This article about the dismissal of Catie Clobes’ defamation lawsuit was written by Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law (San Francisco, CA), who is a frequent contributor to this and many other blogs, providing in-depth, and intellectually stimulating, articles about vaccines, medical issues, social policy, and the law.
Professor Reiss writes extensively in law journals about vaccination’s social and legal policies. Additionally, Reiss is also a member of the Parent Advisory Board of Voices for Vaccines, a parent-led organization that supports and advocates for on-time vaccination and the reduction of vaccine-preventable diseases. She is also a member of the Vaccines Working Group on Ethics and Policy.
On 27 February 2023, the District Court of Minnesota dismissed Catie Clobes’ defamation lawsuit against NBC (after individual claims against the journalists were already dismissed) for failing to meet the deadline in the statute of limitations.
NBC published an article written by journalists Brandy Zadrozny and Aliza Nadi addressing Ms. Clobes’ daughter’s tragic death and the problems with Ms. Clobes’ misguided attempt to blame it on vaccines.
While I believe the lawsuit had no basis on the merits, too, this is a failure of lawyering. It was the job of Clobes’ attorney to know the rules regarding filing the complaint and serving it, and to make sure the complaint complied with them – and that was not done.
Background of Catie Clobes’ lawsuit
I have written in detail about the complaint and why I think it had no basis before. But for the purposes of this decision, the core problem was procedural. Statutes of limitations are set when a complaint can be filed. In this case, the statute of limitations in Minnesota set a deadline of two years to file a defamation claim, from the dead of publication.
NBC’s article was published on 24 September 2019. So – as the decision points out – Ms. Clobes had until 24 September 2021 to start her case. Ms. Clobes filed the complaint on 24 September 2021. But that was not the end of the story, because under the applicable rules – which in this case, as explained in the decision, are Minnesota’s substantive civil procedure rules about when a lawsuit starts – the lawsuit starts when it is served upon a defendant – as the decision quotes:
…a civil action is commenced against a defendant “when the summons is served upon that defendant,” Minn. R. Civ. P. 3.01(a).
Ms. Clobes wrongly believed that she had 90 days from filing to serve the complaint, and she served it on NBC (but not on the individual journalists) on 23 December 2021. As the court ruled in its decision, this was beyond the statute of limitations, which required serving the complaint by 24 September 2021.
Ms. Clobes is not a lawyer. While she seems to have taken on at least some of the work for this complaint, she had hired a lawyer to represent her in this case and paid a retainer. It is Ms. Clobes’ lawyer’s job, at the least, to know the procedural rules for filing the complaint on time and meeting those deadlines. This, he appears not to have done.
Ms. Clobes’ lawyer argued on her behalf that a statute passed in April 2020, that appeared to toll statutes of limitations for 60 days after the end of the COVID-19 emergency declaration meant that she had additional time to start her lawsuit. However, the legislature amended this statute on 12 February 2021 to say that the additional time is limited to deadlines that would be expired by 15 April 2021 and extends them until 15 April 2021.
Since Ms. Clobes’ deadline was in September 2021, the statute does not cover her lawsuit – and as pointed out by the court, in February 2021 she still had seven months to act within the statute of limitations; she chose not to. She waited until the last day to file her complaint, and another three months to serve it on NBC (and she never served it on the individual journalists she initially sued).
That put her outside the statute of limitations, and therefore, her claim was dismissed.
Two last somewhat related points. While this appears to be a failure of the lawyer, a malpractice action against the lawyer may run into problems since, in my view, the initial claim had no chance of success – so showing his error caused Ms. Clobes damages would be hard. I do not know enough about New York’s disciplinary rules to know if Ms. Clobes has cause to file a complaint with the bar there.
Second, I know that since the events around her complaint, Ms. Clobes has been twice arrested for drug-related offenses, and she is facing sentencing for the second and more severe arrest in April. I understand that she is undergoing treatment for her addiction. I hope she can get the help she needs for her addiction problems, and move on and away from her misguided anti-vaccine experience.