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Painter v. Suire

United States District Court, M.D. Louisiana

December 2, 2014

MURPHY PAINTER,
v.
KELLI SUIRE

RULING

SHELLY D. DICK, District Judge.

Defendant, Kelli Suire, moves for a Rule 50(b) Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law, asking that the Court set aside a jury verdict finding that Suire maliciously defamed Plaintiff, Murphy Painter, in Suire's state court suit which alleged, inter alia, that Painter stalked and harassed her.[1]

I. RELEVANT PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Trial on liability was held from October 8, 2014 through October 10, 2014 on Plaintiff Murphy Painter's defamation claims against Defendant Kelli Suire.[2] Painter, the former head of Louisiana's Alcohol and Tobacco Control Commission ("ATC"), accused Suire, his former Administrative Assistant at ATC, of defaming him in a state court lawsuit and through her republished statements in a search warrant application prepared by the Office of Inspector General ("OIG"). In her state court suit and in statements to OIG investigators, Suire accused Painter of sexually harassing and stalking her. Painter alleged that these accusations were false and malicious.

Pretrial, the Court ruled that allegations of sexual harassment and stalking are "defamatory per se " as a matter of Louisiana substantive law.[3] Having so found, the elements falsity and malice are presumed, subject to rebuttal by the Defendant. Defendant Suire asserted a qualified privilege, and the Court held that Suire's statements were privileged as a matter of state law, [4] hence shifting the burden back to the Plaintiff to establish abuse of the privilege.[5] Abuse of privilege may be demonstrated "by showing that the defendant either knew the matter to be false or acted in reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity."[6] In as much as knowing falsehood or reckless disregard for the truth is the legal definition of malice, the existence of conditional or qualified privilege placed upon the plaintiff the burden of proving malice.[7]

Owing to the pretrial legal findings and the resulting burden shifting, only two narrow factual questions went to the jury[8], and the jury found:

1. Did Plaintiff, Murphy Painter, prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the Defendant, Kelli Suire, either knew that her statements in the Office of Inspector General's Application for Search Warrant were false or that she acted in reckless disregard as to the statements' truth or falsity?
NO.
2. Did Plaintiff, Murphy Painter, prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the Defendant, Kelli Suire, either knew that her statements in her state court suit were false or that she acted in reckless disregard as to the statements' truth or falsity?
YES.

In summary, the jury found that Painter did not prove malice (falsity or reckless disregard) as to Suire's statements to OIG investigators, but the jury found that Painter did prove malice as to Suire's statements in her state court suit.[9]

At the close of Painter's case in chief, Suire moved for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(a), which the Court denied.[10] Thereafter, Suire, without putting on any evidence in support of her defense, rested. Suire orally re-urged her Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law Pursuant to Rule 50(b)) and the parties were instructed to submit their respective briefs.[11] After considering the law, the evidence, and the Parties' respective memoranda, the Court denies Suire's Motion for the following reasons.

II. LAW AND ANALYSIS

A. Standard on Post Verdict Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law A Rule 50(b) motion for judgment as a matter of law "in an action tried by a jury, is a challenge to the legal sufficiency of the evidence supporting the jury's verdict."[12] Such a motion may be granted only if the trial court finds that "there is no legally sufficient basis for a reasonable jury to have found for that party with respect to that issue."[13] In conducting its analysis of a Rule 50(b) motion, the court "consider[s] all of the evidence, drawing all reasonable inferences and resolving all credibility determinations in the light most favorable to the non-moving party."[14] Considering that all reasonable inferences and credibility determinations must be resolved in favor of the non-moving party, "judgment as a matter of law should not be granted unless the facts and inferences point so strongly and overwhelmingly in the movant's favor that reasonable ...


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