Settlement near in ExposeDat case

The lawsuit brought by a Houma blogger alleging that Terrebonne Parish officials violated her civil rights by seizing her family’s computers and cellular phones is close to a settlement, court records show.

U.S. District Judge Lance Africk dismissed ExposeDat blogger Jennifer Anderson’s case against Terrebonne Parish Sheriff Jerry Larpenter on Thursday. Larpenter was the last defendant standing in an action originally brought against him along with Terrebonne Parish President Gordon Dove, Terrebonne Levee and Conservation District President Tony Alford, the levee district itself and the Terrebonne Parish Consolidated Government. Dove and the parish settled out for $50,000; the other defendants were released by the plaintiffs.

Anderson published on a web site and on a Facebook page under the fictitious name John Turner allegations of improper collusion between the various entities and others, particularly in regard to how insurance contracts were chosen by the Sheriff and the Parish Government through an agency with ties to Alford. Alford complained that the fictitious blogger committed criminal defamation. Larpenter’s deputies investigated, obtained search warrants that led them to Anderson and her husband Wayne, and the electronic equipment was seized. State District Judge Randall Bethancourt refused to vacate his warrant, which attorneys for the Andersons said was unlawful. But the 1st Circuit Louisiana Court of Appeal reversed him, and the equipment was returned.

Attorneys are in the process of finalizing their agreements, and so neither a settlement amount nor conditions have been announced.

“The court having been advised that all of the parties to this action have firmly agreed upon a compromise, it is ordered that the action is dismissed without prejudice,” Judge Africk wrote, meaning that the dismissal is conditional upon preparation and signing of a settlement, and the parties keeping to their promises.

Larpenter’s attorney, William F. Dodd, and Anderson’s attorney, Jerri Smitko, have been working on coming to an agreement for weeks, with aid from other lawyers.

Dodd had also filed a notice he would appeal of Africk’s denial of his motion seeking qualified immunity for Larpenter. Law enforcement officials are entitled to qualified immunity from suit in certain cases where they are shown to have acted in good faith, thus not violating the constitutional or statutory rights of a person.

“Some qualified immunity cases are hard,” Africk wrote. “This case is not one of them.”

The judge, in a careful and detailed analysis, rejected Larpenter’s qualified immunity arguments one by one, after declaring that the blog and related postings fall “squarely within the four corners of the First Amendment,” leaving no doubt of his belief that her blogging work was constitutionally protected.

Unless the settlement fails, the appeal would also be moot.

Attorneys said they could not disclose settlement amounts at this point, but expect to provide more information soon.

Jerry Larpenter