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Court Dismisses Libel Dispute From Colorado

March 10, 1986

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court today dismissed a libel dispute from Colorado about how difficult it should be to sue over defamatory letters of reference.

The justices, who in December had agreed to resolve the issue, backed out of the case after the man claiming to have been libeled said he does not want to pursue the matter.

The court was to have used the closely watched case to decide whether people who write letters of reference may be sued in courts outside their home states.

Dr. John F. Connolly, chairman of the Department of Orthopedics and Rehabilitation at the University of Nebraska College of Medicine, was sued by a former student over a 1980 letter of reference.

Dr. Andrew K. Burt completed a residency in orthopedic surgery at the Nebraska school in 1977. After living in California, he moved to Colorado and applied for staff privileges at certain hospitals there.

As a result, Connolly and others were contacted and asked about Burt’s credentials and medical competence. Connolly’s letter to the Presbyterian Hospital in Denver rated Burt’s performance as ″well below average.″

Burt sued Connolly, alleging libel, in federal court in Colorado. After a trial judge threw out the lawsuit, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated it.

The appeals court relied heavily on a 1984 Supreme Court decision in which actress Shirley Jones was allowed to file a libel suit in California against Florida-based employees of The National Enquirer.

Connolly’s appeal to the Supreme Court was accepted for review on Dec. 2. But on Feb. 19, lawyers for Burt said he ″has exhausted all funds and resources required to pursue this action and has therefore decided to dismiss the suit in its entirety.″

Such a dismissal would appear to free Connolly from any liability, but his lawyers urged the justices to keep the case alive. They said that because Colorado’s statute of limitations in libel cases is six years, such a dismissal would allow Burt to refile his suit at some future date.

″There ought to be little sympathy for Dr. Burt’s sudden unwillingness to take the final step of a thousand-mile journey,″ Connolly’s lawyers told the high court.

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