Dismissal of libel suit sparked by criminal complaint asked

May 23, 1994|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Sun Staff Writer

A Sykesville woman who was sued for libel after describing a neighbor in a criminal complaint as "vindictive" and an "alcoholic" who "abused her oldest stepson" has asked a Carroll judge to dismiss the $4 million lawsuit.

In a motion filed recently in Carroll Circuit Court, Deborah Tracecalled the libel case groundless.

"The alleged libelous [defamatory] publication is absolutely privileged under Maryland Common Law," Daniel J. Bartolini, Ms. Tracey's attorney, wrote in the dismissal motion. "In fact, the breadth of the privilege is so well-established that attorney sanctions have been approved for bringing a defamation claim based on a statement" made in a court proceeding.

The libel case, filed last month in Carroll Circuit Court, is considered a rarity by prosecutors and legal experts because of its ties to the criminal complaint. In Maryland and in most other states, comments made in court or in court proceedings -- such as the filing of a criminal complaint -- are generally not fertile ground for lawsuits, experts say.

The suit arises from a dispute between Ms. Tracey and her neighbor Ann C. Ridgely.

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. 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 Ms. Ridgely 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.

Now, eight months after filing the complaint and five months after Ms. Ridgely's conviction, Ms. Tracey is the defendant in Ms. Ridgely's libel suit.

Ms. Ridgely and her attorney, W. Walter Farnandis, have acknowledged that under most circumstances, statements made almost anywhere in the court process are privileged. But the statements must be relevant to the central issue at hand -- in this case, Ms. Ridgely's telephone misconduct -- they said.

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

In her dismissal motion, Ms. Tracey disputes that.

"The issues of probable cause, falsity and malice are simply irrelevant to the validity of [Ms. Ridgely's] defamation claim . . . ," Mr. Bartolini wrote. The criminal complaint "is precisely the kind of citizen action that absolute privilege is designed to protect."

Mr. Farnandis declined to discuss the motion Friday but said his client would be adding several allegations to her suit against Ms. Tracey.

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