Court dismisses defamation lawsuit against National Congress of American Indians and others
Special to Indian Country Today
A U.S. District Court dismissed a defamation lawsuit earlier this month against the owners of three publications involving plaintiff John Dossett, former general counsel of the National Congress of American Indians. Dossett sued Ho-Chunk, Inc, the owner of Indianz.com, High Country News and the National Congress of American Indians, owners of Indian Country Today over publication of stories regarding sexual harassment allegations that led to termination of his employment.
Dossett says he was defamed in stories published about these allegations against him.
The court ruled the stories published by the news organizations in 2018 were not defamatory, saying Dossett, “failed to demonstrate a likelihood of success on the merits” of his claims.
The court also dismissed a negligence complaint against the National Congress of American Indians over its handling of the allegations.
Dossett was asked to resign as the national organization’s general counsel on Oct. 3, 2018, after an internal investigation into staff members’ allegations of sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior was conducted. He declined to resign and his employment was terminated. He was also suspended by Lewis & Clark College’s Northwestern School of Law, where he was an adjunct professor.
In September 2019, Dossett sued NCAI, whose nonprofit educational arm owns Indian Country Today, an online daily news publication, Ho-Chunk, Inc., owner of Indianz.com and the economic development corporation of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, and High Country News, an independent nonprofit news magazine based in Colorado.
Ho-Chunk, Inc., requested it be dismissed from the lawsuit, citing the Winnebago Tribe’s sovereign immunity, which Dossett did not contest, according to court documents.
Dossett then sought $6.1 million in a defamation lawsuit filed in September 2019 to compensate him for “the loss of his employment and destruction of his reputation, career, and future opportunities.” He also claimed the reporting published in the news articles caused him emotional distress.
(Related: Lawsuit filed against news organizations)
Contacted by phone for comment on July 19 after the case was dismissed, Dossett responded by text: “I reaffirm my position that the statements published about me are false, and I am weighing possible next steps.”
Possible next steps include filing an amended lawsuit. The presiding judge, Magistrate Judge Stacie F. Beckerman, of the U.S. District Court in Oregon, gave Dossett a July 28 deadline to do so.
Dossett joined the National Congress of American Indians in 1995 as a staff attorney and became general counsel in 1997. During his tenure, he became, according to court documents, a “nationally recognized expert on tribal sovereignty and jurisdiction, tribal lands and natural resources, taxation, and public safety in Indian country.”
Dossett, who denies the allegations against him, wrote in court documents that an “investigation and disciplinary memo lacked factual basis” and that the news stories mischaracterized events and contained “false allegations and innuendo.”
According to the National Congress of American Indians’ lawsuit response, Dossett was disciplined for “unprofessional and inappropriate behavior, including yelling, bullying, being disrespectful, speaking over colleagues, insulting and derogatory emails, and sexually charged comments,” and was fired “after he issued a public statement attacking his accusers and criticizing NCAI management.”
Indianz.com was the first to report on the allegations on Aug. 31, 2018. That story contained information from relevant documents and interviews with several former employees. Indianz.com reporters also interviewed and quoted Dossett. Dossett took issue with that story and a second Indianz.com story published Oct. 23, 2018.
Dossett alleged he was also defamed by Indian Country Today’s stories published on Sept. 2 and Oct. 11, 2018; and High Country News’ story published on Oct. 18, 2018.
Indian Country Today Editor Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock, says he stands by the accuracy and fairness of his staff’s reporting, noting that it was informed in part by documents that had been made public. Trahant said reporters reached out to Dossett once for comment and quoted public statements he made in response to the allegations against him.
NCAI stated in its lawsuit response that Indian Country Today’s articles “extensively quoted Dossett’s rebuttals to the accusations against him, his assertions that NCAI treated him unfairly, and his claims that the complaints against him were exaggerated or false.”
Indian Country Today, formerly owned by the Oneida Nation’s Four Directions Media, began publishing under the non-profit National Congress of American Indians Fund’s ownership on Feb. 28, 2018.
“One of the things in the litigation is that we were told to do a story, and that absolutely couldn’t be less true,” Trahant said July 21, adding, “The protocol was and is that NCAI has nothing to do with editorial. [It’s] the realm of editors, period.”
That wall between the newsroom and the national organization, however, created some reporting challenges.
At the time the story broke, Indian Country Today was operating out of the basement of the Embassy of Tribal Nations in Washington, D.C., where the National Congress of American Indians is headquartered. “Even though we were then and now owned by NCAI, we didn’t have any direct day to day interaction [with NCAI] other than ‘hello’ on the stairs. We really were kind of our own world,” Trahant said. “As this unfolded, that has been exacerbated to the point where there’s a formal protocol when we ask them for information. It makes it harder for us than if we weren’t owned by them because we have to go through additional steps.”
Indian Country Today emailed High Country News publisher Greg Hanscom on July 21 for his response to the court’s ruling. Indian Country Today also tried to contact National Congress of American Indians President Fawn Sharp for comment on July 21 and 22. Hanscom and Sharp did not respond by press time.
Acee Agoyo, Ohkay Owingeh, one of two reporters who broke the Dossett story for Indianz.com, referred questions to the publication’s attorney, Nicole E. Ducheneaux of Big Fire Law & Policy Group in Bellevue, Nebraska. She did not respond to a phone message left for her on July 21.
The case is 3:19-cv-01386-SB, Dossett v. Ho-Chunk, Inc. et al.
Richard Arlin Walker, Mexican/Yaqui, is an Indian Country Today contributor reporting from Anacortes, Washington
All Indian Country Today employees involved in this litigation have recused themselves from coverage on this story.