Court affirms pastor’s $2.1M defamation verdict against ex-wife who called him a pedophile


Pastor David Hogan (R), his current wife, Amy, and children are shown in a 2022 campaign video. (screengrab via YouTube).

A Texas couple’s bitter divorce has now evolved into a seven-figure defamation verdict over the wife publicly calling her pastor ex-husband a pedophile.

Lemuel David Hogan is an executive pastor at the evangelical Spring First Church in Spring, Texas. He also waged an unsuccessful congressional campaign as a Republican for Texas’ 38th Congressional District in 2022.

Before that, however, Hogan had married fellow congregant Stephanie Montagne Zoanni in 2004, and the two had a daughter, Mary.

In 2011, the couple divorced and entered into protracted post-divorce litigation that reached the state supreme court. One portion of the couple’s dispute centered around their custody arrangement for Mary. In 2014, Hogan filed a petition to change custody. In Hogan’s complaint, he raised claims regarding not only custody, but also for defamation, invasion of privacy, malicious prosecution, abuse of process, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The basis of those claims, according to Hogan, was that in 2013, Zoanni began falsely calling him a child molester, a pervert, and a pedophile.

In his complaint, Hogan alleged thirteen specific instances of defamation including that Zoanni falsely told Child Protective Services (CPS) and police that Hogan “is a child molester, involved with child pornography, and otherwise is of poor character and mistreats women and children.” Hogan also said that his former wife made similar statements in an online blog, to Hogan’s church leadership, and to Mary’s pediatrician.

Defamation requires that a plaintiff prove a defendant made a false statement of fact that caused the plaintiff to suffer monetary damages.

Hogan’s defamation claims went all the way to trial, and a jury found that Zoanni’s statements had indeed been false. Six of the statements were found to have been specifically defamatory. The jury said that the other statements were potentially defamatory in that Zoanni knew or should have known that they were false.

Hogan was awarded $2.1 million to compensate him for damage to his reputation and past and future mental anguish. The jury also found Zoanni made the statements with malice but it awarded no punitive damages.

Zoanni appealed on multiple grounds, all of which the Texas Court of Appeals rejected. In an 81-page opinion issued Thursday, a three-judge panel of the court slammed Zoanni for her many errors.

Justice Veronica Rivas-Molloy penned the court’s lengthy opinion, which began by calling Zoanni out for failing to follow the Texas Rules of Appellate Procedure. “Her brief does not contain a statement of facts,” Rivas-Molloy wrote as the introduction to the massive loss for Zoanni. Chief Justice Terry Adams and Justices Julie Countiss rounded out the three-judge panel.

The Court of Appeals rejected all Zoanni’s arguments, including one in which she argued that the trial court incorrectly excluded the testimony of Marty Burroughs. Burroughs was the youth director at Hogan’s church in 2005. According to court documents, Burroughs “didn’t really report to [Hogan],” but directed youth activities for the parish.

The trial court excluded Burrough’s testimony on the basis of Texas’ “clergy privilege.”

Burroughs provided an offer of proof that he would have testified that Hogan admitted to repeatedly watching a “Girls Gone Wild” commercial and to having had an ongoing “problem with porn.” Burroughs also said that Hogan told him that he had watched Zoanni’s 14-year-old sister in a restroom through an air vent. Burroughs also said that Hogan had attempted to record his friend, a fellow minister, and a partner having sex.

On appeal, the court said that even if the trial court’s decision to exclude Burrough’s testimony had been wrong, the error was harmless and therefore, not a basis to reverse the jury’s enormous verdict. The justices reasoned that anything Burroughs would have testified to was already repeated by several other witnesses.

Additionally, Zoanni argued that her defamatory statements were just “opinions,” and therefore, not actionable as defamation.

Some of these “opinions” included:

  • A letter to Mary’s pediatrician that said, “And please for the love of God, when you have been informed that a father is a pedophile … DO NOT encourage him to sit in on a meeting where you are discussing breasts and pubic hair!”
  • A Facebook post that said, “Let me be 100% clear, he was guilty, but did not admit to the camera in the bathroom but I know it was there …”
  • A statement, “How does a pedophile … get any custody, much less 6 days at a time, of his daughter?”
  • A statement, “David Hogan still has severe issues … There is an open Sex Crimes case with Harris County Precinct 4, Case Number 13- 98077…. I filed a report on him last summer.”

The court rejected Zoanni’s argument in its entirety, explaining that “Merely couching a statement as an ‘opinion’ does not mean it is constitutionally protected.”

“Whether Hogan is in fact a pedophile is a verifiable fact,” said the court.

Zoanni also argued that the jury’s $2.1 million verdict should be reduced or reversed, because Hogan should have mitigated his own damages. She argued that her ex-husband “did plenty by himself” by viewing pornography on church computers, peeking into women’s dressing rooms, secretly filming his friend’s sexual activities, calling sex hotlines, voluntarily putting himself on one-year probation as a minister, and even filing the custody lawsuit.

The court flatly rejected Zoanni’s mitigation claim, reasoning that she never pleaded any dollar amount that Hogan might have mitigated his own damages.

You can read the appellate court’s full ruling here.

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