Former President Trump may be immune from a defamation lawsuit filed against him by a woman who said he raped her decades ago in a New York City department store, a federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday.
But the court stopped short of dismissing the case altogether, instead asking a D.C. appeals court to decide whether the United States can be substituted as a defendant for Mr. Trump.
In a 2-to-1 decision, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan reversed a lower court ruling that concluded Mr. Trump had to face the lawsuit filed by columnist E. Jean Carroll.
The 2nd Circuit said Ms. Carroll’s suit may be barred by a federal law that protects government employees from being sued over actions that relate to the job requirements. However, the ruling did not resolve whether Mr. Trump’s public statements denying Ms. Carroll’s rape claims occurred within the scope of his employment as president.
“If Trump is an ‘employee of the government,’ he is not subject to Carroll’s defamation suit, providing he was acting within the scope of his employment. If he is not an employee, he may be personally answerable,” the 2nd Circuit ruled in its 80-page decision.
The decision reverses a lower court’s ruling that Mr. Trump doesn’t qualify as an employee of the federal government under a law known as the Westfall Act, which shields government employees from lawsuits while acting in their job capacity.
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Whether his comments were within the scope of his employment is an issue for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to decide, the 2nd Circuit ruled.
The ruling is a much-needed legal win for Mr. Trump, who has been battered by the courts in recent weeks. He is fending off attacks on multiple fronts, including a criminal investigation into whether he mishandled classified documents, a civil lawsuit alleging corrupt business practices filed by the New York attorney general, and a probe into the events surrounding the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
It is also a win for the Biden administration, which caused shockwaves when the Department of Justice in 2021 decided to back Mr. Trump’s claims that presidents have broad protections under the Westfall Act.
The decision also effectively ends the defamation suit if Mr. Trump scores a victory in the Washington appellate court. If he wins, Ms. Carroll will have to replace Mr. Trump with the U.S. as the defendant in the lawsuit. Since the U.S. cannot be sued for defamation, the case would likely be dismissed.
Fears of ending the case sparked Judge Denny Chin’s dissenting opinion.
“If the government is correct that the United States must be substituted for Trump in the case under the Westfall Act, then Carroll is left without any remedy, even if Trump indeed defamed her,” wrote Judge Chin, who was appointed by President Clinton.
Ms. Carroll sued Mr. Trump saying his public comments after she wrote in a 2019 book that he raped her amounted to defamation. She said the incident took place during a random encounter in the mid-1990s at a New York department store.
Mr. Trump has repeatedly denied the rape claims and questioned Ms. Carroll’s credibility and motivation for coming forward.
Alina Habba, a lawyer for Mr. Trump, hailed the 2nd Circuit’s ruling, saying it will protect the ability of future presidents to “govern without hindrance.”
“We are confident that the D.C. Court of Appeals will find that our client was acting within the scope of his employment when properly repudiating Ms. Carroll’s allegations,” she said in a statement.