BOSTON (CN) — Massachusetts’ highest court dismissed a defamation lawsuit against former Gov. Deval Patrick, but declined to address whether he and other high-level officials are shielded from such claims by absolute privilege.
The alleged defamation stemmed from Patrick’s removal of Saundra Edwards as chairwoman of the Sex Offender Registry Board, near the end of his second term in 2014. Patrick claimed Edwards, a former Plymouth County assistant district attorney, had “interfered with” a sex offender hearing of Patrick’s brother-in-law, according to the June 8 ruling from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.
“Regardless of Patrick’s alleged spiteful, negative feelings toward Edwards,” Justice Frank Gaziano wrote for the five-judge panel, Edwards failed to prove that Patrick, “made his statements to the media with knowledge of their falsity or with reckless disregard of their truth or falsity.”
“That Patrick might have harbored ill will toward Edwards for ‘nearly destroy[ing]’ the lives of some members of his family does not substitute for proof of actual malice,” Gaziano wrote.
Because the lower court should have dismissed for insufficient facts, “we need not reach Patrick’s argument as to the existence of an absolute privilege against defamation claims for a governor, or other high-ranking State official, for statements made in the course of his or her official duties,” Gaziano wrote for the unanimous panel.
Bernard Sigh pleaded guilty in California to spousal rape of Patrick’s sister. They reconciled and moved to Massachusetts, where Sigh challenged his requirement to register as a sex offender. Sigh claimed he had not been convicted of a “like offense” to rape as defined in Massachusetts law.
His hearing officer agreed, but claimed that Edwards pressured him to change his decision. The officer later resigned and filed a retaliation lawsuit, which the state settled.
In comments to the media at the time, Patrick characterized Edward’s termination as a “firing,” though she had been allowed to resign.
The governor said he removed her after she “influenced inappropriately, or attempted to influence inappropriately, a hearing officer” and that “the final straw was the settlement of a lawsuit … that involved some inappropriate, at least, maybe, unlawful, pressuring by the Chair and the Executive Director of a hearing officer to change the outcome of a case.”
The state’s high court reversed the ruling by Essex Superior Court Judge Richard Welch II.
“Gov. Patrick is pleased with the decision,” said his attorney Michael Pineault, with Clements & Pineault in Boston.