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Wright v. Teasdale

United States District Court, W.D. Wisconsin

May 24, 2017

STEVEN O. WRIGHT, Plaintiff,


          WILLIAM M. CONLEY District Judge

         Following the last defendant's default and an evidentiary hearing on damages, the court will now enter judgment in the amount of $28, 500 based on the findings and conclusions set forth below.


         Plaintiff Steven O. Wright filed this federal diversity action against defendants Adam Teasdale and Todd Fischer for allegedly making defamatory statements that resulted in his losing a job offer from Pattison Sand Co.[1] Specifically, Teasdale told his fellow employees at Pattison that Wright had stolen cattle from his former employer, Todd Fischer, a lie plaintiff claims both Teasdale and Fischer disseminated with express malice. The clerk of court entered default against defendant Teasdale on February 23, 2016, after he failed to answer or otherwise appear in this lawsuit. (Dkt. #12.)

         On January 13, 2017, plaintiff filed a stipulation to dismiss his defamation and intentional interference with contractual relationship claims against then co-defendant Todd Fischer, who plaintiff alleged originated the cattle theft lie, after those parties and Fischer's insurer, intervening defendant Rural Mutual Insurance Company, reached a settlement agreement. After granting the motion to dismiss, leaving Teasdale as the only remaining defendant, the court further entered an order on March 10, 2017, permitting plaintiff to file, within fourteen days, a motion for default judgment against Teasdale, including all supporting documents. (Dkt. #41.) In that same order, the court directed plaintiff's counsel to make all reasonable efforts to serve defendant Teasdale with the motion, supporting documents and this court's order, as well as file proof of service or an affidavit describing those efforts. (Id.) After plaintiff made these filings timely, including an affidavit in which he asserted damages for emotional harm and lost wages caused by Teasdale's defamatory statements, the court scheduled a default hearing for the morning of April 26, 2016.

         On the afternoon of April 25, 2016, however, defendant Teasdale contacted the court for the first time, notifying the court by email that he would not be able to appear at the morning hearing the following day in person. To accommodate the defendant, the court rescheduled the original hearing to the afternoon, as well as permitted both parties to appear by telephone. During that telephonic hearing, the court explained that default judgment was appropriate, given that defendant offered no cause for his failure to contact the court, despite having been served with the complaint personally more than fifteen months earlier. Because plaintiff had not made an adequate showing of damages in advance of that hearing, however, the court scheduled an in-person, evidentiary hearing for plaintiff to offer such proof. See Domanus v. Lewicki, 742 F.3d 290, 303 (7th Cir. 2014) (upon default judgment, “allegations in the complaint relating to liability are true, but allegations going to damages are not”). This hearing was held on May 19, 2017. Plaintiff and his counsel appeared in person, while Teasdale chose at the last minute to appear by telephone.[2]


         The court accepts the basic facts as pled in plaintiff's complaint in light of Teasdale's default. See Id. Combined with the submissions by plaintiff before and during the evidentiary hearing, including Wright's own testimony and that of his daughter, the court makes the following findings of fact and conclusions of law:

1. Having made a false statement to employees at Pattison Sand Co. that plaintiff Steven O. Wright stole cattle from Todd Fischer, defendant Adam Teasdale imputed to plaintiff a criminal offense and damaged his reputation, making him liable to plaintiff for defamation per se. See Starobin v. Northridge Lakes Dev. Co., 94 Wis.2d 1, 287 N.W.2d 747 (Wis. 1980); Martin v. Outboard Marine Corp., 15 Wis.2d 452, 113 N.W.2d 135 (Wis. 1962).
2. Therefore, plaintiff is entitled to compensatory damages for the harm suffered as a result, including emotional and reputational harm, as well as provable special damages, such as loss of employment opportunities. See Lawrence v. Jewell Cos., 53 Wis.2d 656, 193 N.W.2d 695 (Wis. 1972); WIS JI-CIVIL 2516.
3. Plaintiff's reputation is presumed to have been good at the time defendant made the defamatory statement. See WIS JI-CIVIL 2516.
4. Plaintiff is entitled to damages he can prove to a reasonable certainty by the greater weight of the credible evidence. See WIS JI-CIVIL 200; WIS JI-CIVIL 2516.
5. Plaintiff was able to offer nothing more than hearsay as proof that he did not receive the job at Pattison because of defendant's defamatory statements. Although plaintiff testified credibly that he believed defendant's false statement resulted in a job offer being rescinded, the court is left with nothing but his statements as to what Pattison offered and the reasons he was given for its withdrawal, as well as the contradictory, hearsay statements of Pattison's principal, who stated in a declaration filed by Fischer's counsel that Pattison decided not to interview plaintiff for reasons unrelated to any statements made by Fischer. (Dkt. #25.).
6. On the stand, Mr. Wright was quite credible in describing the emotional harm he suffered as a result of the events at Pattison that Teasdale helped precipitate, and his descriptions were further supported by ...

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