STATE OF MINNESOTA IN COURT OF APPEALS
A14-0680 (Minn. Ct. App. Nov. 24, 2014)
Harpel v. Thurn
Reversed and remanded
McLeod County District Court
File No. 43-CV-13-1456
Considered and decided by Stauber, Presiding Judge; Schellhas, Judge; and Crippen, Judge.
Appellant challenges the dismissal of his defamation complaint under Minn. R. Civ. P. 12.02(e) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Because the complaint does not demonstrate that appellant is an all-purpose public figure, and because appellant sufficiently pleaded actual malice in the complaint, we reverse and remand.
This appeal arises from the dismissal of appellant Eric Harpel’s defamation lawsuit against respondents Marie Thurn and Scott Nokes. Harpel is the chairman of the McLeod County Republican Party. Thurn previously served as the vice-chair of the McLeod County Republican Party, and Nokes is an attorney who represented Thurn.
Harpel alleged in his complaint that Thurn and Nokes falsely accused him of threatening Thurn and her husband, causing them concern for their personal safety. Harpel alleged that City Pages published the “false and defamatory statements” about him and that Thurn and Nokes “failed to exercise reasonable care” in making the statements, made the statements with “full knowledge” of their falsity and with “reckless disregard of the truth or falsity of the statements,” and published the statements “with a deliberate disregard for the rights of [Harpel].”
Thurn and Nokes moved to dismiss the complaint under Minn. R. Civ. P. 12.02(e) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. They maintained that Harpel is an all-purpose public figure and therefore must prove actual malice by Thurn and Nokes to prevail in the lawsuit. Thurn and Nokes argued that the complaint fails to plead facts to support a finding of actual malice. Following a hearing, the district court determined that Harpel is an all-purpose public figure because he “voluntarily assumed the role of local prominence in shaping and conducting the political affairs of society” and “is a local celebrity and prominent social figure who has general fame and notoriety in the community.” The court further held that the complaint does not plead facts necessary to establish actual malice because the complaint’s paragraphs addressing the element of malice include only legal conclusions and no “[c]oncrete facts establishing [Thurn’s and Noke’s] first-hand knowledge of falsity . . . or a reckless disregard for the truth.” The court granted the motion and dismissed the complaint with prejudice.
To establish defamation, a plaintiff must prove that a defamatory statement was communicated to someone other than the plaintiff, that the statement is false, that the statement tends to harm the plaintiff’s reputation and to lower the plaintiff in the estimation of the community, and that the recipient of the statement reasonably understood the statement to refer to a specific individual. McKee v. Laurion, 825 N.W.2d 725, 729-30 (Minn. 2013). When the plaintiff is a public figure, he or she must also prove that the statement was made with actual malice.
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