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Couture v. Trainer

Supreme Court of Vermont

August 25, 2017

Darren Couture
Britini Trainer and Caitlynn Trainer

         On Appeal from Superior Court, Franklin Unit, Civil Division Thomas Z. Carlson, J.

          Darren Couture, Pro Se, Newport, Plaintiff-Appellant.

          Caitlyn Trainer, Pro Se, St. Albans, Defendant-Appellee.

          Jean L. Murray, Vermont Legal Aid, Inc., Montpelier, for Defendant-Appellee Britini Trainer.

          PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Dooley, Skoglund, Robinson and Eaton, JJ.

          REIBER, C.J.

         ¶ 1. Father appeals from a summary judgment order dismissing his defamation, negligence, and monetary claims against mother and her sister (aunt). In his complaint, father alleged that mother and aunt coached daughter into saying "Daddy hit me" and submitted defamatory audio and video recordings of daughter's statements to his parole officer. Father also alleged that mother made false statements to his parole officer and in mother's petition for relief from abuse. The trial court ruled that these recordings and statements were absolutely privileged. Father also brought several monetary claims against mother premised on his allegation that he had loaned money to mother. The exact legal theories behind these monetary claims were not explicitly detailed in father's complaint, and the trial court imputed legal theories to those claims before dismissing them. On appeal, father argues that the court (1) erred in concluding that the recordings and statements are protected by absolute privilege and that they should instead be protected only by qualified privilege, (2) erred in dismissing his monetary claims against mother, and (3) abused its discretion in denying his motion for a court-appointed expert. We affirm the superior court's entry of summary judgment on all claims except for those monetary claims indicated below.

         ¶ 2. Because the trial court resolved this case on summary judgment without making findings regarding all the facts, the following recitation of facts comes from father's complaint, mother's response, and various affidavits filed by the parties in the trial court. After father's release on parole from prison, father and mother began a relationship and had daughter together. Father, mother, and daughter lived together in an apartment. As part of his plan that he and mother would eventually buy a house together, father not only paid the rent for December 2013 and paid off mother's credit card bills, but also paid the apartment's power bill, half the rent for a shared storage unit, and other similar expenses. During that same month, the couple had a falling out and ended their relationship, and father was escorted from the apartment. Pursuant to a later court order, mother and father had joint custody of daughter, but father was to have no direct contact with mother. Instead, mother was to drop off daughter with father's sister at her residence, and father was to pick up daughter from there.

         ¶ 3. Both parties agree that early in the morning of March 20, 2014, father picked up daughter directly from mother's residence, notwithstanding the court order that pickup was to be arranged through father's sister. Father claimed that this pickup was specifically at mother's demand. Mother alleged that at 7:10 a.m. that day, a staff member from daughter's child-care facility called her and told her that father had called the facility to say that he was not bringing daughter to the facility and to ask the staff not to tell mother. Father stated that he had noted worrisome signs in daughter, so he called the Department for Children and Families (DCF) Hot Line for advice. Father alleged that the DCF Hot Line employee told him that his daughter was showing signs of sexual abuse and recommended that he bring daughter to a doctor. According to father, the DCF employee also recommended that father contact his parole officer before bringing daughter to the doctor, which he did.

         ¶ 4. Later that same day, mother filed a petition for relief from abuse against father in the superior court on behalf of herself and daughter. In the petition, mother alleged that on March 8, 2014, daughter-then two years old-told mother and aunt that "Daddy hit me." Mother indicated that daughter first made the statement in the car after mother picked up daughter from a visit with father and then repeated it when they arrived at home. Mother also indicated that she and aunt made an audio recording of daughter repeating her statements that day and a video recording of daughter repeating her statements the next day. Mother did not include copies of the recordings in her petition for relief from abuse.

         ¶ 5. Also on March 20, 2014, mother and aunt contacted father's parole officer with an oral version of substantially the same complaint and submitted the recordings to the parole officer. Father was arrested for a parole violation based on mother's complaint. On the original violation report, the parole officer wrote that father's violation of parole was based on the fact that "[o]n March 20, 2014 [mother] reported to the Department of Corrections that [father] had struck his daughter." The report continued, "[p]lease refer to the attached audio and video files." On the supplemental violation report, the parole officer also noted that father violated the parole condition stating that "[y]our Supervising Parole officer has the authority to restrict people you associate with." The parole board met on April 1, 2014, to discuss father's case and subsequently revoked his parole because he had remained in contact with mother in violation of a court order-namely, the parole condition. Father was reincarcerated.

         ¶ 6. Father then filed two different suits. The first was against mother for money damages based on defamation and negligence, as well as monetary claims. These monetary claims were premised on his allegation that he had loaned money to mother during their relationship. The second was against aunt for money damages for defamation and negligence.[1] Father claimed that aunt had aided mother in falsifying the video and had supported mother in filing her petition for relief from abuse. As part of his suit against aunt, father filed a motion for a court-appointed expert to show that the recordings were falsified because daughter had been coached into saying "Daddy hit me." This motion was denied. Mother then filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, and aunt filed a motion for summary judgment.

         ¶ 7. The trial court converted mother's motion to dismiss into a motion for summary judgment and consolidated the two suits based on common questions of law and fact. The court then granted mother's and aunt's motions for summary judgment, even after assuming for purposes of assessing the summary judgment motions that the audio and video recordings had been "falsified as alleged." In doing so, the court determined that mother's statements to law enforcement officers-including the video recordings, even if false-were protected by absolute privilege. It recognized that the modern trend is toward recognizing absolute privilege in the case of false statements made in these circumstances: the Restatement (Second) of Torts and a growing number of jurisdictions recognize absolute privilege for statements made as preliminary steps to judicial or quasi-judicial proceedings. See, e.g., Ledvina v. Cerasani, 146 P.3d 70, 73 (Ariz.Ct.App. 2006); Hopkins v. O'Connor, 925 A.2d 1030, 1036 (Conn. 2007); Hartford v. Hartford, 803 N.E.2d 334, 338 (Mass. App. Ct. 2004).

         ¶ 8. The court also cited several public policy reasons for determining that mother's statements were protected by absolute privilege. It reasoned that absolute privilege minimizes the exposure of victims of violence to the risk of defamation claims when they report incidents of abuse. In the court's view, if only qualified privilege were to apply, then defamation claims would survive summary judgment relatively easily on the fact question of "good" or "bad" motive. According to the court, the reasonable and economic use of judicial resources militates in favor of addressing the ...

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