SIDNEY — The local court has ruled in favor of Patrick Goldschmidt, the Fort Loramie man accused of defamation in his role as an employee of the Shelby County Sheriff’s office. The court decision stated he did not act with malice when the wrong photo was used in a press conference reporting welfare fraud arrests in 2014.
On Monday, Shelby County Common Pleas Court Judge James Stevenson filed the ruling that is available online through the clerk of courts website.
On July 20, 2017, Christine B. Hughes, now of Cookeville, Tennessee, filed a lawsuit against Goldschmidt, a civilian employee of the Shelby County Sheriff’s office, charging defamation of character. She was asking for $25,000 compensatory damages, $25,000 in punitive damages and reimbursement of court costs.
At the time, Goldschmidt’s duties at the sheriff’s office was as a 911 dispatcher, I.T. manager, and administrative assistant to the sheriff.
On Jan. 24, 2014, she was a resident of Shelby County when Goldschmidt provided her photograph to Sheriff John Lenhart that was ultimately used in various local media indicating she was arrested for welfare fraud.
In actuality, arrested was a Christine L. Hughes (a different middle initial), she of Miami County, in the round up of people accused of illegally receiving benefits through Shelby County Job and Family Services.
In his 9-page court ruling, Stevenson stated three issues were at hand. They were if Goldschmidt providing the photograph to Lenhart constituted a publication to a third party (media releases, social media, etc.); whether Goldschmidt’s conduct was privileged or qualified privileged; and whether he was protected by the immunity issue.
Stevenson ruled Goldschmidt did not publish to picture to a third party. He noted Goldschmidt was instructed to obtain a photo by his employer and was not part of the decision to publish the photo.
Regarding privileged conduct, Stevenson noted in his opinion that Goldschmidt did not act with “actual malice” in the series of events. The judge wrote, “Hughes has not presented any evidence that Goldschmidt was actually aware of the probability of a wrong identification or had serious doubts about the identification.”
Regarding immunity, Stevenson continued in stating Goldschmidt’s lack of “malicious, wanton or reckless conduct to overcome Goldschmidt’s statutory immunity” was a deciding factor.
In his conclusion, Stevenson wrote, “It needs to be remembered that this lawsuit concerns the conduct of Goldschmidt. It does not involve the conduct of the sheriff’s in the sheriff’s media release or the actions taken by the sheriff after to remedy the mistake made.”
Stevenson also assessed Hughes the costs of the court case.
Friend first to tell Hughes of the photo snafu
According to the suit, Hughes claimed it was a friend on Facebook that alerted her to the use of her photo on television, online media sources and others, linking her to welfare fraud. She claimed the reports indicated she was using sex, drugs, and alcohol to gain benefits. Hughes was a registered nurse, co-owner of a local business, at the time, and had never been convicted or charges with a criminal felony.
The media release was part of a press conference called by Lenhart to highlight the department’s round up of seven people accused of fraud.
The sheriff’s office quickly apologized and visited Hughes the next day. Reportedly, several visits were made by sheriff’s personnel with an explanation that her photo was mistakenly included in the photos requested.
Court records indicate Hughes had to defend herself to the allegations to people who believed the news account was accurate. She is claiming to have experienced economic and personal loss to her career and reputation.
In an affidavit, Goldschmidt claimed he was given a list of names by Lenhart to pull their photos from the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles, a common practice at the department, for media sessions.
Goldschmidt said he came across two Christine Hughes, one living in Sidney, the other in Piqua. He claims he chose the Sidney resident (the plaintiff) because of her residence. He anticipated law enforcement working on the case would recognize who they were seeking. He said it was common that he would be unfamiliar with the people he was asked to pull their photos of.
He claims he had no reason to believe the wrong picture was pulled and assumed that other deputies would catch the mistake. The affidavit stated he had never pulled a wrong photo before or after the Hughes incident, and had no intent to harm her.
This was the second civil lawsuit Hughes has filed in this regard.
On Feb. 21, 2014, Hughes sued Lenhart and Goldschmidt. On July 22, 2016, visiting Judge James Brogan dismissed Goldschmidt from the case because no act of malice was found.
Hughes continued her lawsuit against Lenhart. Eventually the case was refused to be heard by the Ohio Supreme Court.
The writer is a regular contributor to the Sidney Daily News.