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Suit based on church-member letter may go on

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A letter written by a church member and circulated through another member's work e-mail address contains some allegedly defamatory statements that can be considered secular, so a suit for defamation and invasion of privacy could continue on those statements, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled today.

In Rosalyn West v. Betty Wadlington, et al., No. 49A02-0809-CV-849, Rosalyn West filed a suit against fellow church members Betty Wadlington and Jeanette Larkins, and against the City of Indianapolis, which employed Larkins in the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department. West claimed an e-mail Wadlington wrote and sent to Larkins with a letter attached written by Wadlington to the church's boards of deacons and trustees about West and her behavior contained defamatory statements and was an invasion of privacy. Larkins, who received the e-mail at her work address, forwarded it to nearly 90 other people affiliated with the church.

The trial court dismissed the suit for lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to Trial Rule 12(B)(1).

The Court of Appeals used the cases Brazauskas v. Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese, Inc., 714 N.E.2d 253 (Ind. Ct. App. 1999), and Brazauskas v. Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese, Inc. 796 N.E.2d 286 (Ind. 2003), - Brazauskas I and Brazauskas II - to determine summary judgment is the appropriate standard of review for this type of case and to conclude the trial court in the instant case had subject matter jurisdiction. The trial court has the general authority to hear matters such as West's claims for defamation and invasion of privacy, and the defendants' "religious defense" doesn't relieve the trial court of its subject matter jurisdiction, wrote Judge Paul Mathias. The defendants' affirmative defense based on the First Amendment may be grounds for granting a Trial Rule 12(B)(6) motion or if appropriate, a Trial Rule 56(C) motion, he wrote.

Wadlington and the other defendants argued West's claims can't be addressed by civil courts because to address her claims would require the courts to determine questions of religious doctrine; West argued not all of the statements were made in strictly ecclesiastical terms, so she should be able to proceed on those statements.

The appellate court agreed with West that some of the statements, such as saying she "attacked" a former pastor's family could be meant to be a physical attack, which is a crime, Judge Mathias wrote. In addition, describing West as a "one-woman wrecking crew" and having an "evil spirit" can be considered in a secular sense. The Court of Appeals even looked up the words "evil" and "spirit" in the dictionary to determine it could be considered defamatory in a secular sense.

"Wadlington's email, although it may have originally been intended to be viewed by Church officials, was sent to a much broader audience of eighty-nine recipients. This email clearly contains some religious accusations which cannot properly be analyzed by a civil court in a defamation suit. However, the email also contains several accusations which could be considered defamatory even in a purely secular context," wrote the judge.

The appellate court reversed the trial court dismissal of the suit for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and remanded the case for further proceedings.

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  1. Hail to our Constitutional Law Expert in the Executive Office! “What you’re not paying attention to is the fact that I just took an action to change the law,” Obama said.

  2. What is this, the Ind Supreme Court thinking that there is a separation of powers and limited enumerated powers as delegated by a dusty old document? Such eighteen century thinking, so rare and unwanted by the elites in this modern age. Dictate to us, dictate over us, the massess are chanting! George Soros agrees. Time to change with times Ind Supreme Court, says all President Snows. Rule by executive decree is the new black.

  3. I made the same argument before a commission of the Indiana Supreme Court and then to the fedeal district and federal appellate courts. Fell flat. So very glad to read that some judges still beleive that evidentiary foundations matter.

  4. KUDOS to the Indiana Supreme Court for realizing that some bureacracies need to go to the stake. Recall what RWR said: "No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. Government programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on this earth!" NOW ... what next to this rare and inspiring chopping block? Well, the Commission on Gender and Race (but not religion!?!) is way overdue. And some other Board's could be cut with a positive for State and the reputation of the Indiana judiciary.

  5. During a visit where an informant with police wears audio and video, does the video necessary have to show hand to hand transaction of money and narcotics?

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