A man who claimed local news outlets defamed him with inaccurate details after he was convicted of child molesting couldn’t convince the Court of Appeals of Indiana that his lawsuit wasn’t frivolous.
In May 2019, Brent A. Taylor, then 33 years old, was charged with child molesting, criminal confinement and kidnapping based on allegations that he forced a 13-year-old walking down the street into his car, then made her perform oral sex on him.
During Taylor’s jury trial, A.R. testified that she willingly got into Taylor’s car and that Taylor did not pull her into the vehicle. The state thus abandoned its theory Taylor had kidnapped the child by physical force.
Regardless, Taylor was convicted of child molesting, criminal confinement and kidnapping. The Allen Superior Court entered judgment against Taylor on the child molesting and kidnapping counts but vacated the confinement conviction on double jeopardy grounds.
Taylor was sentenced to 40 years in prison for child molesting and six years for kidnapping. The trial court ordered the sentences to run consecutively.
Multiple print, radio and TV news outlets reported about Taylor’s convictions. Among them was WOWO, a radio station in Fort Wayne that published a print story stating Taylor was sentenced to 46 years in prison in a child molesting and kidnapping case.
Specifically, the report stated, “(A)ccording to prosecutors, he kidnapped and sexually assaulted a teenager back in January 2019. Taylor pulled up next to a 13-year-old girl and asked if she needed a ride or wanted to make some money. After the girl told him no, authorities say Taylor grabbed her and took her to an ATM and then drove her to a church and sexually assaulted her.”
Another report also set out the allegations in the probable cause affidavit.
WOWO’s radio report stated, “Brent Taylor will spend 46 years in prison for child molesting and kidnapping. Court papers say Taylor offered the girl a ride as she walked near a friend’s house in January 2019. When the girl said no, Taylor grabbed her by the arm and put her in his car. After forcing her to perform a sex act, Taylor dropped the girl off where he found her. Taylor was found guilty at a trial in March.”
Taylor filed a pro se complaint against the appellees in June 2019, claiming they falsely reported that the kidnapping conviction was based on his act of forcing A.R. into his vehicle by grabbing her arm and making her perform a sexual act.
Nexstar Media, which owns WANE TV, another defendant, moved to dismiss Taylor’s complaint in lieu of filing an answer, asserting he failed to plead his defamation claims with the requisite particularity. For its part, WOWO denied the material allegations and moved for summary judgment.
The trial court set WOWO’s motion for summary judgment and Nexstar’s motion to dismiss for a hearing in September 2021.
In the meantime, The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, a newspaper, appeared in the action in July 2021, asking the trial court to stay the proceedings and conduct a prisoner litigation screening required by the Frivolous Claim Law, Indiana Code § 34-58-1-1, et seq. The Journal Gazette also requested that the trial court enter an order dismissing Taylor’s complaint as frivolous as a matter of law.
Taylor asserted the Journal Gazette made “several bold and false assertions” as to why dismissal of his complaint was warranted under the Frivolous Claim Law, and claimed that counsel misinterpreted and misapplied the statutory meaning of “frivolous.”
But the trial court issued an order dismissing Taylor’s complaint pursuant to the Frivolous Claim Law, noting “[n]owhere … does the Plaintiff assert any specific statements being made or published by any of the Defendants … .”
The trial court further observed that reporting about Taylor’s conviction and sentencing for child molesting and kidnapping does not constitute defamation because such reporting would be “truthful and about matters of public interest.”
On appeal, the COA affirmed the trial court’s ruling in Brent A. Taylor v. Tom Antisdel, et al., 21A-CT-1934.
“Here, the record is devoid of any facts to overcome the qualified privilege applicable to reporting on public proceedings, and Taylor has not alleged any facts tending to show that Appellees published their reports with actual malice,” Judge Robert Altice wrote for the court. “In fact, the record shows that Appellees did not report anything other than the information contained in court documents and police records.
“Hence, there was no reason for Appellees who reported on the matter to doubt the truth of what was contained in an affidavit filed with the court in Taylor’s criminal proceedings,” Altice continued. “Thus, even if a false statement was published, Taylor cannot establish sufficient proof to permit the conclusion that Appellees entertained ‘serious doubts’ as to the truth of their publications or that there was a ‘high degree of awareness that the statements were probably false.’”