oh, at that Ind. article 12 plank about a remedy at law for every damage done ... ah, well, the founders evidently meant only for those damages done not by the government itself, rabid statists that they were. (Yes, that was sarcasm.) My written reports available here: Denied petition for cert (this time around): http://tinyurl.com/zdmawmw Denied petition for cert (from the 2009 denial and five year banishment): http://tinyurl.com/zcypybh Related, not written by me: Amicus brief: http://tinyurl.com/hvh7qgp

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