Appeals court stops short of declaring Donald Trump immune from rape accuser claim

FILE PHOTO: Former U.S. President Donald Trump rallies with his supporters at Wilmington International Airport in Wilmington, North Carolina, U.S. September 23, 2022. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

NEW YORK (Reuters) -A federal appeals court on Tuesday stopped short of declaring Donald Trump immune from author E. Jean Carroll's defamation lawsuit, saying it needed guidance on whether Trump was acting as U.S. president when he denied raping her.

In a 2-1 decision, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan asked an appeals court in Washington to weigh in on whether the laws of that district shielded Trump from liability.

The Manhattan court also handed Trump a victory in declaring he was a U.S. government "employee" when he allegedly defamed Carroll, a condition underlying his immunity claim.

A dissenting judge, Denny Chin, would have let Carroll pursue "at least some" claims, saying "Carroll's allegations plausibly paint a picture of a man pursuing a personal vendetta against an accuser."

Trump's lawyer Alina Habba did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Roberta Kaplan, a lawyer for Carroll, said in a statement she was "confident" the District of Columbia court would let the case proceed.

Carroll, a former Elle magazine columnist, accused Trump in a June 2019 book excerpt of having raped her in late 1995 or early 1996 in a dressing room at the Bergdorf Goodman department store in midtown Manhattan.

She sued Trump for defamation in November 2019 after Trump, then in his third year in the White House, told a reporter he did not know Carroll, said "she's not my type," and accused her of concocting the rape claim to sell her book.

Trump claimed he was shielded from Carroll's lawsuit by a federal law immunizing government employees from defamation claims, and said letting the case proceed could unleash a flood of frivolous lawsuits whenever presidents spoke.

U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan had found that Trump was not a government employee, and that even if he were, he acted outside the scope of his employment when talking about Carroll.

In asking the D.C. Court of Appeals to address the second issue, Circuit Judge Guido Calabresi said the matter was "of extreme public importance" and there was genuine uncertainty about the district's law.

"We do not pass judgment or express any view as to whether Trump's public statements were indeed defamatory or whether the sexual assault allegations had, in fact, occurred," he wrote.

Chin, in his dissent, said Trump was not a government employee, and was not acting as president by making some of his statements.

"In the context of an accusation of rape, the comment 'she's not my type' surely is not something one would expect the President of the United States to say in the course of his duties," Chin wrote.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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