FAYETTEVILLE -- A federal appeals court ruled Friday that current and former local officials can be sued for releasing information that was used to identify sexual abuse victims.
Four daughters of the Jim Bob Duggar family sued Springdale and Washington County officials in May 2017 claiming they improperly released redacted police investigation documents to a celebrity magazine, In Touch Weekly. The magazine published the information, which allowed the girls to be identified, the suit says.
The investigation concluded that Josh Duggar fondled his sisters and at least one other girl. The statute of limitations had run out, and no charges were filed.
The daughters are Jill Dillard, Jessa Seewald, Jinger Vuolo and Joy Duggar.
U.S. District Judge Tim Brooks denied a request in October 2017 to dismiss former Springdale Police Chief Kathy O'Kelley, Springdale City Attorney Ernest Cate and Maj. Rick Hoyt of the Washington County sheriff's office from the lawsuit in their individual capacities. The three claimed qualified and statutory immunity from being sued for invasion of privacy.
The three appealed to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed Brooks' ruling Friday.
"Because we agree that the officials were not entitled to either qualified or statutory immunity, we affirm," judges wrote.
The opinion says the three should clearly have known the information was protected from release by state and federal law.
"The law provided fair notice to the appellants that releasing details of minors' sexual abuse to a tabloid in a format predictably enabling the victims' identification was not only inadvisable, but also unlawful. We conclude that it did," according to the opinion. "Inexact boundaries are boundaries nonetheless. The particular facts alleged here are not near the periphery of the right to privacy but at its center."
The opinion also said the girls have stated a plausible claim for the violation of their constitutional right to confidentiality.
"The information released by the officials involved 'highly personal matters representing the most intimate aspect of human affair' and the appellees had a legitimate expectation of privacy in that information," according to the opinion. "Not only did police promise the appellees that the information would remain private, but Arkansas law also supported this expectation of privacy. In sum, the information was inherently private and is therefore entitled to constitutional protection."
Springdale officials addressed the ruling in a news release Friday afternoon.
"Today's opinion concerns whether the allegations of the plaintiffs' complaint can sustain a cause of action and whether the individual defendants at this early stage of the litigation are entitled to qualified immunity," the release said. "This is not a decision on the merits of the case."
The case will now continue in U.S. District Court in Fayetteville.
The sisters' lawsuit claims their due process rights were violated by disclosing the reports and details of the investigation.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.
Brooks refused to dismiss the due process claims against O'Kelley, Cate, and Hoyt in their individual capacities.
Brooks noted that, at the time the information was released, there was a state statute exempting any information created, collected or compiled by or on behalf of the Arkansas Department of Human Services, Arkansas State Police or other entities authorized to perform investigations or provide services to children and families from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.
Brooks dismissed Springdale and Washington County from the lawsuit as well as Cate and Steve Zega, the former attorney for Washington County, in their official capacities.
Metro on 07/13/2019