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Lynchburg judge unseals documents in Falwell defamation suit

Lynchburg judge unseals documents in Falwell defamation suit

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Falwell 2019

Former Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. talks to Donald Trump Jr. about Trump Jr.’s book, “Triggered,” during convocation at Liberty on Nov. 13, 2019. A financial consulting firm hired by Liberty to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by Falwell has launched a website for employees to report evidence of misconduct.

Court documents detailing key provisions in Jerry Falwell Jr.’s employment contract with Liberty University have been unsealed in the defamation suit brought by the disgraced evangelical leader against his former employer.

Falwell, who resigned as president of Liberty in August amid a series of scandals, has alleged the school damaged his reputation by repeating what he claims are lies about his participation in an extramarital affair involving his wife and a former business partner.

In a lawsuit filed in Lynchburg Circuit Court last week, he accused the school of defamation and breach of contract. The complaint included some redactions related to Falwell’s employment agreement.

But in a hearing held remotely Wednesday due to the coronavirus pandemic, Judge James Watson ruled the full documents should be made public.

The previously redacted portions of the complaint unsealed by Watson run just a handful of sentences and offer few new details about Falwell’s employment agreement with the university he led for 13 years.

But the now-public documents make clear Falwell’s attorneys believe the defamation suit hinges on provisions in the contract, which they’ve claimed bars university officials from making “defamatory or slanderous remarks” about Falwell and publicly discussing the reasons behind his resignation.

“Liberty breached the foregoing provision because Mr. Falwell was not terminated for cause and therefore Liberty was not allowed to discuss the circumstances surrounding the conclusion of Mr. Falwell‘s employment,” the unredacted complaint states.

Falwell’s contract, according to the complaint, also includes an indemnity provision protecting him from personal liability if a lawsuit is filed regarding his employment with Liberty. Falwell’s lawyers have argued the clause requires Liberty to cover their client’s attorney’s fees and other costs associated with the defamation suit.

In addition to court costs, the lawsuit seeks unspecified damages and an order barring Liberty from repeating defamatory remarks about Falwell.

Falwell’s attorneys had asked the court to keep the unredacted complaint temporarily sealed as lawyers for Liberty prepared to respond to the suit.

Cory Struble, an attorney for Falwell, said Falwell had no personal interest in keeping the documents sealed, but his client wanted to ensure he did not violate a confidentiality agreement with Liberty by filing a complaint with no redactions.

“Mr. Falwell does not have in his personal capacity an interest in maintaining confidentiality of these provisions, because they’re quite straightforward as I said,” Struble said. “What he does have an interest in is making sure that he abides by the terms of the agreement, and is not opening himself up to a claim by Liberty that he has breached the agreement.”

During the hearing, King Tower, an attorney for Liberty, said the school had no position on the motion to keep the complaint sealed. He made no argument supporting or opposing its unsealing.

Tower did say Liberty has an interest in maintaining the privacy of the employment agreement and stressed the school had not waived its right to enforce the contract’s confidentiality provisions.

Neither Falwell nor the university have made the full employment agreement public and court documents filed in the case only quotes from parts of the contract.

In his ruling, Watson said Falwell’s lawyers had not met the burden of overcoming the presumption of public access to court records. He ordered the unredacted complaint to be made public immediately following the conclusion of the hearing.

“There is, under Virginia law,” Watson said, “a strong presumption in favor of public access to judicial records and that would include pleadings, such as the plaintiff’s complaint in this case.”

Lawyers for Liberty have until Nov. 20 to respond to the allegations in Falwell’s lawsuit.

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