Lawyer alleges slander over Arkansas gay-marriage case

FILE — Attorney Cheryl Maples, left, and her colleague attorney Jack Wagoner leave federal court in Little Rock, Nov. 20, 2014.

The attorney who initiated the lawsuit that overturned Arkansas' ban on same-sex marriage is suing her former co-counsel in the case, accusing him of maliciously belittling her contributions to the effort and costing her at least $380,000 in legal fees.

The defamation lawsuit filed Monday by Cheryl Maples says fellow lawyer Jack Wagoner made slanderous statements about her. The suit also names as defendants Wagoner's eponymous law firm; former Wagoner associate Angela Mann, who now has her own firm; and an unidentified former circuit judge who is said to have acted as an adviser to Wagoner.

The 11-page pleading focuses almost entirely on Wagoner, 57, a former law-school classmate of Maples, 68.

Maples is asking Pulaski County Circuit Judge Mary McGowan for a jury trial to decide how much in punitive and compensatory damages she is owed.

Both Mann, 36, and Wagoner were out of the office on Tuesday and did not return messages seeking comment.

"Defendants' defamatory statements resulted in published stories and comments in statewide media causing damages and extreme stress to plaintiff. Defendants have intentionally and maliciously used language to harm the reputation of the plaintiff so as to lower plaintiff in the estimation of the people in the State of Arkansas," the suit states.

"The cumulative harm to plaintiff as a result of months of constant and continuing defamatory statements, all related to plaintiff's honesty and her ability as an attorney, is substantial and continuing," the suit adds.

Maples says that the statements Wagoner made about her, both in the press and in court documents, contributed to rulings by the two judges who presided over the same-sex marriage case to devalue her work and award her legal fees substantially less than she was due for the hours she put into the litigation.

She worked 1,365 hours on the state court case, which is $365,825 at her regular rate of $250 per hour. Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza awarded her $30,000.

Maples described it as an "absurd result," given that the case broke new legal ground in the state. The award was the "lowest fee award" in the country on the same-sex marriage cases, her suit states.

She requested $15,900 in fees for the time she worked on the federal litigation but was paid $1,590 by U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker.

Wagoner received $18,360 for his firm's work on the federal case and was also paid $30,000 on the state suit.

Arkansas' same-sex marriage ban had been enshrined in the state constitution and legislation. Maples filed the state court lawsuit targeting the ban on July 1, 2013, five days after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down provisions of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. That ruling extended federal recognition of marriage to legally wed same-sex couples.

Two weeks later, Wagoner and Mann filed the federal lawsuit challenging the Arkansas ban, and Maples soon signed on to the federal case with them.

Wagoner joined the state court litigation in August 2013. The state suit was amended four times during the first two months before the lawyers settled on its final form, about a week after Wagoner signed on. The suit represented 21 couples suing the county clerks in Conway, Faulkner, Lonoke, Pulaski, Saline, and White counties along with the state Department of Health and the Department of Finance and Administration.

Piazza ruled in their favor on May 9, 2014, a little more than 10 months after the suit was filed. His ruling, citing U.S. Supreme Court precedent, said marriage is a right just as strong and important as the right to own guns, vote or practice religion.

The following day, a Saturday, the state's first same-sex marriages were performed in Eureka Springs because the Carroll County clerk's office was the only one open. Arkansas was the only Southern state granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples, although most county clerks refused to do so. The county clerks in Pulaski, Saline and Washington counties joined Carroll County in granting the licenses.

After a week of weddings, the state Supreme Court shut down the issuance of marriage licenses on May 16, 2014, granting a stay sought by the attorney general's office so state lawyers could appeal Piazza's ruling.

The high court, despite a promise to expedite the appeal, never made an official finding, even after hearing oral arguments on the issue.

The federal suit in its final form was filed by two lesbian couples against the Arkansas Teacher Retirement System and the attorney general, along with the Pulaski County clerk and the state finance department.

Baker found the state's marriage ban unconstitutional in a Nov. 25, 2014, decision. She heard arguments on the same day as the state justices.

The U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide on June 26, 2015, allowing same-sex marriages to resume in Arkansas after a delay of about 13 months.

The Arkansas justices dismissed the state appeal that same day in an unsigned order declaring the issue moot.

Two of the justices publicly accused their high-court colleagues of deliberately stalling on deciding the appeal, but an investigation by judicial ethics regulators found no deliberate wrongdoing.

Metro on 10/10/2018