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Lawson v. Stow

Court of Appeals of Colorado, Seventh Division

March 13, 2014

Kenneth M. Lawson, II, and Megan E. Lawson, Plaintiffs-Appellants,
v.
William R. Stow, IV, Defendant-Appellee

Page 341

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 342

Jefferson County District Court No. 12CV1460. Honorable Margie L. Enquist, Judge.

JUDGMENT AFFIRMED IN PART, REVERSED IN PART, AND CASE REMANDED WITH DIRECTIONS.

Hopkins Way PLLC, Edward C. Hopkins Jr., Denver, Colorado, for Plaintiffs-Appellants.

No Appearance for Defendant-Appellee.

Opinion by JUDGE J. JONES. Fox and Navarro, JJ., concur.

OPINION

Page 343

J. JONES, JUDGE.

[¶1] Plaintiffs, Kenneth M. Lawson, II, and Megan E. Lawson, appeal from the district court's judgment against them on their defamation and negligence per se claims against defendant, William R. Stow, IV. We reverse the judgment as to one statement supporting the defamation claim, remand for further findings as to that statement, and otherwise affirm.

I. Background

[¶2] Ms. Lawson and Mr. Stow were married to each other from 2003 until January 2011. A few days after the dissolution of that marriage, Ms. Lawson married Mr. Lawson.

[¶3] Pursuant to the decree of dissolution, Mr. Stow had parenting time with the children of the marriage -- a daughter (K) born in October 2005, a son born in March 2007, and another son born in October 2008 -- on weekends and during other blocks of time. It appears that Ms. Lawson had primary physical custody of the children.

[¶4] In December 2010, Mr. Stow learned

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that the Lawsons intended to move to Texas with the children. On April 6, 2011, he received a letter from Ms. Lawson confirming that the Lawsons intended to move to Texas with the children, perhaps in June 2012. Mr. Stow did not want the children to move, and he anticipated litigation over relocating the children.

[¶5] On April 17, 2011, Mr. Stow telephoned the Colorado Department of Human Services Child Welfare Division (DHS). He told the person taking the call that: (1) K had told him Mr. Lawson had hit her on the head; and (2) K had a bump on her head.

[¶6] Two days later, Ms. Lawson filed a motion in the dissolution case to permit her to relocate to Texas with the children.

[¶7] That same day, a social services caseworker met with Mr. Stow regarding his report. Mr. Stow repeated what he had previously reported on April 17. The caseworker met with K and examined her head, but did not detect a bump. The caseworker also spoke with Mr. Stow's tenant, who said she had heard K tell Mr. Stow that Mr. Lawson had hit K on the head. Over the next few weeks, the caseworker met with and spoke to Mr. Stow, Ms. Lawson, Mr. Lawson, the children, and others concerning the report.

[¶8] At trial, the caseworker testified that she was not formally investigating an allegation of child abuse, but was instead performing a " family assessment" to determine whether K was at risk. She also testified that the reports prepared pursuant to such an assessment are not public records -- only the parents are allowed to see the reports.[1]

[¶9] In mid-May 2011, the caseworker closed the assessment without taking or recommending any action.

[¶10] On November 14, 2011, after the court had denied Ms. Lawson's motion for permission to relocate the children, Mr. Stow telephoned the Arvada Police Department (APD) to report a threat against him. He subsequently told an officer that Ms. Lawson had posted the following statement on Facebook: " Re-post this if there is someone that is still alive because you don't want to go to prison." [2] He said he " felt" that the Facebook post was a threat against his life and that he had a " gut feeling" that Ms. Lawson would want him dead. Mr. Stow further explained why he perceived the Facebook post as a threat against his life, bringing up the possibility of retaliation for the court's ruling on Ms. Lawson's motion for permission to relocate and identifying prior alleged events and incidents involving Ms. Lawson. After speaking with Ms. Lawson, the officer determined that the Facebook post was not a " valid threat" against anyone and took no further action on the report.

[¶11] The Lawsons filed suit against Mr. Stow, asserting a variety of claims. As relevant here, the Lawsons asserted a defamation claim and a negligence per se claim. At trial, the Lawsons' attorney clarified that the defamation claim was limited to three alleged statements: (1) Mr. Stow's statement to a social services representative on April 17, 2011, that K had told him Mr. Lawson had hit her on the head; (2) Mr. Stow's statement to a social services representative on April 17, 2011, that K had a bump on her head; and (3) Mr. Stow's statement to the APD officer on November 14, 2011, that he " felt as though [the Facebook post] was a threat to him directly." The negligence per se claim was based on the theory that Mr. Stow's statement to the APD officer was a false report of a crime in violation of section 18-8-111, C.R.S. 2013. Though the Lawsons did not specify which part of section 18-8-111 Mr. Stow had violated, it seems clear that they relied on subsection (1)(b), which specifically proscribes false reports of crimes to law enforcement authorities.[3] The Lawsons asserted that the statute creates a standard of care, and that if a person breaches that standard, a tort claim may be asserted by an injured party.

[¶12] These claims were tried to the court. The court issued a written order in which it

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found and concluded, as relevant here, as follows:

o Mr. Stow's statements to DHS on April 17, 2011, related to matters of public concern because they were allegations of child abuse. Therefore, the Lawsons were required to prove that those ...

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