LE CENTER —
A judge has tossed out a lawsuit from longtime Elysian City Administrator Patricia Nusbaum, who claimed the town's mayor, Kathleen Anttila, defamed her in a public meeting.
In his order, Judge M. Michael Baxter wrote that Anttila's criticism of Nusbaum's job performance during the Sept. 12, 2011, council meeting was protected under law.
"Nusbaum has failed to raise any genuine issue of material fact as to the allegation that Anttila defamed her," he wrote.
At that meeting, Anttila made 13 criticisms of Nusbaum's job performance. The council vote on a motion to fire Nusbaum failed 2-2.
Anttila was protected by several laws and legal precedents, the judge ruled, including a 1994 law aimed to protect citizens from lawsuits for participating in government. These anti-SLAPP statutes (short for a strategic lawsuit against public participation) require speech to be "genuinely" aimed at the pursuit of "favorable government action."
The context of the speech is important, and in this case the judge ruled Anttila made it for her stated purpose -- to fire Nusbaum -- and to the correct entity. The City Council is the only entity that can fire a city administrator.
When reached Wednesday, Anttila said she was pleased with the court's decision.
"We're very encouraged that the court got it right," she said.
Nusbaum has been the city administrator in Elysian for more than 40 years.
Chris Johnson, Nusbaum's attorney, said he disagreed with the judge's opinion "to the extent that the judge more or less said if you're a public body you don't have to abide by the same laws with respect to employment and defamation as in the private sector."
"Government officials should be held to the same standard as everybody else," he said.
Johnson said he intends to file a motion today to ask the judge to reconsider parts of his ruling, especially the awarding of attorney's fees to Anttila.
He also said there are other issues uncovered during their investigation that they're going to raise soon. They include an allegation that Anttila called Nusbaum a "slave." That wouldn't be a defamation case, Johnson said, but another sort where somebody makes a comment that's harmful and intended to cause emotional distress.
"This is just an ongoing matter where a public official continues to harass a long-serving and wonderful public employee," Johnson said.
The anti-SLAPP laws aren't the only legal protection that allowed Anttila to say what she did, the judge wrote.
Another is that the meeting was a so-called "quasi-judicial proceeding," which protects statements, even those made with malice, as long as they're relevant to the proceeding.
The judge also wrote Anttila was protected because Nusbaum requested the meeting, normally closed, be open to the public. Nusbaum also consented to the statements, the judge wrote, because she saw a letter laying out what Anttila intended to say at the meeting.
In other words, she knew what was going to be said at the meeting but requested it be open to the public anyway.
The judge also ordered Nusbaum to pay attorneys' fees incurred by Anttila, who was represented by the League of Minnesota Cities. He said the defendant can submit a detailed account of those fees.
To read a copy of the judge's order, click here.