State Judge Don Johnson refused to toss out a defamation lawsuit Monday that Council on Aging CEO Tasha Clark-Amar filed against a family who accused her of wrongdoing, but the attorney for the family questioned the judge's motives for presiding over the case.
Clark-Amar filed a defamation lawsuit in May against the family of Helen Plummer, whose will named Clark-Amar as executor and trustee of her estate. The Council on Aging head was to be paid $120,000 over 20 years for those duties.
Plummer's family members said they had never heard of Clark-Amar until she called them after Plummer died, and they alleged that Clark-Amar coerced Plummer — a Council on Aging client — into agreeing to the will.
Clark-Amar withdrew from having any role in the will after the story was widely reported in the media. Shortly after, she filed the defamation lawsuit against the Plummer family, in which she claimed that her reputation had suffered from the flap, though she did retain her job as Council on Aging CEO along with her $101,238 salary.
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In a hearing Monday, Johnson said he could not grant the family's special motion to strike the lawsuit. A special motion to strike allows the court to decide before a trial whether a free speech-related lawsuit has a probability of success.
Johnson explained his ruling as a technicality, citing the state Code of Civil Procedure that says the court should consider "pleadings and supporting and opposing affidavits" about the case. A former attorney for the family did not file any affidavits supporting the Plummer's position prior to Monday's hearing, the judge said.
Attorney Robert Garrity, who is now representing the family, said after the hearing that he understood Johnson made the decision because the attorney previously representing Plummer's family did not file the affidavits.
But he also said Johnson is the only judge in the 19th Judicial District who did not recuse himself from the Clark-Amar case, given that Clark-Amar's mother, Judge Janice Clark, also a 19th Judicial District Judge, serves in the same courthouse.
"Why would Judge Johnson want this case is the real issue, knowing Janice Clark's daughter is the one doing the dirty deeds," Garrity said.
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Johnson said Monday that he could not comment on Garrity's questions or on the case.
"I refer you to the Louisiana Code of Judicial Ethics which addresses juridical impartiality and the circumstances as to when a judge who is unable to impartially adjudicate or to remain impartial is required to recuse themselves," Johnson wrote in an email.
Garrity argued Monday in court that Clark-Amar could not silence the family's right to free speech.
The standard for Clark-Amar to claim she was defamed is high because she is a public figure, Garrity argued. He said Clark-Amar's job at the Council on Aging, her appearances before the East Baton Rouge Metro Council, her Council on Aging rallies and numerous media mentions before the Plummer controversy even began make her a public figure.
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Garrity also said that Plummer's family members who were being sued for defamation couched their statements about Clark-Amar as opinions, while the defamation standard requires that statements be false.
"When Ms. Amar resigned from her position, she essentially admitted to everything that was said," Garrity argued, referring to Clark-Amar resigning as Plummer's trustee and executor.
He said Clark-Amar inserted herself into the controversy by allowing herself to be named in the will, and said she has sustained no damages because she still has her job, has not received a pay cut and has not been criminally charged.
Clark-Amar's attorney disagreed. Charlotte McGehee said Clark-Amar is a private figure and that the Council on Aging head acted in a private capacity with Plummer's estate. A recent Southern University investigation shows that Plummer's will was drafted through the university's Elder Law Clinic, which works with the Council on Aging.
"Just because Ms. Amar works as the CEO of the Council on Aging does not mean she's a public figure in all aspects of her life," McGehee said, describing the disagreement over the will and Amar's role in it as a personal dispute.
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McGehee said Clark-Amar deserves a jury trial in the defamation lawsuit. She also argued that the special motion to strike was created for the news media, and said the Plummer family is not entitled to the same protections as journalists.
"When you say something to the news media, you are responsible for what you've said to third parties," McGehee said.
Johnson asked McGehee to amend her petition for defamation, which seeks damages related to "negligent acts." McGehee said she will change the language to make it clear that Plummer's family acted with "intent" in their statements.
Plummer's family is expected to return to court Oct. 31, when Johnson scheduled a hearing for their attorneys to show why they should not be held in contempt of court in the separate and still ongoing Plummer succession case. Nobody showed up for a status conference scheduled earlier this month in the case, which Garrity attributed to the succession stalling because of paperwork that has yet to be signed by Judge Janice Clark.
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Garrity said Plummer's family intends to file a new lawsuit next month against the Council on Aging, the Metro Council, the Governor's Office of Elderly Affairs, Southern University, Clark-Amar and attorney Dorothy Jackson for negligence and lapses in oversight that led to the issues with Plummer's will.