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High court dismisses defamation case against Deval Patrick

The 2014 case centered on comments Deval Patrick made at the end of his second term as governor.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff/File 2015

The 2014 case centered on comments Deval Patrick made at the end of his second term as governor.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on Thursday threw out a defamation case filed against former governor Deval Patrick without addressing the validity of his main defense — that he could not be sued for remarks he made as the state’s chief executive.

Instead, the SJC found the plaintiff had failed to prove that Patrick’s statements were made with “actual malice,” and that the case against him should have been dismissed.

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“Given this conclusion, 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,” the court wrote.

“Governor Patrick is pleased with the decision,” said his attorney, Michael J. Pineault.

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The 2014 case centered on comments Patrick made at the end of his second term as governor, in a political dispute that was unusually personal. The governor had forced out the chairwoman of the Sex Offender Registry Board, Saundra R. Edwards, a former prosecutor who had gotten involved in a case involving his brother-in-law.

The Boston Herald reported during Patrick’s 2006 election campaign that Patrick’s brother-in-law had failed to register as a sex offender in Massachusetts for his California conviction for raping his estranged wife, Patrick’s sister.

The brother-in-law had pleaded guilty to spousal rape in 1993 and served time in jail and on probation before reconciling with Patrick’s sister and moving to Massachusetts.

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After the news reports, the brother-in-law challenged his requirement to register as a sex offender, and a hearing officer determined that he was not obligated to register in Massachusetts. He determined that the California crime of “spousal rape” was the equivalent of indecent assault and battery in Massachusetts and did not require lifelong registration as a sex offender.

But Saunders intervened, saying, “Rape is rape.” Her interference in the case led the hearing officer to resign and file a whistle-blower lawsuit, claiming Edwards retaliated against him and pressured him to change his ruling.

The state settled the suit with the hearing officer and later, after Patrick fired Edwards, he referenced it in the comments that she would claim in her lawsuit were defamatory.

“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,” Patrick said.

“The hearing officer did not ultimately do that. It turns out that the case is the case that arose out of my brother-in-law’s experience way back at the beginning of the first campaign when the Republican Party, sorry to say, aided by the [Boston] Herald, nearly destroyed their lives.”

Months later, he added: “The fact is that she influenced inappropriately, or attempted to influence inappropriately, a hearing officer, and that’s a matter of record. . . . We can’t have officials inappropriately interfering with the independence of hearing officers. It undermines the whole process whether it involves someone I know or not.”

Edwards sued the governor for defamation and the state for wrongful termination, claiming that her ouster was the result of the governor’s “wrongful, personal interest in retaliating against, and punishing” her.

The wrongful termination claim, which had been stayed pending the high court’s decision on the defamation matter claim, has yet to be heard in Essex Superior Court.

Patrick had moved to dismiss the defamation claims on grounds of absolute privilege — defense against a defamation suit even if the statement is made with malice or in bad faith — or, failing that, to prove that the complaint lacked sufficient facts to overcome a qualified privilege. Patrick’s lawyer argued that Massachusetts should adopt the federal standard that affords certain high-ranking federal officials absolute immunity from defamation claims on statements made within their official duties.

Essex Superior Court Judge Richard Welch II had denied Patrick’s motion to dismiss, finding that Edwards had overcome the “qualified privilege” by pleading sufficient facts to determine actual malice.

However, the SJC disagreed.

Because Edwards is a public figure, she had to show that Patrick made a false and defamatory statement knowing that it was false or in reckless disregard of its truth, the ruling says. But Edwards’s description of her exchange with an administration official did not establish the governor’s state of mind and was “too speculative to support a claim of actual malice,” the ruling found.

And even though Patrick told the media that the case had “nearly destroyed” the lives of his sister and brother-in-law, his words were not enough to establish malice, the court found.

“Regardless of Patrick’s alleged spiteful, negative feelings toward Edwards . . . Edwards was required to allege specific facts to prove that Patrick made his statements to the media with knowledge of their falsity or with reckless disregard of their truth or falsity,” the ruling found.

“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.”

Patrick is now a managing director at Bain Capital handling investments with social and environmental impact.

Three of the five justices who heard the case for the Supreme Judicial Court were appointed by Patrick, while two others were named by current Governor Charlie Baker.

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.
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