Federal judge in Fayetteville tosses Duggar sisters' lawsuit over release of police records

From left, Jessa Seewald, Jill Dillard, Jinger Vuolo and Joy Duggar are shown in this undated combination photo.

FAYETTEVILLE -- A lawsuit filed by the sisters of Josh Duggar claiming that they were harmed by the release of police records was dismissed by a federal judge Wednesday.

U.S. District Judge Timothy L. Brooks said in an order that the records should not have been released, but the women's lawsuit didn't offer material facts that can be tried. He also ruled that the defendants are entitled to statutory immunity from being sued because their acts were not intentional.

The sisters sued Springdale and Washington County officials in 2017, claiming they improperly released redacted police investigation documents to In Touch. The magazine published the information, which allowed the women to be identified, the suit said.

The legal claims have been narrowed over time as has the pool of defendants.

Most of the original defendants, including the publisher of In Touch magazine, have been dismissed. The remaining defendants were former Maj. Rick Hoyt of the Washington County sheriff's office; Ernest Cate, Springdale city attorney; and former Springdale Police Chief Kathy O'Kelley.

The three remaining claims were made under Arkansas law for outrage, invasion of privacy by intrusion upon seclusion and invasion of privacy by public disclosure of private facts.

The police investigation concluded that Josh Duggar fondled the sisters and at least one other girl when they were children. The statute of limitation had run out, and no criminal charges were filed.

The women, as named in the lawsuit, are Jill Dillard, Jessa Seewald, Jinger Vuolo and Joy Duggar, now Forsythe.

The women, unlike their brother, were juvenile victims of sexual assault and any facts that indirectly identified them were private under the law, Brooks said.

The defendants were scrambling to fulfill several requests for the documents under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act and failed to look at other laws that would have provided an exception or exemption to public records laws before they redacted and released the reports, Brooks said.

"In their sudden rush to release the reports, defendants failed to adequately investigate the applicable law. Neither report should have been released, even with redactions," Brooks wrote.

Brooks had a stinging critique for the officials who released the documents.

"The individual defendants were seasoned government officials tasked with the responsibility of deciding which governmental records should be publicly released and which should not," Brooks wrote. "Yet all individual defendants were seemingly ignorant of the privacy rights Arkansas affords to sexual assault victims and to families that are identified as 'in need of services.'"

Arkansas law prohibits law enforcement agencies from disclosing to the public information that directly or indirectly identifies a victim of a sex offense, with a few narrow exceptions, Brooks noted. Even though the Springdale police report and the Washington County incident report contained redactions, both reports obviously identified the victims of a sex offense, Brooks said.

Because the Duggars were the subject of a Family In Need of Services case, the police reports associated with the case were specifically exempted from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act, pursuant to the Arkansas Child Maltreatment Act, Brooks wrote.


Brooks' order said a viable case has to prove more than ignorance of the law.

"There must be evidence that one or more defendants had some awareness -- whether a mere belief or a substantial certainty -- that they lacked the legal authority to disclose these records," Brooks wrote. "Plaintiffs failed to meet their burden. Because there is no evidence on which a jury could rely to show that defendants believed that disclosing the reports would be illegal."

Brooks said the defendants are entitled to statutory immunity from being sued for negligent acts, but not intentional acts.

There is no evidence any defendant knew the law prohibited disclosure of facts contained in the police reports and, despite such knowledge, released the reports anyway with the intent to cause harm, Brooks wrote.

Brooks said evidence shows that the defendants tried to conceal, not reveal, the women's identities by redacting their names from the police reports.

The claim of outrage, Brooks said, has nothing to do with whether a tabloid publishing salacious stories detailing personally private information is extreme and outrageous. Instead, the question is whether the officials' conduct on the way to that point was extreme and outrageous. It wasn't, Brooks said.

The lawsuit alleged that publicizing their trauma subjected the women and their families to extreme mental anguish and emotional distress. But Brooks said the women failed to prove they were subject to unendurable emotional distress.

A federal appeals court last year granted qualified immunity to Hoyt, Cate and O'Kelley on the federal claims in the case.

Attorneys for the three released a statement Wednesday saying they remain firm in their belief that the allegations in the lawsuit were false and without merit. The three believed that they were required to release the records, it said.


Brooks' order also provides some insight on what happened before the records were released.

From about March 2002 until March 2003, the girls were sexually abused by their brother, Joshua, Brooks wrote. Joshua was 14 years old when the abuse began and 15 when it ended. At the time of the abuse, the girls ranged from 5 to 11 years old.

"Their parents, Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, discovered the abuse but did not report it to the police or any state agency. Instead, they decided to keep it a secret and discipline Joshua privately," Brooks wrote. "Unfortunately, whatever Mr. and Mrs. Duggar tried to do to stop Joshua's behavior did not work, and by 2003, they turned to their closest friends, Jim and Bobye Holt, for advice and support."

In 2003, the Holts' daughter, Kaeleigh, wrote a summary of what she had heard from her parents about the abuse in a letter to her favorite author. Instead of mailing the letter, she placed it in a book, which she left on her bookshelf where the secret remained until 2006, when Kaeleigh lent the book to a friend and fellow church member.

Kaeleigh's friend found the letter and shared its contents with her parents. From that point on, the Duggars' family secret spread by word of mouth to other members of their close-knit church community, according to the judge.

It is unknown exactly how many church members learned of the abuse, but the news caused factions to form within the church, and certain church members evidently disagreed with how the matter was being handled, according to the judge.

On Dec. 7, 2006, the Arkansas Department of Human Services Hotline received two tips that Joshua had molested his sisters. The first tip came from an anonymous caller, and the second tip came from Harpo Studios, the producer of Oprah Winfrey's talk show.

"It seems the Duggars had caught the attention of the media at around that time because of their unusually large family. They were scheduled to appear on the Oprah Winfrey Show, and they had traveled to Chicago to record an episode," Brooks wrote. "Harpo Studios received an anonymous email warning that the Duggars were 'not what they seem[ed] to be' because Joshua had sexually abused his sisters."

The same day, the Springdale Police Department opened an investigation into the abuse allegations. The Washington County sheriff's office helped in the investigation as did the Arkansas State Police.

After the family was interviewed, a Family In Need of Services case was opened in Washington County Juvenile Court by the Washington County prosecutor's office. Those proceedings are closed to the public.

The next year, in 2008, the Duggars began starring in a reality television series.

On May 15, 2015, the city of Springdale and Washington County both received Freedom of Information Act requests.

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To read the order, visit: nwaonline.com/210duggar/