Criminal charge sparks libel suit against neighbor

April 26, 1994|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Sun Staff Writer

A rift between two Sykesville women has escalated into a libel suit in which the woman who filed a criminal complaint against her neighbor is being sued for $4 million.

The libel case, filed in Carroll Circuit Court last week, is considered a rarity by prosecutors and legal experts because of its ties to the criminal complaint. In Maryland and in most of the United States, comments made in court or in court proceedings -- such as filing a criminal complaint -- are generally considered privileged, which means the person uttering them usually cannot be sued.

The legal fray began in September, when Deborah Tracey filed a criminal complaint in Carroll District Court against neighbor Ann C. Ridgely. Ms. Tracey claimed in the complaint that Ms. Ridgely had harassed her several times around town and over the telephone. She also described Ms. Ridgely as "vindictive" and an "alcoholic" who "abused her oldest stepson." Now, seven months after filing the complaint and four months after Ms. Ridgely was convicted of telephone harassment, Ms. Tracey is the defendant in Ms. Ridgely's libel suit.

"I think she loses," Alice Neff Lucan, a Washington, D.C., media lawyer, said of Ms. Ridgely. "I could be wrong, but a citizen has a right to swear out a complaint against anyone they believe is committing criminal conduct."

Ms. Ridgely said, "This case is justified, or else we wouldn't be filing it."

For Ms. Ridgely to prevail in court, Ms. Lucan said, she would have to prove that Ms. Tracey's allegations were false and that Ms. Tracey chose to make them anyway.

"You don't hear about these cases every day," said Sandra Davidson Scott, assistant professor of communication law at the University of Missouri Journalism School. "You are generally safer from a [libel] lawsuit in courtrooms or in court papers. I would think a more likely kind of suit in this kind of case would be wrongful prosecution."

W. Walter Farnandis, Ms. Ridgely's lawyer, said Ms. Tracey crossed a legal line -- and lost her privilege to say anything she wanted to about Ms. Ridgely -- by making comments in the harassment complaint that "were not relevant."

"Yes, almost anything in court papers is privileged," Mr. Farnandis said. "But if a person says something that is libelous and it has nothing to do with the [criminal] case, then it isn't privileged."

Carroll State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman, whose office prosecuted Ms. Ridgely as a result of Ms. Tracey's complaint, said he can't recall any libel suits ever filed against a criminal complainant.

"There's a qualified immunity there," Mr. Hickman said. "I've seen lawsuits based on malicious prosecution, but never on libel."

On Sept. 18, Ms. Tracey, 32, went before Carroll District Court Commissioner Donald E. Showalter and swore out a criminal complaint. She alleged in it that Ms. Ridgely had harassed her over the telephone, yelled profanities at her several times, stopped her car in Ms. Tracey's path, and threatened Ms. Tracey and her daughter.

Ms. Tracey also said in the complaint that Ms. Ridgely had called Ms. Tracey's husband and told him, "Deborah Tracey . . . was having sexual intercourse with someone in the parking lot" of a local convenience store, an allegation Ms. Tracey denied.

"Anne Ridgely is an alcoholic and all of the complaints made herein have been reported to the Sykesville police," Ms. Tracey said in her handwritten complaint. "I am terrified of Anne Ridgely and so is my daughter. This woman has no right to any of this behavior."

Ms. Ridgely was charged with two telephone harassment counts, a harassment count, trespassing, assault and two counts of disturbing the peace.

In December, District Judge Donald M. Smith found her guilty of one telephone harassment count and acquitted her on the other charges. He gave her probation before judgment, which means the misdemeanor conviction will be wiped from her record after her 18 months of unsupervised probation.

Ms. Ridgely was not charged with child abuse, court records show.

Ms. Tracey laughed when she learned of the $4 million suit.

"That's just pocket change for me," she said. "Everything I said in that complaint is true."

She said she and Ms. Ridgely were friends for "about eight months" before they began to argue. Now they don't speak to each other.

Daniel J. Bartolini, Ms. Tracey's lawyer, said the libel suit "sounds frivolous."

Neither woman has indicated what started the fray.

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