FAYETTEVILLE -- A federal judge said Monday he will decide soon whether local officials should have immunity from being sued for releasing decade-old information about an investigation into the sexual abuse of four Duggar daughters by their brother, Josh.
Four daughters of the Jim Bob Duggar family sued Northwest Arkansas officials in May, claiming they improperly released police investigation documents to a celebrity magazine, which published the information. The investigation determined Josh Duggar fondled the sisters and at least one other girl. The statute of limitations had run out and no charges were filed.
Immunity: An exemption granted to statute or government authorities from a legal duty, penalty or prosecution.
Sovereign immunity is a judicial doctrine that prevents the government or its political subdivisions, departments and agencies from being sued without its consent. The doctrine stems from the ancient English principle that the monarch can do no wrong. For a person individually to be immune to suit, they must be acting as an arm of the government.
Qualified immunity protects public officials from being sued for damages unless they violated “clearly established” law of which a reasonable official in his position would have known. It aims to protect civil servants from the fear of litigation in performing discretionary functions entrusted to them by law. Government officials performing discretionary functions generally are shielded from liability for civil damages as long as as their conduct doesn’t violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.
The sisters' lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Fayetteville claims invasion of privacy, outrage and violation of the right to due process. The lawsuit seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages to be determined at trial.
City and county officials have asked Judge Tim Brooks to throw out the lawsuit arguing they are entitled to qualified and statutory immunity from being sued and the lawsuit fails to state a claim. They also contend the information was public knowledge when it was released.
Brooks held a hearing on the motions Monday morning, but took the arguments under advisement and said he will issue a written order soon.
The daughters are Jill Dillard, Jessa Seewald, Jinger Vuolo and Joy Duggar.
The sisters allege the officials released documents to In Touch magazine under a Freedom of Information Act request in violation of state laws prohibiting releasing such information to protect juveniles and victims of sexual abuse. The sisters claim the information went into detail about their assaults and improperly allowed them to be identified.
"It's despicable what happened here. There's no greater violation of a young person than to tell the world about their sexual assault," said Steven Bledsoe, an attorney for the girls. "Any details about the sexual assault of a minor are not subject to disclosure under FOIA."
Bledsoe said the release of information was intentional, deliberate and nefarious.
"There's a rush to get this information out to the tabloids," Bledsoe said.
Defendants include Springdale, Washington County, former Springdale Police Chief Kathy O'Kelley, Springdale City Attorney Ernest Cate, Maj. Rick Hoyt with the Washington County Sheriff's Office, former Washington County Attorney Steve Zega and Bauer Media Group, which published the magazine and related social media sites. The lawsuit also lists 10 unidentified "Doe" defendants, believed to be employees of the defendants.
Justin Eichmann, an attorney for the Springdale defendants, said officials thought they were required by law to release the redacted investigation reports.
"For 50 years we've been redacting minor information and releasing reports," Eichmann said. "Privacy comes with the redaction."
Eichmann also said the Arkansas State Police may have promised the sisters confidentiality for their statements, but Washington County and Springdale officials did not and are not bound by any promises the state police made.
Eichmann said Arkansas Juvenile Code does not apply to the case because there was no arrest, no detention, no criminal proceedings involving Josh and he was an adult when the information was released. The subjects of the FOIA request were Josh, Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar and not the daughters, he added.
Jason Owens, an attorney for the Washington County defendants, said they released information after Springdale officials released their reports, but may have inadvertently released the age of one girl.
Susan Kendall, another attorney for the Springdale defendants, said the information was released to a lawyer who requested it and officials had no indication that person intended to release the information to tabloids.
"In this case what we have -- at best -- is the negligent release of a police report under FOIA," Kendall said.
NW News on 09/26/2017
Print Headline: Judge mulling ruling in Duggar case