Judge sets amounts Sen. Denning must pay KC Star, Steve Rose over dismissed defamation suit

Jim Denning (center) at a candidate forum ahead of the 2016 election.

A Johnson County District Judge has set the amount Sen. Jim Denning must pay to cover the legal fees defendants Steve Rose and the Kansas City Star incurred after the state legislator filed a defamation suit against them in January.

Judge Paul Gurney ordered Denning’s suit tossed out this summer under the provisions of the Kansas Public Speech Protection Act. The law, which Denning voted in favor of in 2016, gives defendants the right to petition a court to have a suit dismissed if they believe it was meritless and designed to chill free speech.

Under the act, plaintiffs who are found to have filed such a meritless suit are liable for the defendants’ legal fees.

Rose’s attorney in the matter submitted a summary of work on the suit that totaled just over $48,000 in legal fees. Under the terms of an agreement signed in September, Denning will pay Rose $24,250 of that sum under the condition that Denning agree to waive his right to appeal. That payment was delivered last week.

This week, Gurney ordered Denning to pay the Kansas City Star just under $39,000 for the legal fees it amassed in the matter.

“When Sen. Denning voted for the Kansas anti-SLAPP law in 2016, he voted to make the First Amendment first,” said attorney Bernie Rhodes, who represented the Star in the matter. “The court’s decision to hold Sen. Denning responsible for The Star’s attorney’s fees in beating back the meritless lawsuit Sen. Denning filed against The Star affirms that very principle.”

Denning has not responded to an invitation to comment.

Denning filed the suit following the publication of a column by Rose titled “Why hasn’t Kansas expanded Medicaid? This GOP leader has a long list of excuses,” in which Rose referenced a meeting he had with Denning in which the senator gave a list of reasons for his opposition to Medicaid expansion. Denning pushed back, saying he hadn’t spoken to Rose since 2016, and that the meeting he alluded to had never occurred. His suit sought at least $75,000 in damages in addition to legal fees. The Star removed the piece from its website and said that it had not met the publication’s standards. Rose would not write for the newspaper again.

However, both the Star and Rose petitioned to have the suit thrown, saying that the issues with the column did not meet the legal standards for defamation. Gurney sided with the defendants, saying in his ruling that there was no evidence that the Star had acted with “specific intent to injure” or “actual evil-mindedness.”

Denning has led committee hearings in recent weeks on his proposed plan for Medicaid expansion in Kansas, which he has said he plans to take up in the 2020 session.