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Dismissal of lawyer’s defamation suit against magistrate affirmed

May 6, 2019

A Lafayette attorney alleging a Tippecanoe County magistrate defamed him by reporting he was carrying a firearm in court in violation of state law lost his appeal of the dismissal of his defamation case when the Indiana Court of Appeals concluded the magistrate was acting within her judicial capacity.

Attorney Kirk S. Freeman of Lafayette filed a defamation complaint against Tippecanoe Superior Court Magistrate Tricia L. Thompson, claiming Thompson told courthouse law enforcement in May 2017 that Freeman possessed a firearm inside the courthouse in violation of state law and local ordinances. Freeman alleged Thompson’s report “was a false accusation of a crime” and, therefore, “was defamatory per se.”

The attorney sought punitive damages from Thompson for her allegedly “extreme and outrageous” report, which he claimed was in retaliation of his previous Access to Public Records Act request concerning “the establishment/creation of the courtroom in the County office annex building … .”Freeman also alleged Thompson was retaliating against him for his open discussion of the Indiana Supreme Court’s recent opinion in Pinner v. State, 74 N.E.3d 226 (Ind. 2017), a firearms-related decision.

But the Tippecanoe Superior Court granted the state’s request to dismiss the complaint against Thompson, and an appellate panel affirmed the dismissal of Freeman’s complaint under Indiana Trial Rule 12(B)(6). Specifically, the COA said Thompson was acting within her judicial capacity in the court room.

The appellate court said it is “beyond dispute” that trial judges have “considerable discretion in matter of maintaining order and security for the courtroom.” It also found Thompson’s report to courthouse security “plainly involved the exercise of her discretion in maintaining security and was not a mere ministerial act.”

“Accordingly, as a matter of law, Magistrate Thompson is entitled to absolute judicial immunity for her report — even if erroneously made — of Freeman’s alleged possession of a firearm inside the Tippecanoe County Courthouse,” Judge Edward Najam wrote for the panel.

Thus, the court disagreed with Freeman’s APRA and Pinner arguments, finding those arguments were aimed at the intent of Thompson’s actions, rather than at whether she was acting within her judicial capacity.

The case is Kirk S. Freeman v. Tricia L. Thompson, 18A-SC-2718.

 

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