Livingston council members plan to appeal judge’s decision to send defamation cases to trial; _lowres

Marshall Harris and Cindy Wale Franz

Two Livingston Parish Council members say they will appeal a state court judge’s ruling allowing a pair of defamation cases against them to advance toward trial.

The court order also taxed the two officials with their opponents’ legal costs, prompting the parish legal adviser to question whether the parish should pay the bill.

Councilmen Marshall Harris and Cindy Wale Franz face lawsuits from the parish’s former road engineering firm, Alvin Fairburn & Associates, and former council clerk Mary Kistler for comments the two officials made for a 2013 television news broadcast.

The WBRZ-TV report claimed that Kistler had changed the wording of a council resolution to allow Fairburn to bill for road engineering work the council had not authorized. But the change actually made the resolution more restrictive by specifying the work to be done.

Harris and Franz had asked that the lawsuits be tossed out because the broadcast included only edited portions of their comments that named neither Fairburn nor Kistler and contained no specific allegations. The officials said they should not be held responsible for a news report that used their statements to make it appear as though they were confirming the reporter’s facts.

Attorneys for Fairburn and Kistler argued the two council members knew the allegations being made and should pay for the damage their statements caused.

After reviewing a copy of the broadcast, Judge Wayne Ray Chutz, of the 21st Judicial District Court, ruled Dec. 4 that “issues of material fact clearly exist” that would have to be sorted out in court. He denied the council members’ motion and ordered them to pay Fairburn’s and Kistler’s attorney fees for fighting the motion.

Charles Schutte, an attorney representing Harris and Franz, said Tuesday his clients will appeal the ruling and “expect to be successful in having the claims … dismissed after further proceedings.”

Parish legal adviser Christopher Moody emailed the ruling to the rest of the Parish Council on Monday, saying it was a shame the parish had been unable to settle this and other legal disputes with the Fairburn firm.

Moody said Tuesday the council may want to reconsider its repeated resolutions, which Parish President Layton Ricks has continued to oppose, to pay Harris’ and Franz’s legal bills. The judge’s order that the two council members pay their opposition’s costs also raises new legal questions, Moody said.

“I think it goes beyond the scope of the current resolution (ordering Ricks to pay the two council members’ bills), and I’m not sure that it could ever be an obligation of the parish to pay the other side’s legal fees,” Moody said.

Fairburn and Kistler sued the two council members personally, not as public officials. The Parish Council resolved that the pair were acting within the scope of their official duties when they made the comments and the parish should pay for their defense. But Ricks has refused to pay the bills, citing a state attorney general’s opinion that suggested withholding payment until a judge decided that issue.

The council sued Ricks for his refusal to obey its resolutions, and a state court judge ordered him to follow the council’s directives and pay. He has appealed that ruling.

Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter, @HeidiRKinchen. Contact her by phone at (225) 336-6981.