(CN) – A man formerly charged with giving a 14-year-old boy a violent, sexually explicit book called “Satan Burger” did not necessarily forfeit his defamation case against the boy’s father by refusing to answer questions during discovery, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled.
The justices said the trial court must balance the interests of both parties when the plaintiff in a civil case, who faces related criminal charges, moves to stay civil proceedings to protect his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
James Tanaka had reported Jared Armstrong to police after Armstrong allegedly gave Tanaka’s teenage son a copy of “Satan Burger.”
Anchorage police searched Armstrong’s house and later arrested him at work. He was charged with providing indecent materials to a minor. Those charges were dropped, and Armstrong hit Tanaka with a defamation lawsuit. Armstrong repeatedly invoked his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent during his deposition.
Later, he was indicted on child pornography charges. He again refused to answer questions during the civil case and asked that the case be stayed pending the outcome of the criminal trial.
As a sanction for Armstrong’s failure to comply with discovery, the trial court dismissed his defamation complaint and awarded Tanaka about $44,000 in attorney’s fees.
Justice Dana Fabe vacated and remanded, instructing the lower court to balance the parties’ interests to determine whether the criminal case should be stayed to protect the defendant’s Fifth Amendment’s rights.
“We hold that when an individual threatened by criminal charges brings a civil action, and either party to the civil action requests a stay of civil proceedings, a trial court must balance the parties’ interests to determine whether a stay is appropriate,” Fabe ruled, vacating the award of attorney fees.