Update, 6:29 p.m.:
Margaret Stefanoni said she is "pleased with the decision" of a judge who recently ruled that her defamation lawsuit against the Darien Little League could continue to trial.
Thomas Luz, general counsel for the Darien Little League, said in an email Wednesday afternoon: "Right now we are consulting with our attorneys and have not decided whether to appeal. Regardless of whether we do so, we note that the decision was based on technical procedural grounds.
"We repeat our assertion that the complaint has no substantive merit," he wrote.
Judge Taggart D. Adams ruled on Nov. 22 that the Little League's request to throw out Stefanoni's suit were wrong on procedural and substantive ways. Unless the League finds new objections or appeals the decision, the judge ruled that it should go to trial. Stefanoni says League officials defamed her in large part by implying that she lied, although they didn't use the word "liar."
"They basically came out every which way and used the thesaurus to find every synonym for it [liar]," she said Wednesday in an interview. "The word choice was deliberate."
When one of Stefanoni's sons was moved from a division of older players to a younger one, league officials said they were simply instituting a new policy to put players in the same grades together, but Stefanoni told the Darien Times that she thought league officials were retaliating against her son for an affordable housing proposal she and her husband had put forward. She later specified a former league official who lived near a proposed housing development on Hoyt Street and an email from a league official to her.
Stefanoni is asking for a dollar in damages and a retraction of the Little League's statements. One of the most prominent statements she wants retracted is this one, which appeared in a letter to the editor of the Darien Times on Sept. 23, 2010, in which league officials referred to Stefanoni's initial statement to the newspaper that she believed league officials were retaliating against her. This excerpt from the letter is presented as the the judge's decision quotes it ("defendant" is the Little League; "plaintiff" is Stefanoni):
"We were surprised and disappointed to read untrue comments about [the defendant] attributed to [the plaintiff] .... We assure you and the entire Darien community that [the plaintiff's] comments are demonstrably false. ... [W]e are troubled by the false statements attributed to [the plaintiff]. ... [N]o one from the Times ever contacted the [defendant] to determine whether anything [the plaintiff] said was true. ... The fact that [the plaintiff] implicated the [defendant] in some half-baked conspiracy theory is disappointing; that the Times irresponsibly spread the rumor is downright shameful."
Taggart ruled that "Although the defendant does not expressly state that the plaintiff lied in making her comments, its statements [including the one above], given their natural and ordinary meaning could reasonably be considered to imply that the plaintiff lied."
Stefanoni told Darien Patch that she did not object to Patch republishing the statement so that readers would understand the context of Taggart's ruling.
Original article, 5:59 a.m.:
A state judge has rejected an attempt by the Darien Little League to get filed by Darien developer Margaret Stefanoni thrown out of court, allowing the case to go to trial.
The Little League's request to strike Stefanoni's complaint was not only technically defective in various ways relating to state court procedures, but also defective "on the merits," Judge Trial Referee Taggart D. Adams wrote. Adams issued his decision Nov. 22 in state Superior Court in Stamford.
Those merits, according to the judge, included a letter to the editor and other statements written by the league which "could reasonably be construed to imply that the plaintiff [Stefanoni] lied" in statements of hers published by the Darien Times, and which therefore "could reasonably be considered defamatory"—at least enough so that the matter can go to trial.
The judge's decision can be found on the Connecticut Judicial Branch website.
stemmed in which Stefanoni alleged that Little League officials had put her son, who had played in an advanced group the previous season, into a division for younger, less experienced boys, and that they did so in order to retaliate against her and her husband.
League officials said that due to overcrowding they were sticking to a new policy that grouped students by grade level rather than age or experience level, and that two other boys were also moved from one division to another in the town Little League. Stefanoni argued that her son was the only one affected in his division and that the two other boys were moved because their parents had wanted the change for other reasons.
Stefanoni has argued that because she and her husband had tried to get unpopular affordable housing developments built in some places around town, they may have prompted league officials to retaliate against them. The Stefanonis said a board member of the Darien Little League had sent them an angry email which said he has friends who are neighbors of a proposed Stefanoni development.
Little League officials have strenuously denied that they were retaliating against the Stefanonis.
Stefanoni is suing the Darien Little League for a dollar and a public retraction of some of its statements about her.
What the statements 'could reasonably be considered'
Much of the lawsuit focuses on a letter sent to the Darien Times and published Sept. 23, 2010. The letter, as quoted in the judge's decision, included statements that Little League officials "were surprised and disappointed to read untrue comments about [the Darien Little League] attributed to [Stefanoni]," called her comments "demonstrably false" and "false statements," and said that Stefanoni "implicated [the Little League] in some half-baked conspiracy theory." The letter also strongly criticized The Darien Times for publishing Stefoni's statements without first checking them with Little League offiicals.
Referring to that letter, Taggart wrote: "Although the defendant [the Darien Little League] does not expressly state that the plaintiff lied in making her comments, its statements, given their natural and ordinary meaning, could reasonably be considered to imply that the plaintiff [Stefanoni] lied.
"These are not 'words [that] could not reasonably be considered defamatory in any sense,'" Taggart added, quoting another court decision. Similarly, an email sent out to Little League parents and later posted on the Darien Little League website for months "could reasonably be considered defamatory," because, the judge said, "the implication in the defendant's [the Little League's] statements is that the plaintiff [Stefanoni] lied."
Truth as a defense
Although a Little League's lawyer argued that truth is an absolute defense in a libel case, the judge cited a previous case, Goodrich v. Waterbury Republican Inc., which said that in defamation cases, "determining the truthfulness of a statement is a question of fact for the jury."
The judge also rejected the argument that Margaret Stefanoni is considered a "public figure," for purposes of defamation law. If she were a public figure, then under libel law she would need to prove that the Little League made its statements with "actual malice," meaning that league officials who made the statements did so either knowing they were false or had a reckless disregard as to whether or not they were false.
A person is a "public figure" under defamation law if the person's fame and influence in a community is connected to the matter directly concerning the libel, the judge wrote. Stefanoni was well known around town in relation to proposed housing developments, not Little League matters, the judge wrote.
Margaret Stefanoni is representing herself in court. The Darien Little League is represented by Fred N. Knopf and Michelle M. Vitullo, both of White Plains, NY.