MINNEAPOLIS (CN) — The St. Paul city attorney can move forward with her defamation lawsuit against Congressman John Lesch for a letter he wrote questioning her suitability for a job, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled Monday.
Lesch’s position as a congressman does not make him immune from City Attorney Lyndsey Olson’s defamation lawsuit stemming from a letter Lesch wrote to newly elected St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter in January 2018, the three-judge panel ruled.
Lesch expressed his concern over Carter’s appointment of Olson as city attorney and denigrated her based on his experience with her at the Minnesota National Guard.
Lesch, who served in the city attorney’s office for nearly 15 years, wrote he had “grave concerns over her fit [sic] for the office.”
The 16-page ruling continues: “The letter continued to outline Lesch’s concerns, which included his assertion that his that his ‘own experience with Ms. Olson in the Minnesota National Guard revealed her to be a prosecutor who would sacrifice justice in pursuit of a political win — even going so far as to commit misconduct to do so,’ and that the Minnesota National Guard investigated Olson for running a ‘toxic working environment.’”
Olson calls those statements false and defamatory.
Lesch sought dismissal, claiming he had legislative immunity under state law and the speech and debate clause of the Minnesota Constitution.
But Judge Lucinda E. Jesson, writing for the unanimous panel, affirmed that Lesch is not entitled to immunity because “the letter was not a legislative act within the sphere of legitimate legislative activity.”
Though Jesson acknowledged that courts in the past have determined that immunity under the speech and debate clause can extend past “pure speech or debate in either house,” she said that courts have determined that legislative immunity does not extend to the “transmittal of allegedly defamatory statements” by lawmakers to sway government branches to enforce laws.
Nothing in the record suggested that Lesch had any business pending before the legislature relating to Carter, the City of St. Paul or the appointment of Olson, the panel added.
“Rather, we view Lesch’s letter as more analogous to common activities commonly performed by legislators that are personal or political in nature rather than legislative,” Jesson wrote.
Had Lesch read his letter aloud on the floor of the Legislature, his comments would be protected by the speech and debate clause. “But he did not. He instead chose to raise his concerns in a letter to the mayor. And as in Hutchinson, nothing in our record indicates that the letter was essential to deliberations occurring in the legislature or part of the deliberative process.”
In the 1979 decision Hutchinson v. Proxmire, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire was not immune from a defamation lawsuit from a behavioral scientist whose work Proxmire had ridiculed in one of his “Golden Fleece” awards for what Proxmire called wasteful government spending. In that case, the court found that Proxmire’s popular “awards” were not essential to the work of the Senate.
Lesch’s attorney, Marshall Tanick of Meyer Njus Tanick, said the ruling will have “a chilling effect” on communication among lawmakers because it will “deter them from discussing important issues…in fear of being sued for defamation.”
Tanick said Lesch will appeal the court’s ruling.
Olson’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment after office hours Monday evening.
Lesch, a Democrat, represents U.S. House District 66B, which includes part of Ramsey County, home to the state capital.