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Hearts With Haiti, Inc. v. Kendrick

United States District Court, D. Maine

October 30, 2015

HEARTS WITH HAITI, INC., et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
PAUL KENDRICK, Defendant.

ORDER ON DEFENDANT’S RULE 59 MOTION FOR A NEW TRIAL OR ALTERNATIVE POST-JUDGMENT RELIEF AND PLAINTIFFS’ RULE 59(e) MOTION TO ALTER OR AMEND JUDGMENT TO INCLUDE PRE- AND POST-JUDGMENT INTEREST, TO INCLUDE THE APRIL 22, 2015 SANCTION, AND TO REFLECT DISMISSAL WITHOUT PREJUDICE OF PLAINTIFFS’ PUNITIVE DAMAGES CLAIMS

JOHN A. WOODCOCK, JR. UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

At some point, Paul Kendrick, a passionate and relentless advocate for abused children, became convinced that Michael Geilenfeld, the founder and owner of an orphanage for boys in Haiti, had been sexually abusing some of the boys in his care. Mr. Kendrick not only accused Mr. Geilenfeld of sexual misconduct but also charged Hearts with Haiti, a United States not-for-profit corporation created to raise funds for Mr. Geilenfeld’s orphanage, with enabling Mr. Geilenfeld’s predation. Mr. Geilenfeld and Hearts with Haiti sued Mr. Kendrick in federal court in Maine under various legal theories, most notably defamation.

A little more than two years later, after a rancorous discovery period, the case went to trial on July 6, 2015. It was an emotional and contentious trial. The parties called twenty-five witnesses and introduced over two hundred exhibits into evidence. Mr. Geilenfeld took the stand and steadfastly denied the charges of child sex abuse; numerous witnesses involved in the orphanage either directly or as fundraisers testified for him. In addition to his own testimony, Mr. Kendrick called seven men as witnesses who testified either in court or by deposition that Mr. Geilenfeld had in fact sexually abused them. With the evidence in irreconcilable conflict, the parties presented the case for resolution to the jury.

On July 23, 2015, after thirteen days of testimony, the jury rendered a verdict that represented a resounding vindication for Mr. Geilenfeld. The jury found that Mr. Kendrick had negligently defamed Mr. Geilenfeld and Hearts with Haiti, that he had defamed them knowing that the statements were false or making the statements with reckless disregard to their truth, that he tortiously interfered with their advantageous economic relations, and that he had placed Mr. Geilenfeld in a false light. The jury awarded $7, 000, 000 to Mr. Geilenfeld and $7, 500, 000 to Hearts with Haiti.

Post-trial motions followed. Mr. Kendrick seeks a new trial based on asserted legal errors committed by the trial court, demands a steep reduction in the amount of the verdicts, which he contends are excessive, and asks the Court to rescind its earlier sanction order that imposed an $8, 000 penalty against Mr. Kendrick. Despite their unconditional victory, the Plaintiffs are not satisfied either. They filed their own post-trial motion, demanding pre- and post-judgment interest, urging the Court to retain its earlier sanction order of $8, 000, and rankling at the Court’s dismissal of their punitive damages count with prejudice.

Except for the motion to revisit the sanctions order, the Court denies Mr. Kendrick’s motions. The Court is not convinced that it erred in allowing the Plaintiffs to present evidence that Mr. Kendrick’s tortious conduct caused Mr. Geilenfeld’s arrest and imprisonment in Haiti. Turning to the damages awards, the Court will not disturb the considered and unanimous judgment of a federal jury. In the exercise of its discretion, the Court grants the motion to rescind the $8, 000 sanction for Mr. Kendrick’s discovery violation with the sole caveat that if the verdict is substantially altered, the Plaintiffs may return to the Court and reargue the sanctions issue. The Court also grants the Plaintiffs pre- and post-judgment interest as provided by Maine law, excluding a period of prejudgment interest caused by the Plaintiffs’ requested continuances. The Court declines to dismiss the punitive damages count without prejudice unless the verdicts that precipitated the Plaintiffs’ decision not to proceed with the punitive damages count are substantially revised.

I. FACTS

A. The Parties

1. The Plaintiffs

Hearts With Haiti (HWH) is a nonprofit corporation with a mission to provide support to disabled and disadvantaged Haitian children. Compl. at 1 (ECF No. 1) (Compl.). Michael Geilenfeld, a resident of Pétion–Ville Commune, Port–au–Prince Arrondissement, Republic of Haiti, is the founder and Executive Director of St. Joseph Family of Haiti. Id. ¶ 2. Mr. Geilenfeld has been involved with several organizations that help Haitian children in different ways. Id. ¶¶ 7–39. HWH was established in 2001 to support these organizations. Id. ¶¶ 40–42.

2. The Defendant

Paul Kendrick is a resident of Freeport, Maine. Id. ¶ 3. In 2011, after Mr. Kendrick became aware of allegations that Mr. Geilenfeld was abusing Haitian children, according to Mr. Kendrick, he believed the allegations to be true. Mr. Kendrick then engaged in a campaign in which he emailed and published statements to warn numerous third parties about Mr. Geilenfeld’s alleged abuse of children; those third parties included benefactors of HWH. Id. ¶¶ 47–67. See also Order Denying Def.’s Mot. for Partial Summ. J., at 4–42 (ECF No. 237) (Partial Summ. J. Order) (recounting examples of Mr. Kendrick’s communications). Mr. Kendrick also accused HWH of funding Mr. Geilenfeld’s alleged sexual abuse and turning a blind eye to the child sexual abuse allegations despite knowing or having reason to know that Mr. Geilenfeld was sexually abusing children. See Partial Summ. J. Order at 4– 42.

B. Procedural History

1. The Initiation of the Lawsuit

Stung by what he claimed were Mr. Kendrick’s false allegations of child sexual abuse, on February 6, 2013, Mr. Geilenfeld and HWH filed suit in this Court against Mr. Kendrick, alleging he had defamed them, had placed Mr. Geilenfeld in a false light, [1] and had tortiously interfered with advantageous business relations; the Plaintiffs sought damages against Mr. Kendrick. Compl. at 1–20. On March 8, 2013, Mr. Kendrick answered the Complaint, admitting some and denying other allegations, and asserting, among other affirmative defenses, the affirmative defense of truth or lack of falsity. Defenses and Answer (ECF No. 8).

2. Delay Caused by Mr. Geilenfeld’s Imprisonment

The trial was originally scheduled to begin on October 7, 2014. Trial List (ECF No. 231). On September 23, 2014, counsel for the Plaintiffs informed the Court that Haitian authorities had arrested Mr. Geilenfeld in Haiti and the Plaintiffs asked the Court to continue the trial for ninety days. Oral Mot. to Continue (ECF No. 260). On the same day, the Court granted Mr. Geilenfeld’s motion. Oral Order Granting Mot. to Continue Trial for 90 Days (ECF No. 261).

During a sanctions hearing on January 30, 2015, the Court asked Mr. Geilenfeld’s lawyers about his status in Haiti. Tr. of Proceedings 6:24–7:5 (ECF No. 292). Counsel confirmed Mr. Geilenfeld remained imprisoned in Haiti. Id. 7:6-11:7. During subsequent telephone conferences with the Court, the Plaintiffs acknowledged the practical fact that the case could not go forward while Mr. Geilenfeld remained in jail in Haiti. Plaintiffs’ counsel informed the Court that if Mr. Geilenfeld was released from jail, they could need “just a short amount of time to be prepared for trial.” Id. 8:7-10.

During a telephone conference on April 30, 2015, Mr. Geilenfeld’s lawyers informed the Court that Mr. Geilenfeld had recently been released from Haitian prison, and the case could proceed to trial. Min. Entry (ECF No. 315). However, they asked for time to make certain that Mr. Geilenfeld had recovered from his time in jail and to perform some additional limited discovery. They asked that the trial be set for July, 2015, and the Court accommodated their request.

On May 8, 2015, Plaintiffs filed a supplemental complaint. Pls.’ Suppl. Compl. and Demand for Jury Trial (ECF No. 324). Although Plaintiffs’ counsel suggested on January 30, 2015 that they intended to bring a separate claim for false imprisonment, the Supplemental Complaint included only a fifth count for “Continuing Defamation and False Light.” Id. at 9.

3. Motion in Limine to Exclude References or Testimony Regarding Mr. Kendrick’s Imprisonment

One pre-trial motion is particularly relevant given its similarity to the argument put forward in the present motion. On June 12, 2015, in the run-up to trial, Mr. Kendrick moved in limine to exclude references or testimony regarding Mr. Geilenfeld’s imprisonment in Haiti. Def.’s Mot. in Lim. to Exclude References or Test. Concerning Imprisonment in Haiti or Pain and Suffering Therefrom (ECF No. 354). Mr. Kendrick argued this testimony should be excluded:

because Mr. Geilenfeld has not pled the tort of malicious prosecution, and because he cannot be permitted to do an end run around the more difficult burdens of proof placed on a plaintiff in a malicious prosecution case to try to obtain malicious prosecution type damages based merely on the lesser showing of the torts he has pled.

Id. at 1. Moreover, Mr. Kendrick underscored the requirements for a malicious prosecution claim, including that the proceedings at issue must have terminated in Mr. Geilenfeld’s favor, which Mr. Kendrick asserted had not yet happened as regards the Haitian authority’s actions toward Mr. Geilenfeld. Id. at 1-3.

On June 24, 2015, the Plaintiffs asserted, contrary to Mr. Kendrick’s motion, that there is a legally significant distinction between malicious prosecution and defamation actions and that “[t]here is no such thing as exclusive ‘malicious prosecution’ or ‘imprisonment’ damages.” Pls.’ Mot. in Opp’n to Def.’s Mot. to Exclude Evid. of Imprisonment in Haiti, at 1-3 (ECF No. 396). They believed their case was properly brought as a defamation case. Id. at 4. They also insisted that “[d]amages suffered at the hands of a third-party who acts upon a defamatory statement, like the Haitian authorities who imprisoned Geilenfeld, are recoverable in a defamation action.” Id.

On July 2, 2015, the Court denied Mr. Kendrick’s motion. Order on Def.’s Mot. in Lim. to Exclude References or Test. Concerning Imprisonment in Haiti or Pain and Suffering Therefrom and on Pls.’ Mot. in Limine to Include the Test. of Alain Lemithe (ECF No. 431) (Pre-trial Order). The Court discussed at length and did not find germane the two principal cases on which Mr. Kendrick relied;[2] far from supporting “the contention that a defamation action may not state a claim for [arrest and imprisonment] damages, ” the Court held those cases stand for “the rather fundamental proposition that a plaintiff may not bring suit under a theory that does not fit the facts of the case.” Id. at 14. “As any law student who has taken a torts examination knows, ” the Court wrote, “a variety of tort claims may be grounded on the same nucleus of facts.” Id. at 15. That being the case, the Court concluded that

if Mr. Geilenfeld successfully proves his defamation claim, the jury will consider whether to award him damages for “mental suffering, humiliation, embarrassment, effect upon reputation and loss of social standing, ” Saunders v. VanPelt, 497 A.2d 1121, 1126 (Me. 1985), “which are presumed to flow naturally, proximately and necessarily from publication of the slander.” Farrell v. Kramer, 159 Me. 387, 390, 193 A.2d 560, 562 (1963). Mr. Kendrick has not adequately explained why the jury could not consider whether Mr. Geilenfeld is entitled to damages for any mental suffering, humiliation, embarrassment, and/or effect on his reputation and loss of social standing as a result of his imprisonment in Haiti.

Id. at 16.

4. Trial and Verdict

The jury trial commenced on July 6, 2015. Tr. of Proceedings I (ECF No. 484). On July 14, 2015, Mr. Geilenfeld testified at length regarding his imprisonment in Haiti. Tr. of Proceedings VII 21:2-42:3, 46:25-48:12 (ECF No. 452) (Tr. VII). On July 23, 2015, the jury returned a verdict for the Plaintiffs: the jury awarded $2, 500, 000 on the defamation claim and $5, 000, 000 on the intentional interference claim to HWH, and it awarded $7, 000, 000 on the defamation, false light, and intentional interference claims to Mr. Geilenfeld. Jury Verdict Form as to Michael Geilenfeld (ECF No. 474) (Geilenfeld Jury Verdict); Jury Verdict Form as to Hearts with Haiti (ECF No. 475) (HWH Jury Verdict); J. (ECF No. 480) (J.).

II. THE PARTIES’ POSITIONS

A. Defendant’s Post-Trial Motion

1. Defendant’s Motion

On August 20, 2015, Mr. Kendrick moved pursuant Rule 59 for a new trial or alternative post-judgment relief. Def.’s Rule 59 Mot. for a New Trial or Alternative Other Post-J. Relief (ECF No. 488) (Def.’s Mot.). Mr. Kendrick’s motion presents this question: “whether under Maine common law, a defendant may be held liable for damages for the suffering of a plaintiff in jail when the plaintiff has not been acquitted from the criminal charges leveled against him that put him in jail as a result of the alleged defamation.” Id. at 2. Mr. Kendrick contends it was error for the Court to admit evidence regarding Mr. Geilenfeld’s imprisonment for several reasons: first, “under the Restatement damages for emotional distress due to wrongful incarceration are not recoverable in an action for defamation”; second, “case law supports the principle that a plaintiff cannot avoid having to satisfy the elements of a malicious prosecution claim by disguising it as a different tort”; third, “public policy opposes exposing citizens to liability for incarceration damages on just the lesser proof needed to support a defamation claim”; and lastly, Mr. Kendrick argues that the contested evidence, once admitted, still “did not support a jury finding that a defamatory statement made by Mr. Kendrick caused Mr. Geilenfeld to be arrested.” Id. at 4. Moreover, given the “dramatic and compelling” nature of the evidence, Mr. Kendrick submits that the error was harmful and that the proper remedy is a new trial because the “testimony went as much to liability as to damages.” Id. at 11. Likewise, Mr. Kendrick requests a new trial as regards his liability to HWH. Id. at 13-16.

Even if the Court holds to its earlier position that the evidence of Mr. Geilenfeld’s imprisonment was properly admitted, Mr. Kendrick urges that “justice nonetheless requires that the Court condition a denial of a new trial as to Mr. Geilenfeld on both actual and presumed damages on Mr. Geilenfeld’s acceptance of a remittitur of $100, 000 in presumed damages . . . .” Id. at 18.

Finally, Mr. Kendrick asks the Court to reconsider the $8, 000 sanction imposed for violation of the Consent Confidentiality Order. Id. at 19. Given “the size of the verdicts in this case, ” “the law’s disdain for excessive fines, ” and the fact that “the years in which the jury found Mr. Kendrick’s conduct gave rise to liability on Plaintiffs’ claims overlap with the timing of events for which the Court found him to have violated the Consent Confidentiality Order, ” Mr. Kendrick argues that the sanction “is unnecessary to remedy any harm caused to Plaintiffs by Mr. Kendrick’s contempt of court.”[3] Def.’s Mot. at 19.

2. Plaintiffs’ Opposition

The Plaintiffs assert that “the Court correctly allowed Plaintiff Geilenfeld to testify about his incarceration in a Haitian prison, and correctly declined an instruction that would have told the jury to disregard that testimony.” Pls.’ Resp. in Opp’n to Def.’s Rule 59 Mot. for New Trial, at 2 (ECF No. 492) (Pls.’ Opp’n). They argue that Mr. Kendrick’s post-trial motion essentially reiterates the theory-i.e., damages for wrongful imprisonment require the claim to be brought under malicious prosecution-that the Court rejected in the pre-trial motion discussed above, and that such reiteration contravenes Rule 59 doctrine. Id. at 3 (citing Nat’l Metal Finishing Co. v. Barclays American/Commercial, Inc., 899 F.2d 119 (1st Cir. 1990)). The new cases Mr. Kendrick cites for this same theory, according to Plaintiffs, are “almost completely irrelevant.” Id. at 5. Plaintiffs push against the substantive thrust of Mr. Kendrick’s argument by stating that “Geilenfeld is entitled to recover the damages that flow naturally and proximately from Defendant’s tortious conduct.” Id. at 7. They also contend that Mr. Kendrick’s public policy argument, raised for the first time at the post-trial stage, is for that reason waived and would be a losing argument regardless. Id. at 6 n.2, 7.

Plaintiffs claim Mr. Kendrick “is not entitled to a new trial . . . on the issue of causation” because there was “overwhelming” evidence that Mr. Kendrick caused Mr. Geilenfeld’s imprisonment and there was “no break in the ‘causal chain.’”[4] Id. at 9-14.

In arguing against Mr. Kendrick’s alternative relief of remittitur or a new trial, Plaintiffs claim “[t]he verdict was not improper.” Id. at 15. Although “Geilenfeld had been previously accused, ” he had been “exonerated on each occasion.” Id. Moreover, “[t]he law provides . . . one who repeats or otherwise republishes defamatory matter is subject to liability as if he had originally published it.” Id. (citing Elms v. Crane, 118 Me. 261, 107 A. 852, 854 (1919) (quoting Davis v. Starrett, 97 Me. 568, 576, 55 A. 516, 519 (1903)); Restatement (Second) of Torts § 578 (Am. Law Inst. 1997). Plaintiffs also claim “[t]he verdict was not excessive.” Id. at 16. The question, as they see it, is “whether the evidence in this case supports the award.” Id. at 17 (emphasis in original) (citing Bielunas v. F/V Misty Dawn, Inc., 621 F.3d 72, 82 (1st Cir. 2010)). With regard to the damages suffered by Mr. Geilenfeld, they say “[i]t is difficult to imagine a damages verdict that would be excessive or irrational on these facts.” Id. With regard to the tortious interference damages incurred by HWH, they point to Geoffrey Hamlyn’s comparative statistical analysis as evidence that the jury’s award is “far from speculation.” Id. at 18-19. Finally, Plaintiffs argue the verdict was not “tainted” because the jury “was properly instructed by the Court to separate its liability determination and damages valuations and to evaluate each Plaintiff’s claims separately.” Id. at 19-20.

3. Defendant’s Reply

Mr. Kendrick first addresses matters of procedure. He emphasizes that both (1) his erroneous admission of evidence claim and (2) his sufficiency of evidence claim are properly brought under Rule 59. Def.’s Mem. in Reply to Pls.’ Resp. in Opp’n to Def.’s Rule 59 Mot. for New Trial, at 2 (ECF No. 496) (Def.’s Reply). On the former, he notes that though the issue has been preserved for appeal, he thinks it is “appropriate to give the trial court the opportunity in the context of a Rule 59 motion for a new trial to comment on whether if the evidence was improperly admitted, there should be a new trial.” Id. As a final procedural matter, Mr. Kendrick points out that-contrary to Plaintiffs’ assertion in their opposition-he did ask for the liability and damages issues to be bifurcated. Id. at 4.

Substantively, Mr. Kendrick believes Plaintiffs “simply fail to address” his basic argument that, as a matter of law and public policy, wrongful imprisonment damages are unavailable in a defamation lawsuit, and that this is especially true where this is an ongoing criminal procedure regarding the claims at issue in this case. Id. at 3. Mr. Kendrick concedes that he can “point[] to no case directly on point . . . .” Id. Nonetheless, he cites authorities ‚Äúthat he thinks fairly stand for a general ...


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