COA overthrows LaPorte Co. attorney in Michigan City libel case over comments from former mayor
Michigan City is not yet off the hook for accusatory remarks its embattled former mayor made against the LaPorte County prosecutor and his wife following the arrest of the mayor’s stepson.
In a Monday memorandum decision, the Indiana Court of Appeals found that the Starke Circuit Court erred in dismissing the case of John Lake and Mary Lake v. City of Michigan City, Indiana22A-CT-786, based on Indiana Trial Rule 12(B)(6).
From 2012 to 2019, Ronald “Ron” Meer served as mayor of Michigan City. In October 2019, members of the LaPorte County Drug Task Force arrested Adam Bray, Meer’s stepson, on drug and firearms charges. Bray would later go to federal prison for his conduct.
Four days after Bray’s arrest, Meer, a Democrat, released an official statement, first broadcast by radio stations 95.1 FM/AM 1420 WIMS. Meer said it’s a “very dangerous time” in LaPorte County because District Attorney John Lake, a fellow Democrat, “may have your family members targeted for political retaliation and gain.”
“It was brought to my attention by a confidential informant that he had been directed by the LaPorte County District Attorney’s Office and a member of the Drug Task Force to target my son. It is no coincidence that this happens just weeks before the election,” Meer said in his 2019 statement. “Nor is it a coincidence that the confidential informant was driving the vehicle that was intercepted. and he was not charged with anything.
“There have also been false reports of this matter to the DA’s office and to the task force of one of John and Mary Lake’s known political allies,” the statement continued. “This retaliation against my family by prosecutor John Lake must stop immediately! The prosecutor’s office should not be used for personal and political gain. John Lake’s bias towards me and my family has been demonstrated time and time again.
At the bottom of the statement, Meer wrote, “This is my official statement on this.”
The next day, local and regional newspapers picked up the story. Indiana State Police then opened an investigation into Meer, and he was charged with eight felonies – six felonies and two misdemeanors – in connection with his official statement.
This case, Indiana State vs. Ronald Meer, 46D04-1910-F6-001475, which was scheduled for a jury trial on August 30, 2022, was dismissed Monday, according to court records.
After losing re-election in 2019, Meer announced in 2021 that he was running for the Indiana Senate District 4 seat, currently held by Sen. Rodney Pol Jr. In May, Meer finished last of four candidates for the primary elections with 16.9% of voters.
Giving notice under the Indiana Tort Claims Act, the Lakes personally sued Michigan City and Meer for defamation and willful infliction of emotional distress in October 2021.
The Lakes then decided to voluntarily fire Meer without prejudice “because he filed for bankruptcy,” but kept Michigan City on the list of defendants because the official statement was “” made in and in connection with office as mayor of Michigan City, Indiana”. and that the City “was responsible for [Meer’s] criminal statements” contained in the press release because he made them “in his capacity as mayor of the city”.
The city moved to have the defamation claim dismissed under Trial Rule 12(B)(6), which was granted.
On appeal, the judges reversed on Monday.
First, the COA determined that the case fell under Indiana tort claims law because Meer was an employee of a political subdivision. Then, looking Davidson c. Peron, 716 NE2d 29 (Ind. Ct. App. 1999), he found that the statements made by Meer were in his official capacity as mayor.
‘Meer called the statement ‘[his] official statement “and signed it ‘Mayor Meer,'” Judge Nancy Vaidik wrote. “Contrary to what the City claims, these facts are sufficient to allege that Meer acted in the course of his employment such that the Lakes may be entitled to a remedy. Thus, dismissal under 12(B)(6) is not appropriate on this basis. »
In a footnote, the Court of Appeals wrote that although the Lakes decided to fire Meer because he had filed for bankruptcy, the Tort Claims Act, Indiana Code § 34-13-3-5 ( b), ensures that Meer cannot be sued personally. because the allegations against the city are that Meer acted within the scope of his employment.
Regarding the city’s assertion that the Lakes did not file a defamation suit, again examining davidson, the ACO again expressed its disagreement.
“Here, Meer’s official statement contains the following allegations: (1) Meer learned from a confidential informant that John Lake colluded with the LaPorte County Drug Task Force to have his son arrested; (2) the arrest was made because allies of John and Mary Lake lied to the DA’s office and the drug task force; (3) the elections were approaching and the prosecutor’s office should not be used for personal and political purposes; and (4) retaliation against Meer and his family must stop,” Vaidik wrote.
“A sin davidson, we cannot say, as a matter of law, that these statements are not defamatory,” she continued. “A reasonable trier of fact might conclude that these are charges of misconduct against John Lake, the prosecutor, and Mary Lake, a lawyer. A reasonable trier of fact might also infer that they involve facts which can be proven true or false and are based on a factual predicate. In these circumstances, a question of fact arises as to whether the statements are defamatory. »
Attorney Lake was elected in 2018 and is currently eligible for re-election. Republican Sean Fagan is running against him in the general election this fall.
In an email to Indiana Lawyer, Lake declined to comment on the case, citing ongoing litigation. A Michigan City attorney did not return a request for comment by the IL deadline.