A federal appeals court is refusing to disturb a jury’s finding that former state Alcohol and Tobacco Control Commissioner Murphy Painter was not harmed by his ex-administrative assistant who accused him of stalking and sexually harassing her.
One Baton Rouge federal court jury concluded in 2014 that Kelli Suire defamed Painter in her 2010 state court lawsuit against him, but another federal jury found last summer that Painter’s reputation was not damaged by her statements. The second panel awarded him no monetary damages.
U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick then dismissed Painter’s 2012 federal court suit against Suire in August, prompting his appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
A three-judge panel of that court on Monday rejected Painter’s claim that he suffered mental anguish and harm to his reputation at the hands of Suire’s defamatory statements.
“She is grateful to have been vindicated and is looking forward to her future with her family and friends,” lawyer Jill Craft, who represents Suire, said Tuesday. “Barring any further attempts to keep the case going, it is finally over. She won!”
“We are obviously disappointed in the ruling and have not made any decisions as to whether we will pursue further relief,” said Painter’s attorney, Al Robert Jr.
Painter’s related suit against the state is moving forward in Baton Rouge state court.
The panel of 5th Circuit Judges Carolyn King, Edith Clement and Priscilla Owen noted Painter testified in federal court that he had no mental disorder as a result of Suire’s statements and that he did not have a psychological impairment and was not diagnosed by a medical professional with any kind of disorder.
“With respect to the damage to Painter’s reputation, the record contains sufficient evidence from which the jury could have determined that Painter did not suffer reputational harm as a result of Suire’s defamatory statements,” the appellate court judges wrote.
Painter also testified in federal court that his 2011 state court suit against the state and others, including the Office of Inspector General, alleged that their actions surrounding his August 2010 termination as ATC chief harmed his reputation, the judges said.
“The damages jury could have concluded that these actions, not the defamatory statements made by Suire, caused Painter’s reputational injury,” the judges wrote.
Last fall, Janice Clark, a Baton Rouge state judge, set the stage for a state court jury to decide whether the Office of Inspector General defamed Painter by accusing him of stalking and harassing Suire. Painter claims the office tarnished his reputation in a 2010 search warrant application, which accused him of stalking and sexually harassing her. Inspector General Stephen Street also is a defendant in the state court suit.
“Ms. Suire defended Mr. Painter’s suit by arguing that his reputation had already been harmed by the actions of the OIG,” Robert added Tuesday. “Mr. Painter’s suit against the OIG ... will reveal the full extent of the effort taken to destroy Mr. Painter’s reputation and career.”
The Inspector General’s Office also alleged Painter illegally accessed confidential law enforcement databases to obtain information on people not connected to any criminal probes, such as Suire, U.S. Sen. David Vitter’s wife and others.
A Baton Rouge federal jury acquitted Painter in 2013 on numerous counts of computer fraud and false statements to the FBI relating to those allegations.