$2,100,000 – Injury to Reputation

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Harris County

Pastor's ex told police and others he was a pedophile

VERDICT

$2,100,000

CASE

Lemuel David Hogan v. Stephanie Lynn Montagne Zoanni, No. 2010-34811B

COURT

Harris County District Court, 246th, TX

DATE

May 03, 2016

PLAINTIFF ATTORNEY(S)
  •  Dennis M. Slate; Dennis M. Slate, Attorney at Law, P.C.; Deer Park TX for Lemuel David Hogan
  •  Brian H. Crockett; Crockett Law P.C.; Houston TX for Lemuel David Hogan
  •  James O. Gutheinz; Gutheinz Law Firm, LLP; Friendswood TX for Lemuel David Hogan
  •  Shailey Gupta-Brietske; Dennis M. Slate, Attorney at Law, P.C.; Deer Park TX for Lemuel David Hogan
DEFENSE ATTORNEY(S)
  • Harry Herzog; Herzog & Carp; Houston, TX for Stephanie Lynn Montagne Zoanni
  • Jelena Kovacevic; Jenkins & Kamin, LLP; Houston, TX for Stephanie Lynn Montagne Zoanni
FACTS & ALLEGATIONS

On July 18, 2013, Stephanie Lynn Montagne Zoanni reported her ex-husband, plaintiff Lemuel David Hogan, executive pastor at Spring First Church Assembly of God, to the police. According to the incident report, Zoanni's statements included that she felt strongly that there had been child pornography on Hogan' computers; that she felt that their daughter had been sexually assaulted; and that, in 2005, when he was the church's youth pastor. Hogan had admitted to placing cameras in the air vents and spying on his 14-year-old sister-in-law in the bathroom in their home in about 2005.

The case was forwarded to a Federal Bureau of Investigation task force, but Zoanni received notice that the case was closed two months later, after Zoanni admitted that she had no evidence of child pornography and had never seen Hogan in possession of any.

Subsequently, Zoanni wrote to a national Assembly of God official that Hogan had been involved in child pornography and that the criminal investigation against him was still open. Assembly of God investigated Hogan, but did not discipline him.

Zoanni also wrote her daughter's pediatrician that Hogan was a pedophile, and she started a blog in which she called Hogan a pedophile. Hogan requested that Zoanni take down the blog, but she waited another month to do so. Zoanni also posted on Facebook that Hogan had been caught in about 2005 filming underage girls in his youth group going to the bathroom and getting into the shower and that he admitted to it.

Hogan had filed for divorce from Zoanni in 2010, and the divorce decree was entered in 2011. That cause number was 2010-34811.

Hogan's parents, Robert and Brenda, were the head pastors at Spring First Church.

In March 2014, Hogan filed a motion to modify the parent-child relationship, and in that motion he alleged defamation by Zoanni. Hogan's parents and Spring First Church intervened as plaintiffs. Hogan's defamation claims were eventually severed into a separate lawsuit, 2010-34811B. The claims of the church and Hogan's parents were dismissed on summary judgment, as were claims of Hogan for malicious prosecution and abuse of process. Hogan voluntarily dismissed his claims for invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

 

 

Hogan alleged that Zoanni's statements to police, to church officials, to the pediatrician, on Facebook and in her blog were false and defamatory and that Zoanni knew it. At trial, a police officer and a detective testified that Zoanni made the statements that the incident report said she made. Police could not locate the recording of her interview.

Zoanni denied making the statements in the incident report, but also denied that the police investigated her allegations properly. She maintained that Hogan was indeed a pedophile and that she was justified in saying he was involved in child pornography. She acknowledged that she had no proof that he was involved in child pornography, but she said she had a good faith belief that he was.

Plaintiffs' counsel argued that the entire defense rested on three incidents. Zoanni claimed that she had caught Hogan installing a camera in another couple's room to film them having sex; that, a few months later, he went into the attic and spied on his sister-in-law showering; and that, a few months after the attic incident, she caught him watching a "Girls Gone Wild" commercial in slow motion.

Regarding the camera, Hogan testified that it did not have the ability to record. He denied wanting to film the couple, who was scheduled to arrive the following day, and he argued that the camera was about the size of a small fist and would have been obvious.

Regarding the bathroom, Hogan said that no one was there when he went into the attic. When he was walking down the stairs, he said, he noticed that he could see into the bathroom. He looked and saw the top of the girl's head while she was on the toilet; thought, "this isn't right"; and continued down the stairs. He later learned that the girl was his sister-in-law, he said.

Regarding the "Girls Gone Wild" commercial, Hogan said Zoanni "went berserk" when she saw what he was watching. She started calling him a pervert and locked herself in the bathroom. Eventually, he said, she ran out, drove away and was pulled over for speeding.

Plaintiffs' counsel argued that the defense could not explain why, if Hogan was really the pedophile and child predator that the defense portrayed him to be, Zoanni and her family continued to invite him on vacations; invited him over for dinner frequently; continued to attend Hogan's church; and allowed Zoanni's underage sister to stay in Hogan's youth group, even after learning of the three incidents on which the defense relied. Nor could the defense explain why the family court gave joint custody of Hogan's and Zoanni's daughter to Hogan and Zoanni's sister, plaintiffs' counsel argued.

The defense maintained that Hogan was a pedophile; that, in April 2005, he admitted to about five to seven people that he had entered the attic for the express purpose of watching a 14-year-old girl in his youth group disrobe; that he also admitted in 2005 to a "pornography problem"; that, as a result, the church suspended him for a year, and he underwent counseling; and that, in January 2014, his 9-year-old daughter's pediatrician indicated concern to Zoanni and her mother about Hogan's behavior.

The defense also argued that Hogan failed to comply with the Defamation Mitigation Act.

 

INJURIES/DAMAGES

Hogan, his current wife and his parents, along with members of the church, testified that Zoanni ruined Hogan's life. He became extremely depressed; all his friends left him; and he faced public ridicule and disgust. Even during the trial, he said, past friends would see him in a restaurant, glare at him and refuse to talk to him.

For the statements to police, on Facebook, to the pediatrician and to church officials, Hogan sought $750,000 for past injury to reputation; $250,000 for future injury to reputation; $500,000 for past mental anguish; and $250,000 for future mental anguish.

For the statements in the blog, Hogan sought damages of $500,000 for past injury to reputation; $250,000 for future injury to reputation; $250,000 for past mental anguish; and $250,000 for future mental anguish.

 

 

He also sought a finding of malice and an award of punitive damages. The trial was bifurcated, and the second phase was on punitive damages only.

Defense counsel suggested that the jury award $1 to $20 for each element of damages.

Defense counsel argued that plaintiff's counsel inappropriately asked the jury to punish Zoanni with actual damages.