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January 29, 2016

COA – Be careful when you impugn the character of a nonparty in the course of discovery because you could be liable for defamation

To overcome the judicial proceedings privilege defense to a claim of defamation, a plaintiff must prove that the statement was irrelevant and immaterial to the matter being litigated, the Court of Appeals held in Lawrence v Burdi, No. 322041.  In so holding, the Court further noted that a discovery request that criticizes the character of a nonparty who is not an eyewitness to the case is neither relevant nor material to a property dispute.
 
Frank Lawrence’s claims for abuse of process and defamation arose from an underlying property dispute in Froling v Pelican Properties, LLC.  Lawrence, who had been unable to pass character and fitness but had passed the 2001 Michigan Bar Exam, was an employee of William Froling, the owner of a company involved in the property dispute that was attempting to establish a prescriptive easement over the defendant’s property.  After discovery had closed in Froling v Pelican Properties, LLC, the defendant submitted six requests to admit, seeking admissions from Froling that Lawrence had been denied the opportunity to take the Michigan Bar Exam and had two previous drug convictions.  When the defendant refused to withdraw the filing, Lawrence filed the instant suit.  The trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary disposition, stating that because the statements were privileged as part of the discovery process, Lawrence had failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.
 
The Court of Appeals held that with respect to Lawrence’s abuse of process claim, the defendant’s requests to admit served no legitimate purpose and, in fact, increased the time, energy, and money spent on an area that had not previously been in controversy.  Thus, Lawrence had stated a claim upon which relief could be granted.  Moreover, with respect to Lawrence’s defamation claim, the Court held that the requests to admit were defamatory in nature.  In addition, although the statements were made in the course of judicial proceedings, the judicial proceedings privilege did not apply because Lawrence had sufficiently alleged that the statements regarding his character were irrelevant to the underlying property dispute.  Finally, the Court upheld the trial court’s decision to deny Lawrence’s motion for sanctions against the defendant and its attorneys. 

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