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Saturday, March 2, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Reporter Must Face Defamation Lawsuit

(CN) - A newspaper reporter must face a defamation lawsuit after using a man's confidential court documents containing "psychiatric information" to write articles about a land deal in Alabama, a federal judge ruled.

Plaintiff Eugene Debbs Phillips III claimed reporter Jason Bacaj, then a staff writer for The Anniston Star, got access to his sealed, confidential probate court records "containing plaintiff's psychiatric information" from the DeKalb County, Ga., courthouse, to write articles about a land deal in Alabama.

Phillips claimed that the paper's owner and the reporter violated his privacy. The defendants claim the documents were public record.

In a 54-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Lisa Gobey Wood of the Southern District of Georgia granted a motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction for John Alred, publisher of The Cleburne News; Benjamin Cunningham, editor of The Anniston Star; and Wayne Ruple, an editor of The Cleburne News.

Defendants H. Brandt Ayers, publisher of The Anniston Star, and the publisher's attorneys, H. Ray Allen and Kenneth A. Tinkler from the law firm Carlton Fields, were also dismissed from the action for lack of personal jurisdiction. Carlton Fields and Publix Super Markets were dismissed from the action for failure to state a claim.

The judge, however, denied the motion to dismiss filed by reporter Bacaj and publisher Consolidated Publishing Co.

The plaintiff claimed that Publix's attorneys found the articles online and sent them to his employer, The Town of Campbellton, Fla., and that they threatened to spread the articles throughout Florida to embarrass the town and encourage its Town Council to withdraw a case "for limited agent authority over voting rights."

"Although Bacaj currently lives in Montana, the alleged tort occurred in Georgia, and the entire litigation at issue stems from activities begun by Bacaj in Georgia," the judge wrote. "If the allegations that Bacaj inappropriately obtained confidential records from a county court in Georgia are true, Georgia has an interest in litigating this dispute and preventing a similar occurrence from taking place again within its judicial system."

Phillips, who has a history of mental illness, also accused the defendants of abusing a disabled adult. But because he "was no longer considered incapacitated and was able to perform the normal activities of daily life," he doesn't qualify as disabled.

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