The price of defamation? $15,000

Court Appeal planned after loss in heated letter exchange

Steve Bartlett sbartlett@thetelegram.com
Published on June 26, 2010

The mayor of Portugal Cove-St. Philip's defamed a former councillor's wife and must pay $15,000 in damages, a Supreme Court judge ruled Friday.

Justice James Adams concluded that Bill Fagan defamed Emir Andrews in a 2008 letter to Dr. Mark Abrahams, dean of science at Memorial University and Andrews' employer. The trial division judge also dismissed a counter defamation suit Fagan had filed because of letters the plaintiff wrote to Municipal Affairs.

The mayor of Portugal Cove-St. Philip's defamed a former councillor's wife and must pay $15,000 in damages, a Supreme Court judge ruled Friday.

Justice James Adams concluded that Bill Fagan defamed Emir Andrews in a 2008 letter to Dr. Mark Abrahams, dean of science at Memorial University and Andrews' employer. The trial division judge also dismissed a counter defamation suit Fagan had filed because of letters the plaintiff wrote to Municipal Affairs.

Andrews, who wiped away tears after Adams' decision, expressed relief.

"I felt from the beginning that what had been done to me was wrong, and I appreciate that the judge did acknowledge it," she said.

Fagan was a town councillor when the letters were written and the suits were filed. He was elected mayor last fall.

Andrews is married to Steve Andrews, who served on council during the previous term and lost a run at the mayor's chair to Fagan in September.

The matter started unfolding after Andrews wrote the minister of Municipal Affairs and an official separately in February 2008.

The department was investigating the conduct of the Portugal Cove-St. Philip's town council at the time and Andrews was severely critical of Fagan.

She questioned a number of the councillor's activities and said staff were being negatively affected.

A psychology professor, she also offered an opinion on his personality based on her professional experience.

"I may not be a clinical psychologist but I studied behaviour enough to recognize unusual behaviour when I see it. This man, based on what I have learned about him, is little short of dangerous. He is paranoid, manipulative and vicious when he does not get his own way."

Andrews wrote "confidential" on her letters, but Municipal Affairs included copies in a report to council.

Seeing them, Fagan wrote to Abrahams.

"Most of her letter is mean, vicious, vindictive. I find it bordering on hate. She provides no basis for her diatribe, just vacuous allegations. Most, if not all, of the information is false, downright lies."

Fagan, a MUN professor and psychologist, questioned Andrews' professional conduct and credibility.

"I am not complaining about Ms. Emir Andrews for her involvement in council business, but for unprofessional and unethical conduct as a university faculty member and psychologist. I am asking that this allegation be investigated."

Abrahams' response was that Andrews made the comments as a private citizen and that it wouldn't be appropriate for MUN to investigate.

Andrews launched a defamation suit in February 2009, claiming Fagan's letter damaged her reputation.

Fagan filed a counterclaim in April.

After hearing arguments from both sides Tuesday, Adams rendered his decision Friday morning.

He concluded that Fagan's letter to Abrahams was defamatory and the matter had nothing to do with Andrews' employer.

He awarded $10,000 in general damages.

Adams said Fagan's letter was written out of malice and spite to inflict damage on Andrews.

For that, the judge awarded aggravated damages of $5,000.

As for Fagan's countersuit, Adams ruled most of the statements in question pertained to matters affecting the community and were not defamatory.

The judge did rule that Andrews' "little short of dangerous" statement was clearly defamatory.

However, he said she was protected by qualified privilege because the comments were made as part of a Municipal Affairs probe. He said citizens have the right to complain about the conduct of elected officials and the department has to have the power to investigate.

Fagan told The Telegram Friday he plans to appeal.

sbartlett@thetelegram.com