Court sides with Woodstock defendant in defamation case over op-ed alleging sexual harassment

By ETHAN WEINSTEIN

VTDigger

Published: 11-30-2023 6:59 PM

A Vermont Superior Court judge this week sided with a man sued for defamation over an op-ed in a local paper, citing the state’s laws protecting against frivolous lawsuits against free speech. 

Devon Kurtz, a Woodstock resident, wrote a commentary in the town’s weekly newspaper, The Vermont Standard, alleging that the director of the Woodstock Inn’s athletic club, who had been fired, sexually harassed him at the club in February 2023 and told him about sexually harassing an athletic club employee. 

Kurtz also referenced “institutional failings” of the inn, alluding to a separate lawsuit alleging widespread mistreatment of employees at the flagship resort. 

The athletic club director, Alejandro Figueroa, sued both Kurtz and the Woodstock Inn and Resort, alleging they shared “private personnel information” and “false information.”

On Tuesday, Vermont Superior Court Judge H. Dickson Corbett granted Kurtz’s motion to strike the claims against him, referencing Vermont’s anti-strategic lawsuit against public participation legislation, typically referred to as anti-SLAPP laws.

In a typical SLAPP lawsuit, a party may sue a person or business, such as a newspaper, over certain speech, hoping an expensive legal battle will lead the defendant to censor itself.

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“Recent national conversation has encouraged the public disclosure of incidents of sexual abuse and sexual harassment,” wrote Judge Corbett in his decision, and courts have encouraged similar disclosures as well. That the setting of the alleged harassment was a public place and that the allegations dealt with misconduct in a workplace only strengthened the argument that the speech was protected, Corbett wrote. 

The op-ed was “deeply connected to matters of important public dialogue,” the judge concluded, “and therefore protected by the statute.”

By granting Kurtz’s motion, Corbett also signaled that the defendant may be entitled to legal fees from the plaintiff, Figueroa.

In an email, Kurtz’s lawyer, William Dagger, wrote that his client “firmly believes that the public should be able to freely speak about matters of public interest, including what occurred at the Woodstock Resort, without fear of repercussion.”

Norman Watts, Figueroa’s attorney, said he was considering appealing the court ruling.

“The judge’s decision surprised me because it kind of opens the floodgates to anyone claiming anything and writing a letter to the editor saying it’s public interest,” Watts said in an interview, adding that he didn’t believe the decision was “what the Vermont Supreme Court intended.”

By nature, journalism is “in the public interest,” but the same isn’t true of letters to the editor, especially the one central to this case, which concerned a “workplace conduct issue,” he said. 

“I don’t think the case should go forward without Devon Kurtz in it,” Watts said.

Figueroa is still suing the Woodstock Inn, alleging wrongful termination, among his other claims.