Judge dismisses defamation case against town
By Lucia Suarez
STAFF WRITER | February 12,2013
FAIR HAVEN — A defamation case against the chairman of the Fair Haven Select Board was dismissed by a Rutland judge this week.
According to Judge William Cohen a statement Christopher Cole made during a public meeting back in April 2011 about Nicholas Michael was not defamatory as a matter of law, effectively dismissing the case.
Michael, an attorney in Fair Haven, was appointed to the planning commission in March 2009. He sought reappointment to the board in April 2011, but when it came to the vote, Michael was not reappointed by the Select Board despite having the support of George Stannard, planning commission chairman.
Court records show that during a Select Board meeting April 5, 2011, Cole, who at the time was not chairman of the board, stated on the record that Michael “was not a person that he wanted to represent Fair Haven on the town Planning Commission.”
In public minutes of the meeting, a motion to appoint Michael failed for a lack of a second. Eventually Roy Eckler was appointed to the position. Court records show that in a tape recording of the meeting, Cole is on the record with that statement.
In his complaint, Michael said the statement made by Cole during the meeting was the basis of the defamation claim. He said the slanderous and libelous actions by the board discredited his reputation in the community and his law practiced suffered.
“The actions of the (board members) were intentional acts used to discredit (my) reputation in the community and were meant to injure that reputation in the community through the spoken and written word,” Michael wrote in the complaint.
He sought $50,000 in damages.
According to court records, the Fair Haven town attorney argued that Cole stated his opinion as part of his duties as a selectman and that his statement was “not intended or understood as statements of fact, are impossible to prove or disprove, and are therefore not actionable as libelous.”
Judge Cohen agreed stating in his decision that “no reasonable observer could interpret Mr. Cole’s statements as conveying true facts about Mr. Michael.”
He continued: “Rather, the only reasonable interpretation is that the statement expressed Mr. Cole’s subjective opinion that Mr. Michael should not be reappointed to the Planning Commission. As there is no way to measure whether Mr. Cole’s personal opinion was ‘true,’ his statement is not actionable.”