from the say-what-now? dept
Earlier this week, you may have seen a bunch of headlines about
Bill Barr’s DOJ trying to step in to take over a defamation case against the President. There is so much crazy about this story that it seemed worthwhile to dig in.
There have been a rash of somewhat strange defamation lawsuits over the last few years, often connected to the “me too” movement, in which someone calls out a person for bad behavior, the accused person denies it, and then the accuser sues for defamation. To be honest, most of these feel like SLAPP suits, even if I’m sympathetic to the accuser. A mere denial of something should not be nearly enough to reach the stage of defamation. One of these lawsuits was filed by E. Jean Carroll against President Trump. Carroll claimed that Trump sexually assaulted her in a dressing room in a Manhattan department store many years ago. Upon being asked about the accusations, Trump denied it, saying they were “totally false” and claiming (falsely) that he “never met this person in my life.” Based on those statements, Carroll sued in NY state court.
Again, I actually think the case is pretty weak as a defamation case. Many of the claimed statements are not remotely possible of reaching the level of defamation. Many of them take statements that Trump made and stretch the intended meaning of them quite far. Others take statements that are clearly Trump’s (bonkers) opinion, rather than factual. It is, overall, a weak case and will almost certainly not be a winning case for Carroll. That said, the case has rolled on (remember: New York has a terrible anti-SLAPP law, one of the worst in the country — and while the legislature has passed an improved law, I don’t believe Cuomo has signed it yet). Most recently there was a discovery dispute. Carroll is seeking a sample of Trump’s DNA as part of her discovery requests. Trump’s personal lawyers sought to delay discovery, but failed to do so last month.
That puts the President in a bit of a pickle. Even though he’d likely win the lawsuit in the end, it appears he’d really rather not provide Carroll with a sample of his DNA. The insane solution? Bill Barr and the DOJ suddenly jump into the case on behalf of Trump and try to remove it to federal court, taking over for Trump’s private lawyers. Now you may be saying “wait, what?” and I agree with you. But, a little background here is necessary. First, there’s the Westfall Act, which requires that if the Attorney General “certifies” that the actions a federal employee is being sued over were “acting within the scope of his office or employment,” then the DOJ steps in to represent that federal employee. This is done to avoid having federal employees randomly sued and having their life upended for doing their job.
But… this is not the usual case in which you’d see this. For this to apply, Bill Barr has to claim that Donald Trump saying he didn’t know E. Jean Carroll, didn’t rape her, and a few other things were within the scope of his role as President of the United States… and what the actual fuck? How is that even remotely a thing? The filing by the DOJ doesn’t go into much depth on this, it just says that because the DOJ says so, it must be so:
Acting pursuant to 28
C.F.R. § 15.4(a), the Attorney General?s delegate has certified that President Trump was acting
within the scope of his office as President of the United States when he publicly denied as false
the allegations made by Plaintiff.
In a footnote, the DOJ tries to give Barr deniability by saying he delegated his authority here to Torts Branch Director James Touhey, but come on. Everyone knows that this is Barr doing the President’s personal business. The full certification is just Touhey saying “yup, he denied the rape as part of his job” in slightly more official words:
I, James G. Touhey, Jr., am the Director of the Torts Branch, Civil Division, United States Department of Justice, responsible for most civil litigation under the Federal Tort Claims Act. I have read the complaint dated November 4, 2019, in the above-captioned case. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2670, and by virtue of the authority vested in me pursuant to 28 C.F.R. § 15.4, I hereby certify, on the bases of the information now available with respect to the incidents alleged in the complaint, that Defendant Donald J. Trump was acting within the scope of his office as the President of the United States at the time of the alleged conduct.
Honestly, this bullshit should haunt James G. Touhey Jr. for the rest of his life as a lawyer. It is pure bullshit.
And while some people are claiming that this is the DOJ trying to take over the “defense” of Trump in this case, that’s not it at all. It’s trying to get the case dismissed. Federal employees are effectively immune from defamation claims under the very same Westfall Act, because of sovereign immunity. In the case of Suzanne Brown v. Katherine Schoeneman, someone tried to sue an FBI employee for defamation, but the DOJ stepped in under the Westfall Act (making the new case Brown v. U.S.) and got the case dismissed thanks to sovereign immunity for defamation claims.
Of course, that ruling does say that the DOJ’s certification can be challenged, and you can bet that Carroll’s lawyers are going to challenge every last word of Touhey’s certification — so I assume that’s the next step here. For what it’s worth, the case has been assigned to Judge Lewis Kaplan. I honestly don’t know much about Judge Kaplan other than the fact that last month we wrote about him issuing quite a benchslap to infamous copyright troll Richard Liebowitz, so based on that small sample size, he appears to be a judge not willing to put up with much shit. That said, the DOJ is not the same as Richard Liebowitz.
Also, as pointed out by Ken White, there are some cases that suggest the DOJ could win this argument. In CAIR v. Ballenger, the DC Circuit said that since answering questions from the press is part of the job, then answers about a scandal outside of your official duties could be considered within the scope of the office. So, because the press was talking to him in his role as President and he answered as such, his answers about a claim of rape from decades ago are now a part of his job as President. This argument makes about as much sense as saying that his comments were defamatory in the first place, so it’s a toss up here over which of these arguments is dumber.
Of course, some of you may be asking why did the DOJ just step in now if the case was filed back in November of last year. The answer is almost certainly that Trump REALLY REALLY does not want to give a DNA sample to Carroll. There may be legit reasons why he would not want to do that, and I still think her defamation case is weak, but it’s is truly fucked up that he then gets to pervert the Justice Department with the help of Bill Barr, to try to squeeze out of the case.
Filed Under: defamation, discovery, dna, doj, donald trump, e. jean carroll, westfall act, william barr