By NANCY WEST, InDepthNH.org
The defamation lawsuit Eric Spofford filed against New Hampshire Public Radio for a story accusing him of sexual misconduct has been dismissed, with the judge giving Spofford 30 days to amend his complaint to include allegations of “actual malice.”
Rockingham Superior Court Judge Daniel I. St. Hilaire granted NHPR’s motion to dismiss on Monday, determining that Spofford, the founder and former owner of Granite Recovery Centers, is a limited purpose public figure and therefore must prove actual malice, which requires a higher burden of proof to prevail in a defamation suit.
Spofford’s lawyers have argued that it isn’t up to the judge to determine whether Spofford is a public figure, but rather the job of the jury at trial. They cite a 1985 ruling by U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter when he was a New Hampshire Supreme Court justice that says the jury decides the legal status of the defendant in a defamation case.
“…By outwardly presenting himself as a national figure in the fight against opioid addiction and emphasizing the inspirational nature of his own story of recovery, Spofford voluntarily stepped in the midst of an ongoing controversy and assumed the risk of public discourse surrounding his conduct and his fitness as a leader in the field. Accordingly, the court finds that Spofford is a limited purpose public figure in the public controversy surrounding the ongoing fight against opioid addiction and he must prove actual malice,” St. Hilaire wrote.
St. Hilaire said to prove actual malice, a plaintiff must prove “the statement was made with actual malice meaning ‘with knowledge that the statement was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.’”
If Spofford were to be considered a private citizen, he would only have to prove the reporting was reckless.
To grant a motion to dismiss, St. Hilaire quoted a 2020 New Hampshire Supreme court case saying, “If the allegations in the complaint fail to provide a basis for legal relief, the court should grant the motion to dismiss.”
The lawsuit names NHPR’s senior reporters Lauren Chooljian, Jason Moon and editor Dan Barrick along with three named sources stemming from the NHPR report on March 22, 2022, saying Spofford had sexually harassed a former Granite Recovery Center client and sexually assaulted two former Granite Recovery Center employees, according to St. Hilaire’s order.
St. Hilaire also granted motions to dismiss the suits against the sources.
“Although the accusers remained anonymous, their allegations were (according to NHPR) substantiated by interviews with nearly 50 former clients, current and past employees, and others in the New Hampshire recovery community,” St. Hilaire wrote.
It is unclear what will happen next if Spofford amends his complaint to include facts that would allege actual malice.
“Spofford is free to amend his complaint to remedy the deficiencies identified above and supplement his allegations with facts indicative of actual malice,” St. Hilaire wrote. The amendment must be filed within 30 days or the dismissal is final.
Spofford’s lawyer Michael Strauss and NHPR’s attorney Sigmund Schutz didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
Spofford contends that the particular public controversy at issue should be limited to “his conduct in the workplace” rather than the opioid crisis generally and for the purposes of that narrower controversy he is a “private citizen” who need only prove negligence, St. Hilaire wrote.
“Further Spofford argues that the determination of whether he is a public figure should be left to the jury referencing Justice Souter’s 1985 opinion in Nash v Keene Publishing Corp.,” St. Hilaire wrote.
The judge disagreed with Spofford on whether the determination of his status as a private citizen or public figure should be left to the jury.
“Subsequent to Nash the New Hampshire Supreme Court found that ‘determining whether an individual is a public or private figure presents a threshold question of law which is grist for the court’s – not the jury’s – mill,” citing the 2007 case Thomas v Telegraph Publishing Co.
“Accordingly, the court not the jury will decide Spofford’s status,” St. Hilaire wrote, concluding Spofford was a limited purpose public figure for the purposes of his lawsuit.
And in this case, “the Court concludes that Spofford’s amended complaint fails to allege that the NHPR Defendants acted with actual malice in their reporting,” St. Hilaire wrote.
St. Hilaire pointed to Spofford’s amended complaint and his former status as a leader in the substance abuse disorder community testifying before the U.S. Senate and co-authoring a book on recovery as well as describing connections to former Vice President Mike Pence and Gov. Chris Sununu arising from his recovery expertise.
“In the court’s view Spofford cannot simultaneously claim that he had a nationally prominent reputation based on his inspirational story of recovery while also arguing he is not a public figure in the controversy surrounding opioid addiction,” St. Hilaire wrote.
The judge cited a call to Chooljian from Lynsie Metivier, former GRC Director of Human Resources, when the article was first published but not mentioned in the story telling Chooljian she never received a complaint or allegation that Spofford had engaged in sexual misconduct.
Metivier also expressed doubts about the credibility of one of the accusers based on her romantically pursuing other GRC colleagues, the order states.
St. Hilaire also cited a letter from one of the article’s key on-the-record sources Piers Kaniuka on May 17, 2022, saying, “I did not have any direct personal knowledge concerning any sexual abuse misconduct or other inappropriate behavior by Mr. Spofford with employees, clients or former clients.”
St. Hilaire determined: “None of the identified sources provided NHPR with a subjective awareness of probable falsity.”
The judge also mentioned the “unrelated vandalism story, Chooljian’s long-running focus on GRC and NHPR’s alleged violations of journalistic norms may be relevant to some degree under a lesser standard, but do not tip the scales in the court’s assessment of actual malice,” St. Hilaire wrote.
“In the courts view, the primary issue relevant to actual malice in this case is the reliability of NHPR sources,” St. Hilaire wrote.
Spofford alleged all of the identified sources were unreliable or biased against him and that they shared motives to lie and cause harm to his reputation, St. Hilaire wrote.